May 262019
 

The Sampan Vietnamese Rhum is made by the Distillerie d’Indochine: and Antoine Pourcuitte, a long haired Frenchman who seems to be channelling Fabio and who lives in Vietnam, is the man who bootstrapped his desire to make good rums into a business that combines a small hotel and bar close to the beach with a distillery he pretty much built himself (officially it opened for business in late 2018). This newly constructed establishment, which produces one of those excellent white rhums which must be causing the French islands conniption fits, is his brainchild… and it can take its place proudly in the league of small and new fast moving ops who are taking a pure rhum approach to distillation in Asia.

Vietnam’s common tipple of choice is rượu (ruou), a local artisanal spirit somewhat akin to arrack of Indonesia, made from fermented rice or molasses or cane juice and run through backroad, backwoods or back-alley alembics and home-made stills that puff and fart and produce some low grade (but very palatable) moonshine. Like in other rural regions of the world which have a long history of indigenous small-scale spirits manufacture – Africa, Haiti and Mexico come to mind – these are largely individual enterprises not regulated or even acknowledged by any authority.

Mr. Poircuitte, who came to rum via wine and not whisky (something like Florent of the Compagnie) put a bit more professionalism into his company, and production cycle is not too different from the Caribbean islands, all in all.  The cane is all organic, pesticide free, grown in the area around Hội An, in the Qu lang Nam province, harvested by hand and then transported within 24 hours to the distillery, which is 40km away from the fields, for crushing. The resultant juice is fermented for 3 to 4 days, resulting in an initial wash of about 11% ABV, which is then run through their 11-plate single-column copper still that torques things up to around 70% ABV. Three varieties of this rhum are produced, at various strengths: 45% standard, 54% overproof and the 65% full proof.

What’s interesting here is that Sampan does not bottle it straight off the still, but lets it rest for something under one year in inert inox tanks, and this gives the resultant rum – which is not filtered except for sediments – a taste of serious fresh-off-the-still juice.

Consider first the nose of this blanc, which is stuffed into the bottle at a beefy 54% ABV. It’s musty, redolent of freshly turned sod and grass.  I could say it smells dirty and not mean it in a bad way, and that is not all: it also smells briny, olive-y, balanced off with clear, fresh, 7-Up and lemon juice and sugar cane sap, plus a smorgasbord of light fruits like pears, ripe apples, and white guavas, a little vanilla and cookies.  The strength doesn’t hurt it at all, it’s strong and firm without every being too sharp to enjoy as it is.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sink on the taste, but follows smoothly on from what had been discerned on the nose. Here, we didn’t just have a few olives, but what seemed like a whole grove of them. Again it tasted dirty, loamy, and also pungent, with initially clear notes of sweet sugar cane juice and sweet yellow corn, to which are added some lemon sherbet, vanilla and aromatic light fruits (pears, watermelon, strawberries) plus herbs – dill and basil.  Soft and lightly sweet, and there’s a background hint of anise as well, or licorice, really nice. Throughout the tasting it stays firm and assertive on the tongue, with a near silky mouthfeel leading to an exit that is pleasantly long lasting and with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, coconut water, and breakfast spices.

This is a really nice white rhum – it married the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux and the balance between the various elements was very nicely handled. That pungent opening clearly makes the case that even with the resting period, it was an unaged rhum, something like the Sajous, the Paranubes, A1710, Toucan, Barbosa Grogue, HSE Parcellaire or others of that kind – I liked it a lot, and if it didn’t win any medals, I firmly believe it should at least win a few wallets.

Many of the older Asian rhums which have sold  gangbusters in their countries of origin for decades, catered to indigenous tastes, and cared little for western styles of rum.  They were (and are) sometimes made in different ways, using different materials in the process, are sometimes spiced up and almost always light column-still blends issued at standard strength. We are seeing a gradual change here, as a wave of small distilleries are setting up shop in Asia and producing small quantities of some really interesting juice. This one from Vietnam is now on my radar, and I look forward to seeing not only what they come up with in the future, but what that Overproof 65% of theirs tastes like — and if it blows my hair back and my socks off, well, then I’ll consider it money well spent…as I did with this one.

(#627)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The company is named after the slow moving boats similar to Chinese junks, which ply the Mekhong River and the coastal areas around South East Asia.
  • My intial review noted that it was aged for 8 months in ex-French-oak casks, based on my conversation and scribbled notes at the Paris rhumfest (not with Mr. Poircuitte but with his pretty assistant, in the maelstrom of the first day’s crowds) – I was later contacted directly to be advised this was a miscommunication, that the rum rested for 8 months in steel tanks, and so I have amended the post for the correction.
Mar 262013
 

***

Impressive sipping-quality light rum from a region you’d almost expect to have many more darker variations. If your tastes run into the stronger and more distinct profiles, this may be a bit too subtle, being more more shy in its release than most. But it is well worth it.

First posted 29 January 2012 on Liquorature

(#091. 82/100)

***

Most of us drink rum originating from the West Indies that are aged in oak barrels, and so we make certain assumptions about our taste profiles: this is why, when we come across a rum from India (Old Port deluxe), Australia (Bundaberg), the Phillipines (Tanduay) or elsewhere, we can immediately sense, without putting it in so many words, that there’s something different about it. There’s a subtlety of otherness in the mouthfeel, the aroma, the taste (especially the Bundie, but never mind) which immediately perks up our beaks. My own theory is that this relates to the different climates and soils in which the source sugar cane is grown or maybe even different barrels. Who knows?

The rums of a relative newcomer to the rum world stage, Kōloa, seem to possess some of this characteristic. Made on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i by the Kōloa Rum Company, they utilise crystallized sugar derived from cane grown in the west of the island in the shadow of Kauai’s Mt. Wai`ale`ale, in what may be the wettest place on earth (for the rumgeeks among us, the yeast strain used in fermentation supposedly hails from Guadeloupe). The distillation itself takes place in a 1210-gallon, 1947-made copper still (much better for imparting subtle tastes to the end product than a modern stainless steel variation) which was trained, trucked and shipped all the way from Pennsylvania – it is composed of a pot still combined with a seven-plate column still and condenser, and the company makes small batch, twice distilled rums using it.

All these elements come together in a very impressive product which, while not being quite as crazy as a the Ozzy Osbourne inspired bat-shredding Bundaberg, is easily discernible from the regular Caribbean or Central American products I see more regularly.

Bought on a whim (I buy a lot on whims, largely because Calgary being what it is, if I don’t get it now, I may not get it tomorrow), I was more than pleased with the result. The rum itself was pale gold – nearly straw-coloured – with a light-medium body, and initially I almost confused it with an agricole (trust me – an agricole this was definitely not). The bottle was topped by a plastic screw-top, was fully transparent, and the label was plain white and relatively simple, though not minimalist.

The scent immediately hinted at a rum determinedly taking its own course in life: soft, a shade delicate, subtle. I swear that at the beginning I had zero clue what the thing actually was, there was so little normal nose on the liquid. Gradually, on opening up, certain elements began to make their prescence felt: white flowers, cherries, a vague herbal and grassy background mixed up with creamy caramel. But very little darkness from molasses, oddly enough.

It’s the palate that made this rum an excellent buy. There was some spice to it, and a bit of medicinal background; thankfully these were minor detours from an overall extraordinary arrival: a creamy soft butteriness on the tongue, merging into vanilla, nuts, honey and delicate caramel, chocolate and perhaps bananas. The thing seemed to have no real “rum taste” to it at all, by which I mean the usual burnt sugar / caramel / molasses combo – and it worked wonderfully. Smooth and easy and different. Wow. I liked this taste so much I didn’t even bother to try mixing it, just took one glass, another, then asked myself why the bottle was half empty. The fade was, admittedly, somewhat more anticlimatic – it was medium long, with an exit of faint citrus and fleshy pineapple notes, some honey and rained-on new-mown hay drying in the sun. Gentle and easy all round. Not excellent, but pretty damned good.

What makes Kōloa Hawaiian rum so special is that the rum I describe above was not aged at all. This meant that the flavour profile had no elements deriving from oak barrels (maybe that was why I got no “rum taste”?), and relied wholly and solely on its own ingredients, its own strengths and the skills of Kōloa’s blenders. That skill must be quite something given what I tasted.

Kōloa is one of those distilleries about which I have more information than I know what to do with – the opposite is usually true. Let me wrap it up this way: given the Hawaiian islands’ long involvement with sugar and the sea, it’s no surprise that rum has been part of the maritime culture for a very long time.  What is surprising is that this brand of rums is the first legally distilled popskull ever made on Kaua’i. The company was incorporated in 2001 and it took years for them to jump through all required bureaucratic hoops to get up and running in 2009. In their very first year of operations they won a Gold Medal at the 2010 Rum Renaissance in Miami for their Dark Rum (and again in 2011), and then another medal for this one in the 2010 Polished Palate Rum Festival awards. The word started filtering out that there was a new distillery to watch for, out of Hawaii. On the basis of this one, I’d say that word is entirely justified.