Nov 162020
 

It’s when you sniff this understated and really quite excellent agricole from Marie Galante that you gain some sense of how well made both it and the green labelled “standard” blanc 50º are.  The Green Label — my term, not theirs — was good and I really liked it, but this one was a few degrees stronger and a few degrees better and makes a good case for both the utilization of specific cane varietals and a single source of origin.

Briefly, Rhum Island – a company founded in 2017 – issues rhums which are bottled in Saint Martin (a small island south of Anguilla shared by Holland and France, which has no sugar industry to speak of), sourced from distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie Galante (it varies depending on the bottling). Whether it comes from Bielle, Pere Labat (Poisson), Capovilla or Bellevue (in tis case), is anyone’s guess – as I noted, the guys at the booth who kept filling my glass kept that close to their vests. Perhaps it was/is the distilleries themselves who were shyly demure about their names being used by what is, at end, another indie bottler, albeit from the Caribbean itself. 

In short, however, the marketing blurb tells us that the rhum comes from “red cane”, and is meant to be pure agricultural monovarietal white rhum, initially distilled on column stills at 78% ABV and gradually reduced to 53% ABV, with no additives, no filtration and no ageing.

All that comes together in a rhum of uncommonly original aroma and taste. It opens with smells that confirm its provenance as an agricole, and it displays most of the hallmarks of a rhum from the blanc side (herbs, grassiness, crisp citrus and tart fruits)…but that out of the way, evidently feels it is perfectly within its rights to take a screeching ninety degree left turn into the woods.  Woody and even meaty notes creep out, which seem completely out of place, yet somehow work. This all combines with salt, rancio, brine, and olives to mix it up some more, but the overall effect is not unpleasant – rather it provides a symphony of undulating aromas that move in and out, no single one ever dominating for long before being elbowed out of the way by another.

The palate is crisp and clean and invites one to keep sipping and tasting to see what else can be wrung out, what else can be discovered. If you can believe it, it’s even more interesting than the nose – deeper somehow, more forceful and assertive, making the point less with a smorgasbord of flavours or sharp stabs to the glottis (though both are definitely present), than a sort of firm and complex strength. There were tastes of lemon custard, salt-pimento-flavoured chocolate, sweet herbs like fennel and rosemary, 7-up, candy floss and crushed walnuts and a nice medley of green apples, citrus peel, grapes, and yellow mangoes, around which flitted occasional minerally notes, olives, salt, sweet soya, and at no time, in spite of the strength, does it lose the peculiar delicacy that had also marked its brother. I also enjoyed the finish, which was long and aromatic, leaving behind the memory of bitter chocolate, grass, sugar cane sap, salt, and a herbal vegetable soup and with sweet cane vinegar.

In short, I thought this was a really fantastic white rhum. As I remarked above, it doesn’t say from which plantation / estate on Marie Galante it hails, but my own feeling is that it is not a blend – the tasting coordinates dial in too precisely, it’s too lacking in the smooth, carefully-mixed, please-all-comers anonymity to be a blend, and in any case, what are the chances that a single varietal’s cane is harvested at the same time, crushed to juice at the same time, on multiple estates, and then brought together to form a blend?  No, I’m suggesting this is one estate’s rhum, and I wish I knew which one it was, because it’s one damned fine white rhum, affordable and right tasty, and I really want some more. It’s a blanc rhum to treasure.

(#777)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • The label shown above was changed shortly after April 2019, and the new version looks like this:

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Jul 182019
 

“This is a distillery … which deserve some serious attention” I wrote back in 2017.  I should have taken my own advice and picked up more from there, because this rhum is really well done, and one to share generously. 

Located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. So, it’s another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the islanders themselves and the French seem to know very much.  

This might be a grievous oversight on our part, because I’ve tried quite a few of their rhums (and wrote about one of them before this), and they’re good, very good — both this one and the Brut de Fut 2007 scored high. And if Bielle was not well represented in the medal roundup of the recently concluded Martinique Rhum Awards, it might just mean their work is as yet undiscovered while other, better-known estates hog all the glory.

The profile of this 2001 tropically aged 14 year old demonstrated clearly, however, that these were no reasons to pass it by. Consider first the way smelled, dense, fragrant, and rich enough to make a grasping harpy sign the divorce papers and then faint.  Plums, peaches, mangoes, blackberries, molasses, citrus, all jammed together in joyous, near riotous abandon of sweet, acidic, tart and musky aromas. I particularly appreciated the additional, subtle notes of molasses-soaked damp brown sugar, white chocolate and danish cookies, which added a nice fillip to the whole experience.

Even someone used to standard strength would find little to criticize with the solid 53.1% ABV, which provided a good, very sippable drink.  All the fruits listed above came back for a smooth encore, and adding to the fun were gherkins in pickling sauce, brine, anchovies…you know, something meaty you could almost sink your teeth into – a little denser and this thing might have been a sandwich.  But it’s the molasses, overripe bananas, caramel and vanilla combining with all that, which binds it all together (sort of like a rumForce). I thought it was excellent, delectable stuff, skirting a fine line between rich and delicate, dark and light, thick and crisp. And the finish did not disappoint — it was dry yet luscious, exhaling vanilla, molasses, bananas, olives, nougat, cherries and a dusting of nuts

The Bielle deepens my admiration for Guadeloupe rhums, which are sometimes (but not in this case) made from molasses as well as cane juice, Guadeloupe not being subject to the AOC regime. This liking of mine does no disservice or call into question Martinique, whose many distilleries make savoury rums of their own, as crisp, clear, and clean as a rapier wielded by le Perche du Coudray.  There’s just something a little less precise about Guadeloupe rhums that I enjoy too – something softer, a little richer, more rounded. It’s nothing specific I can put my finger on, really, or express in as many words — but I think that if you were to try a few more Bielle-made rums like this one, you’d know exactly what I mean.

(#643)(87/100)

Jul 122018
 

These days, anyone finding a rum three decades old had better hold on to it, because they’re getting rarer all the time.  As prices for the 1970s and 1980s rums climb past the fourth digit, locating one can be an equally fortunate and frustrating exercise…depending on how it turns out. As to why Velier chose to issue two rums of the same distillation and aging dates, at two different strengths, well, we know he has done this before, most famously with the entire Caroni line and some of the pre-Age Demerara rums.

Of course, it’s possible that Velier in this instance worked on the principle of taking a the entire outturn and bottling some at cask strength and the remainder at a more quaffable proof appealing to a broader audience.  That’s reasonable, I guess (L’Esprit does the same) – yet although the 54% Courcelles 1972 and this 42% version share the same years, there’s a difference in that the 54% was laid to rest in steel vats for nearly two additional years, and both are referred to as the dernière distillation which suggests that a bunch of barrels were involved, each with its own peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are important because they make this softer rhum individual on its own merits and different from its brawnier frere. Take the nose for example: it’s lovely and sweet, light without actually being delicate. It presents bags of light fruit – pears, ripe apples, watermelons, cherries – that go on forever, to which are added soft red-wine notes, honey, thyme and a drizzle of hot caramel on vanilla ice cream.  In a way it reminds me a lot of the Savanna 15 Year Old Porto Finish from Reunion (haven’t written about this yet), but somewhat deeper even so, because the scents grow richer over time in spite of its relatively low proof point and their overall mildness.

Tasting a rum like this is a mixed experience – one appreciates the subtlety, but strains to pick apart the notes. That said, it’s quite good, with lovely clear and clean notes of light fruitiness – pears again, watermelon again, some grapes, raisins and ripe mangoes, set off by softer nuances that speak of nougat, white chocolate, a flirt of coffee, rosemary, caramel, vanilla, thyme and some florals. It also has a background of honey that I quite enjoy with a profile like this because it strengthens the whole in a quiet kind of way, provides a bed for the rest of the flavours to emerge onto and do their thing. About the weakest point of the whole experience may be how it ends – the finish is short and faint, a zephyr following from a stiff breeze, with just some barely discernible floral and fruity hints and a bit of orange zest and tart yoghurt, and then it’s all over.

After writing up my notes, I keep coming back to how differently it presents when rated against the 54% version – it’s like they are different branches from the tree, growing in different directions while still conforming to underlying and similar standards (many of the tasting components, for example, are quite similar). The 42% iteration, I have to somewhat reluctantly note, is less when placed next to its masterful stronger sibling.  On its own, with nothing else to compare it to, it’s quietly, subtly brilliant and will not disappoint the casual drinker. But side by side, its potential clarion call is muted and dialled down, it is deferential and says much less…and when it does, it whispers.

(#528)(86/100)


Other notes

  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles distillate was made – I’ve never been able to find one produced more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003.  Outturn is unknown
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it probably derives from molasses. The taste certainly suggests it.
  • About that strength differential – in my essay about the Age of the Demeraras, I remarked that the first three releases of Velier Demeraras were all issued at standard proofs because Luca was nervous about moving too fast with releasing >50% cask strength rums.  I suspect that he had similar feelings about the 42% version of the Courcelles, which was why it was bottled first – two years later, just when he was putting out the full proof Skeldons in 2005, he went full bore with the rest of the Courcelles stock and never looked back.
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