Oct 022023
 

This is the fourth review in the short series where we look at some rums released by the Taiwan based Renaissance Distillery, which were on display in a 2023 TWE Rumshow masterclass dedicated to the company. It should be noted that the company has issued scores of full proof single cask releases already, so at best this scratches the surface.

*

The consistency of quality of the Renaissance line of rums creates something of an issue for a reviewer, because while they are all different in subtle ways, so far they are also all really good (at least in the opinion of this writer)…which makes writing anything new almost impossible. In a way they remind me of Demerara rums, or Caronis, in the way that they resemble James Bond movies: they all have recognizable beats, similar tropes and so we enjoy then, look for similarities, variations and easter eggs, and spend an inordinate amount of time dissecting minutiae and arguing about which is the best. And of course, everyone will have an opinion about all of those things.

By now, then, after four previous excursions into the company’s line, we know enough about the company not to belabour the point, and so we’ll just cover the highlights. Renaissance is a husband and wife team who created a rum distillery in Taiwan out of whole cloth in 2017 (after four years of messing about trying to get it off the ground), gaining acclaim for their rigorously individualistic style of rum making in the years that followed (at which point we pause for the obligatory mention of the encyclopaedic labels). By 2021 as the world reopened, awards began rolling in and the distillery gained a quietly swelling  renown…and rum aficionados who cocked an eye towards Asia took notice.

One of the peculiarities of the distillery is its resolute focus on single barrel rum releases.  I have seen no indie bottling ethos here, and no mass market releases of lesser supermarket fare, or other spirits’ production meant to generate cash flow. They have issued young rums derived from local molasses or their own juice, and aged in whatever barrels they managed to source: limousin, ex-bourbon, wine, whisky, cognac, to which is then added a secondary maturation or finish in (again) any of those barrel types.

The rum we’re looking at today conforms to this principle. 20 days fermentation from Taiwan molasses (referred to as ‘Formosan’), double distilled in the 1200 litre Charentais pot still, then stuffed into a new oak 350 litre Limousin cask for three years, and finally given a secondary maturation in a fist fill 400-litre bas armagnac cask for the final year, being finally bottled in April 2022 at 63.2%.  

What these dry and rather technical details suggest, then, is that there are some three or four different points at which flavours are developed: the longer than usual fermentation, the double distillation with the middle-third cut, and the two singular barrel types. The bas-armagnac barrel in particular can be expected to lend quite an interesting influence to the final product.

And we surely get all of that.  The initial nose on the rum is lovely: firm, crisp, fresh and lively to a fault – bright yellow fleshy acidic fruit (Thai mangoes, peaches, apricots, apples) mixed up with overripe green grapes, honey and flambeed bananas.  A touch of vanilla and the slight bitterness of tannics, completely under control and never allowed to get overbearing. There are some notes of ruby grapefruit and blood oranges, light florals and it’s just a great osing experience.

Taste wise it also holds up really well. It’s rich and deep and flavourful with bags of fruit: grapefruit again, strawberries, kiwi fruit and lychees.  Some light vanilla, icing sugar and a banana split drizzled with caramel make for an interesting combo, as do the less sweet fruits like sapodilla and bananas, sprinkled with coconut shavings.  Finish is epically long as we can expect from the strength, and while it introduces nothing new it allows the individual notes their brief moment on the stage so as to remind me of the way they all work together to provide a great taste experience.

Overall, there’s nothing to find fault with and for those who prefer something tamer, a few drops of water are more than sufficient to tamp down the intensity somewhat without losing anything in translation. It’s a lovely rum at any strength and with one caveat, I recommend it unreservedly, and score it right in the ballpark of all the other rums they’ve made which I’ve so enjoyed.

That one qualification is, of course, the price, which is an issue several have remarked on before with all of the rums from this small company. Even in today’s inflated times, it will set one back three figures and there are not many who will be willing to spend that on a four year old rum, when there are others at similar strength a decade or so older from more familiar climes, sporting more familiar names, more familiar profiles. And so the point is not a minor one. Yet when one considers the freight charges, taxes and duties needed to bring such a singular product to the west; the costs of making it at all without support from other lines of business or economies of scale; and the limited batch outturn of the rum itself…when one takes all these things into account I would not say it’s an untoward extravagance.  And even if I could not afford one of each release Renaissance have so far made, even if I just got this one single rum to stand in for all the others that remain out of reach, I would not consider the purchase a bad one, or ever harbour a single regret.

(#1030)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The rums in this short series:

Sep 262023
 

This is the third review in the short series where we look at some rums released by the Taiwan based Renaissance Distillery, which were on display in a 2023 TWE Rumshow masterclass dedicated to the company. It should be noted that the company has issued scores of full proof single cask releases already, so at best this scratches the surface.

Although the little Renaissance Distillery on Taiwan was officially founded in 2017, many years of small-scale under-the-radar tinkering and experimentation preceded that. The husband and wife team of Linya Chiou and Olivier Caen started a small spirits import company on the island as far back as 2006, and by the early 2010s were looking around wondering why Taiwan, which had a subtropical climate (the south is actually tropical) and planted sugar cane, did not have a rum industry of any consequence.

The truth was that it did: but it was a remnant of the state monopoly which had only relaxed and allowed a market to develop after 2002; even so, licensing restrictions and the torpor of the bureaucracy made it difficult to think seriously about such a proposition, so Olivier sourced a short neck 500L locally made pot still, installed it on their property  and started planting his own sugar cane. For the next four years he experimented ceaselessly and mostly at night with harvesting, juice, molasses, fermentation, distillation, making the cuts, checking the ageing, the whole nine yards – in fact the op was quasi-legal at best, an outright moonshinery at worst. The results and samples he shared around suggested he was on to something there and in 2017 the distillery formally opened and started commercial, licit operations.

Output remained and continues to remain rather small, and most of what was released up to 2020 — about 17 barrels’ worth of production — was rum laid down pre-2017; however that by itself garnered attention and plaudits, notably that of David Broom in 2021 when he remarked on his blog “Remember how Kavalan blew people’s minds? Renaissance will do the same for rum.” So far, there have been perhaps sixty barrels released to June 2023, and the hallmark of the brand remains small batch, single cask, high proof rum, usually finished (or double aged) in casks of whatever seems to catch Olivier’s fancy that day. There are a few blends in the mix, but it’s these single cask bottlings that make the company’s name – high end, pricey and not easy to get.

This 4 Year Old rum is no different. Distilled in 2018 (cask #18102 for the curious, because knowing the casks is actually something of a thing here), it is based on Taiwanese molasses fermented for 30 days, comes off the 1200L charentais pot still after a double pass. It was set to age in a limousin new oak barrel (350 liters, so somewhere between a barrique and a puncheon) for three years and then transferred into an ex cognac cask (Hennessy, I was told) for another year. Outturn 346 70cl bottles, at a solid, chest-thumping 64.4%.

The nose uses that strength to make grand gestures and bold statements, that’s for sure. It hits you hard and doesn’t say sorry. Initially it is the right side of too sharp, yet once the sensation is sorted out it’s more like a very clean, very crisp and very dry Riesling, redolent of sugar water, light red grapefruit (is there such a thing?), yellow mangoes and tart ripe green grapes. It needs time to open up – some water would help – and after a while releases additional pleasant notes of cinnamon and ginger cookies with a touch of unsweetened chocolate, and a sort of vanilla flavoured whipped cream.

For all the oomph the rum packs in its jock, it’s medium bodied and firm rather than wielding a sledge – though of course some caution should still be exercised…just because the texture is solid doesn’t mean there isn’t something more serious waiting to get you when your guard is down. The palate is sweet-ish and middle bodied – not thin, not heavy or thick, just sort of in between with a nice medium-dry mouthfeel. Still, tastes are somewhat (and surprisingly) subdued for something that spent a year making nice in a cognac cask: plums, raisins, vanilla, honey, the tartness of laban and kiwi fruits and papaya, a little grapefruit, a little allspice, a little cinnamon. The finish is completely serviceable, if not outstanding – a good summation of the preceding.  One gets a last whiff of fruits and spices, some grapes, citrus, honey and even a twitch of licorice out of nowhere. It’s finishes well.

So, this is a really good rum that adheres to the style and profile the makers have established for themselves. It’s got that cognac vibe, the sprightliness of youth with a touch of the maturity that ageing brings, is strong, tasty and well assembled. Some may suggest it’s one of those cases where a little dilution might not have been a bad thing, which is a fair point, though I completely respect the decision to be consistent and bottle it as it is and let the consumers take their chances.

Because by not pandering to anyone’s tastes, what Renaissance has done is provided us with a young rum of what I presume to say is a rare calibre, one that takes on others aged five times longer and gives a good account of itself. It’s not the best rum they’ve made, of the six I’ve sampled – yet it solidifies an already impressive reputation for consistency of style and quality, and for those who venture forth to brave the high proof and crisply intense tastes, they will find little to dislike and much to enjoy.

(#1028)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


The rums in this short series:

Sep 182023
 

This is the second review in the short series where we look at some rums released by the Taiwan-based Renaissance Distillery, which were on display in a 2023 TWE Rumshow masterclass dedicated to the company. It should be noted that the company has issued dozens of full proof single cask releases already, so at best this scratches the surface.

For a rum younger than three years to give such a good account of itself is no mean feat, yet Renaissance Distillery out of Taiwan has done just that with this 2½ YO rum that in most other circumstances would be considered barely out of diapers. I think that in many ways they channel the sort of experimental drive and tinkering mentality that characterises Mhoba from South Africa, the New Australians, or the freshly minted crop of UK distilleries, who also come up with startlingly original young products from seemingly nowhere and without having to age something until it’s old enough to vote.

Renaissance Distillery, for those late to the party, is that small company rum by the husband and wife team of Olivier Caen and Linya Chiou which was officially founded in 2017 on the island of Taiwan, and so far as I am aware, is the only rum-focused distillery there even though sugar remains a crop grown on the island (for many years the state held a monopoly on spirits production which is why distilleries are thin on the ground). They concentrate on full-proof single-cask limited releases…and of course everyone now knows about their War & Peace style labels that are the envy of the known world.

This rum, one of six that was shown off at the 2023 TWE Rumshow, has stats that ten years ago would have seemed unbelievable, but with the passage of time and development of the rumiverse are now merely “pretty good”: a molasses-based wash (from Formosan sugar cane) fermented for 13 days, passed  twice through the charentais pot still and then double aged: a year and a half in toasted American oak, and then a further 1½ years in a Saint-Julien 2nd growth cask (and though which house is not identified, I’ve read that the actual Chateau of origin is Léoville-Poyferré)1, and then squeezed into 252 bottles at a muscular 64.7% ABV.

The nose of the rum that this fermentation, distillation, short ageing and those two casks produces at the other end is a smidgen short of fantastic. No really. It is a lovely, rich deeply fruity nose, redolent of plums, blackcurrants and slightly overripe pears, underlain with brine, olives, the slightest hint of rancio, salty cashews, tequila and even a nice brie. I can honestly say it’s one of the more unusual aromas to come out of a rum I’ve had of late, and it’s all good. It keeps changing as it opens and develops, cycling into very ripe black grapes, red grapefruit and a tangy bit of citrus and vanilla, all very clean and quite crisp – one hardly notices the strength at all, except in so far as it helps deliver those smells more intensely.

To taste it is similarly mercurial…and delicious.  It starts off hot and prickly and initially it’s all traditional notes: caramel, vanilla, leather, pepper, tannins, dark ripe fruits (raisins, prunes, plums). And then quietly, sinuously, almost before they’re noticed, creep in other flavours of freshly sawn cedar, nail polish, cucumbers in balsamic fig-infused vinegar, hot black tea sweetened with damp brown sugar still reeking of molasses, wet soil, and even rye bread slathered with salt butter and honey.  And it all quietly inexorably leads to a strong, long, aromatic finish that reminds us of the fruits, the citrus, the vanilla and the wood, before closing up shop and fading away until the next sip.

It’s not often I try a rum that does what this one does with such seeming effortlessness: to move from one state of being to another without hurry and without haste and showcase the best of what it is capable. The strength and youth is only marginally tamed by the two casks and that short ageing time, but they do leave their imprint and enrich what in lesser hands might have been a sharp hot spicy mess of transmogrified gunk (I’ve had several like this in my time, trust me). Renaissance have channelled fermentation, still, ageing, casks and something intrinsic to Taiwan – their terroire, perhaps – and brought it all together into a rum that is really quite a fine drink, one whose charms you can only revel in, the more it develops.

(#1026)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The rums in the series:


Other notes

  • Not many other reviews out there: Whiskyfun’s 82 pointer from August of 2023 is the only one I can find. Serge’s tasting notes and mine are similar, but he draws different conclusions and likes it less.
Sep 102023
 

Over the next few weeks I’ll issue a set of reviews of the rums released by the Taiwan-based Renaissance Distillery, which were on display in a 2023 TWE Rumshow masterclass dedicated to the company. One rum of the six that were demonstrated that afternoon — the #18260 “Fino” — has already been reviewed, so this short series will concentrate on the remaining five.

It has taken almost a decade for the small distillery called Renaissance to become a presence on the global rum stage, and four of those years were spent essentially operating as an unlicensed, near-illegal moonshinery. Olivier Caen and his wife Linya Chiou somehow weathered the stresses of holding down their day jobs while raising two sons, sourcing the cane, getting equipment to work, experimenting with fermentation, distillation, ageing, barrels, molasses, juice, dunder, acid, yeast…the whole nine yards. In 2017 the company was formally registered and even then it took another few years for people to notice they existed…just in time for COVID to delay matters for even longer.

But the wait has been worth it, for it allowed word to seep out into the Rumiverse that here was a new distillery from an new location about which we know too little, balancing terroire with tradition, out to make a mark with interesting rums issued at beefcake power and fancy casks, every time. Oh and their labels really are kind of awesome, said, like, everyone.

Which leads us to the rum under discussion today, one of 356 bottles of barrel #18095 which was distilled from 13-day-fermented molasses in April 2018 and bottled in October 2022 after having been run twice through the 1200-Litre Charentais pot still. The resultant rum was laid to rest for just over four years in a 350L limousin oak cask with varying levels of toast, and … well you get the drift. I could give you more but the label does that better than I could and provides even more and I’m already into the fourth paragraph without even telling you what the rum tastes like yet.

And that profile is pretty neat. The initial nose of this massive 63.5% ABV rum is at pains to make itself known and issue a statement, and it does that with aplomb – it blasts out initial notes of caramel and warm honey, white chocolate and milk-soaked cinnamon-flavoured cheerios. It’s some kind of sharp, so care must be taken, but once that blows off all one remembers is the firmness and solidity of the aromas, which, after some minutes, also channel a nice mix of lemon rind, half-ripe yellow mangoes, vanilla and brown sugar, plus a whiff of sweet pineapple. And even then it’s not quite over, with some piquant wet sawdust and varnish-y notes coming through here and there

Not enough?  The palate will cure what ails you, assuming you sip and don’t gulp (therein lies a quick drunk, trust me). It’s a lovely amalgam of breakfast spices – cinnamon, rosemary and vanilla, plus brown sugar, light molasses, gummi bears and both florals and fruits are back in fine style, to which some oakiness, tannics and brine are stirred for the finale. And that’s quite a finish: it’s hot, long-lasting and brings back most of the florals (light, herbal and grassy) and fruits (mangoes, cherries, red grapes and apples) and ties it all in a bow of sweet spices.

Whew. Some experience, this is. Yet for all its quality, I think this is the rum I would have liked toned down just a little. The intensity can use a touch of water to dial things down a notch, which would allow a better integration of the overall profile.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s really quite good, and it’s a fascinating experience to observe the way it takes apart and reassembles well-known and easily recognizable elements into a configuration that’s almost, but not quite, familiar. It’s an impressive dram by that standard.

And that’s the mark of a good distiller, I think, the way we are carefully led to the edge of the map and then a step or two beyond it, to Ultima Thule or that blank spot where it says “here theyre be tygers…”. Rums like this — strange yet familiar, unabashedly full proof, channelling a personal vision and merging a traditional distillation ethos with a solid grasp of the fundamentals, then marrying that off to a level of disclosure that is the envy of the spirits world — are why I stay in this game. This was not the best of the Renaissance rums I sampled that day at the Rumshow masterclass, no.  But it made my tonsils cringe, my ears perk up and my hair blow back and isn’t that what we look for anytime we try something new? 

(#1024)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


The rums in the series:

Jan 242023
 

Taiwan is not known for rums, but then, it was not known for whisky either, and look what Kavalan has managed to accomplish.  So, sooner or later, I had to come here, where an expatriate Frenchman named Oliver Caen and his Taiwanese wife Linya Chiou, have created one of the most interesting new distilling companies out there: interesting for their location, interesting for their labelling, interesting for their rums, and interesting because so few people have tried any — yet everyone knows of them, and everyone is curious to check them out. Word of mouth like that is priceless.

I’ll provide some company background below this review; for the moment, it’s enough that we know the 2017-established company has a 500L steel pot still and a more recently added 1200L copper Charentais still.  Sources for the wash are both molasses and juice derived from their own small estate cane; fermentation varies and can take 15-21 days if from juice, and at least 10 days if from molasses; double distillation is practised and ageing is done in a variety of barrels sourced from France, Spain, Russia, Japan and the US.  The sheer variety of the production methods they indulge in probably explains why the company has made it a hallmark of its labelling ethos to provide a level of information on the rum in each bottle that would make Luca Gargano weep with envy and frustration and for which us geeks can only be grateful.

Not many of Renaissance’s rums are as yet easily or commonly available and their production remains relatively small. The rum we are discussing today is a 2018 double-distilled 3 year old rum, and in relating the tech specs you realise that this is where that bible of a label, that ‘wall of text” comes into its own.  The rum is molasses based, 15 days fermentation with some dunder, aged in a new 225L American oak cask and then finished in Fino sherry cask (Fino is a dry sherry), 306 bottle outturn and 62% ABV…and just from those details you can tell how much the label provides (I have left out quite a bit, to be honest because sometimes there is such a thing as overkill, though I’m glad to get all this too).

Anyway, the rum’s production background suggests a rich experience, and indeed, the profile is really quite interesting. The nose for example, opens right into licorice, blackcurrants, some medicinals, flortals, light delicate perfumes, vanilla and some crisp citrus notes. Underneath those aromas is something a bit softer and muskier: flambeed bananas, salt butter, the vegetable aromas of a hot and spicy miso soup leavened with ripe mangoes and lemon peel. It’s solid at 62%, though thankfully it stops short of serious aggro.

The palate was just similar enough to rums with which we are more familiar to make the occasional diversions interesting and singular, rather than off-putting. There’s som blancmange, salt caramel, bananas, licorice and almonds, all at once.  This is followed, as the rum opens up some, with sharper and quite clear citrus and floral notes, some burnt bell peppers, chocolate oranges, unsweetened chocolate coffee grounds and – peculiarly – even quinine comes to mind (and I should know). There is some faint sweet spiciness at the tail end which bleeds over into the long finish – this is mostly cloves, ginger, licorice – but at the end it’s fruity with raspberries and some syrup, honey and brine.

Well, labelling is one thing and presentation goes hand in had with it, so it talks well, but based on what I’ve described, does it walk? Opinions are mixed.  All in all, there’s a fair bit of hop-skip-and-jump going on here and perhaps its inevitable that with a rum being this young and with all those processes in its DNA, it would be a little uneven. The Fat Rum Pirate, in one of the best reviews so far, suggested this very aspect, wondered what it was like without the Fino finish, and rated it three stars (out of five). Will and John of the Rumcast named this one of their rums of 2022 (in the “most surprising” category at 1:11:28) and Will remarked that “if a high ester Jamaican rum and a Fijian rum walked into a bar and had too much sherry, it would be this rum” but stayed clear of making either a full throated endorsement or a dismissal. The originality was clearly key for Will, as it was so unusual. Serge over at WhiskyFun commented on it being “big,” that he didn’t get the finish, couldn’t say it was brilliant…but surely worth checking out. 

That’s really what I come down to as well.  It’s unusual, in a good way. While some more ageing would likely make it better, it may be too early to ask for that: as with many small up and coming distilleries who need to make cash flow, young rums is what we’re getting (the Australians were also like this, as are some of the new American craft distilleries).  The rum does channel a bit of Jamaican, and combines it with something softer and easier – a Barbadian or Panama rum, say (Serge said Lost Spirits, which I thought was a stretch) – and what it reminds me of is, oddly enough, Montanya’s Exclusiva, which scored the same. The Renaissance gains points for somewhat different reasons, but it remains in the mind just as Montanya does — and all I can say is that I just wish it was cheaper.

(#968)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Casks are important in the identification of Renaissance’s rums.  This one is Fino #18260
  • For now it simply costs too much for serious appreciation, but I do recommend it.
  • This is an exclusive bottling for The Whisky Exchange
  • A brief backgrounder. The husband and wife team have been spirits importers to Taiwan since 2006; by 2013 they felt that the combination of rum’s rise on the international scene, the lack of a “serious” Taiwanese branded rum and their feeling that there could and should be one, made them investigate starting a distillery of their own (at the time Taiwan produced brands called Koxinga Gold and Wonderland, but these were not well regarded and almost unknown outside the island). Experimenting with molasses, juice or cane sugar on a 500L stainless steel pot still for the next three years (without a licence and while holding down day jobs), they decided that the rums they could make were viable, and went on to formally establish Renaissance in 2017 as a single estate distillery in southern Taiwan, using organic methods and mono-varietal cane. 
  • Taiwan had a solid sugar cane industry (cane has been recorded there at least since the 14th century, and the the Dutch introduced industrial sugar production in the 1600s when the island was known as Dutch Formosa)
  • Although agriculture uses almost a quarter of the land in Taiwan (and a full half of the entire sector is plant-crop based), moves to an industrialised hi-tech manufacturing economy have gradually reduced its share to less than 2% of GDP (from 35% in 1952), and it is considered a support of the economy, not a primary driver; land use has been shrinking as well, even though the Government wants this to change in order to promote better food security. Sugar cane used to be an export crop but has been reduced of late, and is not a major focus in Taiwan any longer; therefore it is not surprising that a vibrant sugar or spirits industry based on cane has never really developed (Government monopolies, and restrictions on spirits production, were other reasons); wine on the other hand has become more popular, and the example of Kavalan whiskey is a model that no doubt influenced Mr. Caen as well.