Feb 032020
 

The Okinawan Helios Distillery came to greater attention (and reknown) of the western rum scene in 2019, when they presented a white rum and a 5 Year Old that were impressive right out of the gate.  Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given that the company has been in the business since 1961 – it is supposedly the oldest such distillery in the country. Then, it was called Taiyou, and made cheap rum blends from sugar cane, both to sell to the occupying American forces, and to save rice for food and sake production. In the decades since, they’ve branched out, but always continued making the good stuff, and you can’t be in rum for nearly sixty years and not pick up a thing or two. To me, the only question is why they waited so long to move west make a splash.

Aside from beers and awamori, for which they are better known in Japan, rums make up a good portion of the portfolio, with the 5YO and white leading the charge – both, as noted, are pretty good.  But in the back room skunkworks there was always the desire to go further, and age longer, as I was told in Paris in 2019 when a commercially-complete but as-yet-officially-unbottled sample was passed over the counter for me to try.  Most distillers would go in easy increments up a graded “age-curve” – you know, 10 years old, maybe 12, or 15 or something like that. Not these boys. They went right up to 21 and planted their flag firmly there.

And they had reason to. The rum was a noser’s delight, soft and yet firm, with a remarkably well balanced amalgam of caramel, ripe (but not overripe) fruits, cola, fanta, citrus…and that was just in the first thirty seconds. I stared at in some wonder – I’d never seen or tried a Japanese rum this old, and had thought that perhaps the company’s experience in making aged whisky would make it more malt-like than rum-like – but no, this thing was uniformly all round excellent. As if to prove the point, when I left it standing and came back to it there were also notes of bitter chocolate, Danish butter cookies, sweet aromatic tobacco, leather, and smoke. And behind all that, like a never-materializing thundercloud, there was a vaguely rank and hogo-y meatiness, sensed rather than directly experienced, but rounding out the nasal profile nicely.

Clearly twenty one years of careful maturation in ex-bourbon barrels had had its effect, and had sanded off the rougher edges evident on the aromas of both the Teeda 5YO and the white.  Did this continue when tasted?  

Photo (c) Nomunication website.

Yes indeed. Granted 43% was hardly cask strength (the 48% official version would likely be more emphatic), but the tastes were as smoothly crisp as anyone could hope for, with a creamy, salt-buttery lead-in that was almost silky.  The wood influence was clear – vanilla, smoke, leather – yet not overbearing; the bitter tannins run which could have run amok in something this old were tamed well. Standard and well-defined notes of an aged Caribbean molasses-based rum paraded across the palate one after the other – stoned ripe fruits, caramel, toffee, strong black tea, port-infused tobacco – and bags of delicately handled spices like cinnamon and cumin jeteed around them.  These were set off by cola, and light licorice and meaty hints, just enough to make themselves known, before the whole thing came to an end in a gentle finish of all these flavours coming on to the stage for one last bow in a sort of integrated unison that had me asking for seconds and thirds and vowing to get me a bottle when it finally became available.

That bottle has now been released. One of 2500, says Nomunication, and they mention a price tag of 28,000 yen, which is about ‎€240. I imagine it’ll be a bit more expensive by the time it gets over to America or Europe when taxes, tariffs and transport are tacked on — but I think it’s really worth it, especially since it’s stronger, and older than anything we’re likely to see from Japan that isn’t a whiskey. Tasting it, I was reminded of a well-made Damoiseau, or other rums from Guadeloupe – with it’s own quirks and originality, not adhering to a regimen or a strictly enforced code, but simply made with passion and without additives and with a whole lot of skill, in a country that keeps making ‘em better al the time.

(#697)(90/100)


Other Notes

  • The official release of the  21 Year Old Rum is 48% ABV, while the sample I tried was 43%, one of three bottles made for the festival circuit in 2019.  I was told back then that no changes were envisaged to what I was sampling – the blend had been “locked” – aside from tinkering with the strength; so I’ll take it on faith that any difference between what I based my notes on and what’s out there for sale, is minimal.
  • The 5 Year Old review has a brief background on the distillery and some notes on its methods of production. As far as I know this is a rum from molasses, and comes from a stainless steel pot still.
Jun 032019
 

The Kiyomi white rum is made by the Helios Distillery, the same outfit in Japan that makes the very tasty five year old Teeda rum we looked at before. Formed by Tadashi Matsuda in the postwar years (1961) at a time of economic hardship and food privation for Okinawa , the decision was made to distill rum because (a) it could easily be sold to American soldiers stationed there (b) Okinawan sugar was readily available and (c) rice, which normally would have been used to make the more popular local sake, was needed as a food source and could not be spared for alcohol production.

That the company succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it is still in existence, has expanded its operations and is still making rums.  The two most popular are the Teeda 5 YO and the Kiyomi Unaged White, which do not share the same production process: while both source Okinawa sugar cane which is crushed to juice, the Kiyomi rum is fermented for longer (30 days instead of two weeks) and run through a double column still (not the pot).  It is then left to rest (and not aged) in steel tanks for six months and gradually reduced from 60% ABV off the still, to the 40% at which it is bottled.

I’ve never been completely clear as to what effect a resting period in neutral-impact tanks would actually have on a rum – perhaps smoothen it out a bit and take the edge off the rough and sharp straight-off-the-still heart cuts. What is clear is that here, both the time and the reduction gentle the spirit down without completely losing what makes an unaged white worth checking out.  Take the nose: it was relatively mild at 40%, but retained a brief memory of its original ferocity, reeking of wet soot, iodine, brine, black olives and cornbread. A few additional nosings spread out over time reveal more delicate notes of thyme, mint, cinnamon mingling nicely with a background of sugar water, sliced cucumbers in salt and vinegar, and watermelon juice. It sure started like it was out to lunch, but developed very nicely over time, and the initial sniff should not make one throw it out just because it seems a bit off.

It was much more traditional to taste – soft, gentle, quite easy to sip, the proof helping out there. After the adventurousness of the nose which careened left and right and up and down like your head was a pinball machine, this was actually quite surprising (and somewhat disappointing as well).  Anyway it lacked any kind of aggressiveness, and tasted initially of glue, brine, olives, gherkins and cucumbers – the ashes and iodine I had sniffed earlier disappeared completely. It developed with the sweet (sugar water, light white fruits, watermelon juice) and salt (olives, brine, vegetable soup) coming together pleasantly with light florals and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dill), finishing off with a sort of quick and subdued exit that left some biscuits, salt crackers, fruits and rapidly disappearing spices on the tongue and fading rapidly from memory.

This is a rum that started with a flourish but finished…well, not in first place.  Though its initial notes were distinct and shown off with firm emphasis, it didn’t hold to that line when tasted, but turned faint, and ended up taming much of what made it come off as an exciting drink at the inception. That said, it wasn’t a bad one either: the integration of the various notes was well done, I liked most of what I did taste, and it could as easily be a sipping drink as a mixer of some kind.  What makes it noteworthy in this respect is that it doesn’t entirely become some sort of anonymously cute and light Cuban blanco wannabe you forget five minutes after putting down the glass, but retains a small spark of individuality and interest for the diligent. A shame then, that all this makes you think of, is that you’re holding an unfulfilled and unfinished promise — a castrated clairin  if you will — in your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

May 302019
 

In any rum festival, if you are moving around with a posse or simply keep your ears open, there’s always one or two new or unknown rums that create an underground buzz. You drift from booth to booth, tasting, talking, writing, thinking, listening, and gradually you separate voices from the din, that quietly remark “Check out that one over there” or “Did you hear about….?” or “You really gotta try…” or a simple, disbelieving “Holy crap!”

The Whisper Antigua rum was one of those, Lazy Dodo another; in various years there was the Toucan white, the Compagnie’s Indonesian rum,  the first edition of Nine Leaves, the first new Worthy Park rums…and in Paris 2019, it was the Teeda five year old made by the Japanese Helios Distillery, which I heard mentioned up and down the aisles by at least five separate people on the very first day (along with the Madeirans, the Cabo Verde grogues and Mhoba)

Helios has been around since 1961, when it was called the Taiyou distillery, and made rum from sugar cane grown in Okinawa itself (the climate favours it and all rum made in Japan uses cane from there) to cater to the locally-based Americans of the US post-war civil administration – and so as not to use rice which was needed for food to make alcohols like sake. In 1969 as the fortunes of the company and Okinawa improved, the name was changed to Helios and over the next two decades it branched out and gained licenses to make sake, shōchū, awamori (an Okinawan local spirit made from rice), whiskey and, in 1996, beer, which became one of its primary products with amawori and for which it is now best known.  Yet they started with and always made a sort of cheap blended rum (both white and lightly aged), and in the last few years expanded that into an aged product they named Teeda (an Okinawan word for “sun” – goes well with Helios, doesn’t it?), which is a blend of rums of five to fifteen years old aged in ex-bourbon barrels, I am led to understand, and pot still distilled. No caramel or other additions, a pure rum.

I don’t know how much of the blend was five years old and how much was greater, but whatever they did, the results were great.  The pot still component was particularly aggressive right out of the gate (even with a relatively staid 40% ABV strength) – yes it had a pronounced initial rumstink of sweet fruits and rinds decomposing in the sun, rotting bananas and paint remover, but there was also fanta and soda pop, a clear sweet line of bubble gum and strawberries, apricots, cherries, very ripe yellow mangoes, all tied together with brine, olives, and a really rich vegetable soup chock full of noodles and green onions (seriously!).

Palate…hmmm.  Different, yet decidedly intriguing and original without straying too far from rum’s roots. It was supple and firm on the tongue, sweet and almost gentle – I sensed iodine, minerals, wet charcoal, ashes, redolent of that woody and yeasty fresh-baked sourdough action of shōchūs I’ve had, which worked…sort of. Gradually that released additional muskier flavours of licorice, molasses, vanilla, even red olives.  It was also musty, with all the pungency of a barn made from old wood and long abandoned. Whatever fruits there were took a back seat, and only really came into their own on the finish which, though short, was creamy and sharp both at once, and allowed final notes of ripe cherries and apricots to make a final bow before disappearing.

What to make of something like this?  A Caribbean rum it was clearly not, and it was quite separate from the light rums from South America; neither did it conform to India’s rich and sweet rums like the Amrut, and it had little in common with the feral whites now coming out of Asia.  Given that in many cases Japanese rum makers are often adding rum to their lineup of whiskies or sake or shōchū as opposed to starting rum distilling from scratch, I argue that too often the profiles of those drinks bleed over into the way their rums taste (Seven Seas, Ryoma, Cor Cor and Ogasawara are examples of this, with Nine Leaves a marked exception).

Yet I liked this thing, quite a bit.  It was like a dialled-down Islay mixing it up with a Jamaican pot-still bruiser (with a Versailles acting as referee), and was, in my estimation, something of an original to sample, blending both the traditional “rummy” flavours with something new.  It skated over many of the issues mentioned above and came out at the other end with a really mellow, rich, tasty, different rum, the likes of which I have not had before. Even with the few weaknesses it had — the balance and integration of the disparate components were not completely successful, and it could have been stronger for sure — there’s nothing here that would make me tell you to walk away.  Quite the reverse, in fact – this rum is absolutely worth a try, and it makes me glad I listened to the buzz.

(#629)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks and a hat-tip to Yoshiharu Takeuchi and Manabu Sadamoto for help with the background notes
  • A 2019 RhumFest masterclass video of Ms. Matsuda (grandaughter of the founder of Helios) can be found on FB in English, with a running French translation.  This confirms the pot still comment (it is stainless steel) as well as noting that fermentation is 2 weeks, leading to a 60% distillate from the still; white rum is rested in steel tanks for about six months, while aged rums are put in oak casks for the appropriate period