Jul 182022
 

To drink the still strength, high proofed “Bio” that Saint James distilled in July of 2020, is to be reminded what a distiller at the top of his game can do without even ageing his product.  Yes, they’ve made the pot still white I was so impressed by in 2019, but to try this 74.2% growler immediately afterwards (as I did) is like running the bulls in Pamplona in one year…then coming back later when all of them had been replaced by a particularly aggressive bunch of wild Kenyan Zebus that had been fed a diet of diced tigers and enough steroids to father a nation. It’s that kind of experience.

Here’s a rhum that ticks all the right boxes, and then some.  It’s a parcellaire micro-terroire rhum made with full attention to organic production methods, run through a column still and bottled as is – no ageing, no addition, no reduction. What you’re drinking is what comes dripping off the still.  It’s fierce, it’s savage, it’s tasty and as far as I’m concerned, the best unaged white I’ve ever tried…until I find the next one.

This kinetic whomp of proof hits you in the face right from the moment you pour the first shot, and so honesty compels me to suggest you give it a few minutes to settle down, because otherwise it bucks like an unbroken wild horse with half a pound of cayenne under its tail. And when you do sniff, its huge: brine, sweet soya sauce, cane sap, wet grass, and not just bags of fruit but whole sacks — pears, watermelon, papaya, guavas, apples, sweet Thai mangoes. It morphs over time and additional smells of iodine, smoked salmon, lemon juice and dill come to the fore, and more lurks behind in a sort of aromatic clarity and force we see all too rarely. 

And this intense panoply continues on the palate as well. That it is lip-puckeringly intense will come as no surprise, and once that is over and done with and one adjusts, the rich parade of flavour begins and the rhum becomes almost soft: it starts with damp earth, brine and olives, continues onto vegetal herbs, grass, dill, rosemary, then becomes clearer and crisper with cane juice, crushed walnuts, lime leaves (a lime cheesecake is what I kept thinking of) and glides to a precise finish that lasts what seems like forever, a finish that is dry, fruity, sweet, salty, overall delicious…and possibly the best rumkiss of my recent memory.

What a magnificent, badass, delicious rum this is. Rums I like or want to get deeper into are usually kept on the go for a few hours: three days later this thing was still in my glass and being refilled, and I was guarding it jealously from the depredations of Grandma Caner who kept innocently edging closer, twitching her fingers and trying to filch some. Everything about the entire profile seems more intense, more vibrant, more joyful and it’s a treat to just smell and taste and enjoy when one has more than just a few minutes in a tasting someplace.  Initially, when I had sampled this rhum at the Rum Depot in Berlin I had been impressed, and bought a bottle straightaway, yet with the time to really get into it without haste or hurry, I appreciated it even more the second time around. 

And it also upstages what I thought were other pretty serious pieces of work – Saint James’s pot still white, William Hinton’s Limitada and A1710’s Brute 66% to name just three. My serious opinion is that the beefcake of “Bio” points the way to rhums we may hope to get in the future; to try it is to be shown one of the most overwhelming, intensely tasty experiences that one is likely to have that year. And believe me, I honestly believe it’ll be worth it.

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

Some relatively new trends in modern rhum-making that this rhum epitomizes, is perhaps necessary in order to place Saint James’s “Bio” rhum in perspective.

One is the micro-terroire parcellaire approach to rhum production, where cane from a single small parcel or field or area of an estate is identified and harvested, and a rum (or rhum) made from that one area. Usually this is an experimental and limited run, meant to show off the characteristics a master distiller feels is characteristic and unique within that small plot of land. These days, most of the work in this direction appears to be coming from the French Island rhum makers like Neisson, HSE, A1710, Saint James and others like Renegade in Grenada, but for my money the first may have been the UF30E, if not the clairins from the micro-producers of Haiti.

This minimalist, small-batch approach also lends itself well to an emergent strain of sustainable, ecologically sound, carbon-neutral and environmentally friendly, organic or “bio” rhum production — which is still in its infancy, for now, yet gaining in importance and credibility. For rums, the term “certified organic” (and its variations) is not a mere catchphrase and marketing gimmick but refers to standard of production that today’s younger consumers take very seriously. Sales are built on such concepts.

And then there is ever-evolving rum-connoisseurship of the drinking classes, which, while once being perfectly happy with rhums and rums topping out at 50% ABV, now seems eager to go to the screaming limit. This leads to the curious (and occasionally amusing) race to the top of the proof pyramid to satisfy such demand, by producers – not all, but some. Ten years ago it was only independents and whisky-making rum bottlers who trafficked in such high ABV rums (151s were exceptions, for other reasons), but in the last couple of years the amount of rums issued north of 70% has ballooned and forced me to re-issue the Strongest Rums list not once, but twice, as new entrants kept getting added.

All of these aspects go into making the “Bio”, and may, as I remarked above, be a harbinger of rhums and rums to come. Cane juice is already considered a way to premiumize and mark out one’s products (high esters and “Jamaican methods” are another), and increasing proof combined with smaller production, limited-edition runs is here to stay.  Maybe they will not go mass market, but for smaller distilleries they can sure boost the margin and the sales in a way the bigger global producers can’t.


Other notes

  • Outturn is 5900 bottles
  • It remains remarkably affordable at around €60
  • Thanks to Dirk Becker and the really superlative staff of Berlin’s Rum Depot for bringing this to my attention and allowing me to taste first.
  • The rhum is edging into 151 territory (75.5%), but by no means is the Brut de Colonne to be considered a Ti Punch ingredient, not least because there’s a lower proofed 40% “Biologique” made and exported for that purpose (and another at 56.5% for the islanders) – indeed, some of the blurbs I’ve seen specifically mention it is to be had for and by itself.

 

Jul 042022
 

Photo (c) L’Homme a la Poussette on FB

Rumaniacs Review #136 | 0920

Rhum Jacsi (later named Rhum Jacksi) defies easy categorization and is a research exercise leading down several peculiar rabbit holes. All initial sources agree that the rhum was from Martinique, was made from the 1950s to the 1970s and it is usually to be found at 44% ABV (some later versions were 40%). The source / etymology of the name is not written down but is easily inferred. The distillery of origin is a mystery. The companies involved in its make are the only places one can go and that’s a sufficiently lengthy story to be split off into its own section under these brief tasting notes.

Rum-X is the only place that has any technical specifications: their entry for the rhum states it is from cane juice and done on a column still (of course any such thing as the AOC is undreamed of at this stage of rhum’s evolution), but since attribution is not provided, it’s hard to know who put that entry in, or on what basis.  That said, it’s from Martinique, so the statements are not unreasonable given its rhum-making history.  Age, unfortunately is a complete zero, as is the distillery of origin. We’ll have to accept we simply don’t know, unless someone who once worked for the brand in the 1960s and 1970s steps forward to clear matters up.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 44%

Photo (c) ebay.fr

Nose – Very herbal and grassy, and is clearly an agricole rhum from cane juice. Lots of vegetables here: carrot juice, wet grass, dark red olives, a touch of pimento, and a nice medley of lighter fruity notes – passion fruit, lime zest, yellow mangoes and an occasional flash of something deeper.  It feels better and more voluptuous over time, and I particularly like the aromas of clear citrus juice, soursop, pears, green apples and vanilla.

Palate – Much of the nose transfers seamlessly here, especially the initial tastes of crisp fruits – mangoes, ginnips, ripe apples.  Once you’re past this you also get cane sap, sugar water, a slice of lime, a bit of vanilla.  Light brininess, pears and apples follow that, balanced off by dark, ripe cherries, syrup and toffee. 

Finish – Doesn’t improve noticeably on what came before, and is medium long, but doesn’t get any worse either. Fruits, tart unsweetened yoghurt, miso soup, apple cider, sort of delicate amalgam of sweet and sour overlain with dusky notes of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch.

Thoughts – This is a rum I liked, a lot.  It’s made from cane juice, but feels deeper and richer than usual, and it reminded me of the old Saint James rhums that used to be heated to 40ºC before fermentation and distillation (in a sort of quasi-Pasteurization process). Not sure of that’s what was done here, and of course the distillery of origin is not known, but It feels half clean agricole and half molasses, and it’s all over delicious.

(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Historical details

The labels on the bottles that are now being sold (usually at auction) have the notation that it is certified by CDC. But that was just a sort of selection and verification process, guaranteed by Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano. Nothing in their history suggests that they — or Pernod, or Ricard who took them over — originated the brand, and so this leads us to another company mentioned on one of the bottles, that of J&S Violet (Freres), which have a far stronger claim to being the ones behind the first Jacsi rhums. 

Two brothers named Violet – Pallade and Simon – who were initially itinerant drapers, opened a small shop in the southern French town of Roussillon in 1866 (it is about 40km north of Marseille) and driven by a boom in aperitif wines, they created a blend of their own that combined red wine, mistelles and botanicals…and also quinine (perhaps they also wanted in on the sale of anti malarial drinks that would sell well in tropical colonies, though certainly their marketing of the spirit as a medicinal tonic in pharmacies alleviated problems with existing established vermouth makers as well).

This low-alcohol drink was actually called byrrh – the brothers did not invent the title, just appropriated it as their brand name – and was wildly popular, so, like Dubonnet (see below), the company grew quickly. By the 1890s they had storage facilities for 15 million litres of wine, and by 1910 they employed 750 people and distributed in excess of thirty million litres of byrrh a year – in 1935 Byrrh was France’s leading aperitif brand, apparently. Pallade and Simon passed away by the advent of the first world war, and Lambert’s sons Jacques and Simon (the J&S mentioned on the label and therefore also most likely the Jacques and Simon of the brand name) took over in 1920 – which sets the earliest possible time limit on the Jacsi brand. though I believe it to have been created some decades later.

In the post WW2 years, the demand for aperitifs faded as cognacs, brandies, whiskies and light rums surged in popularity. The Violet brothers tried to expand into other spirits at this time, and it was here, in around the mid-fifties, that we start to see the first Jacsi magazine and poster advertisements appear, which is why I can reasonably date the emergence of the Jacsi rhum brand to this time period. Like most print ads of the time, they touted blue waters, tropical beaches, lissome island women, sunshine and the sweet life that could be had for the price of a bottle. It’s very likely that stocks were bought from some broker in the great port of Marseille, just down the road, rather than somebody going to Martinique directly; and the rhums were issued at 44% even then.  

1950s Label with J& Violet Bros. Label. 44%

Alas, this did not help: sales of Byrrh continued to fall, the rhum business was constant but minimal, and in 1961, beset by internecine family squabbles over a path forward, Byrrh sold its entire business, vats, stocks and barrels, to another company involved in liqueurs and aromatic wines and aperitifs – Dubonnet-Cinzano. It is from 1961 that the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” appears on the label of Jacsi branded rhums and the “J&S Violet” quietly exits.

1961 Label – CDC mentioned

So who exactly were CDC? A bottler, certainly, though not a distillery, for these were indie / merchant bottlings, not estate ones. As noted, Jacsi rhums that have turned up for sale in the past few years, all have labels that refer to la Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano (CDC).  This is a firm which goes back to one Joseph Dubonnet, a Frenchman who created an aperitif modestly called Dubonnet in 1846 in response to a competition organised by the French Government to find a cordial which African legionnaires would drink and colonists could buy, that would disguise the bitter taste of the anti-malarial drug quinine (it therefore served the same purpose as the British gin and tonic in India). This was done at a time when fortified and flavoured wines and liqueurs – especially anises and absinthes – were very popular, so M. Dubonnet’s enterprise found its legs and grew into a large company in very short order.

Late 1960s label, still CDC referenced and at 44%

I could not ascertain for sure whether the Italian vermouth company Cinzano had a stake in Dubonnet or vice versa, but it strikes me as unlikely since they (Cinzano) remained a family enterprise until 1985 – and for now I will simply take the name as a coincidence, or that Dubonnet produced Cinzano under licence. CDC, then, dealt much with vermouths and such flavoured drinks, but like Byrrh, they were caught up in the decline of such spirits in the 1950s.  Their own diversification efforts and core sales were good enough to stave off the end, but by the 1970s the writing was on the wall, and they sold out to Pernod Ricard in 1976 – by then the family was ready to sell. Pernod and Ricard had just merged in 1975, and had started an aggressive expansion program, and were willing to buy out CDC to fill out their spirits portfolio, which had no vermouths of note. 

Post-1970s label for 40% version after Pernod Ricard acquisition. 40% ABV and Cusenier name.

By the 1970s, the brand name had been changed to Jacksie, and the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” moniker was retained on the label  for a while before being replaced by Cusenier, which was an Argentine spirits maker acquired at the same time by PC – that’s the last reference to the brand and the rhum that can be found. But in an interesting side note, both Dubonnet and Byrrh (now Pernod Absinthe) continue to be made in Thuir, where the facilities of Byrrh once were. Jacsi itself, however, has long since been discontinued and now exists only in these pages and the occasional auction when one goes on sale. For what it’s worth, I think they are amazingly good rums for the prices I’ve seen and the only reason they keep going for low prices is because nothing is known about them. Not any more.


 

Mar 282022
 

Rum and rhum aficionados are no strangers to Depaz, the distillery on Martinique now owned by Bardinet-La Martiniquaise. The sugar factory and (later) distillery had once been a family operation  — the Depaz family from Livorno in Italy had been part of Martinique society since the 1700s — and was in existence even before its destruction by the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902. The estate’s modern history can truly be said to have begun with the reconstruction of the distillery in 1917; their immediate success at rum-making could be inferred from their winning of medals at the Marseille expos of 1922, 1927 and 1931, at a time when French island rhums were hardly very well known (even Bally only started making the good stuff around 1924). In 1989 the head of the family at the time, André Depaz, allowed a long time customer and distributor, the Bardinet Group, to take over Depaz, and in 1993 La Martiniquaise, another major spirits conglomerate who already owned Dillon, bought a controlling interest in Bardinet, and so remains the current owner.

The technical specs for this rhum are quite normal: cane juice source, column still distillate, a blend of rhums aged three years or more, 45%. Although these core stats have changed very little over the decades, I have to be honest and admit  I’d be interested to see what some 1960s or 1940s versions taste like and how they compare (like Olivier did, here). Because there’s little to find fault with in this rhum.  It presents an opening nose that is very nice, almost delicate, redolent of vanilla, flowers, white fruit plus watermelon and cane juice and sugar water. The almost quintessential agricole profile, yet even the relatively brief ageing period allows deeper notes ot be discerned — caramel, peaches, peas, brown sugar, that kind of thing. Stays light and clean, adding some saline and bananas at the back end. 

That’s quite an intro from a rhum positioned as entry level, not costing too much, and quite young. Admittedly, the palate is not quite up to that level, but it’s not too shabby either: it presents a bit rough and sharp and spicy at the beginning, until it settles down, and then it becomes softer and warmer, like a scratchy old blanket you use on the sofa while watching TV.  Sweet caramel, coconut shavings, vanilla, sugar cane juice, pears, apples, very ripe cherries and black grapes, are all noticeable right bout of the gate. The edges have not been entirely rounded off with some further ageing or blending, so much of the young and frisky nature of the rhum comes through, like a half-grown long-haired mutt that hasn’t quite adjusted to its strength.  The finish is sharpish, medium long, mostly sugar water, citrus, herbs, toffee, some fruits and a light hint of lemon grass. 

Depaz’s rhums have always been available in France, but there were few reviews around even from the old stalwarts of the online reviewing ecosystem from that country, perhaps because people tended to go for the more upscale editions like the distillery’s millesimes and indie bottlings rather than the “standard” line which this is — yet for the budget-minded cognoscenti, Depaz’s starters of the blanc, the XO and the Vieux are actually really quite good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  Fortunately, even for those who don’t want to spring for the full 700ml, gift sets in smaller sizes are available for the penny pinchers among us, such as the one I bought.

And I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have dropped a bit more coin on the whole bottle, because overall, although I feel it’s a rum better served in a Ti punch than on its own, it isn’t so bad that it can’t be had neat. It’s subtle and more complex than it appears at first sight, moves at an angle to the full-out grassy-herbal profile of a recognizable agricole, yet succeeds remarkably well – it explains why the aged offerings are so highly regarded and sought after, because if something this young can be made so well and taste so good, then what must they be like? To some extent, trying this rum is an affordable answer to that question.

(#894)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • You will observe that no controversy has ever been attached to the name of this rhum.
  • As with most other distilleries on the island, Depaz adheres to the AOC regulations so one can drink their rums with confidence that there’s been no mucking around with anything dodgy.
  • Other reviews one can find are the Fat Rum Pirate’s 2020 review (four stars), Rumtastic’s 2019 ambivalent and unscored review and Single Cask Rum’s evaluation from 2019 (85 points).
Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

These days I rarely comment any longer on a bottle’s appearance – there was a time when I actually scored it as part of the review, though common sense suggested that it cease after the pointlessness of the practice became self-evident – but here I really must remark on the striking distinctiveness of the design. In colour and form it reminds me of Henri Rousseau’s savagely childish yet iconic jungle scenes. You sure won’t pass this bottle on a shelf if you see it.

But what is it? The Martinique distillery of J.M. is of course not an unknown quantity – I’ve looked at several of their rhums in the past and in “other notes” below I repeat some of their background.  Still, the rhums for which they are known are mostly aged agricoles, many of which are single cask or special editions. Surprisingly enough, this is the first of their whites I’ve taken the time to look at and it is not their regular workhorse blanc issued at 50º but a limited edition at 51.2% – what exactly makes it deserving of a special rollout and naming is somewhat nebulous. It may be something as simple as the distiller and cellar master, Nazair Canatous, coming up with a “blend of cuvées”1 which possessed a powerful set of aromatic profiles. How many bottles make it “limited” is not mentioned anywhere.

Since its introduction, the rhum has been rebranded: the simply-named “Jungle” is the first and only edition of that name, released in 2017 and then replaced the very next year by the retitled “Joyau Macouba” under which it continued to be marketed through to 2021 — but aside from some minor variations in strength, the two seem to be identical. They are also not really expensive, less than €10 pricier than the standard blanc which Excellence Rhum stocks at under thirty euros. 

And that makes it, I think, somewhat of a bargain since there are five year old agricoles that cost more and taste less. The nose of the “Jungle” is really lovely – delicately sweet herbal sugar water…with mint and lime juice (not lemon). It displays notes of brine mixed with and soda pop, something like a salty 7-Up. Fruity smells are always hovering around –  passion fruits, tart red currants, fine and faint lemon peel — and there are also some muskier notes of cereals and freshly baked bread lurking in the shadows, and they stay there for the most part.

If I had to chose, I think I’d go for the palate over the nose on this one: it’s just a shade better, richer (usually the reverse is the case).  It tastes like a salty, creamy lemon meringue pie topped with caramel and a clove or two; the core of it is a solidly-sweet, crisp, citrus-y firm taste, with enough of an edge to not make it a cream soda milquetoast. Around that swirl the herbs: thyme, cumin, dill, rosemary and cardamom, plus the grassiness of fresh green tea with touches of mint. Olives and brine kept in the background and always seem to be on the verge of disappearing, but they’re definitely there. This all concludes with a medium long finish that coats the palate without drying it out – sweet, delicately fruity and floral, and with the spices and herbs gradually fading out to nothingness.

Overall, this is a good white rhum, and I liked it, yet the question remains: what makes it special enough to warrant the limited treatment? The tastes are fine and the overall experience is a little less intense than some of those 50º standards all the agricole makers have as part of their portfolio…perhaps that’s what was considered the point of distinction, since here it was tamed a bit more, while remaining equally complex.

Be that as it may, for a rested-then-blended rhum agricole blanc, it holds up very well.  It is tart, tasty and tamed, and, within its limits, original.  Strictly speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to buy it when there are so many other white agricoles of comparable quality out there (some of which are cheaper).  But you know, we can’t always find relevance, catharsis or world-changing rhums every time we try one, and sometimes it’s simply a relief to find a bit-better-than-average product that eschews extreme sensory overload and simply aims for a little romance, and pleases at a price we can afford. That the “Jungle” manages to achieve that is something we should appreciate when we come across it.

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century.   He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.  

With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”.  In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and was among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique until the Groupe Bernard Hayot, a Martinique-based and owned family conglomerate, bought it in 2002. Nowadays it (along with Clement and St. Lucia Distillers) is marketed by GBH’s spirit division, Spiribam.


 

Apr 292021
 

The small Martinique brand (once a distillery) of Dillon is not one which makes rhums that raises fiercely acquisitive instincts in the cockles of anyone’s hearts, if one goes by the dearth of any kind of online commentary on their stuff. When was the last time you saw anyone, even on the major French language Facebook rhum clubs, crow enthusiastically about getting one? And yet Dillon has a complete – if small – set of rhums: aged versions, blancs, mixers etc.  And those that I have tried (not many, which is my loss) have been quite good. 

Today’s subject is not a distillery brand, but from one of the independents, Florent Beuchet’s Compagnie des Indes.  Long time readers of these reviews will know of my fondness for Florent’s selections, which mix up some occasionally interesting offbeat rums with the more common fare from Central America and the Caribbean that all the indies bottle.  For example, there was the Indonesian rhum released in 2015, the recent 10-Cane rum, rums from Fiji, some from Guadeloupe, and even Guatemala. 

So here is a rhum from Dillon, which nowadays has its distillation apparatus located in Depaz’s facilities (see biographical notes, below), and this makes Dillon more of a brand than a complete cane-to-cork operation. It’s a single barrel offering, 2002 vintage which was aged in Europe for 9 years of the total of 13, bottled at a quiet 44%. Note that two Dillon barrels were bottled in 2015, MA56 with a 298-bottle outturn, and MA67 with 322, but my sample didn’t mention which it was so I contacted the source, the Danish rum tooth fairy Nicolai Wachmann…and it was MA67 for those who absolutely need to know.

Whatever the case, I must advise you that if you like agricoles at all, those smaller names and lesser known establishments like Dillon should be on your radar. Not all of the rhums they make are double-digit aged, so those that are, even if farmed out to a third party, are even more worth looking at. Just smell this one, for example: it’s a fruitarian’s wet dream. In fact, the aroma almost strikes me like a very good Riesling mixing it up with a 7-up, if you could conceive of such an unlikely pairing. Lighter than the Savanna HERR and much more delicate than even a low-strength Hampden, it smells crisp and very clean, with bags of pineapple slices, green grapes, apples, red grapefruit, bubble gum and lemon zest, all underlaid by a nice nutty and creamy white chocolate and some vanilla and flowers.

Strength is a major component of the assessment of a rhum like this.  44% is the wrong ABV for a woody and character-laden deeper rum like, say a Port Mourant (I think – your mileage may vary), but for a lighter and more scintillating agricole such as the Dillon, it’s spot on. Much of the nose bleeds over to the taste: sprite, grapefruit, lemon zest, pineapples, strawberries, and also ripe mangoes, green grapes, apples, pears and a touch of cinnamon and vanilla.  At first it feels too light, too easy, but as one gets used to the underlying complexity and balance, a really well-assembled piece of work slowly comes into focus. And this is the case even on the finish: it’s tight, medium-long, and always completely under control, never overstaying its welcome, never being bitchy, never hurrying off before the last bit of flavour – citrus peel, vanilla, whipped cream, pineapples – is showcased.  

In short, though released some years ago and getting harder to find, I think this is one of those rhums that got unnecessarily short shrift from the commentariat then, and gets as little now – because it’s something of a steal. Dillon may be off the map for all those people who love posting pictures of their latest acquisitions from Hampden, WP, Fiji, Foursquare or the ultra-aged indie-release of a wooden still rum; and it barely registers in comparison to better known agricole makers like Saint James, Clement, Damoiseau, Neisson or JM (among others).  I just think it should not be written off quite so fast — because even for a single barrel release where singular aspects of the cask’s profile is what led to its selection in the first place, it’s a flavourful, well-layered, well-balanced dram that is at that a near perfect strength to showcase its attributes. And there are really quite a lot of those, for anyone desirous of checking out a lesser known marque.

(#816)(86/100)


Other notes 

Dillon was established in 1690 when the site of the distillery in Fort de France was settled by Arthur Dillon, a soldier with Lafayette’s troops in the US War of Independence. A colonel at the age of sixteen, he married a well-to-do widow and used her funds to purchase the estate, which produced sugar until switching over to rhum in the 19th century. 

The original sugar mill and plant was wiped out in the 1902 volcanic eruption of Mont Pele, and eventually a distillery went into operation in 1928, by which time there had been several changes in ownership.  In 1967 Bordeaux Badinet (now Bardinet / La Martiniquaise Group) took over, the mill closed and the original Corliss steam engine and the creole column still was sent up the road to Depaz…so nowadays Dillon continues growing its own cane, but the distillation and bottling is done by Depaz, which is owned by the same group.

Dave Russell of Rum Gallery, who actually visited the distillery, remarked that the creole single column still is still in operation and is used specifically to make the Dillon marque, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from Depaz’s own rhums.

Apr 182021
 

When most people spend money on rhum agricoles, they tend to go for the upscale aged (“vieux”) editions, those handily aged expressions or millesimes which have tamed the raw white juice dripping off the still by ageing them for several years. Consumers like the smooth sipping experience of an aged brown spirit, and not many consider that while such rhums do indeed taste lovely and are worth their price tag, the ageing process does take away something too – some of the fresh, snappy bite of a white rhum that hasn’t yet been altered in any way by wood-spirit interaction and a long rest.

Locals in the French West Indies have for centuries drunk the blanc rhum almost exclusively – after all, they didn’t have time to muck around waiting a few years for their favourite tipple to mature and in any case the famous tropical Ti-punch was and remains tailor made to showcase the fresh grassiness and herbal pizzazz of a well made blanc. To this day, just about every one of the small distilleries in the French islands, no matter how many aged rhums they make, always has at least one house blanc rhum, and just about all of them are great. In fact, so popular have they become, that nowadays increasingly specialized “micro-rhums” (my term) based on parcellaires and single varietals of sugar cane are beginning to become a real thing and make real sales. 

Depaz’s 45% rhum blanc agricole is not one of these uber-exclusive, limited-edition craft whites that uber-dorks are frothing over. But the quality and taste of even this standard white shows exactly how good the blancs were in the first place, and how the rhum makers of Depaz got it so right to begin with. Consider the nose: it is fresh, vegetal and frothily green, vibrantly alive and thrumming with aromas of crisp sugar cane sap, sugar water and tart watermelon juice.  And that’s the just for openers – it has notes of green apples, grapes, cucumbers in sweet vinegar and pimento, and a clean sense of fruits and soda pop, even some brine and an olive or two.  All this from a rum considered entry level.

The palate has difficulty living up to that kind of promise, but that should by no means dissuade one from trying it.  It’s a completely traditional and delectable agricole profile: sweet, grassy and very crisp on the tongue, like a tart lemon sherbet.  It tastes of lemon, cumin, firm white pears and papayas, and even shows off some firm yellow mangoes, soursop and star-apples. The 45% isn’t very strong, yet it provides a depth of flavour one can’t find much fault with, and this carries over into a nicely long-lasting, spicy finish that is sweet, green, tart and very clean. There’s a whole bunch of fruit left behind on the finish and it really makes for a nice neat pour, or (of course) a Ti-punch.

Depaz is located on the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, which is at the foot of  Mount Pelée  itself: it has been in existence since 1651 when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since. The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige, to name just a few. 

I have never tried as many of their rhums as I would like, and for a company whose rums I enjoy quite a bit, it’s odd I don’t spend more time and money picking up the range (I feel the same way about Bielle and Dillon). I keep adding to my knowledge-base of Depaz’s rhums year in and year out, however, and so far have found little to criticize and much to admire.  When even an entry level product of the line is as god as this one is, you know that here there’s a company who’s attending seriously to business, and from whom only better things can be expected as one goes up the line of their products.

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.
Apr 042021
 

Back in 2019 before the world changed, I was fortunate enough (and for the first time ever), to get a “blogger” badge at the Berlin Rumfest.  This did not, of course, class with the far cooler “Exhibitor” or “Judge” badge that others ostentatiously wore front and center.  Nor did it come with any kind of perks: I did not get let in free; it conferred no free samples or extra goodies; I was not plied with hats, shirts, glasses, and the thing absolutely did not give free entrance to master classes and seminars. In fact, it was so small and drab it could almost be overlooked altogether. Yet I was inordinately proud that I had one, and preened to all and sundry until I was brought down to earth by (who else?) The Little Caner, who asked in that ego-deflating manner he has perfected from his old age of fourteen, what it was good for.

In fine, just one thing: it allowed me to get in one hour earlier than everyone else, and since I usually try to arrive at the opening bell, this was a godsend, because it meant I could talk to some of the busier booth people without a crowd, before they got distracted. So there I was at 11a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning looking for old friends and new ones, and spotted Benoit Bail over at the Saint James stand.  He was talking with Marc Sassier (the resident oenologist who is in charge of production at Saint James on Martinique) — I wandered over to say hello, and we started talking about white rhums, of which three examples were on the tabletop.

Now, I had tried that shudderingly powerful 60º colourless Hammer of Thor that was the Coeur de Chauffe earlier that year and Marc allowed it was definitely deserving of all the plaudits (it was a non-AOC pot-still white, unusual for Martinique). “But you should try the other two as well,” he said, pointing to the bottles. My eye went first to the frosted bottle of the 50% Fleur de Canne, and he suggested I try it after the 40% red-lettered version. “Forget the Imperial name,” he told me, “This rhum is the original, just watered down for the bartenders circuit. Good to start you off.”

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

Everyone laughed. “They are all sipping rums to someone,” Marc smiled, and he and Benoit courteously left me to try the soft white rhum. 

And indeed, I enjoyed the nose immensely – it had a nice lemony and herbal opening, like rain on freshly mown grass on a hot clear day. You could almost smell the sunlight. It had all the hallmarks of a really well made agricole rhum: herbs, dill, parsley and a trace of coriander; crisp cucumbers in sweet apple cider, with a red sweet pepper dropped in for kick. A lovely, clean aroma of a natural product.

I looked up from my note-taking. “All the usual?” I called over. “Cane juice, crushing within 48 hours of harvest, quick fermentation, creole still?” 

Marc looked highly amused. “It would not have the “AOC” on the label without it,” he pointed out. And of course he was right: that appellation is very strict and fiercely adhered to — Saint James would hardly mess around with it. “Just checking,” I said, glad he wasn’t offended — maybe he knew me well enough from my writing to understand why I’d ask the question. He went back to his conversation, and I went back to my tasting.

I liked the palate, but here the softening to 40% and its more uncouth nature worked against it, and it lacked something of the finesse I expect from a well-made white. Now, the grassy, tangy freshness of the nose carried over – it was just weak and lacked the assertiveness that would make a statement and allow the flavours to pop. That said, there was some roughness in the notes of lime, bitters, tart fruits, sugar cane sap and green apples which was evident on the neat pour, and it was quickly over. The finish was as crisp and short, and as sharp as Mrs. Caner’s criticisms of my many failings…but it must be said that many of the aromas of the nose – tart apples, grass, dill, lemongrass – carry through. “It’s quite an experience,” I remarked later to Benoit and Mark, when we were discussing the rhums.

Saint James has a range of what some generously refer to as “starter” or “cocktail” rums. The Imperial Blanc, the first of these, retails for around €20, and is succeeded up the price and value chain by the Royal Blanc Agricole (50º, also red lettered label), then the blue-letter variation of the Rhum Blanc Agricole 55º and the rather more upscale frosted bottle of the Fleur de Canne (50º) which is sort of a special edition white, the last of the column-still unaged blancs before the Coeur de Chauffe blows them all into next week.

I’ve tried quite a few of these whites from the company, and the thing is, what impresses about the Imperial is its cost benefit ratio — it tastes well and noses even better for the first and cheapest rhum in that lineup. The profile is reasonably good, isn’t strong enough to offend or frighten, and provides most of what is required of a low-level intro to unaged agricoles.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes a great Ti’ punch – you need to go to 50º for that to happen, and Clement and Damoiseau provide stiff competition as well – but its very good at providing a flavourful jolt to whatever you feel like adding it to, even at standard strength.  So while I wouldn’t say it’s a key rum of any kind, it certainly is tailor made for bars, and for anyone of lean purse who wants to start working on his knowledge of the blanc side. 

(#810)(80/100)

Jan 262021
 

In an ever more competitive market – and that includes French island agricoles – every chance is used to create a niche that can be exploited with first-mover advantages.  Some of the agricole makers, I’ve been told, chafe under the strict limitations of the AOC which they privately complain limits their innovation, but I chose to doubt this: not only  there some amazing rhums coming out the French West Indies within the appellation, but they are completely free to move outside it (as Saint James did with their pot still white) – they just can’t put that “AOC” stamp of conformance on their bottle, and making one rum outside the system does not invalidate all the others they can and do make within it.

This particular rhum illustrates the point nicely. It’s an AOC rhum made from a very specific variety of cane coloured gray-purple (don’t ask me how that got translated to ‘blue’) which is apparently due to an abundance of wax on the stem. It’s been used by Habitation Clément since 1977 and supposedly has great aromatics and is richer than usual in sugar, and is completely AOC-approved.

Clément has been releasing the canne bleue varietal rhums in various annual editions since about 2000. Its signature bottle has gone through several iterations and the ice blue design has become, while not precisely iconic, at least recognizable – you see it and you know it’s a Clément rhum of that kind you’re getting.  Curiously, for all that fancy look, the rum retails for relative peanuts – €40 or less.  Maybe because it’s not aged, or the makers feared it wouldn’t sell at a higher price point. Maybe they’re still not completely sold on the whole unaged white rhum thing, even if the clairins are doing great business, and unaged blancs have gotten a respect of late (especially in the bar and cocktail circuit), which they never enjoyed before

What other types of cane Habitation Clément uses is unknown to me.  They have focused on this one type to build a small sub-brand around and it’s hard to fault them for the choice, because starting just with the nose, it’s a lovely white rum, clocking in at a robust 50% ABV. What I particularly liked about it is its freshness and clarity: it reminds me a lot of of Neisson’s 2004 Single Cask (which costs several times as much), just a little lighter. Salty wax notes meld nicely with brine and tart Turkish olives to start.  Then the crisp peppiness of green apples and yoghurt, sugar water, soursop and vinegar-soaked cucumber with a wiri-wiri pepper chopped into it. The mix of salt and sour and sweet and hot is really not bad.

It’s sharp on the initial tasting – that levels down quickly.  It remains spicy-warm from there on in, and is mostly redolent of fresh, sweet and watery fruit: so, pears, ripe green apples, white guavas.  There are notes of papaya, florals, loads of swank, avocados, some salt, all infused with lemon grass, ginger and white pepper.  The clarity and crispness of the nose is tempered somewhat as the tasting goes on, allowing softer and less aggressive flavours to emerge, though they do stay on the edges and add background rather than hogging the whole stage. The finish is delicate and precise; short, which is somewhat surprising, yet flavourful – slight lemon notes, apricots, cinnamon and a touch of unsweetened yoghurt.

So, what to make of this econo-budget white rhum? Well, I think it’s really quite good. The Neisson I refer to above was carefully aged, more exclusive, cost more…and yet scored the same — though it was for different aspects of its profile, and admittedly its purpose for being is also not the same as this one. I like this unaged blanc because of its sparkling vivacity, its perkiness, its rough and uncompromising nature which masks an unsuspected complexity and quality. There are just so many interesting tastes here, jostling around what is ostensibly a starter product (based on price if nothing else) — this thing can spruce up a mixed drink with no problem, a ti-punch for starters, and maybe a daiquiri for kicks. 

I don’t know what aspects of its profile derive from that bleue cane specifically because so far in my sojourn through The Land of Blanc I’ve experienced so many fantastic rhums and each has its own peculiar distinctiveness. All I can say is that the low pricing here suggests a rhum that lives and dies at the bottom of the scale…but you know, it really shouldn’t be seen that way.  It’s far too good for that.

(#796)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Production is limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest. Not precisely a limited edition but for sure something unique to each year.
  • Thanks to Etienne Sortais, who provided me with the sample, insisting I try the thing. He was certainly right about that.
Oct 262020
 

It doesn’t say so, but A1710’s rhum “Brute,” stuffed into a bottle at a rip snorting 66%, is another example of a mini-terroire called a parcellaire – a single small section of an estate, like, oh the UF30E or the similar A1710 54.5% edition that was also issued in the year this was, 2017.  There are a few of these micro-terroire rhums floating around and while still uncommon, do show an interesting new direction for the rum world.  Though, for obvious reasons I don’t see them as becoming mass market products any time soon – more like exactingly made small batch artisanal rhums in the true sense, marketed to enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

To do that, however, depends on more than just slick marketing. The product actually has to taste good, be seen as out of the ordinary, and be able to showcase some small aspect of its company’s ethos and desire for quality. It’s got to be special. So far, I’ve seen nothing from A1710 that would do anything except lend support to that thesis, because the “Brute” is definitely one of the best white rhums around, even at that formidable strength. 

The canes used to make this rum all come from a single plot cultivated by a Mr. Paul Octave, with several varietals: black cane, yellow cane and Pen Epi Lèt. (More delicate and less robust than the hybrids which are cultivated for large-scale productions, these three types of canes are supposedly quite juicy). The cane juice is fermented for around five days, run through a creole 7-plate copper column still affectionately named “La Belle Aline”, is non-AOC compliant, and as far as I know, rested for some time but not aged or filtered or reduced in strength, resulting in 2,286 bottles of a 66% beefcake for the 2017 edition, all individually numbered.

The results of all that micro-management are amazing.The nose, fierce and hot, lunges out of the bottle right away, hardly needs resting, and is immediately redolent of brine, olives, sugar water,and wax, combined with lemony botes (love those), the dustiness of cereal and the odd note of sweet green peas smothered in sour cream (go figure).  Secondary aromas of fresh cane sap, grass and sweet sugar water mixed with light fruits (pears, guavas, watermelons) soothe the abused nose once it settles down.

It’s the taste that’s the real star of the show, the way this huge strength is tamed and made almost palatable. Yes it’s hot and spicy, but there’s a sort of smooth creaminess to the texture that permits it to be had neat and the high proof almost forgotten.  There’s salt and wax and light glue as before, combined with a sweeter note of marshmallows, light white fruits and it’s reminiscent of a watery fruit infusion to be had on a hot day on a tropical beach somewhere. There are other tastes of lychees, flowers, more fruits (heavier ones), cane sap, herbs (mint, perhaps a touch of sage and basil), but these dance around the central tastes and lend support rather than shouldering their way to the forefront, and the entire experience is really quite good, moving smoothly, almost sedately, inro a long, spicy and fruity finish that somehow preserves both strength and delicacy.

I really enjoyed the 54.5% La Perle, and scored it well, but the Brute is a cut even above that.  It’s a rum made by one guy on one parcel on one island and has a richness of aroma and flavour that it would seem almost a sin to put it in a barrel. The real money in the rum world is in utra-old  rums made by proud houses who reach back in time for barrels left to age for decades by generations past.  A1710 have shown that a brand new outfit, not adhering to a production standard of any kind, not even ageing what they come up with and simply releasing a rhum like this almost straight off the still, can provide us with something truly remarkable for an astoundingly affordable price.  For me, it’s worth every penny.

(#772)(88/100)


Other notes

Some historical background on A1710 is in the original La Perle review, adapted here:

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

Jul 062020
 

Rumaniacs Review #117 | 0742

Bardinet was a French company — now part of La Martiniquaise-Bardinet —  formed by Paul Bardinet in 1857 in the south of France: he came up with the not-terribly-original idea of blending various rhums, much as various merchant bottlers were doing across the channel. Arguably their most famous product was the Negrita brand, originally a blend of Reunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe rhums, which was first released in 1886 with the now famous (or infamous) picture of the black girl on the label.

That picture, drawn by Max Camis (a famous poster designer and press cartoonist of the time) is supposedly the oldest character in French advertising…it’s surprising to see such consistent longevity, and one wonders if in these times it should not be retired.  It has remained a visual staple of the Negrita brand for over a century, and maybe the brand owners feel it has created a heritage and cachet of its own that they are loath to change…but if 1423 be taken to task, and both they and Plantation can change names deemed culturally offensive, then surely this should be on someone’s list to speak to as well.

That polemic aside, one issue created by a label that has remained stable for so long, is difficulty in dating the bottle itself. The auction where it was sourced suggested a date of 1970s-1980s and the frayed and much decomposed back label seemed to refer to a person or place named Olympe, which, when I practiced my Google-fu, turned up a restaurant run by Olympe Versini, a starred chef who was the first woman to have a radio and TV show in France in the 1970s. Artur (see comments below this post) pointed out that not only were barcodes widely introduced in the 1980s but the referred to book on the label was published in 1981, so although originally I thought the 1970s were a good dating, the truth is that 1980s are probably correct.  We do not, unfortunately, know about any ageing it has been through, or how old it is.

Colour – Dark amber

Strength – 44%

Nose – Doesn’t lend itself to quick identification at all.  It’s of course pre-AOC so who knows what made it up, and the blend is not disclosed, alas. So, it’s thick, fruity and has that taste of a dry dark-red wine.  Some fruits – raisins and prunes and blackberries – brown sugar, molasses, caramel, and a sort of sly, subtle reek of gaminess winds its way around the back end.  Which is intriguing but not entirely supportive of the other aspects of the smell.

Palate – Quite good, better, in fact, than the nose. Soft, smooth, warm, slightly sweet, with lots of ripe fruits – mangoes, papayas, a slice of pineapple, plums, blackberries, cherries.  There’s a trace of coffee grounds, vanilla and a nice background tartness to the whole thing, a creamy citrus hint, that gives it an edge I like.

Finish – Short, warm, almost thick, smooth.  Mostly fruits and a bit of toffee and the tiniest whiff of brine.

Thoughts – It’s not a bad rhum — indeed, it’s quite interesting —  just one we don’t know enough about in terms of what went into its blend.  I’d suggest both Martinique and Guadeloupe, though that’s guesswork based on a taste that could be interpreted in many other ways. Good for a sip and a share, however, for those who like sipping back into history. 

(82/100)

Jun 222020
 

Clement has a stable line of releases that have remained consistent for a long time – the “Bar and Cocktail” range of mixers and the “Classic” mid-level bottlings of the Ambre, Vieux, Canne Bleu and three blancs (40º, 50º, 55º)’. There is also the “Prestige” range consisting of the VSOP, 6YO, 10YO, single cask, Cuvée Homère, the XO, and that famed set of really aged millésimes which comprised the original XO — the 1952, 1970 and 1976.  And for those with more money than they know what to do with, the Carafe Cristal, ultimate top of the line for the company but out of the reach of most of us proles.

Yet oddly, the trio of The Distiller Edition of their rhums, of which I only ever saw a single example (this one) receives little or no attention at all these days, and has dropped from popular consciousness. It seems to be a small series released around 2007 and sold primarily in Italy, perhaps an unrepeated experiment and included a “Cask Strength” 57.8% edition, and a “Non filtre” 43.5% variation. It suggests a tentative strategy to branch out into craft bottlings that never quite worked out and was then quietly shelved, which may be why it’s not shown on Clement’s website.

Photo courtesy of Sascha Junkert

That said, what are the stats? Of course, this being Clement, it’s from Martinique, AOC-certified, column still, aged in American oak, with 1,650 bottles released at a near standard 43.5% (aside from its blancs, most of the the company ‘s rums are in the mid-forties). The tres vieux appellation tells us it is a minimum of four years old, but my own feeling its that it’s probably grater than five, as I’ve read it was bottled around 2005 or so, which fits in with the somewhat elevated nature of its title and presentation (there’s one reference which says it’s 7-9 years old).

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an awesome undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a cut above the ordinary vieux rhums from Clement which most people have had.  It has a dark and sweet nose, redolent of plums and dark red cherries, caramel, vanilla ice cream and a touch of cinnamon dusted mocha.  Where’s the herbals? I scribbled in my notes, because those light, white-fruit, grassy notes weren’t really that much in evidence. Mind you, I did also smell olives, brine, flowers and a touch of nutmeg, so it wasn’t as if good stuff wasn’t there.

The palate was about par for the course for a rum bottled at this strength. Initially it felt like it was weak and not enough was going on (as if the profile should have emerged on some kind of schedule), but it was just a slow starter: it gets going with citrus, vanilla, flowers, a lemon meringue pie, plums and blackberry jam. This faded out and is replaced by sugar cane sap, swank and the grassy vegetal notes mixed up with ashes (!!) and burnt sugar. Out of curiosity I added some water , and was rewarded with citrus, lemon-ginger tea, the tartness of ripe gooseberries, pimentos and spanish olives. It took concentration and time to tease them out, but they were, once discerned, quite precise and clear. Still, strong they weren’t (“forceful” would not be an adjective used to describe it) and as expected the finish was easygoing, a bit crisp, with light fruit, fleshy and sweet and juicy, quite ripe, not so much citrus this time. The grassy and herbal notes are very much absent by this stage, replaced by a woody and spicy backnote, medium long and warm

Clement has always been a hard act for me to pin down precisely.  Their rhums don’t adhere to any one clear-cut company standard — like, say, Neisson, or Saint James or Damoiseau —  and it’s like they always try to sneak something in under the radar to test you, to rock the barrel a bit. That means that peculiar attention has to be paid to appreciate them – they do not reward those in a hurry. I make this point because although I usually feel a sense of frustrated impatience with the weak wispiness of standard proofed rums, some surpass this limitation and bat beyond their strength class, and I think this is one of these…up to a point. The Distiller’s Edition 2000 is not at the level of intensity or quality that so marked the haunting memories evoked by the XO, yet I enjoyed it, and could see the outlines of their better and older rhums take shape in its unformed yet tasty profile, and by no means could I write it off as a loss. 

(#738)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Over the years, knowing my fondness for stronger rums and the deadening effect these can have on the palate, I have made it a practice to do flights of standard strength first thing in the morning when the palate is fresh and still sensitive to such weaker rums’ profiles.
  • When released, the rhum retailed for about €60, but now in 2020, it goes for more than €300…if it can even be found. 
  • Post will be updated of Clement gets back to me on the background to these limited edition rhums, and what they were created to achieve.
May 112020
 

Saint James. It’s not a name that’s unknown, since it’s the source of one of the oldest surviving rums in the world (the mud-black 1885), the place where rum-swami Luca Gargano started working all those years ago, and where Marc Sassier now hangs his hat. They’ve been around — and have been among the largest Martinique agricole makers — for so long, that they sometimes get passed over in people’s estimation in favour of younger or more exciting or more innovative Martinique operations (like, oh, A1710, or the new parcellaires).  Yet year in and year out, their standard lineup continues to enthrall and impress and demonstrate they’re not laggards by any means.

Saint James divides its range of rums – and they make quite a few – into three main categories.  First, there’s the cocktail fodder, mostly whites like the Imperial Blanc Agricole, Royal Blanc Agricole, Blanc Agricole 55°, Fleur de Canne and that extraordinary pot-still Coeur de Chauffe, plus the Rhum Paille and Rhum Ambre which are young and standard strength low-end blends. At the top of the food chain lie the special “exceptional” editions, the millesimes, single casks, special blends and anniversary editions in fancy bottles which will set you back a pretty penny and provide a handsome adornment to your home bar.  But when it comes to value for money, it’s the mid-level “tasting rhums” in their stable that give most bang for the buck – the Rhum Vieux 3 Ans, the 4-5 YO blend of the Fleur de Canne Vieux, the 7 Year Old, 12 year old, and the best of this series, I think, the 15 year old…which, were it slightly cheaper, might have made it a Key Rum of the World instead of the 12

Because that 15 year old rhum is, to my mind, something of an underground, mass-produced steal.  It has the most complex nose of the “regular” lineup, and also, paradoxically, the lightest overall profile — and also the one where the grassiness and herbals and the cane sap of a true agricole comes through the most clearly.  It has the requisite crisp citrus and wet grass smells, sugar came sap and herbs, and combines that with honey, the delicacy of white roses, vanilla, light yellow fruits, green grapes and apples.  You could just close your eyes and not need ruby slippers to be transported to the island, smelling this thing.  It’s sweet, mellow and golden, a pleasure to hold in your glass and savour

The taste is a similarly striking combination of depth, lightness and flavour. White guavas and pears mix it up with gooseberries and tartly ripe white soursop; there’s caramel, vanilla, dried fruits held in delicate check by some florals and mint, without any becoming overbearing and hogging the show.  There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to stop and just pick out the highlights.  Salted butter, dates and caramel, almost tequila-like at times, a touch of brine and olives here and there, but it’s all extremely well integrated, leading to a finish that is not particularly long, but quite fragrant with all the flowery and fruity notes of a tropical isle that perhaps exists not so much in reality, as in our fond remembrances and imaginations.

What these tasting notes describe is a top-end, well-aged rhum of a standard lineup. But these words don’t do justice to exactly how — when compared with and against the 7 and 12 YO — it rises above them, and in our esteem. I think Marc Sassier has created a masterful example of a blender’s art that somehow moves beyond being something standard or regular or “same old same old”.

You see, it’s almost received wisdom that rums showing  off any company’s possibilities and street cred, those that build the brand by demonstrating the amazing quality of which they are capable, are the flagships, the uber-expensive halo-rums, the single barrel or single year’s offerings — look no further than the El Dorado 25, Abuelo Centuria, Appleton 50 or even Saint James’s own 250th Anniversary to see that principle in action. But to my mind, the full measure of a producing company is better found in the sometimes unloved mass-market mid-level offerings, made in quantity, priced to move…the aged blends which so often are sadly lacking in any kind of lore or romance. Any run-of-the-mill rum, of any age, that emerges from this kind of assembly-line mentality and process, yet still retains fires of lust, of allure, of sheer quality, is a kind of industrial miracle. As this one is.

(#725)(88/100)

Apr 272020
 

After more than a decade of sampling rums from around the world, Martinique remains one of those islands to whose myriad distilleries I keep returning. Yet sometimes, when I remark on my liking for them, it’s a 50-50 chance that people wonder what I’m talking about (or why). But no list of Key Rums could possibly be complete without examples from that island, and the real issue is not so much that there has to be one (because there are many worthy candidates), as which it could possibly be and which one to start with when there’s so much choice available. 

What I believe gets in the way of agricole rhums’ wider understanding and acceptance – especially in the USA – is a combination of price, low cost tabletop rum dominance (like Bacardi), that crazy distribution system they have over there (and an equally silly one in Canada), and a general unfamiliarity with the taste. These issues lead to a lack of experience with agricoles as a whole, a dissatisfaction with the (slightly higher) price, and that oft repeated sniff-and-grumble, about how they all seem to be the same. 

In response I usually point to Neisson, with that subtle, oily, oddly tequila-like profile of its rhums, or Saint James’s pot still white. And such rhums exemplify what I like about the wide, wild variety to be found on Martinique – Neisson, as described, Clement with its classical clean and almost austere profiles, and the solid and romantic quality of Saint James. There are others I’ve enjoyed over the years, of course – Trois Rivieres, Depaz, La Favorite, and others – but when casting around for the first candidate from Martinique to include as a Key Rum, it was to these that my mind turned, and eventually at Saint James that it halted.

Saint James makes four rums as part of its regular aged lineup: the 7, 12 and 15 year old aged rums, and the white Fleur de Canne.  They make many others – millesimes, special editions, XOs, etc, (and we should never forget that amazing pot still white which will remain a perennial favourite of mine) – but for the person who wants to dive in to an appreciation of the distillery’s heart, certainly the four regulars I mention deserve to be tried first, and for the price, I think they offer among the very value-for-money “suitcase rums” anyone could ask for. And when one has to somehow chose among them for the best intersection of utility, taste, price, quality and enjoyment, I believe, in my heart, that the Saint James 12 Year old is the one to get.

To some extent, it has a lighter nose than the luscious 7 year old we looked at recently (though both are made on a creole still from cane juice, and are of the same strength, 43% ABV, similarly aged in ex bourbon casks), and it seems a little more precise, more dialled in, each note clear and distinct.  There is the same deep fruity notes of ripe mangoes, peaches, vanilla, ripe cherries, and a prune or two. It manages that peculiar trick of smelling slightly sweet without actually presenting as cloying or overripe.  Indeed, lighter hints of flowers and white, watery fruit come out to balance the fleshy fruits very nicely with guavas and pears, to which, after some time, one can sense honey and wax and a dusting of coffee grounds.

The palate follows along from this profile, mixing light and deep tastes in a not-too-sweet and juicy parade of mutually supporting flavours: dried fruits, raisins, grapes, guavas, ripe apples and prunes. The secondary, clearer notes of flowers and aromatic tobacco integrate well with the darker ones, providing a little bit of each, nothing in excess.  In the review of the 7 year old I remarked that the grassy lightness we associate with agricole rhums was almost completely absent – here, it starts to be somewhat more evident, though still in the background and its real moment in the sun comes at the close: this ends the tasting with a surprisingly long, fruity and dry aromatic finish that somehow doesn’t brake the experience so much as goose the accelerator mischievously one last time, just to show you it can.

This is a rum that is a step up from the 7 year old but also, something of a different one. The extra ageing showed its influence, the blend is a bit better – actually, I’d love to see what a few extra points of strength might achieve with this thing.  But never mind.  It is a really good dram and the only surprise about it is why it’s not better known. What the 12 year old does so well, is press all buttons of our appreciation simultaneously.  The Coeur de Chauffe white is the most original rum of its kind Saint James makes (in my opinion at least); the 15 is the best in overall quality and taste, and the 7 year old is good quality for money since it’s also the cheapest….but it’s just that the 12 does them all so very well, at a level high enough to make it a must-have. 

You see, it’s in aggregate of the things we look for, that it comes into its own:  good enough to sip, distinct enough to mix, affordable enough to buy, and all-round good enough to give as a gift without shame or apology (or to keep, for the same reasons). By making this rum, Saint James takes agricoles in an interesting, slightly offbeat and distinctive-to-the-distillery direction, and demonstrates that with skill and experience and perhaps just the simple delight in making rhum, that high-grade magic for the masses can be made in a way that doesn’t break the bank.  Any rum that can do all these things at once is a keeper…and a Key Rum for sure. 

(#721)(85/100)

Mar 252020
 

Rumaniacs Review #112 | 0714

Bought at an auction for curiosity and an interest in old rhums, it was dated in the listing to the sixties or seventies, and because of its association with two other (Bardinet) bottles from Martinique, it was also deemed to be from there (the info was provided by the seller, so it strikes me as reasonable). 

The address given on the label is now a modern building which houses a Hermes shop, and one of the only clues that an online search provides is a 1906 listing from the Milan International Exhibition, which notes Vernhes of Pantin (which is in Paris) as dealing with liqueurs; they used to make some low-proofed cocktails-in-a-bottle under the brand name Paquita. It doesn’t seem to exist any more.  Probably a merchant bottler than, or a shop with a few personalized bottlings and creations of its own. (The other name on the label, L. Ruel of Poitiers, is a printing establishment dating back to 1854 and still in business today).

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – There’s a robust wine-like aroma to the whole experience here. Dark re or black grapes, very ripe, plus cherries. I think its provenance in the French islands is likely accurate because the crisp snap of green apples and subtlety of light fruits points that way.  But if so, pre-AOC (of course) – there’s bags of dark fruit going off, and a sort of counterpoint of rottenness that reminds me of both grappa and (please bear with me) the musky sharpness of burning mosquito coil.

Palate – It’s faint and thin (par for the course for a standard strength rhum) and crisper and clearer…cleaner is as good a word as any. Tastes of tart white fruits and apples, ginnip, soursop and sour cream. I liked the softer tones that came in after a while – flambeed bananas, blancmange, red wine, iodine and something sulkier and unripe balancing it off. But still too weak to seriously appeal

Finish – Warm, dry, wine-y, some grapes and fruits, unexceptional in every way.

Thoughts – Overall, it’s like a rich and deeply-fruity modern agricole, and if it was made today I’d say it was from Guadeloupe.  Impossible to tell now, though, which is highly frustrating for any who like deep diving into these things. We’re going to see lots more of such obscure bottlings soon, as records get lost or destroyed, and the owners’ descendants or inheritors or lawyers sell them off. 

(80/100)

Mar 232020
 

Photo (c) Excellencerhum since mine turned out to be useless

If I had a single regret about tasting this exceptional cask strength millésime rum from Trois Rivieres which was distilled in August 2006 and bottled eight years later, it’s that I neglected the opportunity to find and try the single cask version of the same vintage.  That one was bottled at 43% while the cask strength I was trying here was more than ten points higher, and it would have been fascinating to see how they ranked against each other.

Yet even without that comparison, there’s no doubt when you put together a range of variously aged agricoles (as I had the opportunity to), the Trois Rivieres Millésime 2006 is going to be right up there in the rankings when the dust settles and the arguments are over. Not just because of its strength, which is spoiling-for-a-fight-strong 55.5% ABV, but because of excellence of its assembly. Trois Rivières has made one of the best indie agricole bottlings ever (the Chantal Comte 1980), and here, for themselves, they have done something almost as good.

The Trois Rivières Brut de fût Millésime 2006 (which is its official name) is relatively unusual: it’s aged in new American oak barrels, not Limousin, and bottled at cask strength, not the more common 43-48%. And that gives it a solidity that elevates it somewhat over the standards we’ve become used to. Let’s start, as always, with the nose — it just becomes more assertive, and more clearly defined…although it seems somehow gentler (which is quite a neat trick when you think about it). It is redolent of caramel and vanilla first off, and then adds green apples, tart yoghurt, pears, white guavas, watermelon and papaya, and behind all that is a delectable series of herbs – rosemary, dill, even a hint of basil and aromatic pipe tobacco.

That’s all fine, but agricole aromas are usually a cut above the norm anyway – I’d have been disappointed if I was displeased. What really distinguishes the 2006 – the year was apparently a very good one – is the palate.  It’s a smorgasbord of macerated fruit (apricots, papaya, pineapple and apples), some light but clear florals, crushed hazelnuts, honey … and marshmallows. It all comes together in a delectable combo of sweet, crisp and mellow tastes that almost demands to be had neat — and all this time, the profile continues to be rock-solid rather than sharp or clawing, going right down the line to the fruity, tart, citrus-y finish with its last fine dusting of coffee grounds, crushed nuts and vanilla.

How they developed and assembled it in such a way that the high ABV was completely tamed and smoothened out without losing any of its force, is a mystery.  The balance and complexity harmonize well, it’s tailor made for a late night sip and it encourages rhum appreciation. It’s unlike the rhum we looked at last week, even an opposite: the La Mauny was a low-rent starter rhum made to accompany cheerful and noisily boisterous back-alley socializing, while the 2006 demands somewhat more reflection and is, perhaps, better for that purpose. But to cut a long summary short, I’m just and simply impressed, and maybe I should stop writing, go out there, buy another one, and share it with my domino-playing squaddies. Because I’m pretty sure they’d quaff this one by the glassful.

(#713)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • There are two variations of this Millésime: the 2006 Private Vintage (45%) and the 2006 Single Cask (43%). Entrhums out of Belgium sampled them here (French). Seems like I’m not the only one to really like Trois Rivières.
  • My personal opinion is that this is not quite as good as the TR 1986, but a smidgen better than the TR 1975
Mar 192020
 

Staying with some of the lesser-known agricoles I’ve delayed writing about for far too long, let’s talk about La Mauny for a bit. This is one of the larger establishments on Martinque, and now owned by Campari, which bought both it and Trois Rivieres in late 2019, ending nearly three hundred years of (various) families’ or witless conglomerates’ control over it. That history is a bit lengthy, so I’ll put it at the bottom and dive right in to the main schtick.

The La Mauny distillery remains one of the largest in Martinique, both for its planted cane area and for its production. Each year, it grinds around 30,000 tonnes of sugar cane , more than half cut by hand, to produce three million liters of agricultural rum. The Heritage 1749 – that date refers to the estate’s founding – is, for all its grandiose titling, something of an entry level rhum, not one of the heavily aged, much-fussed-over badasses that establishes a candidacy for a rhum-halo. It’s 40% ABV, column distilled from cane juice, aged between one and two years in French oak and then given three months in porto casks for a bit of finishing.

Whatever the porto influence was, it didn’t make itself known on the nose, at least not noticeably. The whole thing was relatively mild, and displayed very musky, earthy, loamy initial scents at the beginning…gradually there were replaced with vanilla, caramel, and deep dark fruits, mostly plums and overripe prunes.  The crisp and light grassiness of the sort of agricole rhum with which we are more familiar, was almost entirely absent at this stage, but I had to admit…it surprised me (and that doesn’t happen all that often these days).

Okay so, on to palate.  Straw yellow in the glass, it was softer and less intense, which, for a forty percenter, was both good and bad.  Here the grassy and herbal notes took on more prominence, as did citrus, some tart unsweetened yoghurt, honey and cane juice. The youth was evident in the slight sharpness and lack of real roundness – the two years of ageing had some effect, just not enough to sand off everything that rasped, and additional hints of red grapes, wine and nuttiness showed the porton had done its thing about as well as could be expected. As for the finish, meh – short, slightly sweet, lemon meringue pie, some vanilla, a flower petal or two…and a dark wet earthy aftertaste, very mild, very faint, that took me back to the nose.

To be honest, it’s not really very interesting.  The Porto finish saves it somewhat from being a bore and a dismissive “it’s just another rum” remark.  But even so, I doubt it’ll ever be asked for by name in some upscale joint or to fill out the edges of a home bar. To me, it’s very much like that King of Diamonds rum DDL used to make: a cheap working man’s blue-collar friend, meant to be had in the village or a cheap back-alley cafe with ice, laughter, dominos…and to wash down rough conversations about life, not meandering discussions about the esoteric meanings of Balzac or Baudelaire. That might be a little esoteric for an explanation of how I perceive this young rhum, but it encapsulates what I think of it perfectly.

(#712)(80/100)


History

La Mauny was founded in 1749 when Ferdinand Poulain, count of Mauny (in northern France), acquired the estate via an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a local planter, and established a refinery there. In 1820, with Martinique becoming more important to France after the loss of St Domingue (Haiti), La Mauny invested in a still and began agricole production.  Unfortunately, consistency of ownership proved elusive – a pattern that would not significantly change for the next centuries – and the estate passed through several hands over the succeeding generations because of poor management, financial or production difficulties, or familial squabbles. At various times the Code and Lapiquonne families held ownership, and although the family of Tasher de la Pagerie, whose daughter Josephine married Napoleon, expressed an interest, negotiations fell through.

In 1923 La Mauny was sold to Théodore and Georges Bellonnie who enlarged and brought in new facilities such as a distillation column, new grinding mills and a steam engine. The distillery expanded hugely thanks to increased output and good marketing strategies and La Mauny rhums began to be exported around 1950. In 1970, after the Bellonnie brothers had both passed away, the Bordeaux traders and old-Martinique family of Bourdillon teamed up with Théodore Bellonnie’s widow and created the BBS Group.  The company grew strongly, launching on the French market in 1977. Jean Pierre Bourdillon, who ran the new group, undertook to modernize La Mauny. He began by reorganizing the fields in order to make them accessible to mechanical harvesting and built a new distillery in 1984 (with a fourth mill, a three column still and a new boiler) a few hundred meters from the old one, increasing the cane crushing capacity and buying the equipment of the Saint James distillery in Acaiou, unused since 1958.

The musical chairs of acquisition and disposal, however, were not over. In 1994, Martini and Rossi sold BBS the Trois Rivieres Distillery, where the enormously popular Duquesne rum was also made (note that in 1953, the Marraud de Grottes family who owned Duquesne, bought Trois Rivieres, not the other way round – they then sold to M&R). BBS kept Duquesne and the Trois Rivieres distillery going until 2003, when they closed it and sent its column stills to La Mauny, where TR rhum continues to be made. 

The BBS Group was subsequently bought by the Reunion sugar refining company Quartier Francais in 2007, but they let it go again in 2010 to Tereos (previously Beghin-Say) – all these companies dealt mostly in sugar, but had nothing to do with the spirits industry.  Tereos sold the BBS division and its brands in 2011 to la Martiniquaise, whose speciality was spirits and where the fit was better. But this created a problem, since La Martiniquaise already owned the Saint James, Dillon and Old Nick brands and producing estates, and getting ownership of BBS would give them control more than 60% of rhums produced in the French Islands.  The Competition Authority therefore mandated that La Martinquaise divest part of their portfolio, which they did by selling on BBS to the Cyrille Chevrillon Group (who again, had absolutely nothing to do with rhum – they were into pharmaceuticals, insurance, flowers and printing, for example). The story stops (for now) in 2019, when the Campari Group announced the acquisition of the Trois Rivières, Duquesne and La Mauny brands, for $ 60 million, which is where things lie for the moment.

Sources:


Other Notes

Admittedly, this is something of an obscure rhum and the only other review I found was from that undiscovered treasure of a Japanese site, Sarichiii, run by one of the few ladies in the rum blogosphere.  There is a single notation in Rum Ratings with a score of 3/10, which I’ll include for completeness, but not because I think it’s a review.

Mar 162020
 

With all those distilleries dotting the landscape of Martinique, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s rather little to chose among the agricoles they make aside from canny marketing. I used to think so myself, until I began to amass an ever-increasing series of tasting notes and memories on these rhums from the myriad estates, and realized that there are indeed noticeable points of difference between any one and any other.  And that’s not just between the distilleries, but among the various expressions issued from the same one, as well. 

Saint James is a good example of this, with their pot still white being a world away from their 7 year old; there are the various Neisson or Bally releases, and another is La Favorite, with their dissimilar pair of the Cuvée Privilège and Cuvée Spéciale. All the others follow similar trajectories of quality and variation

But these are perhaps bad examples. They are good rums, prestige rums, aged a bunch, known as special. At the same time, down by the docks, at the layman’s end of the spectrum for everyday hooch, lurks the La Favorite Coeur Ambrė — a cousin to their Rhum Vieux we looked at some years back and similar to most entry-level offerings usually ignored by the cognoscenti but snapped up by the unpretentious and had just so.

The Ambrė is cheap, it lacks any sort of serious pedigree (18 months ageing, 45% ABV), and you’d think there’s nothing to distinguish the humble Martinique-made, AOC-compliant rhum from any other bottom-feeding prole-supplying ambre out on the market made by the other maisons on the island. 

Well…yes. But don’t rush too quickly past this young rhum from la Favorite just yet, because I think that for what it is, it’s not half bad. Just take a sniff at it: the nose is sharp and a bit unrefined, yet remarkably clear for something so young – it has some herbs, some citrus, it’s a shade musty and dry, and also presents a nice amalgam of vanilla, cereals, rye bread and gruyere.

You are, admittedly, met with something of a blast of the pepper shaker when you taste it. Stay with it and it evens out nicely – there’s sweet and salt, crushed almonds and walnuts, musty rooms in need of dusting, straw baskets, and fresh cut lumber/  Quite a bit for something so young, I’d say, and that’s not even all – you get some herbals, grass, florals and light oakiness as well. Plus a twist of lemon zest. All of this concludes with a sharp and unrefined finish of grass, green apples and grapes, some bitter chocolate – it’s too ragged and jagged, though, which shows its youth and kind of messes up the good stuff that came before.

Overall, it needs some further ageing to be appreciated as a drink in its own right and since La Favorite has a few others up the value chain, they make no bones about relegating it as low-end  cocktail fodder. But I submit that it does possess a certain crisp liveliness, an unanticipated quality which its price and appearance don’t entirely convey. Admittedly, there aren’t a whole lot of tastes running around begging to be noticed, and the complexity is pedestrian at best. What I like is that it never pretends to be other than what it is, and those notes that were discernible are reasonably well-defined, mesh decently, and provide an interesting experience. For an agricole rhum less than two years old and costing in the forty-buck range, that’s hardly a disqualifier. In fact, I think it’s something of an achievement.

(#711)(80/100)


A quick history:

La Favorite is a small family owned distillery in Martinique which has an annual rum production of around 600,000 litres. The original sugar plantation was initially called “La Jambette” for a small adjacent river, and was renamed La Favorite in 1851 when Charles Henry acquired it, and subsequently installed a distillation apparatus and began making rhum; anecdotes refer to the islanders calling it their favourite rhum, or Napoleon himself remarking it was his, but who knows. The company ran into financial difficulties in 1875 (maybe this was due to the establishment of the French 3rd Republic, and the defeat of the monarchists whom the planters supported, but that’s outside the scope of this brief bio).  

Somehow the plantation limped along until 1891 when a hurricane did so much damage that the whole operation was shut down for nearly twenty years. Production recommenced in the early 20th century (1905 per the website, though other sources say 1909) when Henri Dormoy bought the company from Mr. Henry and added a railway line through the plantation.  The boost given by the first world war allowed La Favorite to become truly commercially viable and it has been chugging along ever since, still using steam powered distillery apparatus, hand-glueing the labels to the bottles, and manually applying the wax over the top. Since 2000 when Henri’s own son Andre (who had bought the shares of the distillery from the other family members) died, his son Paul Dormoy has run the show there, and was joined in turn by his own son Franck in 2006, making it one of the few family owned establishments remaining on the island.

Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago.

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#709)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Feb 232020
 

Recently we’ve looked at rums from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Mauritius (and that’s just since the year began) which goes a far way to showcasing the incredible variety of the spirit.  Today we’ll try something from Martinique – and when one considers the fame of Saint James, home of the near legendary 1885 Rhum (one of oldest rhums I’ve ever tried) and from which I’ve tasted several old editions from the past, well, it’s a wonder I haven’t come here more often to try their current offerings.

At this time, the Saint James lineup consists of five blanc rhums (Imperial, Royal, the 55º, Fleur de Canne and the really quite amazing pot-still Coeur de Chauffe), two basic mixers (Rhum Paille Agricole, Rhum Ambré Agricole), nine more “tasting rhums” which are the aged variants of the 3, Vieux, XO, 7, 12, 15, Cuvee 1765, Cuvee d’excellence and Brut de Fut 2003…and lastly, five “exceptional rhums” (their phrase, not mine), which are special editions, millesimes and so on. 

Today I won’t aim for the stratosphere with some ultra-expensive halo rum from the top end which none but the 1% can afford, but just speak to the mid-range 7 Year Old. All the usual stats apply for a Saint James rhum – AOC certified, cane juice origin, creole still, 43% strength, and nicely tropically-aged in small ex-bourbon casks.  

What’s interesting about Saint James is not only the distinctiveness of their rhum here, but its divergence from what is almost seen as the sine-qua-non of rhum agricole – the grassy, herbal lightness of a cane juice distillate. Nowhere in the initial nose do I detect herbs and green grass and that light crispness – instead, what I smell is  luscious, sweet, and spicy, almost but not quite heavy with fruits. There’s preaches in syrup, pineapple, light anise, unsweetened yoghurt, coffee grounds, honey and vanilla, and later, also some cinnamon. I think you have to admit, for a 7 year old to have all that is really quite remarkable. 

Ah but when sipped, all that changes, and the clodhoppers go away and it dons a pair of ballet slippers.  It’s stunningly fragrant, not quite delicate – that ballerina does have an extra pound or two – very firm and robust in flavour profile.  Just on the first sip you can taste flowers, pears, papaya, honey, vanilla, raisins, grapes, all pulled together with a delectable light and salty note. There are nice citrus hints, a tease from the oak, ginger and cinnamon, and overall, it sips as nicely as it mixes.  The finish is well handled, though content to play it safe – things are beginning to quieten down here, and it fades quietly without stomping on you – and certainly nothing new or original comes into being; the rhum is content to follow where the nose and palate led – fruits, pineapple, spices, ginger, vanilla – without breaking any new ground.

So all in all, a really vibrant piece of tropically aged work, deserving many of its plaudits. I’ve noticed on many a social media post that people throw around the words “gateway rum” and apply it consistently to the oversweetened bestsellers like the Zacapas or some of the traditional Demeraras from DDL.  Here’s one rum where the term really does apply, and what makes it so apropos is that there’s no messing around with the 7 YO Vieux, no enticement or blandishment with additives or fancy maturation or finishing (or those tiresome old made-up backstories).  It’s simply a very good mid range rhum, drinkable, mixable, flexible, and its great quality might just be that it makes you want to go up the ladder to the older rums immediately, just to see what magic Mark Sassier has done with those. Now that’s a gateway that means business, and completely earns the title.

(#704)(83/100)


Other notes

  • The Fat Rum Pirate noted the odd lack of agricole-ness on the nose as well, in his 2018 4.5 star review.
  • It’s completely irrelevant, but Luca Gargano started his rum career working for Saint James as a brand ambassador in the 1970s, before buying Velier.
Nov 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review #105 | 0678

1952 – an eventful year.  Queen Elizabeth II ascends to the throne; Black Saturday in Egypt, followed by the overthrow of King Farouk; the US election puts Ike in the White House; the first steps towards the EU were taken with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community; television debuts in Canada; Charlie Chaplin is barred from re-entry to the US; “Mousetrap” opens in London (and never closes) – and in Martinique, Clément distills this rum and starts ageing it.

So here we are.  We’ve arrived at the oldest rum that is within the blend of the Clément XO, the Millesime 1952, while remaining in the dark as to the proportions, or even the true ages of some of the rhums themselves (as noted in the 1970). Too bad, but that’s what happens when records are incomplete, people move on and memories fade.  We take what we can.

When we go this far back in time, the AOC is a myth and we’re in the territory of rhums like the Bally 1929 or 1924 and the older St. James offerings like the 1932 and 1885.  The importance of trying such products with a modern sensibility and palate is not so much to drink from the well of history – though of course that’s part of the attraction, which I would never deny – as to see how things have changed, how much they haven’t, and to understand how developments in technology and processing have made rums what they are today.

By that standard, what to make of this one? Short answer: different and well constructed — just don’t expect the clarity and crispness of a modern agricole. 

Colour – Amber

Strength – 44% ABV

Nose – A combination of the sweet of the 1976 and the pungency of the 1970. Light red-wine- notes, fleshy fruits and almost no grassy or herbals aspects at all.  Nougat, toblerone, white chocolate, coffee grounds, anise, all surprisingly and pleasantly crisp. Flowers and the faintest hint of salt. Also the mustiness of Grandma Caner’s old basement (where once I found a Damoiseau 1953, with which this thing shared quite a few similarities).

Palate – Thicker and fuller than expected, and pretty much lacking the lighter and more precise attributes of the other two.  Fleshy red and orange fruits, like peaches, oranges, apricots. Ripe granny apples. Red olives, tobacco, licorice, brown sugar, a light brininess and even apple cider for some kick. 

Finish – Short and dry.  Salty and fruity, well balanced against each other, but admittedly it was rather unexceptional.

Thoughts – That it doesn’t fly apart under the impact of all these various competing flavours is to its credit, but tasted blind, it wasn’t my standout of the three Clément rhums. Unlike the light grassy crispness of the 1976 and 1970, I felt this one was literally more down-to-earth and musty and thicker. Clearly things were done different back in the day, and the Damoiseau ‘53 displayed similarly non-agricole characteristics.  As a reviewer and taster, I much prefer today’s versions to be honest, but as a lover of antique things made in other eras, it’s hard to completely discount something with such a heritage.

(#678 | R105)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Cyril of DuRhum has a lot of doubts about this rhum, not the least about the age claim of plus-or-minus forty (or even thirty) years. Even if it really was bottled in the early 1990s, it’s almost inconceivable that a rum could be aged in the tropics for so long without evaporating or being tannic beyond the point of drinkability. Clement makes no statement on the matter themselves. Note that unlike the other two rhums, this has no AOC notation on the label.
  • Josh Miller in a 2016 review of the Clement XO on Distiller, remarked that the stocks of the 1952 were now exhausted and the XO would have to be reformulated, but no longer recalls the source.  I’ve sent a few messages around to see if I can come up with more details.