May 062021
 

The rums of the Reunion Island company Savanna span a wide stylistic gamut, depending on the source material (juice or molasses, for they utilize both), which still made them, and how many esters stuck around for the party (this is particularly the case with the high ester still Savanna casually uses to smack the unsuspecting and unwary into next week).

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Velier’s book, they also release a whole raft of “sets” or typesfor example, the Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days), Creol (aged and unaged agricoles), Intense (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), or Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums). And that’s not even counting the cool-named varieties within those sets, like “Thunderstruck,” “Chai Humide,” “Wild Island,” or the utterly prosaic put-me-to-sleep-please “Belgium.” They seem to have no particular interest in releasing things at a consistent strength and you’ll find rums at standard strength right up to 67% (a 2019 creol I still get delicious nightmares about).

Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous variation of tastes in these rumsperhaps only the Guadeloupe boys can boast anything that jumps around the flavour wheel as much. You cannot make any predeterminations on “what I expect” with this distillery, and it would be foolhardy to try. I’ve tasted those that are heavy on fruits, others that are more creamy or yeasty or flowery or creamy or are dark, light, heavy, solid, flaky….well, you get my drift.

Still, this 57% ABV grand arôme, which was released in 2016 for La Maison Du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary (they went into partnership with Velier the following year and formed LM&V), seemed at pains to make the point yet again. In this case, it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical; herbs, wet grass, sweet pickles, hot dog relish (I know what this sounds like!); sugar water; iodine, papaya, strawberries; wax, brine and cucumbers in a light pimento-soaked vinegar. I mean, seriously, does that remind you of any rum you’ve ever tried? I both liked it and wondered where the rum was hiding.

In fairness, the taste was pretty good and conformed more to the ideals. 57% was a good strength for it, and even with the slight roughness of it being unaged, it wasn’t savage, just warm and firm. It tasted initially of brine and olives and then did a switcheroo to light anise and sugar water, fresh sugar cane sap bleeding off the stalk, combined with the tartness of unripe white fruit (guavas, soursop, pears), orange peel and some delicate flowers. A touch of caramel, toffee, breakfast spices, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon, maybe. It fell apart on the finish, alasthat was short, watery, thin, somewhat sweet and lacking any of the complexity with just some herbs, mint, dill, anise and swank drifting away into nothingness.

In other words, the rum started out strongand startlingthat nose really was somethingand then each successive stage was weaker than the one before it. That it had more complexity and style than most whites is undeniable, it just wasn’t assembled that well (which is a purely personal opinion, of course). Why LMDW would release an unaged Savanna rum for a major anniversary at a time when Reunion wasn’t much appreciated and super-aged rums were much more likely to attract attention and money, is anyone’s guess. It’s also a peculiarity of the rum that it comes from molasses but through some weird alchemy of the process, actually tastes more like an agricole, which I’m sure you’ll admit is quite a neat trick.

The Fat Rum Pirate in his four-star 2017 review of this rum, remarked “This won’t be for everyone but [..] but whilst similar to other high ABV whites, it has enough going on to be different.” That encapsulates my own feelings as well: while I enjoy (and sometimes fear) the untamed ferocity of the clairins, the Guyanese and Jamaican unaged crazies, or the more refined French island blancs, I also appreciate something original which has the courage to go off on a tangent, before somehow coming together as a recognizably good rum. This one shows that happening in fine style and I’m happy to have had the chance to try it.

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The LMDW 60th Anniversary release has a 1,000-bottle outturn. Bottle number noted on the label
  • As before, thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample. His unscored tasting notes can be found here.
Sep 172020
 

Savanna’s 2005 Cuvée Maison Blanche 10 Year Old rum, in production since 2008 is a companion to the 2005 10 YO Traditionnel and a somewhat lesser version of the superb 2006 10YO HERR issued a year later, and that one, you will remember, blew my socks off back when I tried it.

Going strictly by the numbers, it hardly seems to be very different from the various traditionnel (i.e., molasses based) rums that are released with great regularity by the distillery. But actually, these “White House” 10 YO rums date back to when the 1998 edition was first released as a millesime and has always denoted something a bit more special from the season. Such rums are intermittently issued, not annually, and have become something of an underground search-for by some (myself included) even if they are not that well known and are nowadays eclipsed by the various Grand Arômes and special series that pop up with much fanfare every year or two. The title, as an aside, references the original Savanna distillery in Saint Paul which bore the name of “Maison Blanche.”

We know a fair bit about Savanna by now (see here for a mini bio if you don’t), so we’ll get straight into what it’s like. Note, first off, that the name has nothing to do with its typeit’s not a white rum, but an aged dark gold one, which would seem obvious, but isn’t always, so I mention it in passing.

The nose is very nice for something at 43%, and I’ve always wondered why they kept the strength that low: but for sure it’ll provide its adherents many pleasures, like the warm, creamy aromas of honey and caramel, to start. There’s some vanilla, flowers, oak tannins and bite, the vague fruitiness of peaches and ripe cherries and something a bit lighter (pears, I’d say). The balance among the various pieces is nicely done, though it feels somewhat faint, which may be my schnozz, not yours.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I usually do standard strength rum tastings first thing in the morning when the palate is at its most sensitive and I haven’t (yet) been brutalized by a bunch of stampeding overproofs. That helps here, because although it also makes it seem sharpish, what it really is, is clean and fresh and bright, a delicate smorgasbord of caramel, nuts, molasses, vanilla, fresh red and white fruits (apples, peaches, pears, watermelon, strawberries, papaya, cherries). That’s enjoyable, but the finishshort, clear, clean, minty and with some caramel, vanilla and sour creamdeparts too soon and is gone too fast for any sort of real appreciation.

That finish is representative of what I consider something of a deficiency for the Maison Blanche’sthe low strength, which hamstrings tastes that need jacking up to be appreciated more fully. The rum walks a neat line between acid and tart and musk, between soft and sharp notes, and I did enjoy it, especially for that peculiar note to it on the end, a wispy salt-tobacco-pineapple thing that to me is the creole island twang of Savanna. But I honestly wish they had bottled it at a higher proof, something to give it a bit more oomph and smack, that would draw out and showcase those tastes more decisively. Too much is lost in the obscuring fog of 43% for me to consider it truly specialand that’s a shame for a rum that is in most other respects quite a lovely drink.

(#762)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • The year of the edition is always on the front label, at the bottom
  • As always, thanks and my appreciation to Nico Rumlover, who sent me the sample.
Sep 142020
 

It’s perhaps unfair that only with the emergence of the 2016 HERR 10 YO and the LMDW 60th Anniversary white in the same year, that the distillery of Savanna on Reunion began to pick up some serious street cred. I think it’s one of those under-the-radar distilleries that produces some of the best rums in the world, but it always and only seems to be some special limited edition like the Cuvee Maison Blanche, or a “serious” third party bottling (e.g. from Habitation Velier, Rum Nation or Wild Parrot) that gets people’s ears to prick up. And it’s then that you hear the stealthy movement of wallets in pockets as people slink into a shop, furtively fork over their cash, and never speak of their purchase for fear the prices might go ape before they get a chance to buy everything in sight.

Such focus on seemingly special bottlings ignores a lot of what Savanna actually produces. Starting around 2013 or so, in line with the emerging trend of own-distillery bottlings (as opposed to bulk sales abroad) done by well-known Caribbean island distilleries, they took the unheralded and almost unacknowledged lead in constantly producing all sorts of small not-quite-limited batches, for years and years (the 5 year old and 7 year old “Intense” rums were examples of that). And, as I’ve observed before, it’s good to remember that Savanna’s rums span an enormous stylistic range of both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proof, and underneath all of those are rums like the seemingly basic Lontan White 40% rum we’re looking at today.

The word “Lontan” is difficult to pin downin Haitian Creole, it means “long” and “long ago” while in old French it was “lointain” and meant “distant” and “far off”, and neither explains why Savanna picked it (though many establishments around the island use it in their names as well, so perhaps it’s an analogue to the english “Ye Olde…”). Anyway, aside from the traditional, creol, Intense and Metis ranges of rums (to which have now been added several others) there is this Lontan seriesthese are all variations of Grand Arôme rums, finished or not, aged or not, full-proof or not, which are distinguished by a longer fermentation period and a higher ester count than usual, making them enormously flavourful.

Does that work, here? Not as much as I’d likethe strength is partly responsible for that, making it seem somewhat one-dimensional. The nose gentle and clean, some brine and olives, pineapple, watermelon, green apples and a touch of herbs, yet overall the smell of it lacks something of an agricole rhum’s crispness, or an unaged molasses rum’s complexity, and if there are more esters than normal here, they’re doing a good job of remaining undercover. It actually reminds me more of a slightly aged cachaca than anything else.

It’s an easy rum to drink neat, by the way, because the 40% does not savage your tonsils the way a full proof would. On that level, it works quite nicely. But that same weakness makes flavours faint and hard to come to grips with. So while there are some subtle notes of sugar water, anise, vanilla, mint, coffee (a dulce de leche, if you will) and cumin, they lack spark and verve, and you have to strain hard to pick them up….hardly the point of a drink like this. Since the finish just follows on from therefaint, breathy and <poof> it’s goneabout the best one can say is that at least it’s not a bland nothing. You retain the soft memory of fruits, pineapple, cumin, vanilla, and then the whole thing is done.

Ultimately then, this is almost a starter or (at best) a mid-tier rum, clocking in at €35 or so in Europe. I have often bugled my liking for brutish whites that channel the primitive licks of full strength rums made in the old style for generations without caring about modern technology, but this isn’t one of them. That said, it has more in its jock than the bland anonymous filtered whites that are the staple of bars the world over, howeverso if you eschew full-proof ester-squirting whites and prefer something a bit more toned down and easy on both the palate and the wallet, then this one is definitely one you couldand probably shouldtake a longer look at than I did.

(#760)(77/100)


Other Notes

  • Column still rum, deriving from molasses (hence theTraditonnelon the label)
  • For a more in depth discussion of “Grand Arôme” see the Wonk’s article.
  • As before, many thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample
Jun 182020
 

Savanna is probably one of the most exciting distilleries out there for high-ester loving rum chums, with a reputation growing by leaps and bounds, and not solely because of their own superb HERR 10 YO, or the Johnny-come-lately Habitation Velier HERR white (which was such an amazing piece of work that whole virtual forests have been clear cut to provide the electronic paper for the many online reviews about it, and I’ve heard of grown men bursting into tears at the mere sight of one in the wild).

But leaving aside such Himalayan peaks, it’s good to remember that Savanna’s rums span an enormous stylistic range that can appeal to all classes of us rum proles, from feral unaged blancs and lovingly aged 15 year old blends, to finished single cask offerings and high ester monsters that can make a Hampden-lover weep for joy (and envy). And best of all, they don’t restrict themselvesthey release both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proofso, like with Guadeloupe, or an indie, we often can get the best of all worlds.

The 5 YO is part of what might be termed their starter kit, the basic traditional range of the unaged, 3YO, 5YO and 7YO rums (they are released every few years), and serves to demonstrate, as if it were needed, that here’s a distillery with a little something for everyone. It’s one of those rums that ostensibly is for the mixing circuit, but can be sneaked into a neat pour without too many broken spittoons in its wake. So, column still, molasses based and 46% ABV, then, aged five years in a French oak cognac cask, and we can move on with that.

I had started the session with the 10YO HERR, and in comparison, the 5YO is less intense than this superlative control, which is no surprise. Dialled down in intensity, more languorous, slow, almost sleepy. Oh but the flavours, nothing to sneeze athoney, sawdust, citrus, peaches and sawdust and cereals. Here’s a rum that even with its modest stats, can be left to open up and will do soand when it does, it provides additional notes of brine without olives, a touch of rubber, vanilla, sour cream and light fruitiness, all quite well balanced. But whatever the influence the cognac in the cask might have had seemed at fist blush to be marginal.

The youth is sensed upon sipping, and it’s an interesting if delicate amalgam. It presents as sharp to begin with, yet the bite climbs back down to gentle very quickly. Some bitter tannins, dampened down before they get a chance to descend into obnoxiousness. Citrus, oranges, nuts, plums, very tart, a bit thin overall to tastenot spotting too much cognac here. Strawberries and pineapples, weak. Nose was better, if not strictly comparable but then, I wasn’t drinking it through my schnozz either. Anyway, good tastes, a little thin, leading to a brisk finish, on the weak side of firm, gone quickly. Tart gooseberries, turmeric, strawberries, some citrus, and a last touch of that honey I enjoyedit was a nice closing touch.

Although this 5YO Single Cask is a relatively low level offering from Savanna, it’s still one that can beat out similarly aged juice from other outfits that bugle their pedigree with lots more fanfare, yet deserve their plaudits less. I like it moderately well, and it encourages me to try more rums Savanna makes just to see the development of others in the range. This is an essay in the craft, before the mastery of the company (shown by the of the HERR, the 57, Chai Humide, Thunderstruck et al) snaps more clearly into focus; and, as with many such young rums, it perhaps needs some taming and is best for a mix, though I’d suggest that for the rum aficionado, if you ever get the chance to try it by itself, you might want to sample it that way, just the once. It’s an original work in progress and as long as we keep that in mind, it doesn’t need any further bugling at allit’s the sort of rum that makes one eager to see what’s else the company is hiding in its casks.

(#737)(81/100)


Other notes

  • This is part of a collection of Savanna rhums Nico Rumlover sent me some time ago when he heard I was interested, long enough back for him to conceivably have forgotten he did so. Well, whether he remembers or not, I’m immensely grateful for the time he took to crate me a great selection of what the distillery can do.
  • As a brief reference tool, the rums named “Intense” are molasses-based and relatively low on esters, hence their being named “starter rums;” the next step up is the Lontans (also called grand arôme rums) which are also from molasses but with longer fermentations and with a high resultant ester count; and then there are the Créol rhums which are straightforward rhum agricoles, made from fresh sugar cane juice. Millesimes, fancy finishes and special editions at all strengths pepper their output as well.
Dec 182019
 

Without bombast or any kind of major marketing push, without hype or hurry, Savanna on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean quietly built up its reputation over the last decade with the Grand Arôme series of rums deriving from their high ester still, and probably gave the new high-ester Jamaicans serious conniption fits. Yet for all its burgeoning street cred, it remains something of a relative unknown, while much more attention is lavished on the New Jamaicans and other companies around the Caribbean who are jacking up their taste levels.

Savanna has of course been making rums its own way for ages, and by releasing this little gem with them, the Genoese concern of Velier might just be the one to catapult them to the next level and greater renown outside Europe. After all, they did it for Caroini and DDL, why not here?

The “Indian Ocean Still” series of rums have a labelling concept somewhat different from the stark wealth of detail that usually accompanies a Velier collaboration. Personally, I find it very attractive from an artistic point of viewI love the man riding on the elephant motif of this and the companion Chamarel rum (although I must concede that my all time favourite design is the architectural-quality drawings of the various stills of the Habitation line). In any event, most of the info is on the back label (repeated in the copperplate-style narrative on the front): distilled November 2012, aged on Reunion in French oak casks, bottled February 2019. It’s a column still product, but not, as far as I’m aware, of the HERR still.

It’s been said on many occasions of Velier’s rums, especially with the Jamaicans and Demeraras, that “the rum doesn’t feel like it’s X%”. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here, where the Savanna clocked in at 61% ABV, but nosedand later tastedlike it was no more than standard strength. I mean, it started with a truly lovely, sweet, soft, warm nose. Peaches in syrup and cream melded well with sugar water, ripe yellow mangoes, red grapes,and sweet red olives. Delectable in a good way, and I particularly enjoyed the lemon and cumin background, plus the yoghurt and sour cream with dill.

The palate was also an amalgam of many good things, starting off tasting of sweet and very strong black tea with milk. It developed fruity, sweet, sour and creamy notes which all met and had a party in the middle. There was lime zest, bags of ripe, fleshy fruits, cereals, red grapes, apples, cashewsit’s a smorgasbord of ongoing flavour porn, both sharp and crisp, and later one could even taste fanta and bubbly soda pop mixed in with a clean Riesling. The strength was more discernible than it had been when I smelled it, just not in a bad way, and it was really well tamped down into something eminently drinkable, finishing off with a flourish of olive oil and brine, a touch of sweetness from the fanta, and more crisp almost ripe fruits.

Man, this was a really good dram. It adhered to most of the tasting points of a true agricolegrassiness, crisp herbs, citrus, that kind of thingwithout being slavish about it. It took a sideways turn here or there that made it quite distinct from most other agricoles I’ve tried. If I had to classify it, I’d say it was like a cross between the fruity silkiness of a St. James and the salt-oily notes of a Neisson.

It’s instructive that although Savanna has been making high ester rums for at least the last two decades, their reputation was never as sterling or widespread as Hampden and Worthy Park who have been getting raves for their new branded rums from almost the very first moment they appeared on the stage. Perhaps that says something about the need in today’s world to have a promoter in one’s corner who acts as a barker for the good stuff. That could be a well known importer, it could be the use of a deep-pocketed secondary bottler with a separate rep of their own (think Rum Nation’s 2018 Reunion rum as an example), or a regular FB commentator.

These forces have all now intersected, I think, and the rum is a win for everyone concerned. Savanna has greater exposure and fantastic word of mouth dating back to its seminal HERR 2006 10 year old; Velier has shown that even with the winding down of the Demeraras and Caronis they can find tasty, intriguing rums from around the world and bring them for us to taste; and I can almost guarantee that if this rum finds its way into enough hands, there will be no shortage of positive online blurbs and opinions from across the commenterati, many of whom will be happy to say that they knew it all along and are happy to be proved right.

(#685)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Habitation Velier has released a Savanna HERR Unaged 2017 white rhum, which is a good companion to this one, though it’s a bit more energetic and rambunctious and displayed less refinementyet perhaps more character.
  • I heard a rumour that Velier intended to release three Indian Ocean rums in this 2019 series, and indeed, around 2018, there were photos of Luca in India that surfaced briefly on FB. However, nothing seems to have come of it and never responded to my queries on the matter.