Nov 252019
 

So here we have a white rum distilled in 2017 in Fiji’s South Pacific Distillery (home of the Bounty brand) and boy, is it some kind of amazing. It comes as a pair with the 85% Diamond I looked at before, and like its sibling is also from a pot still, and also spent a year resting in a stainless steel vat before Tristan Prodhomme of the French indie L’Esprit bottled the twins in 2018 (this one gave 258 bottles).

Still-strength, he calls them, in an effort to distinguish the massive oomph of the two blancs from those wussy cask-strength sixty percenters coming out of babied barrels periodically hugged and stroked by a master blender.  I mean, it’s obvious that he took one look at the various aged expressions he was putting out at 70% or so, shook his head and said “Non, c’est encore trop faible.” And he picked two rums, didn’t bother to age them, stuffed them into extra-thick bottles (for safety, you understand) and released them as was. Although you could equally say the Diamond at 85% terrified him so much that he allowed a drop of water to make it into the Fijian white, which took it down a more “reasonable” 83%.

Whatever the case, the rum was as fierce as the Diamond, and even at a microscopically lower proof, it took no prisoners. It exploded right out of the glass with sharp, hot, violent aromas of tequila, rubber, salt, herbs and really good olive oil. If you blinked you could see it boiling. It swayed between sweet and salt, between soya, sugar water, squash, watermelon, papaya and the tartness of hard yellow mangoes, and to be honest, it felt like I was sniffing a bottle shaped mass of whup-ass (the sort of thing Guyanese call “regular”).

As for the taste, well, what do you expect, right? Short version – it was distilled awesomeness sporting an attitude and a six-demon bag. Sweet, light but seriously powerful, falling on the tongue with the weight of a falling anvil.  Sugar water and sweet papaya, cucumbers in apple vinegar. There was brine, of course, bags of olives and a nice line of crisp citrus peel. The thin sharpness of the initial attack gave way to an amazing solidity of taste and texture – it was almost thick, and easy to become ensorcelled with it. Pungent, fierce, deep and complex, a really fantastic white overproof, and even the finish didn’t fail: a fruity french horn tooting away, lasting near forever, combining with a lighter string section of cucumbers and peas and white guavas, all tied up with ginger, herbs and a sly medicinal note.

Longtime readers of these meandering reviews know of my love for Port Mourant distillate, and indeed, the MPM White L’Esprit put out excited my admiration to the tune of a solid 85 points.  But I gotta say, this rum is slightly, infinitesimally better. It’s a subtle kind of thing – I know, hard to wrap one’s head around that statement, with a rum this strong and unaged – and in its impeccable construction, in its combination of sweet and salt and tart in proper proportions, it becomes a colourless flavour bomb of epic proportions…and a masterclass in how an underground cult classic rum is made.

(#679)(86/100)

Sep 092019
 

Usually, I don’t worry about not acquiring all those aged, rare or otherwise amazing rums that make the social headlines, since I know that most exceed the reach of my scrawny purse, my ability to beg, or the extent my nonexistent wheedling skills.  Too, after ten years of this, I’ve been fortunate enough to try so many rums that many of my personal unicorns have been tried and written about. Therefore I know it will strike many as rather peculiar that for the last two years I’ve been hunting for two very special rums issued by Tristan Prodhomme – and this one was the one I wanted most

Why?  Because L’Esprit, in making the great white shark of the Diamond 2017, did Velier one step better, creating a rum whose stats would make just about every writer reflexively haul out the word “beast” and be correct to use it, whose profile not just encourages but demands adverbial density — and which I’m convinced will stand the test of time to become a baseline for all the makes-no-sense-but-by-God-we’re-glad-to-have-tried-it white rums that will be issued from now until the Rapture.  It’s nobody’s unicorn but my own, and I’ve been looking for it since the day it got issued.

The Diamond white was confirmed to me as being a Port Mourant unaged pot still rum; it sat there, dissolving a stainless steel tank between 2017 and 2018, until Tristan, in a fit of madness, joy, bravery or unbridled enthusiasm (maybe all these at once) engendered by the birth of his son Edgar in 2017, decided to commemorate the event by releasing 276 bottles at 85% – and I don’t know what happened, but they seemed to sink without a trace. But with the rise of white rums as taste-stuffed forces in their own right, I certainly hope others will get a chance to try something as torqued-to-the-max as this one is.

I’ll get straight to it, then, and merely mention that at 85% ABV, care was taken – I poured, covered the glass, waited, removed the cover, and prudently stepped way back.

Which was the right thing to do because a rapidly expanding blast wave of rumstink assailed me without hesitation.  An enormously pungent cloud of wax and brine and tequila notes hit me broadside, so hot and fierce that somewhere in the basement I heard the Sajous weep. It was a massively powerful, sharp and meaty nose, squirting aromas with the cheerful abandon of a construction haul truck which knows nobody is likely to argue with it for the command of the road. Brine, olives, dates and figs and some sort of faintly rank meat was what I got straight off, batted aside by the smells of licorice, light molasses, sugar water and flowers, before bags and bags of fruit took  over. Ripe yellow guavas, mangoes, papaya, avocado, overripe oranges, pears…the rum just wouldn’t stop spitting out more and more as time went on.

As for the taste, well, wow.  My tongue was battered hard and fast with the sheer range of what was on display here. Being unaged and issued as a white didn’t hurt it or diminish it in the slightest, I assure you, because the integration was so well done that it actually tasted twenty proof points lower. It was redolent of brine.  Of salt fish with Guyanese chilis (ask Gregers about those, I dare ya). Of wax, floor polish, olives. Of licorice. Of fresh scallions in a vegetable soup (I know, right?). Only when these dissipated did more regular flavours timidly come out to let me know they existed…flowers, fruits, lemon meringue pie, raisins, pears, oranges, bitter chocolate, cucumbers and watermelon.  I had this glass going for two hours and it was every bit as pungent at the end as it had been at the beginning, and the finish – epic, long-lasting, hot, spicy – was similarly strong, diminished itself not one bit, and provided closing memories of sweet soya, brine, swank, pears and other light fruits. It was almost a disappointment when the experience was finally over. And lest you think my own experience is a little over-enthusiastic, Jazz Singh from Skylark got poured a shot of this thing at 4pm, and was still tasting, mumbling and drooling rapturously about the profile five hours later when we shoehorned him into an Uber. It’s that kind of rum.

The best thing about it may well be that it reminds us of the sheer range of what rums are, how over-the-top and off-the-scale they can be, even as so many rum makers try to inhabit the inoffensive centre. There are few indies or producers out there who would dare bottle something this feral as single mindedly as Tristan has done here – only the Habitation Velier whites immediately spring to mind.  It’s an unaged white badass that boasts an impeccable pedigree from one of the most famous stills in the world, it has a proof nearly off the scale, and is not for the meek, the beginner, or the careful. One either dives in and takes the entire shot, or not at all — because the Diamond white is a stunner, a slayer, a majestically vulgar shot of pure canecutter sweat, proofed and jacked to the max, and if it’s not one of the best rums I’ve had all year, I can absolutely assure you it will always rank among the most memorable.

(#655)(85/100)


Other notes

I keep score, and the Diamond takes its place among the growliest overproofs ever issued.  I’ve tasted the following:

Aug 142019
 

Damn but this rum is strong. Standard strength among the cognoscenti has been drifting up from 40% to nearly 50% (give or take), with the low sixties selling well, and the high sixties occasionally spotted running in the wild.  But over 70% ABV, and we’re entering more rarefied territory. When people see one of these, they cross themselves like Supes when he sees green kryptonite. A sip of one, and you know what it’s like to be t-boned by a fully-armoured SUV carrying a banana-republic dictator. And all his no-neck bodyguards.

What’s all the more astounding about L’Esprit’s Guyanese Diamond 11 year old which was released at 71.4% ABV and hit the shelves about three years ago (and sank without a ripple) is how really, surprisingly, forehead-smackingly good it is. It’s the sort of rum that makes me want to rush straight over to your table, babbling and drooling, waving my hands wildly in the air and suggesting — nay, demanding — that you take a sip, just to see if I was out to lunch, or telling you the God’s honest.

Think I jest?  Well, maybe a bit.  Still…just crack the bottle and give it a smell, if you please.  Release the halitotic pachyderm. What you immediately get from this is a thick bellowing snort of licorice, wood sap, chocolate and coffee, varnish, freshly baked bread liberally coated with salt butter, vanilla and molasses, all the thick and musky notes Guyana is famous for.  It’s just huge, solid as a sledge and as hard-hitting, and that’s before the sweet marshmallows and dark fruits kick in – dates, raisins, peaches, plums, black cake. Oh yeah, and in the background there’s some glue, paint, varnish, turpentine, all lurking behind like toughs in an alleyway, knuckle dusters at the ready

As for the taste, well: that was suitably shattering, and humorous metaphors and masochism aside, the truth is that taking it neat is kind of fun. It’s thick and heavy and intense – of course it is – but by no means undrinkable, and one can spend a whole hour separating out the tasting notes: what I got was caramel ice cream, molasses, Danish butter cookies and maple syrup, followed by chocolate, coffee grounds, vanilla, licorice, freshly ground black pepper, a little brine, and with water these emerge much more forcefully.  The strength mutes the vague sweetness a bit, and the overall balance is excellent, with complex interlocking elements that I really enjoyed. When I got to the finish, I was almost sorry the experience was over: it was long and hot but not viciously sharp, exhaling chocolate, caramel, cocoa, raisins, and a vein of sweet dark sugar running through the whole experience like a blade.

Based on how it initially nosed, I started out believing this was a wooden still — by the end, I was no longer so sure. The profile actually reminded me more of the Uitvlught 1996, or even DDL’s new 2018 Skeldon and Albion Rares (and, perhaps in a stretch, the old ones). After all, although the rum is labelled “Diamond”, all the stills are located at the estate of the same name these days, so it could mean anything.  In the end Tristan did confirm that the rum was pure Diamond-column-still hooch, and given the flexibility of what can come off that thing, I can only assume that they dialled in the settings to “Uitvlught”, set it to “11” and pulled the trigger.  

DDL ceased exports of bulk rum from the wooden stills a year or two back, and the word has seeped out to the Rumiverse that we’d better get existing wooden still indie rums from Guyana quick time, because one day they’ll run out.  Yet if rums of such quality as L’Esprit has found here can come off the other still, and continue to be exported for independents to bottle and rum lovers to enjoy, then I think we need have no fear that one day we’ll be without pure, cask strength, unique rums from Guyana.  L’Esprit has almost never disappointed me with their selections, and this rum, if you can still find it with its limited outturn of 166 bottles, and take a risk with its power, is really damned good and worth seeking out, even if you do flatten a city block or two after you try it.

(#651)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Distilled 31 May 2005, bottled May 2016. Confirmed as being column still. Red brown colour.
  • Ageing in Europe, not tropical
  • I think that L’Esprit’s sample bottles are really quite superlative, but that’s just me
Oct 092018
 

L’Esprit, if you recall, is that little independent bottler in Brittany which is run by Tristan Prodhomme, and has the peculiar distinction of usually issuing the same rums in two iterations – a diluted, more numerous version at a lower proof for the general market, and another more limited one at cask strength (from the same barrel(s) for those who prefer a rum with some fangs.  They don’t range too far afield and stick with the regular rums of the pantheon – from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Panama and so on, with an occasional divergence to Nicaragua and Belize and Haiti.

In the sense that L’Esprit is an independent bottler, they conform to most of the markers of the European indie scene – they regularly buy a few barrels from Scheer, issue a limited bottle set, and have an annual outturn.  They’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just to sell good quality hooch. What (to me) distinguishes them is the quality of what they push out the door, and even with the young rums, like this 8 Year Old Jamaican from Worthy Park, the quality of what they selected is self evident.

Speaking of Worthy Park: it is located in the parish of St. Catherine, and, like other Jamaican estates, is having something of a renaissance as the wave of tropically-aged, estate-made rums gathers steam – leaving aside Habitation Velier’s rums, they themselves have made quite a few interesting ones of their own (I have detailed files…).  Much like Hampden, they pride themselves on cool ester counts and their Forsythe’s double retort pot still delivers in spades when it comes to good rums. Like other Caribbean rum companies, they sell bulk rum abroad (mostly to Scheer), which is something of a double edged sword – other companies capitalize on the WP name and take the value-added revenue for themselves, but on the flip side, it allows WP to have a revenue stream, and introduces a far wider public to the qualities of their rums in a world where distribution arrangements can be a pain for a local company to negotiate.

So, given how many Jamaicans are on the scene these days, how does this young, continentally aged 55.9% golden rum fare?  Not too shabbily. It’s strong but very approachable, even on the nose, which doesn’t waste any time getting started but announces its ester-rich aromas immediately and with authority: acetone, nail polish and some rubber plus a smell of righteous funk (spoiling fruits, rotten bananas, that kind of thing).  Its relative youth is apparent in the uncouth sharpness of the initial aromas, but once one sticks with it, it settles into its own special groove, calms itself down and does a neat little balancing act between sharper scents of citrus, cider, apples, hard yellow mangoes and green grapes, and softer ones of bananas, cumin, vanilla, marshmallows and cloves.

The palate was rich as well, no surprises, though again, it started out quite sharp, almost jagged, spicy and hot.  The rum developed from sharp to soft much as the nose did, with many of the same flavours – brine, furniture polish, herbs, brine and olives to start with, green grapes, apple cider, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened dark chocolate, which gradually relaxed into a fruity cornucopia of overripe bananas and mangoes and apricots and guavas and pineapples, all bound up with vanilla, sugar water, a little caramel (very light), crackers, fanta and sprite.  As for the finish, that was very good, very long, very fruity, very soft…the slow meandering of a river that started out as a torrent of raging white water but was now serenely pushing out to sea without haste.

Overall, I was quite surprised at how much there was going on here.  For a rum this youthful and aged in Europe to boot, I expected more savagery and less control, fewer softened edges and more from the sharper side of the barrel.  Yet the oak remained in the background the whole while, the fruitiness and funk danced across the senses, and while the complexity and balance were both very well handled, it’s the development of the rum over two hours that held my attention.  It started off like a boss and then just…well, it just chilled and showed you a good time. In that it exceeded the Mezan WP 2005 which was older, while falling short of the exceptional Compagnie des Indes Jamaica WP 2007, which was younger.

Of the Jamaican rums now gaining greater appreciation, I must confess to my own liking for Hampdens – they’ve consistently scored higher (when taken in aggregate) than Appleton or Monymusk or Worthy Park, of which I have not had that many.  That this single rum could make me both discover and re-evaluate that unconscious preference, and encourage me to buy more from the estate – whether independently made or from WP itself, tropically aged or continental – is to the credit of both Tristan who released it, and Worthy Park who made it. It’s a quietly amazing rum that’s really a blast to try.

(#557)(86/100)


Other notes

  • A really good intro to Worthy Park comes from the pen of Steve James, here, as well as the Cocktail Wonk, here.
  • Most of the Worthy Park rums that have garnered attention of late have been the Habitation Velier expressions there are also Worthy Park’s own rums which were issued in 2017 to really positive feedback.  Transcontinental Rum Line, Mezan, Rum Nation, Bacardi (Single Cane brand), and some other smaller indies from around Europe have bottled rums from there as well.
  • L’Esprit’s presentation cases of small square 100ml bottles can’t be beat.  I’ve seldom seen any minis so sleekly attractive.

 

 

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)

Feb 092017
 

Wow…

#341

The surprisingly heavy and dark Bellevue rhum made by L’Esprit purred salt and sweet caramel ice cream into my nose as I smelled it, revealing itself in so incremental a fashion, with such an odd (if excellent) profile that it almost had to be experienced to be properly appreciated, and it left me wondering whether this was a molasses rum, not one from cane juice.  It was bottled at the perfect strength for what it displayed, melding power and smoothness and warmth in a nose of uncommon quality.  Yet there was lightness and joyousness here too, a sort of playful melange of all the things we like in a rhum, skimping not at all on the secondary notes of prunes, plums, peaches, and pineapples.  It was plump, oily and aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated quite forcefully that the Epris Brazilian rum that had been my first introduction to the company had not been a one-off, one hit wonder.

Even to taste it, the experience did not falter or withdraw from its exuberance. The Bellevue seemed to operate on two levels of quality simultaneously – first there were the faint oily, rubbery notes, leavened with nougat, pink grapefruit and light citrus.  And behind that, almost at the same time, there was the real deal: honey, vanillas, olives and briny notes in perfect balance, chopped light fruits and flowers, plus a thin thread of licorice coiling through the whole thing.  There was just so much going on here that it rewarded a rather languorous approach to the tasting – usually I do all my tastings at the table with all the comparators within easy reach, but here, after ten minutes, I simply said “to hell with it” and went out onto the balcony, sat down to watch the sun go down, and idly observed the passers by below who didn’t share my good fortune at having a lovely rum like this one growling softly in my glass.  Even the finish kept on developing (not always the case with rhums or rums) – it was crisp and smooth and hot, long lasting, a real delight – it seemed to be a little more oaky than before, here, but the lasting memories it left behind were of a lot of hot, strong black tea, and burnt sugar resting easily on a bed of softer vanilla, tobacco and citrus notes.  It was, and remains, a solid, smooth, tasty, drinking experience, not quite as good as the Damoiseau 1989 20 year old…but close, damned close.

If you’re one of the fortunate owners of this nectar, let me run down the bare bones so that you know what you’re drinking: column still product, cask strength 58%, matured in a bourbon barrel for slightly more than twelve years.  This is not from the Habitation Bellevue distillery on Marie Galante, but from the Bellevue estate which is part of Damoiseau on Guadeloupe (the main island), founded in 1914 and bought by Louis Damoiseau in 1942 – commercial bottling began around 1953.  Like just about all commercial spirits operations in the West Indies, they ship bulk rum to Europe, which is, as far as I know, where this one was bought, so ageing was not tropical, but European.  Which, fortunately for us, didn’t diminish its achievement in the slightest.

My association with L’Esprit, that little French company from Brittany I wrote about earlier this week, came as a consequence of that Brazilian rum referred to above — that thing really impressed me.  And so I kept a weather eye out, and bought the first bottle made by L’Esprit that I saw, which just so happened to be this one…I have a few others from the company to go through so it won’t be the last either.  While thus far L’Esprit hasn’t made a whole lot of rums – twenty five or so the last time I looked – the worth of their wares is consistently high.  This one is no exception, an enormously satisfying rhum with exclamation points of quality from start to finish.

The minimal outturn should come in for mention: I’m used to seeing a “set” of a few hundred bottles from the various indies, a few thousand from Rum Nation, so there’s a fair chance some reader of this little blog will pick one up…but to see one of merely sixty bottles from a single cask, well, I may just be spitting into the wind (it was beaten, for the trivia nuts among you, by the Old Man Spirits Uitvlugt, a measly twenty eight bottles, and by the reigning world champion, the Caputo 1973 which had just one). The reason why the outturn is so relatively small, is because L’Esprit is bowing to the market – they know it’s mostly connoisseurs who love cask strength rums, but they’re few and far between, and it’s the general public who drive sales and buy the 46% versions.  What Tristan does, therefore, is issue a small batch of cask strength rums from the barrel (60-100 bottles) and the remainder gets tamped down to 46% and issued in 200-300 bottles.

After going head to head with as many agricole rhums as I can lay paws on for the last few years, there’s nothing but good I can say about the tribe as a whole.  I enjoy the fierce purity of the AOC Martinique rhums, their almost austere clarity and grassy cleanliness – yet somehow I find myself gravitating towards Guadeloupe a bit more often, perhaps because they have a slightly more experimental, almost playful way of producing their hooch (they never bothered with the AOC certification themselves, which may be part of it).  This gives the rhums from the island(s) a certain unstudied richness and depth that seems to have created a bridge between traditional molasses rums and agricoles (my personal opinion).  If you can accept that, then this Bellevue rhum demonstrates – in its fruity, oily, creamy, complex, balanced and warm way –  the potential and quality of the best of both those worlds.

87/100

Other notes:

  • Outturn 60 bottles
  • Distilled March 1998, bottled November 2010

_________________________________

A last pic: Yeah, it’s out of focus and photobombed by The Little Caner…but we could all use some cheer and smiles once in a while, and I liked this one a lot anyway.

Feb 082017
 

***

L’Esprit is a small French brand founded by Tristan Prodhomme of mixed Welsh, Scottish and Breton ancestry.  His biography is about as interesting as any I’ve come across.  Strictly speaking, he and his small operation are not into rhums, but whiskies (which miffs me, because I think their relative importance should be reversed, but I can’t have everything, so…).  Somewhat like Don Jose Navarro of Havana Club who gained a degree in thermodynamics and then turned to distilled spirits, Tristan majored in Philosophy before evincing a strong interest in the obscure Scottish tipple, although to that point he had been no more than a dabbler in the field – in other words, he drank it.  In 2003, needing to finance a holiday in Scotland, he ended up working at The Whisky Shop in Edinburgh, and much to his own surprise, did not return to France (Brittany) for four years.  In that time he gained a wealth of experience about the different kinds of whiskies, tasting and selecting and buying them, and something about the fundamentals of the business as a whole.

Photo (c) Whiskyandco.net

By 2007 he was straining at the leash and wanted to return home.  Moreover, he wanted to expand the selection of whiskies available to the French consumers, and he simply could not fathom why, with such a large scotch-swilling population, there were so few stores dedicated to their sale.  He was confident enough by then to feel he could start up his own shop, and set about doing so.  Somewhat like Nine Leaves but without the still, Tristan opened up Whisky&Rhum with his partner, and became the owner, purchasing agent, sales manager, accountant, secretary, designer, webmaster, deliveryman, carpenter, independent bottler, all in one (or two, depending on how you look at it).  Calling himself a specialist, not a generalist, he kept his shelves stocked with what he himself had selected, rather then going on buying sprees and shelling out for everything in sight, a practice of which he disapproves.  This way, one infers, he gets to be able to recommend everything he sells, and knows it by its first name, which may keep sales smaller than an “everything is here” establishment, but permits him to stand behind each and every product he stocks.

Some years later, Tristan remembered his own personal reference rum, the Rum Nation Guatemala 23 year old (for which I have myself been searching for years – it’s one of their earlier bottlings), and in thinking about it, wondered why rum was not as commercialized, or even as well known, as the whiskies were.  Rum had, at this time, just started to take its first real baby steps into its own renaissance, helped by many new bloggers who had become active around this point and were raising the profile of the spirit around the world.  Single-cask full-proof rums “back then” were making small splashes but few ripples, helped along by indies such as Renegade, Silver Seal, Moon Imports, Rum Nation, Fassbind, Samaroli and a few others (in spite of its age, Velier had not yet penetrated the mainstream and changed the game…that came later). But, like others before and after him, Tristan thought that rather than mass produced 40% bottlings everyone drank, he could do better, bootstrapping his experience with The Whisky Shop which also produced their own such variations, the quality of which was always above-par.

Tristan Prodhomme at Paris 2014 RumFest; Photo (c) Whisky-rhum.com – taken from FB page

With this in mind, in 2010 he launched the marque of L’Esprit (“the spirit”, or, “the mind”, which kind of makes sense, right?) with two whiskies and a single rum.  In the following years, for his rums and rhums, he bought one barrel at a time – from brokers, not distilleries, so primarily aged in Europe – and spent time ensuring that what he put on the shelf was something he personally enjoyed.  Because his establishment was still small, he didn’t go the Rum Nation route and never issued hundreds of cases of the rarefied juice at a time, spread out over the entire world.  His expectation and strategy was more modest, and stayed at single casks, at most a couple hundred bottles, and to this day you’ll have to do some legwork to find one outside of Europe in general, and France in particular.  Of course, it’s still whisky that dominates his interest, but in quiet corners of the rumiverse where the grog-blog boys hang out, there are growing whispers that the man makes a decent rhum and it might be worth getting them while they last.

While eschewing filtration and additions of any kind, Tristan doesn’t really go in for the full cask strength experience, preferring to tame the beasts with water – this is why most of his sample kits have a sample bottle with water included.  He believes that dilution is perfectly fine, since “It works!” – it brings out subtler flavours in the spirits, permits perfumes, smokiness, the quieter notes, to shine and become more evident; high-power intensity often masks these.  As a consequence, he prefers a range of 45-50% in his bottlings, though in recent years, bowing to the wishes of the market, he has produced rums that are stronger, always in lots of a hundred, from the same barrels as the lower proofed ones; he noted in an interview that while this is what other shops wanted from him, his own experience was that 46% rums sold much better and were also better value for money in his own estimation, so he produces both.  A proponent of terroire, he doesn’t blindly follow that as a lodestar, and selects the casks he buys primarily because of his notion of their quality, and his own judgement.

That judgement seems to be quite solid: he’s issued rums from Brazil, Belize, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, Guyana and Jamaica (all the old stalwarts, I like to joke), and it’s likely that as his reputation and brand becomes better known, he’ll expand and go to other countries, issue different variations. Already he has an arrangement to have La Maison de l’Hédonisme distribute his bottlings (including the other drink), and it’s probably just a matter of time before we see more.  There are two shops now, one in Rennes an another in Vannes. DuRhum, ever ahead of the curve, did a feature on the company in 2013, the Rumporter magazine featured his rums twice, Serge of WhiskyFun has consistently rated the rums well (the Caroni got a 91), he was at the 2014 Paris Rumfest showing off his stuff, and there’s no doubt more is coming.

Independent bottlers are not as rare as four years ago when Cyril first wrote about this tiny company and many are much better known.  Most dip from the same well in assembling their single-cask, fullproof rums and rhums – what to some extent marks Tristan out from the others is the slow, patient way he has of improving those casks he buys, incrementally expanding the range and the quality each time.  If the mark of any independent bottler is how much we want to source the earlier rums they made at the beginning of their careers (like Rum Nation’s 1974 Demerara, or Velier’s Skeldon 1973), then I believe that we should pay some attention to L’Esprit as well.  This is a company that, small or not, has potential to grow into something bigger in the years to come, a journey in which I at least, wish the man a lot of luck.

References (most are in French):

The list of rums issued as of January 2017 is below.  I’m fairly certain this is most of them.

  • Haiti – Barbancourt 2004-2016 11 YO 46% Cask BB86
  • Haiti – Barbancourt 2004-2016 11 YO 66.2% Cask BB86
  • Guyana – Diamond 2003-2011 7 YO 46% Cask 58
  • Guyana – Diamond 2005-2016 11 YO 71.4% Cask BB114
  • Guyana – Port Mourant 2005-2016 11 YO 46% Cask BB108
  • Guyana – Port Mourant 2005-2016 11 YO 60.1% Cask BB108
  • Jamaica – Worthy Park 2007-2016 9 YO 55.9% Cask BB10
  • Jamaica – Worthy Park 2007-2016 10 YO 56.9% Cask BB9
  • Jamaica – Monymusk 2007-2016 10 YO 67% Cask BB11
  • Trinidad – Caroni 1996-2016 19 YO 64.3% Cask BB4
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2010 12 YO 46% Cask 3
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2013 15 YO 46% Cask BB44
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2010 12 YO 58% Cask 3
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2013 15 YO 57.5% Cask BB44
  • Barbados – Black Rock 2000-2012 12 YO 46% Cask 2
  • Barbados – Black Rock 2000-2012 12 YO 57.5% Cask 2
  • Barbados – FourSquare 2002-2016 14 YO 56.4%
  • Trinidad – Caroni 1996-2016 19 YO 64.3% Cask BB4
  • Nicaragua – Chichigalpa 2002-2013 11 YO 46% Cask BB5
  • Nicaragua – Chichigalpa 2002-2013 11 YO 63.1% Cask BB5
  • Panama – Don Jose 2000-2012 12 YO 46% Cask 2
  • Panama – Don Jose 2000-2012 12 YO 57.8% Cask 2
  • Brazil – Epris 1999-2012 12 YO 47.7% Cask 52
  • Belize – Travellers 2005-2013 7 YO 46% Cask BB11
  • Belize – Travellers 2005-2013 7 YO 66.1% Cask BB11
Sep 272015
 

Epris 1

If originality and straying off the beaten path of the rumworld is your thing, wander no further.  The thing is just a few stops short of being stunning.

(#234. 85/100)

***

This is one of the rare occasions where I tasted a rum blind, knowing absolutely nothing at all about it before I started…really, absolutely zilch. Not the country, not the company, not the distillate. I blame this on the pad I crash at in Berlin which has no wi-fi, no internet, no elevator, and what passes for hi-tech is an East-German era rotary dial phone.  So the situation when I tasted this rum was kinda interesting, and allowed me to dispense with any preconceived notions and just tell you what it was like to drink. Short version?  It isn’t half bad, and just a step removed from stunning.

Before all that, let’s speak briefly about the company. L’Esprit is a French bottler and distributor based in Rennes, in the Brittany province of France.  They do all the usual importation and distribution of old favourites from old countries (or islands) which we know better, but have also branched out into independent bottlings from all over the map – Barbados, Guyana, Panama, Guadeloupe, Nicaragua and so on, all uncoloured, unmessed-with, unadded-to.  

This is a column still cane juice product. Bottled at 47.7%, the rum (I’ll call it that, even though, y’know, it confuses me, and it may actually be a rhum….or not) was light yellow, one of 198 from the single cask, and matured between 1999 and 2012 in an ex-bourbon barrel: it’s a hair over thirteen years old. It’s not, strictly speaking, an original – Bruichladdich (Renegade) and Cadenhead have both issued rums from Epris before.  Epris, for what it’s worth, is a distillery located just outside São Paolo in Brazil, and they apparently also distill for Bacardi (as usual, their website is massively uninformative on their product lines).

Epris 2

Brazil may be something of an afterthought for L’Esprit (or not).  Doesn’t matter. It’s great. There’s very little that’s wrong with the spirit, and much that they got absolutely right.  Consider first the aroma: Vegetal, sweet and easy to sniff, quite warm.  Initial notes of cardboard, creamy nougat touched with some lemon zest.  There was a musty kind of background here, like dried hay in a sunlit field, but also the clean, crisp sweetness of a good Riesling. After a while additional notes of peaches, soft ripe mangos, green grapes and then the slight tartness of soursop, ginnips and green apples came to the fore.  Really cool stuff, honestly.

That slight lip-puckering tartness didn’t go away on the taste either, which I think was a good thing.  It was oily and pleasant, a little fuller than the light yellow colour might have implied, and was both a little sweet and a little briny at the same time.  The vegetal hay-like notes (complete with dusty dry hints) stayed along for the ride, with citrus emerging gradually from the background.  Somehow the rum managed to balance both the creamier tastes of brie and toblerone with sharper citrus and soursop into a melange I quite enjoyed. With water these tastes came into fuller focus, but I can’t pretend anything new or more original came out, except perhaps some smokiness and well-oiled leather.  

The finish was also quite excellent – somehow L’Esprit managed to dampen down the sharper and more acidic citrus notes, and allow the deeper, fruitier closing aromas (plus a last surprising licorice hint) to take their turn on the stage in a fade of medium length which closed things off just right. All in all, it was just sweet enough, just strong enough, just fruity enough, just salty enough; and displayed a quality to both delight and impress.

Clearing away the dishes, then, the rum had real character and originality, and I enjoyed it a lot – it was one of those samples that has sent me running around looking for more. I think that agricole aficionados would greatly enjoy it, and even traditional molasses rum lovers would have little to complain about here – L’Esprit have found an intersection of heavy and light, warm and sharp, fruity and tart aspects here, that left me admiring as hell, wondering if I shouldn’t get more into Brazilian products.  In reviewing the Ron Veroes Anejo, I said of it that it should have had more edge, more oomph, more complexity, more daring.  Here’s an example of the rum about which I was thinking.

Other notes

Sometimes a review is about more than just tasting notes, but illustrates a larger point about the rum universe.  

Since tasting the L’Esprit Epris, I’ve been left with questions that remain unresolved. It was made in Brazil, but aged in France, so is it a cachaca?  An agricole? An aged red-haired love-child of both? Does ageing it that long make it less than either, or more? When you think about it, what it does, more – and perhaps better – than any rum I’ve tried in the last year, is tell us that we have to take a look at how we classify rum.  It’s the exceptions that inform how good our rules are, and this one falls into no clear point in the current system. Perhaps it’s time to seriously examine the system.

Compliments to Cyril of DuRhum, who provided the sample gratis, as well as the photographs from which the crops above were taken