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