Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago..

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#709)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Mar 042020
 

Rumaniacs Review #111 | 0707

Back country Mexico has creole hooch like the Paranubes to keep the flame of pure rums alive, and larger, better known brands like Mocambo, Ron Prohibido, Los Valientes et al are there for those with deeper wallets or more upscale tastes.  And Bacardi has long been known to have made rum in the country – not just their own eponymous brand, but also a lower-priced, lesser-ranked ron called Castillo, which was created specifically to take on low cost alternatives which were cutting into Bacardi’s market share.

That’s the rum I have in front of me, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention others: the Castillo brand name is found in rons from Ecuador, Cuba, Spain, Panama, sometimes but not always made by Bacardi. What’s available now (the Gold and Silver) is made in Puerto Rico, which suggests some brand relocation by The Bat; and this Imperial underproof is, as far as I know, no longer being made since about the 1980s.  In that sense, it’s a victim of the times — consolidated, moved, reworked, reblended — I found references to the Imperial going back to the 1940s when a Mexican company called A. Laluque y Cia was making it (using pretty much the exact same label), which says something for its longevity.

Colour – Light Gold

Strength – 38%

Nose – Mild, soft, fruity, not bad.  It has some olive oil and brine notes to it, a touch of red wine. Some light fruits – apples, watermelon, pears.  Gets weaker over time

Palate – Don’t expect much from 38%, you’re sure not getting it. It’s light, it’s watery, it’s nigh tasteless, and can be had neat easily — not just because of the low strength but because, like Spicoli, there’s so little of anything behind it all. Some pears, pineapple juice (much diluted), papaya, cucumber, a touch of citrus peel.  Caramel and sweetened chocolate.

Finish – Lacklustre, pretty much tasteless.  Light sweet sugar water infused with caramel and a sprinkling drip of molasses

Thoughts – Did people actually drink stuff like this as a “serious” rum, even forty years ago?  I guess it would perk up a cocktail without leaving anything of its own character behind, like a Cheshire’s smile, and that was the thing back then.  But it was created as a budget rum, and they sure got what they paid for, back then.

(74/100)

Mar 022020
 

Every now and then we find some peculiar, almost completely unknown rum in some unlikely spot, and are struck by exactly how far flung and widespread the production of the spirit really is. I mean, if you aren’t a rumfest junkie or deep diver (and perhaps even if you are), can you recall much about Paraguayan rums?

Paraguay — one of two landlocked countries in South America (quick, name the other one) — is something of a newcomer on the international rum scene, and most of the rums they have made that are distributed abroad have only come on the scene in the last two decades — previously, just about the entire production was local, or regional. And according to some basic research, so far they have stuck with the traditional rons and not gone too far off the reservation. All that is now changing, as they begin to seek a space on the export shelf.

The Heroica we are looking at today is a rum created to take its place alongside its siblings the Black label, the Suave, and the lightly aged Anejos – it is named to commemorate the fallen heroes of the Battle of Piribebuy in August 1869 (part of the devastating Paraguayan War which that country eventually and decisively lost). Yet oddly, it is not mentioned on its website, and neither is either of the other two rums which won prizes in the International Rum Conference in 2015 and 2016.

Here’s what we know – made from rendered sugar cane juice (“honey”), fermented for 72 hours using wild yeast, column distilled, then aged in all kinds of barrels – American oak (ex-bourbon), cognac, Pedro Ximenez and also Marcuya “fruit of passion” wood from Paraguay. Once that’s done, the resultant rons are blended to form the final product. The age is currently unknown — I’ll update this paragraph if I get feedback from their marketing folks — but I’ll hazard a guess it’s medium…about 3-6 years. Little of this, by the way, is noted on the label, which only says it is a Paraguayan rum, commemorates the 1869 battle, is aged in oak vats and 40%. Wonderful. Clearly the word “disclosure” gets more lip service than real purchase over there.

All right, tasting notes. The nose begins with a standard “Cuban” profile – honey, caramel, citrus and faint molasses. These are leavened after some minutes by intriguingly deeper earthy and musky notes of damp soil and wet leaves, some salt and lighter fruits. But mostly it’s the first four — quite straightforward, not too complicated, an easy basket of soft and breathy vapours that cause no problems whatsoever.

The taste pretty much continues in that vein. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s easy, it demands nothing, and provides a feather pillow for your taste buds. That might seem to be a disqualifier, but while it is to a certain extent simple, it also has enough edge and differences to make to display some character too. One can easily discern and separate honey, cherries in syrup, ice cream, salted nuts, citrus, molasses…underneath all that is the loamy sense of a damp, cool, leafy forest floor, both deep and sharp at the same time. There is a vague aftertaste of nuttiness and sour cream and bread, but this is relatively minor, adding little to the complexity of what’s on offer. And it finishes fast — soft, a quick whiff of toffee, nougat and candied oranges, and it’s gone.

In fine, there’s not much urgent vitality and shivering strength here, nothing to wow the socks off or blow the hair back. It lacks punch and vibrancy, is too easygoing to appeal to me (though clearly not to its adherents and national fans) and seems to want to play it safe within the overall ambit of Spanish style rons. Still, it exhibits more of interest than these remarks might suggest and I think the low strength might be key to understanding how it fails to excite the attention that it could get were it stronger, and those background tastes could come out more decisively.

Spanish-heritage-style rums from South and Central America all have a certain similarity, and while I don’t care for their light softness as much as I once did, I continue examining any new one that crosses my path in the hope of finding one that’ll rejuvenate my affection for their softer charms. This isn’t it, but just for the opportunity to dive into a new rum from a country that’s not renowned for rum and that has produced one we have not heard of before, I can’t say that trying this one was a waste of my time. Fortunately, I liked it enough, and for anyone who likes this kind of ron, I doubt they’d be disappointed in their turn.

(#706)(79/100)


Historical Background

Fortin dates from the post-1989 era and takes advantage of a change in legislation regarding alcohol at that time. From 1941 to 1989 the production and sale of alcohol (and spirits) was a state monopoly, run by the Paraguayan Alcohol Corporation in which the Government and producers both had stakes. Officially this was to rationalize standards, assign quotas, regulate competition and prevent tax evasion, but in reality it was to ensure the commercial elites went into business with the government to share in / siphon off the revenues. After Alfredo Stroessner (the last of a series of military jefes ruling since the 1930s) was toppled in 1989 the laws were relaxed and private industry began to revive.

Fortin was formed around 1993 as a sugar producer by Gustavo Díaz de Vivar, and although it started in Capiatá area to the immediate SE of the capital, Asunción, the company soon moved further east to the town of Piribebuy; after the sugar business took off, he and his son Javier Díaz de Vivar (the current president of Fortin) diversified into rum production with a multi-column still bolted onto the already existing sugar factory they had built. I have an outstanding email to them about their production methods over and above what this article provides (e.g., where does the cane and honey come from?) so an update may come if they respond.

Feb 272020
 

It must be something intrinsic to the USA and their commercial distilling culture, that almost every distillery I’ve come across seems to like making ten different thing off their apparatus.  It’s as if they view a single point of focus, a single product line, as an anathema – a still must be multipurpose, and work to earn its keep by wringing the maximum different amount of spirits out of it.  And this leads to my oft-repeated remark that American distillers seem to like making whiskies, gins, vodkas and other stuff — and produce rum not because of real love for the spirit but as a sort of afterthought to round out the portfolio and provide some immediate cash flow while their hoped-for next Pappy is ageing.

Mad River out of Vermont is no exception to this. In fact, while originally thinking of starting a winery, they finally settled on getting a distillation setup to produce what they really wanted to make – a brandy. Yet, oddly, after sourcing their Muller still from Germany, the first thing off that still in 2013 was a rum, the First Run, and went on from there to make bourbon, rye, and other types of rum — including a silver American “Demerara” (so named probably because it’s made from Demerara sugar, and I have a feeling there’s a potential trademark violation accusation there somewhere if DDL ever hears about it)…and, of course, apple brandy.

The PX is one of their stable of rums, which also includes a Maple-Cask aged rum, the aforementioned First Run and a flavoured vanilla variant. The PX is a single-column-still distillate, aged in toasted and charred barrels, finished in Pedro Ximinez casks (not idea how long in any of these) and released at 46% ABV.  

These bare bones facts obscure a multitude of small issues. For one, they call it a “Demerara-based” rum and remark that the sugar they source is fair-trade certified, but what that means is that it’s a rum made with brown sugar of unstated provenance – if it came from Guyana, which is the only country which can sell a sugar with the word “Demerara” on it, “fair trade” would be an unnecessary statement. For me then, this rum skirts right on the edge of my personal belief idea that a rum should state its origins clearly, and should come from fresh-pressed juice, or molasses…not from sugar itself. The ageing is also never spelled out on the bottle or the website – not the ageing of the base rum, nor the duration of the finishing in PX. We have no idea what the complete outturn is, therefore grading the words “Limited Edition” is impossible. And so these niggling omissions in turn cast doubts (mine) on the “scrappy independent,” “we love what we do” origin story on their website, which I’ve learned the hard way to always regard with some skepticism.

But enough.  Let’s move on to the rum itself and what it tastes like, grade it on how it actually is. Is this a rum that’s up and coming, preparing to take its place as one of the USA’s unsung heroes, a nimble fast-moving upstart ready to take on all comers and make the Caribbean producers look anxiously to their nethers?

Not quite…though it is interesting.  It starts off on the nose with woodchips, sawdust, glue, and old books in a musty library. The fruits start in the background and then slowly gather strength – these are sweet prunes and ripe peaches for the most part, leavened with vanilla, blancmange, some nuttiness and cereals, figs, cloves and raw damp tobacco leaves. The odd thing about it is that it starts nicely but fades away really quickly, so its evanescence is a disappointment — just as I’m coming to grips with it, it vanishes like it’s middle name is Cheshire.

The palate is also somewhat disappointing. The initial tastes are all there – dark fruits, raisins, prunes — but they’re thin and green, not really very precise or dialled-in, more like a mishmash of poorly coordinated soft stuff thrown at a wall. There’s also coffee grounds, tobacco and dark bitter chocolate, more cloves, and in this respect it reminds me a lot of the Dictador 20 or their Best of 1977 – except that it seems lighter, and drier, not quite as polished. As for the finish, that’s simply underwhelming — short and indeterminate, almost indifferent. There’s some tobacco, pancake syrup, vague fruits, smoke, maple sugar, all wispy and vague, here one second and gone the next.

The PX influence is noticeable in the fruitiness, nuttiness and some of the drier aspects of the rum — beyond that, I can’t say there’s much to enthuse. The nose is clearly the best part of the experience, yet even with that, it’s not the sort of rum that encourages sedate evening sipping while watching the sun  go down and discussing the nature of the rumiverse. Part of that is the way the balance feels off, and the tastes and aromas don’t really pop, or mesh particularly well. You’re left feeling this is an essay in the craft, with a few interesting flavours that ultimately fail to cohere, leaving a muddled experience you don’t know what to do with when it’s done. Hardly enough for an unqualified recommendation.

(#705)(76/100)


Other Notes:


Opinion

My point about the jumping all over the spirits-production map, making various different spirits and not settling on one, is merely an observation, not a criticism; and not meant to diss a self-evident enthusiasm for the work, or the commercial realities all such little businesses in the USA must overcome.  After all, the Caribbean rum producers are single-mindedly focused on rums because they started form a base of sugar and molasses which were produced right there, and moved on from that point. American distillers mostly lack this geographic-agricultural advantage. Too, being a single-product producer carries risk: money is tied up in this thing and if sales lag, the enterprise could founder – so the incentive to spread that risk by making several products which can all sell to different market segments, is great.  But what it also does is diversify expertise – and the long, tedious, kaizen-like approach to learning and experimentation and gradual increase in knowledge and skill and quality of the one product they’ve hung their hat on – the way, for example, Mhoba’s founder tinkered for ages to get his stuff right – is missing.

That’s very likely why I have, so far, not seen much in the American rum industry to enthuse me. The rums most make are competent and occasionally interesting, yet don’t wow my socks off (at least, not yet). My experience thus far has been that those who go the whole hog and deal with rum as their primary spirit — not as some kind of adjunct —  tend to do better qualitatively than those who try to do too much. Privateer is one such, Montanya is another, Richland and Pritchards are always intriguing and there are more.  But I have a feeling that if the Law of Mediocrity holds true, then the low to middling quality of all those American rums that have crossed my path over the last ten years (mostly by pure happenstance) define the majority of rums made there; and the companies I have named with products that really make a splash, are the outliers, the leading edges of the bell curve. Only time will tell if that feeling is accurate.

Feb 232020
 

Recently we’ve looked at rums from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Mauritius (and that’s just since the year began) which goes a far way to showcasing the incredible variety of the spirit.  Today we’ll try something from Martinique – and when one considers the fame of Saint James, home of the near legendary 1885 Rhum (one of oldest rhums I’ve ever tried) and from which I’ve tasted several old editions from the past, well, it’s a wonder I haven’t come here more often to try their current offerings.

At this time, the Saint James lineup consists of five blanc rhums (Imperial, Royal, the 55º, Fleur de Canne and the really quite amazing pot-still Coeur de Chauffe), two basic mixers (Rhum Paille Agricole, Rhum Ambré Agricole), nine more “tasting rhums” which are the aged variants of the 3, Vieux, XO, 7, 12, 15, Cuvee 1765, Cuvee d’excellence and Brut de Fut 2003…and lastly, five “exceptional rhums” (their phrase, not mine), which are special editions, millesimes and so on. 

Today I won’t aim for the stratosphere with some ultra-expensive halo rum from the top end which none but the 1% can afford, but just speak to the mid-range 7 Year Old. All the usual stats apply for a Saint James rhum – AOC certified, cane juice origin, creole still, 43% strength, and nicely tropically-aged in small ex-bourbon casks.  

What’s interesting about Saint James is not only the distinctiveness of their rhum here, but its divergence from what is almost seen as the sine-qua-non of rhum agricole – the grassy, herbal lightness of a cane juice distillate. Nowhere in the initial nose do I detect herbs and green grass and that light crispness – instead, what I smell is  luscious, sweet, and spicy, almost but not quite heavy with fruits. There’s preaches in syrup, pineapple, light anise, unsweetened yoghurt, coffee grounds, honey and vanilla, and later, also some cinnamon. I think you have to admit, for a 7 year old to have all that is really quite remarkable. 

Ah but when sipped, all that changes, and the clodhoppers go away and it dons a pair of ballet slippers.  It’s stunningly fragrant, not quite delicate – that ballerina does have an extra pound or two – very firm and robust in flavour profile.  Just on the first sip you can taste flowers, pears, papaya, honey, vanilla, raisins, grapes, all pulled together with a delectable light and salty note. There are nice citrus hints, a tease from the oak, ginger and cinnamon, and overall, it sips as nicely as it mixes.  The finish is well handled, though content to play it safe – things are beginning to quieten down here, and it fades quietly without stomping on you – and certainly nothing new or original comes into being; the rhum is content to follow where the nose and palate led – fruits, pineapple, spices, ginger, vanilla – without breaking any new ground.

So all in all, a really vibrant piece of tropically aged work, deserving many of its plaudits. I’ve noticed on many a social media post that people throw around the words “gateway rum” and apply it consistently to the oversweetened bestsellers like the Zacapas or some of the traditional Demeraras from DDL.  Here’s one rum where the term really does apply, and what makes it so apropos is that there’s no messing around with the 7 YO Vieux, no enticement or blandishment with additives or fancy maturation or finishing (or those tiresome old made-up backstories).  It’s simply a very good mid range rhum, drinkable, mixable, flexible, and its great quality might just be that it makes you want to go up the ladder to the older rums immediately, just to see what magic Mark Sassier has done with those. Now that’s a gateway that means business, and completely earns the title.

(#704)(83/100)


Other notes

  • The Fat Rum Pirate noted the odd lack of agricole-ness on the nose as well, in his 2018 4.5 star review.
  • It’s completely irrelevant, but Luca Gargano started his rum career working for Saint James as a brand ambassador in the 1970s, before buying Velier.
Feb 172020
 

Barceló has slipped somewhat in our mental map of rum companies to watch, which comes as no surprise to those noting the current dominance which the Big Countries and the Big Names have in defining what we “should” be drinking. But ⅓ of the “Three Bs” of the Domincan Republic has been around for a while, releasing their light Spanish-style rons day in and day out, and if their primary markets are elsewhere than the homes of the online commentariat who flog Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados almost without pause, then at least their level of expertise shows no sign of flagging.

Given I rated the company’s Anejo a rather dismissive 61 in 2011 and shrugged off the previous 38% Imperial edition (not the same as this one) with 78 a couple of years later, that last remark might sound strange.  But just because lighter column-still rons released at less-than-living-room-strength don’t turn my crank does not mean I don’t appreciate what they’re trying to do — I just wish they’d read the tea leaves and try harder and go stronger, if you catch my drift. 

Here we have a rum (or ron) that ticks all the usual boxes: it’s a molasses-based spirit run through a 5-column still, then aged 10 years in American oak and given a further two years’ ageing (I hesitate to use the word “finishing” for a secondary maturation that long) in French Château d’Yquem barrels. There are no additives according to their blurbs, which must be a recent thing, since it had been tested on initial (2011) release at 27g/L, but ok. When it first came out, the outturn was supposedly some 9,000 bottles annually, but the latest information I was given in 2017 was that it sold so well that this has now been upped to around 20,000.

There’s more details and notes which I’ll go into below, but this is enough to be going on with for the moment, let’s run through the tasting:

Nose first. Well, while conceding its soft warmth and easy languid charm, the truth is there’s not much really going on, nasally speaking: some citrus mixed up with deep caramel and brown sugar, and an intriguing scent of vanilla, charred barrels and burnt sugar and the ashiness of a dying coal fire.  Sweet, reasonably robust – better than the sub-40% stuff I’ve had from them before – but lacking real complexity that would enthuse me more.

The palate rewards rather more attention.  It’s warm and easy-going on the tongue, texture is nice. Great after-dinner sip to go with the ice cream. It tastes initially of caramel, ripe and mild yellow fruits without any aggro, raisins, prunes, and some faint licorice, ginger and vanilla. The 43% is a welcome boost from the milquetoast nonsense of the 37.5% expression, but in a way also serves to draw attention to its own limitations, because in a rum like this we’re looking for complexity, some punch, and a certain individuality that boosts the mildness of its light-distillate origins – and that simply isn’t here.  This is even clearer on the finish, which is soft, quick and puffs away like steam – it provides no additional insight into why you should buy the rum to begin with.

Without completely dissing the Barcelo – I know it is made for an audience who are completely dialled into, and in tune with, its laid-back profile, and they are the ones who provide its core audience and keep sales robust – let me just suggest that like many rums of its ilk, it doesn’t deliver enough. It lacks panache, oomph, a certain force.  It teases without coming through, and is too people-pleasing for real risk, too generic for specificity. That’s its downfall for the rum enthusiast, and, paradoxically, its raison d’être for those with more tolerant, inclusive and less exacting standards.

(#702)(81/100)


Other Notes

  • The Imperial has always been a 10 year old since I first tried it (and as far as I could tell, ever since it was first made back in 1980; but in 2011 Barceló brought together squirrelled-away casks of this 10 YO and matured them a bit further, to create the Imperial Premium Blend, later re-christened the 30 Anniversario, and started slapping the numeral “30” on the central circle of real estate on the bottle.  This does not intimate that it is 30 years old, but that it’s the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the Imperial. 
  • All Barceló rons are made in the Dominican Republic (not in Dominica – the two are separate nations), where the company shares the island with the other two “B”s – Bermudez and Brugal, both of which are older. Barceló Export Import has been in business since 1930, has always been a rum producer, and remains to this day a privately held company run by men who bear the name still.  Julian Barceló, the founder, hailed from Spain – the name is actually Catalan, though I read he was from Mallorca himself – and arrived in the DR in 1929. His company soon became a very large and profitable enterprise, expanding his line of products to differing rums starting in 1935. By the 1980s the company became one of the biggest in the country, and expanded its market base by aggressively promoting exports – Spain was and continues to be a prime market for the rums.
Jan 202020
 

In spite of being “just” a consultant, Pete Holland of The Floating Rum Shack is so completely identified with the rums of the cheekily named That Boutique-y Rum Company, that we sometimes overlook the fact the outfit is actually part of Atom Brands which runs the Masters of Malt online spirits establishment. The curious matter of his being seen as the face of the brand can be directly traced to two things – his consistent promotional work for TBRC online and off, and the irreverent paintings by Jim’ll Paint It that adorn the labels of the bottles, many of which feature Peter himself.

In a field ever more crowded with new bottlers, new distilleries and new (supposedly improved, but not always) offerings from the old houses, all vying for our limited attentions spans and slim, wife-approved budgets, one can hardly fault such an in-your-face marketing strategy, you can only admire how well it’s done. It helps, of course, that Peter really is a fun guy to hang out with, drink with and make jokes with (or at) – and that the rums the company has released so far have been pretty damned good.

Take this one, which proves that TBRC has a knack for ferreting out good barrels. It’s not often you find a rum that is from the French West Indies aged beyond ten years — Neisson’s been making a splash recently with its 18 YO, you might recall, for that precise reason.  To find one that’s a year older from Guadeloupe in the same year is quite a prize and I’ll just mention it’s 54.2%, aged seven years in Guadeloupe and a further twelve in the UK, and outturn is 413 bottles. On stats alone it’s the sort of thing that makes my glass twitch.

Still, with the facts out of the way, what’s it like?

Very nice…if a little off the beaten track. Now here is a rum based on a batch of molasses (so it’s not a true cane juice agricole), and it starts off not with grassy and herbal and citrus aromas, but with crackers, caramel, and breakfast cereal (Fruit Loops, I say, from the experience of buying tons of the stuff for the Baby Caner back in the day).  Which I like, don’t get me wrong…once I adjust my mental compass away from agricole territory. The nose also displays toffee, nougat, nuts, almonds and mixes that up with a softly emergent slightly sharp and piquant fruity bouquet that’s quite simply delectable. The balance among all these elements is really good, negotiating that fine and tricky line between muskiness, sweetness, crispness and sharpness in a way we don’t often see.

The palate confirms that we’re not dealing with a cane juice rum in any way – the wood is more evident here, there’s some resin-like backtaste, smoke, vanilla, molasses and brine, offset by light flowers, and a sort of subtle fruity sweetness. The fruits are kinda tough to pick apart – some red grapes, I suppose, pears, papaya – it’s all very light and just a tad acidic, so that the combined profile is one of a seriously good rum, concluding with a reasonably long finish that is sweet, salt, wine-y, and crisp, just the slightest bit sour, and overall a really welcome dram to be sipping after a tough day at the rumfest.  

Guadeloupe rums in general lack something of the fierce and stern AOC specificity that so distinguishes Martinique, but they’re close in quality in their own way, they’re always good, and frankly, there’s something about the relative voluptuousness of a Guadeloupe rhum that I’ve always liked. Peter sold me on the quality of the O Reizinho Madeiran a while back, but have my suspicions that he has a soft spot for this one as well.  Myself, I liked it a mite better, perhaps because there was just a bit more going on in the background and overall it had a shade more complexity which I appreciated. It’s a really delectable dram, well aged, damned tasty and one to share with all your friends.

(#694)(87/100)


Other Notes

Peter told me that the label was a little misleading. The initial image on the bottle I tried makes a visual reference to the (Gardel) distillery on Marie Galante, but it was actually distilled at Damoiseau’s Le Moule facility, from a batch of molasses rum produced on their creole column. The label has been redrawn and there’s a movement afoot to re-label future iterations — Rev 2.0 adds Peter to the artwork and pokes a little fun at the mistake.

Jan 132020
 

Photo (c) ModernBarCart.com

“White cane spirits are having a moment,” wrote Josh Miller of Inu a Kena in naming the Saint Benevolence clairin one of his top rums of 2019.  He was spot on about that and I’ve felt the same way about white rums in general and clairins in particular ever since I had the good fortune to try the Sajous in Paris back in 2014 and had my hair blown back and into next week – so much so that I didn’t just make one list of 21 good white rums, but a second one for good measure (and am gathering material for a third).

Given that Velier’s involvement has raised the profile of clairins so much, it’s surprising that one with the avowed intention of ploughing back all its profits into the community where it is made (see “other notes”, below) does not have more of a mental footprint in people’s minds.  That might be because for the most part it seems to be marketed in the USA (home of far too few rum blogs), whence its founders Chase and Calvin Babcock hail – and indeed, the first online write ups (from Josh himself, and Paul Senft on Got Rum), also stemmed from there.  Still, it is moving across to Europe as well, and Indy and Jazz Singh of the UK-based Skylark Spirits, couldn’t contain their glee at providing something to a ‘Caner Party in 2019 which we had not seen before and threatening dire violence if it was not tried right then and there.

They could well smile, because the pale yellow 50% “white” rum was an aromatic beefcake that melded a barroom brawler with a civilized Martinique white in a way that we had not seen before. It started rough and ready, true, with fierce and pungent aromas of wax, brine, acetones, and olives biffing the schnozz, and it flexed its unaged nature quite clearly and unapologetically.  There was a sprightly line of citrus/white sugar running through it that was pleasing, and after a while I could sense the sharpness of green apples, wasabi, unripe bananas, soursop mixing it up with softer scents of guavas and vanilla. Every now and then the salty, earthy notes popped back up as if to say “I exist!” and overall, the nose was excellent.

Unlike the overpowering strut of the Velier clairins, the taste here was quite restrained and less elemental, even at 50% ABV.  In fact, it almost seemed light, initially presenting a nice crisp series of sugar-water and lemon notes, interspersed with salted cucumber slices in sweet apple vinegar (and a pimento or two thrown in for kick).  Mostly it was crisp fruits from there – green grapes, red currants, soursop, unripe pears, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the laid back easiness of the Cabo Verde grogues, yet without ever losing a bit of its bad boy character, the way you can always spot a thug even if he’s in a tux, know what I mean?  Finish handled itself well – salt and sweet, some tomatoes (!!), a little cigarette tar, but mostly it was sugar water and pears and light fruits, a soft and easy landing after some of the aggro it presented earlier.  

All in all, really interesting, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste – it is, admittedly, something of a challenge to sample if one is not prepared for its rough and ready charms. It may best be used as a mixer, and indeed, Josh did remark it would work best in a ‘Ti Punch or Daiquiri.  He said it would make “for a fresh take on an old favorite”, and I can’t think of a better phrase to describe not just the cocktails one could make with it, but the rum as a whole. It lends richness and variety to the scope of what Haitian clairins can be.

(#692)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The source of the clairin is the area around Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, which is the second largest city in Haiti, and located in the central north of the country. There, sugar cane fields surround and supply the Dorcinvil Distillery, a third-generation family operation employing organic agricultural practices free from herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. The cane itself is a blend of several different varieties: Cristalline, Madame Meuze, Farine France and 24/14. After harvesting and crushing, the juice is fermented with wild yeasts for five to seven days, then run through a handmade Creole copper pot still, and bottled as is (I suspect there may be minor filtration to remove sediments or occlusions). It is unclear whether it is left to stand and rest for a bit, but my bottle wasn’t pure white but a very faint yellow, so the supposition is not an entirely idle one.
  • The company also produces a blended pot-column still Caribbean five year old rum I have not tried, made from from Barbados molasses and cane juice syrup from the Dominican republic
  • Charity Work: [adapted from Inu A Kena and the company website] Saint Benevolence rum is made by Calvin Babcock, who co-founded Living Hope Haiti, a charity providing educational, medical, and economic services in St Michel de Attalaye in Northern Haiti.  He works with his son Chase, the other half of the team. Along with their partners on the ground in St Michel de Attalaye, Living Hope Haiti (LHH) has built five elementary schools, four churches, an orphanage, a medical clinic, and funded other critically necessary infrastructure including bridges and water wells. They also provide three million meals per year to those in need. The work of LHH is almost entirely funded by the Babcock family, but with the introduction of Saint Benevolence, a new funding stream has come online. Besides LHH, Saint Benevolence funds two additional charities: Innovating Health International (IHI) and Ti Kay. IHI is focused on treating chronic diseases and addressing women’s health issues in Haiti and other developing countries, while Ti Kay is focused on providing ongoing TB and HIV care.  Since 100% of the profits of the rum go straight back to the community of origin, this is certainly a rum worth buying to support such efforts, though of course you’re also getting quite a good and unique white rum for the price.
Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

Dec 182019
 

Without bombast or any kind of major marketing push, without hype or hurry, Savanna on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean quietly built up its reputation over the last decade with the Grand Arôme series of rums deriving from their high ester still, and probably gave the new high-ester Jamaicans serious conniption fits. Yet for all its burgeoning street cred, it remains something of a relative unknown, while much more attention is lavished on the New Jamaicans and other companies around the Caribbean who are jacking up their taste levels. 

Savanna has of course been making rums its own way for ages, and by releasing this little gem with them, the Genoese concern of Velier might just be the one to catapult them to the next level and greater renown outside Europe.  After all, they did it for Caroini and DDL, why not here? 

The “Indian Ocean Still” series of rums have a labelling concept somewhat different from the stark wealth of detail that usually accompanies a Velier collaboration.  Personally, I find it very attractive from an artistic point of view – I love the man riding on the elephant motif of this and the companion Chamarel rum (although I must concede that my all time favourite design is the architectural-quality drawings of the various stills of the Habitation line). In any event, most of the info is on the back label (repeated in the copperplate-style narrative on the front): distilled November 2012, aged on Reunion in French oak casks, bottled February 2019.  It’s a column still product, but not, as far as I’m aware, of the HERR still.

It’s been said on many occasions of Velier’s rums, especially with the Jamaicans and Demeraras, that “the rum doesn’t feel like it’s X%”.  Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here, where the Savanna clocked in at 61% ABV, but nosed — and later tasted — like it was no more than standard strength. I mean, it started with a truly lovely, sweet, soft, warm nose.  Peaches in syrup and cream melded well with sugar water, ripe yellow mangoes, red grapes,and sweet red olives. Delectable in a good way, and I particularly enjoyed the lemon and cumin background, plus the yoghurt and sour cream with dill.  

The palate was also an amalgam of many good things, starting off tasting of sweet and very strong black tea with milk.  It developed fruity, sweet, sour and creamy notes which all met and had a party in the middle. There was lime zest, bags of ripe, fleshy fruits, cereals, red grapes, apples, cashews – it’s a smorgasbord of ongoing flavour porn, both sharp and crisp, and later one could even taste fanta and bubbly soda pop mixed in with a clean Riesling.  The strength was more discernible than it had been when I smelled it, just not in a bad way, and it was really well tamped down into something eminently drinkable, finishing off with a flourish of olive oil and brine, a touch of sweetness from the fanta, and more crisp almost ripe fruits.

Man, this was a really good dram.  It adhered to most of the tasting points of a true agricole — grassiness, crisp herbs, citrus, that kind of thing — without being slavish about it.  It took a sideways turn here or there that made it quite distinct from most other agricoles I’ve tried. If I had to classify it, I’d say it was like a cross between the fruity silkiness of a St. James and the salt-oily notes of a Neisson.

It’s instructive that although Savanna has been making high ester rums for at least the last two decades, their reputation was never as sterling or widespread as Hampden and Worthy Park who have been getting raves for their new branded rums from almost the very first moment they appeared on the stage. Perhaps that says something about the need in today’s world to have a promoter in one’s corner who acts as a barker for the good stuff. That could be a well known importer, it could be the use of a deep-pocketed secondary bottler with a separate rep of their own (think Rum Nation’s 2018 Reunion rum as an example), or a regular FB commentator.  

These forces have all now intersected, I think, and the rum is a win for everyone concerned. Savanna has greater exposure and fantastic word of mouth dating back to its seminal HERR 2006 10 year old; Velier has shown that even with the winding down of the Demeraras and Caronis they can find tasty, intriguing rums from around the world and bring them for us to taste; and I can almost guarantee that if this rum finds its way into enough hands, there will be no shortage of positive online blurbs and opinions from across the commenterati, many of whom will be happy to say that they knew it all along and are happy to be proved right.

(#685)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Habitation Velier has released a Savanna HERR Unaged 2017 white rhum, which is a good companion to this one, though it’s a bit more energetic and rambunctious and displayed less refinement…yet perhaps more character. 
  • I heard a rumour that Velier intended to release three Indian Ocean rums in this 2019 series, and indeed, around 2018, there were photos of Luca in India that surfaced briefly on FB.  However, nothing seems to have come of it and never responded to my queries on the matter.