Aug 272018
 

Let’s move away from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia and Guyana for a bit, and go back to a company from Haiti and an independent bottler out of France for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection: Barbancourt and L’Esprit respectively.  L’Esprit, as you may recall from its brief biography, is a small outfit from Brittany run by Tristan Prodhomme, who has the smarts to issue all of his rums in pairs – one version at cask strength in a small outturn from the barrel, and the remainder (usually from the same barrel) at a diluted 46%, aimed at the somewhat more sedate rum drinkers who prefer not to get their glottis ravaged by something north of 60%.  That this kind of canny rum release has real commercial potential can perhaps be seen in Velier’s 2018 release of the twin Hampden rums with a similar paired ABV philosophy.

Even if you include the clairins, Barbancourt is the best known name in rum out of Haiti, and perhaps the most widely appreciated rum from the half-island by dint of being the most easily available (and affordable). It’s usually the first Haitian rum any new rum explorer tries, maybe even the first French island rum of any kind (though they are not referred to as agricoles).  Over the years they have, like many other estates and distilleries, sent rum to Europe in bulk in order to keep themselves afloat, though for some reason indie bottlings of Haitian rums aren’t quite as common as the big guns we all know about – perhaps they send less stock over to Scheer or something?

The bare statistics are brief and as follows: column still product, continentally aged; distilled 2004 and released in 2016 at a brobdingnagian 66.2% (its lesser proofed twin which is quite similar is bottled at 46% and 228 bottles were issued but about the full proof edition here,  I’m not certain – less, for sure, maybe a hundred or so).  Pale yellow in colour and a massive codpiece of a nose, deep and intense, which should not present as a surprise at all. It was quite aromatic as well – one could sense bananas, vanilla, prunes and fruit, with a nice counterpoint of citrus to set these off. Like many rums released at cask strength, it rewarded patience because after a while back-end smells of cream cheese, dark bread, brine, olives, nail polish, plastic bubble wrap (freshly popped), paint became much more evident, though fortunately without taking over entirely

The rather dry-ish taste was an odd experience, somewhat at an angle to what could be expected after smelling it: for one thing, it was more briny, and for another it actually had hints of pimento and pickled sweet gherkins. What distinguished it was its heat and uncompromising brutality. The flavours – which after a while included brine, florals, rubber, petrol and a meaty sort of soup (and we’re talking strong, simple salt beef here, not some delicate Michelin-starred fusion) – were solid and distinct and took no prisoners whatsoever.  That it also presented some sweeter, lighter notes of white fruit (pears and white guavas for example) was both unexpected and welcome, because for the most part the thing was as unsparing and unadorned as congealed concrete – though perhaps more tasty. As for the finish, well, that eased off the throttle a tad – it was sharp, dry, long, briny with more of those light florals, fruitiness, nail polish and freshly sliced bell peppers, and left you in no doubt that you had just tasted something pretty damned huge.

At this stage in the review I could go off on a tangent and ruminate on the difference between continental and tropical ageing, or how the added commercial value moves away from poor islands of origin to European brokers and independent bottlers, with perhaps an added comment or two on Barbancourt’s history, L’Espirt itself, and a witty metaphor or three to add to those already expressed and tie things up in a nice bow.  Today I’ll pay you the compliment of assuming you know all this stuff already, and simply end the review by saying this rum is quite a flavourful beast, exciting the sort of admiration usually reserved for the sleek brutality of an old mechanical swiss watch. It’s delicate even within its strength, clear, dry, and perhaps excessively eye-watering and tongue-deadeningly intense to some. But even though it’s jagged as a blunt cutlass, my personal opinion is that it does Haiti and Barbancourt and L’Esprit no dishonour at all, and is a hell of a full proof drink to savour if you can find it.

(#543)(86/100)

May 072018
 

#509

Plastic.  Lots and lots of plastic.  And rubber. The clairin “Le Rocher” is a hydrocarbon lover’s wet dream, and if you doubt that, just take a gentle sniff of this Haitian white.  It is one of the richest whites from Haiti I’ve managed to try, and the best part is, those opening notes of the nose don’t stop there – they develop into a well balanced combination of acetone, salt, soya, and a spicy vegetable soup, into which a cut of jerk chicken thrown in for good measure to add some depth (I swear, I’m not making this up).  And if that isn’t enough, half an hour later you’ll be appreciating the watermelons, sugar water and light cinnamon aromas as well.  This rum is certifiable, honestly – no unaged white should ever be able to present such a delightfully crazy-ass smorgasbord of rumstink, and yet, here it is and here it reeks.  It’s pretty close to awesome.

Sometimes a rum gives you a really great snooting experience, and then it falls on its behind when you taste it – the aromas are not translated well to the flavour on the palate.  Not here. In the tasting, much of the richness of the nose remains, but is transformed into something just as interesting, perhaps even more complex. It’s warm, not hot or bitchy (46.5% will do that for you), remarkably easy to sip, and yes, the plasticine, glue, salt, olives, mezcal, soup and soya are there.  If you wait a while, all this gives way to a lighter, finer, crisper series of flavours – unsweetened chocolate, swank, carrots(!!), pears, white guavas, light florals, and a light touch of herbs (lemon grass, dill, that kind of thing). It starts to falter after being left to stand by itself, the briny portion of the profile disappears and it gets a little bubble-gum sweet, and the finish is a little short – though still extraordinarily rich for that strength – but as it exits you’re getting a summary of all that went before…herbs, sugars, olives, veggies and a vague mineral tang.  Overall, it’s quite an experience, truly, and quite tamed – the lower strength works for it, I think.

Clairins no longer need much introduction.  Velier’s been promoting them up and around the world, people have been shuddering and cheering about their profiles in equal measure for years now.  We know what they are. What we don’t know is the producers and individual methods. Here’s what I know: Le Rocher (“The Rock”, named after Matthew’s injunction in 7: 24-27 not to build on sand) is the product of Bethel Romelus, whose little op is located in the village of Pignon, about an hour’s jouncing away from St Michel where Michel Sajous fires up the Sajous. Le Rocher is different from the other clairins I’ve looked at so far in that it is made from sugar cane juice from three different varieties of cane, which is boiled down to syrup.  It’s fermented naturally, with maybe a 1/3 of the syrup being made from previous vinasses, then run through a discontinuous pot still, before being bottled as is. No ageing, no dilution, no filtration, no additions. A pure, natural, organic rum for all those whole drool over such statistics.

Personally, I’m impressed with the rum as a whole, but if you disagree, I fully understand the source of your doubt – you gotta be into unaged, unhinged whites to be a fanboy of this stuff – for me, that’s catnip, for you, perhaps not so much. Still, If I had to rate the clairins which Velier is putting out the door, I’d say the Sajous remains the most certifiable, the Casimir the most elegant, the Vaval the easiest for its strength.  But the Le Rocher….it’s perhaps the most approachable for the average Joe who wants to know what the fuss is all about and is willing to try one, but is cautious about mucking around with the >50% sarissas of the first three. By going to a lower ABV, by taming a remarkable panoply of potent and pungent smells and tastes, by changing (slightly) the way it’s made, the Le Rocher is setting a standard as high as its creole-still cousins, and if your tastes bend in this direction, it’s definitely worth adding to your collection of whites, and clairins.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • In doing my research I found references to other varieties of the Le Rocher tried at various rumfests last year: one at 51%, another at 43.5%. 
  • Back label translation: “It is at Pignon, at the entrance to the plateau of St. Michael de l’Attalaye, that the Le Rocher clairin is produced using cane syrup, produced from natural juice, adding during fermentation about 30% vinasses from the previous distillations: an archaeological example of the method of production of the French colonies, influence of 1785 by the technique developed by the English in Jamaica, the “dunder-style.”
Oct 032017
 

#391

When in your cups, you could argue that Haitian clairins parallel the development of rum as a whole.  Just as rum (and rhum) was ignored for a long time, so were the indigenous likkers of Haiti.  And I posit that just as rum worldwide is going through a new golden age, so are clairins (with cachacas coming on strong). So far we have met amazingly pungent, raw and tasty white lightning from the stills of Sajous, Casimir and Vaval, which were promoted and given great visibility by Luca Gargano of Velier (to his lasting credit) and I’ve been fortunate enough to write about another small producer on the half-island, Mascoso Distillers, who produce the Barik brand of clairins (or klerens) — and I really believe that not only are they worth a look and a buy, but the Kreyol Nasyonal Brut de Fût may be one of the better ones…makes me wonder what Luca would have done had he stopped by there as well as the other three distilleries.

Anyway, I’ve tried the Kleren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 and its sibling the Premium; this one is from the same source as those two white rhinos, just a little less pugnacious (50% ABV).  It was aged for three months in lightly charred first-fill small (5 litre) white oak oak barrels, which is why the rhum is light gold in colour – even that short time in a barrel was enough to impart some maturation and heft to the bottled product, which I think is better than any of the two unaged siblings,and eclipses the Sajous and the Vaval (but not the Casimir).

Perhaps a sense of my interest and appreciation can come as you run through the tasting notes, made as I tried all six of the clairins together. The nose on this one was definitely the best of the lot.  Some interesting earthy notes under here, not much sweet. A cereal and bean lover’s delight –  lentil soup, dhal, even some cumin with sour cream; roti, fresh baked bread, vanilla, sugar water – I swear to you, this is what I got right out of the gate and it developed into slightly more tart flavours of ginger and citrus rind (nicely balanced), plus bananas and pineapples, green grapes and ripe gooseberries.  It was amazing that at 50% and a mere three months old, it seemed quite tame and well adjusted and it reminded me nothing so much as one of Takeuchi-san’s six-month aged rums from over in Japan, twisted into its own creole style.

Taste wise it dropped a few notches from that nose, though still quite good – and it presented a bit thin compared to the powerful  “consider my cod” animal potency of the 55% unaged Premium edition.  That may be the price paid for civilizing it, I suppose, but fortunately such flavours as were there, emerged with a flourish and elan, and lost little of their own uniqueness – some initial tastes of wax, olives and salt (a wink to its origins, perhaps), then  vanilla and fleshy fruits like peaches and cherries, leading gently back to more bananas and pineapples, plus some astringency and tartness of unripe green mangoes (and those gooseberries again).  Those rich cereal and soup elements of the nose, alas, disappeared and were not to be found, and the finish surprisingly short for something bottled at that strength — lucky for us, it coughed up closing notes of cherries, salt and olives, a faint whiff of caramel, and additional fruits that pulled curtains on the show very nicely indeed.  

Mike Moscoso with bottles of the next-gen premium cuvee, aged for six months (not three)

In fine, this rum was intriguing as hell, tasty to a fault, with some weak points here or there, but which in no way dissuade me from going after more of Mascoso’s rhums – when researching background with him (the man is great at responding to messages), he remarked that he had some six month old versions coming out soon, and in 2018 he would be making the festival circuit of London, Berlin and Paris.  I can’t guarantee you would like everything he makes – clairins are, as I’ve observed before, something of an individual thing, containing a fierce, barely contained pungency (the French island version of a dunder bomb, I guess you could say) but I guarantee you’ll be as intrigued as I was, as interested, and may even like them enough to give more of them a try as they come out into the wider world to add lustre to Haiti’s spirited output.

(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The “ESB” moniker is French – Élevé Sous Bois – and means simply “oak aged.”
  • The original distillate of the rhum is the same as the Kleren Nasyonal rhums reviewed before
Aug 162017
 

#383

When one tastes a raft all kinds of rums from around the world and across the ages over an extended period, there is a normal tendency to look for stuff that’s a little different while still conforming to commonly-held notions of what a rum is.  After all, how many times can one try a basic rum redolent of molasses, caramel, sugar, banana and maybe raisins and citrus without getting a little bored?  Well, for sure there’s no shortage of new and interesting popskull coming on the market in the last few years, and I’m not just talking about the new agricoles, or the geriatric rarities released by the independents, but actual distillers and bottlers like Hampden, Worthy Park, Savanna…and that interesting outfit called Moscoso out of Haiti.  Drink some of their klerens, and believe me, if you’re afflicted with ennui, this’ll cure what ails ya…if it don’t put you under the table first.

Also called Barik (a creole word for “barrel”), Moscoso interested me enough to write a full profile of the company a few months back, and since that time they are aggressively seeking outlets and distribution in Europe, to say nothing of issuing all kinds of aged or unaged permutations of their booze. And my goodness, when you taste these things, the inescapable conclusion is they’re aren’t just rarin’ to take Barbancourt out back, kick the snot out of it and give ‘em a run for their money, but also casting narrowed snake’s eyes at the Velier-issued Vaval, Casimir and Sajous as if to say “Mwen nan bouda, nou zanmi”.

Perhaps they have good reason. Their 55% Traditionnel 22 was a rum that stunned and smacked the unwary with all the force of a Louisville slugger to the face, and yet I felt it had been reasonably well made, with much of that elemental joyousness that so marked out the other, better known clairins like the Sajous that have so impressed me over the last few years.  

Which is not to say you wouldn’t be a little startled by the initial smells given off by this 55% white rhino. I mean, I nosed it and drew back with widened eyes, wondering if there wasn’t some excess Jamaican dunder or balsamo-infused cachaca in there — because aside from the brine and wax and glue and shoe polish, I was also getting a barrel of rotting bananas and funk, mixed up with musky, damp wood and wet dark earth (which I’m sure you’ll concede is not normal for a rum).  It started out raw and fierce, and perhaps it needed some resting time, because after some minutes of letting it stand there (glowering sullenly around the room the whole time) additional aromas of freshly ground black pepper, cumin, masala, lemon peel and herbs became more prominent. “Meaty” is not a term used often in these pages, but here it was exactly right to describe what I was experiencing.

What elevated the rhum to something better than the nose suggested was the way it tasted. As seemed to be the case with all such Haitian whites I’ve tried, the nose was “da bomb” and the palate calmed itself down quite measurably, and a drop or two of water helped as well.  Here the sugar water and watermelon came through much less aggressively, as well as brine and olives, fresh cane sap, nougat (!!), some nuttiness and citrus (not much of that, a pinch not a handful), coming to an end with a long, somewhat dry finish which reminded me of sharp, damp sawdust of some freshly-sawn unnamed lumber in a sawmill (yeah, I worked in one once), as well as fresh grass, and sugar cane juice.

So…quite an experience.  Strong, distinct, flavourful, uncouth, odd, just on this side of bats**t crazy, and overall a pretty amazing drink – it would light up a cocktail with fireworks, I’m thinking.  On balance the nose of the original Nasyonal earned my favour, but here the taste profile carried it ahead – it was a shade more complex, tastes better integrated. Whether you buy into that premise or not depends a lot, I feel, on where in the spectrum of rum appreciation  you fall. I wouldn’t recommend it to a person now starting to branch out into white full proofs; and for those who prefer the softer, sweeter profiles of Diplomatico, Zacapa, Panamanians or dosed rums like El Dorado or Plantation, stay away.  For everyone else?  Oh yeah. Give it a try, if nothing else. And take a gander at what Mike Moscoso is making — because as he noted so elegantly up above, he’s coming for all of us.

(84/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum is not a true agricole, the label is an accidental misprint which (at the time) Mr. Moscoso was too poor to fix and reprint. It is made from raw brown sugar liquified to 12-14% brix with 7-12 days of fermentation (using baker’s yeast). Distilled on a 12-plate creole columnar still, final distillate coming out at 65-70% ABV and reduced to 55%. It is unaged and blended from the various returns of the distillation run.
  • Points should be given to the company for issuing 200cl bottles for sale, aside from the standard full-size.  For someone on a budget who wants a taste but isn’t sure, those things are a godsend.
  • The significance of the “22” lies in the proof point.  Under the Cartier scale this translates into 55% ABV, while the more common Gay-Lussac scale equating to 55% / 110 proof is used everywhere else in the world
  • All clairins and klerens in my possession (six) were tried together, blind.
Mar 112017
 

Moscoso Distillers (also known as Barik) is a third-generation Haitian rum-maker whose klerens caught my attention as I was researching rums from there that were specifically not Barbancourt or distributed by Velier.  You’d think that some enterprising producers would extoll their family ancestry by tracing it back to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s great grandfather’s first cousin as part of the company legend, but as with many other things, Haitians do seem to enjoy confounding expectations.  In fact, the official founder of the company, Jules Moscoso, came over from the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s and settled in a small town called Léogâne in Haiti (just SW of Port-au-Prince, the capital), which was a centre of the sugar economy for centuries and which remains the source for the current company’s cane.

Marie Mascoso

That’s just a convenient sort of dating though, because Jules ended up marrying into the local aristocracy (or petit bourgeoisie, depending how you look at it) of the Vulcains, who were large landowners possessing several sizeable tracts of land and cane fields. Jules’s wife Marie confuses the timeline, since he established the distillery…but she and her relatives going back about five or six previous generations had been making and selling clairin the whole time (they also owned several general stores, which made distribution much easier).  Jules and Marie’s descendant – Michael Moscoso, the current owner – calls himself a third generation distiller because the paper trail only begins in 1925, with Jules and some old barrels that were imported – the company, such as it was, was never formally incorporated and was simply known as Mascoso’s. He does not recall if any single pot stills were utilized in making their clairins, but to his knowledge the original distilling apparatus consisted of  combination of pot and creole column still of five to six plates, copper made, with direct fire or water baths (which was and remains very much the tradition across the whole island).  As Haiti had once been a French colony, its influences came from the other French islands, explaining the Charentais alembics that were more common, as opposed to single pot stills used in other parts of the Caribbean by indigenous producers.  

Jules was more than just a local hooch handler.  He was in fact quite a talented tinkerer and very good with his hands: mechanical common-sense ran in the family, and much of the distillery was constructed with his direct input. The story goes that at one time, the French government donated a bleacher (those stadium like prefab metallic rows) to the Haitian government of the time. This bleacher was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame), but for some reason the assembly instructions accompanying the bleachers came in Chinese (don’t ask). The minister of public words of the moment, a bona fide engineer, confessed to Jules – a friend of his – that he couldn’t build it.  Jules casually asked for the manual, came back seven days later and then built the thing in fourteen days. It was famously known as the “Estrade du Champs de Mars” and is unfortunately no longer in existence…but any Haitian from that era would know of it.

The whole family was in on the business and it did not limit itself to merely clairins. Over time they expanded to providing 95% alcohol and ethanol to hospitals and pharmacies, base rhum stock to other clairin makers on the island and even branched out into the manufacture of essential oils (one such oil went on to provide the base for what would become Chanel No. 5).  Aunts, cousins and uncles were all part of the operation and were involved in running both wholesale and retail part of the company and its various sidelines.

The business passed on on to the second generation (Edouard Mascoso) in the late 1950s and Barik fared reasonably well.  Clairin sales (bulk and retail) and manufacture held steady, but the industry on the half island was moving into the direction of larger distilleries using industrial sized column stills which left smaller establishments at a disadvantage.  Barbancourt remains the best known, and the late 1970s also saw the increased scale of other major producers like the Nazon family who make rhums under the banner of Distillerie de la Rue in Cap Haitian, and Michael’s own uncle Gerald Moscoso (of Ayiti Aromatik SA) who with is partner bought press and plant from around the Caribbean, and make the Kleren Nacyonal and other brands out of St. Michel. Slowly the business stagnated and regressed in the 1970s to the point where Edouard was forced by both this and his own health to drastically ramp down production in the 1980s.  There followed a period of about twenty years when Mascoso / Barik as a clairin maker almost disappeared, though as noted, other branches of the family did have rhum operations of their own (and with confusingly similar brand names).  All the while, though, a trickle of the juice kept coming, even if only for local consumption.

Michael Mascoso with two of his klerens

After some years of puttering around from job to job (including that of a DJ), Edouard’s son Michael “Didi” Mascoso, who had been brought up in the culture of his family’s businesses and had apprenticed with his uncle’s more modern clairin operation, took over the near-abandoned clairin distillery in 2008.  From the inception, his ambition had been to move away from local bathtub-style popskull with poor quality controls and wide batch variations, to something more professional.  In short he wanted to create a double-distilled and aged rhum that could not only elevate the product and sales on Haiti, but be of sufficient quality for export.  It was of course not quite as simple as he had initially thought, but nevertheless he wanted to reopen a refurbished distillery with the same equipment, repaired and spiffed up, and tried to bring in more modern improvements and innovations over time.

It should be pointed out that it is almost a Haitian tradition to have one’s stills and factory infrastructure look as rundown and beat up as is humanly possible without actually ceasing operation.  Part of that has always been the rather unsavoury, unglamorous, peasantlike back-country reputation possessed by the clairins themselves – why spruce up the still when the juice is just being sold to the proles?  But more importantly, it keeps the eyes of the authorities off one’s operations if is just perceived as some small fly-by-night family outfit brewing small quantities of moonshine.  According to Michael, life under the dictatorial Duvaliers was never as brutal as the western media made out. “Under Duvalier I was not aware of any challenges. During that time if one minded his own business and walked a straight line they were safe.” But the taxman was something else again. The moment one’s operation looked a little too professional or the infrastructure too modern, and bottling became part of the company output (factory bottling in real bottles with labels and stuff), then the taxman came sniffing around.  And that was the major reason why 99% of the Haitian rum industry stuck with their old fashioned stills, and steadfastly refused to move ahead and modernize.

For financial and resource reasons, to recreate or even upgrade a functional distillery was very difficult for Michael.  However, humans are nothing if not inventive, and much like to soviets in the 1970s and 1980s who were known for putting together amazing inventions with string, baling wire and some vodka (or in modern times, having the tightest code due to limitations on available computer time in the old days), there was a lot of knowledge, passed-down-lore and plain experience…and a strain of Jules’s talent for mechanical tinkering and skill with his hands was still in the family tree. The distillery was repaired and refurbished, essentially by dint of diligent scrounging: abandoned kitchen equipment, commercial supermarket freezers, coolers (any source of metals that could be found, really), wires, electrical stuff – steel and copper and plate and everything else, down to the screws.  And then, as Michael put it, not without a hint of pride, “…watch us do magic by building our own pot and column stills, tubular condensers…. We also took old gas or #2 oil steam boilers and converted them into burning bagasse.  A typical modern distillery here in Haiti, with a steam boiler, pot column…more than 90% built on the premises with scrap metal.”

Scrap and scrounging, begging and borrowing, doing it all manually, all this was fine – it was, nevertheless, expensive.  It took all of Michael’s savings, credit cards, personal loans, raiding the family treasure chests (when not locked or guarded by fierce aunties) and getting help from his father and his brother (also named Jules)…and eight months after taking over, the still was ready to begin production.  At this point Edouard struck a co-production deal with a competitor which caused Michael to withdraw from operations for a while.  In December 2008 a successful test run on the distillery was finally done, and commercial production began in January 2009, with the intention of making both bulk clairin distillate for the local producers and possible export sales, and a line of white, caramelized and infused rhums.

Bad luck seemed to dog the distillery at the inception.  First there was the lack of funding for upgrades which had stretched the repair job into nine months; then there was the co-production deal that diverted attention and resources from the Barik brand; the earthquake hit in 2010 and shattered much of the island’s infrastructure …and as if all this wasn’t enough, there was an increasing incidence of industrial scale ethanol being used to make cut-rate clairins. Clairins are enormously pungent and flavourful and what producers were doing was mixing in a small portion of true distillate with the ethanol to make cheaper, low quality “clairin” that dragged down sales of the real McCoy.

Michael: “Although we had the ambition of branding and bottling rhums since 2009, financials did not allow it.  When things went from bad to worse in 2014, with the importation of industrial ethanol reaching its peak at that time, that was the end of selling bulk clairin.  I therefore decided to switch my focus to bottling and move away from the bulk sales.”  Michael noted that he had started working on his formulas and other blends since before the earthquake.  “I started with my sugar mash premium rhum right off the still, filtered and straight in the bottle; a few other blends like the Marabou (a caramelized version of the premium), a mint infused one and a few other tropical fruits infusion…and boom I was in business.  Selling a few bottles privately to a few customers in Europe but mainly France, I noticed that they have a preference for white agricoles — so I started bottling the Traditional 22 which is the pure juice version.”

So far the company remains (in accounting parlance) a sole trader operation and has not been officially incorporated. It is informally known and will one day be established in law as Moscoso Distillers, and under its umbrella have issued the Kleren Nacyonal and Rhum Barik brands, with additional variations of these (there’s also a rum-based Amaretto di Moscoso).  Sales remain slow and relatively minimal as a consequence of both novelty and a nonexistent mass-marketing advertising budget – in that sense, as Michael observed, a debt of thanks is owed to Luca for putting clairins on the international map and raising the drink’s profile. He hopes that his prescence at the 2017 Paris RhumFest will establish his brand more firmly in the mind of the rhum loving public and perhaps lead to more investment and possibly another large Haitian brand.  Having a personal thing for these potent unaged white rhums, as well as being interested in how the ageing would be handled, I for one will certainly be keeping an eye out on his products going forward.

 

Other notes

The word “Barik” means barrel in Haitian creole.  The choice of the name for brand (and possibly the company) was deliberate, because it was such a strong, easily pronounceable title in any language (Rolex, as I recall, chose its name for similar reasons).

Originally Michael wanted to name his product “Rhum La Guldive” but felt it to be too challenging a name.  It would be hard to ask for in a bar, the way one says “Havana Club” or “Bacardi”.  Plus, Pere Labat next door might launch a lawsuit over the name since they have a product with that title.

All photographs are from the Barik Facebook page, used with Michael Moscoso’s permission

References

The short list below, of rhums Mascoso Distillers makes, is not exhaustive (I’ve excluded all flavoured and infused versions since my focus is not on such products) but it’s a start for those who are interested.

 

Mar 062017
 

#347

By now, just about everyone in the rum world is aware of clairins, those indigenous crude white taste bombs out of Haiti, and once again, points have to be given to the farsightedness of Luca Gargano, who brought them to the attention of the wider world by promoting and distributing the Sajous, Vaval and the Casimir.  Unfortunately, the acclaim these three have garnered have somewhat eclipsed any other clairins – and when supposedly some 500+ small outfits make the juice on the half-island, one can only imagine what else of interest is lurking there waiting to be discovered by anyone who loves crazy, speaks patois and has a 4×4.

One that came across my radar not too long ago was the Kreyol Kléren series of rums made by a company called Mascoso Distillers, sometimes as Barik – a real company, not some garage-based pop-and-pup moonshinery making it with granny’s recipe for the relatives on the weekend jump-up.  I ended up buying two of them and getting a sample of a third, which caused the customs officials in Frankfurt some real puzzlement as they had no clue what the hell this stuff was and required no end of paperwork from Michael (the owner) to prove that it was a rum, why the price was so low, how come they were all around 55% and no, they weren’t meant to be weaponized.

You can understand their confusion (or trepidation).  The Kléren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 (a supposed “rhum agricole artisanal superior” based on the label, but not really, since the source is a sugar mash not sugar cane juice, and the label is a graphic design error) had an initial smell that was like inhaling a small fire-breathing sweet-toothed dragon.  It was fierce, herbal and salty, and reminded me somewhat of that long-ago sonofabitch in the playground in second form who rabbit punched me in the schnozz without warning.  I was using all three of the other (Velier-distributed) clairins for controls here, and what I sensed with the Nasyonal was their genesis taking form.  It was not as cultured as the Vaval or the Casimir, and even the Sajous was somewhat more tamed (when was the last time you read that about those three?), but in its very basic and elemental nature lay much of its attraction.  It was rough and jagged and yet still joyously powerful, eventually giving up more leafy notes (basil, maybe), sugar cane sap, with much of the same salty wax and swank taste I remembered so well from the others.

Thankfully the rhum settled itself down some when I was tasting it and now edged closer to the quality of my controls.  Oh sure, it was still liquid sandpaper and not for the weak (or those preferring softer brown fare) – I would never try to convince you otherwise.  Yet behind all that macho display of sweat and stink squirting from every pore was some pretty interesting stuff – sweet sugar water and herbal cane juice again, some gherkins in vinegar, and salt and olive oil and dill backing it all up.  Phenomenal, long finish, by the way, making up some for the brutality of the preceding experience, suggesting salt and herbs and (again) cane juice. Not the most complex drink ever made, of course, and after taking it out back and beating my palate a time or three, it occurred to me to wonder, if Luca had smacked his label on it, would I have been able to tell the difference? (So I had the wife give me all four blind, and I was just able to pinpoint the Sajous and the Klerin but mixed up the Casimir and the Vaval – it was the edge on the first two that gave them away).

Clairins may be made in every bottom-house, backhouse and outhouse on Haiti, where jury rigged creole stills are slapped together from mouldy leather jockstraps, old bata flip-flops and disused petrol cans (probably with duct tape).  And yes, many of them are probably best left undiscovered, or relegated to those with noses, palates and livers more robust than mine.  This one, the least of the three I’m going through, possesses enough points of distinction to merit a recommendation, so long as your tastes run in this direction.  It’s a massive, Duke Nukem style hot shock to the system, displaying zero couth yet uncompromisingly boasting a uniqueness worthy of note.  I can’t entirely or unreservedly praise the rhum, but it must be said, when I was trying it, I sure as hell wasn’t bored. I doubt you would be either, no matter how your experience turns out.

(82/100)

Other Notes

The significance of the “22” lies in the proof point.  Under the Cartier scale this translates into 55% ABV, while the more common Gay-Lussac scale equating to 55% / 110 proof is used everywhere else in the world.  The scale here is a peculiarity of Haiti, as is the word “Traditionnel” which on Haiti means an agricole, not a molasses based rum.

Straight from still to bottle, no ageing at all.

Barik’s rhums are very affordable for those with an adventurous bent, and best of all, they’re sold in 200ml bottles as well.  This is a conscious decision by Michael Moscoso, the owner, who understands that for it to sell even locally in a time of competition and adulterated Chinese crap trucked over the border, small bottles at affordable prices must be part of the sales strategy.  Given how many full sized bottles I buy in a single year, I can’t help but applaud that.

Barik has a fairly robust heritage.  Founded by Michael “Didi” Moscoso’s grandfather way back in the early 1900s, it is now supposedly the fourth largest in Haiti, but plagued by infrastructure problems and those cheap ethanol derivatives.  There’s a separate biography, here

Apr 102016
 

Barbancourt Reserve Speciale

Rumaniacs Review 021 | 0421

Here’s a pretty decent, if somewhat anorexic, rhum from Haiti, courtesy of the House of Barbancourt.  The name “Réserve Spéciale” is still in use, and refers these days to an eight year old, but so scarce is any kind of information on the sample I was provided (even getting a photo was problematic hence the lousy quality of the one you see here), that for me to say it was an eight year old back then is an educated guess, not a fact.  Still, info or no info, a sample was sent, and there it is and here we are. It’s not something a rum junkie can ignore.

Colour – dark amber

Strength – 43%

Nose – Thin and yet still very aromatic.  Lots going on here – light cherries, and dark prunes, fried bananas and french bread covered over with green grape skins and dark chocolate (I know how that sounds, believe me) – the way it all comes together is tailor made for leisurely sniffing.

Palate – For a rum this dark, it’s surprisingly delicate…y’know, like a sumo wrestler wearing heels.  Heated with a sly citrus sharpness to leaven it all. More plums and ripe cherries carrying over from the nose, to which is added grapes, black olives, vanilla, cinnamon and some cardamon as it develops.  With water not much changes, some vague grassier hints round things out.  It’s actually quite a smooth product, once it settles down. Still lacks real body though.

Finish – Short and easy, warm and fragrant.  Florals, lemon zest, grass, vague but unidentifiable fruitiness plus some vanilla. A bit too thin, really, but I concede that what it does present is nothing to sneeze at.

Thoughts – Nothing much to say.  A decent agricole all the way through.  The modern Barbancourt series are not very far away from this, which says a lot about the overall consistency of the line through the decades.

(83/100)

Opinion

Sometimes even a short series of notes like those above illustrate larger points about the rum universe.

What is becoming clearer as I do these reviews, is that while independent bottlers take care to keep track of and list every one of their offerings — including from which country, from what year and at what strength — more commercial “country-based” makers (like DDL, Barbancourt, Mount Gay, Angostura, St. Lucia Distilleries, Flor de Cana, the Travellers, the Jamaicans etc etc) who keep a single line of rums stable for many years, never really bother.  That’s why Carl Kanto could mourn the passing of older DDL rums marketed in the pre-El-Dorado days, of which no trace, no list, no photograph, no profile, and no sample remains.

I believe that in these cloud based internet days, every rum maker owes it to the generations to come to preserve a complete set of every rum they have ever made, are making, and will make — in writing and in photographs, and maybe with a few cases squirrelled away in a vault someplace.  It may seem like a waste now, but in fifty years it would be a treasure beyond price.  And as we all get older ourselves, haven’t we all noted that the years are passing more quickly? That fifty years will be gone in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

Jan 072016
 

Casimir 3

This rum is like Hooters: delightfully tacky, enjoyable as hell, and unrefined to a fault.  And once you’ve given it a shot, it’s like you have a sneaking suspicion you’ll soon be back, grumbling all the while Poukisa rum nan toujou fini?”

(#248 / 86.5/100)

***

The Clairin “Casimir” white rum, the third of the Haitian Clairins, is maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerizing if you are. I noted in a comment on the Vaval that it’s tough to love, and the same applies here, only more so. If you have not thrown the thing away in disgust after ten minutes, it’s very likely that thereafter, you will never entirely get it out of the mental arsenal of your tasting memories.  

Does that make it a good rum? Not necessarily for all people, in all places…although it does make it an original, cut from wholly different cloth.  And as with any such thing, we must be ready for strange detours, waves of difference and surreal experiences without clear analogues in our minds…except perhaps other Clairins.  I first sampled the Sajous back in Paris in April 2015 and was enthralled on the spot; my love affair continued with the Vaval, and I felt it was only fair to get the review of the Casimir out the door just so the full set was available for those who don’t mind straying not only off the beaten path, but into another country entirely.

Casimir

I make these points to prepare you for the massive pungency of the Casimir’s initial attack. As I’ve mentioned before for the other two, I recommend approaching it with care (maybe even trepidation) especially if this is your first sojourn into the world of these organic, traditionally-made, pot-still, unaged white full-proofs. Because while it initially presented to the nose very prettily, this was just a way to lure you into the same smack in the face. Powerful, pungent scents of boot polish, fusel oils, freshly lacquered wooden floors lunged smoothly out of the gate, skewering the unwary sniffer. I felt the sugar to be stronger here than on either the Vaval or the Sajous, with additional notes of soy sauce, teriyaki chicken with loads of green vegetables, Knorr packet soup, thick, heavy and my God, it didn’t ever let up. Even at a “mere” 54% it handily eclipsed the 57% Rum Nation Jamaican white pot still rum in sheer potent olfactory badassery. The Casimir quite simply makes you rethink what ageing means – nothing this young and unrefined should be this remarkable.

On the palate, I remember thinking, Man this is great. It had the smooth, hot body of an energetic and buxom porn star, and took a sharp left turn from the nose, starting out with sweet sugar water and cucumber slices in diluted vinegar…it sported a mouthfeel that alternated between silk and steel.  Mint, marzipan, more floor polish, faint olive oil notes drummed on the tongue.  It had less of the fusel oil that so marked the Sajous, with dill, coriander, lemon pepper, fennel, fish sauce, and some weird mineral/vegetal component that reminded me of peat for some reason. I don’t know how it managed that trick, but somehow it walked the delicate line between tongue-in-cheek titillation and overt sleaze. Really quite a lovely taste to it, the best of the trio.  And the finish, no major complaints from me there either, it was long, sweet and oily, with just a note of kerosene in the background to mar what was otherwise a great drinking experience, and I gotta tell you, I really liked this one (different though it was).

The Casimir is made by those friendly Haitian folk down by Barradères, which is a small village in the commune of Nippes Department in the southwestern leg of the half-island. It’s not far from Port-au-Prince, but still needs a tough-ass 4×4 to get to since it is (to use West Indian parlance) “way down dere behine Gad back.” Not much going on in the village, it’s subsistence farming all the way – but this small place has more distilleries than Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica combined – thirteen in all, though admittedly these are small-shack Mom-and-Pop operations for the most part and not industrial powerhouses in the business of stocking global shelves.

Faubert Casimir is a second generation distiller (his father began making the white lightning back in the late 1970s), and is considered by some to be the local maestro of Clairins. The rum derives from Hawaii White and Hawaii Red sugar cane grown on the 120-acre “plantation” out back, and, in a peculiarity of the region, the makers add some herbs or vegetable matter to pure cane juice in fermentation, to enhance the flavors. M. Casimir himself adds leaves of citronella, cinnamon, and in some batches, ginger, and some of that evidently carried over into the final product.  Does that make it an adulterated rhum?  Maybe.  But for something this rich and powerful and bat-bleep-crazy, I’m willing to let it pass just to observe how joyously these guys run headfirst into a wall in making a rhum so distinct. 

Of course, if you have already tried the Sajous or the Vaval (or read my notes on them both), none of this will come as news to you.  And you might think, “Bah! They’re all the same, so why buy three when one can tell the tale?” You’d be right, of course…but only up to a point. They are variations on a theme, each with a subtle point of difference, a slightly different note, making each one similar, yes….and also unique. Perhaps you have to try all three to get that…or simply be deep into rums.

Yon gran mèsi, Faubert

Other notes:
I love those bright, hectic, almost primitive labels — as an attention-getter, the bottle this rum comes in ranks somewhere between running naked through your dronish cubicle farm and throwing a brick through a shop window. The Haitian artist Simeon Michel provided the paintings for the Casimir and the Sajous (but alas, I have no clever story for this one).

Casimir 2

Nov 162015
 

Clairin-Vaval-etichetta-2014

Looks like water but goes down like a charge of cheerfully boosted C4. You won’t mistake it for any other rhum…except maybe its cousins.

(#241 / 84.5/100)

***

Full of get-up-and-go instilled by the momentous encounter that was the Sajous, I sprang for both the Casimir and the Vaval (plus a Sajous of my own) at the first available opportunity.  Because come on, originality and going off the reservation in the rum world are vanishing ideals, and it’s not often that a rhum is so amazingly, shockingly off-base that it’s in another ballpark altogether.

Such a rhum was the Clairin Vaval, produced by Fritz Vaval of Haiti in his charmingly old school column still — made, if you can believe it, with leather trays and a condenser made from old petrol cans. Luca Gargano of Velier, while gaining greater fame for his own rums and his push for a clearer classification system for the spirit, was the man behind the attempt to bring the Haitian clairins to a wider audience a couple of years ago.  Good for him for using his bully-pulpit for such a cause.  Because while the clairins are not to everyone’s taste, I can tell you with some assurance that they are among the wildest, angriest and most rip-snorting rums available…and also, to my mind, ferociously, laughingly good.  You can almost imagine the Fritz’s fiendish giggles in your mind, as you gaze at your glass the first time you try the Vaval and give vent to a disbelieving “Putain mais c’était quoi ça?”

By now I was more familiar with, and expecting, the initial salt wax nose-bomb, so after experiencing that (I hesitate to say enjoying, since that might stretch credulity to the point of disbelief), I paid rather more attention.  There were fusel oil and kerosene backbones to this colourless liquid, mixed in with gherkins, vinegar and garlic (really!). The pungency of the rhum was as ripe and randy as the Sajous, and only grudgingly gave way to vanilla, sugar water, freshly sliced cucumbers and a sort of clear lightness of watermelons and maybe pineapples – very very light fruit, being hammered home by strong overtones of an unaged pot still product.

The palate was much the same, just more of it. Oily and salty and somewhat rubbery on the first attack, with sweet water backing it up.  Very strong and almost sharp, of course — it was 52.5% after all — but not raw or pestilentially fierce, not seeking only hurt.  Rather, it was thick and warm and almost fatty.  Once the first tastes move on and it opened up (helped with a little water), billowing and very heated tastes of breakfast spices, white sugar, olives, fresh-cut grass, a flirt of vanilla and some more of that kerosene made themselves felt.  Dynamically, assertively, full-throatedly so. You kind of have to breathe deep after each sip when sampling this rhum. The finish was long and not a bit dry, closing the show with some lemon zest and an odd hint of pickles with all the various leaves floating around in it. Trust me, the flavours linger for a hell of a long time on this one, and you almost want it to.

That was some drink.  It was only as I tried it in concert with the other two that its own individuality became more clearly discernible – on its own, or tasted apart, they might all seem quite similar, but they’re not, not really.  Each is as distinct as an adjacent piano key note. Like the Sajous or the Casimir, I would not recommend this unreservedly to the larger population of the rumworld; I would however suggest that if you can, give it a try, very gently, just to see where rum could go if it really felt like it.  Because these gents from Haiti may be the last surviving remnants of microdistillers who make rhum in a totally old fashioned, organic way and you could argue that you’re seeing what rhum was like in its infancy when you try one.

There’s something about clairins that defies easy description.  They’re so pungently, tartly original, so immensely weird, and yet so absurdly tasty, all at the same time. The nose is enough to swat away an angry bear, sure, but that taste…oh man.  There I was at 2am, on a cool, crisp October night on a balcony in Berlin, switching from one clairin to the other, making my notes, enjoying the heat, revelling in the tastes, and I felt something unusual, and you know what?  It might have been happiness.

Other notes:

Made from freshly hand-harvested blue cane, utterly organic, utterly unaged. The cane juice is fermented with wild yeast. Fresh of the column still. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No filtration.

Mr. Vaval’s operation is called Arawak’s Distilleries – it’s been in operation since 1947, and is located near Cavaillon in Haiti’s southern horn, close by Les Cayes. It’s apparently just a couple of cinder-block rooms and a corrugated zinc roof.  It contains a still, some small fermentation tanks and a small crushing mill, all on the grounds of an old colonial maison surrounded by twenty acres of Madame Meuze cane.

I have to share this one with you. Remember how Luca’s own photos embraced the Velier Caroni labels? Well, he took the work of Mr. Simeon Michel (a well-known Haitian artist) for the bright artwork of the Sajous and Casimir labels, but the Vaval bottle design has a different story.  Some years ago, Luca was speaking to an old Genoese taxi driver about rums (he talks to everyone about rums – you gotta wonder about his pillow talk sometimes, honestly), mentioned Haiti and clairins, and the guy turned out to be a long-retired sailor who had been to the half-island and acquired some local artwork, back in the 1960s.  Luca, for the right to scan this painting and use the image on the bottle, paid the man an undisclosed sum…and with six bottles of the first edition of the Vaval.

 

Jun 292015
 
Barbancourt 15

Photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange

Rumaniacs Review 005 | 0405

The forerunner of the still excellent fifteen year old rhum made in Haiti to this day, this one was generated in the 1970s, and it’s a pretty good rhum even after a remove of so many years.  Pot still 43%, about 15,000 bottles were issued according to The Sage, while The Whisky Exchange says 20,000…doesn’t matter, they’re rare as hen’s teeth these days anyway.  I think the recipe they used then is a little different than the current iteration of the 15, but not by much.  Note also the similarity of the box to today’s edition.

Nose: Oddly thin and discombobulated. Spicy, not too much. Nuts, caramel, port infused pipe tobacco, black grapes, some zest. Gets easier as you keep at it, rewards some patience and savouring.

Palate: Light bodied yet not anorexically thin, thank God (hate those). Some beef and biceps kept under velvet sleeves – 43% is great here.  Not quite a molasses background, but some – caramel, vanilla, toffee, crushed walnuts, ice cream without enough cream. Black grapes continue, red guavas, some anise and fennel and black tea (without sugar).  A shade too thin, really – still, you can’t fault the fact that it’s delicious.

Finish: Medium short, unremarkable.  Nothing more than the aforementioned spices and toffee to report. Goes down nicely, and at least it doesn’t hate you.

Thoughts: Amazing how consistent this is in quality to the current 15 year old, which I quite liked. Still, tasted after the >25 Year Old Veronelli, you can sense the difference. Surprised this was/is a cane juice product — has elements that hearken more to molasses, but what do I know?  A pretty good all-round rhum in all times, in all worlds.

(83/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

Barbancourt 1970s 15 yr old