Mar 292021
 

 

Indonesia is the region where sugar cane originated and gave rise to the proto-rums of yesteryear, which have their genesis in arrack, a distillate first identified by the Dutch and Portuguese in the town of Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital). After being practically unknown to the larger rum drinking public for a long time, arrack and local rums are now slowly being shown to western audiences, most notably from By The Dutch and their Batavia Arrack, and the little company of Naga which produced the rum we’re looking at today.

Based in Indonesia, Naga is a rum company formed around 2016 by Sebastien Follope, another one of those roving, spirits-loving French entrepreneurs who are behind some of the most interesting Asian rums around (Chalong Bay, Issan and Sampan are examples). While small, the company has several rums in its eclectic portfolio, though they lack any distillation facilities of their ownthey are buying from a distillery on Java on the outskirts of Jakarta, which cannot be named.

This particular rum is called the Triple Wood for good reasonit is aged in three different kinds of barrels, and is an extension of the “Double Cask Aged” rum we have looked at twice beforeonce under that name in 2018, and once as the “Java Reserve Double Aged rum” a year later. The triple wood is similarly a molasses-based rum, column-still distilled, aged for three years in barrels made of teak (also called jati), four years in ex-Bourbon and one more year in cherry-wood barrelsit is, therefore, eight years old. Since the company was only formed in 2016 and this rum came on the scene in 2018, it is clear that the first ageing and part of the second was done at the distillery of origin (or a broker, it’s unclear).

Does this multiple wood ageing result in anything worth drinking? Yes it doesthe extra year seems to have had an interesting and salutary effect on the profilethough at 42.7% it remains as easy and soft as its siblings. The nose, for example, is a nice step up: cardboard, musty paper, some dunder of spoiled bananas skins, plus strawberries and soft pineapple or two and brine (which, I swear, made me think of Hawaiian pizza). Caramel and bitter dark chocolate round things off. It’s a relatively easy sniff, inoffensive yet solid.

The palate is goes on to be warm, soft, and somewhat sweeter. Initially, given its puffed cloudy vagueness, you’d think it’s simple and amorphous, but actually it just keeps improving over timethe rum unfolds like a small origami flower, graduallyeven shylypresenting floral tastes, molasses, toffee, nougat, breakfast spices, licorice and some watery background of melons and pears. It’s easy and very relaxing to sip, because the flavours don’t come at you all at once, but kind of stroll past doing a slow ragtime. That low strength, much as I usually prefer something stronger, really is probably right for what that taste is, but it must also be admitted it makes for a weak finish: clean and easy, just not much more than some light flowers, strawberries and bubble gum, fanta, light molasses, and a bit of musty and dust-filled rooms.

I quite liked the rum and enjoyed its low-key, tasty nature, so different from the more aggressive high-proof rums I’ve been seeing of lateafter all, one doesn’t always a need a massive overproof squirting dunder, alcohol and pain in all directions. And arrack, this rum’s progenitor, is an interesting variation on what a rum can be (as an example, fermented rice is usually added to the fermenting molassessee other notes for more details) which is something worth taking note of and these times of dominance by famed Caribbean distilleries. There’s no question that it’s a somewhat different kind of rum, more representative of its region than of any “standard” kind of profilebut for those who are okay trying something different, it won’t disappoint.

(#809)(81/100)

 


Other Notes

  • Naga is a Sanskrit-based word referring to the mythical creature of Asia, a dragon or large snake, that guards the treasures of the earth, and is also a symbol of prosperity and protection
  • This rum is now named “Pearl of Jakarta.”
  • Production:
    • Fermentation of molasses and fermented red rice in teak vats up to
    • 12% ABV.
    • 52% of this “cane wine” then distilled in traditional Chinese stills to 30% ABV. It is then distilled in these same stills a second time, until it reaches 60-65%.
    • 48% of the “cane wine” distilled in a column still to 92% ABV.
    • The rums obtained in this way are then blended and aged for 3 years in teak barrels, then transferred to American oak barrels (ex-bourbon barrels) for 4 years before ageing for one final year in cherry wood barrels.
Nov 262020
 

The Naga double-cask aged rum is part of the company’s standard lineup without any fancy whistles and bells, and when you nose it, you get a sensory impression both hauntingly familiar and obscurely strange. Even dialled-down and wispy as it is, it reminds one of chocolate, very ripe dark cherries, Fanta, sweet caramel, bonbons, and delicate perfumed flowers; and it’s the extras beneath all that which add piquancy and puzzlement: white pepper, a foamy Guinness stout, and a gamey, meaty smell which is fortunately quite faint.

The rum, bottled at 40%, exists outside the comforting confines of the Caribbean and gently charts its own course, which may account for its subtle oddity. Part of that is how it’s made: from molasses, yes, but fermented using yeast made from malted Javanese red rice. And while the rum is a blend of both pot and column still distillates made in all the usual ways, it is aged for a period in casks made from type of teak called jatti, and the remainder in bourbon casksbut alas, at this point I don’t know how much ageing in either or in total.

This process provides a tasting profile that reminds me of nothing so much than a slightly addled wooden still-rum from El Dorado: it’s sweet, feels the slightest bit sticky, and has strong notes of dark fruits, red licorice, plums, raisins and an almond chocolate bar gone soft in the heat. There’s other stuff in there as wellsome caramel, vanilla, pepper again, light orange peel, but overall the whole thing is not particularly complex, and it ambles easily towards a short and gentle finish of no particular distinction that pretty much displays some dark fruit, caramel, anise and molasses, and that’s about it.

Naga is a rum company from Indonesia that was formed around 2016 by (you guessed it) another one of those roving French spirits-loving entrepreneurs, and from the lack of distillation facilities on its FB page, the constant switching around of labels and names for its rums on its website, I think it probably works a bit like Rhum Island, sourcing its distillate from another company, and adjusts swiftly to the market to tweak blends and titles to be more attractive to customers. I have queries outstanding to them about their production details and historical background so there’s not much to go on right now, and this rum may already be called something else, since it is not on their web listing.

So, until we know more, focus on the rum itself. It’s quiet and gentle and some cask strength lovers might saynot without justificationthat it’s insipid. It has some good tastes, simple but okay, and hews to a profile with which we’re not entirely unfamiliar. It has a few off notes and a peculiar substrate of something different, which is a good thing. So in the end, recognizably a product you know, recognizably a rum, butnot entirely. That doesn’t make it bad, just its own drink. “It’s a rum,” you write in your notebook, and then words run out; so you try some more to help yourself out, and you’ll likely still be searching for words to describe it properly by the time you realize with some surprise that the glass is empty. It’s weird how that happens.

(#780)(77/100)


Other notes

  • The rum has its antecedents in arrack, a proto-rum from Indonesia where it was first identified by the Dutch and Portuguese in the town of Batavia, the former name for Jakarta. It has a fair similarity to By The Dutch’s Batavia Arrack, but is not as good. I thought the older version, Naga’s Java Reserve, was a touch better too.
  • I am unsure about the age, but it feels quite young, under five years I’d say.
  • Naga is a Sanskrit-based word referring to the mythical creature of Asia, a dragon or large snake, that guards the treasures of the earth, and is also a symbol of prosperity and protection.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the Frenchthey’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits calledrượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversightmany are simple moonshineries. But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt witheralready they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery. There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the stillwhat comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made.

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me abackthere was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuffgrass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it. The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavourssweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink. After about half an hourlonger than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glassesfaint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhatbut also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the worldwell, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company. Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
Oct 022019
 

If you’re of a practical turn of mind and count your kopeks, there is absolutely no reason for you to buy this rum. It does not come in a bottle which stands easily on your shelf if the supports are mislaid; it is an overly sweet and probably spiced-up adulterated mess; and, if you’re an elitist, it doesn’t come with the pedigree of a centuries-old estate distillery on an island in the Caribbean. So on that basis, somewhat of a waste of money.

What it does bring to the table is an utterly awesome and eye-catching bottle shape, in good company with just a handful of others worldwide. It’s from a country that few if any of your boozing friends will have tried any rums from, so there’s that “I tried it first” cachet you can pin to your biscuit chest. And, if pedigree is your thing, it does go back many decades, and bears the title of “Coronation” for a reason.

The Nepalese rum called Kukhri is, first and foremost, named after the country’s most identifiable edged weapon, one that is considered both weapon and tool, and made famous by the Ghurkas who have served in the British army for over two centuries. The rum brand was created in 1959 by the Nepal Distilleries Ltd in Kathmandu, and initially made with pot stillsnowadays it comes off a multi-column still, from molasses, at 42.8%, and is available in three varietiesstandard, Coronation and spiced. All of these are aged in wooden oak vats for around eight months.

The question of whether it has been added to arises immediately upon nosing it. I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand by saying it’s “simple”but there are just a few strong flavour-types coiling around: chocolate, caramel, coffee grounds, bananas and molasses, some baking spices, tobacco, and lots of prunes and dark ripe cherries. The whole aroma is quite thick and sweet with very little balance of lighter or acidic notes.

Ditto for the taste. It says it’s 42.8% on the label but my hydrometer tested the rum as 34.58% (so ~31 g/L of something has been added), and it comes as no surprise, then, that when rubbing it between thumb and forefinger it feels sticky, and when sipped, it’s overly sweet. Again, chocolate, molasses, caramel, overripe fruits and tobacco, plus a hint of red wine and flowers, not enough to matter, really. The finish is ultimately not really interesting: soft, unexceptional, sweet, fruity and musky and no, several sips make no appreciable difference.

The Coronation is firm enough, just not interesting enough, and it’s just too sweet (even for me). While I completely accept that the rum was not made for the modern palate orinitiallyto appeal to any but its regional audience where sweeter rums are much more common (India’s and Thailand’s rums are examples of what pleases), the fact is that it is unlikely to catch on outside its area of origin. This is something I suspect the company knows, because in 2018 they relaunched the brand around Asia, marketing both its historical cachet and its cocktail potential to the bar crowd.

And yet, the Coronation rum itself was supposed to be special. It was launched in 1974 to commemorate the coronation of 12th King of Nepal King Birendra, and went into wide release the following year, but nothing I read anywhere suggested the blend itself was seriously tweaked or elevated to make the rum a more memorable one. As the tasting notes above make clear, it is distinctive and famous not because of any intrinsic or masterful quality of its own, but because of that now-iconic 375ml knife-shaped bottle it comes in (supposedly hand made), and to this day it remains a popular souvenir, and is exported widely.

Too bad what’s inside doesn’t quite come to the level of its presentation, which is a near-complete victory of style over substance. Some will buy it for that purpose alonehell, I’m one of them, though perhaps I can weasel out of it by claiming writer’s privilegeand for sure it’ll be a great conversation starter and a cool-looking bottle to trot out at party time. Sometimes, I guess that’s all we can ask for in a rum, and in this case, that’s almost all we’re getting.

(#661)(72/100)

May 152019
 

(c) Duty Free Philippines website

Tanduay, for all its small footprint in the west, is one of the largest rum makers in Asia and the world (they’re either 1st or 2nd by sales volume, depending on what you read and when), and have been in business since 1854. Unsurprisingly, they see fit to commemorate their success with special editions, and like all such premiums with a supposedly limited release meant only for the upper crust, most can get one if they try. The question is, as always, whether one should bother.

The presentation of the CLX rum is goodboxed enclosure, shiny faux-gold label, solid bottle. And all the usual marketing tantaraas are bugled from the rooftops wherever you read or look. It’s a selection of their best aged reserves, supposedly for the Chairman’s personal table. It has a message on the back label from said Chairman (Dr. Lucio Tan) extolling the company’s leadership and excellence and the rum’s distinctive Filipino character (not sure what that is, precisely, but let’s pass on that and move on…). All this is par for the course for a heritage rum. We see it all the timekudos, self praise, unverifiable statements, polishing of the halos. Chairmen get these kinds of virtuous hosannas constantly, and we writers always smile when we hear or see or read them.

Because, what’s missing on this label is the stuff that might actually count as informationyou know, minor, niggly stuff like how old it is; what kind of still it was made on; what the outturn was; what made it particularly special; what the “CLX” stands forthat kind of thing. Not important to Chairmen, perhaps, and maybe not to those maintaining the Tanduay website, where this purportedly high-class rum is not listed at allbut to us proles, the poor-ass guys who actually shell out money to buy one. From my own researches here’s what I come up with: CLX is the roman numerals for “160” and the rum was first issued in 2014, based on blended stocks of their ten year old rums. It is more than likely a column still product, issued at standard strength and that’s about all I can find by asking people and looking online.

Anyway, when we’re done with do all the contorted company panegyrics and get down to the actual business of trying it, do all the frothy statements of how special it is translate into a really groundbreaking rum?

Judge for yourself. The nose was redolent, initially, of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and cerealslike Fruit Loops, I’m thinking. There are also light acetones and nail polish remover. There may be an orange pip or two, a few crumbs of chocolate oranges, or maybe some peach fuzz drifting around, but it’s all thin pickingsmaybe it’s the 40% ABV that’s at the root of it, maybe it’s the deliberately mild column still character that was chosen. There is some vanilla and toffee background, of course, just not enough to matterfor this to provide real oomph it really needed to be a bit stronger, even if just by a few points more.

The same issues returned on the very quiet and gentle taste. It seemed almost watery, light, yet also quite clean. A few apples and peaches, not quite ripe, providing the acid components, for some bite. Then red grapes, cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, light syrup, vanilla, leather for the deeper and softer portion of the profile. It’s all there, all quite pleasant, if perhaps too faint to make any statement that says this is really something special. And that standard proof really slays the finish, in my own estimation, because that is so breathy, quiet and gone, that one barely has time to register it before hustling to take another sip just to remind oneself what one has in the glass.

How the worm has turned. Years ago, I tried the 12 year old Tanduay Superior and loved it. It’s placidity and unusual character seemed such a cut above the ordinary, and intriguingly tasty when compared to all the standard strength Caribbean blends so common back then. That tastiness remains, but so does a certain bland sweetness, a muffled deadness, not noted back then but observed now….and which is no longer something to be enjoyed as much.

I have no issue with the standard Tanduay lineuplike the white, the 1854, the Gold, the Superior etcbeing deceptively quiet and mild and catering to the Asian palate which I have been told prefers rather more unaggressive fare (some of their rums are bottled south of 39%, for example). I just believe that for an advertised high-end commemorative rum which speaks to a long and successful commercial company history, that more is required. More taste, more strength, more character, more oomph. It’s possible that many who come looking for it in the duty free shops of Asia and blow a hundred bucks on this thing, will come away wishing they had bought a few more of the Superiors, while others will be pleased that they got themselves a steal. I know which camp I fall into.

(#624)(75/100)


Other notes

As always, thanks to John Go, who sourced the rum for me.