Jun 202019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

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

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


Other Notes

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

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

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

A first release limited to 639 bottles

Jun 092019
 

“Could grogue be the next clairin?” asked Dwayne Stewart in a facebook post the other day, when he and Richard Blesgraaf were discussing the Vulcão, and his respondent (you could almost see him smile) replied with a sort of yoda-like zen calm, “Clairin is clairin.”  Which is true. Because beyond the superficial similarities of the two island nations – the relative isolation of the islands, the artisanal nature of their juice, the mom-and-pop rural distillation of the spirit far away from modern developments or technological interference – the truth is that you could not mistake one for the other. At least, not those that I’ve tried.

Take, for example, the subject of today’s review, the Vulcão grogue, which is nowhere near as ominous as its name suggests.  If you have previously tried one of the four main Velier-distributed Haitian clarins (the Sajous, Vaval, Casimir and Le Rocher), marvelled at their in-your-snoot take-no-prisoners ferocity and taste, and took Dwayne’s question to heart, you might be expecting some kind of long-gestated uber-strong clear xenomorph hammered out of Vulcan’s forge, that threatened to melt your tonsils.  But it’s not. In fact, it’s closer to an off-beat agricole than anything else, and a particularly good one at that.

Even at 45% – which is practically tame for a clear rhum these days — the Vulcão smelled lovely, and started off with brine, thyme-infused water and lemon sherbet poured over a meringue cake. After five minutes or so, it also gave off scents that were creamy, salty, olive-y, with a dusting of white chocolate and vanilla, and as if impatient to continue, belched out some additional fruity whiffs — watermelon, pears, white guavas and bananas. There were also some odd minerals and ashes and iodine (not quite medicinal, but close), with overtones of sugar-water.  

Short version – a yummy nose, and fortunately, it didn’t falter on the palate either. It was strong, and quite dry, unusual for a cane-juice based rhum (last time I had something so sere was years ago, with the Flor de Cana Extra Dry white).  The brine and olives really came out and made an initial statement here, and combined with the sweeter elements with impressive control and in well-nigh perfect balance, making for a worthy sipping rum by anyone’s standards. With a drop or two of water came white fruits, flowers and sugar water, all of which were the slightest bit tart.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there was a light creaminess of butter pastry, Danish cookies and anise hanging about in the background, reminding me of the freshly baked croissants Mrs. Caner so loves to have in Paris. The finish is rather subdued, even faint – perhaps we should not expect too much of 45% but after that nose and that taste I sort of was, sorry, and even though I noted almonds, toblerone, sugar water, nougat, pears, ripe apples, it seemed a bit less than what had come before. Not shabby, not bad…just not up to the same standard.

Anyway, finish aside, the development and movement the rhum displays on the tongue is excellent, first salt, then sweet, then creamy, well-balanced and overall a remarkable drink by any standard. It remembers its antecedents, being both a fierce and forceful rhum…but is also a nicely integrated and tasty sipping drink, crisp and clear, displaying a smorgasbord of contrasting, even competing, yet at all times well-melded series of sweet and sour and salt flavours in delicious harmony. Sip or mix, it’ll do well in either case.

So, to answer Dwayne’s perhaps rhetorical question with respect to taste and production details, my own response would be “Not really.” While grogues are a fascinating subset of rums, an intriguing branch on Yggdrasil (The Great Rum Tree), they are too different — too elegant, maybe — to really be classed with or as clairins.  They do share some of the same DNA: fresh cut cane juice and wild yeast fermentation (for ten days) and no ageing, for example, but also go in their own direction by using pot stills (as here) not columnar ones. What comes out the other end, then, are terroire-driven white rums with a character all their own, with this one, one of the best I tried in Paris, absolutely worth trying, and close to being an undiscovered steal.  In the sense of that last statement, now that I think about it, I’d answer Dwayne differently…and tell him that they’re exactly like clairins.

(#631)(85/100)


Other notes

  • I’ve put some feelers out regarding the company that makes it, and if/when/once this is received the post will be updated with some more factual background info.
  • Made in in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde. I was told five small “distilleries” exist in this tiny place, and three of them supply the grogue which is blended into the Vulcão.
  • Back label translation: The island of Santo Antao in Cabo Verde is undoubtedly one of the first cradles of cane spirits. Before rum or cachaca, it has been unchanging for hundreds of years. Distilled in ancient pot-stills made from pure cane juice, this rum ancestor is an extraordinary witness of the past.
Jun 032019
 

The Kiyomi white rum is made by the Helios Distillery, the same outfit in Japan that makes the very tasty five year old Teeda rum we looked at before. Formed by Tadashi Matsuda in the postwar years (1961) at a time of economic hardship and food privation for Okinawa , the decision was made to distill rum because (a) it could easily be sold to American soldiers stationed there (b) Okinawan sugar was readily available and (c) rice, which normally would have been used to make the more popular local sake, was needed as a food source and could not be spared for alcohol production.

That the company succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it is still in existence, has expanded its operations and is still making rums.  The two most popular are the Teeda 5 YO and the Kiyomi Unaged White, which do not share the same production process: while both source Okinawa sugar cane which is crushed to juice, the Kiyomi rum is fermented for longer (30 days instead of two weeks) and run through a double column still (not the pot).  It is then left to rest (and not aged) in steel tanks for six months and gradually reduced from 60% ABV off the still, to the 40% at which it is bottled.

I’ve never been completely clear as to what effect a resting period in neutral-impact tanks would actually have on a rum – perhaps smoothen it out a bit and take the edge off the rough and sharp straight-off-the-still heart cuts. What is clear is that here, both the time and the reduction gentle the spirit down without completely losing what makes an unaged white worth checking out.  Take the nose: it was relatively mild at 40%, but retained a brief memory of its original ferocity, reeking of wet soot, iodine, brine, black olives and cornbread. A few additional nosings spread out over time reveal more delicate notes of thyme, mint, cinnamon mingling nicely with a background of sugar water, sliced cucumbers in salt and vinegar, and watermelon juice. It sure started like it was out to lunch, but developed very nicely over time, and the initial sniff should not make one throw it out just because it seems a bit off.

It was much more traditional to taste – soft, gentle, quite easy to sip, the proof helping out there. After the adventurousness of the nose which careened left and right and up and down like your head was a pinball machine, this was actually quite surprising (and somewhat disappointing as well).  Anyway it lacked any kind of aggressiveness, and tasted initially of glue, brine, olives, gherkins and cucumbers – the ashes and iodine I had sniffed earlier disappeared completely. It developed with the sweet (sugar water, light white fruits, watermelon juice) and salt (olives, brine, vegetable soup) coming together pleasantly with light florals and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dill), finishing off with a sort of quick and subdued exit that left some biscuits, salt crackers, fruits and rapidly disappearing spices on the tongue and fading rapidly from memory.

This is a rum that started with a flourish but finished…well, not in first place.  Though its initial notes were distinct and shown off with firm emphasis, it didn’t hold to that line when tasted, but turned faint, and ended up taming much of what made it come off as an exciting drink at the inception. That said, it wasn’t a bad one either: the integration of the various notes was well done, I liked most of what I did taste, and it could as easily be a sipping drink as a mixer of some kind.  What makes it noteworthy in this respect is that it doesn’t entirely become some sort of anonymously cute and light Cuban blanco wannabe you forget five minutes after putting down the glass, but retains a small spark of individuality and interest for the diligent. A shame then, that all this makes you think of, is that you’re holding an unfulfilled and unfinished promise — a castrated clairin  if you will — in your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

Jan 072019
 

After the initial flurry of articles attendant on the forming of the first new distillery / rum brand in Martinique in, oh, I don’t know, forever, there’s been a surprising drop in attention for A1710. The big guns like Neisson, Bally, HSE, Trois-Rivieres, Depaz et al, with decades (or centuries) of brand awareness underlying their name and fame, continue to issue their excellent agricole rums, of course, but it’s almost like A1710 dropped by the wayside.  Yet this tiny outfit makes rums with a lot of zip, zap, zowee and swoosh, and should not be ignored just because it’s small.

A1710 is the first attempt in a long time to shake up Martinique’s well known rum industry, being created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re close by), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of the island.  The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

What distinguishes the small distillery is that it did not chase the AOC designation (they have creole column still, ferment juice for around five days and reap cane year round, to name some points of divergence), and its organic focus, which eschews the more mechanized bulk approach taken by bigger competitors.  I usually nod and smile at such statements, but when the results are as good as these, who am I to rain on their parade? Besides, it’s canny – there’s a market for such niche products made as free from technological interference as possible, and I’m sure A1710 knew and bet on that. 

And after all is said and done, the white rum they make is excellent.  Just nosing this 2017-issued 54.5% product makes that clear: it’s sparkly, sprightly sugar water with a light tinge of brine. Olives, nail polish remover, turpentine, floor wax, freshly sawn lumber and sawdust.  Cider gherkins and apple cider. Very impressive because it never loses sight of the creole still origins and even after half an hour it still coughs up some earthy notes, well polished leather and a lovely thread of green apples.

Moving on, the flavour profile on the palate is nothing short of impressive. It comes smooth and warm across the tongue, providing warm notes of sugar water, watermelon, papaya, licorice, sweet bonbons, grass, and pungent lime leaves in a thai curry.  The rhum displays real potency without overcrowding the taste buds with either too much power or excessive complexity, a perfect combo of sweet and salt and herbals in a complex interplay of citrus, grass, cilantro and 7-up. It’s almost cachaca-like, minus the bitterness of strange Brazilian woods. The finish was okay but things start to slow down here, and it (fortunately) stops just shy of being bland – the heat carries off some of the taste and closing aromas but there was lime leaves, gherkins and sugar water, getting sweeter and more delicate (but always crisp) over time. It reminded me a lot of the J. Bally Blanc agricole, but was a smidgen better, I’d say.

When Cyril of DuRhum rendered one the first online opinions of A1710 and both their 2016-edition whites and aged rum selection, he wrote honestly (and disparagingly) about the flowery marketing push and the price, especially the aged ones. Fast forward a year or two and the online-store costs for the 2017 white written about here are pretty much in line with others of their kind; and the marketing, well, every company under the sun trumpets its niche advantage and special something – I yawn through the usual adjectives and hyperboles anyway so it doesn’t trouble me unless it’s an out-and-out falsehood and has no real info behind it. Putting that aside, what I appreciated about A1710 was the courage it took to open the eighth distillery on the island at all, against some formidable competitors.  What emerged at the other end was a white rum of real quality which possessed a solid taste profile and whether known or not, can take its place without apology alongside all the other blancs that may be better known and sell more. That’s a real achievement, for a company this young.

(#586)(85/100)

Oct 112018
 

In the last decade, several major divides have fissured the rum world in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s: these were and are cask strength (or full-proof) versus “standard proof” (40-43%); pure rums that are unadded-to versus those that have additives or are spiced up; tropical ageing against continental; blended rums versus single barrel expressions – and for the purpose of this review, the development and emergence of unmessed-with, unfiltered, unaged white rums, which in the French West Indies are called blancs (clairins from Haiti are a subset of these) and which press several of these buttons at once.

Blancs are often unaged, unfiltered, derive from cane juice, are issued at muscular strengths, and for any bartender or barfly or simple lover of rums, they are explosively good alternatives to standard fare – they can boost up a cocktail, are a riot to drink neat, and are a great complement to anyone’s home bar…and if they occasionally have a concussive sort of strength that rearranges your face, well, sometimes you just gotta take one for the team in the name of science.

The Longueteau blanc from Guadeloupe is one of these off-the-reservation mastodons which I can’t get enough of. It handily shows blended milquetoast white nonsense the door…largely because it isn’t made to sell a gajillion bottles in every low-rent mom-and-pop in the hemisphere (and to every college student of legal age and limited means), but is aimed at people who actually know and care about an exactingly made column-still product that has a taste profile that’s more than merely vanilla and cloves and whatever else.

Doubt me?  Take a sniff. Not too deep please – 62% ABV will assert itself, viciously, if you’re not prepared. And then just think about that range of light, crisp aromas that come through your schnozz.  Speaking for myself, I noted freshly mown grass, sugar cane sap bleeding from the stalk, crisp apples and green grapes, cucumbers, sugar water, lemon zest, brine, an olive or two, and even a few guavas in the background.  Yes it was sharp, but perhaps the word I should use is “hot” because it presented an aroma that was solid and aggressive without being actually damaging.

Taste? Well, it’s certainly not the easy kind of spirit you would introduce to your parents, no, it’s too badass for that, and individualistic to a fault.  Still, you can’t deny it’s got character: taking a sip opens up a raft of competing and distinct flavours – salt, olives, acetones, bags of acidic fruit (green grapes and apples seem to be the dominant notes here), cider, lemon zest again, all toned down a little with some aromatic tobacco and sugar water, cumin, and even flowers and pine-sol disinfectant (seriously!).  That clear and almost-sweet taste runs right through into the finish, which is equally crisp and fragrant, redolent of sugar water, lemons and some light florals I couldn’t pick apart.

There you are, then. Compare that to, oh, a Bacardi Superior, or any filtered white your barman has on the shelf to make his usual creations.  See what I mean? It’s a totally different animal, and if originality is what you’re after, then how can you pass something like this by? Now, to be honest, perhaps comparing a visceral, powerful white French island rhum like this to a meek-and-mild, easygoing white mixing agent like that Bacardi is somewhat unfair — they are of differing styles, differing heritages, differing production philosophies and perhaps even made for different audiences.

Maybe. But I argue that getting a rum at the lowest price just because it’s the lowest isn’t everything in this world (and in any case, I firmly believe cheap is always expensive in the long run) – if you’re into this curious subculture of ours, you almost owe it to yourself to check out alternatives, and the Longueteau blanc is actually quite affordable. And for sure it’s also a beast of a drink, a joyous riot of rumstink and rumtaste, and I can almost guarantee that if you are boozing in a place where this is begin served, it’s one of the best blanc rhums in the joint.

(558)(85/100)


Other Notes

May 192018
 

#513

The question of why Velier would want to issue a well-endowed, claw-equipped high-test like this, is, on the surface, somewhat unclear.  Because my own opinion is that this is not a product for the general marketplace. It’s not aimed at beginners, 40% strength lovers or those with a sweet tooth who have two of every edition of the Ron Zacapa ever made. It’s an utterly unaged cask strength white with serious strength one point short of 60%, to which is bolted a massive 537.59 g/laa of esters…that puts in the realm of the Rum Fire Jamaican white, and that one packed quite a bit of gelignite in its jock, remember? Aside from serious rum-junkies, ester-loving deep-dive geeks and Demerara-rum fanboys (I’m all of these in one), I wonder who would buy the thing when there are so many great independent offerings of an aged Demerara out there (many of which are Port Mourant still rums themselves).

Let’s see if the tasting notes can provide some insight. At 59% ABV, I was careful with it, letting it open for a while, and was rewarded with quite an impressive and complex series of aromas: rubber and plasticene, nail polish remover, followed by a combination of sugar water, brine, watermelon, pears, roasted nuts, plus a firm, crisp-yet-light fruitiness which the strength did not eviscerate.  That’s always something of a risk with high proof rums, whose intensity can obliterate subtler nuances of flavour on nose or palate.

Unaged rums take some getting used to because they are raw from the barrel and therefore the rounding out and mellowing of the profile which ageing imparts, is not a factor.  That means all the jagged edges, dirt, warts and everything, remain. Here that was evident after a single sip: it was sharp and fierce, with the licorice notes subsumed into dirtier flavours of salt beef, brine, olives and garlic pork (seriously!). It took some time for other aspects to come forward – gherkins, leather, flowers and varnish – and even then it was not until another half hour had elapsed that crisper acidic notes like unripe apples and thai lime leaves (I get those to buy in the local market), were noticeable. Plus some vanilla – where on earth did that come from?  It all led to a long, duty, dry finish that provided yet more: sweet, sugary, sweet-and-salt soy sauce in a clear soup. Damn but this was a heady, complex piece of work. I liked it a lot, really.

Reading those tasting note and looking at the stats of the rum, I think you’d agree this is not your standard table rum; maybe even one that only a madman or a visionary would try to make money from, when it’s so obviously stuffed with sleeping leopards. Who on earth would make this kind of thing; and then, having been made, who is addled enough to buy it? Drink it?  And why?

To answer those questions, it’s useful to look at the man behind the rum.  Luca Gargano, whose Five Principles are now the source of equal parts merriment and respect, doesn’t often say it in as many words, but obeys another: I call it the Sixth Rum Principle, and it suggests that Luca believes that rum should be made pure, fresh, organic, without additives of any kind from cane through to still.  If he had a choice, I’m sure he’s prefer to have wild yeast do the fermentation of a wash gathered in the bark of trees hollowed out by the latest hurricane.

But a codicil to the Principle is simply that a rum need not necessarily be aged to be good…even fabulous. Now for a man who selected and popularized the extraordinary Port Mourant series of aged rums, that seems like bizarre thing to say, but look no further than the clairins from Haiti which have made such a splash in the rumiverse over the last four years, or any of the unaged French Island whites, and you’ll see that may really be on to something.

And that leads to the intersection of the Port Mourants and the Principle. I’m sure Luca was perfectly aware of the quality and reputation of the PM 1972, PM 1974 and PM 1975….to say nothing of the later editions. “What I wanted to do,” he told me recently in that utterly sure, subtly evangelic voice he uses in rum festivals around the world, “Is demonstrate how the rum everyone likes and appreciates – the Port Mourants, Foursquares, Jamaicans – started life.  Okay, they’re not for everyone. But for those who really know the profiles of the islands’ rums blind, they can now see what such rums were before any ageing or any kind of cask influence.”

Drinking this rum shows what results from applying that principle. There’s a whole raft of these whites out in the market right now, distinguished by lovely drawings of the stills from which they originate. I’m not sure how they sell, or who’s buying them, or even if they are making a splash in the perceptions of the larger rum world.  All I know is it’s an amazing rum that one should try at least once, even if it’s just to appreciate for the one time how the raging cataracts of a Port Mourant distillate started out, before the torrent of taste calmed down, evened out…and flowed into the ocean of all the other great PMs we have learnt to know and appreciate over the years.

(88/100)

May 072018
 

#509

Plastic.  Lots and lots of plastic.  And rubber. The clairin “Le Rocher” is a hydrocarbon lover’s wet dream, and if you doubt that, just take a gentle sniff of this Haitian white.  It is one of the richest whites from Haiti I’ve managed to try, and the best part is, those opening notes of the nose don’t stop there – they develop into a well balanced combination of acetone, salt, soya, and a spicy vegetable soup, into which a cut of jerk chicken thrown in for good measure to add some depth (I swear, I’m not making this up).  And if that isn’t enough, half an hour later you’ll be appreciating the watermelons, sugar water and light cinnamon aromas as well.  This rum is certifiable, honestly – no unaged white should ever be able to present such a delightfully crazy-ass smorgasbord of rumstink, and yet, here it is and here it reeks.  It’s pretty close to awesome.

Sometimes a rum gives you a really great snooting experience, and then it falls on its behind when you taste it – the aromas are not translated well to the flavour on the palate.  Not here. In the tasting, much of the richness of the nose remains, but is transformed into something just as interesting, perhaps even more complex. It’s warm, not hot or bitchy (46.5% will do that for you), remarkably easy to sip, and yes, the plasticine, glue, salt, olives, mezcal, soup and soya are there.  If you wait a while, all this gives way to a lighter, finer, crisper series of flavours – unsweetened chocolate, swank, carrots(!!), pears, white guavas, light florals, and a light touch of herbs (lemon grass, dill, that kind of thing). It starts to falter after being left to stand by itself, the briny portion of the profile disappears and it gets a little bubble-gum sweet, and the finish is a little short – though still extraordinarily rich for that strength – but as it exits you’re getting a summary of all that went before…herbs, sugars, olives, veggies and a vague mineral tang.  Overall, it’s quite an experience, truly, and quite tamed – the lower strength works for it, I think.

Clairins no longer need much introduction.  Velier’s been promoting them up and around the world, people have been shuddering and cheering about their profiles in equal measure for years now.  We know what they are. What we don’t know is the producers and individual methods. Here’s what I know: Le Rocher (“The Rock”, named after Matthew’s injunction in 7: 24-27 not to build on sand) is the product of Bethel Romelus, whose little op is located in the village of Pignon, about an hour’s jouncing away from St Michel where Michel Sajous fires up the Sajous. Le Rocher is different from the other clairins I’ve looked at so far in that it is made from sugar cane juice from three different varieties of cane, which is boiled down to syrup.  It’s fermented naturally, with maybe a 1/3 of the syrup being made from previous vinasses, then run through a discontinuous pot still, before being bottled as is. No ageing, no dilution, no filtration, no additions. A pure, natural, organic rum for all those whole drool over such statistics.

Personally, I’m impressed with the rum as a whole, but if you disagree, I fully understand the source of your doubt – you gotta be into unaged, unhinged whites to be a fanboy of this stuff – for me, that’s catnip, for you, perhaps not so much. Still, If I had to rate the clairins which Velier is putting out the door, I’d say the Sajous remains the most certifiable, the Casimir the most elegant, the Vaval the easiest for its strength.  But the Le Rocher….it’s perhaps the most approachable for the average Joe who wants to know what the fuss is all about and is willing to try one, but is cautious about mucking around with the >50% sarissas of the first three. By going to a lower ABV, by taming a remarkable panoply of potent and pungent smells and tastes, by changing (slightly) the way it’s made, the Le Rocher is setting a standard as high as its creole-still cousins, and if your tastes bend in this direction, it’s definitely worth adding to your collection of whites, and clairins.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • In doing my research I found references to other varieties of the Le Rocher tried at various rumfests last year: one at 51%, another at 43.5%. 
  • Back label translation: “It is at Pignon, at the entrance to the plateau of St. Michael de l’Attalaye, that the Le Rocher clairin is produced using cane syrup, produced from natural juice, adding during fermentation about 30% vinasses from the previous distillations: an archaeological example of the method of production of the French colonies, influence of 1785 by the technique developed by the English in Jamaica, the “dunder-style.”
May 012018
 

#507

Almost without warning and with little  fanfare, Oaxaca went from being a small geographical region in Mexico to the source of a fast moving blip in the rumiverse, the Paranubes white rum.  Although there have been occasional comments on the various Facebook rumclubs on the Oaxaca-region blancos before this, my feeling is that the June 2017 Imbibe Magazine article on Paranubes, followed up by the April 2018 Punch article “Hunting for Rum in Oaxaca’s Cloud Forest” was in a large measure responsible for the upsurge of interest in the region, this particular company, and this rum.  That, and the fact that like Rivers Royale, Haitian clairins or Cape Verde grogues, they represent a miniscule, almost vanished proponent of natural rum making, of a kind we don’t see much of nowadays…which is exciting much interest in the rum soaked hearts of the ur-geeks who are always on the lookout for something new, something potent and something pure.

Mostly unknown in the wider world, Mexican white rums like the Paranubes share DNA with agricoles and cachacas – the source of the spirit is fresh-pressed sugar cane juice – but in manufacture and distribution, if the terms could be used for something so relatively grass-roots, they are closer to the Haitian clairins. Locally made by unregistered, numberless small mom-and-pop roadside hoocheries and tiny distilleries (called trapiches), using local materials and old equipment, a different one around every corner and in every region, they are called aguardiente de caña there and are back country white lightning which (again like clairins) is consumed mainly in the neighborhood. There are several other small trapiches in the neighborhood: the story goes that the co-founder of Mezcal Vago, Mr. Judah Kuper was running around Oaxaca with a load of mezcal (and tasting roadside aguardientes as a sort of personal hobby) when he happened to try that of a local distiller and businessman called Jose Luis Carrera, was not just impressed but blown away, and approached him with the idea of exporting it.  This has led to the Paranubes brand being formed.

Mr. Carrera’s little distillery has been in existence for decades, using different varietals of sugar cane free of pesticides and fertilizers, lugging the cane to the trapiche by donkey power and after crushing, fermenting the juice with wild (naturally occurring, not added) yeast and a sort of boiled mesquite bark mix in a couple of 1100 liter pinewood vats (but occasionally a pineapple or two is used in the same fashion of bark is not available – these guys take the meaning of “batch production” seriously). Every day Mr. Carrera takes half of one of the vats and chucks it into the small copper column still (which holds 550 liters) – and then refills the vats in the afternoon. What this means is the vats are a mix of very old and very young fermenting liquids, and since they are only completely emptied three times a year, they end up producing an enormously flavoured spirit that conforms to few markers of the rums with which we are more familiar.

That part is key, because I said that in origin it’s like an agricole, in manufacture like a clairin, but let me tell you – in taste, it’s like those were spliced to an out of left field Jamaican with a steroid-addled attitude.  And even then it seems to exist in its own parallel universe, adding its own distinctive originality to the pantheon of the whites. It started off, for example, with one of the most distinctive series of smell notes I’ve ever experienced: wet ashes from a campfire, rain on hot baked earth, mixed with pickles and gherkins. The oily saltiness of a tequila but without the muskiness.  It’s also vinegary, citrus-y, sharp, acidic, and beneath all that is sugar caned sap, very light fruit, vegetable soup, olives and more brine. And plastic. I mean, wow. Newbies beware, experts be warned – this rum is not the kind that makes sugar cane turn up at your door demanding its juice back.

As if dissatisfied with its own aromas, the rum seemed to feel it had to add even more notes to the tasting when drunk. So, many the above smells made a re-appearance on the palate – ashes (I swear this is almost like licking a stone), olives and brine, lemon rind, gherkins in vinegar to start – before the brininess retreated and additional varnish and turpentine hints emerged, which went right up to the edge of being gasoline.  The sugar cane sap thankfully mitigated that, adding lighter swank, watermelon and lemon to the mix, miso soup, sweet soya and a ton of veggies. It was, really quite a collection of different tastes, and even the finish – long, lingering, with sweet and salt, acetones, cigarette tar and more herbals – completed what was a rum of startling, almost ferocious originality.

All these tastes aside, what did I actually think of it? Well, as noted, I think it may be one of the most unique whites I’ve tried in a long while. It’s different, it’s original, it hews defiantly to its own profile without genuflecting to anything else.  It’s not trying to be a clairin or a Jamaican or a grogue or a cachaca, and has at best a glancing familiarity with the ester bombs of Reunion and Hampden and Worthy Park. Fruits are a bit lacking, sweet and salt combination is fine, and earthy, musky notes are bang on. “Traditional” may be how it’s made, but surely not in its overall taste configuration.  It gets points for being one of a kind, yet be aware that it is not necessarily one you’d appreciate neat. This is a cocktail lover’s dream, one that would drive bartenders into ecstatic fits because it would wake up and make new any old faithful, or kickstart any creation they feel like coming up with.

Paranubes may be one of the first Mexican rums to make a dent in people’s perceptions that Mexican liquor is just mezcal or tequila (and rums like Bacardi, Los Valientes, Mocambo, Prohibido et al).  Locals will know of aguardiente, and Americans and tourists who visit the back country will likely be familiar with it — now it’s the turn of the wider world, not least because it’s available in the US, and may start appearing in Europe as well, with the added cachet of artisanal production, traditional methods, and a taste that is quite simply in its own universe.

Is such pure rum-making an oncoming wave of the future for the independents?  Ask Luca Gargano of Velier and you’d probably get a resounding yes, and if you look carefully at the rums with which he personally associates himself, you’ll see that old-school, artisinal, natural rums are his personal and pet passions – clairins, grogues, Rivers, Hampdens are just some of the varied rums he holds close to his heart. By that standard, he must be frothing at the mouth over the Paranubes. Me, I believe that this simply made, small-batch artisanal rum takes its place immediately in any list of tonsil-shredding whites as one of the most original, potent, pungent, and flavourful rums currently extant.  It’s that interesting right out of the gate, and is tailor-made for those who are looking to dispel boredom, and want to explore the bleeding edge of rums that conform to no rational standard.

(81/100)


Other notes

  • The Paranubes website is massively informative on the method of production – I have drawn upon it to summarize the process here.  It is well worth a read in its entirety.
  • Unaged, issued at 54%
  • Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun, as ever ahead of the curve, rated it 88 last year, very much because he loved its artisinal nature and originality.
Apr 252018
 

#505

On initial inspection, Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum – a white overproof – is not one of the first rums you’d immediately think of as a representation of its country, its style, or a particular type — perhaps Westerhall or Clarke’s Court are more in your thoughts.  It is made in small quantities at River Antoine on  the spice island of Grenada, is rarely found outside there, and even though it can be bought on the UK site Masters of Malt, it barely registers on the main bloggers’ review sites.

Yet anyone who tries it swears by it.  I’ve never seen a bad write-up, by anyone. And there are a several aspects of this rum which, upon closer inspection, reveal why it should be considered as part of the Grenadian pantheon and on any list of Key Rums, even if it is so relatively unknown.  

For one thing, there’s it’s artisinal production.  Almost alone in the English-speaking Caribbean, River Antoine adheres to very old, manual forms of rum making.  The sugar cane is free from fertilizers, grown right there (not imported stock), crushed with a water wheel – perhaps the oldest working one remaining in the world – and the source of the rum is juice, not molasses. Fermented for up to eight days without added yeast – natural fermentation via wild bacteria only – in huge open-air vats and transferred to an old John Dore copper pot still (a new one was added in the 1990s).  No additives of any kind, no filtration, no ageing. They are among the most natural rums in the world and the white, which is supposedly drawn off the still at a staggering 89% ABV and bottled at 69% to facilitate transport by air, is among the most flavourful whites I’ve ever tried, and thought so even back in 2010 when I first got knocked off my chair with one.

There’s also the whole business of heritage.  In the geek rumiverse, it’s common knowledge that Mount Gay’s paperwork shows it as dating back to 1703 – though it was almost certainly making rum for at least fifty years before that – and River Antoine is by contrast a relative johnny-come-lately, being founded in 1785. The key difference is that Rivers (as it is locally referred to) is made almost exactly the way it was at the beginning, never relocated, never really changed its production methodology and is even using some of the same facilities and equipment. So if your journey along the road of discovery is taking you into the past and you want to know more about “the old way” and don’t want to go to Haiti, then Grenada may just be the place to go.

These points segue neatly into an emerging (if still small) movement of fair trading, organic ingredients and eco-friendly production methodologies.  By those standards, and bearing in mind the points above, Rivers must be a poster child for the eco-movement, like Cape Verde, Haiti and other places where rumtime seems to have slowed down to a crawl and nobody ever saw any reason to go modern.

But is it any good?  I thought so eight years ago, and in a recent, almost accidental retasting, my initially high opinion has been reconfirmed.  At 69%, unaged, unfiltered, untamed, I knew that not by any stretch of the imagination was I getting a smooth and placid cocktail ingredient, and I didn’t – it was more like getting assaulted by a clairin.  It started out with all the hallmarks of a Jamaican or Haitian white popskull – glue, acetone, vinegar, olives and brine exploded across the nose, pungent, deep and very hot. And it didn’t stop there – as it rested and then opened up, crisper and clearer notes came out to party – watermelons, pickled gherkins and sugar cane sap, married to drier, mustier aromas of cereal, old books, fresh baked bread, light fruits and even some yeast.  Weird, no?

As for the taste, well…whew! The palate did not slow down the slightest bit from the jagged assault of the nose but went right in. Although the initial entry was just short of crazy – “like drinking ashes and water and licking an UHU glue stick” my notes go – this offbeat profile actually developed quite well. It turned dry, minerally, the fruitiness and citrus zest took something a back seat, and it took some time to recalibrate to this. Once that settled down the fruits emerged from hiding — cherries, some guavas and yellow mangoes, orange peel, light florals…but the crazy never entirely went away, because there were also hints of gasoline and a salt lick, and the sort of binding adhesive you can occasionally smell in brand new glossy magazines (I know of no other way to describe this, honestly).  And of course the exit is quite epic – a long, searing acid fart that blows fumes of acetone, citrus, brine and deeper fruits down your throat.

This rum is like a lot of very good whites on the market right now: Rum Fire, the Sajous, Toucan, J.B White, to name just a few. Quite aside from the heritage, the history, the production and eco-friendly nature of it, the rum is simply and powerfully an amazing original even when rated against those on the list of 21 Great Whites.  It’s not a rum that apologizes for its sense of excitement, or attempts to buffer itself with a standard profile in an effort to win brownie points with the larger audience.  It is maddeningly, surely, simply itself — and while I admit that strong whites are something of a thing for me personally (and not for people who like quieter, simpler or sweeter rums), I can’t help but suggest there’s so much going on with this one that it has to be tried by rum lovers at least once.

Luca and others have told me that River Antoine are having some issues maintaining the old water wheel and the open-air vats, and repairs are continuously being made. There are rumours of upgrading the equipment, perhaps even modernizing here or there.  I’m selfish, and I hope they manage to keep the old system going – because yes, they can make their rums faster, more easily, and issue more of them. But given the old-school quality of what I tried, the sheer force and fury and potency of what they’re already doing, I somehow wonder if anything modern they do will necessarily be better…or be regarded as a Key Rum. The way I regard this one.

(85/100)

Apr 032018
 

#502

Asia may be the next region to discover for rummies.  Some companies from there already have good visibility – think Nine Leaves or Ryoma from Japan, Tanduay from the Phillipines, Amrut from India, Laotian from Laos and so on – and we should not forget Thailand.  So far I’ve only tried the Mekhong “rum” from there, and that was a while ago…but for the last few years I’ve been hearing about a new company called Chalong Bay, from the resort area of Phuket; and when John Go and I traded samples a while back, he sent me one of their interesting whites that for sure deserves a look-see from the curious who want to expand their horizons.

Chalong Bay is the brainchild of another pair of entrepreneurs from France (like those chaps who formed Whisper and Toucan rums) named Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis.  They opened the company in 2014, brought over a copper column still from France and adhered to an all-natural production philosophy: no chemicals or fertilizers for the cane crop, no burning prior to harvesting, and a spirit made from fresh pressed cane juice with no additives.  Beyond that, there’s the usual marketing stuff on their site, their Facebook page, and just about everywhere else, which always surprises me, since one would imagine the history of their own company would be a selling point, a marketing plug and a matter of pride, but no, it’s nowhere to be found.

Be that as it may, it’s quite a nifty rum (or rhum, rather), even if somewhat mild. The 40% ABV to some extend gelds it, so one the nose it does not present like one of the proud codpieces of oomph sported by more powerful blancs out there.  Olives, brine, swank, generally similar to Damoiseau, J. Bally, Neisson, St Aubin blanc, or the clairins, just…less. But it is an interesting mix of traditional and oddball scents too: petrol, paint, wax, a little brie, rye bread, and just a touch of sweet sugar cane juice.  Faint spices, lemongrass, light pears…before moving on to hot porridge with salt and butter(!!). Talk about a smorgasbord.

The taste on the palate takes a turn to the right and is actually quite pleasing. Thin of course (couldn’t get away from the anemic proof), a little sharp.  Sweet and tart fruity ice cream. A little oily, licorice-like, akin to a low rent ouzo, in which are mixed lemon meringue pie and clean grassy tastes. Not as much complexity as one might hope for, though well assembled, and the flavours at least come together well.  Citrus, pears and watermelon emerge with time, accompanied by those muffled softer tastes – cereal, milk and salted oatmeal – which fortunately do not create a mishmash of weird and at-odds elements that would have sunk the thing. Finish is short, thin, quite crisp and almost graceful.  Mostly sugar water, a little citrus, avocado, bananas and brine. Frankly, I believe this is a rum, like the Toucan No 4 or the El Dorado 3 Year Old White, which could really benefit from being ratched up a few notches – 50% would not be out of place for this rhum to really shine.

After all is done, the clear drink finished, the unemotional tasting notes made, the cold score assigned, perhaps some less data-driven words are required to summarize the actual feelings and experience it evoked in me.  I felt that there was some unrealized artistry on display with the Chalong Bay – it has all the delicacy of a sunset watercolour by Turner, while other clear full proofs springing up around the globe present brighter, burn more fiercely, are more intense…like Antonio Brugada’s seascape oils (or even some of Turner’s own).  It’s in the appreciation for one or the other that a drinker will come to his own conclusions as to whether the rum is a good one, and deserving a place on the part of the shelf devoted to the blancs. I think it isn’t bad at all, and it sure has a place on mine.

(80/100)


Other notes

  • Interestingly, the rum does not refer to itself as one: the label only mentions the word “Spirit”.  Russ Ganz and John Go helpfully got back on to me and told me it was because of restrictions of Thail law.  I’m calling it a rhum because it conforms to all the markers and specs.
  • Tried contacting the founders for some background, but no feedback yet.
  • The company also makes a number of flavoured variants, which I have not tried.