Nov 302020
 

It says “rum” on the label, but for all intents and purposes we should be calling it rhum. Chamarel made it out of cane juice on the island of Mauritius, and it’s an easy-going, sweet-smelling, good-tempered cane juice rhum that got wrung out of a pot still on the island and somehow didn’t turn into some foul-smelling, cantankerous harridan in the process.  That’s probably deliberate, because had they done so, while it might have enthused the fanboys of unaged white lightning made in the backwoods, it might also cost a sale or two among the less adventurously minded.

Suffice to say, the rhum derives from cane that is grown and harvested on their estate, crushed within the day and the juice fermented for around 36 hours; then it’s run twice through Chamarel’s small (20 hL) copper pot stills and that’s about it.  Into the bottle with you, at a workmanlike 44%, white as water. It presents demurely and innocently – nothing to see here, folks, move along.

What comes out of it and into your glass is, to say the least, surprising.  You know me, I like those feral white rums north of 60% that barely contain their untamed ferocity and wild screaming tastes, and strut around thumping their chests like King Kong in a glass.  This one isn’t anything like that.  It’s warm and firm, with a sort gentle complexity rising to the nose: brine, olives, wax, swank, and watery fruit like pears and white guavas.  There’s a nice snap of sugar cane juice here, coconut water, vanilla, and a bagful of fruits that aren’t aggrieved and pissed off so much as resigned to just chilling out. 

On the tongue it gets crisper, clearer: which is good in its own way, yet creates other problems, the most notable of which is that it becomes evident that there are just a few clean tastes here, and that’s all. Light vanilla, cereals, nuts, almonds and chocolate, developing gradually into some acidic yellow fruits (unripe mangoes, pears, apricots) and a subtle line of citrus that could have been stronger.  It’s pleasant and easy to drink, and the finish is short and breezy — fruits and vanilla and some white chocolate — with nothing substantially new to add.

Overall, it’s a perfectly nice drink, yet I’m left vaguely dissatisfied, since it started so well and then just kind of dribbled away into an anonymity from which I felt the pot still and lack of ageing should have saved it. Was it perhaps too well tended and planed away to appeal to the masses?  Maybe.

So, no, this isn’t Rumzilla, or a King Kong of the blancs.  But with some effort it might get close to that big bad boy, because you can sense the potential, were it to be stronger and babied less in the cuts, allowed to have its head to go (no pun intended) a little ape. Then it could be, at the very least, the Son of Kong.  In a nice little perfume box.  I could completely live with that.

(#781)(79/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, cultivates its own sugarcane, and has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

Nov 092020
 

Rendsburger is one of the last of the great old houses from around Flensburg, that north German / Danish town which once had a near hammerlock on the rum trade in northern Europe and the Baltic. The company is actually located in (guess?) Rendsburg, 66km due south of that famed entrepôt, in which the parent company Kruger has its home; they in turn are a small, family-run whisky and spirits specialist mainly known for being a large whisky auction house and while they have done some releases in the past, they don’t really “do,” and are not known for, rums.

To me, of far more interest is the true rationale behind WIRR’s bulk rum exports in 1986, which nobody has ever explained to my satisfaction — for some reason that was the year of the Rockley Still, and just about every indie and its dog put out an expression from that year, and with that name.  Bristol has at least two I know of, Samaroli another two, SMWS did a single one with a codpiece of 64.4%  Duncan Taylor and Berry Bros & Rudd both tossed their hat in the ring, Cadenhead did a Green Label 18 YO and another 12 YO at a massive 73.4%; and even unknown outfits like Caribbean Reserve and Rendsburger got in on the act with their own pilferings of the barrels, and every time they get reviews of praise and adulation, you can just hear the purse-lipped disapproving harrumphs of bah-humbug radiating from over in St. Phillip.

There’s a reason for the Rockley distillate to have the reputation it does, and that’s because it’s one of the few all-pot-still rums to ever come out of the island (the Habitation Velier Foursquare and Last Ward rums are others), and its uniqueness is not to be sneezed at…except that it’s not quite as clear cut as that, since the actual pot still from the Rockley Estate is unlikely to have made it given its long retirement. Marius over at Single Cask, in what may be the seminal essay on the matter, strongly suggests it was a triple chamber Vulcan still (something like an interlinked series of pot stills, according to Wondrich). However, whether made by the actual still, some other pot or the Vulcan, the fact is that few who have ever had any of that 1986 expression remain unmoved by it.

So let’s try it and see what the fuss is all about. Nose first. Well, it’s powerul sharp, let me tell you (63.8% ABV!), both crisper and more precise than the Mount Gay XO Cask Strength I was using as my control. Flowers, rosemary, fennel, a little carmel, vanilla and florals really carry it through. Seems like you walked into a cool aromatic flower shop on an off day….kinda.  But weak on the ruminess, alas.  Red currants, raspberries add to the fruitiness (which I like), and there’s an intriguing mustiness and straw, sawdust vibe down at the back end.

It does stay sharp on the tongue, too. Sharp, and a little jagged, leaving one to wonder, is this what 18 continental years gets you?  The aromatic flavours remain, quite flowery and fruity: orchids, citrus peel and sharp, tart, sweet fruit. A mix of vanilla, strawberries, pineapple and very ripe purple cherries, with some brine and olives bringing up the rear.  It’s quite potent, and the fierce strength makes it very rambunctious, as it careens heedlessly around the palate from side to side with all the grace of a runaway truck…somewhat to its detriment, I’m afraid. I did, in point of fact, enjoy the  finish quite a bit, it was nice and pungent, yet also aromatic and firm, redolent of brine, muskiness, some salt fish and steamed rice into which someone chucked a few ripe guavas. 

While I enjoy the pot-column blends that others make with such skill, after a while they seem to be just two sterling variations on the concept, one aged-and-finished, the other just aged, and lack a certain element of singularity that Luca tapped into with his 2013 and 2015 HV series, or the Rockleys themselves do, no matter which year they were made.  

I’m in a minority in preferring an element of pot still brutality in my rums, something that heedless and carelessly – magnificently, even – goes for the boundary instead of always patiently stroking along with a bye here, a single there, a quick flick to the mid-on.  Even when such things fail, at least they do so with authority.  They will never surpass, in overall sales, the more carefully tended rums that appeal to larger audience – they remain a rumgeek pastime, I sometimes think – but I know that there are crazies, like me, who would not care to have the progeny of the Rockleys (or the Vulcan) become just an input into a series of blends.  They’re far too good and individualistic for that, whether they soar or fall flat, and this is one of those that prove the point very nicely

(#776)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Sharp eyed readers will be amused at the bottle picture – I sure was, and compliments to that great guy Malte Sager who traded me the sample: for the effort he put in, the rum itself and his sly sense of humour. The real bottle label is below.
  • Marcus Eler’s article draws on useful information from other sources which he references, and it’s worth reading and following the links for. He has also run several 1986 rums against each other, in a fascinating flight.
  • Rendsburger has also released a Port Mourant, a Caroni, a Jamaican and another Barbados rum titled “Black Rock”.  Not much else, though. Malte Sager is the only guy I know who has them all.

Oct 192020
 

If one rates popularity or the reach of a brand by how many joyful fanboys post pictures of their latest acquisition on social media and chirp how lucky they are to have gotten it, surely Velier’s oeuvre leads the pack, followed by Foursquare, and after them come trotting Kraken and Bumbu and maybe an agricole or two from Martinique.  Nowhere in this pantheon (I use the term loosely) is Bristol Spirits to be found – yet, in the late 1990s right up to the mid 2010s, Bristol was releasing some very good juice indeed, including the near legendary 30 year old Port Mourant 1980 and some rums from the 1970s that were just joys to sample.

In fact, so popular were they, that the company even ventured out into blends and spiced rums, like the Caribbean Collection (Trinidad), Mauritius cane juice rhum, Bristol Black and so on. They released rums from Haiti, Mauritius, Peru, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Cuba, Barbados (Rockley 1986, lovely stuff) and raised the profile of the islands’ rums just as the wave of the rum renaissance was breaking. Not for them the single barrel approach – most of the time they followed Rum Nation’s ethos of mixing several barrels into one release.

Since then, Bristol has fallen somewhat out of favour —  I think Mr. John Barratt may be retiring, if not already withdrawn from the rum scene — and it’s rare to see their bottles for sale outside of an auction, where their prices vary directly with age, from £1800 for a 1974 Demerara to as little as £45 for a 2003 Cuban. This 1985 Versailles was bottled in 1998 at a time when nobody knew a damned thing about the stills, and back then probably sank without a trace – nowadays, it’ll cost you five hundred quid, easy.

The Versailles wooden single pot still is one of the three wooden heritage stills (the Savalle is a fourth but not of wood) now housed at Diamond estate where DDL has its headquarters.  It’s distillate is usually blended with others to produce blends with distinctive profiles, yet for years many bottlers have tried to issue them on their own, with varying results – and it is my contention that it takes real skill to bring the raw untrammelled ferocity of a cask strength wooden pot still hooch to some level of elegance sufficient to create a disturbance in the Force.

Bristol, I think, came pretty close with this relatively soft 46% Demerara.  The easier strength may have been the right decision because it calmed down what would otherwise have been quite a seriously sharp and even bitter nose.  That nose opened with rubber and plasticine and a hot glue gun smoking away on the freshly sanded wooden workbench.  There were pencil shavings, a trace of oaky bitterness, caramel, toffee, vanilla and slowly a firm series of crisp fruity notes came to the fore: green apples, raisins, grapes, apples, pears, and then a surprisingly delicate herbal touch of thyme, mint, and basil. Marius of Single Cask, who wrote a good evaluation of a number of Versailles 1985 vintages, commented on a marzipan hint, but I didn’t get that at all.

The taste, though, was where I think it really came into its own. It was just lovely: lots of fruit right off – pears, apples, peaches, guavas, kiwi, both ripe and unripe, crisp and fleshy and a contrast in opposites. The herbs remained, though somewhat muted now, and a delicately clear and sharp line of citrus ran in and out of the profile, like a really good dry Riesling punctuated by tart green grapes; and a drop or two of rather unnecessary water revealed a background touch of unsweetened yogurt to balance everything off. Really nice to taste, moving sedately to a finish no less impressive, but acting more or less as a summation of the entire experience, adding just a dry burnt sugar note that was very pleasing.

Overall its a very good Versailles, one of the better ones I’ve tried. Unlike Marius I thought the strength was not a negative but a positive (he felt it was excessively diluted), because otherwise other sharper and less savoury aspects might have taken precedence and upset the fragile balance upon which my personal appreciation of the rum rested.  Nowadays we consider the “low” ABV somewhat wussy, but remember, at that time in the nineties, to release a rum at 46% was  considered recklessly daring – even ten years later, people were still telling Foursquare not to release the ECS Mark I 1998 at more than standard strength. 

ABV aside, what I did feel was the barrel didn’t have enough of an effect, overall, and it could have rested for a few more years without harm, and indeed, been even better afterwards. Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind who wrote about the rum himself in 2014 and was the source of the sample, thought that much of the youthful freshness of the original distillate was maintained and could have been aged longer without harm.  But clearly, both he and Marius really liked the thing, as did I. It’s a wonderful expression from the year, and even if there are older Versailles rums out there (like Bristol’s own 1985 22 Year Old which I’d dearly love to sample one day), to try this one from the dawn of rum’s ascent to the heights, when the wooden stills were just rising to prominence and attention, is an experience not to be foregone.

(#770)(87/100)

Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Sep 222020
 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Skotlander rum is not made in Scotland, but in Denmark, for the very good reason that the founder, Anders Skotlander, is a Dane with the name. Denmark has long been known (to me, at any rate) as home of some of the most rum-crazy people in Europe, and Anders decided to walk the walk by actually creating some of his own, in 2013. He purchased a Müller copper pot still, sourced sugar cane molasses and in 2014 released 1000 bottles of RUM I, a white, at 40%. It promptly won a gold medal at the Miami rum festival that year; and in 2015, where both RUM I and an infused RUM III were entered, the former won Best in Class White Rum, and the latter a gold for Premium White (alongside Plantation 3 and Nine Leaves Clear, which says something about the categorization of whites in those more loosely defined times). 

In the year since then, Anders Skotlander has pushed to stay not only relevant but original.  He has sourced molasses and cane juice from around South America, experimented with different barrels, has used unusual storage places (like a bunker, or a century old schooner) to chuck those barrels, and has expanded the range to include spiced and botanical rums, whites, aged rums, agricole rums and even high ester rums. He’s up to Skotlander 10 right now (a 59.5% blend) and the website provides an enormous amount of information for each. And the labels, informative as they are, are masterpieces of Scandinavian minimalism which make some Velier labels seem like over-decorated roccoco indulgences in comparison.

Rums made from scratch by some small new micro-distillery in a country other than the norm are often harbingers of future trends and can bring – alongside the founders’ enthusiasm – some interesting tastes to the table, even different spirits (<<cough>> ‘Murrica!!). But Skotlander, to their credit, didn’t mess around with ten different brandies, gins, vodkas, whiskies and what have you, and then pretended they were always into rum and we are now getting the ultimate pinnacle of their artsy voyage of discovery. Nah. These boys started with rum, bam! from eight o’clock, day one. 

Which, after this long preamble, brings us to the very interesting Skotlander RUM V Batch #1 (1400 sømil), a rum made from molasses sourced in Brazil which are fermented for thirty days (in Denmark), pot still distilled (also in Denmark), aged in four PX barrels onboard the schooner “Mira” for about a year during which it sailed 1400 nautical miles (get it?) and then 704 bottles were unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 2016 a muscular 61.6% ABV. 

At that proof point you can expect, and you get, serious intensity. The nose is really hot and spicy – clearly it spend the entire voyage happily  sharpening its fangs.  It is clean and snarly, presenting a profile nothing like a Cuban, Bajan, Mudland, or Jamaican rum.  It has fruits, yes, deep, dark orange and red-purple ones: black and red grapes, apples, unripe prunes and apricots, red grapefruits, though sorting them out is a near-impossibility. It also smells of smoke, dusty hay, a touch of vanilla and brown sugar, molasses, salted caramel – if I had to guess blind I’d say it resembles a pot-still, jacked-up St. Lucian or Saint James more than anything else.

After the near-hysterical clawing of the aromas, the palate calms down somewhat.  It remains sharp – at that strength, how could it not? – and drips with the winey, sherry-influenced flavours.  Red grapes, grapefruit again, tart apples.  There is also some caramel, candied oranges and truffles (!!), with crisp cider and citrus notes dominating…but not entirely successfully. Really, I wrote with some amused bewilderment, “…this is like a barely aged seriously overproofed agricole mixing it up with a Guyanese High Wine”.  It does have a lot going on — subsequent sips at the glass, with and without water, evidences stewed apples, fruit salad, watermelons, pineapples, strawberries, so a fair bit of esters in here. This is also evident on the close, which, while long and fragrant with candied oranges, salt caramel, smoke, vanilla and pineapples, lacks neat balance between the salt, sweeet, musky, crisp and tart elements.

I write a lot about “distinctiveness” and “uniqueness” in assessing both familiar and unfamiliar rum houses’ offerings. This has it – to an extent. You can sense an really cool and original product coming into focus, even as it takes care not to skate too far to the edges of what is known and understood. But it does kind of mash untidily together, and the complexity it could be showcasing more successfully gets lost, even muddled as it careens heedlessly from one profile to the next.  You could taste it several times and each time your interpretation would be slightly different, which in this case is both a recommendation and a cautionary heads-up. It’s a bold and interesting rum by my standards, however, and on that basis, even if I’m late to the party, I think I’ll keep my eye on the company, and go find me some more to try.

(#764)(82/100)


Other notes:

  • The Rum Renaissance gold medal awarded in 2014 was second prize (platinum is first), and was won for being “Best In Class” for white rum.  At the time white rums were not stratified between aged or unaged, filtered or not, pot or column, and there are no records how many other rums were judged in that category.  Still, for a rum not even in existence a year before, that’s not a bad showing given it was up against all other white rums, and not a subclass.
  • Skotlander V Batch #2 is slightly older, about two years, released around 2018, aged on the same schooner while it sailed for 2200 nautical miles.  The same emptied ex-sherry ex-Batch 1 barrels were reused. 
  • Here’s a chocolate-voiced promo video about Skotlander
  • Thanks to Gregers and Henrik, the Danes who twigged me on to this company and their rums.
Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Aug 032020
 

The three wooden stills now all gathered at DDL’s Diamond facility are called Heritage stills, their wooden greenheart components regularly serviced and replaced, and the questions they pose about the matter of Theseus’s ship are usually ignored. That’s not really important, though, because they may be the three most famous stills in existence, and the taste profiles of the rums they create are known by all dedicated rumistas, who enjoy nothing more than relentlessly analyzing them for the minutest variations and then bickering about it in a never-ending cheerful squabble.

My own preference has always been for the stern elegance of the Port Mourant, and the Enmore coffey still produces rums that are complex, graceful and sophisticated when done right.  But the Versailles still is something of an ugly stepchild – you’ll go far and look long to find an unqualified positive review of any rum it spits out.  I’ve always felt that it takes rare skill to bring the rough and raw VSG pot still profile to its full potential…none of the familiar indies has had more than occasional success with it, and even Velier never really bothered to produce much Versailles rum at the height of the Age.

This brings us to the Danish company 1423: it makes many mass-market rums for the broader supermarket shelves in Europe, but is perhaps better known worldwide for its boutique rum arm the Single Barrel Selection, which specializes in single cask, limited bottlings. These aim squarely at the connoisseurs’ palates and wallets, and have gained a quiet reputation (and a following) for their quality rums and geographical range.  The Diamond 2003 is a case in point – it’s 12 years old (bottled in 2015), has a finish in marsala casks, comes off the Versailles single wooden pot still and is bottled at a completely solid 62.8% with an outturn of 264 bottles. And it’s quite a hoot to drink, let me tell you

“Something is rotten in the State of Diamond,” I wrote cheerfully after a good deep sniff, “…and just enough to make it interesting.” Which was quite true – it smelled of fruits and vegetables starting to go off, and added some deep oak tannins which thankfully did not get overbearing but receded rapidly.  To this was added almonds, peaches, prunes, anise, strawberries, some light vanilla and raisins, all tied together in a neat bow by a briny note and some zesty citrus.  

The palate was also quite good, irrespective of how much (or how little) additional taste the finish provided.  It had the creaminess of salted caramel ice cream, the dark fruitiness of raisins and prunes and black cake and overall struck me as a deceptively simple, very solidly-constructed rum. The good stuff came from around the edges – you could sense some fennel and licorice and vanilla, and perhaps some nuttiness, red wine, indian spices and cloves, all dancing around that central pillar without taking center stage themselves. The finish didn’t try for anything new or exotic, but was content to sum up all that had gone before, and gave last notes of toffee, cumin, masala spice, caramel, dark fruits and brine, a nice sweet-salt amalgam, without any sharpness or bite on the exit at all.  Nice.

There has been occasional confusion among the stills in the past: e.g. the SBS Enmore 1988 which I am still convinced is a Versailles; but this is (in my opinion) neither a PM nor an Enmore and if there’s any further confusion it may derive from the marsala cask whose influence is faint, but enough to skew one’s mind away from a pure VSG kind of aroma.

And it’s good, very good indeed. Even Duncan Taylor with their 27 YO 1985 couldn’t better it, DDL’s own Rare Release wasn’t significantly better (I’ve heard the Mezan and Samaroli variations are excellent but have not tried them). But it seems to me that the VSG marque is really not meant to be a standalone except for purists and deep divers – it works much better as part of a blend, which is indeed what DDL uses it for in its aged releases, rarely issuing it on its own.  

Summing up then, with all those difficulties in trapping the best profile out of a notoriously temperamental still, it’s completely to its credit that 1423 managed to wring as much flavour and class out of a relatively young Versailles distillate aged in Europe as they did.  Perhaps their 1988 Enmore was in fact from that still also, but this one is no slouch on its own terms, has less ambiguities about its origins to boot and is an all ’round fine drink to have on the shelf.

(#749)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The length of finish in marsala casks is unknown, if SBS responds to the query I sent, I’ll update.
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample.
Jul 222020
 

By now most will be aware of my admiration for unshaven, uncouth and unbathed white rums that reek and stink up the joint and are about as unforgettable as Mike Tyson’s first fights.  They move well away from the elegant and carefully-nurtured long-aged offerings that command high prices and elicit reverent murmurs of genteel appreciation: that’s simply not on the program for these, which seek to hammer your taste buds into the ground without apology. I drink ‘em neat whenever possible, and while no great cocktail shaker myself, I know they make some mixed drinks that ludicrously tasty.

So let’s spare some time to look at this rather unique white rum released by Habitation Velier, one whose brown bottle is bolted to a near-dyslexia-inducing name only a rum geek or still-maker could possibly love. And let me tell you, unaged or not, it really is a monster truck of tastes and flavours and issued at precisely the right strength for what it attempts to do.

The opening movements of the rum immediately reveal something of its originality – it smells intensely and simultaneously salty and sweet and estery, like a fresh fruit salad doused with sugar water and vinegar at the same time. It combines mangoes, guavas, watermelons, green apples, unripe apricots and papayas in equal measure, and reminds me somewhat of the Barik white rum from Haiti I tried some time before. There’s also a briny aroma to it, of olives, bell peppers, sour apple cider, sweet soya sauce, with additional crisp and sharp (and plentiful) fruity notes being added as it opens up.  And right there in the background is a sly tinge of rottenness, something meaty going off, a kind of rumstink action that fortunately never quite overwhelms of gains the upper hand.

When tasted it presents  a rather more traditional view of an unaged white agricole rhum, being sharp, sweet, light, crisp.  Herbs take over here – mint, dill, fresh-mown grass and cane peel for the most part.  There’s a lovely sweet and fruity tang to the rhum at this point, and you can easily taste sugar water, light white fruits (guavas, apples, cashews, pears, papayas), plus a delicate hint of flowers and citrus peel, all commingling nicely.  As you drink it more it gets warmer and easier and some of that crisp clarity is lost – but I think that overall that’s to its benefit, and the 59% ABV makes it even more palatable as a neat pour and sip.  Certainly it goes down without pain or spite, and while there is less here than on other parts of the drink, you can still get closing notes of watermelon, citrus, pears, sugar water, and a last lemony touch that’s just right.

Evaluating a rum like this requires some thinking, because there are both familiar and odd elements to the entire experience.  It reminds me of clairins, but also of the Paranubes, even a mezcal or two, all mixed up with a good cachaca and a nice layer of light sweet. The smells are good, if occasionally too energetic, and tumble over each other in their haste to get out, but the the tastes are spot on and there’s never too much of any one of them and I was reminded a little of the quality of that TCRL Fiji 2009 I could never quite put my finger on – this rhum was equally unforgettable.

The rum grew on me in a most peculiar way.  At first, not entirely sure what to make of it, and not satisfied with its overall balance, I felt it shouldn’t do better than 82.  A day later, I tried it again, unable to get it out of my mind, and rated it a more positive 84 because now I could see more clearly where it was going.  But in the end, a week later and with four more tries under my belt, I had to admit how well assembled the rum truly was, and settled on my final score.  Any rum which grows in the mind like that, getting better each time, is the sure mark of one that deserves a lot more attention.  In this case it remains one of my happy discoveries of the entire Habitation Velier line, and is a great advertisement for both agricoles and the more unappreciated and overlooked white rums of no particular age.

(#746)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The name refers to the German still used to make the rhum
  • This 1st edition of this rhum had a brown bottle.  The 2nd edition uses a clear one. Both editions derive from a 2015 harvest.
  • From Bielle distillery on Marie Galante
  • It’s a little early for the Rumaniacs series but two of the members have reviewed it, here, neither as positively as I have.  My sample came from the same source as theirs.
Jul 092020
 

After having written on and off about Yoshiharu Takeuchi’s company Nine Leaves for many years, and watching his reputation and influence grow, it seems almost superfluous to go on about his background in any kind of detail. However, for those new to the company who want to know what the big deal is, it’s a one-man rum-making outfit located in Japan, and Yoshi-san remains its only employee (at least until July 2020, when he takes on an apprentice, so I am reliably informed).

Nine Leaves has been producing three kinds of pot-still rums for some time now: six month old rums aged in either French oak or ex-bourbon, and slightly more aged expressions up to two years old with which Yoshi messes around….sherry or other finishes, that kind of thing.  The decision to keep things young and not go to five, eight, ten years’ ageing, is not entirely one of preference, but because the tax laws of Japan make it advisable, and Yoshi-san has often told me he has no plans to go in the direction of double digit aged rums anytime soon…though I remain hopeful. I’ve never really kept up with all of his work – when there’s at least four rums a year coming out with just minor variations, it’s easy to lose focus – but neither have I left it behind.  His rums are too good for that. He’s a perennial stop for me in any rumfest where he and I intersect.

But now, here is the third in his series of Encrypted rums (Velier’s 70th Anniversary Edition from Nine Leaves was humorously referred to as “Encrypted 2½“) and is an interesting assembly: a blend six different Nine Leaves rums, the youngest of which is two years old. The construction is nowhere mentioned on the elegantly spare label (probably for lack of space) but it’s composed of rums aged or finished in in two different types of P/X barrels, in bourbon barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Chardonnay barrels….and one more, unmentioned, unstated. And in spite of insistent begging, occasional threats, offers of adoption, even promises to be his third employee, Yoshi-san would not budge, and secret that sixth rum remains.

Whatever the assembly, the results spoke for themselves – this thing was good.  Coming on the scene as the tide of the standard strength forty percenters was starting to ebb, Nine Leaves has consistently gone over 40% ABVm mostly ten points higher,  but this thing was 58% so the solidity of its aromas was serious.  It was amazingly rich and deep, and presented initially as briny, with olives, vegetable soup and avocados. The fruity stuff came right along behind that – plums, grapes, very ripe apples and dark cherries, and then dill, rye bread, and a fresh brie.  I also noticed some sweet stuff sweet like nougat and almonds, cinnamon, molasses, and a nice twitch of citrus for a touch of edge. To be honest, I was not a little dumbfounded, because it was outside my common experience to smell this much, stuffed into a rum so young.

The rum is coloured gold and is in its aggregate not very old, but it has an interesting depth of texture and layered taste that could surely not be bettered by rums many times its age. Initially very hot, once it dialled into its preferred coordinates, it tasted both fruity and salty at the same time, something like a Hawaiian pizza, though with restrained pineapples (which is a good thing, really). Initially there were tastes of plums and dark fruits like raisins and prunes and blackberries, mixed up with molasses and salted caramel ice cream. These gradually receded and ceded the floor to a sort of salty, minerally, tawny amalgam of a parsley-rich miso soup into which some sour cream has been dropped and delicate spices – vanilla, cinnamon, a dust of nutmeg and basil.  I particularly enjoyed the brown, musky sense of it all, which continued right into a long finish that not only had that same sweet-salt background, but managed to remind me of parched red earth long awaiting rain, and the scent of the first drops hissing and steaming off it.  

I have now tasted this rum three times, and my initially high opinion of it has been confirmed on each subsequent occasion. The “Encrypted” series just gets better every time, and the sheer complexity of what’s in there is stunning for a rum that young, making a strong case that blending can produce a product every bit as good as any pure single rum out there, and it’s not just Foursquare that can do it.  I think it handily eclipses anything else made in Japan right now, except perhaps the 21 year old “Teeda” from Helios which is both weaker and older. But the comparison  just highlights the achievement of this one, and it is my belief that even if I don’t know what the hell that sixth portion in the blend is, the final product stands as one of the best Nine Leaves has made to date, and a formidable addition to the cabinet of anyone who knows and loves really good rum.

(#743)(88/100)

Jul 012020
 

As the memories of the Velier Demeraras fades and the Caronis climb in price past the point of reason and into madness, it is good to remember the third major series of rums that Velier has initiated, which somehow does not get all the appreciation and braying ra-ra publicity so attendant on the others. This is the Habitation Velier collection, and to my mind it has real potential of eclipsing the Caronis, or even those near-legendary Guyanese rums which are so firmly anchored to Luca’s street cred.

I advertise the importance of the series in this fashion because too often they’re seen as secondary efforts released by a major house, and priced (relatively) low to match, at a level not calculated to excite “Collector’s Envy”. But they are all pot still rums, they’re from all over the world, they’re all cask strength, they’re both aged and unaged, and still, even years after their introduction, remain both available and affordable for what they are. When was the last time you heard that about a Velier rum? 

Since there is such a wide range in the series, it goes without saying that variations in quality and diverse opinions attend them all – some are simply considered better than others and I’ve heard equal volumes of green p*ss and golden praise showered on any one of them. But in this instance I must tell you right out, that the EMB released in 2019 is a really good sub-ten year old rum, just shy of spectacular and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that way.

The first impression I got from nosing this kinetic 62% ABV rum, was one of light crispness, like biting into a green apple.  It was tart, nicely sweet, but also with a slight sourness to it, and just a garden of fruits – apricots, soursop, guavas, prunes – combined with nougat, almonds and the peculiar bitterness of unsweetened double chocolate.  And vanilla, coconut shavings and basil, if you can believe it.  All this in nine years’ tropical ageing?  Wow. It’s the sort of rum I could sniff at for an hour and still be finding new things to explore and classify.

The taste is better yet. Here the light clarity gives way to something much fiercer, growlier, deeper, a completely full bodied White Fang to the nose’s tamer Buck if you will.  As it cheerfully tries to dissolve your tongue you can clearly taste molasses, salted caramel, dates, figs, ripe apples and oranges, brown sugar and honey, and a plethora of fragrant spices that make you think you were in an oriental bazaar someplace – mint, basil, and cumin for the most part.  I have to admit, water does help shake loose a few other notes of vanilla, salted caramel, and the low-level funk of overripe mangoes and pineapple and bananas, but this is a rum with a relatively low level of esters (275.5 gr/hlpa) compared to a mastodon channeling DOK and so they were content to remain in the background and not upset the fruit cart. 

As for the finish, well, in rum terms it was longer than the current Guyanese election and seemed to feel that it was required that it run through the entire tasting experience a second time, as well as adding some light touches of acetone and rubber, citrus, brine, plus everything else we had already experienced the palate.  I sighed when it was over…and poured myself another shot.

Man, this was one tasty dram.  Overall, what struck me, what was both remarkable and memorable about it, was what it did not try to be. It didn’t display the pleasant blended anonymity of too many Barbados rums I’ve tried and was not as woodsy and dark as the Demeraras. It was strong yes, but the ageing sanded off most of the rough edges. It didn’t want or try to be an ester monster, while at the same time was individual and funky enough to please those who dislike the sharp extremes of a TECA or a DOK rum – and I also enjoyed how easily the various tastes worked well together, flowed into each other, like they all agreed to a non-aggression pact or something.  

It was, in short, excellent on its own terms, and while not exactly cheap at around a hundred quid, it is – with all the strength and youth and purity – a lot of Grade A meat on the hoof. It stomped right over my palate and my expectations, as well as exceeding a lot of other more expensive rums which are half as strong and twice as old but nowhere near this good…or this much fun. 

(#741)(86/100)

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