Oct 092016
 

aldea-cana-pura-1

The confusion as to what this white is meant for – a soft mixing rum, or an intro to individualistic macho – makes it, paradoxically enough, falter at both.

#310

You can imagine my surprise when I ran through the Ron Aldea line of rums from the Canary Islands last year, and after talking to the genial guy at the booth at my usual inordinate length, realized with astonishment that here was Santiago Bronchales, who previously was deeply involved with Ocean’s Atlantic, a rum I had thought was perhaps too overambitious for its own good, if reasonably drinkable.  Once he realized that I was the guy who had pestered him with no end of emails about his previous offering, his face split into a grin, and he carefully ran me through the entire history and lineup of the Ron Aldeas rums.

The Caña Pura — “pure cane” to you non-Spanish speaking folk reading this — is a white rum,  bottled at a rather timid 42%, unaged and in this case limited 1794 bottles (for a reason I’m still researching). All of the Aldea rums are rhums, true agricoles, distilled from fermented cane juice to 62% in a double column copper still made by the French firm Egrott, which Santiago helpfully informed me is 150 years old and powered with a wood-fed fire in the Canary Islands.

“Clear”, “white” or “silver” rums are gaining in popularity as people realize the same old industrially filtered milquetoast we all grew up on is not all there is to the uncoloured rumiverse. Haitian clairins, Cape Verde “grogue” and just about every bathtub distilled moonshine with a label slapped on that’s ever been made are leading the charge with the word “artisan” and “natural” being bandied about as major selling points, and full proof versions of such rums sell briskly.

aldea-cana-pura-2Unfortunately, this rhum isn’t part of that revolutionary vanguard of the peasants charging the barricades or assaulting the Bastille.  It’s more like a timorous, vacillating, middle-class bystander hoping not to get creamed in the chaos. Part of that is the strength, which at 42% doesn’t give much – the nose, for example, was quite weak, sharp on the initial sniff, with flashes of flavour peeking through….salt, olives and wax in the beginning, melding into sugar water and tree sap with some very light fruit after a while, mostly white guavas, a pear or two, and some vanilla.

While I liked the palate more than the aromas, I felt it was still too harsh and sharp (and a little dry, oddly enough).  The flavours opened up quite a bit more here: sweet sugar water, lemon zest, more briny olives, followed by cucumbers, pears, and there was some watermelon in there somewhere, hiding and refusing to be isolated, preferring (if I can extend the metaphor) to hide behind the other bystanders.   The finish: short, sweet, watery, more of the same.

Overall, this is not a narcissistic halo rum meant to laugh in the face of the musketry while joyously singing the “Arrorró” (so look it up).  It lacks the huevos for that kind of thing, and feels more like something tossed off to round out the portfolio (but if that’s the case, why the limited edition of 1794 bottles?). One could argue that a low-proof unaged white isn’t going to provide much so why write so much about it, but I dispute that, having had some crazy barking-mad hooch in my time – they were never top scorers, and never will be,  but man, they sure had character.  That’s what’s missing here.

In the main, then, the Caña Pura is more for the curious who would like to try something in between the more forceful French island blancs and the wussy mixers of the North American market.  Personally I believe the rhum could – and should – be left at the initially distilled and torqued-up 62% which would certainly make an emphatic fist-on-the-table reverbration in today’s world. Even at 42% it’s too tame and too quiescent, nervously peeping over the fullproof fence without every taking the chance to go there. That doesn’t make it a bad white mixing rhum, but not a top-tier one either…and it does leave us wondering rather wistfully what it could have been.

(80/100)

Company bio

The company itself, Distilerias Aldea S.I., is a 4th generation family-run outfit, founded in 1936 by Don Manuel Quevedo German, who was born in 1872 in Arucas, a small northern village of Grand Canary, and whose family seemed to have some energizer bunny in the gene pool, surviving the closure of just about every sugar operation with which they were associated over nearly sixty years. Don Manuel moved to Cuba and Santo Domingo as a young man and apprenticed in sugar mills in both places before returning to Gran Canaria, where he worked with his father an uncle in the Bañaderos sugar factory.  This facility was closed and shipped to Madeira in the sugar slump of the ‘teens and by 1920 all the main sugar concerns in the Canaries were out of business. After the factory in Madeira in turn got shuttered  in 1934, Quevado returned to the Canaries and took his accumulated experience to open his own operation…which also went belly-up in 1960 for various economic reasons, but which his sons restarted in La Palma in 1969 and has kept going ever since.

Other notes

I don’t know if it is filtered or not, or added to. I’ve heard that some mark it down for a certain sweetness and too little originality.  I’ll update this review when I find out.

The rum will be renamed “Single Cane” for the 2016 release season and onwards.

Sep 282016
 

la-confrere-long-2014-2

#307

Inhaling the powerful scents of this rhum is to be reminded of all the reasons why white unaged agricoles should be taken seriously as drinks in their own right.  Not for Longueteau and La Confrérie the fierce, untamed — almost savage — attack of the clairins; and also not for them the snore-fests of the North American whites which is all that far too many have tried. When analyzing the aromas billowing out from my tasting glass, what I realized was that this thing steered a left-of-middle course between either of those extremes, while tilting more towards the backwoods moonshine style of the former. It certainly presented as a hot salt and wax bomb on initial inspection, one couldn’t get away from that, but it smoothened out and chilled out after a few minutes, and coughed up a few additional notes.  Was there some pot still action going on here? Not as far as I know, more a creole column still.  It was a briny, creamy, estery, aromatic nose, redolent of nail polish and acetone (which faded) watermelon, cucumbers, swank, a dash of lemon and camomile…and maybe a pimento or two for some kick (naah – just kidding about that last one).

The taste of this thing was excellent: spicy hot, fading to warm, and surprisingly smooth for a rhum where I had expected more intensity.  Like many well made full proofs, the integration of the various elements was well done, hardly something we always expect from an unaged white; and after the initial discomfort one hardly noticed that it was a 50% rhum at all. It was comparatively light too, another point of divergence from expectations.  It tasted of all the usual notes that characterize white agricoles – vegetals, lemongrass, cucumbers and watermelon, more sugar water (it hinted at sweetness without bludgeoning you into a diabetic coma with it) – and then added a few interesting points of its own, such as green thai curry in coconut milk, and (get this!) the musky sweetness of green peas. It all closed up shop with a nicely long-ish, dry-ish, intense and almost elegant finish, with an excellent balance of zest, creamy cheese and those peas, and some of the esters and acetones carrying over from where everything had started.  The balance could be better, but I had and have no complaints.

la-confrere-long-2014-1La Confrérie are not independent bottlers in the way Velier, Rum Nation or Compagnie des Indes are.  What they do is work in collaboration with a given distillery, and then act more as co-branders than issuers.  This provides the distillery with the imprimatur of a small organization well known – in Europe generally and France in particular – for championing and promoting rhum, who have selected the casks carefully; and gives La Confrérie visibility for being associated with the distillery.  Note that La Confrérie is also involved in deciding which shops get to sell the rhum, so certainly some economic incentives are at work here.  (There are some other background notes on La Confrérie in the HSE 2007 review, if you’re interested).  The two co-founders — Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany – are currently touring Europe on an Agricole Tour to promote and extend the visibility of French island rhums, so their enthusiasm and affection for agricoles is not just a flash in the pan, but something to be taken seriously.

When I consider the pain Josh Miller went through to get the twelve blanc agricoles which he put through their paces the other day (spoiler alert – the Damoiseau 55% won), I consider the Europeans to be fortunate to have much greater resources at their disposal – especially in France, where I tried this yummy fifty percenter. And frankly, when North Americans tell me about their despite for white (so to speak), having had only Bacardis and other bland, filtered-to-within-a-whisker-of-falling-asleep mixing agents whose only claim to fame is their ubiquity, well, here’s one that might turn a few heads and change a few minds.  

(83/100)

Other notes

  • Outturn 1500 bottles
  • Source blue cane chopped, crushed, wrung out, soaked and hooched in May 2014, left in steel vats for around six months, and bottled in March 2015.
Aug 032016
 

Nine Leaves white 1

A quite serviceable, unmessed-with white rum from Japan, steering a delicate middle course between sleaze and decorum with less than complete success.

(#292 / 84/100)

***

Nine Leaves, that always-interesting one man operation out of Japan, doesn’t find much favour with Serge Valentin, who has consistently scored their rums low, but I’ve always kinda liked them myself.  The 2015 edition of the “Clear” is a case in point, and showcases the move of some rum makers into white, unaged, unfiltered, full-proof, pot still products.  The aren’t for everyone, of course, and may never find broad acceptance, since they always feel a shade untamed – in that lies their attraction and their despite.  I get the impression that most of the time cocktail enthusiasts are their main proponents, aside from writers and enthusiasts who love sampling  anything off the beaten track.

Such white rums share several points of commonality. They have a raw-seeming kind of profile, channel the scents of a starving artist’s one room studio (or maybe that of a dirty chop shop garage in a ghetto somewhere), and often feel a tad boorish to taste.  But as part of the great, sprawling family of rum, I recommend them, especially if they’re decently made, just so people can get a sense of how wide-ranging the spirit can be. And this one isn’t half bad.

What Nine Leaves did here was make a rather tamed version of the savage Haitian or Brazilian unaged rums which are its first cousins. Now, when poured and sniffed, it billowed up very aggressively (as one might expect from a popskull brewed to a meaty 50%), and the strong smell of fusel oil, wax attacked right away – pungent is as good a word as any to describe it, and it reminded me strongly of the Rum Nation Jamaican 57%, or even, yes, any of the clairins.  But it nosed in a way that seemed more rounded and less jagged than those elemental firewaters. And while I didn’t care for the scents of paraffin and cheap lye soap (of the kind I used to do laundry with by the side of nameless rivers in my bush days), there were gradually more assertive, sweeter smells coiling underneath it all…sugary water, watermelon, cinnamon and nutmeg.  These lighter hints redeemed what might otherwise have just been an unsmiling punch of proof.

Nine Leaves White 2

As I noted with the cachacas last week, the dry, sharp and sweet taste was something of a surprise, coming as it did at right angles to the preceding pot still heft.  Salty green olives and more sugar water melded uneasily and eventually made an uneasy peace with each other, to develop into a more easy going, even light, palate redolent of more watermelon, cane juice, with some of that thick oily mouthfeel that characterized the Sajous, or the Jamel. There were some green apples, florals, and half ripe mangoes (minus the mouth puckering tartness), even a shaving of lemon zest…however they all seemed to suffer from the issue of not knowing whether they wanted to go all-in and define the product as a rampaging pot still rum squirting esters and fuel oil in all directions, or be a lighter, sweeter and more nuanced, well-behaved rum that would appeal to a broader audience.

The finish suggested more clearly what the originating vision behind the rum had been – it was long, very long, a little dry, with sweet and salt finally finding their harmonious balancing point and providing a lovely ending to what had been a pretty good all-round (if not earth-shattering) experience.  It’s rich, yes, vibrant, yes, tasty, yes.  What was lacking was a little integration and balance, a bit more arrogance in the trousers, so to speak.

But don’t get me wrong. Mr. Takeuchi knows what he’s doing. He’s got time, patience, kaizen and some pretty neat tech backing him up.  He likes what he does, and makes what he does quite well.  This rum may be a smoothened-out, vaguely schizoid clear rum more akin to an unaged agricole — in spite of being made with molasses, from Okinawan sugar – but it still scores and tastes in the region of the clairins and other white rums that I may have raved about more enthusiastically. My recommendation is to ignore the score, and simply try the rum if you can.  You will likely be quite pleasantly surprised by how well an unaged rum can be made. And how nice it can taste, in its own understated way.

Other notes

Distilled on a copper Forsythe still. There are still no plans to issue rums older than two years, for the moment.

 

Jul 222016
 

Sagatiba Pura 2

Great nose. Taste and finish don’t quite measure up.

(#288 / 78/100)

***

This was a cachaça I bought back in 2011 or thereabouts, and never bothered to open and review because I had zero experience with the spirit beyond getting smacked on caipirinhas a few times; I lacked sufficient background to rate it properly and it seemed to be unfair to score it when there were no fitting comparators.  Several years on, nearly three hundred reviews and quite a few Brazilian spirits later, plus available comparators and controls, and I felt better equipped to write something I can put my name behind.  

Sagatiba PuraSagatiba Pura is produced in the small town of Patrocinio Paulista in the state of São Paolo, Brazil.  The company was formed in 2004, and through adroit marketing and what must have been pretty good brand ambassadorship, became one of the first cachaças to be widely exported and known outside its country of origin (it claimed to hold a 90% market share of cachaças in Britain in 2007).  It was likely this exposure that caused Campari to buy it in 2011 for $26 million. The company also makes Velha and Preciosa variations, which are aged and brown rhums in their own right, unlike this clear one, which was (and remains as of this writing) the only one of the line to make it to Canada. Too, while the USA appears to have gotten the 38% ABV version introduced back in 2013, mine was 40%.

The clear, multi-distilled, unaged cachaça had a nose that was by far the best of the series I tried that day, and though it came from a column still, did a good imitation of being a pot still product.  Rich, briny, waxy and redolent of spanish olives with  splash of furniture polish, it also had some hints of woodiness lurking in the background (though of course it had not been aged).  What made it shine in my estimation was the way it developed – after standing for a few minutes – and started to provide smells of citrus peel, crushed sugar cane, a sweetish amalgam of cinnamon and nutmeg, and even the light perfume of flowers…a really nice aroma all round, light and clean.

It was too bad that this promise didn’t carry over as to how it tasted.  It was spicy, clear, clean and dry, not sweet at all, with (initially) little of the delicate perfume the nose suggested. There was a certain metallic taste to it, a mixture of tobacco and wet campfire ashes, almost mineral-y in nature, sufficiently aggressive to squash the lighter vegetals, wet grass, aromatic cigarillos, sugar water, florals, watermelon and sliced pears which came out (helped by some water). These clashing flavours did not, in my estimation, play well together. Exactly the same notes carried over into the fade, which was short and dry and warm and smooth enough, but still ruined by the ashy and smoky, background, which was far too dominant and all-encompassing for me to appreciate it. There was originality here, no doubt, but no adherence to one taste profile over the other – like gambolling puppies they were all allowed to do pretty much what they pleased, without discipline or imposed order.

It’s curious that the Sagatiba is marketed as some kind of premium top end cachaça – it sure doesn’t taste like one, though it is better than the Leblon I tried alongside it. It’s possible that since the majority of the rum drinking public outside Brazil knows little about the type, or because bartenders who nab a bottle or two of it frothed over its potential, that such claims can be made. As far as I’m concerned, it has a snazzy bottle, clean, clear design philosophy (so it looks real cool), and excellent marketing, which, when all is distilled down to what matters – the taste and how it drinks – just makes me shrug and move it to the mixers shelf, which is probably where it always belonged anyway.

***

May 042016
 

Mana'o 1

Cool stoicism and subdued power, all in one rhum.

(#270. 84/100)

***

Standard “table” white rums have always been around, and perhaps appeal more to those mix them into gentle cocktails and go on to play Doom II  on “Please Don’t Hurt Me” difficulty.  In the main, the best known ones were — and are — filtered, light mixing agents which made to adhere to a philosophy best described as “We aim not to piss you off.” They excite a “ho-hum” rather than a “wtf?”

Not so the current crop of clear, unaged rums which have been making  an increasing splash in our small world and driving cocktail makers and barflies into transports of ecstasy.  They are more aggressive spirits in every way, often coming from pot-stills, with strong, assertive tastes that as often frighten as enthuse, and are admittedly tough to love.  French Island white agricoles, Cachacas (and clairins) are embodiments of this trend, which doesn’t stop other various makers from issuing variations from Jamaica, Guyana or Barbados (like the DDL High Wine, or Rum Nation’s Jamaican 57%, for example).

A new rhum aiming to break into this market reared its head in the 2016 Paris RhumFest – a product from, of all places, Tahiti, not the first country you would be thinking of as a bastion of the spirit.  The rhum was launched by Brasserie du Pacifique in late 2015, has a sleek looking website short on details, and when I drifted by Christian’s place in Paris a week or two back, he and Jerry Gitany insisted I try it. It aimed, I suspect, to straddle the mid-point of the white market – it was not so unique as the clairins, and not so filtered-to-nothing as the Lambs or Bacardis of the world.  In pursuing this philosophy, they’re channelling the French islands’ agricoles, carving themselves out a very nice niche for those who have a thing for such rums but would prefer less roughness and adventurousness than the clairins provide so enthusiastically.

Mana'o 2

Coming from first press sugar cane grown on the island of Taha’a (NW of Tahiti), it is made from a pot still (see my notes below), and presented itself as quite an interesting rhum. When gingerly smelled for the first time (at 50%, some caution is, as always, in order), you could see it had been toned down some – sure there were the usual wax and floor polish and rubber-turpentine leaders, they simply weren’t as potent as others I’ve tried. Vegetal, grassy, watery scents hung around the background, it was slightly more salt than sweet, and presented an intriguingly creamy nasal profile…something like a good brie and (get this) unsweetened yoghurt with some very delicate citrus peel.  

To taste it was, at the beginning, very robust, almost full bodied.  Just short of hot; and dry, dusty vegetals and hay danced across the palate immediately, accompanied by sweet sherbet and mint ice cream notes.  And that wax and polish stuff I smelled?  Gone like yesterday’s news.  As it opened up and water was added,it became very much more like a traditional agricole, with watery elements – sugar cane sap, white guavas, pears, cucumber, dill, watermelon – getting most of the attention, and lighter herbal and grassy tastes taking something of a back seat.  I said it started robustly, but in truth, after a while, it settled down and became almost light – it was certainly quite crisp and pleasant to drink, with or without water.  The fade was pretty good, long and lasting, salty and sweet at the same time, with some last hints of lemongrass, crushed dill, faint mint and olives finishing things off.

This was a well-behaved drink on all fronts, I thought.  It’s not terribly original, and my personal preferences in such whites run closer to more untamed, barking mad clairins and the higher-proofed French agricoles — but you could easily regard this as a decent introduction to the white stuff if you wanted more than a standard table tipple, but less than the deep pot still pungency coming out of Haiti. Sometimes we focus so hard on the Caribbean that we lose sight of new companies from other countries who are shaking things up in the rumworld and producing some pretty cool rums.  This looks be one of those, and I doubt you’d be displeased if you bought it.


Other notes

The website makes mention of the use of a “discontinuous pot still”. As far as I am aware, the term arose from a bad translation of the Spanish “alembique descontínuo” which is simply a pot still by another name.

It is unclear whether the Tahitian company Ava Tea, supposedly the oldest distillery in Tahiti, is directly involved in the making of this rhum, or just lent some technical expertise (and the pot still).

Mana’o means “to think” or “to remember” in Polynesian languages (including Hawaiian), and has many subtler shades of meaning. It’s probably a sly reminder that sugar cane originated in Asia.

rum-manao-rhum-blanc-051

Apr 132016
 

D3S_3647

A tasty, unaged, pot-still white rum, which St. Nicholas Abbey seems to have made while in a playfully experimental phase.

(#266. 83/100)

***

So there I was last week, reading through my notes and writing unenthusiastically about the 3 year old “Real McCoy” white rum from Barbados, which found little favour with me.  But consider this unaged counterpart made right up the road from St. Nicholas Abbey, also issued at 40%, also a white and in just about every way a superior product.  What could account for such a difference? Well, part of it is the lack of filtration, another is the source – it is a full pot still product, not a blend of pot and column. Double distilled and with a longer than usual fermentation period (5 days plus two more of “resting”).  

Whatever the case, unaged white pot still rums are getting quite a bit of attention these days, moving the rum world away from dependable silver mixing agents whose name everyone knows, to something a bit more…well, adventurous. Clairins and agricoles have always been around and are leading the charge, but cachacas are making some waves too, and if more makers like Nine Leaves, St. Nicks and Rum Nation and others are spending time and money on making them, the next few years will be quite interesting on that front.

This particular rum tried very hard to walk the line between too much and too little, and succeeded pretty well: not for St. Nicks’s was the dumbing down of their product to appeal to a mass market by making a rum that wouldn’t offend anyone; and yet dialling up the volts to something that would be polarizing was not for them either.  They issued it in a smart looking bottle, at a tolerable 40%, and it was soothing enough to appeal without entirely disguising the potential and tamed wildness of its antecedents.

A rum like the White can only really be appreciated by trying it in tandem with rums like it up and down the scale.  For example, take the aromas: wax, olives, paraffin wax, floor polish and brine leaped out of the glass, and I know how unappetizing that sounds (I was fortunate in that I’ve tried more potent popskull and so I kinda knew what to expect).  But if you compare it with the DDL  Superior High Wine,  Rum Nation Pot Still 57%, or the Clairin Sajous, (or the Vaval, or the Casimir) which all packed more punch, you could make a reasoned argument that 40% really works for a larger drinking audience with rums like this. The character of the rum might be dampened a bit, yet it’s still there, singing as chirpily as a cageful of canaries. And be comforted…after some minutes the nose does even out a bit, bringing forward more floral notes, the light sugariness of candyfloss, papaya and sugar water…even a flirt of light honey.  However, it should be noted that there were few signs of any of that vegetal, grassy smell which is so prevalent in agricoles.

The taste was also quite intrguing.  I was expecting that oily, paraffin bedrock to continue, and indeed, this was there, just not that dominant.  The profile, which began with some heat, was reasonably smooth, sweet, light and clear, presenting anise, flowers and ripe cherries that kept what most would call unpleasant off-notes in the background, where they contributed a note or two — the floor polish was noticeable, for example — without overwhelming the taste outright.  With water additional cinnamon, whipped cream and crushed walnuts could be discerned, and the finish, while short, was very crisp and clear, without any driness at all.  Considering that I walked up to the St. Nick’s not expecting much of anything, it was a very pleasant surprised to be pampered by the overall worth of what I initially took to be just another throwaway white mixer.

Summing up, then, I think this is a very good all purpose white rum, and if it does not ascend to the heights of crazy as exemplified by the stronger rums noted above, you can see it had the potential to do so had they decided to beef it up some more.  It retained enough character and zest to stand by itself and possesses sufficient off notes to enhance whatever cocktail you’re thinking of dunking it into.  In that sense, it’s a great “bridge” rum —  it can be for both drinking neat or mixing, and would neither alienate those who despised the more elemental pot still whites, nor piss off the guys who prefer something that gives more bassa-bassa.  When you think about it, for any clear rum to pull off that trick is quite a feat, and that’s part of why the St. Nick’s product (and many agricole white rums) succeeds, when the white McCoy three year old, or other industrial white mixing fodder like Bacardi Superior so sadly don’t.  And it also succeeds, for my money, because it had the guts to actually go somewhere new.

Other notes

The source distillate in this case is not FourSquare, but St. Nick’s own stocks, from their own sugar cane.

Jan 072016
 

Casimir 3

This rum is like Hooters: delightfully tacky, enjoyable as hell, and unrefined to a fault.  And once you’ve given it a shot, it’s like you have a sneaking suspicion you’ll soon be back, grumbling all the while Poukisa rum nan toujou fini?”

(#248 / 86.5/100)

***

The Clairin “Casimir” white rum, the third of the Haitian Clairins, is maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerizing if you are. I noted in a comment on the Vaval that it’s tough to love, and the same applies here, only more so. If you have not thrown the thing away in disgust after ten minutes, it’s very likely that thereafter, you will never entirely get it out of the mental arsenal of your tasting memories.  

Does that make it a good rum? Not necessarily for all people, in all places…although it does make it an original, cut from wholly different cloth.  And as with any such thing, we must be ready for strange detours, waves of difference and surreal experiences without clear analogues in our minds…except perhaps other Clairins.  I first sampled the Sajous back in Paris in April 2015 and was enthralled on the spot; my love affair continued with the Vaval, and I felt it was only fair to get the review of the Casimir out the door just so the full set was available for those who don’t mind straying not only off the beaten path, but into another country entirely.

Casimir

I make these points to prepare you for the massive pungency of the Casimir’s initial attack. As I’ve mentioned before for the other two, I recommend approaching it with care (maybe even trepidation) especially if this is your first sojourn into the world of these organic, traditionally-made, pot-still, unaged white full-proofs. Because while it initially presented to the nose very prettily, this was just a way to lure you into the same smack in the face. Powerful, pungent scents of boot polish, fusel oils, freshly lacquered wooden floors lunged smoothly out of the gate, skewering the unwary sniffer. I felt the sugar to be stronger here than on either the Vaval or the Sajous, with additional notes of soy sauce, teriyaki chicken with loads of green vegetables, Knorr packet soup, thick, heavy and my God, it didn’t ever let up. Even at a “mere” 54% it handily eclipsed the 57% Rum Nation Jamaican white pot still rum in sheer potent olfactory badassery. The Casimir quite simply makes you rethink what ageing means – nothing this young and unrefined should be this remarkable.

On the palate, I remember thinking, Man this is great. It had the smooth, hot body of an energetic and buxom porn star, and took a sharp left turn from the nose, starting out with sweet sugar water and cucumber slices in diluted vinegar…it sported a mouthfeel that alternated between silk and steel.  Mint, marzipan, more floor polish, faint olive oil notes drummed on the tongue.  It had less of the fusel oil that so marked the Sajous, with dill, coriander, lemon pepper, fennel, fish sauce, and some weird mineral/vegetal component that reminded me of peat for some reason. I don’t know how it managed that trick, but somehow it walked the delicate line between tongue-in-cheek titillation and overt sleaze. Really quite a lovely taste to it, the best of the trio.  And the finish, no major complaints from me there either, it was long, sweet and oily, with just a note of kerosene in the background to mar what was otherwise a great drinking experience, and I gotta tell you, I really liked this one (different though it was).

The Casimir is made by those friendly Haitian folk down by Barradères, which is a small village in the commune of Nippes Department in the southwestern leg of the half-island. It’s not far from Port-au-Prince, but still needs a tough-ass 4×4 to get to since it is (to use West Indian parlance) “way down dere behine Gad back.” Not much going on in the village, it’s subsistence farming all the way – but this small place has more distilleries than Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica combined – thirteen in all, though admittedly these are small-shack Mom-and-Pop operations for the most part and not industrial powerhouses in the business of stocking global shelves.

Faubert Casimir is a second generation distiller (his father began making the white lightning back in the late 1970s), and is considered by some to be the local maestro of Clairins. The rum derives from Hawaii White and Hawaii Red sugar cane grown on the 120-acre “plantation” out back, and, in a peculiarity of the region, the makers add some herbs or vegetable matter to pure cane juice in fermentation, to enhance the flavors. M. Casimir himself adds leaves of citronella, cinnamon, and in some batches, ginger, and some of that evidently carried over into the final product.  Does that make it an adulterated rhum?  Maybe.  But for something this rich and powerful and bat-bleep-crazy, I’m willing to let it pass just to observe how joyously these guys run headfirst into a wall in making a rhum so distinct. 

Of course, if you have already tried the Sajous or the Vaval (or read my notes on them both), none of this will come as news to you.  And you might think, “Bah! They’re all the same, so why buy three when one can tell the tale?” You’d be right, of course…but only up to a point. They are variations on a theme, each with a subtle point of difference, a slightly different note, making each one similar, yes….and also unique. Perhaps you have to try all three to get that…or simply be deep into rums.

Yon gran mèsi, Faubert

Other notes:
I love those bright, hectic, almost primitive labels — as an attention-getter, the bottle this rum comes in ranks somewhere between running naked through your dronish cubicle farm and throwing a brick through a shop window. The Haitian artist Simeon Michel provided the paintings for the Casimir and the Sajous (but alas, I have no clever story for this one).

Casimir 2

Nov 162015
 

Clairin-Vaval-etichetta-2014

Looks like water but goes down like a charge of cheerfully boosted C4. You won’t mistake it for any other rhum…except maybe its cousins.

(#241 / 84.5/100)

***

Full of get-up-and-go instilled by the momentous encounter that was the Sajous, I sprang for both the Casimir and the Vaval (plus a Sajous of my own) at the first available opportunity.  Because come on, originality and going off the reservation in the rum world are vanishing ideals, and it’s not often that a rhum is so amazingly, shockingly off-base that it’s in another ballpark altogether.

Such a rhum was the Clairin Vaval, produced by Fritz Vaval of Haiti in his charmingly old school column still — made, if you can believe it, with leather trays and a condenser made from old petrol cans. Luca Gargano of Velier, while gaining greater fame for his own rums and his push for a clearer classification system for the spirit, was the man behind the attempt to bring the Haitian clairins to a wider audience a couple of years ago.  Good for him for using his bully-pulpit for such a cause.  Because while the clairins are not to everyone’s taste, I can tell you with some assurance that they are among the wildest, angriest and most rip-snorting rums available…and also, to my mind, ferociously, laughingly good.  You can almost imagine the Fritz’s fiendish giggles in your mind, as you gaze at your glass the first time you try the Vaval and give vent to a disbelieving “Putain mais c’était quoi ça?”

By now I was more familiar with, and expecting, the initial salt wax nose-bomb, so after experiencing that (I hesitate to say enjoying, since that might stretch credulity to the point of disbelief), I paid rather more attention.  There were fusel oil and kerosene backbones to this colourless liquid, mixed in with gherkins, vinegar and garlic (really!). The pungency of the rhum was as ripe and randy as the Sajous, and only grudgingly gave way to vanilla, sugar water, freshly sliced cucumbers and a sort of clear lightness of watermelons and maybe pineapples – very very light fruit, being hammered home by strong overtones of an unaged pot still product.

The palate was much the same, just more of it. Oily and salty and somewhat rubbery on the first attack, with sweet water backing it up.  Very strong and almost sharp, of course — it was 52.5% after all — but not raw or pestilentially fierce, not seeking only hurt.  Rather, it was thick and warm and almost fatty.  Once the first tastes move on and it opened up (helped with a little water), billowing and very heated tastes of breakfast spices, white sugar, olives, fresh-cut grass, a flirt of vanilla and some more of that kerosene made themselves felt.  Dynamically, assertively, full-throatedly so. You kind of have to breathe deep after each sip when sampling this rhum. The finish was long and not a bit dry, closing the show with some lemon zest and an odd hint of pickles with all the various leaves floating around in it. Trust me, the flavours linger for a hell of a long time on this one, and you almost want it to.

That was some drink.  It was only as I tried it in concert with the other two that its own individuality became more clearly discernible – on its own, or tasted apart, they might all seem quite similar, but they’re not, not really.  Each is as distinct as an adjacent piano key note. Like the Sajous or the Casimir, I would not recommend this unreservedly to the larger population of the rumworld; I would however suggest that if you can, give it a try, very gently, just to see where rum could go if it really felt like it.  Because these gents from Haiti may be the last surviving remnants of microdistillers who make rhum in a totally old fashioned, organic way and you could argue that you’re seeing what rhum was like in its infancy when you try one.

There’s something about clairins that defies easy description.  They’re so pungently, tartly original, so immensely weird, and yet so absurdly tasty, all at the same time. The nose is enough to swat away an angry bear, sure, but that taste…oh man.  There I was at 2am, on a cool, crisp October night on a balcony in Berlin, switching from one clairin to the other, making my notes, enjoying the heat, revelling in the tastes, and I felt something unusual, and you know what?  It might have been happiness.

Other notes:

Made from freshly hand-harvested blue cane, utterly organic, utterly unaged. The cane juice is fermented with wild yeast. Fresh of the column still. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No filtration.

Mr. Vaval’s operation is called Arawak’s Distilleries – it’s been in operation since 1947, and is located near Cavaillon in Haiti’s southern horn, close by Les Cayes. It’s apparently just a couple of cinder-block rooms and a corrugated zinc roof.  It contains a still, some small fermentation tanks and a small crushing mill, all on the grounds of an old colonial maison surrounded by twenty acres of Madame Meuze cane.

I have to share this one with you. Remember how Luca’s own photos embraced the Velier Caroni labels? Well, he took the work of Mr. Simeon Michel (a well-known Haitian artist) for the bright artwork of the Sajous and Casimir labels, but the Vaval bottle design has a different story.  Some years ago, Luca was speaking to an old Genoese taxi driver about rums (he talks to everyone about rums – you gotta wonder about his pillow talk sometimes, honestly), mentioned Haiti and clairins, and the guy turned out to be a long-retired sailor who had been to the half-island and acquired some local artwork, back in the 1960s.  Luca, for the right to scan this painting and use the image on the bottle, paid the man an undisclosed sum…and with six bottles of the first edition of the Vaval.

 

Oct 152015
 

Sunset 1Hulk no like puny rum.  Hulk smash. The last and strongest of the overproof howitzers batters my glass.

(#235. 84/100)

***

It’s a giant of a drink, the most powerful commercial rum ever made, a gurgling frisson of hot-snot turbo-charged proofage.  0.5% additional points of proof and the black clothes squad with silenced helicopters and full SWAT gear would be rapelling down to my apartment searching for weaponized rum. It skirts jail-time illegality by a whisker, and I can truly say the only reason I bought it was anal-retentive machismo and the desire to say I had. Like every 151 ever made (but more so), it was a drink to be feared the way Superman crosses himself when he sees Kryptonite

The Sunset Very Strong Rum is equal parts amazing and puzzling. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear why St. Vincent makes such a juggernaut.  Bragging rights, maybe? Even with their proof-point, 151s are vastly more popular, and more common, so what’s the point of this one?  About all it could reasonably be used for, after all is (a) a killer cocktail or mixer like the Vincentian “steel bottom” (a man-sized chug from the local Hairoun beer, then top the bottle back up with the rum, pleasant on a hot day, but only one or two or your day would be done) (b) the fastest drunk ever (c) an economical boozer for those without deep pockets, since one gets two 40% bottles for every one of these, and (d) an excuse to use lots and lots of colourful metaphors.

The Sunset Very Strong is made by St Vincent Distillers, formed from Mt. Bentnick Estate which had its genesis at the turn of the 20th century; in 1963 it was sold to the government and renamed the St. Vincent Distillery. This company was itself resold to a private concern in 1996 but the name was retained and they remain in operation to this day.  The SVS originates from a two column stainless steel still – I am unclear whether the molasses comes from Guyana or new cane crops planted on the island, and nowhere is it mentioned whether any ageing takes place at all. (I’ve heard that it’s unaged, though I believe it is, just a bit).

I can tell this is boring to non-history buffs. Seriously, you want tasting notes on this thing?  To be honest, I don’t quite know where to start, since drinking the rum neat is an exercise in futility (no-one else ever will).  But whatever….

Sunset 2The (cautiously assessed) nose was extremely sharp, a glimmering silver blade of pure heat.  For all that, once the bad stuff burned off, I was amazed by how much was going on under the hood.  Initially, there was an explosion of an abandoned Trojan factory installed in the Batcave, fresh cut onions, sweat and oil, crazy crazy intense. Stick with it, though, is my advice – because it did cool off (a little).  And then there were vanilla aromas, some cane sap, coconut shavings and red ripe cherries, a subtle hint of butter lurking in the background. I looked at the glass in some astonishment, quite pleased with the scents that emerged where I had expected nothing but rotgut, and then moved on to taste.

Before you sip, a word of warning.  Move your cigar to the side. Make sure no sparks are nearby. Literally, take a tiny drop at a time. A teensy tiny one.  84.5% is so incredibly ferocious that even that small drop coated the entire tongue with a massive heated oiliness. And it was even a bit creamy.  Wow.  White chocolate, butter biscuits, philadelphia cream cheese on wonder bread, vanilla ice cream, nuts, nougat, toblerone, all dialled up to “11” (make that “12”).  To call this rum sharp or chewy might understate the matter. It had so much maxillary oomph that it might well cause the shark in Jaws to go see his therapist, yet it was remarkable how much I enjoyed it. As for the fade, well, come on, what were you expecting? Long and dry as speeches my father makes at other people’s weddings.  Ongoing notes of vanilla, butter, white chocolate (nothing new here).  But those few, clear tastes went on for ages – I think my automatic watch might run down before the closing notes of the SVS dissipate. And before you ask – yes, I really liked this thing.

At 84.5% ABV, the SVS is brutal, amazing, interesting, tasty, and will always be the most powerful rum of its kind…in shadowed corners of near-abandoned bars I’ve heard it whispered that it once tore an Encyclopedia Brittanica collection in half with its bare hands while simultaneously curing the common cold and giving birth to Def Leppard and AC/DC (at the same time). In the overproof rum pantheon, the Sunset Very Strong sits at the extreme top, next to that crazy bastard next door who claims to have brewed something stronger in his grandmother’s bathtub.

But as psychotic as it is, I can’t help but think this is what we’ve been looking for from the world of badass white full-proofs. It’s wholly ridiculous, impractical to a fault and so completely preposterous that it revels in its own depravity. Frankly, that’s just what a powerful Hulk-sized rum should do. And depending on your level of crazy, it’s either a blessing or a curse that the Sunset Very Strong Rum will rarely be seen beyond the walls of a local watering hole’s private stocks, amused fanboys’ homebars…or, perhaps, mine.

Other notes:

  • I must stress that originality is not the SVS’s forte.  The Clairins out of Haiti, for example are quite a bit more off the beaten track (if not as strong).  The SVS is actually a very traditional white rum, akin to Grenada’s Clarke’s Court or Guyanese High Wine, and serves primarily a local market (exports are relatively minimal outside the Caribbean).  Unlike those two, it’s merely torqued up to the maximum legal point and that provided the flavours it did contain with such intensity that it became a sort of masochistic reflex just to try it that way. But it was meant as a mixer, not a sipper, and should be tried that way, I think.
  • This rum is the most popular spirit on the island, and is often seen as the kill-divil of overproof choice in many other small Caribbean islands catering to the tourist trade. It is almost always mixed. Word has it that it’s so popular in St Vincent, that when stocks ran out after a shipment of Guyanese molasses was held up at the port, riots nearly ensued.
  • A year or so after I tried this rum, I scored one even more powerful – the Surinamese Marienburg 90%.  That one was stronger, but I liked this one better.
  • Thanks to Robert Bradley for the note on the SVG “steel bottom” variation.

 

Apr 302015
 

D3S_1657-001

Drinking this rum is knowing what harpooning Moby Dick felt like. A wild-haired full-proof bodybuilder of a rhum, so absolutely unique in taste that it it defied easy description. I sampled it and knew I wanted to write about it immediately.  

(#212. 82/100)

***

So there I was in Paris at La Maison du Whiskey in April 2015, with some fellow rummies. Hundreds of bottles of rhum and rum beckoned from groaning shelves. Samples from years past – decades past! – winked in their little bottles, inviting us to get started. Straight-out rumporn, honestly. Our hands were itching to start the pours, but we were having too much fun just talking with each other to get going.

We were discussing rum classifications – colour, country, age, style – and the organizer of our ramblings (who wanted to remain nameless so I shall simply refer to him as The Sage) suggested that origin was probably best as a primary separator – pot still, single column still, multiple column still, juice versus molasses, etc – before going into further possible gradations of colour and ageing and country and style.

“You simply cannot mistake a pot still product, fresh off the still,” he argued. “Like Pere Labatt white, or Neisson, HSE, any of the agricole makers who produce a white rum at full proof.”

“Don’t forget Haiti,” I suggested, thinking mostly, it must be said, of Barbancourt. But also of the new stuff Velier was developing, from that half-island.

“Yes, absolutely,” said the Sage, switching directions in a heartbeat.  “There are five hundred small producers in Haiti making clear rum the way they have for ages and ages.  Barbancourt is good but gone mass market.  If you want to see what a really original white pot still product is like, you have to try these small ones that only get sold locally, at any strength. Fully organic, old-school stuff.”

D3S_1657

“Never tried one,” I admitted.

There was a hushed sound of indrawn breaths as the room fell silent.  Serge’s impressive mustache – the one that Tom Selleck weeps himself every night to sleep wishing he had –  twitched.  Cyril dropped his glass, and Daniele choked into his. They all regarded me with pitying stares. The Sage himself looked utterly scandalized at my ignorance: I had evidently dropped a few notches in his esteem. After huffing and puffing his indignation for a moment, he darted behind the counter, rummaged around a bit and came back carefully holding a tasting glass brimming with a white liquid like he feared it might explode.

“Try this. Full proof Clairin Sajous, bottled straight from the still. 53.5%”

The term “clairin” is not a common one: references to it only exist online dating back to 2008. Clairin is, quite simply, clear white pot still rhum made in Haiti from cane juice, sometimes with wild yeast and a longer fermentation period, often without any ageing whatsoever.  They can range from a please-don’t-hurt-me 30% or so, to (in more extreme cases) a more feral gun-toting, bring-it-on 60%. It’s the drink of the country, the way cachaca is in Brazil.

The variants of the rhum span the whole gamut of quality as well: some are rough, bathtub-brewed popskull as likely to kill you as enthuse you, bottled in whatever containers are on hand for the benefit of local consumption; others are slightly more upscale and professionally made stuff, from small one-man outfits like Sajous, Vaval and Casimir – these are occasionally sent abroad.  Velier has distributed these three in its latest offerings, for example, and it was the Sajous I was trying.

The rhum looked harmless, defenceless, innocuous…meek and demure.  I regarded it suspiciously as a result. I remembered traumatic incidents with cachaca, as well as unexpected clear taste bombs from Rum Nation and Nine Leaves. “Not aged at all?” I asked.

“No.”

I took a tentative pull with my nose. Even that tiny, delicate, sommelier-sniffing-the-wine sniff was too much. My eyes watered, my vision swam, my nose puckered, and my knees trembled. My God but this stuff was pungent.  Not so much the strength, which was a relatively strong-but-bearable 53.5%, but its sheer intense potency. If I was older, I might have asked for a defibrillator to be on standby.

There was this incredibly large bubble of salt and wax expanding through my head. Brine and gunpowder exploded on the nose, mixed in with kerosene and fuel oil, turpentine and lacquer. It was almost like sniffing a tub of salt beef, yet behind all that, there was the herbal clarity of water in which a whole lot of sugar was dissolved (“swank” we called it in my bush-working days), crushed green mint leaves and just-mown grass on which the sprinkler is irrigating in bright sunlight.

I withdrew my nose after a few tries of this, scribbled my notes down in a shaking hand, and moved on to taste.  I had learnt caution, as you can see. And if you’re trying a full-proof Clairin yourself for the first time after a lifetime of molasses-based rums, I’d recommend it.

D3S_1658

The feel of the Sajous in the palate was hot, thick and heavy, even though the thing was not raw or excruciatingly sharp by any means. It was as intense and flavourful as the nose, if not more so – sap, thick and sweet and oily started things out.  The rhum coated the tongue with the tenacity of a junkie clutching five dollar bill. I don’t often use the word “chewy” but it really works to describe how it felt.  Initially the Sajous presented itself as heated and spicy, and then it smoothened out well, giving over to a buttery, and more agricole-like profile – fresh cut sugar cane, wax, furniture polish, salt beef in malt vinegar (yeah, I know how that sounds), and all shot through with green, unripe fruit, some lemon peel, and that vegetal, green flavour that drives agricole lovers into transports. More kerosene and brine permeated the back end, and the fade, long and deep, lingered for a damned long time – enough to make me put down the glass after a bit, inhale deeply and just try to wait the thing out.  Before starting again.

I finally stopped my sampling, caught my breath, and looked over at Cyril from DuRhum, who was grinning at me with a glass of his own in his hand. “What did you think of it?” I asked him.  He and I both liked the Nine Leaves Clear and had good things to say about Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still.  Perhaps the closest rum to this profile I’d ever tried was the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%). Those were similar to this, but nowhere near as uncultured, as elemental. They had been babied a little, smoothened a mite in the cuts, while this hadn’t even progressed to training wheels. It reminded me of three explosive cachacas I had tried (twice) from a small booth at the 2014 Berlin RumFest – they exhibited that same off-the-scale craziness and untamed wild freedom.

Cyril’s understatement was massively un-Gallic: “It’s different, isn’t it?” He, Daniele and The Sage were vastly amused at my reaction.  I guess that was understandable – I don’t have a poker face worth a damn, and had never tried a white rhum with quite this level of profile intensity before. Just the aroma was enough to make you rethink any preconceptions of what a rum or rhum could be.

“All right then,” I said to The Sage, stealing another sip and shuddering a little less. “What can you tell me about the Sajous?”

He told me what he knew (much of which was on the label): it was made from pure sugar harvested from Java cane originating from India, grown in a small 30-hectare estate owned by Michel Sajous, in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye just north of Port-au-Prince. It was all organic and un-messed with from start to finish.  Fermentation was done over seven to ten days using wild yeast, double distilled at the Chelo distillery on the property – and then run straight into the bottles after coming off the still.  No ageing, no additives, no dilution, no nothing.

“Real traditional agricole rhum before it gets tampered with, purest example of the type,” he said, and it was clear he wasn’t kidding. If there was ever an “original” rhum, the Sajous wasn’t far away from it – the only issue I had with it was perhaps a bit too much.  I liked it…more or less.  And the more intoxicated I got, the better it was, which may have been the point.

Cyril, Serge, Daniele, The Sage and I moved on to other things, sampled a load of old rums, went to dinner, talked about rum, drank some more, talked about rum, and had a wonderful time. They were all courteous enough to speak English to me, as my French is execrable – I got my own back by carrying on in Russian with The Sage’s beautiful better half.  You’d think we would run out of things to say about rum after a while, but no – the subject was as inexhaustible as the varieties. Alas, I had to excuse myself after several hours of it, since my wife was waiting for me and probably getting grumpy.

As I walked back to my hotel, I tried to summarize my feelings about the Clairin Sajous. Without dissing the thing, I can say that this is not everyone’s rum, or a must-have unicorn you share like pictures of your first-born. In fact, Spanish and English style molasses-based rum lovers would likely never approach it again after trying it once.  Even agricole enthusiasts might back off a bit.  I’m scoring it reasonably high because of good production value, great heft, an enormously intriguing profile, and an original character that stands supremely alone on the prow of its self-proclaimed awesomeness, saying “Call me Sajous”. It would make a tiki drink or a complex cocktail that would blow your hair back, no problem, yet it is probably too different from the mainstream to appeal to most – in that lies both its attraction and its downfall.

Because, you see, some taming of this beast is likely to be required, before it finds real favour and acceptance in the bars of the broader rum world. I liked it for that precise reason, and will get it (and its brothers) again but must be honest enough to say I’d only buy one at a time, far apart…and always have a defibrillator handy.

Other notes

Made by Sajous at Chelo, but distributed and promoted by Velier.

For the guys I met and who took the time to talk rum, a big Merci. It really was a wonderful get-together.

The artwork on both this and the Casimir was done by Simeon Michel, a well known Haitian artist.  There’s a better story behind the Vaval design, if you’re interested, at the bottom of the review.