May 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oak…so it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nose – well, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses.  It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish.  It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properly…at least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruits – prunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance.  “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamon – all the expected hits, I guess you could say.  But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something.  It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have,” said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different technique – it dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit.  By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at all – it is infused. Moreover, the process – both distillation and infusion – means that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing.  It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work?  I’d say yes it does – I mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting.  I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be.  The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?  
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used. 

May 202019
 

The word agricole is nowadays used indiscriminately to refer to any cane juice distillate, no matter where it is made, and by consumer and producers both.  Discussions have recently popped up on FB arguing that appropriating the term under such circumstances was (and is) theft of reputation and quality, which the French Island rum makers had garnered for themselves over long decades (if not centuries) of quality rhum-making, and was therefore being ripped off by any producer not from those islands who used the term.  And here comes a rum company from the Far East, Laodi, seeming to have found an admirable way of getting around that issue, by referring to their hooch as “Pure Sugar Cane Rhum,” which I think is just missing the word “juice” to be completely accurate.

Laodi, whose parent company is Lao Agro Organic Industries, was formed in 2006 by Ikuzo Inoue, a then-52 year-old Japanese engineer, who, with a local Lao partner, acquired a distillery located in the village of Naxone in Laos, just north of the Thailand border — it’s actually just a short drive away from the Issan Distillery (which is south of the border).  The distillery previously made local spirits like lao-lao (based on fermented rice) but the new owner decided to switch to rum, utilizing sugar cane from one of two 10 hectare plots of land (one always remains fallow and they are rotated), and going determinedly with juice rather than molasses.

The cane is cut and transported to the factory where it is crushed (1 tonne cane = ~400  liters juice) and set to ferment in steel vats using dehydrated wine yeast, for between 3-4 days. The resultant wine is about 9% ABV and is then run through a vacuum distillation machine – using this apparatus reduces the boiling point of the liquid by lowering the pressure within the apparatus, supposedly leading to less degradation of the wine in a shorter timeframe; the separation of heads and tails and extraction of the heart remains the same as for traditional methods.  

Initially the resultant spirit came out the other end at 47% and early versions of the Laodi / Vinetiane rums were bottled at 42% – the white rum was rested for two years in stainless steel tanks and slowly reduced to that strength – clearly they’ve done some upgrading since then, as by the time one of them walked through my door and into my glass, they already were beefing it up. That rum (or rhum if you like), was the 56% Vientiane Agricole rhum I looked at two years ago, which seems to be discontinued now (or replaced by this one – note the strength which is the same, and the loss of the word “agricole”…somebody is clearly paying attention).

How does this iteration smell?  Very pungent and very powerful – it’s unclear whether their vacuum distillation method is bolted on to a pot or column still, but for my money, based on the profile, it’s column (query to the company is pending).  It smells simply massive – salty, dusty and lemon-grassy all at once, quite herbal and earthy, of musty loam, rain on hot clay bricks. This was just the opening salvo, and it was followed swiftly by other notes of acetones, polish, cinnamon, anise, sugar water, cucumber and some watermelons, papayas and white guavas.  I thought I sensed some vanilla in there somewhere, but could have been wrong – overall, for that strength, it behaved remarkably well.

The taste was excellent too: it glided across the tongue with controlled force and without trying to scrape it raw.  It tasted initially dry and pungent, of glue and furniture polish, linseed oil (the sort I used to oil my cricket bat with, back in the days when I dared to lift one), and also of brine and olives and coconut water, cider and vinegar, cucumbers in a mild pimento sauce, and behind it, the citrus zest. And on top of all that, there was a peculiar creaminess to the experience, like a snow cone with syrup and condensed milk drizzled over the shaved ice. This all led up to a very pleasant finish, crisp and citrus-like, redolent of more brine, cider, guavas, mangoes, nicely spicy, nicely tasty and an all round excellent close, which stuck around as long as regular guests at a Caner Afterparty.

Dredging back through my memories of the original Laodi Vientiane and what I thought of it back then, I think that even though the strength was the same, this was and is a different rhum, an evolution in the quest to raise the bar, up the game.  It controls its strength well, yet loses none of the force of its ABV, and isn’t trying to be bitchy or sharp or uncomfortable. We may not call it an agricole, yet its antecedents are clear – it’s a cane juice rhum, strong, well made, properly delicious, with just enough edge to keep you hopping. And made in a part of the world we should seriously start to look at, in the constant search for quality artisanal rums that fly under our western radar..

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Laodi comes from the two words — “Lao” for the country and “Di” meaning “good”
  • The company also makes a lightly-aged brown-coloured rum (with an interesting variation on the ageing process), as well as a set of “married” rums which are infused or spiced and released at lower proof.
  • Rumporter magazine has an excellent 2017 article by Damien Sagnier on the company and its production techniques, which I drew on for the more technical aspects – the assumption is that these have not changed since then, of course.
  • The label is a masterpiece of minimalism, but the counterpoint to that is that it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of information – most of what I’m telling you comes from brochures, webpages and a meandering conversation at the booth at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest where I filched a hefty sample.  
Jan 112017
 

A white rhum from Laos, which comes out punching at 56%

#334

The rums we see and drink share a certain geographic commonality. On the shelves are rums from the various Caribbean islands, those old British, Spanish and French (and Dutch, and yes, Danish) colonial possessions. Next to them are South and Central Americans tipples which are the inheritors of the Spanish traditions brought over centuries ago…no shortage of their products either. Then there are those from micro-ops from Canada and the USA, few of which make any sort of big splash but which gain an audience from the communications infrastructure of those developed nations. And of course there are independent bottlers in Europe who take 90% or more of their stock from the Caribbean and further south. We hear about these all the time. But it’s possible that the future undiscovered variations of the rum world lie not west of Greenwich, or close by…but east.

Bar the odd exception like the Fijians, Old Monk, Bundaberg and Nine Leaves (or CDI’s Indonesians), how often do we hear about other rums from Australia, from India, from Africa, from the Far East? I’m not saying they make ninety-point masterpieces of rum which would make a pilgrimmage necessary, but if we consider ourselves Evangelists of the Cane, perhaps some attention should be paid to the outliers as much as the more familiar and popular mastodons of our world.

The problem lies in getting one’s paws on any.  The rum makers of the east (or south) usually lack good distribution networks or agents to bring their products to the western markets, which is why Capo Verde off Senegal makes grog like the clairins but nobody ever heard of them, or why Ogasawara and Ryomi are relatively unknown outside Japan.  In other situations, the domestic market is large enough to swallow all the output, so again, unless you’re there it’s not likely you’ll hear much about, for example, Ord River, Substation No. 41 or Beenleigh’s 5 year old, all of which are made in Oz.  Old Monk and Amrut are ginormous sellers in India but not always that easy to find one in your local hoochery, and then there are the Asian nations which make ersatz rum their own way, like Tanduay, Chalong Bay, Mekhong…or this Laotian one, which we’ll poke our snoots into today.

Information on the rhum is as maddeningly hard to find as the product itself. What little I’ve been able to cobble together from mon ami L’homme à la Pousette (the source of the sample, big thanks to the man) and some diligent googling, is that it derives from Vientiane, Laos, and is an organically made agricole bottled at a hefty 56%.  The company that makes it — Lao-Agro Organic and Distillery Inc — has a brand called Laodi which is primarily liqueurs, and they also produce a lower proofed white variation of this rhum, and a slightly aged one.  I gather that it is mostly for local consumption, not export (which may be why few of us ever heard of it before).  But in terms of the production methods, source of cane, filtration etc, there’s not much to go on, sorry.  We have to take it on its merits alone.

All that aside, this was quite some rhum – it reminded me of the clairins, the Rum Nation Pot Still Jamaican, the DDL High Wine (sadly discontinued), oomphed-up French Island unaged blancs, or, for that matter, even some of  those new whites Velier put out last year.  The raw pot still style was right there up front when one sniffed it – salty, vinegary notes, crisp cool cucumbers, rubber and acetone and nail polish and freshly varnished furniture.  Yeah, it was sharp, and quite stabbing, and there was an odd developing odour of commingled fish sauce, citrus juice, and coconut water nosing around the back end…fortunately, that was controlled and not excessive, and the whole aroma was underlain by that herbal swank and sugar water that so characterizes agricoles.  In that sense it was both similar to and different from, “regular” agricoles with which most of us are more familiar.

Palate wise, the agricole origin was much more evident.  Tons of sweet sugar water and juicy pears, white guavas, grass, lemon juice and also — somewhat to its detriment, because these did not enhance the balance or integrate properly — some wax, brine and red olives.  To the end, it remained harsh and sharp, quite raw, nowhere near as cultured as, say, the Nine Leaves Clear or even the Appleton (Wray) overproof, which was stronger.  Still, say what you will – it was unique, with an enormously long, hot finish, redolent of wax paper and olive oil, more brine, more herbals and grass, and yes, more swank.  

On balance this is a cocktail maker’s dream, I think, and would make a mix that would blow your hair off, but as a sipper it fails, which is no real surprise — much as I like agricoles, white rums and unaged rhums for their sheer machismo and balls-to-the-wall aggro, this one isn’t up in my wheelhouse. That’s because the way the flavours intermingle isn’t quite right, and the sandpaper rawness of the experience is off-putting.  However, I have to concede that I’m somewhat partial to rhums that swing wildly for the boundary, go for a six instead of a safe one, and miss with grandeur, rather than never bothering to come up to the batting crease at all. Is this Laotian rhum a success?  No, not really (or not yet) – but it’s never somnolent, never moribund…never boring.  It runs smack into the wall at full speed, and fails with authority, know what I mean? And that, to me, is something that matters.

(75/100)