Jul 092020
 

After having written on and off about Yoshiharu Takeuchi’s company Nine Leaves for many years, and watching his reputation and influence grow, it seems almost superfluous to go on about his background in any kind of detail. However, for those new to the company who want to know what the big deal is, it’s a one-man rum-making outfit located in Japan, and Yoshi-san remains its only employee (at least until July 2020, when he takes on an apprentice, so I am reliably informed).

Nine Leaves has been producing three kinds of pot-still rums for some time now: six month old rums aged in either French oak or ex-bourbon, and slightly more aged expressions up to two years old with which Yoshi messes around….sherry or other finishes, that kind of thing. The decision to keep things young and not go to five, eight, ten years’ ageing, is not entirely one of preference, but because the tax laws of Japan make it advisable, and Yoshi-san has often told me he has no plans to go in the direction of double digit aged rums anytime soonthough I remain hopeful. I’ve never really kept up with all of his workwhen there’s at least four rums a year coming out with just minor variations, it’s easy to lose focusbut neither have I left it behind. His rums are too good for that. He’s a perennial stop for me in any rumfest where he and I intersect.

But now, here is the third in his series of Encrypted rums (Velier’s 70th Anniversary Edition from Nine Leaves was humorously referred to as “Encrypted 2½“) and is an interesting assembly: a blend six different Nine Leaves rums, the youngest of which is two years old. The construction is nowhere mentioned on the elegantly spare label (probably for lack of space) but it’s composed of rums aged or finished in in two different types of P/X barrels, in bourbon barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Chardonnay barrels….and one more, unmentioned, unstated. And in spite of insistent begging, occasional threats, offers of adoption, even promises to be his third employee, Yoshi-san would not budge, and secret that sixth rum remains.

Whatever the assembly, the results spoke for themselvesthis thing was good. Coming on the scene as the tide of the standard strength forty percenters was starting to ebb, Nine Leaves has consistently gone over 40% ABVm mostly ten points higher, but this thing was 58% so the solidity of its aromas was serious. It was amazingly rich and deep, and presented initially as briny, with olives, vegetable soup and avocados. The fruity stuff came right along behind thatplums, grapes, very ripe apples and dark cherries, and then dill, rye bread, and a fresh brie. I also noticed some sweet stuff sweet like nougat and almonds, cinnamon, molasses, and a nice twitch of citrus for a touch of edge. To be honest, I was not a little dumbfounded, because it was outside my common experience to smell this much, stuffed into a rum so young.

The rum is coloured gold and is in its aggregate not very old, but it has an interesting depth of texture and layered taste that could surely not be bettered by rums many times its age. Initially very hot, once it dialled into its preferred coordinates, it tasted both fruity and salty at the same time, something like a Hawaiian pizza, though with restrained pineapples (which is a good thing, really). Initially there were tastes of plums and dark fruits like raisins and prunes and blackberries, mixed up with molasses and salted caramel ice cream. These gradually receded and ceded the floor to a sort of salty, minerally, tawny amalgam of a parsley-rich miso soup into which some sour cream has been dropped and delicate spicesvanilla, cinnamon, a dust of nutmeg and basil. I particularly enjoyed the brown, musky sense of it all, which continued right into a long finish that not only had that same sweet-salt background, but managed to remind me of parched red earth long awaiting rain, and the scent of the first drops hissing and steaming off it.

I have now tasted this rum three times, and my initially high opinion of it has been confirmed on each subsequent occasion. The “Encrypted” series just gets better every time, and the sheer complexity of what’s in there is stunning for a rum that young, making a strong case that blending can produce a product every bit as good as any pure single rum out there, and it’s not just Foursquare that can do it. I think it handily eclipses anything else made in Japan right now, except perhaps the 21 year oldTeedafrom Helios which is both weaker and older. But the comparison just highlights the achievement of this one, and it is my belief that even if I don’t know what the hell that sixth portion in the blend is, the final product stands as one of the best Nine Leaves has made to date, and a formidable addition to the cabinet of anyone who knows and loves really good rum.

(#743)(88/100)

Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually whitethe colours refer to their labelshues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production. The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constantsugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtrationthen the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you. The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits. However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any meansand therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini. There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritimeseaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notespapaya, guavas, pears, watermelon. As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expectedthe sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrusand, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me. Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palateand the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum. It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchindaiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#710)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed itthe Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 052020
 

Given Japan has several rums which have made these pages (Ryoma, Ogasawara, Nine Leaves, Helios, Seven Seas), by now most should be aware that just about all of them source their molasses out of the southern islands of Okinawa, if not actually based there themselves. The Grace distillery, who make the Cor Cor line of rums, conforms to that informal rule, yet is unusual in two waysfirst, it is still very much a manual operation, somewhat surprising for a nation with a massive technological infrastructure; and it produces rums from both molasses (the red labelled rum we’re looking at today) and cane juice (the green labelled one).

Cor Cor as a title has no deep transliterative meaningit is derived from English (the opposite is true for games maker Atari, as a counter-example) and uses the first letters of the words “coral” (the island where it’s made is formed from a coral reef) and “corona” (which the island resembles). Grace Distillery itself was formed in 2004 in a building that used to be a small airport terminal, on the tiny Okinawan island of Minamidaito, and use a steel pot still, and do not practice ageinganother point of departure. Instead, their rum is rested in inert tanks and after a suitable period determined by their master blender, it’s bottled at 40%, as-is, unfiltered, uncoloured, un-added-to.

Some of my research shed some interesting light on the profile of the rum, but I think I’ll leave that for the end: suffice it to say that this was both normal with respect to other Japanese rums, and abnormal with respect to what we in the west are used to. The nose was sweet, light and faintly briny, with a metallic medicinal hint to it. I knew there was more to come, and so set it aside and came back to it over time, and picked out black pepper, vegetable soup, biryani spices, seaweed. And, later, also dry cereal, butter, olives and flowers. Frankly, I found it a little confusingit was nice and a ways better than the rank meatiness of the Seven Seas which had shuddered and put awaybut nosed at a tangent from the norm of “regular” rums I’ve had more often.

Palateoh, much nicer. Dry dusty citrus-infused sugar water, peas, salty cashews. There was a dusting of salt and cooking spices and miso soup, with lemon grass and sour cream somewhere in there. I liked the development better, because what had been confusing about the nose gelled into a better harmony. Still a little off-base, mind youbut in a nice way. I particularly enjoyed the herbal and iodine background (not overdone, more a hint than a bludgeon) which set off the light fruit and brine in a way that complemented, not distracted. Finish was long and dry, sugary and watery, redolent of delicate flowers and fruit. It was surprisingly durable, for a rum at 40%.

The Cor Cor Red was more generous on the palate than the nose, and as with many Japanese rums I’ve tried, it’s quite distinctive. The tastes were somewhat offbase when smelled, yet came together nicely when tasted. Most of what we might deem “traditional notes”like nougat, or toffee, caramel, molasses, wine, dark fruits, that kind of thingwere absent; and while their (now closed) website rather honestly remarked back in 2017 that it was not for everyone, I would merely suggest that this real enjoyment is probably more for someone (a) interested in Asian rums (b) looking for something new and (c) who is cognizant of local cuisine and spirits profiles, which infuse the makers’ designs here. One of the reasons the rum tastes as it does, is because the master blender used to work for one of the awamori makers on Okinawa (it is a spirit akin to Shochu), and wanted to apply the methods of make to rum as well. No doubt some of the taste profile he preferred bled over into the final product as well.

The Cor Cor duo raised its head in the 2017 and 2018 rum festival circuit, and aside from a quick review by Wes in the UKhe commented that it was a pair of rums that engendered quite some discussionit has since sunk almost completely from public consciousness. I have to give it a cautious endorsement just because it’s so damned interesting, even if I couldn’t entirely find it in my heart to love it. Years from now Japan may colonize the rumisphere, the same way they have made themselves space in the whisky world. For now, this probably won’t get them there, however intriguing it might be to me personally.

(#708)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I reached to to several friends in Japan for background: thanks in particular to Yoshi-san, who managed to get in touch with Grace directly on the question of the still and the master blender.
  • Grace also releases a Cor Cor Premium and Koruroru 25 rum variations, but I have never seen them for purchase.
  • Yuko Kinjo is the CEO and founder of Grace Rum. She was introduced to rum whilst sitting in a friend’s bar in the early 2000s, and asked herselfWhy not make rum right here, a unique spirit made completely of local ingredients?” Cor Cor Rum is made only of sustainable local sugarcane and is a joint effort between Kinjo-san and the Minamidaito Island Chamber of Commerce.
Feb 032020
 

The Okinawan Helios Distillery came to greater attention (and reknown) of the western rum scene in 2019, when they presented a white rum and a 5 Year Old that were impressive right out of the gate. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given that the company has been in the business since 1961 – it is supposedly the oldest such distillery in the country. Then, it was called Taiyou, and made cheap rum blends from sugar cane, both to sell to the occupying American forces, and to save rice for food and sake production. In the decades since, they’ve branched out, but always continued making the good stuff, and you can’t be in rum for nearly sixty years and not pick up a thing or two. To me, the only question is why they waited so long to move west make a splash.

Aside from beers and awamori, for which they are better known in Japan, rums make up a good portion of the portfolio, with the 5YO and white leading the chargeboth, as noted, are pretty good. But in the back room skunkworks there was always the desire to go further, and age longer, as I was told in Paris in 2019 when a commercially-complete but as-yet-officially-unbottled sample was passed over the counter for me to try. Most distillers would go in easy increments up a graded “age-curve”you know, 10 years old, maybe 12, or 15 or something like that. Not these boys. They went right up to 21 and planted their flag firmly there.

And they had reason to. The rum was a noser’s delight, soft and yet firm, with a remarkably well balanced amalgam of caramel, ripe (but not overripe) fruits, cola, fanta, citrusand that was just in the first thirty seconds. I stared at in some wonderI’d never seen or tried a Japanese rum this old, and had thought that perhaps the company’s experience in making aged whisky would make it more malt-like than rum-likebut no, this thing was uniformly all round excellent. As if to prove the point, when I left it standing and came back to it there were also notes of bitter chocolate, Danish butter cookies, sweet aromatic tobacco, leather, and smoke. And behind all that, like a never-materializing thundercloud, there was a vaguely rank and hogo-y meatiness, sensed rather than directly experienced, but rounding out the nasal profile nicely.

Clearly twenty one years of careful maturation in ex-bourbon barrels had had its effect, and had sanded off the rougher edges evident on the aromas of both the Teeda 5YO and the white. Did this continue when tasted?

Photo (c) Nomunication website.

Yes indeed. Granted 43% was hardly cask strength (the 48% official version would likely be more emphatic), but the tastes were as smoothly crisp as anyone could hope for, with a creamy, salt-buttery lead-in that was almost silky. The wood influence was clearvanilla, smoke, leatheryet not overbearing; the bitter tannins run which could have run amok in something this old were tamed well. Standard and well-defined notes of an aged Caribbean molasses-based rum paraded across the palate one after the otherstoned ripe fruits, caramel, toffee, strong black tea, port-infused tobaccoand bags of delicately handled spices like cinnamon and cumin jeteed around them. These were set off by cola, and light licorice and meaty hints, just enough to make themselves known, before the whole thing came to an end in a gentle finish of all these flavours coming on to the stage for one last bow in a sort of integrated unison that had me asking for seconds and thirds and vowing to get me a bottle when it finally became available.

That bottle has now been released. One of 2500, says Nomunication, and they mention a price tag of 28,000 yen, which is about ‎€240. I imagine it’ll be a bit more expensive by the time it gets over to America or Europe when taxes, tariffs and transport are tacked onbut I think it’s really worth it, especially since it’s stronger, and older than anything we’re likely to see from Japan that isn’t a whiskey. Tasting it, I was reminded of a well-made Damoiseau, or other rums from Guadeloupewith it’s own quirks and originality, not adhering to a regimen or a strictly enforced code, but simply made with passion and without additives and with a whole lot of skill, in a country that keeps making ‘em better all the time.

(#698)(90/100)


Other Notes

  • The official release of the 21 Year Old Rum is 48% ABV, while the sample I tried was 43%, one of three bottles made for the festival circuit in 2019. I was told back then that no changes were envisaged to what I was samplingthe blend had been “locked”aside from tinkering with the strength; so I’ll take it on faith that any difference between what I based my notes on and what’s out there for sale, is minimal.
  • The 5 Year Old review has a brief background on the distillery and some notes on its methods of production. As far as I know this is a rum from molasses, and comes from a stainless steel pot still.
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 rumperhaps 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 tastesoft, 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 cucumbersthe 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 finishedwell, 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 promisea castrated clairin if you willin your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

May 302019
 

In any rum festival, if you are moving around with a posse or simply keep your ears open, there’s always one or two new or unknown rums that create an underground buzz. You drift from booth to booth, tasting, talking, writing, thinking, listening, and gradually you separate voices from the din, that quietly remark “Check out that one over there” or “Did you hear about….?” or “You really gotta try…” or a simple, disbelieving “Holy crap!

The Whisper Antigua rum was one of those, Lazy Dodo another; in various years there was the Toucan white, the Compagnie’s Indonesian rum, the first edition of Nine Leaves, the first new Worthy Park rumsand in Paris 2019, it was the Teeda five year old made by the Japanese Helios Distillery, which I heard mentioned up and down the aisles by at least five separate people on the very first day (along with the Madeirans, the Cabo Verde grogues and Mhoba)

Helios has been around since 1961, when it was called the Taiyou distillery, and made rum from sugar cane grown in Okinawa itself (the climate favours it and all rum made in Japan uses cane from there) to cater to the locally-based Americans of the US post-war civil administrationand so as not to use rice which was needed for food to make alcohols like sake. In 1969 as the fortunes of the company and Okinawa improved, the name was changed to Helios and over the next two decades it branched out and gained licenses to make sake, shōchū, awamori (an Okinawan local spirit made from rice), whiskey and, in 1996, beer, which became one of its primary products with amawori and for which it is now best known. Yet they started with and always made a sort of cheap blended rum (both white and lightly aged), and in the last few years expanded that into an aged product they named Teeda (an Okinawan word for “sun”goes well with Helios, doesn’t it?), which is a blend of rums of five to fifteen years old aged in ex-bourbon barrels, I am led to understand, and pot still distilled. No caramel or other additions, a pure rum.

I don’t know how much of the blend was five years old and how much was greater, but whatever they did, the results were great. The pot still component was particularly aggressive right out of the gate (even with a relatively staid 40% ABV strength) – yes it had a pronounced initial rumstink of sweet fruits and rinds decomposing in the sun, rotting bananas and paint remover, but there was also fanta and soda pop, a clear sweet line of bubble gum and strawberries, apricots, cherries, very ripe yellow mangoes, all tied together with brine, olives, and a really rich vegetable soup chock full of noodles and green onions (seriously!).

Palatehmmm. Different, yet decidedly intriguing and original without straying too far from rum’s roots. It was supple and firm on the tongue, sweet and almost gentleI sensed iodine, minerals, wet charcoal, ashes, redolent of that woody and yeasty fresh-baked sourdough action of shōchūs I’ve had, which workedsort of. Gradually that released additional muskier flavours of licorice, molasses, vanilla, even red olives. It was also musty, with all the pungency of a barn made from old wood and long abandoned. Whatever fruits there were took a back seat, and only really came into their own on the finish which, though short, was creamy and sharp both at once, and allowed final notes of ripe cherries and apricots to make a final bow before disappearing.

What to make of something like this? A Caribbean rum it was clearly not, and it was quite separate from the light rums from South America; neither did it conform to India’s rich and sweet rums like the Rhea or Amrut, and it had little in common with the feral whites now coming out of Asia. Given that in many cases Japanese rum makers are often adding rum to their lineup of whiskies or sake or shōchū as opposed to starting rum distilling from scratch, I argue that too often the profiles of those drinks bleed over into the way their rums taste (Seven Seas, Ryoma, Cor Cor and Ogasawara are examples of this, with Nine Leaves a marked exception).

Yet I liked this thing, quite a bit. It was like a dialled-down Islay mixing it up with a Jamaican pot-still bruiser (with a Versailles acting as referee), and was, in my estimation, something of an original to sample, blending both the traditional “rummy” flavours with something new. It skated over many of the issues mentioned above and came out at the other end with a really mellow, rich, tasty, different rum, the likes of which I have not had before. Even with the few weaknesses it hadthe balance and integration of the disparate components were not completely successful, and it could have been stronger for surethere’s nothing here that would make me tell you to walk away. Quite the reverse, in factthis rum is absolutely worth a try, and it makes me glad I listened to the buzz.

(#629)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks and a hat-tip to Yoshiharu Takeuchi and Manabu Sadamoto for help with the background notes
  • A 2019 RhumFest masterclass video of Ms. Matsuda (grandaughter of the founder of Helios) can be found on FB in English, with a running French translation. This confirms the pot still comment (it is stainless steel) as well as noting that fermentation is 2 weeks, leading to a 60% distillate from the still; white rum is rested in steel tanks for about six months, while aged rums are put in oak casks for the appropriate period
Apr 172019
 

You just gotta love Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who hired a brand ambassador, travel agent, accountant, general manager, master distiller, janitor, chief cook and bottle washer, the cook, the baker and candlestick maker, and still only has a single employee in his Japanese rum-making outfit Nine Leaveshimself. And lest you think he’s a dour, serious, penny-pinching cost-cutting ninja who’d prefer to be making a Yamazaki single-handedly or something, you can take it from me that he’s a funny, personable, dynamic and all-round cool dude, a riot to hang out with in any bar in any country. Oh yeah, and he makes some pretty damned fine rums.

I’ve been writing about Nine Leaves since I first tried their various rums back in 2014: the Clear, and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged rums (most of which were aged, at best, for six months and issued once or twice a year), and have gradually realized that due to the peculiarities of Japanese tax laws, it’s simply not in their interest to make rums greater than two years of age, and so probably never will. Yoshi-san has therefore always concentrated on making minute, infinitesimal improvements to these young ‘uns, until 2016 when he changed direction and put out the first Encrypted rum, riding the wave of finishes and double maturations that have almost come to define Foursquare and have been copied here and there by other distillers like DDL and English Harbour.

The Encrypted rums were subtly, quietly excellent. It surpasses my understanding that to this day they have not made much of a wave in the rumworld (unless you count Velier’s 70th anniversary edition, which Yoshi jokingly calls theEncrypted 2½”), though sales must be brisk otherwise why would Nine Leaves keep making them, right? The Encrypted II from 2017 was a blend of copper-pot-still rums slightly over two years of age: some were aged in ex-bourbon casks, some in PX Oloroso, and then blended, with a resultant strength of 58% ABV. That’s it, and the results just keep getting better over time.

Consider the way it smelled. With pot still distillate and two different cask types, one would expect no less than an intriguing smorgasbord, which this provided, in spades: the pot still component was quite subdued, starting off with a little brine and olives, a light touch of nail polish remover and acetones; indeed, the vaguely herbal nature of it almost suggested an agricole wannabe than the molasses rum it actually was. Letting it open a little is key here: after several minutes the other aromas of light vanilla and caramel were joined by smells of apples, green grapes, cumin and lemon peel, and only after some time did heavier fruit like peaches in syrup begin to make their appearance, with a neat balancing act between the various components.

The real treat was how it tasted. Short version? Delicious. Much as the nose managed to make a curious combination of agricole and molasses rum work together without going too far on one side or the other, the palate took flavours that might have been jarring and found a way to make them enhance each other rather than compete: it was hot and briny, tasting of gooseberries, green grapes and unripe mangoes, then balancing that off with unsweetened cooking chocolate, licorice, nougat and bon-bons, which were in turn dusted lightly with cinnamon and almonds, before closing off in a nice long finish of nuttiness, caramel, vanilla, a hint of wine and even (I kid you not) tumeric.

It’s amazing how many flavours Nine Leaves wrings out of their distillate without messing around with additives of any kind. When I see major houses doctoring their rums and their blends in order to appeal to the sweet-toothed mass market, then justify their actions (assuming they bother) by mentioning lack of resources to age distillate for long periods, the desire of their customers, the permissive legislation etc etc etc, I want to sigh and just point them in the direction of a rum like this one, aged for so short a time, not part of any family tradition or national heritage, not needing any adornment to showcase its quality. This thing is simply a solid, tasty rum, familiar enough not to piss off the Faithful, while also different enough to elicit nods of appreciation from those who’re looking for a variation from the norm. Not many makers can find the balancing point between such different aspects of the production processNine Leaves has shown it can be done, and done well, by taking the time to get it done right.

(#616)(87/100)

Dec 302018
 

Take this as less a review, than a description of my experience with a rum I didn’t know what to do with.

*

I have been sitting on this review for over a year, alternately confused and disgusted and wondering and puzzled. It was a rum like nothing I’d ever had before, tawdry and smelly and meaty, an open sewer of a rum, a discarded tart’s handkerchief, yet I could not believe it could actually be so. No reputable companyno company periodwould willingly release such a product into the wild without reason, so what was I missing? Was it me and a degraded sense of smell and taste? Was itas initially described in my notesone of the worst hogo-laden bastards ever made, was it a contaminated sampleor a vanguard of the the taken-to-weaponizable-extremes dunder detonations of the New Jamaicans?

It took the Velier-issued NRJ TECA specifically for me to go back to this one sample (sent to me by that connoisseur of Asian rum junkies, John Go, who I’m sure is grinning at my experience) and give it another shot a year later, and perhaps it was also the complete faith I had that Luca Gargano would never release a substandard rum, which made me finally come to grips with the TECA’s Japanese equivalent and understand that perhaps they had been ahead of the curve all along. Or perhaps not.

Because for the unprepared (as I was), the nose of this rum is edging right up against revolting. It’s raw, rotting meat mixed with wet fruity garbage distilled into your rum glass without any attempt at dialling it down (except perhaps to 40% which is a small mercy). It’s like a lizard that died alone and unnoticed under your workplace desk and stayed there, was then soaked in diesel, drizzled with molten rubber and tar, set afire and then pelted with gray tomatoes. That thread of rot permeates every aspect of the nosethe brine and olives and acetone/rubber smell, the maggi cubes, the hot vegetable soup and lemongrasseverything.

And much of that smell of sour funk persists on the taste (you better believe I was careful with it, even at standard strength), though here I must say it’s been transmuted into something more bearable. It’s hot and thin and sharp, reminding me of Chinese 5-spice, coriander, aji-no-moto and ginger with a little soy and green onions sprinkled over a good fried rice, plus sugar water and watery fruits like papaya and pears. Under it all is that earthy and musky taste, not so evident but always there, and that to some extent spoils the overall experienceor enhances it depending on your tolerance for high levels of dunder in your rum. The finish was relatively short and intermediate, with some teriyaki and sweet soya and very faint molassesand the memory of that lizard.

All right so that sounds like crap right? Sure it does. My initial sentiments were so negative I was afraid to score the damn thing. I had never had an experience of such intensity before, of such off-the-wall tastes that I could not seriously associate with rums. And for the record, nobody else I spoke to (those who had tried it) felt the same way about it.

So it became a question of seeing who made it and how it was made, to see if that shed any light on the matter. I talked to a few of my correspondents in Japan and came up empty. Yes they knew of the rum, no they had not heard any reports of anything such as I described, and no there was nothing particularly unusual about the production methods employed by Kikusui Shuzo distillery on Honshu, using Shikoku sugar cane which they process on a column still and age for three years. In fact, these boys are the ones making the Ryoma 7 year old rum, which I remembered having similarly odd (if not as feral) smells and tastes, but much gentler and much better integrated into the overall drink. Seven Seas rum is now imported into Germany, but I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that it’s really not meant for the export market, which might explain why it’s not mentioned much. On the other hand, maybe rum reviewers are keeling over left and right after a sip but before they get anything to print, so who knows?

Anyway, enough of the snark. Bluntly, I tried the Seven Seas in 2017 and didn’t like it and felt it was over the top, a badly made product that was off on balance, complexity and taste. In 2018 Velier’s National Rums of Jamaica convinced me there was method behind the madness, I had perhaps been ignorant and too harsh and that something in the production methodology paralleled the high congener and ester levels of the TECA, even if I could find no confirmation of the matter. Because of the uncertainties I’m going to officially leave it as unscored, because I feel my original 65 was too low but I don’t know enough and feel too ambivalent to rate it higher. Assuming my ideas are correct, then I’d ramp it up to 74….but no more. Even properly made as a true rum, it’s not enough to convince me I want to buy the bottle. I’m fully prepared to accept that my experience may have been unique to me; and I love the funky Jamaican stylebut neither point is quite enough to make me want to risk this Japanese rum a third time.

(#585)(Unscored)

Jun 132018
 

#520

Since we’re talking about Nine Leaves again, let me just issue this brief review of another of the 2016 editions, the American Oak 2 year old. This was something of a departure for the company and its genially low-key one-man owner, master blender, accountant, chief salesman, procurement officer, distiller, bottler, secretary, and maybe even floor cleaner, and the departure is in that it’s aged for so long.

Most of the time Yoshiharu Takeuchi (who holds all of the positions noted above plus maybe a few others) releases rums in a six month cycle for the Angel’s Half expressions, and annually for the unaged “Clear” ones. This one is, however, aged for two yearsit was the first “real” aged edition he made, and it was put to rest almost at the same time Nine Leaves opened for business. Why two years? Because it’s the maximum a rum can be aged in Japan, he told me, before heavier taxes start to kick in, noting also that this is why for the moment older rums will not be part of the Nine Leaves’ stable.

Be that as it may, the 50% 2YO pot still rum should be seen as a companion piece to the Encrypted, which came out in the same year, and was also two years old. However, the Encrypted was a two year old finished blend (of four rums), and this rum was a straight two year old without any other barrels aside from the American oak. I tried it together with the that and the Angel’s Half 6-month from last week, at the same timeand somewhat to my surprise, I liked this one best.

The nose rather interestingly presented hints of a funky kind of fruitiness at the beginning (like a low rent Jamaican, perhaps), while the characteristic clarity and crisp individualism of the aromas such as the other Nine Leaves rums possessed, remained. It was musky and sweet, had some zesty citrus notes, fresh apples, pears and overall had a pleasing clarity about it. Plus there were baking spices as wellnutmeg and cumin and those rounded out the profile quite well.

Palate, short version, yummy. Some sugar water, vanilla, cereals and those spices again, cider and apple juice. No brine here, no olives, more like a kind of tartness, akin to unsweetened fresh yoghurt. And a minerally iodine peat-bog taste lurked in the background, which fortunately stayed there and wasn’t so aggressive as to derail the experience. It was quite smooth, with some edge and rawness, but well controlled, closing things off with a finish that was quiet, clear and relatively easy, redolent mostly of acidic fruits, apples, cider, oranges and a bit of vanilla. That’s a rather brief set of tasting notes, but I assure you, the experience was well worth it.

When I posted the Angel’s Half notes last week on reddit, one person asked me whether what I described was typical for Nine Leaves. Based on these three Nine Leaves rums from 2016, I’d have to say yesbut even with rums so relatively similar and from the same tree, there were points of individuality that made them distinct in their own right. Of the three, this one was my favouriteit provided reasonable complexity, clarity, enjoyment, retained its sprightly youth and vigour, while suggesting how the ageing sanded off the rough edges. For a two year old rum made on the other side of the world, this thing is quite an achievement, and demonstrates yet again that a rum doesn’t have to be aged up to wazoo or come from a famed Caribbean estate to make a solid and favourable impression on anyone who tries it.

(86/100)


Other notes

The rum’s label could use some work. It states it’s an Angel’s half but neither the year nor the ageing are clearly noted, which inevitably leads to some confusion. Also, the only way to tell it’s different from the 6 month old is the yellow label for the 2YO, as opposed to the white one on the 6-month. I think Yoshi has corrected this in subsequent releases, though one remains perennially unsure what the release quantity is.

Jun 112018
 

Ever since Yoshiharu Takeuchi began his one-man Japanese rum-making outfit called Nine Leaves, I’ve kept a weather eye on his work, and think his two-year-old rums and the Encryptedboth the original and the one issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary in 2017 – have been remarkably good rums for juice under five (and in some cases under one) years old.

Arguably the aspects of Mr. Takeuchi’s work that have brought him to the attention of a greater audience in the Americasthough he’s been well known, and moving around, in the European festival circuit since 2014 — is the release of the Encrypted as noted above, and his current attendance at the Miami Rum Renaissance in 2018from where Juan Marcos Chavez Paz, a correspondent of mine and a member of the Consumers Jury for the last couple of years, sent me a note yesterday expressing his amazed admiration for the quality of what Nine Leaves does with such short ageing periods.

Aside from the occasional two-year-old, Nine Leaves’ bread and butter is the regular outturns of rums which he puts to rest for a mere six months before bottling, in either American oak or Limousin casks. He calls them “Angel’s Half”, which I think is a understated and humorous play on the strength, the ageing and the pilferage of the angels. What this brief stint in the barrels accomplishes is to preserve much of the unaged fire of a white spirit, while also getting the benefit of what Martin Cate would call “light ageing.” However, since these are coming out twice a year, it’s a tough task to try and get them allthe distillery opened in 2013 and while it may not seem to be a problem to get a “mere” twenty or so expressions, trust me, it is.

The rum under discussion today is the light yellow Nine Leaves ‘Angel’s Half’ (American oak aged) pot still rum issued in 2016 – not messed around with, bottled at a robust, throat-clearing 50% and as with all the rums from the company I’ve tried so far, it’s a solid, tasty piece of work for something aged less than a year.

And that’s the part at which I kind of marvel. I honestly don’t know how he stuffs as much into these rums as he does. The nose, for example, gave an initial sensation of a wet stone and minerals (!!), salt, sweet peas (I’m not making this up, honest), before relaxing with the weird stuff and presenting something a tad more traditionalsherry, brine, an olive or two, watermelon, pears and a light kind of sweetness that’s quite pleasing. And quite assertive, but without actually crossing over into rough.

The palate was deceptive, because although the dominating flavour at first sip was swank and a freshly sliced watery pear, it evolved subtly over time, in spite of what appeared to be a certain light delicacy behind which reticent flavours hid and never wanted to emerge. Wait a while and take your time, as I didsince, once it opened up, crisp, solid tastes were to be found. Brine, olives, gherkins, cucumbers to start, mellowing out into light fruits, a bit of lemon zest, nutmeg (very faint), guavas and just a suggestion of creaminess I could not nail down more precisely. Surprisingly, the finish was rather short for something bottled at 50%, and was quite dry, somewhat less than nose and palate suggested could be found. Some watery fruits, a bit of brine, the sweet line of citrus and spice, and that was that.

Thinking about the rum as I jotted down my notes, I think the key to the experience is in understanding its rather unstudied and deliberate eschewing of off-the-wall complexity. That’s not its intention, because there’s not that much going on here, no kaleidoscopic taste-attack to the senses as defined by some of the unaged white rums I’ve written about; in a way it’s a tamed version of those, with more than enough subtlety imparted by the time spent in the barrel to elevate it (now that I consider the matter, in a way it reminded me of the unaged Kōloa Kaua’i Hawaiian Rum I tried back in 2012). In other words, it’s two steps above merely “simple”; it’s clear and crisp and has the notes it plays, and plays those exceedingly well. I quite enjoyed it.

Conversations like the one I had with Juan makes me glad I invest the time into doing company biographies that provide background for the aficionados, because it’s clear that the interest is there and it’s really just the rums that aren’t always available. Fortunately Yoshi-san is not slowing down and keeps the quality of his juice very high (Velier would hardly have asked him to contribute to the 70th Anniversary collection otherwise). The chance that one day boredom will set in and I stop trying Nine Leaves’ “sincerely made rums” is small indeed, especially when there’s a range of young stuff like this to be savoured. Here’s a company that will hopefully gain even greater recognition, acclaim and plaudits in the years to come than those they have already earned.

(#519)(83.5/100)


Other notes

  • Unsure whether this one is the Spring or Autumn release, since the label doesn’t mention it. Since I tried it in October, I’m going to suggest it’s Spring.
May 232017
 

#366

Nine Leaves, for whose intriguing rums I have always retained a real fondness, remains a one man operation in Japan, and while I have not written much about them of late, they continue their regular six month release regimen without pause, and have become must-stop booths at the various festivals they exhibit at on the Circuit. Every now and then they issue an expression somewhat at right angles to their regular “six-month-aged” line, such as the Velier 70th Anniversary edition from 2017, the two-year-old “Encrypted” from 2016 and this one-year-old from 2015, which was the commercial 48% variation of special 58% 60-bottle run for a Japanese hotel, aged in Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks instead of the regular American or French oak.

So, this is a pot still rum, aged for one year, bottled at 48%, and aged in red wine casks. How active or soaked these casks were, or how much residual wine there was, remains an unanswered question. The real question for me was, did it work? Nine Leaves, after all, have made some rather above-average rums by bucking the trend and staying within some very short time-frames for their ageing, but now this one seemed to be inching towards the line that the Encrypted stepped over the following year. How was it?

Well, nose first. It moved on quite a bit from the 2015 Clear (which I enjoyed for other reasons). Though it began with some rather startling waxy paraffin aggressiveness, it was not as pungent as the Clear was, and seemed somewhat more tamed, more soothing. In fact, it presented very much like a young agricole with a few extra aromas thrown in. The winey notes were there, kept well in the backgroundmore of an accent at this stage, than a bold and underlined statementand the smell exhibited a sort of clear, sprightly friskiness, of fanta, grapes, cinnamon, ginger and light florals.

That clarity of aromas was very evident on the palate as well. Even at the slightly beefed up strength it remained light and clear and crisp. Flavours of light flowers, vanilla, green grapes, lemon zest and olives in brine mixed it up with salt butter and cream cheese. The wine background came forward here, and if it wasn’t bottled at such a proof and had so many other interesting rummy sensations, it might even be considered a port of some kind. It was quite intriguing and quite interesting, though the finish was a bit of a let down, being very spicy, quite dry, doing something of a turn towards harshness, and didn’t give much up beyond some green grapes and grass, and a few breakfast spices.

Although it was a decent rum, I think it may be a bit too ambitious, and could best be considered an experimental attempt by the playful for the curious (and the knowledgeable), to make something at odds with better known profiles. The real success stories of such rums seem to be more with finishes than the entire ageing cycle. To some extent it lacked focus, and the wine background, while making its own claim to uniqueness, also confusesand although I kinda liked it, the amalgam of rum and wine doesn’t gel entirely. If you recall, Legendario and Downslope Distilling went down this road before, much more unsuccessfullyit’s a tough balancing act to get right, so kudos to Nine Leaves for doing as well as they have.

Anyway, to wrap up, thenpoints for the effort, a few approving nods for originality, but ultimately also something of a headshake for not succeeding entirely. Given that there has never been another major attempt to issue a wine-aged young rum from the company, it’s possible that was and remains an experiment which was left alone after the initial release, which is a shame, really, because I would have enjoyed seeing where Yoshi-san took it after a few more tries.

(84/100)

Mar 152017
 

Starts off weird and then develops very nicely

#348

A recent post on the reddit rum forum – perhaps the only real Q&A alternative to FB rum clubs on the net – remarked on the discovery by one person of Japanese rum, using the Ryoma 7 year old as an example. Having written about that particular product – I thought it an interesting essay in the craft, having a profile both similar to and at odds with, more traditional rums with which we are more familiarI remembered this other one by Ogasawara which I bought in Paris last year, and decided to jump it to the front of the queue.

I have to confess that the initial sensations on the nose were absolutely not my cup of tea (my notes read “shudderingly weird”), right up to the point where through some magical transformation the whole thing did an ugly duckling on me and (somewhat amazingly, from my perspective), turned into quite a credible swan. It started off with light oil and petrol, and was really briny, like a martini with five olives in it, leaving me wondering whether it was a pot still product (I never did find out). In its own way it seemed to channel a cachaca, or unaged juice straight from the still, except that it was too unbalanced for that. There was white pepper, masala, sugar water, cinnamon, a flirt of watermelon and pears, and a bouillon with too many maggi-cubes (I’m not making this up, honestly). Somehow, don’t ask me how, after ten minutes or so, it actually worked, though it’ll never be my favourite white rum to smell.

Fortunately the Ogasawara settled down and got down to rum business on the palate, which was very pleasant to taste. The 40% helped here, lending a sort of gentling down of the experience. It presented as reasonably warm and smooth, the salt disappeared, leaving a light and sweet sugar water and watermelon tastes flavoured with cardamom, mint and dill, with traces of vanilla and caramel. Water brought out more – very brief and very faint notes of olives, fusel oil and delicate flowers which gave some much-needed balance and character to the experience. Although it was a molasses based product, it seemed to channel elements of an agricole spirit as well, in an interesting amalgam of bothsomething like a Guadeloupe white rhum, just not as good. But if one were looking for a true molasses rum redolent of the Caribbean, forget it – that wasn’t happening here: it was too individual for that. The finish was probably the weakest point of the whole affair, here one moment, gone the next, warm, light, clear, but hardly remarkable aside from a quick taste of cinnamon, cardamom, and sweet rice pudding.

The Ogasawara islands are also known as the Bonin (or “uninhabited”) Islands and are part of an archipelago of that name. The first Europeans are said to have come in in 1543 (supposedly a Spanish explorer, Bernardo de la Torre); one of the islands, Hahajima was originally called Coffin Island or Hillsborough Island and settled by a few Americans and Europeans and other pacific islanders around 1830. One of them, an American called Nathaniel Savory, traded bathtub-style hooch (I suppose they could be called rums) made from locally planted cane with whaling ships. By 1880 they became administratively a part of the Tokyo prefecture, and the commercial cultivation of sugar cane and sugar manufacture dates from this period. Rice based alcohols are of course a tradition in Japan but rums in the modern sense of the word have only existed since 1940 or so – however, most are classified as shochu for tax reasons (rum is taxed more heavily). Placed under American control after the end of World War II, the Islands returned to Japan in 1968, and after many years of efforts to reinvigorate the culture of sugar cane which existed on the island before, Ogasawara Rum Liqueur Company was founded and its first put rum on sale in 1992. They still don’t produce much of a range.

Not much info on the rum itself is available. I was informed via a Japanese friend of mine that it’s double-distilled in a stainless steel pot still. There are stories about how it was aged for under a year on the sea bed by the source islands, but I’m not clear whether it’s this rum, or a rum made on Ogasawara and where the title is used as an adjective. Plus, if it was aged that way, it had to have been filtered, again without confirmation of any kind. So this turned into one of those occasions where I really did taste it blind, and what you’re getting is an unvarnished opinion of a rum about which very little is known aside from strength and basic source.

As a person who has had rums from all over the world, I am a firm believer that terroire and culture both impact on the rums various regions make, which is why you’ll never confuse a Bajan with a Jamaican, or either with a Martinique rhum, for example (or with a Guyanese wooden still product). Japan’s small and venerable producers, to my mind, benefit from their unique Okinawan cane (much as Dzama rhums on Madagascar do with theirs) as well as being somewhat limited by their predilection for sake and shochu, which are quite different from western spirits and impart their own taste profiles that define and please local palates.

Given its vibrant whiskey industry and lack of attention to our tipple of choice, it’s clear Japan still has some catching up to do if it wants to make a splash and win real acceptance in the wider rum world as a producer of a unique variant of rum. Nine Leaves is already making strides in this direction, and it remains to be seen whether other small (or large) producers will edge into the market as well. If they do, it’s going to be interesting to see how they approach the making of their rums, the marketing, and the disclosure.

(78/100)

Jan 172017
 

A new direction for the Japanese rum-maker, which has some flaws but is an interesting rum nevertheless.

#336

When researching the background for the Encrypted, I came across the website RumRatings, which is a place where people rate and comment on rums they have tried without going through the effort of, say, creating a website or putting their thoughts on a more formal basis (the way one sees on the /r/rum forum on reddit, for example, a site where fans can be even more rabid than on Facebook but where the discussion tends to be both more civil and certainly more intelligent).

The comments were not inspiring. “Too young and harsh and chemical,” wrote one from Hungary whose tastes ran into the sweet of Dictador, Millonario and Zacapa; “This sh*t is a waste of time,” opined another from Romania, who headed his less than enthusiastic comment “Whisky Rum or something…” and who also (from the link to his “cabinet”) seemed to prefer softer soleras and sweeter rums and put the Jamaican RumFire and a Bristol Spirits 1996 Caroni close to the bottom.

Such criticisms serve a purpose in this instance, because there aren’t many reviewers who have yet taken to Nine Leaves, so even an opinion from the street is useful when we buy one…and just because I like ‘em personally doesn’t mean you will. So I don’t link to these negative remarks in an effort to diss the gentlemen in question or to sneer at their opinions, just to lay the groundwork for suggesting that if your tastes run into the more easy-going, softer Spanish style of rums – or those that are known by now to be softer, smoother and sweeter than the normthen this Company’s rums might not be in your wheelhouse. Nine Leaves aren’t as individualized as, say, unaged cask-strength agricoles from a pot still, but their rums do take some getting used to.

Nine Leaves, that one-man outfit from Japan makes very young rums (most six months or so), and they are closer in profile to a mashup of whites and Jamaicans with the leavening influence of Barbados thrown in, plus maybe a clairin or two for some fangs. Yoshiharu Takeuchi makes no attempt to be particularly unique, which is perhaps why his rums actually are. And of all those Clear and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged six month old rums, I’d have to say he’s done something pretty interesting here, like nothing he’s attempted before. He’s thrown kaizen out the window and gone in a new direction.

Consider: normally Nine Leaves distills its rums, does the cuts, and then ages the result for six months, which is why there are a bewildering array of multi-years Almost Springs and Almost Autumns and Angel’s Half French and American Cask Aged rums in their portfolio; but with the Encrypted, he has gone in the “finishing” direction (much as English Harbour, DDL and Foursquare have done in the past year or two). This is a blend of four rums, each two years old – the four were aged in barrels of American oak, barrels that previously held oloroso, brandy…and one that remains unidentified, perhaps in an effort to tease Florent Bouchet of the Compagnie, who occasionally holds a distillery of origin to be “secret”, leading to tons of heated conjectures and endlessly entertaining commentary in the blogosphere. The closest Nine Leaves has previously come to this concept is with their Sauvignon Blanc edition, but the ultimate intention is the sameto add to the flavour profile without actually adding anything, a tactic Zacapa, A. H. Riise and Don Papa could perhaps take note of.

Bottled at a firm 48% in 2016, the golden rum is certainly a step above their younger products. All share a somewhat astringent, rather thin-but-intense nose (I’m trying hard not to think of my feared primary school teacher, the redoubtable Mrs. Jagan, with her sharp voice, pince-nez, bladed nose and ever-ready foot-long ruler but that’s almost impossible), and here that was only marginally ameliorated by the ageing period. Sharp for sure, acerbic yes, intense without question – but the aromas weren’t half bad. Citrus, light florals, some earthiness and lavender doing an interesting tango, plus the vaguest hint of fruits and grassiness, all very crisp and distinct. It presents far more like an agricole than a molasses based rum.

The two years of ageing was where to some extent the rum failed to deliver when tasted, however promising the nose had been. The crisp clarity was retained, yet it still presented as somewhat raw, a shade too uncouth, without any rounding that would have made the mouthfeel better. Fortunately, that aside, the taste was excellent, and once I got used to it, I found myself appreciating its sprightliness and youth, and again I was left wondering how this was so much like an agricole. Those same vegetal, grassy notes persisted, to which were added florals, red wine, orange zest, sultanas, and also a sort of cereal background that developed into the creaminess of cheese on black bread. It was odd, but came together quite well, and I had no real complaints about the finish, which was somewhat spicy, but still exited with a cleanliness and clarity redolent of the spicier tartness of green apples and grapes.

Putting all these observations together, it was, in fine, a pretty decent two year old rum – the finishes certainly helped it attain a level that simple ageing never would have. When you consider Nine Leaves’s regular issuances of six month old rums, made pretty much the same way, aged in either in one barrel or another, it’s easy to grumble that they make the same rums on every go-around, so getting one is like getting them all. By making the Encrypted, Nine Leaves has shown they are not bound to the way they have made rums beforeand are quite willing to take their products into new and interesting directions that may not entirely work now, but hold great promise for their efforts in the future

(85/100)

Dec 142016
 

ryoma-7-1

An essay in Oriental and Caribbean fusion

#326

Outside the cognoscenti, the rabid fanbase or deep-field researchers, few know (or care) much about rums from outside the Western hemisphere. Yet rums from India and Thailand and Australia are massive sellers in the East, to say nothing of the emergent makers from Japan. Nine Leaves is the newest outfit from the Land of the Rising Sun to garner major accolades in the larger rumiverse, but rum has been made from locally grown sugar for a very long time, and it’s no surprise that other companies have been quietly doing business in the spirit without many outside the region being the wiser. Whisky might be the Japanese attention-getter du jour, but I don’t review those, so let’s turn a small spotlight on to the rums instead.

One such is this very interesting pale yellow product from the Kikusui distillery, located in the Niigata Prefecture on the north coast of Honshuthey also make, and are mostly known for, sake. The Kikusui brewery was formed in 1881 by Takasawa Suguro, when he received the right to make it from his uncle Takasawa Masanori and was approved to make it in his own right in 1896. It remains a family business (into its fifth generation), with sake remaining the mainstay of the company (one can only wonder who the rum loving guy in the family was, who broke with tradition by making it). In the first century of its existence, the company was not a large one, and weathered many storms like shortage of rice, the war years, sickness and premature death of family members, floods, earthquakesin 1964 the brewery was damaged by earthquake and for two consecutive years floods destroyed what was left. Somehow the family kept going and in 1969 a replacement brewery was completed. New equipment, modern production methods and management techniques were introduced in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s the company branched out into canned sake, food dishes and even stores of its own. Sometime in the 2000s, as best as I can determine and perhaps as a result of western influences or lack of desire to go with whisky, it was decided to branch into rum.

The sugar cane from which it is made comes from the southern island of Shikoku, the smallest island in the chain, and the rum derives from freshly pressed cane, which would make it a Japanese agricole, as well as putting to the test my own theories about whether terroire really does have a major influence on the final product. There is no information on whether the rum is pot still or column still derived; it’s aged for seven years in American oak barrels, and issued at 40%. There you go.

It’s been a while since I tried a rum with an olfactory profile quite like this: it started out with a wet cardboard soggy mess (the cardboard that the aroma implied, that is, not the rum); and cereals, rye bread, coconut water, rotting fruit (it was gentle, for which I gave fervent thanks), which over time, developed into a very pleasant nose of apples and cider, oddly sharp and weak at the same time. It was very light, faintly sweet, and could not for a moment compare to the clear voluptuousness of a Caribbean agricole, yet it presented an intriguing profile of its own that was almost Jamaican, and marked it out as singularclearly, one had to be prepared to take a sharp left turn to enjoy it and not demand it adhere to a better known French island smell. I can’t say with conviction that I succeededbut I was intrigued.

The palate was just as interesting, if equally bizarre. To begin with, it was very different from the way it smelledit was clear and crisp on the tongue as any cane-juice-derived rum ever made, extraordinarily light and clean for something supposedly aged for seven years, and tasted of light sweet grapes (those red ones from Turkey, or the green ones from Lebanon my wife buys for me), cucumbers, dill, and very light notes of vanilla, green apples, flowers, green tea ice cream, pears, some smoke, and a vague soya sauce background. In other words, the dreadlocks to a big step backwards. It was sprightly, light, crisp. Too bad the finish decided to circle back to the beginning, and end things with more of those fruits that had gone off, and that wet cardboard, tied in a bow with olives and brine. A little was okay, too much kinda soured on me.

SoI enjoyed the offbeat, original taste, liked the crispness of the mouthfeel, and was okay with the edges front and back, yet there was something uninspiring about the experience taken as a whole. It’s possible that both terroire and the company’s expertise with (or preference for) sake tilted their philosophy to something at odds with more familiar rummy profiles; and of course the 40% while allowing a wider audience to be catered to, does impose some limitations. Still, I’ll say thisit is emphatic for what it is, and as a rum it sure makes its own statement. There’s more than a bit of unaged pot still profile in here (hence my unconfirmed suspicion that this is what they are using to distil it), but for that to take a more commanding stance requires moving above the issued ABV and maybe playing with the barrel strategy some more. At end, therefore, it exhibits both strengths and weaknesses.

Why did I buy this? Well, because I could, because I was interested, and because it’s informative and useful to write about more than just the regular crop of rums from the regions with which we are all familiar. We should look to expand our horizons, and if the experience is not always an unadulterated positive, who can say what others might like, what the company’s ten year old is like, or where it moves in the future? Happily, the Ryoma 7 year old rum exhibited more on the plus side of the ledger than minuses, was a sprightly, funky little rumlet, and is quite affordable for anyone who wants to take a flier on something off the beaten track.

(80/100)


Other notes

The name “Ryoma” (or Ryōma) is that of one of the revolutionaries of the Meiji era who was prominent in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate (he was murdered in 1867). That name in turn derives from a legend of a god with the head of a dragon and the body of a horse, which supposedly could run 1000 li in one day.

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.

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 untamedin 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 domesticated 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 agricolein 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.

(#292 / 84/100)


Other notes

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

 

May 182016
 

Nine Leaves French 2

A love note to the concept of kaizen

It’s an old joke of mine that Nine Leaves’ staff consists of a master blender, office assistant, purchasing agent, bottler, General Manager, brand ambassador and sales office, and still only has one employee. This was and remains Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who single-handedly runs his company in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, and basically issues some very young rums (none are older than six months) on to the world market. The unaged whites in particular are getting all sorts of acclaim, and I have one to write about in the near future.

Back in December 2014 I wrote about the six-month-aged 2014 French Oak, which I thought intriguing and pleasant to drink, though still a bit raw and having some issues in the way the flavours blended together. Running into Mr. Takeuchi again a year later, I made it a point to try that year’s production, the The American Oak “Spring 2015” and this “Autumn 2015” … and can happily report that Nine Leaves, in its slow, patient, incremental way, is getting better all the time (and as a probably unintended side-effect, has made me buy a few more Japanese rums from other companies just to see how they stack up).

Just a brief recap: the rum was distilled in a Forsythe copper pot still, double distilled, using sugar cane juice from cane grown in Okinawa, so the rum is an agricole in all but name. Mr. Takeuchi himself decides when and how to make the cuts so that the heart component is exactly what he wants it to be. The rums are then aged for six months in the noted barrels, which are all new, and lightly toasted, according to a note Mr. Takeuchi sent me..

Nine Leaves French 1

The French OakAutumn 2015rum was a bit lighter in hue than the American Oak version I tried alongside it, and also a little easier on the noseand smoother, even rounder to smell, in spite of its 48% strength. There was a subtly increased overall depth here that impressedthough admittedly you kinda have to try these side by side to see where I’m coming from. Aromas of fanta, orange, cinnamon, vanilla were clear and distinct, as clean and clear as freshly chiselled engravings, and after a while, sly herbal and grassy notes began to emergebut so little that one could be forgiven for forgetting this was an agricole at all. This was something I have enjoyed about Nine Leaves’s rums, that sense of simultaneous delicacy and heft, and the coy flirtation between molasses and agricole profiles, while tacking unobtrusively to the latter.

The profile on the palate continued on with that subtle dichotomyit was slightly sweet and quite crisp, beginning with some wax and floor polish background, well controlled. Sugary, grassy tastes of cane juice, swank, vanilla, some oak, dill and incense led off, and while it displayed somewhat more sharpness and a little less body than the roundness of the nose had initially suggested, further softer notes of watermelon, cucumbers and pears helped make the experience a bearable one. As with the American, there was a chirpy sort of medium-long finish, as the rum exited with dry, bright, clean flavours of citrus, breakfast spices, some cinnamon and maybe a touch more of vanilla. It was clearly a young rum, a little rambunctious, a little playful, but overall, extremely well behaved. I sure can’t tell you which agricole is exactly like itNine Leaves inhabits a space in the rum world uniquely its own, while never losing sight of its rummy antecedents. That’s always been a part of its charm, and remains a core company competence.

Clearly Nine Leaves is slowly, patiently improving on its stable of offerings. I spent a few hours checking for news that the company intends to issue progressively more aged rums without resultit seems that the current idea is to continue with gradually improving the young rums that area their bread and butter (though I know that Yoshi has a few barrels of the good stuff squirrelled away in his warehouse someplace that he isn’t telling us about, and will issue a two year old American oak rum as a limited edition at some point). I can’t fault the concept, and if a new distiller can make rums this decent, and improve a little bit every year, you can just imagine what they’ll be putting out the door within the decade. Until then, we could do a lot worse than try one of these lovely seasonal issues Nine Leaves makes.

Kampei!

(#274 / 84.5/100)


Other notes

  • Because of some obscure tax regulations in Japan regarding spirits three years old, Nine Leaves is unlikely to issue really aged rums for the foreseeable future
  • The French Oak cask rums are now no longer being produced.
Feb 132016
 

Nine Leaves American 2

Little Lord Fauntleroy in a bottle.

Back in 2014 I first encountered rums from the Japanese company Nine Leaves, and was impressed enough to not only write about the company in one of my Makers profiles, but resolved to not let Mr. Takeuchi’s work escape me a second year in a row. So said, so doneI’ve tried four more of the company’s rums, and begin working through the resultant reviews with the American Oak version, bottled in Spring 2015.

As an aside, Mr. Takeuchi has certainly managed to elevate his company’s profile in 2014-2015. Presenting in Rome, Berlin, UK and Miami (and I’m sure there are others), his rums have won prizes at various festivals, Europe remains an expanding market, and one can only wonder at what this company will be like in ten years. Production methods remain the same as before: Okinawan sugar cane, cane-juice basis, careful selection of cuts to bring out the best of the distillate, and six months ageing in either French oak or American oak. There are stocks now laid down to age for longer periods, but it will be some years before we see these. Let’s focus on what we have today.

The American Oak release was a light gold rum aged for the requisite six months. That its initial nasal profile resembles a pot still agricole came as no surprise, because, well, it was. In fact, it immediately reminded me of a gelded clairinand I mean that as a sort of compliment, because the fierce and raging “yo’ mama!” attitude of the Haitian popskull was transmuted here into a more genteel “May I take your coat sir?” primness that somehow worked out okay. In other words, the 50% ABV didn’t smack me or try to stab me, but came across as warm-to-hot, waxy, briny and olive-y, quite dry, light, with none of the intense pungent oiliness that so mark unaged pot still whites. That six months ageing worked reasonably well, and it developed very nicely with additional scents of cucumbers, sugar water and light flowers that served to tame the background notes of turpentine and floor polish. It really was quite well done

Nine Leaves American 1

On the tongue, more spice could be noted. After trying it carefully for a few minutes, I was, to be honest, left scratching my headthere were salt, bitter, and sweet components in evidence, all at once; and that same light sweetness and almost-but-not-quite anorexia of the nose came through in the mouthfeel, somewhat to its detriment. Flowers, swank, vanilla, oak, cucumbers in a green salad (sans dressing), and then an amusing fanta and orange peel tango started going on at the back end. It was a young, light, frisky and well behaved rumlet, which faded gently into an easygoing, warm finish that was a little dry, but kept the party going with orange zest, delicate white flowers and a lack of aggro I found impressive for a rum this young, bottled at such a relatively high strength.

Civilized is a word I suppose can be used to describe it. It lacks real deep solidity and maturity I prefer in my rums (y’know, like Jamaicans or Demeraras which land on your palate like an anvil dropped from ten feet up), but its construction is almost playfully elegant. Yes, there was a shade too little ageing, yes the French oak version is even lighter in texture, yes, perhaps it was too dialled downbut you know, I really don’t know that many producers who can take a rum this young and maintain a balance between the intensity of a full-out, pot-still, zero-year-old white, and something a little olderwho can make something so interesting out of it. Maybe it’s the double distillation, maybe it’s the pot still, the light ageing regime, the cuts, the casks or something, but I’m not complaining too loudly. This is a pretty damned good young rum, and I’m sure glad I tried it.

(#256 / 84/100)

Dec 052014
 

D3S_8985

A Japanese pot still rum of clout and flavour, perhaps needing some more ageing to score better and reach a wider audience.

In five years of writing about rum, I’ve seen quite a few new rum-making enterprises come across my radar: Elements, Koloa, Downslope, Ocean’s readily spring to mind. Now they are joined by a new outfit called Nine Leaves, which may be unique in that it’s a distillery, a bottler, and a distributor, all run by one person: Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who operates in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan (the company was formed in 2013).

At this point in time in their existence, Nine Leaves makes three rums: a white (called “Clear”), and two “Angel’s Half” rumsperhaps so named because Mr. Takeuchi takes half of his distillate and ages it for six months in fresh American oak barrels, and the other half for the same period in French oak. It was the latter which I tried, largely because I was quite enamoured of the golden colour and its viscosity as it rolled down the tasting glass (not the best reason for trying a new rum, but I’ve done worse for really stupid reasons, so this almost classes as sober judgement on my part).

Speaking to Mr. Takeuchi revealed the following facts about him and his rum, which, much like the Ocean’s Atlantic edition 1997 I looked at not too long ago, is something of a labour of individual love: he’s a one man operation, who brought the distillery to life when nothing in his past (or that of his family) would suggest such a thing. The sugar originated from Okinawa, the water used came from an underground spring in Shiga. The barrels came from the US and France, and a Forsythe copper pot still was bought in Scotland.

So once again I was sampling a pot still product, bottled at a full proof 50%, and the theory of terroire having a detectable impact on the final product was put through its paces. Now pot stills preserve a large part of the flavour of the distillate and this bleeds over even after substantial ageing which itself adds extra layers of complexitybut with only a six month period, was it all enough?

D3S_8989

I thought soto a point. Consider the aromas hailing from the golden-hued rum: sharp and estery, light raisins and figs, salt biscuits, butterand all those attendant scents of rubber and wax polish, even some fresh sawn woodchips, like one was entering a brand new house fresh from the builders and still in the plastic wrapper. There were some faint background notes of caramel and vanilla, but these were waiting for a turn on the stage that didn’t materialize until the actual tasting.

Which was pleasantly intense, as befitted a 50% rum, and this is where I think some more time in the barrels might have improved the product. It was a firm, medium-bodied-verging-on-light rum, which retained some of that sharp peppery consistency of the nose; the caramel notes now came forward, incense sticks, biscuits, vanilla, coffee; and yes, the waxy, rubber tastes were there, as well as green herbsdill, maybe (no, really). A very very original palate, fading well into a clean exit of some length, redolent of cane juice, a touch of vanilla, and a last mischievous wink of coffee grounds.

Still, unlike the Rum Nation Jamaican White Pot Still 57%, the Angel’s Half French Oak Cask somehow missed the mark of having all these flavours blend together seamlessly (and that other one, you will recall, was utterly unaged); plus, it still feels a little too raw, which I imagine further ageing would iron out. Yet I must concede the overall experience was pretty good, which speaks well for Nine Leaves’s expertise here.

The question that occurred to me was, for whom and for what is this rum made? I’d suggest it’s not for freshly press-ganged sailors in the Navy of Rum Appreciation, who are only now beginning their journey, or those who prefer more standard profilesit really is too different for that. I think it’ll make a cocktail that’ll blow your socks off, and taken neat, with its heft and remarkably different, fresh profile, aficionados who drink a lot of rum would really enjoy it (as might maltsters).

Nine Leaves is worth keeping an eye on. Mr. Takeuchi is clear about his intention of keeping his distillery going for the long term, ageing the rums for longer periods, and developing his blending skills, his market, and his entire product range. He sees his enterprise as something of a constantly tweaked, incrementally refined project. That’ll surely be something to watch, in the years to come, for a rum maker who seems to enjoy running apart from the mainstream. Because already he has a made a good rum right out of the gateone you will assuredly not mistake for any other.

(#191. 82.5/100)


Other notes

  • Forsythe copper pot stills are made in Scotland by the eponymous company, and while it’s now a smaller part of their overall business, they still handcraft them (as they have since 1890). Nine Leaves’s model is supposedly similar to the one in business at Glenmorangie.