Jul 222019
 

South Africa has been making wine for centuries, backyard bathtub liquors are a local staple, and rums and rotgut of some kind (and quality) have always been made. Still, we may want to pay more attention to those rums going forward because in the last decade there have been quite a few small local companies starting up operations there, making small batch rums with little-stills-that-could and quietly garnering kudos for themselves for some interesting products, none of which I’ve tried (which is my loss). Companies like Copeland, Inverroche, Tapanga, Whistler, 25° South, DeVry, Distillery 031, Brickmakers, and the list goes on.

Another one of these is Mhoba, which Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog brilliantly detailed a couple of months ago. Mhoba has been experimenting and playing around with making rums as far back as 2012, when the founder Robert Greaves thought of making a South African version of cachaca…but he changed his mind after a seminal 2013 encounter in a hotel bar in Mauritius introduced him to all the variety global rums possessed. This led to two years of trial and error, attempting to improve the quality of his spirit on a self-constructed pot still (he has a mechanical engineering background, which undoubtedly helped – in that way he’s a lot like Mike Moscoso of Barik in Haiti), as well as applying for a Liquor License, which all finally came together in 2015.  Samples went out the door in 2016 to the Miami Rum Festival which resulted in feedback and more tweaking, and 2017 at the UK provided an opportunity for a more serious intro of the company’s work to the public. It was successful enough that by 2019 it was being distributed in Europe and gained a lot of interest and word of mouth by being probably the only cane-juice derived rum in South Africa.

I’ll leave you to peruse Steve’s enormously informative company profile for production details (it’s really worth reading just to see what it takes to start something like a craft distillery), and just mention that the rum is pot still distilled from juice which is initially fermented naturally before boosting it with a strain of commercial yeast.  The company makes three different kinds of white rums – pot still white, high ester white and a blended white, all unaged. I tried what is probably the tamest of the three, the Select, which the last one, blended from several cuts taken from batches processed between October to December of 2018 and bottled at 58%.  All of this is clearly marked on the onsite-produced label (self-engraved, self-printed, manually-applied), which is one of the most informative on the market: it details batch number, date, strength, variety of cane, still, number of bottles in the run…it’s really impressive work. 

Ah, but how does it taste, you ask. What does it smell like? Well, it’s not a sharp as 58% might lead you to believe, but man, that pot still action is very nice indeed. The briny notes of a humid day at the seaside, combined with olives, acetones and sour fruit, showing that the still was alive and well, and that the esters retained their influence.  There was something nice and tart about it too, like macerated gooseberries mixed up with some soursop and then dropped into a can of paint or furniture polish, and the odd thing is, it gets sweeter and saltier the longer it sits in the glass, which is quite a trick for any rum to pull off. It relaxes after some time, and adds some lemon zest, cucumbers and pimentos to the mix, after which there isn’t much more to be found – but what there was was plenty, let me assure you. The blending doesn’t entirely take the edge off the rum, which retains a sort of youthful raw intensity to the aromas.

It tastes somewhat sharper than it nosed, which is fine, something to be expected.  Again, salt, brine, olives to begin with, plus the sour fruit, acetones, nail polish.  I enjoyed the background hints of lemon zest and cinnamon and the overall crispness of the profile, which was not an amalgam of melded tastes, but a procession of crisp, high-steppin’ flavour notes that were sharp and distinct as a bayonet. What is of interest is the overall herbal, grassy aspect to it which wasn’t quite as evident on the nose: in other words it tasted something like an agricole.  Too, there was some earth, musky spices in there lending a nice balance to the experience: tumeric, I’d say, and some masala. The finish was short and dry, but nicely balanced, sweet, salty and crisp, and summed up most of the action here: salty notes, some sweet, some spices, some earth. 

Overall, my general opinion is that it resembled Neisson’s agricoles more than most, or maybe a civilized clairin (if the comparison needs to be made at all, and it doesn’t, really). It wasn’t exactly a furiously complex hurricane of a jillion different things all wanting to get your attention at once: what it did do was focus on what it had, and crisply emphasized the notes it did play, without straying too far from its strengths. I didn’t get a chance to try the pot still or the high ester whites as comparators to this white rum, but I have to admit, the sheer rough quality of this one makes me wish I had. This juice is quietly badass, and I want me some more.

(#644)(82/100)

Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”

Jun 202019
 

The “M&G” in the rhum’s title is not, as you might expect, the initials of the two founders of this small operation in Cabo Verde. In a lyrical twist, the letters actually stand for Musica e Grogue: Music and Grog.  Which is original, if nothing else, because artistic touches are not all that common in our world, and such touches are often dismissed as mere frippery meant to distract from a substandard product.

In this case, however Jean-Pierre Engelbach, who founded the company with local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-lover Simão Évora, has an interesting background in the dramatic and musical arts, and was a singer, comedian and director on the French scene for decades…one can only wonder what drove him to amend his career at this late stage by taking a sharp U turn and heading into the undiscovered country of grogues, but for my money, we should not quibble, but be grateful that another fascinating branch of the Great Rum Tree has come to our attention. For what it’s worth, he told me he fell in love with Cabo Verde music a long time ago, leading to visits and a growing appreciation and love for the local rhums and eventually the two men chose to entwine their passions in the name of the company.

Anyway, this particular product is an unaged white, a grogue by the islands’ definitions (the only one that counts), derived from sugar cane in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde..

Fire-fed pot still in Tarrafal. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB page

This one small village has five small artisanal distilleries (!!) that produce grogue in small quantities — about 20,000 liters annually — and M&G’s founders believe that the cane varietals there, combined with the climate and soil, produce a juice of exceptional quality. However, they only use a single preferred grogue-distiller for their juice, unlike Vulcão, also from here, which is a blend of three.

The production methods are straightforward: the cane, grown pesticide- and fertilizer-free, is crushed within 48 hours of harvesting, and fermentation is open air with natural from wild yeast for 10-15 days.  The wash is then run through a fire-heated pot still, taken off at around 45% and is left to rest for a few weeks in 20 liter demi-johns known as a “Lady Jeanne” (also referred to as a Mama Juana or Dame Jeanne in Spanish and French speaking countries respectively).  The peculiarity of this rest is that the large squat bottle in question is also stoppered with banana leaves, which “[…] allows the air to pass during the rest period of the grogue, necessary after the distillation,” said Jean-Pierre Engelbach, when I asked him.

Banana-leaf-stoppered demi-johns in which the grogue rests after distillation for 3-4 weeks. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB Page

That out of the way, what we had here, then, was a rhum made to many of the same general specifications as a French island agricole, while preserving its own unique production methodology and, hopefully, drinking profile.  Did it succeed?

Oh yes.  On smelling it for the first time, my initial notes read “subtly different” and within its strictures, it was. It initially seemed like a crisp-yet-gentle agricole, smelling cleanly of sweet sugar cane sap, vanilla, dill, green grapes and freshly mown grass, with a teasing note of brine and olives and a whiff of watered down vegetable soup fed to a jailbird in solitary.  It was delicate and clear and different enough to hold the attention of anyone, nasal newbie or jaded rumdork, and the nice thing is, after five minutes it still was purring out aromas: flowers, cherries and pears, with a firm citrus line holding things together

While stronger and more individualistic drinks might be my personal preference these days, there was no denying that the Grogue Natural was a very pleasant drink, and I have a feeling I’ll be getting more of these things, as they provide a lovely counterpoint to agricoles in general.  It tasted light, grassy, herbal, sweetish (without actually being sweet, if you catch my drift), with hints of watery sap, cane juice, cucumbers, an olive or two, and lots of light fruits – guavas, pears, soursop, ginnip, that kind of thing, and again, that lemon zest providing a clothesline on which to hang the lot.  Finish was long and silky, surprising for something bottled at a modest 44%, but you don’t hear me complaining – it was just fine.

It’s become a sort of personal hobby for me to try unaged white rums of late, because while I love the uber-aged stuff, they do take flavours from the barrel and lose something of their original character, becoming delicious but changed spirits.  On the other hand, unaged blancs or blancos — white rums — when not filtered to nothingness for the clueless, are about as close to pure and authentic rums as anyone’s going to get these days, and Cabo Verde’s stuff is among the most authentic of the lot.

The Cap-Vert Grogue Natural that  M. Jean-Pierre and Sr. Simão are making is one of these that need to be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its overall drinkability. Sure it lacks the meticulous clarity of the French agricoles, and you’d never mistake it for a cachaca or a clairin or a Paranubes, but the relative isolation and old-style production methods of these music-loving Cabo Verde producers have assured us of a really interesting juice here, which deserves to become much more well known than it yet is.  And drunk, of course. Yes. Preferably after a hard day’s work, as the sun goes down, while relaxing to the sounds of some really good island music.

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

The company was formed in 2017 by the two gentlemen named above, who were drawn together by their mutual love of music and local rhum.  But it was not until 2018 that they received the formal licenses permitting them to export grogues and started shipping some to Europe. This delay may have to do with the fact that hundreds of small moonshineries and primitive stills – nearly four hundred  by one estimate – are scattered across Cabo Verde islands, with wildly varying quality of output. Indeed, according to one news report by the Expresso das Ilhas (Island Express), some 10 million liters of spirit calling it self “grogue” was marketed in 2017, but less than half of that could legitimately term itself so, since it was not made from sugar cane, and there were issues of hygiene and quality control to consider.

Be that as it may, M&G were able to navigate the new bureaucratic, quality and legal hurdles, obtain the requisite licenses and permits, and produced two grogues for the export market: the lightly-aged Velha we’ll be looking at soon, and the Natural.


Other Notes

  • M&G and Vulcão are among the frist brands to export grogue from Cabo Verde
  • M&G also makes some flavoured punches at a lower 18% strength
  • Maison Ferroni, which is the brand owner for the Vulcão, is the distributor for M&G
  • This bottle is part of the first release, and is something of a pilot project for the company’s export plans….hence the limited edition of 639 bottles.  It’s not special per se, just part of a batch of the first four hundred liters or so which they exported.
  • Back label translation:

This white rum comes from the Tarrafal terroir of Monte Trigo on the island of Santa Antao (Cape Verde). Our local producers, with their trapiches, continue the artisanal tradition of making grogue. It is distilled from fresh cane juice, cultivated on volcanic soil in the middle of fruit trees, without any fertilizer or pesticide. It benefits from a dry tropical climate and the exceptional irrigation of the village. Made in 2018 with the harvest of the year, it is a fair trade product.

In this natural grogue, with its amazing flavor, we can discover the many flavors of cane fruits and spices.

A first release limited to 639 bottles

May 022019
 

Like those tiny Caribbean islands you might occasionally fly over, the Maria Loca cocktail bar in Paris is so miniscule that if you were to sneeze and blink you’d go straight past it. When Mrs. Caner and I go inside, it’s dark, it’s hectic, it’s noisy, the music is pounding and the place is going great guns. At the bar, along with two other guys, Guillaume Leblanc is making daiquiris with flair and fine style, greeting old customers and barflies and rumfest attendees, the shaker never still. Even though he doesn’t work there, he seems to know everyone by their first name, which to me makes him a top notch bartender even without the acrobatic or mixing skills.

In the dark corner off to the side are wedged Joshua Singh and Gregers Nielsen, a quartet of bottles in front of them.  Part of the reason they’re here is to demonstrate the Single Barrel Selection of their Danish company (named “1423” after the number on that first barrel of rum the outfit ever bottled back in 2008) and how they fare in cocktails. Nicolai Wachmann and Mrs. Caner have been drafted to help out and I’m squished in there as well to do my review thing and take notes in the Little Black Book (since the Big Black Book didn’t fit into my pocket when I was heading out).

Three of these bottles are formal SBS releases by 1423, and there’s a Jamaican, a Trini and one from Mauritius. The fourth is a white-lightning tester from (get this!) Ghana, and I haven’t go a clue which one to start with. Nicolai has four glasses in front of him and somehow seems to be sipping from all four at once, no help there. Mrs. Caner, sampling the first of what will be many daiquiris this evening, and usually so fierce in her eye for quality rums, is raptly admiring Guillaume’s smooth drink-making technique while batting her eyes in his direction far too often for my peace of mind. Fortunately, I know he’s engaged to a very fetching young miss of his own, so I don’t worry too much.

“Any recommendations?” I ask the rotund Joshua who’s happily pouring shots for the curious and talking on background about the rums with the air of an avuncular off-season Santa Claus.  How he can talk to me, pour so precisely, have an occasional sip of his own, discuss technical stuff and call out hellos to the people in the crowd all at the same time is a mystery, but maybe he’s just a better multi-tasker than I am.

“Try the Jamaican,” he advises, and disappears behind the bar.

“Not the Trinidadian?” I ask when he pops back up on this side, two new daiquiris in his hand.  Mrs. Caner grabs one immediately, and, with the skill born of many vicious battles getting on-sale designer purses in the middle of frenzied mobs of other ladies, fends off Nicolai’s eager hands and shoves him into the wall in a way that would make a linebacker weep.  He looks at me like this is my fault.

“It’s not a Caroni, so you might feel let down,” Josh opines, handing the second cocktail glass to another customer. “It’s Angostura, and you’re a rumdork, so…” He shrugs, and I wince.

Since I’m writing an on-again, off-again survey of rums from Africa (50 words and I’m done, ha ha), the Ghana white rum piques my interest, and I turn to Gregers, who is as tidy and in control as ever.  I suspect he lined up his pens and papers with the edge of his desk in school. “The Ghana, you think?”

He considers for a moment, then shakes his head and pours me a delicate, neat shot of the Mauritius 2008. “Better start with this one.  It’s a bit more…mellow. And anyway, you tried the Ghana last year in Berlin. If you need to, you can try it again later.”

The rum winks invitingly at me.  I take a quick moment to snap some pictures of the bottle, thinking again how far labels have come in the last decade.  Velier started the trend, Compagnie des Indes provides great levels of detail, and others are following along, but what I’m seeing here is amazing. The label notes the distillery (Grays, which is a famed family name as well – they make the New Grove and Lazy Dodo line of rums but not the St. Aubins); the source, which in this case is molasses; the still type – column; distillation date – 2008; bottling date – 2018; and other throwaway details such as the non-chill-filtration, the port wine finish, the 281-bottle outturn, and the 55.7% ABV strength.  I mean, you really couldn’t ask for much more than that.

I nose the amber spirit gently, and my eyes widen.  Wow. This is good. It smells of toblerone, white chocolate, vanilla and almonds but there are also lighter and more chirpy notes swirling around that – gooseberries, ginger shavings, green grapes, and apples. And behind that are aromas of dark fruit like plums, prunes and dates, together with vague red-wine notes, in a very good balance. Musky, earthy smells mix with lighter and darker fruits in a really good amalgam – you’d never confuse this with a Jamaican or a Guyanese or a Caroni or a French island agricole.  I glance over at Mrs. Caner to get a second opinion, but she’s ogling some glass-flipping thing Guillaume is doing and so I ask Nicolai what he thinks. He checks glass #2 on his table and agrees it is a highly impressive dram, just different enough from the others to be really interesting in its own way. He loves the way the finish adds to the overall effect.

As I’m scribbling notes into the LBB, I ask Gregers slyly, “Is there anything you’ve been told not to tell me about the rum?” He is like my brother, but business and blood and booze don’t always mix well, trust is earned not given freely, and I’m curious how he’ll answer. Nicolai’s ears perk up and he pauses with his nose hanging over the third glass.  Though he doesn’t talk much, his curiosity and rum knowledge are the equal of my own and he likes knowing these niggly little details too.

“Nope. Any question you have, we’ll answer.” Gregers and Joshua exchange amused looks. Truth to tell, there are two omissions which only a rum nerd would ask for or actively seek out.  I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing I am. So:

“Additives? You don’t mention anything about them on the label.”  And given how central such a declaration is these days to new companies who want to establish their “honesty” and street cred, an odd thing to have overlooked – at least in my opinion.

Joshua doesn’t miss a beat. He confirms the “no additives” ethos of the SBS line of rums, and it was not considered necessary to be on the label – plus, if some weird older gunk from Panama or Guyana, say, were to be bottled in the future and then found to be doctored by the original producer, maybe with caramel, then 1423 would not have egg over its face, which makes perfect sense.  Then, before I ask, he and Gregers tell me that this rum is actually not from a single barrel but several casks blended together. Well…okay (there’s full detail in “other notes” below, for the deeply curious).

The bar is getting noisier, more crowded.  Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack just turned up and is making the rounds, pressing the flesh, because he knows, like, everyone – alas, his pretty wife is nowhere in sight. Yoshiharu Takeuchi of Nine Leaves is in center-court, telling a hilarious R-Rated story I cannot reprint here (much as I’d like to) of how he was mugged in Marseilles while taking a leak in an alleyway, and Florent Beuchet of the Compagnie is mingling – I shout a hello at him over the heads of several customers.  He waves back. The cheerfully bearded and smiling Ingvar “Rum” Thomsen (journalist and elder statesman of the Danish rum scene) is hanging out next to his physically polar opposite, Johnny Drejer (tall, slim, clean-shaven); Johnny and I briefly discuss the new camera I helped him acquire, and some of his photographs and the state of the rumiverse in general. There are probably brand reps and other French rumistas in attendance, but I don’t recognize anyone else.  All I can see is that everyone is enjoying themselves thoroughly and the loud hum of intense and excited (and perhaps drunken) conversation is electric. The energy level of the bar is off the scale.

Guillaume has finished his cocktail twirling demo and lost my wife’s attention, I note happily. He’s mixing more drinks for another small group of people who just wandered in. Mrs. Caner is now deep in conversation with Nicolai about his marital status and that of her entire tribe of single female relatives. After landing me like a prize trout all those years ago, my pretty little wife has developed a raging desire to “help out” any single person of marriageable age — and she’s seen Hitch like forty-seven times, which doesn’t help.  Anyway, they’re both ignoring the rums in front of them, so I roll my eyes at this blasphemy and continue on to the tasting.

And let me tell you, that Mauritius rum tastes as good as it smells, if perhaps a little sharper and drier on the tongue than the aromas might suggest. It really is something of a low-yield fruit bomb.  Raspberries, strawberries, lemon peel, ginger and sherbet partied hard with the deeper flavours of prunes, molasses, vanilla, nuts, chocolate mousse, ice cream and caramel…and a touch of coca cola, tobacco and seaweed-like iodine.  There’s even a sly hint of brine, thyme, and mint rounding things off, transferring well into a lovely smooth finish dominated by candied oranges, a sharp line of citrus peel, and a very nice red wine component that completes what was and remains, a really very good drink.  It is like a curiously different Barbados rum, with aspects of Guyana and Jamaica thrown in for kick, but its quality is all its own, and hopefully allows the island to get more press in the years to come. For sure it is a rum to share around.

With some difficulty, I manage to catch Mrs. Caner’s eye and pass the glass over to her, because I think this is a rum she’d enjoy too.  Somehow even after all the daiquiris she’s been getting, her eyes are clear, her speech is unslurred, her diction flawless, and I may be biased but I think she looks absolutely lovely.  As she tries the SBS Mauritius, I can see she appreciates its construction as well and she compliments Joshua and Gregers on their selection. “This is great,” she remarks, then provides me with a whole raft of detailed tasting notes, which I have mysteriously lost and none of which somehow have made it into this essay.

Nicolai, over in his corner, is happy to cast some other comments on to the table regarding the SBS Mauritius, all positive.  We all agree, and I tell Gregers, that this is one fine rum, and if I could, I’d buy one, except that I can’t. My wife, having delivered herself of her earth shaking opinion, immediately beelines over to the bar area where Guillaume’s fiancee and sister have just arrived, most likely because she’s had enough of all the testosterone in our corner and wants some real conversation with people who are specifically not certifiable about rum.

L-R – Nicolai, Gregers, Guillaume, Joshua and one of the bartenders from that evening whose name I did not get, sorry.

I want some fresh air so Joshua and I go outside the bar for a smoke (the irony does not escape us).  The nighttime air of Paris is crisp and cool and I remember all the reasons I like coming here. We discuss 1423 and their philosophy, its humble beginnings more than ten years ago, though that remains outside the scope of this essay.

“So, the Mauritius was pretty good,” I remark, pleased to have started off this fest (and 2019) on a good rum, a tasty shot.  He courteously does not ask for my score which for some obscure reason is all that some people want. “What do you think I should try next?”

He smiles, reminding me once again of Santa Claus in civilian clothes and taking a breather from gift giving, mingling with the common folk. “Oh the Jamaica, for sure.  That’s a DOK, PX finished, pot still aged in 40-liter barrels…and let me tell you, there’s some really interesting stories behind that one -”

I stop him. My fingers are twitching. “Hang on.  I gotta write that down. Let’s go inside, pour a shot, and you can tell me everything I need to know while I try it.  I don’t want to miss a thing.”

And while it’s not exactly relevant to the Mauritius rum I’m supposed to be writing about here, that’s pretty much what we ended up doing, on a cool evening in the City of Lights, spent in the lively company of my beautiful wife, and assorted boisterous, rambunctious geeks, reps, writers, drinkers, bartenders and simply good friends. You just can’t do a rum tasting in better surroundings than that.

(#620)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • In one of those curious coincidences, the Fat Rum Pirate penned his own four-out-of-five star review of the same rum just a few days ago. However, the first review isn’t either of ours, but the one from Kris von Stedingk, posted in December 2018 on the relatively new site Rum Symposium. He was also pretty happy with it
  • Background on the rum itself:
    • Joshua met with a rep from Grays from Mauritius a few years ago at the Paris Rhumfest; he brought a number of different cask samples from the warehouse. 1423 ended up choosing two, which were about 9 years at this time
      • The first was aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two more in Chatagnier (Chestnut).
      • The second was again aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two years in Port.
    • 1423 ordered both of them but ended up receiving 400 liters of the Chatagnier cask and 120 liters of the Port both now with another ageing year in their respective casks. All of this was blended together when delivered to Denmark and the 2018 release was basically the first 200 liters, all tropical aged. The remaining 320 liters are still in the Denmark warehouse waiting for a good idea and the right time to release.
Apr 242019
 

Although the grogues of Cabo Verde have been seeping through our rumconsciousness for years now, it’s a curious thing that there are almost no reviews to be found online at all. All we have is rumours and quiet whispers in the dark corners of smoke-filled tiki-bars, random small comments on FB, and stories that Luca Gargano of Velier has been sniffing about the islands for years, perhaps putting together another series of organic, pure single rums designed to wow our socks off.

2019 might at last, then, be the year to change that, as grogues were quite visible in the Paris rhumfest in April, and one of them was the Barbosa grogue, which I just so happened to try at the Habitation Velier booth, where, after exchanging pleasantries with Daniel Biondi, I rather cheekily helped myself to a hefty shot of this thing and sat back to await results. Not without a little trepidation, mind you.

Because, you see, the lost world mystique hanging around them creates an aura about these almost unknown rums made in remote lands in traditional ways, in a way that make them rums of real interest. They’re supposedly throwbacks to the way “rums ought to be,” the way “they were once made” and all sorts of stuff like that. Artisanal, untamed, simple rums, brewed the same way for generations, even centuries, akin to Haiti’s clairins or the original cachacas. Which may be why Luca keeps going back to the place.

Such preconceptions made the tasting of the Barbosa grogue (or, as it is noted on the label “Amado & Vicente Barbosa Grogue Pure Single Rum”) an odd experience – because in reality, it conformed to few of the profile markers and tasting notions I was expecting, based on the remarks above. The nose of the 45% white was decidedly not a sledgehammer to the face, and not an over-amped nostril-shredder ready to give week-long nosebleeds. Instead it was actually quite gentle, almost relaxed, with light aromas of olives in brine, green grapes, pineapples, apricots (minus the sweet syrup), grass, cooking herbs like dill, and quite a lot of sugar water, more than in most blancs I’ve tried. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t fierce and it wasn’t feral, just a real easy rum to appreciate for smell alone.

This was also the case when tasted. The bright and clean fruity-ester notes were more in evidence here than on the nose — green apples, sultanas, hard yellow mangoes, thyme, more pineapples, a bag of white guavas and watery pears. There was a hint of danger in the hint of cucumbers in white vinegar with a pimento or two floating around, but this never seriously came forward, a hint was all you got; and at best, with some concentration, there were some additional herbs (dill, cilantro), grass, sugar water and maybe a few more olives. I particularly liked the mild finish, by the way – clear and fruity and minty, with thyme, wet grass, and some almonds and white chocolate, sweet and unassuming, just right for what had come before.

The Barbosa grogue is produced by Montenegro distillery in Santiago, the main Cabo Verde island, and derive from organically grown sugar cane grown very close to the sea, in Praia Mangue. The cane is harvested manually, crushed right away and naturally fermented for six to ten days before being run through small wood-fired 350-liter copper pot stills (see picture here) – this version is the first 2019 batch, unaged. The manager and co-owner of the distillery, Manuel Barbosa Amado, is a 47 year old agronomist and his family has been in the sugar cane and grogue business for the last fifty years or so – in what might be seen as a peculiar honour, it is the only grogue in Velier’s 2019 catalogue. I was told they might have called their product Montenegro after their own distillery, but ran into trademark issues with an Italian amaro maker of the same title and so named it for illustrious family members Vicente and Amado Barbosa, about whom I know unfortunately nothing

All that out of the way, what to make of this interesting variation of rum, then? Well, for one thing, I felt that 45% strength was perhaps too light to showcase its unique nature…jacking it up a few extra points might be worth it. It started off gentle, and underneath the sleek and supple silkiness of that initial taste you could sense some serious animal lurking, waiting for its own moment to come out and claw your face off. But this never happened. It stayed low-key and seemed surprisingly reluctant to come out and play with any sort of violence. So, a tasty and a fun drink, the purity evident, the unmessed-with nature of it a blessing…yet not different enough from better-known and better-regarded French island blancs to carve out its own niche in a market with ever increasing amounts of artisanal white rums competing for eyeballs and shelf space.

I’m not saying it must have madness and fury to succeed; nor does it need to rack up street cred by being like the Mexican Paranubes or the Sajous, the other poster children for cheerfully nutso white rums. We must accept that the Barbosa grogue lacks that distinctive spark of crazy which would immediately set it apart from any other rums on the planet, something specifically and seriously its own. But I also believe you can buy it and love it exactly as it is and you won’t be disappointed – because it is a more civilized and elegant rum than you might expect. And it’s worth a more serious look and maybe a buy, just to sample the sippable, approachable and enjoyable charms it presents, and get a whiff of something interesting, even new.

(#618)(81/100)


Other notes

  • Grogue is the local creole version of the word grog, and it hails from the same source.
  • Cabo Verde (or Cape Verde) is a group of ten Atlantic islands off the west coast of Africa due west of Senegal.  They are part of the same geographical eco-region as the Canaries and Azores and Madeira. Unlike them, Cabo Verde is independent and not an autonomous part of any European nation.
  • Three kinds of cane are harvested: Nossa Terra Pieta, Nossa Terra Branca, and Bourbon varietals.
Jan 312019
 

More than four years ago I wrote about the Rhum Vieux Millésimé 1998 10 YO made by Dzama and concluded that I was pretty stoked to see what else the brand had in the larder.  It’s taken a long time for me to make good on that desire, so here we have something lower down on the totem pole from the same company, and I thought it was a good effort, for all its youth and in spite of the niggly questions it raised.

Let’s refresh the memory first: for the geographically challenged, Madagascar is that huge island off the south east coast of Africa; and the Dzama rums are made by Vidzar, formed in 1980 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. He concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane.

He formed a company Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), which initially concerned itself with whisky bottling. It was located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, near to a village called Dzamadzar, but a few years later, as their operations expanded, they transferred production to Antananarivo (the capital, in the center of the island) The company, which now claims a majority of rum market share in Madagascar, makes a range of rums, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Millésimé 1998 10 Year Old, Dzama 15 and 25 year old rums and a Cuvée Noire. Most of these are untried by the vast majority of rum drinkers, and remain relatively unknown, though many have won prizes between 2010 and 2015, in Miami, Paris, Berlin and Madrid.

All that said, there isn’t much on the company website about the technical details regarding the 3 year old we’re looking at today. It’s a column still rum, unadded-to, aged in oak barrels, and my sample clocked in at 52%, which I think is an amazing strength for a rum so young – most producers tend to stick with the tried-and-true 40-43% (for tax and export purposes) when starting out, but not these guys.

Now, the theory is that the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found on Madagascar (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example, so I reserve judgement on that score.  

Be that as it may, the nose is quietly rich for a rum aged a mere three years – not Velier-Demerara-go-for-the-brass-ring rich, just more than one would expect going in. This nose was initially redolent of creamy feta cheese, brine, red olives and cashew notes, and had a nice line of rotting bananas and funk coiling about in the background which provided an underpinning of real character.  It also gave off subtler aromas of candied oranges, pears and other light fruits, just not enough to take over and make it a fruit bomb. But towards the end there was a more dominant element of toffee, coffee grounds and vanilla which I thought pleasant but overdone, especially since it was delivered with some real force.

Though it teetered right on the edge of being too hot, it presented a solid if sharp drink, an amalgam of salt and sweet…and a lot of brown sugar and vanilla  There were bananas, strawberries, cherries, and some of that tart and creamy sensation you get from an unsweetened fruit smoothie made from, oh, firm yellow mangoes and pineapple.  The vanilla remained, the coffee disappeared, and amusingly, I could actually taste sweet green peas. Much of the saltiness and nuttiness of the nose was gone, though still noticeable, and it did not unbalance the fruity aspects.  The finish was where it failed, I thought – it was medium long, somewhat spicy, just rather mild, with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, salted caramel, coconut shavings, and a little citrus.

Well, what to make of this? The nose was decent, the palate was nearly as good, a reasonable drink even by itself….particularly if you like the hints of spices. Does that mean natural or other spices have been added?  They say no, and hydrometer tests show no obscuration… but I can’t help but wonder.  Rums this young tend to be rather sharp and retain competing notes that saw across the palate, better off in mixed drinks than to have neat; the Dzama 3 YO was sippable and had the edge toned down, and for that to happen at that strength raises the eyebrow.  However, in the absence of more information, I’ll leave it there for now as a note for those who want to know.

That first Dzama I tried, the 1998 10 YO, had what at first sight seemed like an utterly standard profile that then expanded into something quite unconventional and interesting. The 3 year old is not on that level. The vanilla is a shade too dominant, and while fortunately having enough other taste elements in there to move beyond that, it remains ultimately straightforward.  But it is, nevertheless, a good drink for what it says it is, and demonstrates that a rum doesn’t have to be the latest Velier, Worthy Park or Foursquare juice, or from some independent’s minuscule outturn, to be a rum worth checking out.

(#594)(80/100)


Other Notes

Wes was much more disapproving of the spiced profile in his review.  It’s his hydrometer test I referenced.

Nov 262014
 

D3S_8929

A remarkably well balanced and tasty rum from the Indian Ocean

(#189. 84/100)

***

In spite of the prevailing belief that rums are Caribbean almost by definition, it’s axiomatic that many other nations and regions produce them.  Over the years I’ve found that the most readily identifiable and distinctive (I don’t say “best”) products, products that have a flavour profile all their own, usually hail from some distant part of the world where climatic and soil conditions are far removed from the norm: consider, for example the Bundaberg, the Old Port, or even the Tanduay.  Now sure, flavourings are sometimes added to the mix with the heedlessness of Emeril chucking spices…but not always.  Sometimes it’s just the terroire.

Such a one is the Rhum Vieux Millésimé 1998 ten year old, made and bottled in Madagascar from locally grown cane and molasses, offered at 45% in a bottle that is rather amusingly wrapped in a banana leaf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  This is a rhum that won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2012, and is one lovely piece of work.

Take for starters, the initial nose: brown sugar, coffee and mocha, straight off, very smooth and inviting – 45% was a good strength for this rum.  I looked at the labelling again with some surprise – was this a spiced rum and they forgot to mention it?  Nope.  What you got was it. It was followed by vanilla, cloves, nutmeg and a soft background of bananas, all quite unaggressive and easygoing.  There was even some vague vegetal note there after a bit, almost imperceptible.

The palate broke little new ground, simply built on that excellent lead-in: more vanilla (not enough to make me suspicious about flavouring, yet I couldn’t dismiss the thought entirely), coffee, burnt sugar, nougat.  Fried sweet bananas (I loved those as a kid), nuts, peaches.  This rum was lovely, just lovely – soft and warm and exactly strong enough for what it was – a higher proof might have made it too spicy.  There was even, after a few minutes and a drop of water, leather and the sweet perfume of aromatic cigarillos.  Some ground walnuts rounded out the profile.  The finish was surprisingly short, yet still that warmth persisted, and closing notes of white pepper, smoke and those walnuts again.

These tasting notes sound utterly conventional, don’t they? Yet they’re not, not really – the balance of the vegetal notes and vanilla and nuts and sweetness of bananas popping in oil is not at all like the Caribbean rums with which many of us are familiar; I imagine some of this taste profile comes from the Pernod Ricard barrels shipped to Madagascar to age this rum the requisite ten years; but perhaps equal credit comes from the cane itself and the environment in which it is made.

Dzama rum is made by Vidzar, one of those local companies like Banks DIH in Guyana, or Clarke’s Court in Grenada, which have a rather larger visibility in their home country than they do abroad (this may change as they expand their markets). The company was formed in 1982 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. After some investigation, he concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane. (If this rum is an example of the flavour holdover, he may be on to something, though I’m ambivalent about the science behind that).

In an attempt to distill a decent rum to elevate the craft of his island, he formed a company Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, by a village called Dzamadzar. The company makes a range of rums for sale, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Dzama XV 15 year old and Cuvée Noire (untried by me) and is starting to sell in the European market. This particular ten year old was aged in the aforementioned Pernod Ricard barrels and was distilled in 1998 but the date itself is just a marker, not a commemoration of anything special (the current ten year old on the company site is the 2000 Millésimé) – I’ll hazard a guess that it was a series of barrels set aside by the master blender as simply being of higher quality.

I’ve remarked before that one rum does not sink a brand, or define it – yet I have to be honest and say that a bad one tends to make me leery about approaching others in the range, while conversely, a good one makes me enthusiastic to do so – that’s human nature.  With this excellent rum hailing from a region I’ve not tried before, whose profile is remarkably distinctive and far from unpleasant, I’m pretty stoked to see what else Dzama has in the larder the next time I get a chance to buy one.  You could do worse than trying some yourself…and this one would be an excellent place to start.

***