Jul 072019
 

“Austere” says the back label of Rum Nation’s massive rum beefcake from Réunion, and they weren’t kidding. The rhum traditionalle from the French Department is bottled at 60.5% ABV, is seriously violent, a tropically-aged molasses-derived brown bomber, and to my mind it’s quite a step up from the lower-proofed 45% 7 year old agricole they had previously released in 2016.  It is not recommended for people who don’t know what they’re getting into.

HyperFocal: 0

Why?  Because insofar as it has those wild, fierce and pungent smells and tastes, it’s very much like the new wave of Jamaican rums now making such big waves – Hampden and Worthy Park in particular.  Because this presses many of the same buttons, shares something of the same rum-DNA, the major one being that it’s coming off a still stuffed with the potential to crank up the ester-count. And while neither of these two bottles says so — for whatever reason — I’m going on record as saying they’re both from Savanna and the wonder of it is that they come off a savalle copper column still, not pot stills like the Jamaicans.  And yet the ‘Nation’s cask strength version from 2018 is in no way a lesser rum.

Just smelling it tells you that.  It releases such an intense aroma when cracked – a beautifully clear piece of work, smelling of caramel, vanilla, leather, wine, and a lot of red fruits: cherries, red currants and pomegranates, that kind of thing.  And that’s not all…esters come out of hiding after five minutes or so, bubble gum, sharp green fruits, sandalwood, cloves, acetones, and that’s accompanied by a sort of woody, almost meaty smell that’s tough to pin down but really quite interesting.  And as if all this was not enough it continued with sugar cane sap, a citrus line, mint, thyme, and even a twist of black licorice – seriously, you should keep that glass going for at least ten minutes, preferably more, because it just doesn’t seem to want to stop.

Some rums falter on the taste after opening up with a nose of uncommon quality – fortunately Rum Nation’s Réunion Cask Strength rum (to give it its full name) does not drop the ball. It’s sharp and crisp at the initial entry, mellowing out over time as one gets used to the fierce strength. It presents an interesting combination of fruitiness and muskiness and crispness, all at once – vanilla, lychee, apples, green grapes, mixing it up with ripe black cherries, yellow mangoes, lemongrass, leather, papaya; and behind all that is brine, olives, the earthy tang of a soya (easy on the vegetable soup), a twitch of wet cigarette tobacco (rather disgusting), bitter oak, and something vaguely medicinal.  It’s something like a Hampden or WP, yet not — it’s too distinctively itself for that. It displays a musky tawniness, a very strong and sharp texture, with softer elements planing away the roughness of the initial attack. Somewhat over-oaked perhaps but somehow it all works really well, and the finish is similarly generous with what it provides — long and dry and spicy, with some caramel, stewed apples, green grapes, cider, balsamic vinegar, and a tannic bitterness of oak, barely contained (this may be the weakest point of the rum).

I noted that it reminds me of the New Jamaican rums and that’s certainly true.  But for anyone who likes the Lontan rums, the 2006 HERR 10 YO or the two 2018 “57” expressions, its uniqueness can’t be described by simply saying it’s a version of a rum from the Caribbean. It’s fiercely and uncompromisingly itself, with tastes that complement — without replacing — the rums issued by its cousins from Jamaica. It’s dry, intense, rich, searing, complex, and that short tropical ageing period mellowed it enough to let subtler notes shine without dampening them down too much or losing the crispness of the more youthful elements. And so, summing up, what we have here is a relatively young rum that tries to wring the very last whiff or drop of flavour from its distillate — and succeeds brilliantly.

(#639)(86/100)

Mar 192019
 

Whether or not you can place Reunion on a map, you’ve surely heard of at least one of its three distilleries: Savanna, and that high-ester still of theirs that’s driving rum geeks into transports of ecstasy.  Yet for almost the same time, there have been two other distilleries on the island, Riviere du Mat (which made the delicious Millesime 2004 and XO rums) and the oldest of the three, another family owned outfit called Isautier, which I wrote about in a brief bio a few days back

Isautier, among all their punches and arranges, make an interesting selection of aged rums as well – the entry level 40% Barrick (3 months aged), plus 5 / 7 / 10 year old rums; and their top of the line “Louis & Charles Isautier” Cuvee 70, released at 45% ABV.  It comprises a blend of 15 year old aged agricole rum, and a 7 year old molasses-based rum. The bottle does not bear an age statement, and it’s simply marketed as a premium rum of the line, going for around eighty euros.

Like Guadeloupe half a world away, Reunion does not have an AOC designation, and its remoteness and relatively small land area makes it impractical to go fully with either molasses-based or cane-juice distillates, and so they occasionally mix and match their blends from both.  This makes them less “pure” and clearly identifiable rums…but also quite tasty, as the profile of the L&C demonstrated.

When I nosed the glass, it occurred to me that it was a somewhat toned-down version of Savanna’s Lontan grand arome series (which I tasted in tandem). I mean that in a good way because high ester rums are not always or necessarily meant as sipping drinks, so one that dials down the noise and goes to the middle of the road can present really well – like the less in-yer-face Hampdens, Worthy Parks, or  NRJ Vale Royal and Cambridge did. In any event, the aromas purred sleepily out of the bottle and there were quite a lot of them: pineapples, pears, strawberries, freshly chopped apples.  No salt, brine, olives here, but some coffee grounds, nutmeg and bitter chocolate, which complemented the fruits quite well. At 45% the whole nose was warm and well controlled, no complaints there (except that I wished for something with more oomph, really).

The taste was surprisingly easy, creamy, almost. Some lemon meringue pie, coffee and chocolate again, and then the rest of the fruit brigade slowly rolled in and took over: pineapples, fresh green apples, soursop, gooseberries, ripe black cherries and five-finger, very ripe – in other words, the sweet of the various fruits was there, but so was a kind of low-key tart sourness that provided some interesting counterpoint and character.  If I had to make a point of it, the finish is probably the least interesting, because it repeated what came before without going any place new, but overall, it was warm and fruity, and perhaps one could not expect too much more from a placid rum that had already gone as far as it could, no matter that it was in absolutely no hurry to get there.

What worked against the rum (for me) was the relatively low strength which watered down what could have been a much richer series of smells and tastes. The dilution makes the barrels go further and the greater rum-purchasing public served better, sure — more consumers will buy a rum which isn’t cask strength and doesn’t try to rip their face off — but it does mute it too, and this to some extent lessens the experience.  Perhaps that is why Isautier themselves remark that the rum be considered a digestif, an after-dinner drink. But admittedly, that’s my own thing and for the most part, I don’t think anyone who tries this product from Reunion and Isautier will either have anything to complain about, or have any trouble distinguishing it from the other big guns coming out of the still-too-little-known island in the Indian ocean.

(#609)(84/100)


Other notes

Although the type of still from which these components derive goes unmentioned, the company website speaks to a steam injected column still which produces distillate with concentrations as high as 89% ABV (used for the traditionnel rums) and 70% (for whites and more agricole-styled rums).

Jun 282017
 

#376

With the advent of the Hampden and Worthy Park rums which pride themselves on high ester counts, it seems that one of the emerging trends in the rumworld may well be such tasty, clear, bags-of-fruit rums with not just a single sapling populating the salad bowl, but an entire damned orchard. Yet on the other side of the world, Savanna has been doing this for some years now with their “Intense” and “Grand Arôme” lines, of which the reigning porn queen might well be the HERR 10 year old that so impressed me.  That rum was startling and original, seemingly cut from wholly new cloth, bottled at a massive 63.8% and aged in cognac casks and my drool dripped into the glass almost continuously as I tried it (well…I exaggerate for effect….but not by much).  And yet, Savanna made one even better than that one – it’s this rum, a Grand Arôme, a rock solid full-proof 64.2% rumzilla that encapsulated all the amazing potential Reunion had to offer, and came in ahead of its own siblings by a country mile.  I’ve now tried about ten rums from Savanna, and it’s my firm belief that this is the best of them all (until I find the next one).

Speaking of Savanna and the stats.  I’ve written a small bio of the company, so won’t bore you with that again, so let’s just reel off the usual details so you know what you’re drinking if you ever try it. It was distilled in 2004 and bottled in 2016, with a strength as noted above, just north of 64%.  It was made on Savanna’s traditional column still (not the discontinuous one of the HERR), and Cyril, in his own excellent 2016 review, writes that it is made from the fermentation of vinasse and molasses, and for a longer period than usual – 5-10 days.  As before it was fully aged in ex-cognac casks.  

Photo stealthily purloined from DuRhum.com

Pause for a second and just look at all those production notes: they make no mention of additives, but for my money they didn’t add anything, and come on, why would they need to? It’s like they pulled out all the stops to make this thing a flavour bomb of epic proportions. Fermentation, distillation, ageing, the works, all that was missing was some pineapples dunked directly into the vat.  And when I tried it, the results spoke for themselves.

The hot, fragrant nose began with dusty cardboard, the nostalgic feel of old boxes in an attic, of a second hand bookshop crammed to the rafters with dry books of ages past nobody now reads.  Ahh, but then it changed – acetone and nail polish mixed with lots of honey and rich (but not tart) flavours of bubble gum peaches, prunes, vanilla, cinnamon and a light trace of brine and avocados drizzled with lemon juice.  Cocoa and some coffee, reminds me some of the Varangue Grand Arôme 40% white, but better behaved and much better constructed. My God this was rich — I spent perhaps half an hour just nosing the thing, and even called over my mother (who was annoyed I wouldn’t let her near my samples that day and was sitting in a huff in the kitchen) to give it a sniff.  Her reaction was so positive I feared for her health and the safety of my table, but never mind – the important thing to note is that even a rum novice loved it, even at that strength.

The real treasures came on the palate, which was firm, strong and intense, as befitted a rum brewed to a ripsnorting 64.2%.  Here the fruits – those amazing, full bodied fruits – blasted out front and center.  The intensity and variety were amazing, yet they lacked something of the single minded purity of the HERR, and somehow manage to create a melange without a mess, each note melding perfectly, combining the ongoing cereals and dusty book aromas with the sweet richness of the orchard without losing the best parts of either.  Some rubber and sweet caramel and honey, warm papaya, and then the fruits themselves – ripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, cherries, cinnamon, cloves, almonds and that yummy Pakistani rice pudding called kheer. There was aromatic tobacco, a faint citrus tang (candied oranges perhaps) and it all led up to a clean, biting finish, gradually winding down to close with green grapes, hard yellow mangoes, lemongrass, caramel and breakfast spices.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves something amazing here.

When The Wonk and I were discussing this rum, he remarked (rather disbelievingly) that it had to be quite a product to compare with the 89 points I gave to Velier’s 32 year old PM 1975 a few days ago.   It certainly is that, but really, the two aren’t strictly comparable, as they are quite different branches of the great tree of rum.  The Lontan lacks the dark heaviness of Demeraras generally and the Port Mourant specifically, doesn’t have that wooden still licorice background or its overall depth.  In point of fact The Lontan 12 has more in common with the Jamaicans and perhaps even agricoles, while being distinct from either one. In that observation lies the key to why it’s special.

I noted the other day that one of the unsung heroes of the subculture is likely the below-the-radar rums of St Lucia.  Here’s another company not many have heard of that’s making some pretty big footprints we should be tracking.  Because in summing up Savanna’s remarkable rum it’s clear that it’s a shimmering smorgasbord of extravagant and energetic and well-controlled tastes, melding a nose that won’t quit with a body that could make a metaphorical nuncio review his vows of celibacy.  It mixes a glittering clarity with excellent balance, strength with softness, is crisp and complex to a fault and what we’re left with after the fact is the memory of an enormous achievement. To say the rum is “not bad” is to undersell it.  To say it’s good doesn’t cut it. What we need to do is to admit it’s just about great, and oddly, part of that admission is also that it’s made by a relative unknown, without any of that emotional baggage we would bring to, say, a Velier or a Samaroli, a Rum Nation or a product from the Compagnie. I enjoyed it thoroughly.  I think it’s wonderful. It’s a gift to true rum lovers who want to try something they haven’t experienced before, in their ongoing (often lonely, sometimes thankless) search for the next new rum to treasure.

(90/100)

Other notes

  • Samples provided by two generous and great rum people, Nico Rumlover and Etienne S. who asked for nothing in exchange, but got something anyway.  Thanks guys. Wouldn’t have found this rum without you.
Mar 262017
 

#350

The Savanna Millésime 2006 High Ester Rum from Réunion (or HERR, as it is labelled) is a steroid-infused Guadeloupe rum mixing it up with a Caroni and a Bajan. It may the closest one will ever come to one of Worthy Park or Hampden’s Jamaican taste bombs without buying one, betters them in sheer olfactory badassery and is possibly one of the best of its kind currently in production, or the craziest.  It’s very likely that once you try it you’ll wonder where it was hiding all this time. It emphatically puts Réunion on the map of must-have rum producing nations with not just flair, but with the resounding thump of a falling seacan.

Just to set the background.  I had bought the Savanna Rhum Traditonnel Vieux 2000 “Intense” 7 year old back in April 2016 in Paris, and when I finally wrote about it, remarked on the way it was interesting and tasty and seemed to channel a good Guadeloupe rum in that it walked a fine line between molasses based product and an agricole.  Purely on the strength of that positive experience, I sprung for the HERR, and made some notes to get some of the other “Intense” and “Grand Arôme” Lontan series from Savanna as well (see “other notes”, below).  The molasses-based HERR was distilled in 2006, aged for ten years in ex-cognac casks, bottled at a hefty 63.8% in 2016, bottle #101 of 686, and released for the 60th Anniversary of the Parisian liquor emporium La Maison du Whisky.

Anyway, after that initial enjoyable dustup with the “Intense”, I was quite enthusiastic, and wasn’t disappointed. Immediately upon pouring the golden-amber liquid into my glass, the aromas billowed out, and what aromas they were, proceeding with heedless, almost hectic pungency – caramel, leather, some tar, smoke and molasses to start off with, followed with sharper notes of vanilla, dark dried fruit, raisins and prunes and dates.  It had an abundance, a reckless, riotous profusion of flavours, so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that not only did Savanna throw in the kitchen sink in making it, but for good measure they included the rest of the kitchen, half the pantry and some of the plumbing as well.  Even the back end of the nose, with some overripe bananas and vegetables starting to go off, and a very surprising vein of sweet bubble-gum, did nothing to seriously detract from the experience; and if I were to say anything negative about it, it was that perhaps at 63.8% the rum may just have been a shade over-spicy.

Still, whatever reservations I may have had did not extend much further than that, and when I tasted it, I was nearly bowled over.  My God but this thing was rich…fruity and tasty to a fault. Almost 64% of proof, and yet it was warm, not hot, easy and solid on the tongue, and once again — like its cousin — weaving between agricole and molasses rums in fine style.  There was molasses, a trace of anise, a little coffee, vanilla and some leather to open the party; and this was followed by green apples, grapes, hard yellow mangoes, olives, more raisins, prunes, peaches and yes, that strawberry bubble-gum as well.  I mean, it was almost like a one-stop shop of all the hits that make rum my favourite drink; and it lasted for a long long time, closing with a suitably epic, somewhat dry finish of commendable duration which perhaps added little that was new, but which summed up all the preceding notes of nose and palate with warmth and heat and good memories.  There was simply so much going on here that several subsequent tastings were almost mandated, and I regret none of them (and neither did Grandma Caner, who was persuaded to try some).  It presented as enormously crisp and distinct and it’s unlikely to be confused with any other rum I’ve ever tasted.

Just as an (irrelevant) aside, I was so struck with the kaleidoscopic flavours bursting out of the thing that I let the sample remain in my glass for a full four days (which is likely four days more than anyone else ever will) and observed it ascending to the heights before plunging into a chaotic maelstrom I’m somewhat at odds to explain.  But one thing is clear – if the sharp fruitiness of unrestrained rutting esters is your thing, then you may just agree with me that the rum is worth a try, not just once, but several times and may only be bettered by the Lontan 2004 12 year old 64.2% made by the same company.

I said in the opening remarks that it might be the best of its kind currently in production, or one of the craziest.  I believe that anyone who tries it will marvel at the explosive panoply of flavours while perhaps recognizing those off-putting notes which jar somewhat with what one expects a rum to possess.  Having read of my experience, I leave it to you to decide which side of the divide you fall on.  The HERR is not so much polarizing as unique, and it demands that you accept it as it is, warts and everything, on its own terms or not at all.  If you do, I somehow doubt you’ll be disappointed, and may just spend a few days playing around with it, wondering what that last smidgen of flavour actually was. Sort of like I did.

(88/100)

Other notes

Personal encomiums and opinions apart, I should inject a note of caution.  When tried in conjunction to the muskier, deeper Demeraras, HERR’s relative thinness becomes more apparent.  Too, after some hours, that vein of bubble-gum sweet also takes on a dominance that can be off-putting to those preferring darker tastes in their rums, though such a whinge would not disqualify it from any rum lover’s shelf.  But the chaos I noted earlier comes after you let it sit for the aforementioned few days.  By the fourth day the rum becomes sharp, biting, and almost vinegary, and while one can still get the smorgasbord of fruitiness which is the source of its exceptionalism, it is no longer feels like the same rum one started with.  Pouring a fresh sample right next to it on that day showed me the metamorphosis, and I believe that oxidation is something to beware of for any opened but long-untouched bottle.

As it turned out, an amazingly generous aficionado by the name of Nico Rumlover (long may his glass remain full) sent me not one or two additional Savanna samples, but eight more, just so that I could give them a shot…so look for those write-ups in the months to come.  Along with several other rums and rhums, I used all of them (and the Intense) as comparators for this review.

Historical distillery notes can be found in the Makers section for those whose interests run that way.

Rum Nation looks to be releasing a Savanna 12 YO at 59.5% sometime this year.

 

Feb 212017
 

#344

Our global rum travels have moved us around from Japan, Panama, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Brazil, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Antigua, Laos and Mauritius (and that’s just within the last eight weeks); so let’s do one more, and turn our attention to Île de la Réunion, where, as you might recall, three companies produce rums – Rivière du Mât, Isautier, and Savanna, with Isautier being the oldest (it was established in 1845 and is now in its sixth generation of the family).  If one wants to be picky Savanna has existed for far longer, but the company in its modern form dates back only to 1948 and lest I bore you to tears with another historical treatise, I refer you to the small company bio written as an accompaniment to this review.

Savanna is unusual in that it makes both agricoles and traditional rums, so it’s always a good idea to check the label closely – in this case “Traditionnel” refers to a molasses-based product. And take a moment to admire the information they provide, which is quite comprehensive (bar additives, which I somehow doubt they have). The rum I tried here was quite a beast – it was a seven-year-old year 2000 millésime distilled in November 2000 and bottled April 2008 with an outturn of just under 800 bottles, and issued at a whopping 64.5% – and that’s not unusual for them, as there are quite a few of such cask strength bruisers in their lineup.  I’m as courageous as the next man, but honesty compels me to admit that any time I see a rum redlining north of 60% my spirit quails just a bit…even as I’m consumed by the equal and opposite desire (perhaps a masochistic one) to match myself against it.  And here I’m glad I did, for this is quite a nifty product by any yardstick.

On the nose it was amazing for that strength – initially it presented something of the light clarity we associate with agricoles (which this was not), before turning deep and creamy, with opening salvos of vanilla, caramel and brine, vaguely akin to a very strong latte….or teeth-staining bush tea. It was weirdly herbal, yet not too much – that surprising vegetal element had been well controlled, fortunately…I’m not sure what my reaction would have been had I detected an obvious and overwhelming agricole profile in a supposedly molasses originating rum.  And yes, it was intense, remarkably so, without the raw scraping of coarse sandpaper that might have ruined something less carefully made.  I don’t always add water while nosing a spirit, but here I did and the rum relaxed, and gave additional scents of delicate flowers and a hint of breakfast spices.

The palate lost some of the depth and creaminess, becoming instead sharply crisp and clean, quite floral, and almost delicately sweet.  Even so, one had to be careful to ride the shockwave of proof with some care, given the ABV. Frangipani blossoms, bags of tart fruits (red guavas, half-ripe Indian mangos and citrus rind) and vanillas were the core of the taste, around which swirled a mad whirpool of additional, and very well balanced flavors of green grapes, unripe pineapples, more mangos, and peaches, plus some coffee grounds.  It was powerful yes, and amazingly tasty when taken in measured sips.  It all came down to the end, where the finish started out sharp and dry and intense, and then eased off the throttle.  Some of the smooth creaminess returned here (was that coconut shavings and yoghurt I was sensing?), to which was added a swirl of brine and olives, grapes, vanilla.  The way the flavours all came together to support each other was really quite something – no one single element dominated at the expense of any other, and all pulled in the same direction to provide a lovely taste experience that would do any rum proud.

So far I’ve not tried much from Réunion aside from various examples of the very pleasant ones from Rivière du Mât (their 2004 Millésime was absolutely wonderful).  If a second distillery from the island can produce something so interesting and tasty in a rum picked at random, I think I’ll redirect some of my purchasing decisions over there. This is a rum that reminds me a lot of full proof hooch from Guadeloupe, doing much of the same high wire act between the clear cleanliness of an agricole and the deep and growly strength and flavour of the molasses boyos. It’s a carefully controlled and exactingly made product, moulded into a rum that is an utter treat to inhale, to sip and to savour, and I’ll tell you, with all that is going on under the hood of this thing, they sure weren’t kidding when they called it “Intense.” It’s not a complete success, no, but even so I’m annoyed with myself, now, for just having bought one.

85.5/100

Note: This intriguing 7 year old interested me enough to spring for another >60% beefcake from the company, the High Ester Rum from Reunion (HERR). The entire line of high-ester Grand Arôme rums made by Savanna is supposedly a bunch of experimental flavour bombs, so can you imagine what a cask strength version of that is like?