Jul 262021
 

Having gone through their aged expressions, millesimes, and young blends from the Poisson-Pere Labat distillery on Marie Galante over the last few years, it is my considered opinion that when it comes to the best intersection of value for money, the surprise standout is not either the 3 year old or the 8 year old (which, since they sit smack in the middle tend to be shoo-ins for the honours of this series), or any of the more upscale millesimes (though those are quite good) but the rather unremarked and seemingly unremarkable two year old called the Doré, which I can only assume means “golden” in French. Certainly its light golden colour explains the name, though one could equally wonder why they didn’t just call it an Ambré, as most others do.

Rhums with names, that are not “premium” – by which I mean “highly priced” in this context – tend to be blends which stay constant for extended periods.  The Doré is considered one of the youthful “Elevés sous bois” (‘aged in wood’) series of rums from Poisson, accompanied by the “Soleil” (Sun) 59º and 55º both of which are aged for six months: they are all supposedly a rung underneath the quality ladder of the 3 YO and 8 YO, and the millesimes and premium editions above that.

But I disagree, and think it is something of an unappreciated little gem that defines Poisson and Marie Galante — as well as Bielle or Capovilla or Bellevue, the other distilleries on the island.  Let me walk you through the tasting of the rhum, to explain.

The nose, to put it simply, was just plain lovely.  It was crisp, creamy and citrusy, like a well made lemon meringue pie fresh out of the oven.  It smelled of ripe peaches, yoghurt, ripe Thai mangoes, red grapefruit and oranges, and the acidic, tart elements were nicely balanced off by softer, more earthy tones. Even for a rhum whose youngest components were 18 months old, there was no harsh stinging notes, no roughness or jagged edges flaying the inside of one’s nose.  In fact, the whole experience suggested a rhum much lighter than the 50% it was actually bottled at.

The taste was reminiscent of that dry, crisp Riesling I remarked on with the 8 YO. That one was gentler and smoother as a consequence of the 42% strength.  Here this was transmuted into firmness, a certain tough clarity, and made the wine feel jacked up and boosted (but in a good way). It was a veritable fruit smorgasbord – apples, pears, cashews, guavas, star-apple, passion fruit, peaches all tramped across the stage at one point or another.  And then there was the herbal grassiness of citrus peel, green grass after a rain on a hot day, cinnamon, a trace of coffee and bitter chocolate…I mean, what on earth gives a two year old rum the right to taste this fine? Even the finish didn’t drop the ball – it was long, fruity, and brought everything to a fitting conclusion of crushed walnuts and almonds, lemon zest, ripe fruits and even that pie we smelled at the inception made a small bow.

I don’t know about you, but I felt this rum to be a quiet little stunner and it remains one of those favourites of mine that stays in the memory and keeps being bought, in a way its cheaper and more expensive cousins up and down the line do not. It samples really well, has a good proof point for what it is, and while it is understood that it’s is made to be a mixing drink, I feel it transcends such workmanlike blue-collar origins and somehow excels at being a downright tasty sipping drink also. And it’s nicely affordable as well being in the less-than-premium segment of Poisson-Labat’s range

What it doesn’t have, is widespread acknowledgement, or awareness by the larger rum-drinking public. It’s crowded out by more popular and better known distilleries like Bielle, Damoiseau, Saint James, Neisson, Bally, and is perhaps perceived to be on the level of the smaller and equally little-known outfits like Bologne, Severin or Montebello. 

In a recent interview on the subject of Key Rums, I remarked that that when it comes to a large country with lots of distilleries, how does one pick just one? Admittedly, Marie Galante has only four (a far cry from the 500 or so in Haiti or the thousands in Brazil), but when it is lumped together with those of Guadeloupe, the problem remains…which one to chose?  The smallness of some of these distilleries makes their rhums fail the criterion of being known, talked about and coming up in the literature.  It’s  particularly problematic considering that for too much of the rum drinking world, agricoles barely register at all, let alone get seriously discussed. I submit that this is a mistake and it’s long past time that the blinkers came off.  We should recognize that cane juice rhums, whatever their sources – and perhaps especially those from the tiny distilleries –  are deserving of greater acknowledgement and respect than they get from outside Europe or the cognoscenti. 

And that being the case, I pick another one here, from the small island of Marie Galante; and have to state flat out that even though you may not aware of it, for the intersection of taste, availability, longevity, age and all round taste, the Dore really is rather remarkable precisely because it doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind.  The Soleil 59º and 55º show their youth in their rough edges and wildly untamed exuberance, and so to some extent do the unaged blancs, though they are really fine in their own bailiwick. The older mid-range 3 YO and 8 YO expressions are too weak to be serious contenders as they fall flat or fly away if one doesn’t pay close attention, and the high-end millesimes are too pricey. The Dore somehow, against all odds, even young as it is, finds its niche with effortless ease, shows its quality and retains its place in the mind…and is, I believe, completely worthy of inclusion in this series as a result.

(#839)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • For those who want more detailed background information, the company biography of Velier and the brief history of Pere Labat are both in the “Makers” section of this website.
Jul 122021
 

With all the publicity and attendant pictures, conversations, comments, posts and other media razzamatazz attendant on the big agricole makers of the French Caribbean islands, we sometimes overlook the smaller rhum makers there. Like their more famous siblings, they have also been around for decades and centuries and although they remain not so well known, not so warmly endorsed and not so widely trumpeted, they quietly chug along year in and year out, and make their own juice…maybe unheralded and unsung, but a boss drink by any standard.

One of these places is Distillerie Poisson-Père Labat on Guadeloupe’s southern island of Marie Galante, named after the 17th century Dominican friar who modernized sugar making technology in the French islands (he was the proprietor of the Domaine de Fonds-Saint-Jacques on Martinique and owned slaves there, which leads to a complex and problematic legacy).  The small distillery is on the extreme west of Marie Galante, balancing off Bellevue in the east and Bielle and Capovilla in the centre, and I’m going to review four of their lesser known rhums over the next week or so.

Suffice to say, Labat has been in operation since 1916 as a distillery making rhum agricole (and as a sugar estate before that, since the 1860s – it supplied a local factory nearby) and continues to distill its cane juice on a copper column still brought in from Barbados in 1934.  Their rhums range from white (Labat 59º, 55º, 50º and 40º and a monster of 70.7º) to “Ambre” and “Boise” lightly aged from 6-18 months, and older versions aged 2, 3 and 8 years, and the top end millesimes and fancy pants editions aged more than ten.

The three year old reviewed first does not, then, provide any mysteries: it straddles the divide between the young ambre and boise rhums, and those of the more upscale aged expressions without any sort of attempt at exceptionalism, like its 2 YO cousin the L’Or. At 42% ABV it is less a Ti-Punch ingredient than something for tourists and those who like a young rums without fireworks to gently juice up a cocktail or something. 

(c) Poisson-Pere Labat (Publicity photo) New Version 45% ABV

Yet there’s more going on here than immediately seems to be the case with a strength that low.  It’s got a nose that is soft and herbaceous, redolent of acetones, varnish and more than a touch of turpentine and sugar water. It has the crispness of freshly aired laundry snapping on the line in the breeze of a hot summer day, tart white fruits (pears and guavas), bubble gum, plus the quick snap of lemon zest, and perhaps some crushed nuts. That’s really a lot of nose for a rhum so relatively anemic. I’ve made grumpy comments about standard strength wispiness before, but there’s little to find fault with here – it’s simply a delightful rumlet to smell.

Admittedly, the palate doesn’t quite drop the ball, though there is some drop-off in intensity now. It is a light and quiet and soft rhum, warm and delicately tasty, never losing its clarity or clean taste.  This is all about precise watery fruits – watermelon, papaya, pears dripping juice, mingled niely with the tartness of a ripe soursop. There’s a touch of soda pop like Sprite and Fanta, sugar water, acetones, even the hint of some brininess (this stays very much in the background), before it all fades out into a very clear finish that’s mostly like Mike’s Hard Lemonade with some watermelon thrown in. It’s actually quite impressive.

It’s possible that this 3 YO is no longer made, since it doesn’t appear on the Labat website — not an infallible indicator, since several other rhums they make aren’t there either — and because it has almost completely disappeared from the online literature and conversation (I’ve sent a message to inquire). What I see is mostly about the 8 YO, the soleil, the 55º and the 70.7. That’s okay, those are good too, it’s just surprising to see something as well made as this almost-midrange rhum given such short shrift.

Never mind.  If you find it, it may be pricey, as all agricoles are, relative to a molasses based rum of equal age.  But I argue it’s well made, it’s tasty and for sure it’ll wake up the drink, a cocktail, a party (and maybe even you) at the same time. Plus, it can be had by itself – almost – and it won’t entirely disappoint taken neat. Not a top-tier rhum, it represents its own level quite nicely indeed and remains a rhum that does quite a bit more than you think it does. Like my wife, it doesn’t nag or jab or needle, only soothes and welcomes…and in rhum terms, that quality might well be priceless.

(#836)(83/100)


Other notes

  • There are two versions of the 3 YO; the discontinued 42% ABV described here, and the current 45% ABV version. The switchover happened around 2018, as far as I know.
  • A biography of the company is available, too long to be ncluded here
Mar 122021
 

Let’s quickly run down the tasting notes for the Chamarel youthful aged expression, the VS.  This is the most junior of the company’s aged pantheon – named, one would presume, after the brandy designators of VS, VSOP, XO and so on. The VS supposedly stands for “Very Superior”, but that just goes to show the French had marketing departments in their old maisons for centuries before Madison Avenue was invented, because overall, the rum didn’t exactly wow my socks off.

It smells, right off the bat, of toast — literally.  Lots of toast. Also coconut shavings, vanilla, and cereals that have all at some point in their life been burnt, which I grant is amusing (and unusual) but hardly earth shattering. Anyway, this all passes, and then one can smell aromas of honey, flambeed bananas, salt caramel ice cream, nougat, toffee, white chocolate, and crushed almonds.  What it’s missing is the tart and clear acidity of lighter elements and fruits, which remain very much in the background on the nose.

Palate is somewhat better, and more integrated, though quite light and there remains a sort of spicy spitefulness about the whole thing. There are tastes of nuts, wine, grapes, and cereals again.  The balance is much improved, and the fruit is more forward…I keep getting this idea that there’s a splash of red wine in here too. With resting, there are additional notes of coconut shavings, bananas, more unidentifiable soft and squishy fruit: say ripe mangoes, papayas, cherries, strawberries, that kind of thing.  Oh, and welcome spicy notes of cloves and cumin.  All this leads to a curiously disappointing finish – it’s dusty and short, with hints of cheerios, caramel and crushed walnuts…but the fruits have once again disappeared to wherever they hid while I was smelling it.

The rum as tasted was released at 42%: currently it’s gone back to a more easy sipping 40% (as advertised on its website).  I think the strength is decent for what it is, because the rough edges of its youth have not been quite sanded clean yet, and it showcases a sort of jagged edge that a stronger proof might have made worse, rather than better. From what I was told at the booth where I tried it, it was based on sugar cane juice, and run through a column still (twice, hence the “double distilled” on the label), then aged for 3 years in charred American oak; this would account for the rather strong vanilla and smoky profile that characterizes the rum, but oddly for a cane juice product, rather less of the vegetal and fruity notes which one would expect from the source.

Chamarel on Mauritius has been around for a long time, and I’ve written about it in both the Premium Classic White, the double distilled white and Velier’s Indian Ocean Sills selection reviews, so if this piques your interest and you want to know more about them, check out those reviews or their own website. I’ve not tried very many of their aged rums – because there really aren’t that may: remember, rum making was legalized on Mauritius relatively recently so it’s not as if a whole bunch of aged stocks exist on the island.  So, I started with this one, the youngest, which I didn’t think was all that hot. It was a competent product, but I’m left somewhat confused what it’s meant for – it’s not good enough to sip, while lacking any serious punch over and above the vanilla, coconut and caramel, which would wake up a cocktail. Unless such a placid profile is your thing, you may want to see if you can lay hands on their older expressions, a millesime or anything they issue at a greater strength. Otherwise, be prepared by a restless sense of unfulfilled potential with this one.

(#808)(78/100)


Other

  • The rum isn’t bad, just feels unfinished.  As proof of its potential, note that it won a gold medal in its category at the 2018 German Rum Fest in Berlin, with other honours in the Agricole Gold class going to Clement Rhum Vieux Select Barrel (Martinique, 40%) and Saint James Ambre (Martinique, 40%)
Dec 172020
 

Hoochery Distillery’s name derives from, as you might imagine, the word “hooch”, a slang term for moonshine, or illegal liquor, popular during Prohibition. Some references place the word’s origin as even earlier, with the Hoochinoo Native American tribe of Alaska, who supposedly – and unusually – made their own liquor. Whatever the case, a hoochery is a now apparently trademarked word for a low-end small-scale distillery making (you guessed it) hooch, specifically in Australia, which has a long history of formalizing words from the vernacular in new and charming ways.  

The distillery itself was established in 1993 in north-western Australia’s remote Kimberly outback by Raymond “Spike” Dessert.  He had been in the area since 1972 and when in the 1990s the Ord River irrigation area permitted sugar cane to be grown, he figured that the tropical climate, sugar cane, and need to diversify suggested a distillery.  That’s the way the company legend runs, but maybe he just liked rum and couldn’t get any worth drinking there, who knows.  What’s clear is like many independent men in a frontier province, he went about it by making stuff himself and learning as he went along, an ethos his company’s website emphasizes quite strongly.

They make several spirits – whiskey, gin, liqueurs – and quite a few rum expressions (up to 15 years old) with Australian molasses, yeast, local water and a five-day fermentation period — the wash is then run through a self-made double pot still, which keeps things at a low alcohol percentage to keep as many flavours in play as possible.  There seems to be a lot of manual labour and hands-on work involved in the entire process, which may be why the annual output of the distillery remains low. This one, their overproof, is a 56.4% three year old rum, and it’s quite an unusual beast, let me tell you.

The nose begins with metallic, ashy notes right away, damp cardboard in a long-abandoned, leaky musty house.  Thankfully this peculiar aroma doesn’t hang around, but morphs into a sort of soya-salt veggie soup vibe, which in turn gets muskier and sweeter over time; it releases notes of bananas and molasses and syrup, before gradually lightening and becoming – surprisingly enough – rather crisp. White fruits emerge – unripe pears and guavas, green apples, gooseberries, grapes. What’s really surprising is the way this all transforms over a period of ten minutes or so from one nasal profile to another. It’s not usual, but it is noteworthy.

The palate is more traditional and harbours few surprises except for how different from the aromas it turns out to be. The strength is good at 56.4% ABV and starts out very spicy – in fact, this is one of those cases where it feels stronger than it is, instead of the other way around.  It’s a melange of tart fruit – strawberries, ripe mangoes, ginnip, apricots – together with brine, olives and bananas. Some molasses and vanilla and rotten oranges at the back end, as well as a slight bitterness, a tannic element, which may derive from the mahogany wood used for the filtration (either that or the barrels used for ageing were very active, or new).  The finish was pretty good, providing final touches of molasses, fleshy fruits, salt, and some citrus and tart soursop to close off the show.

The rum as a whole started off well, and the nose suggested a great new style of rum snapping into focus. But somehow it fails on the tongue: it retains a raw sharpness without ever calming down and some of that initial promise is lost; it tastes rough and uncoordinated, and not as pleasing as that nose (and the initial taste) suggested it might be. It remains, to the end, very dry and glitteringly sharp, and not in a good way.  The three years of ageing it had were not, I deem, entirely sufficient which makes me really interested in the 10 YO or 15 YO which they make, and how they managed to soften those.

It’s a measure of how much the Caribbean distilleries and their brands dominate the rum conversation that scant attention is paid to other lands which have a long rum tradition of their own. Part of it is that rums from, for example, Australia, don’t get marketed in the west very often, selling mostly in their own country and around Asia. I can’t say that this rum is a must-have, or that it should be on any Best-Of list made by every blogger under the sun – it’s really not on that level (or the one beneath that).  But I have to admit it’s interesting, it’s new, and it’s different. I haven’t had anything like it before. In a world where we’re seeing a different overpriced indie pop up every week, perhaps paying the same money for something offbeat and unusual from Down Under might just be the way to renew our sense of what a rum can be, or aspire to.

(#786)(82/100)


Other notes

  • Charcoal filtered through mahogany chips.
  • Seems to be only available in Australia for now
  • The tongue in cheek company profile says it’s the oldest legal distillery in Western Australia.  
  • Many thanks to Nicolai Wachman from Denmark, who, knowing of my desire to try more rums from Oz, spotted me this generous sample.
Oct 292020
 

Aside from Zacapa, Botran is the other big rum name we know which comes out of Guatemala.  Both have lost some of their lustre in the last years (though probably not their sales), the former for its sweetness, the latter because it got left behind by the fast moving indie world and cask strength ethos that gradually took over the top end.

That certainly did not stop Rum Nation though, because they happily took some of the distillate from Botran’s Destiladora del Alcoholes y Rones SA (also known as DARSA) and aged it for around four years (minimum) in the Hondo River region of NE Guatemala in ex-bourbon white oak barrels.  The story goes that this area is quite humid and the warmest part of Guatemala which allowed for some interesting effects on the final distillate, a light, fruity result that was then bottled in 2018 and remains in their core lineup. 

Well, ok. I’ve had a fair bit of Botran’s lineup and if Rum Nation decides to go this route of in-country ageing to get a nice little 40% sipper, I’d love to try it.  I do after all have a lingering fondness for one of the first indies I ever had a chance to try, and retain a desire to try two other old rums from Guatemala they issued — a 1982-2005 and a 1984-2007.

Rum Nation’s own background notes say this is “one of the lightest rums in our collection” and they weren’t kidding (they omit mention that it’s also one of those rums Fabio Rossi would call a “starter rum”, but never mind). The nose just confirms this assessment: it is delicate to a falt, very light, channeling the clean white softness of a freshly laundered pillowcase hung to dry in the sun. It’s lightly sweet, fruity with the aromas of green grapes and raisins, and has a tuch of cola, mint, caramel and some vanilla, plus an additional hint of orange peel and perhaps some anise after a few minutes. A nice and easy sip to start the day’s sundowners.

The palate built on this quiet foundation.  It remained soft and warm – 40% couldn’t really provide much more – and initially tasted of candy, creme brulee, caramel and vanilla ice cream, as well as an odd and subtle mineral note. A little salt, brie, citrus, vanilla, more caramel and a touch of spite from the wood. Others have remarked on a  more pronounced licorice element, but  didn’t sense much of that.  The finish is everything we can expect: a summation of all the preceding, no new ground, a light, breathless wisp of vanilla, fruit and caramel.

Fabio Rossi no longer owns the Rum Nation brand (he sold it to a group of Danes in 2019 or thereabouts) yet his fingerprints remain all over this one.  For years he tried to find a light, fragrant, fruity distillate that would take on Zacapa and the two rums alluded to above were part of that exercise, even if eventually he found what he was looking for in Peru, not Guatemala. I think he liked what Botran was doing, though, and put in an order that resulted in this delicate standard-strength blend.  By the time it came out he was already retreating from Rum Nation, leaving it as one of the last rums he had a hand in creating.  

It’s too delicate and light and breathy for me, and as you know, these days 40% doesn’t work for me any longer. That should not, however, stop adherents of the Botrans and soft Latin style rums from giving it a try, because it sure pushes all the buttons I know they like: easy, light and clean, reasonably and subtly tasty, made to have by itself. For those drinkers not entirely won over by today’s stronger and more puissant full proof releases, this may be the fruity marshmallow they never knew they wanted.

(#773)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I didn’t get to test for sugar, but I’m sure there’s some in here…it just tastes that way.
  • As far as I know, completely aged in Guatemala, and it’s a blend, not a solera.
Jul 302020
 

Although the unrealized flashes of interest and originality defining the Mexican Ron Caribe Silver still make it worth a buy, overall I remain at best only mildly impressed with it. Still, given the opportunity, it’s a no-brainer to try the next step up the chain, the 40% ABV standard-strength five year old Añejo Superior. After all, young aged rums tend to be introductions to the higher-end offerings of the company and be the workhorses of the establishment – solid mixing ingredients, occasionally interesting neat pours, and almost always a ladder to the premium segment (the El Dorado 5 and 8 year old rums are good examples of this).

Casa D’Aristi, about which not much can be found outside some marketing materials that can hardly be taken at face value, introduced three rums to the US market in 2017, all unlisted on its website: the silver, the 5YO and 8YO. The five year old is supposedly aged in ex bourbon barrels, and both DrunkenTiki and a helpful comment from Euros Jones-Evans on FB state that vanilla is used in its assembly (a fact unknown to me when I initially wrote my tasting notes).  

This makes it a spiced or flavoured rum, and it’s at pains to demonstrate that: the extras added to the rum make themselves felt right from the beginning.  The thin and vapid nose stinks of vanilla, so much so that the bit of mint, sugar water and light florals and fruits (the only things that can be picked out from underneath that nasal blanket), easily gets batted aside (and that’s saying something for a rum bottled at 40%). It’s a delicate, weak little sniff, without much going on. Except of course for vanilla.

This sense of the makers not trusting themselves to actually try for a decent five year old and just chucking something to jazz it up into their vats, continues when tasted. Unsurprisingly, it starts with a trumpet blast of vanilla bolted on to a thin, soft, unaggressive alcoholic water. You can, with some effort (though who would bother remains an unanswered question) detect nutmeg, watermelon, sugar water, lemon zest and a mint-chocolate, perhaps a dusting of cinnamon.  And of course, more vanilla, leading to a finish that’s more of the same, whose best feature is its completely predictable and happily-quick  exit.

It’s reasonably okay and a competent drink, but feels completely contrived and would be best, as Euros remarked in his note to me, for mixes and daquiris.  Yes, but if that’s the case, I wish they had said what they had done and what it was made for, right there on the bottle, so I wouldn’t waste my time with such an uninspiring and insipid fake drink.  What ended up happening was that I spent a whole long time while chatting with Robin Wynne (of Miss Things in Toronto) while puzzledly keeping the glass going and asking myself with every additional sip, where on earth did all the years of ageing disappear to, and why was the whole experience so much like a spiced rum? (Well yeah, I know now).

So, on balance, unhappy, unimpressed. The rum is in every way an inferior product even next to the white.  I dislike it for the same reason I didn’t care for El Dorado’s 33 YO 50th Anniversary – not for its inherent lack of quality (because one meets all kinds in this world and it can be grudgingly accepted), but for the laziness with which it is made and presented, and the subterranean potential you sense that is never allowed to emerge.  It’s a cop-out, and perhaps the most baffling thing about it was why they even bothered to age it for five years.  They need not have wasted any time with barrels or blending or waiting, but just filtered it to within an inch of its life, stuffed it with vanilla and gotten…well, this. And I’m still not convinced they didn’t.

(#748)(72/100)


Other Notes

Since there is almost nothing on the background of the company I didn’t already mention in the review of the Silver, I won’t rehash any of it here.

Jul 092020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#743)(88/100)

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 themselves – they release both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proof — so, 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 at — honey, 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 so – and 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 taste…not 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 enjoyed…it 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 all — it’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.
Apr 202020
 

It’s not often we see a multi-country or multi-style blend released by an independent bottler. The trend in IBs in recent years has more been towards the exacting individuality of a single cask from a single place (or a single still, in the case of the Guyanese rums). And that makes sense, especially for up-and-coming new micro-indies, who work with one barrel at a time, for economic reasons if nothing else.

That hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to push the envelope, of course, in the never ending Red Queen’s race to wring a few extra points of taste out of a barrel. Finishes or second maturations or fancy-cask ageing regimes have been the most common method and have grained broad (though not always uncritical) acceptance — that technique is practiced by many companies, old and new, large and small (like Renegade, or Foursquare). Blends from multiple stills, pot and column, are more common now than they used to be. And in some cases, blends have indeed been made by IBs, though quite specifically — multiple barrels from a single distillery. Velier, Rum Nation and others have all practiced this, quite successfully.  In a more restricted fashion, they follow the blending practices of the large international producers who keep their house marques stable for long periods and deal in hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Occasionally this tried and true recipe has been tampered with more fundamentally.  Navy rums from whoever have mixed up Guyanese, Jamaican and Trini pieces in differing proportions on an effort to cash in on the famed profile.  A few brave souls have messed around with different “style” blends, like mixing British and French island rums, or bringing Spanish-style rons to the party. The winning entry so far might be Ocean’s Distillery, which mixed nine different rums from across the Caribbean to produce their Atlantic Edition, for example.

1423, the Danish indie, has taken this concept a step further with their 2019 release of a Brazil / Barbados carnival — it comprised of 8- and 3-year old Foursquare rums (exact proportions unknown, both column still) to which was added an unaged cachaca from Pirassununga (they make the very popular “51” just outside Sao Paolo), and the whole thing left to age for two years in Moscatel wine casks for two years, before being squeezed out into 323 bottles at 52% ABV.

What we would expect from such an unusual pairing is something of an agricole-Bajan marriage. Those are devilishly tricky to bring off, because the light, clean, crisp cane juice taste of an unaged cachaca needs careful tending if it wants to balance itself off against the molasses profile of an aged column-still Foursquare. 

What surprised me when nosing it, is how little of the cachaca was noticeable at all – because it was new make spirit none of those peculiar Brazilian woods were part of the aromas, but neither was any sort of serious cane juice clarity. I smelled caramel, chocolates, a bit of light lemon zest, some ginger, and weak molasses.  When rested somewhat longer, there were dates, brine, some low-key fruity notes, brown sugar, even a touch of molasses. Were you to sniff it blind you would not be entirely sure what you were getting, to be honest. Not a Barbados rum, for sure.

All this did not entirely work for me, so I turned to the tasting, where tawny brown flavours mixed themselves up in abundant profusion.  The palate was not sweet or clear, so much, but like having a dessert meal of dates, nuts, nougat, and a strong latte doing a tango with a weak mocha.  The moscatel wine finish was problematic because here it become much more assertive, and provided a sweet red-grape and floral background that contradicted, rather than supported, the softer muskier flavours which had come before.  And as before, separating out the Barbados component from the Brazilian one ended up being an exercise in frustration, so I gave up and concentrated on the finish. This was relatively tame, medium long, mostly latte, breakfast spices, ginger, some pears, nothing really special.

When I asked why such an odd blend, Joshua Singh of 1423 remarked that they had such success with a Calvados aged rum in a previous advent calendar, that they thought they would try expanding the concept, and more were likely coming in the years ahead. Clearly 1423 were after a more adventurous taste-profile, and wanted to push things, go in interesting directions. Well…“interesting” this certainly was.  “Successful”, not so much, unfortunately. But for a company that has bottled as many good rums as they have, I think it might be worth following them down a dead-end rabbit hole once or twice, for the destination at least, if not the journey.

(#720)(79/100)

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.

Jan 302020
 

India is one of these countries that makes a lot of rum but is not reknowned for it — and if you doubt that, name five Indian rums, quick.  Aside from a few global brands like Amrut (who are more into whiskies but also dabbled in rum with the Old Port Deluxe and the Two Indies rums) rum makers from there seem, for the moment, quite happy to sell into their internal or regional markets and eschew going abroad, and are equally indifferent to the foreign rum festival circuit where perhaps they could get more exposure or distribution deals. Perhaps being located in the most populous region of the earth, they don’t need to. The market is literally right there for them.

One such product from India came across my radar the other day: named Rhea Gold Rum, it’s made in Goa on the west coast of the subcontinent, and I can truthfully say I knew nothing about it when I tried it, so for reasons that will become clear, let me run you straight past through the tasting notes before going on.

Light amber in colour and bottled at 43%, it certainly did not nose like your favoured Caribbean rum.  It smelled initially of congealed honey and beeswax left to rest in an old unaired cupboard for six months – that same dusty, semi-sweet waxy and plastic odour was the most evident thing about it. Letting it rest produced additional aromas of brine, olives and ripe mangoes in a pepper sauce.  Faint vanilla and caramel – was this perhaps made from jaggery, or added to after the fact? Salty cashew nuts, fruit loops cereal and that was most or less it – a fairly heavy, dusky scent, darkly sweet.

The palate continued that deep profile of rich and nearly overripe mangoes — big, soft, yellow and juicy, just on the edge of turning mushy.  Some tastes of pears, papayas, peaches, but not as sweet, accompanied by vanilla and nuttiness…but overall, the cloying thickness of overripe fruits became gradually dominating, even at that relatively tame strength, almost overpowering all others. There was no subtlety here, just a pillow fight. Finish was too faint and syrupy (in taste not in texture) to be interesting in any meaningful way.  It has some fruit, some salt caramel, it finishes and that’s pretty much it.

In my original written notes I opined that this is a spiced or added-to rum — such things are, after all, not unknown in India.  But in point of fact, it reminded me more strongly of the guava-based “rum” from Cuba called the Guyabita del Pinar, with which it seems to share kinship from half a world away, without being quite as good.

As it turns out, that wasn’t far off the mark. The company that makes it – Rhea Distillers – is much more famous (especially in Goa) for making variations of the local spiced alcoholic spirit based on cashews, or sometimes, coconut milk.  Called feni, it is the most popular tipple in the region, a softer, easier cousin to clairins, somewhat akin to grogues though made from fruit, not came — and is, as an aside, subject to a GI in its own right.

The Gold Rum was made from sugar cane juice according to the site and that makes it a  “real” rum – still, bearing in mind the priorities and main products of the company, the question of why it tastes so much of cashews is not hard to guess (nothing is written anywhere on the web page about production methods, except that cane spirit is the base).  Moreover, in those competitions where it was entered (ISWC 2018 and World Rum Awards 2018), it won prizes in the ‘flavoured’ or ‘spiced’ categories – not that of a straight product.

What else? Well, the front label wasn’t very helpful; the back label says, among other things, that it is aged in oak barrels without subsequent filtration for about three years and consists of “rum distillate”, water, E150a colouring, and without additional aromatics or artificial additives (the rest is health advisories, distribution and manufacturer data, shelf life and storage instructions). Well, I don’t know: it may not have any artificial additives, but it sure had something – maybe it was natural additives, like actual cashew fruit or macerate.

The website of the company also lacked any serious data, on either the product or the company background, but whatever the case and however they made it, this is definitely a spiced rum, and for me, not a very good one – perhaps a native of Goa who is used to the local drinks and buys the ubiquitous feni on the street would like it more than I did. Rhea  might be serving a captive market of millions but that’s hardly an endorsement of intrinsic quality or unique production style – or, in this case, of taste.  I found the Rhea unsatisfactory as a sipper, dominated by too few strong and oversweet tastes, and not a drink I could mix easily into any standard cocktail to showcase what aspects of it were more successful.  In short, not my thing.

(#697)(72/100)


Opinion

Full disclosure: I’m not really a fan of spiced rums, believing there’s more than enough good and unspiced stuff out there for me not to bother with rums that are so single mindedly flavoured to the point of drowning out subtler nuances of ageing and terroire…the “real” rum taste, which I prefer. So in a way it was good that I tasted it without knowing what it was. You really did get my unvarnished opinion on the rum, and that was also why I wrote the review that way.

Jan 232020
 

The French-bottled, Australian-distilled Beenleigh 5 Year Old Rum is a screamer of a rum, a rum that wasn’t just released in 2018, but unleashed. Like a mad roller coaster, it careneed madly up and down and from side to side, breaking every rule and always seeming just about to go off the rails of taste before managing to stay on course, providing, at end, an experience that was shattering — if not precisely outstanding.

It is bottled by L’Esprit, the Brittany-based company that provided two of the most powerful whites I’ve ever tried (from Fiji and Guyana); and distilled by the Australian distillery Beenleigh, which is practically unknown outside of Oz, but which has been in operation since before 1884 (see other notes, below) and which I’ve mentioned briefly in two heritage Rumaniacs reviews, the Stubbs Queensland White, and the Inner Circle “Green Dot” rum. And it’s stuffed into specially hardened glass at a palate-dissolving, tears-inducing 78.1%, which is sure to  make any lover of machismo grin, flex the glutes and the pecs, and dive right in.

To say it’s hot may be understating the matter.  This thing noses like an unexpected slap from your loved one, the sweet force of which has to be watched out for and mitigated as best one can. It’s sizzling, it’s sharp and quite sweet – caramel, butterscotch, apricots, peaches and cherries in syrup…on the icing of a vanilla cake. And even with the strength I could, after a while, smell very ripe, almost spoiling mangoes and kiwi fruit, with cereals, cinnamon, and milk…plus more chopped fruit. 

The palate, well, this was very nice.  Initially it’s all passion fruit, five-finger, sorrel, tart soursop, salt caramel ice cream (Hagen-Dasz, of course).  It remains hot and sharp to a fault, which you can navigate with your sanity and glottis intact only only via paranoid caution and really small sips. It presented as nutty, creamy, fruity (of red, yellow, ripe variety, so choose for yourself), not crisp per se, just damn solid, as firm as a posturepedic mattress on sale at your local furniture store. Plus the headboard, which hits you several times, hard. Unsurprisingly, the finish is a DeMille-style biblical epic, long, hot, breathy, practically ever-lasting, leaving behind good memories of cereals, cream, salt butter, and thick ripe fruit.  These were admittedly somewhat standard, and perhaps unexceptional…but it certainly didn’t sink the experience.

I still remember how unusual the Aussie Bundaberg had been back in the day (as I recall all traumatic rum encounters in my genuflectory come-to-Jesus moments) but no matter how polarizing it was, you couldn’t deny it had real balls, real character. L’Esprit’s Beenleigh was nowhere near that kind of opinion-inducing love-it-or-hate-it style, but that aside, I must say that it channels Conrad well, it’s major sound and fury, a mad, testosterone-addled wild-eyed piece of the rum zeitgeist, with wild pendulum swings from the sedate to the insane, the smooth to the storming, and a hell of a lot of fun to try. I don’t know how I missed including it in my list of the most powerful rums of the world, but for sure I’ve updated the list to make sure it’s in there.

L’Esprit remains one of my favourite independents. They lack the visibility and international reputation of better-known (and bigger) companies which have snazzy marketing (Boutique-y), a long trail of reviews (Rum Nation), ages of whisky and other experience (Samaroli) or visionary leaders of immense and towering reputations (Velier) – but somehow they keep putting out a rum here and a rum there and just don’t stop…and if they don’t always succeed, at least they’re not afraid of running full tilt into and through the wall and leaving an outline of Tristan Prodhomme behind. The Beenleigh is one of the rums they’ve put out which demonstrates this odd fearlessness, and ensures I’ll continue seeking out their rums for the foreseeable future. Both L’Esprit’s, and those of Beenleigh themselves.

(#695)(81/100)


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached.  Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that this rum was completely pot-still. Although the majority of Beenleigh’s rums come from a column still, the old copper pot still they started with all those years ago apparently is still in operation – I would not have thought a pot still could get a proof that high, but apparently I’m out to lunch on that one. Other than that, it is not a single cask but a small batch, and technically it is a 3 YO, since it spent three years in wooden casks, and two extra years in a vat.
Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

Nov 042019
 

There was a lot of interest in and written about Mhoba between the UK 2018 and Paris 2019 rumfests, and when one checks out the rums they make, it’s not hard to see why.  It’s from a unique part of the world, has been deep-dived by Steve James in a thee-part-post that could hardly be bettered (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here), has a pot still action going on, and the rums themselves are solidly distinct. So we should beware of letting them fall off our mental rum radar in between expos – because they’re good, and, perhaps more important, well made, unmessed-with, cask strength, and very, very original.

Mhoba’s founder Robert Greaves originally considered making a South African version of cachaca…but fortunately for us, changed his mind. He built his own small stills (many of them, each evolving from the previous iteration), played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling for two years, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and it all finally came together in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2018 he had a blend of rum aged for about a year in six scraped, scoured, seared and toasted French oak casks (the epic of how he ended up there is worth a read so head over to Rum Revelations for some background), which he presented in London that year — though the one I tried was from a six-months-older blend of the same barrels, which yielded 330 bottles and which was shown off in the Paris Rumfest in early 2019.

This is where good labelling helps understand what you’re getting.  Mine read that it was a sugar cane juice rum, single blended, the bottle outturn (330 bottles, of which this was a sample), batch 2019FC1, South African made, and 65% ABV (ouch!). Actually, the only things missing from the label were the age statement (website says just over a year) and the still of origin (it’s a pot still), which I imagine subsequent labels will correct, especially as additional aged varietals begin to enter the market and a stock of different aged expressions gets built up – already, the company site lists eight different rums, so they’re not wasting any time.

I liked the pungency and herbal nature of Mhoba’s white rum, and remarked it compared nicely to a Neisson or a civilized clairin.  The French cask was a horse of a different colour, though I can’t definitively state whether this was because of the ageing, the cuts made or the tweaking of the still. One thing for sure – the casks had their say here.  Just the nose made that clear – very little of the vegetal, herbal notes of the white made it through here. Indeed, what I smelled was a combination of dialled-down Jamaican funk – sharp, overripe, sour fruits, oddly shy for such a powerful rum – combined with damp cardboard, hot earth after a rain, and paint thinner. Gradually, over the half hour I spent smelling it, it released citrus zest, toffee, chocolate oranges, dill and just a hint of brine. And yet it remained curiously indistinct, hard to come to grips with and pick apart.

The palate was better, very dry, very strong, yet that vagueness persisted here too, if perhaps not as much. Sour fruits gone off were there – mangoes, apricots, peaches, cashews (the ones with the seeds outside) — plus mint, dill and rosemary, brine, ginger and lemongrass. These were the sharper aspects, balanced off by some light coffee, caramel, wine, black grapes and those dusky earth and cardboard and coffee notes, leading to a roaring sharp finish which was long and dry, closing off with hints of nuts, coffee, caramel, and a last whiff of fruitiness

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this.  The minimal ageing toned down the rawness of an unaged spirit in a way that polished off some of the rough edges, so that was good; the additional fruitiness imparted by the Cape Brandy left in the staves (even after the sanding and scraping away of a few millimeters of impregnated wood) was nice – overall, it was a solid, strong drink. This, paradoxically, was also its weakness.  The strength was so great that it overpowered the subtle notes that a mere year-and-a-bit of ageing had provided, and it failed to cohere in a way that would allow the individual taste components to shine more. Here then was a rum that I felt could either use some more ageing, or some water, and indeed I did put a few drops into my drink and it became much more approachable that way.

Still, it remained something of an odd duck, hard to pigeonhole, tough to nail down precisely.  It had aspects of an aged agricole, and points that reminded me of a Jamaican high-ester rum, all combined with the dampening anonymity of a column-still, high-proofed, lightly-aged filtered product from, say, Bacardi.  In that lay its originality and its attraction because in a market crowded with ever more indie cask strength releases, new experiments from old houses, and ever more cheap column still plonk, anything new and well made and tasting the way it does is a welcome breath of fresh air. I may not have been entirely sold on its quality, but I won’t forget it any time soon — and as the years go by I can see my shelf having more than just a few of the rums from this small South African company, because they’re surely one to watch.

(#672)(83/100)

Oct 062019
 

There’s so many peculiar things going on with this rum it’s tough to find a convenient starting place, so let’s begin with what facts lie behind the rum itself and then go from there.  The rum is a Jamaican Worthy Park distillate from about 2010 or so, aged three to five years in american white oak casks, with an unknown (said to be limited but….) outturn dribbled into our glasses at a milquetoast 40%.

Since WP have a very recognizable branding scheme of their own, who released the rum? It’s found on the label, and it’s Bacardi, who evidently felt there was a market opportunity to go upscale and use their massive distribution network and marketing clout to steal a march on the independent bottlers who have pioneered limited bottlings in the last decade. I say “evidently”, because clearly they simply saw margins and profits, grandly called the new line a “breakthrough, contemporary innovation in the rum category” — but learned nothing about what actually made such rums special: things like serious barrel selection, serious ageing, serious strength, limited outturn, combined with a real and patiently garnered reputation for quality at the top end of the rum ladder. Just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice, as they have belatedly realized by the way this rum sank pretty much without a trace.

Which in 2019, four years after its release, I thought was odd…but only initially.  I say that because at first I quite liked the way it nosed. It was very much a WP rum, dry, fruity, rich, salty, with some olives bouncing around. Sweeter, fruitier notes emerged with time, fanta and coca cola and orange peel, and there was some background of smoke and leather as well. I jotted down that it was nicely pungent for a 40% rum. Understated but recognizable. So, thus far, not bad at all.

Trying it physically, I can only assume that whoever put the final blend together must have been scared witless and sh*tless by the sheer crisp uniqueness of Worthy Park’s pot still distillate, so much at odds with the gentle ease of Cuban-style rons – and decided, therefore, it could not possibly be allowed to stand on its own but be added to to make it more…well, palatable, I guess. Better for Bacardi drinkers. And therefore added caramel or sugar or whatever, to the tune of 15 g/L.  And you could sense that when tasting it – it was, first of all, much fainter than one might expect from such a good nose. The dryness went AWOL, and instead of leading off with crisp citrus and brine, what we got was a sort of muted fruitiness, damped-down acetones, sour tobacco and polish, and a more soft and smooth and creamy taste. This was not unpleasant, but it did deviate from what we want — and hope we’re buying — in a Worthy Park rum. Moreover, though a half hour later I could sense apples, grapes, and unripe peaches, it was too muffled, and unbalanced at the back end, presenting both a kind of spiteful sharpness as well as a muddled mishmash of tastes confused and roiled by the additives, leading to a finish that was short and sharp — a kinda dreary and near-tasteless alcohol.

Overall, it’s unclear what Bacardi thought they were doing, acting as an independent bottler when they’ve always been primary producers who have their own ideas on how to make rums; with expertise in light rons, the clear-cut singularity of single (or a few) barrel selection from Jamaica does not seem to be their forte.  I’ve been passing Single Cane rums in many airports of the world for years but the 40% always put me off until finally I got one, this one…and kinda wished I hadn’t bothered.  It’s not a particularly good rum, a barely average product released at a strength that does little to showcase or capitalize on the unique heritage of its estate of origin. As a beginner’s rum it works to introduce Worthy Park, but my advice is to move beyond it to the real stuff from Jamaica as fast as possible, without wasting further time on the false promises of such an adulterated siren that treats its audience with contempt and cynically trades on a name without providing anything of its quality.

(#662)(78/100)


Other notes

  • Bacardi bought bulk rum directly from Worthy Park, and it was aged at WP. but they did their own blending.
  • The 15g/L additives number comes from the Fat Rum Pirate’s equally dismissive review of the same rum
Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are almost alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

Aug 072019
 

The Blackwell Fine Jamaican rum is the result of another one of those stories we hear these days, about somebody with good intentions, oodles of spare cash, and some street cred in another creative field of endeavour (music, movies, TV, writing, master of the universe, Wall Street, take your pick), deciding they can make [insert product name here] just because (a) they always liked it (b) they have eaten / drunk / smoked / worn / read / watched / experienced it for many years and (c) they want to immortalize their own preference for said product.  “How difficult can it be?” you can almost hear them asking themselves, with a sort of endearing innocence. When that kind of thing is done well and with focus, we get Renegade. When done with less, we get this.

With all due respect to the makers who expended effort and sweat to bring this to market, I gotta be honest and say the Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum doesn’t impress. Part of that is the promo materials, which remark that it is “A traditional dark rum with the smooth and light body character of a gold rum.” Wait, what?  Even Peter Holland usually the most easy going and sanguine of men, was forced to ask in his FB post “What does that even mean?” I imagine him nobly restraining the urge to add an expletive or two in there, because colour has been so long dismissed as an indicator of a rum’s type or an arbiter of its quality. 

Still, here’s the schtick: it’s a 40% ABV throwback to yesteryear’s mild rums, a blend of pot and column still rums from that little hoochery J. Wray, and no age statement: it has indeed been aged (in ex bourbon barrels), but I’ve heard 2-4 years ageing, one guy at the 2019 Paris fest  told me “around five” and in a review from back in 2014, The Fat Rum Pirate noted it was “only aged for 1 year”. We’re going to have to say we don’t know, here. Though I question whether it’s important at all, since everything about it suggests it is not meant as a sipping rum, more a cocktail ingredient, and some rough edges and youthful notes are tolerated characteristics in such a product.  

An inviting dark red-amber colour, the first sharp and hot notes out the glass are caramel, molasses, light vanilla, not much like the younger Appletons, any of them. There’s a wisp of seaspray whisking a single olive into your face, some raisins, black cake and cinnamon – but funk, rotting bananas, spoiling fruit?  Nah, dem ting gaan AWOL, don’ go lookin’. To be honest, as something that trumpets the fact that it’s a Jamaican rum, it seems to be in no hurry to actually smell like one. 

The palate is equally indeterminate, and its unique characteristics may be youthful sharpness and jagged edges, to say nothing of its overall rough feel on the tongue. Even at 40% that’s no fun, but once it relaxes (which happens quickly) it becomes easier – at the cost of losing what tastes it initially displayed into a vague melded mist of nothing-in particular. These were fruits, dark ones, black cake, molasses, cinnamon, lemon peel, fading fast into a rough and hurried finish that was sweet, with some licorice, bananas, lemon peel and a couple of  raisins. Frankly, I thought it something of a yawn through, but admittedly I say this from the perspective of a guy who has tasted growly old bastards bottled north of 60% from the New Jamaicans. Anyway, it reminds me less of a Jamaican rum than one like Cruzan or Gosling’s, one of those blended every-bar-has-one dark mixing rums I cut my teeth on decades back.

With respect to the good stuff from around the island — and these days, there’s so much of it sloshing about —  this one is feels like an afterthought, a personal pet project rather than a serious commercial endeavour, and I’m at something of a loss to say who it’s for.  Fans of the quiet, light rums of twenty years ago? Tiki lovers? Barflies? Bartenders? Beginners now getting into the pantheon? Maybe it’s just for the maker — after all, it’s been around since 2012, yet how many of you can actually say you’ve heard of it, let alone tried a shot?  

The real question is, I suppose, what other rum-drinking people think of it. I may be going too far out on a limb here, but my personal opinion is that Not much is the most likely answer of the kindhearted, and Nothing at all is the response of the rest. Me, I’m with those guys.

(#649)(69/100)


 

Other notes

  • The Blackwell brand was formed by Mr. Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and Mr. Richard Kirshenbaum (CEO of NSGSWAT, a NY ad agency), back in 2012. The Blackwell rum derives from a blend of pot and column distillate made by J. Wray and Nephew, developed with the help of Joy Spence, and is supposedly based on a Blackwell family recipe (secret and time honoured, of course — they all are) which hails from the time the Lindo family (who are related directly to Mr. Blackwell) owned J. Wray & Nephew. In 1916 Lindo Brothers & Co. bought J. Wray, and picked up the Appleton sugar estate at the same time. The whole edifice was merged into one company, J. Wray and Nephew Ltd, and it existed for nearly a hundred years until 2012, when the Campari group bought the company.
  • The words “Black Gold and “Special Reserve” on the label are marketing terms and have no bearing on the quality of the rum itself, or its antecedents.
Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s ever read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire-fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”