Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write abouteven if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it).

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decidedwithout a lick of experience or any concept of the difficultiesto start a small distillery and make some juice. Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampanwho can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016).

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time. As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festivalbut for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this timeas I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway. It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brineeven some very faint hints of vegetable soup. Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence. You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Mehit’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yetit’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one. But that whiteit was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sureit lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of. Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess. And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder.
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau. I quite like it.
Nov 282019
 

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

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

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

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

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

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

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

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

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

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