Sep 052022
 

The French island rum makers take ageing in a slightly different direction than most of those elsewhere in the world. A normal Caribbean distiller (actually just about any from anywhere), will take a rum and age it and then issue a blend of X years, and then progressively older ones, year in and year out, with the occasional special edition thrown into the mix. You never know from the main line of El Dorado rum, for example, what year any of them came from, since that’s unimportant – the age is. Ditto for others like Jamaica or St. Lucia or South and Central America, who for the most part follow “the age is the thing” principle for the well-known series of rums they issue. If they release a vintage year, it’s mostly something of a one-off, and even there the age remains the real selling point (if the limited outturn isn’t). 

Not so the guys from Martinique and Guadeloupe and Reunion. There, the idea that some years’ harvests or distillates are simply exceptional has long been an article of faith, and this is the basis for their own vintage releases, called millesimes. There, the age is not completely irrelevant but of lesser significance when compared to the specific year – and where that age is mentioned it’s usually in fine print, and it’s the year of distillation which gets the headline treatment and the Big Font. Which is why Clement’s 1952, 1970 and 1976 vintages are famous but you’d be hard pressed to remember how old any of them is, and ditto for the XO which is a blend of all of them.

The additional quality that makes the modern crop of such millesimes so outstanding (i.e., aside from the perception that the year of origin is so special, and what ageing they do get) is the gradual increase in the proof point at which they are issued.  Back when agricoles were just becoming a thing and in the decades before that when only known on the islands and France, the ABV of 50% — give or take — was a de facto standard.  Nowadays we’re seeing more and more really high proofed agricole rhums topping that by quite a margin, and they’re not only the whites, but aged expressions as well.

A good example of all these concepts is the subject of today’s review: a Guadeloupe rhum from Damoiseau, the millesime 2009, which comfortably hefts a large spiritous codpiece of 66.9% and whose age is mentioned nowhere on the label but is 7 years old according to all references. I’m seeing more and more of these hefty aged brawlers, and only rarely have I found any that stunk – this sure wasn’t one of them, and while the rhum does seem to be somewhat polarizing in the reviews I’ve read, me, I thought it was great.

Consider how it opens on the nose: admittedly, it’s very spicy, very punchy and doesn’t play nice for the first while. Some suggest it be tamed with some water, but I’m too witless for that and masochistically go for the full experience.  Once the fumes burn off it wastes no time, and lets loose a barrage of aromas of rich tawny honey fresh from the comb, flambeed bananas (with the wood-flames still licking up), caramel, bitter chocolate, coffee grounds. And this is before the fruits come in – tart gooseberries, mangoes, green grapes and greener apples, vanilla.  A combination of tart and sweet and musky, infused with cinnamon and cooking spices in a rich and sensuous amalgam that Mrs. Caner would likely swoon over.

As would be no surprise in something this highly proofed, the rhum displays a solid and almost fierce pungency when sipped. The agricole notes come out to play now, and one can taste sweet sugar cane sap; vanilla, pears, more of that burnt-wood-flambeed-banana vibe…and bags and bags of fruits. Pears, watermelon, ripe Thai mangoes, papaya, were the high points, with pastries coming up right behind – apple pie, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, cumin, rosemary, and as if dissatisfied that this still wasn’t enough, it added coffee, cardamom, and french toast (!!). Closing off the whole experience is a finish of real quality – it is long, surprisingly soft, fruity, creamy, redolent of spices, lighter fruits, sugar cane sap and a jam-smeared croissant still hot from the oven.

This is a rhum that I could go on tasting for an entire evening. As it was, I lingered over at the stand at the TWE Rum Show with Chetan of Skylark and the vivacious Clementine of Damoiseau, pretending to chat and admiring Chetan’s virulent blue shirt (which he insisted I mention in my review so…) while sneaking a second and third pour when I hoped they weren’t looking.

The strength is part of the quality of course, but I honestly believe that even if it was released at a more acceptable (i.e., lower) proof point, this is a rhum that would have succeeded like a boss.  The flavours are fierce and distinct and none jar or clash with any other.  The rum tastes completely solid and is a drinkable advertisement for the skill of whoever blended the thing.  It lasts a good long time, it’s not at all savage, and possesses such a gradually unfolding complexity, such a multitude of aromas and tastes, that you just want to take your time with it and keep it going for as long as you can.  I may not always agree with the millesime approach to rum making but when it works as well as this one does, it’s hard to fault the reasoning … and even harder not to buy a few bottles.

(#934)(89/100)


Other notes

  • Although I was and remain enthusiastic, take my opinion with some caution.  Marcus over at Single Cask despised it to the tune of 69 points in January 2021, though on Rum Ratings, four  people gave it a solid 9 (oddly, the standard proofed 42% version was more contentious, with five commentators each giving it a different score ranging from 4 to 10). On the other hand, The Rum Ration rhapsodized in 2020 that it was “one of the best rhums” he’d ever tried, and Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel in the UK — a notoriously hard marker — gave it a rousing 89/100 in late 2019. It will come down to your personal taste profile, to some extent.
  • There is a 42% version of this rum with pretty much the same label. As far as I know it is simply a reducer version of this one.
Jul 112022
 

The Damoiseau 8 YO was for years one of the unsung stars of the brand, a rhum that has been made year in and year out for ages, and the one that edged most into premiumized territory without actually being one itself 1. But if its increasing online unavailability and absence on the webpage of the company is any indication, we might be seeing it headed for a decline and discontinuation, and if that’s true then my advice for those reading this review would be to stock up, because this is one pretty damned fine piece of work, and you’ll miss it once it’s gone. Yes there are older ones in Damoiseau’s portfolio, and yes there are worse (though not all are cheaper) – but as an all round people pleaser and near premium standard strength rhum, this one presses a lof of the right buttons.

For all that, you would be hard pressed to find a review of this specific rhum anywhere online. Rum Ratings has a single dismissive 4/10 assessment while Rum-X has seven, averaging out at 81 points; and not one of the english language regulars (including me, up to today) have ever written about it, and that includes reddit’s usually reliable /r/rum sub. I’m not casting blame on anyone for the omission, mind you, because that would be unfair: Damoiseau makes literally dozens of aged expressions, they vary in availability, and seems to cycle them in and out of production without notice (I’ve been told it’s a supply issue since they don’t always have enough rhums on hand to make the ones they want to, all the time); some have greater outturns, some less. I merely maintain that for a rhum that’s this good, it’s a pity that more attention was not paid.

Let’s go through the tasting, then (which came from a bottle I had bought for about €60 three years ago, if you’re curious about these things – I only just got around to opening it). The rhum is 42% and from cane juice, a quite straightforward agricole without any fancy flourishes.  It hails from Guadeloupe, run through a column still and aged in oak casks for eight years, then blended. If it was aged in Europe we’d hardly blink, and pass it by without stopping.

But nose it and you begin to get an indication of its hidden quality. It’s soft, warm, mellow and quite fruity, with just enough of a tang to it to stop it from being…well, boring. Vanilla ice cream, dates, white guavas, green peas, pears and watermelon can be sensed, which is good, but we’ve had rums that started like this and then lacked contrasting aromas to balance things off with something more tart, so do we get that, or will it just be a yawn through? Fear not: the rhum shows off some weak notes of pineapple and strawberries, as well as herbs (dill, rosemary, cardamom) and that indefinable green grassiness with lemon zest that marks the agricole rhum. There’s balance in the Force, so to speak and while it’s not particularly strong (that mild 42% has its downsides too), there’s little to complain about.

Although it gave a good account of itself on the plate, tastewise it’s not as complex as the nose suggested.  Again, fruits lead the way, soft, fleshy, rich, and musty:  overripe peaches, dates, apricots and prunes.  For a layer of sharper notes we have some apples and grapes (quite ripe), honey, a touch of licorice, honey and those herbs again, very faint now.  It’s good, just not as developed as one might wish.  The finish, though, is nice: short and spicy with a lingering aftertaste of coca cola, licorice, soft pineapples, grass, water melons and papaya.  It’s all there, just difficult to tease out at times.

The rhum, then, is an interesting balance of hits and misses.,  We sort of sense more than we get, yet the imagination does help enrich the experience. What I’ve described is what I smelled and tasted, and it worked well, even if it doesn’t all come together completely — as I said, the strength can be too mild for some. Yet I like Damoiseau rhums generally and this one specifically – had it been cheaper and more solid in the other criteria I might have noted it as a Key Rum, ahead of the Five Year Old. Perhaps the rhum’s best recommendation comes from Damoiseau themselves: they have released at least three different  8YO cuvees over the years from different years, suggesting they at least have great faith in its qualities.  Those are higher priced, of course — they get marketed as vintage premiums — so my suggestion would be to see if you can get the “standard” 8 YO when available, because to my mind it’s a really good rum, and an undiscovered steal.

(#922)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As noted, there are several rhums labelled as being eight years old in the Damoiseau stable. The one I write about is the one lacking any flourishes or badges of premiumization.  It’s not the 8 Year Old Cuvee du Millénaire from 2002 or 1993, or the Rhum Vieux Cuvée du XXIème siècle, which all come in a flask similar to the famed 1953; or the Millesime 2008 Cuvee (that one is 47.9%) or any of those made for other specific years.
  • Herve Damoiseau, when approached, said (as others had also suggested) that availability of stocks was the issue for the decline in releases of the standard 8 YO.  A new 2014-distilled version is due for release in 2022.
Jul 042022
 

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

Rumaniacs Review #136 | 0920

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

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

Colour – Gold

Strength – 44%

Photo (c) ebay.fr

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

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

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

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

(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Historical details

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

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

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

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

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

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

1961 Label – CDC mentioned

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

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

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

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

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


 

Jun 132022
 

The official and very long name of this rum is “Pere Labat ‘70.7’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole de Marie Galante” and clearly wants to have a title that is as long as the ABV is high. That proof point, of course, is impressive by itself, since until quite recently, white agricole rhums tended to park themselves contentedly in the 50-55% space and made their reputations by beefing up Ti Punches that knocked defenseless cruise line tourists across the room.

However, it was never going to stay that way. Even before my list of the strongest rums in the world came out in 2019, it seems like there was a quiet sort of race to the top that’s been steadily building a head of steam over the last quarter century or so. Initially there were just the famed 151s dating back to the 1800s, then a few badass island champions came out with rums like the Sunset Very Strong (84.5%) from St. Vincent, Denros Strong (80%) from St. Lucia, the Grenadian outfit Rivers’ 90% beefcake (only sold locally) — and of course the Surinamese Marienburg 90 held the crown for a long time until it was dethroned in early 2022 by one of the indie bottlers who have slowly but surely begun to colonize the gasp-inducing low-oxygen high-altitude drinkosphere.

Somehow, though, agricoles and French island rums never really bothered.  Oh there were always a few: we saw rums like the 62% ABV Longueteau “Genesis”, Dillon had a 71.3% brut de colonne…but these were rarities, and sniffed at by most. What’s the point? was a not uncommon question. But gradually over the last few years, agricoles picked up the pace as well: Saint James released their Brut de Colonne blanc “BIO” at 74.2%, Longueteau upped the Genesis to 73.51%, Barikken, a French indie, said to hell with it and came up with one from Montebello at 81.6%…and somewhere around 2019 or so, Pere Labat, the small distillery at Poisson on Marie Galante, introduced us to their own overproof white, the “70.7” as it crept up the ladder of their progressively stronger expressions (40º, 50º and 59º).

No medals for guessing what the strength is: the number on the label. The rhum is an agricole, from cane juice; after a three day fermentation period using baker’s yeast it’s run through their single-column still (of which they have two), rested for an unspecified number of months in inert vats, and then bottled as is without dilution or reduction. That’s what brut de colonne means: straight from the still without any further processing or mucking about, and what that provides is a profile that’s about as close as you’re going to get to what terroire is all about – assuming you can handle what it delivers.

The rhum starts with a nose that is not actually all that unpleasantly sharp, just one that is firmly, deeply, strongly intense. It’s like an über-agricole: everything you like about cane juice rhums is here, dialled up a notch or four.  The aromas are herbal, grassy, fruity, and if you can make smells equal colours in your mind, then it’s a vibrant thrumming green.  Cucumbers, dill, green apples, soursop, peas, grapes, that kind of thing.  And more: after it opens up for a few minutes, you can get hints of strawberries, pine sol (!!), pineapples and – somewhat to my surprise – clothes fresh out of the dryer, hinting at fresh laundry detergent and fabric softener.

Tasting it requires some patience, because at the inception you’re getting old cardboard notes, some brine and olives, wet sawdust, and that may not be what you signed up for.  Be of good cheer, the good stuff is coming, and when it does, it arrives with authority – it tastes like watermelon with an alcohol jolt and a sprig of mint, a touch salty, but mostly sweet.  It tastes of pears, green grapes, apples, sugar cane stalks bleeding their sap, passion fruit, pomegranates, red currants and for a kick, adds cucumber slices in a sort of pepper infused white vinegar.  And underneath it all there’s that pungently tart thin sweetness of cane juice, yoghurt, lemongrass and ginger, moving smoothly to a long, fragrant finish of sweetened lemon juice, iced tea and a nice sweet and sour note that’s just this side of yummy.

The 70.7 works on just about every level it choses. Want power?  Want intensity of flavour?  With that high ABV, it delivers. Want the subtlety of complex notes working well together?  Yep, it has that too, with or without some water to tame it. You like an agricole profile but want one that brings something new to the party? This is one that will do you good, though of course it’s not to be taken lightly – all the above aside, when you’re sipping juice close to ¾ pure ethanol, then some caution is in order.

In short, what you get here is a seriously flavourful rum that starts with a bang, goes like a bat out of hell and stops just shy of overwhelming. Labat’s strongest white agricole is a well oiled, smoothly efficient flavour delivery system, as devoid of fat as Top Gun’s football players, and with little of it wasted, all of it for a purpose: to get as much taste into you before you start drooling and get poured into your bed by a highly annoyed significant other, even as you sport a sh*t eating grin on your face. Trust me. I know.

(#915)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Oddly, Labat’s web page does not list this rum anywhere.
  • Limited run of 3500 bottles. I think it was first issued in 2019, and it’s an annual release.
May 192022
 

After all these years of Savanna’s releases of new series, individual bottlings or millesimes, one can reasonably be nearing the point of exhaustion.  Perhaps no other primary producer outside of DDL, Privateer and maybe the French island distilleries with their annual cask editions, has so many releases from all over the map, relentlessly put out the door year in and year out. This is a connoisseur’s delight and to the benefit of consumers everywhere…but something of a collector’s nightmare. I doubt there’s anyone who has the entire series of this Reunion-based distillery’s Lontans, Intenses, Metises, Creols, Traditionnels, Grand Arôme, Maison Blanches and what have you, or even anyone willing to try (the way they would with, say Maggie’s Distiller’s Drawer outturns, or Velier’s Caronis).

However many exist and remain available, what they really are is elegant variations on a theme, whether that of molasses-based rum, agricole rhums, high ester flavour bombs, or interesting blends of their own that are aged and mixed up to provide a little something for everyone. There are several variations of the Lontans with their characteristic long-fermentations, some having finishes, others of various strengths, and varying ages: this one is a “Lontan” from 2007 bottled in 2014, and also a Grand Arôme, which is to say, a high ester rum. There’s a lot to get excited about here: cognac cask ageing, full proof 57%, and a solid six years old, so let’s dive right in.

Nose first: and as soon as you take a brief snootful, yes, that high-ester profile from Savanna is flexing its glutes, in spades. It’s a fruit salad lover’s delight – pineapples, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and any other kind of berry with a tart sweet crisp tang to it, all drizzled over with lemon juice and maybe some caramel, rosemary and damn, is that some red wine in there too? It’s really quite lovely and the strength allows for a richness that ensures you miss nothing (actually, the person two rooms over won’t miss anything either, as Grandma Caner proved when she shot out of her kitchen down the hall demanding to know what I was tasting today).

The strength allows an assertive and very aggressive, almost fierce, taste to comb across the palate: tart berries again (all of the abovementioned ones plus a few unripe mango slices in pimento-infused cane vinegar thrown in for good measure).  There is a curious and previously-unnoticed brine and olive component coiling around that does a good job of calming down the wild exuberance of what would otherwise have been an excess of sharp fruitiness (assuming there even is such a thing), and after the rum settles down one notices softer, neutral fruits: bananas, papayas, melons, pears, tomatos (!!), followed by avocados and salt, cherries, prunes and, for good measure, even a pinch of dill. I particularly commend the finish which is long, dry and aromatic in the best way: flowers, caramel, honey and a trace of that lemon-infused fruit salad (but not so much).

The whole experience is really flavourful and outright enjoyable, though admittedly the strength and tart sharpness might make it too intense for some who are unused to — or don’t care for — the Dirty-Harry-narrowed-eyes badassery of Savanna’s Grand Arôme rums. It occurs to me (blasphemy alert!!) that maybe, just maybe, some sweetening might take the edge off, but I hasten to add that I would not do so myself: a touch of water is enough to bring down the braggadocio this excellent six year old from Reunion displayed for me; and now, having written all my notes and tasted it a few more times, I think I’ll just finish off what remains. Grandma Caner is hovering casually around, with a glass “just happening” to be in her hand, so you can be sure if I don’t, she will…and given she doesn’t even like rum that much, that’s quite an endorsement.

(#909)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • These particular rums have been called “Lontan” since about 2003 — the word is a play on the French creole words long temps or “long time” (referring to the fermentation), and tan lon tan meaning “in the old days”.  Previously, between 1997-2000 they were titled Varangue (verandah, perhaps a hint and a wink at where you should be drinking it), before which they were sold as Lacaze rhums…but of this last, few records remain and I couldn’t tell you much about them.
  • The sample says it’s aged in a cognac casks, which would explain the richness of the profile, but I can find no reference to that fact online anywhere (least of all on Savanna’s own site), and no photoghraph of the label is available.
  • Outturn 707 bottles
  • My thanks to Etienne Sortais, who generously sent me the sample
  • I’ve written a fair bit about Savanna rums, including a short bio of the company itself, so if your interest is piqued, there’s no shortage of material to go through.
Mar 282022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#894)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Publicity photo from J.M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

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

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


 

Dec 022021
 

Photo (c) John Go

2003 was clearly a good year for the small Marie Galante distillery of Bielle, since there are several different editions of that year’s rhums on the market: a Hors d’Age 52.9%, a Vieux 9 YO at 49%, a Millésime 2003 Brut de Fût 8YO at 52.8% and yet another special release at 53.1%.  Varying ages and strengths, but one doesn’t release that many iterations of a single year without some sort of belief in the underlying quality of the distillate made in that year.

Taking this version out for a spin demonstrates that that belief is not mere wishful thinking or misguided optimism. It’s really quite interesting: for example, wood, paint, glue and sawdust start the ball rolling, with a certain hogo-y sourness of spoiled fruit. This is fades away in almost no time, leaving honey, cheerios, cereals, salt caramel and vanilla in an uncertain truce with the opening aromas. It does develop nicely from there, becoming surprisingly complex with additional fruits and citrus and cinnamon, while retaining the characteristic clarity and cleanliness of agricoles.  And then, as if bored, it adds a queer ashy, metallic, medicinal filip to the back end which is truly unusual – I went back through all my previous Bielle reviews and found nothing quite like it.

Taste-wise it continues that above average quality and parallels the nose almost exactly: it’s hotter than expected (but okay, 55% is not exactly tame), and again, here, the paint thinner, fresh-sawn planks and varnish lead the way: it’s almost like walking through Home Depot’s lumber section. This is followed by  cereal, caramel and vanilla, with fruits apparently taking a vacation at this point, because the impression it laves is one of caramel-toffee saltiness rather than crisp fruity acid-sweetness.  There’s some watermelon and light pears coiling around the background, but that’s about it. Oh, and the finish is excellent: long, dry, almost smoky, a hint of ash and iodine, and then a faint recap of the slightly sour fruits mixed in with caramel and cinnamon…plus what sure seemed like maple syrup, but that may be reaching.

The distillery: located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. As recently as six years ago it was another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the local islanders, rum deep divers and the French seemed to know very much … but my experience with their output (and not just Capovilla’s) over the years suggests they really know what they’re doing.

Still, back to the rhum: I’m not entirely sure how old it is: there’s no mention on the label or the box and other 2003 vintages are a rough guide at best; and no online resources I’ve found make any age statement. My guesstimate is about 6-8 years, (if it was double digits it would likely be much more expensive). It’s a cane-juice derived agricole, column still produced, and a really good all round rhum for any purpose. I particularly enjoyed its departure from the norms usually exhibited by cane juice rhums – not much herbals or clean green grass here, just real complexity, solid assembly and a construction that allows each note its individuality. These days I think it’s more likely to be found at auction or in a private sale than on a store shelf, but however it crosses your path, if you find a bottle at a decent price, you wouldn’t be losing out.

(#868)(86/100)


Other notes

  • On FB in 2018, there was a comment that the “2003 has been spotted with ~10g/L sugar in it…” deriving from Cyril’s work over at DuRhum.  It’s not this one, but then, this 55% version was not tested as far as I am aware.
  • I was provided this unlabelled and unidentified sample by my cheerfully sneaky rum chum from the Philippines, John Go – he was testing me, I think, since he mixed it all up with a bunch of other unmarked samples of wildly varying quality). So those tasting noters are unedited and completely blind.
Aug 052021
 

Most independents who release rhums from Savanna, that distillery on Réunion which until five years ago was practically in rum’s ultima Thule, stick with their agricoles – the cane juice rhums, for which the distillery (and indeed the island) is best known. Once in a while a more adventurous indie will go and check out what they can do with their molasses based rums (like Rum Nation did with that badass 2011 7YO Traditionelle in 2018). Those occasional oddballs do succeed, but it’s the cane juice rhums that turn heads, because Savanna boosts and amplifies and juices them up to “12” by running them through the high ester still those boys use with such aplomb. And at the other end, some really good hooch gets wrung out.

Aside from Savanna’s own stable of rhums — their expressions have bred like concupiscent lapines — the indies and their audiences are having a field day with them. Rum Nation, as far back as 2016 and way ahead of the curve, had this one on the grid, and it was a good complement to their Caribbean expressions – laid down to rest in 2009, aged seven years and released to the festival circuit in 2016 and 2017. Surprisingly, almost nobody has reviewed the thing, which may simply be because of the lion’s share of the attention directed at Rum Nation was on other serious hooch on display that year: the Rares, the presentation-level Caroni 21 YO and that amazing 30 YO blended Jamaican, as well as the brawny 60.5% Traditionnelle, a year later.

So on the face of it, it seems to be another one of those really neat Rum Nation products that Fabio Rossi, the former owner, used to wryly refer to and toss off as “entry level”.  45% ABV, agricole, medium-youngish, nothing to write home about, Mommy would probably not be interested. And yet, and yet…it’s really quite a nifty piece of work. 

Take, for instance, that lovely little nose it has. It is sweet, light, aromatic, with occasional whiffs of bubble gum and strawberries. There’s a touch of sweet rosewater and sugar cane juice, light caramel, nougat, almonds and marzipan. And as it opens up over the minutes (I kept this on the go for the best part of half an hour), it happily provides even more: citrus peel, pears, mangoes and green grapes. The estery touch of Savanna is there, never outsized or excessive, out to seduce not to bludgeon, and in that sense the strength is exactly right for its purpose.

The taste is where many rums show their chops and sink or swim: because not everyone really bothers to spend an inordinate amount of time nosing what is, in any event, a social drink. Happily, I can report that all is good here also: initial tastes of cereal, malty cream, seeming to be a dampened down and not as tightly crisp or tart as the nose suggests it might be. There are notes of fanta and citrus based fruit juices, hanging around with light vanilla, tamarind (this was a surprise), more marzipan, almost but fortunately never overstepping the point of vague bitterness.  I must particularly mention the mint chocolate, oranges and a nice sweet creaminess at the back end, and the way it closed up shop: because that is where is many rums, satisfied they’ve given what they needed to, don’t think they need any kind of enthusiastic finale.  Here we have a finish that is light, crisp, sleek, sweet and dry, nicely fruity (light cherries and pineapples slices in syrup), maintaining a delicate citrus action, adding some cereal hints, and ending the sip on a fading, demure note

This is a very impressive dram for something so relatively young and standard-proofed. It lacks the rough-hewn brutality of a full proof rum clocking in over fifty, yet it’s tasty as all get out, softly solid as a Sealy posturepedic, while paradoxically retaining a light and crisp character throughout all those fancy labial and olfactory perambulations. I think of it as an unappreciated little gem, and if still available, it’s a good buy.  Sure, Savanna’s own Lontan and Grand Arome series are quite good (and the 2006 10 YO HERR remains spectacular), but you wouldn’t do yourself a disservice to try this one. It’s an approachable and affordable mid-range rhum that reeks esters while trying hard to pretend it doesn’t, all while serving up a strikingly lovely and winsome profile with sweetly understated verve and panache.

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Lots of unknown on this. The location of ageing is not precisely identified, though the “Aged in the Tropics” on the back label strongly implies full Reunion ageing.  Outturn is not mentioned, nor, surprisingly enough, is the distillery noted anywhere on the label.  I was told Savanna back in the day (not Riviere du Mat or Isautier, the only other two distilleries on the island), and have an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi asking about the other details

 

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 222021
 

 

Poisson-Père Labat, who worked for the most part with blancs, blends and mid range rhums, came late to the party of millesime expressions – at least, so far as I have been able to establish – and you’d be hard pressed to find any identifiable years’ rhums before 1985.  Even now I don’t see the distillery releasing them very often, though of late they seem to be upping their game and have two or three top end single casks on sale right now.

But that has not stopped others from working with the concept, and in 2017 Velier got their mitts on a pair of their barrels. That was the year in which, riding high on the success of the classic Demerara rums, the Trinidadian Caronis and the Habitation Velier series of pot still rums (among others), they celebrated the company’s 70th birthday.  Though it should be made clear that this was the company’s birthday, not the 70th year of Luca Gargano’s association with that once-unknown little distributor, since he only bought it in the early 1970s. 

In his book Nomade Tra I Barili Luca – with surprising brevity – describes his search for special barrels from around the world which exemplified his long association with the spirit, sought out and purchased for the “Anniversary Collection”; but concentrates his attention on the “Warren Khong” subset,  those rums whose label designs were done by the Singapore painter. There were, however, other rhums in the series, like the Antigua Distillers’ 2012, or the two Neissons, or the Karukera 2008.  And this one.

The rhum he selected from Poisson-Pere Labat has all the Velier hallmarks: neat minimalist label with an old map of Marie Galante, slapped onto that distinctive black bottle, with the unique font they have used since the Demeraras. Cane juice derived, 57.5% ABV, coming off a column still in 2010 and aged seven years in oak.

It’s a peculiar rhum on its own, this one, nothing like all the others that the distillery makes for its own brands. And that’s because it actually tastes more like a molasses-based rum of some age, than a true agricole. The initial nose says it all: cream, chocolate, coffee grounds and molasses, mixed with a whiff of damp brown sugar. It is only after this dissipates that we get citrus, fruits, grapes, raisins, prunes, and some of that herbal and grassy whiff which characterizes the true cane juice product. That said I must confess that I really like the balance among all these seemingly discordant elements.

The comedown is with how it tastes, because compared to the bright and vivacious effervescence of the Pere Labat 3 and 8 year old and the younger blends, the Velier 7 YO comes off as rather average. It’s warm and firm, leading in with citrus zest, a trace of molasses, aromatic tobacco, licorice and dark fruits (when was the last time you read that in a cane juice rhum review?), together with the light creaminess of vanilla ice cream. There’s actually less herbal, “green” notes than on the nose, and even the finish has a brief and rather careless “good ‘nuff” vibe to it – medium long, with hints of green tea, lemon zest, some tartness of a lemon meringue pie sprinkled with brown sugar and then poof, it’s over.

Ultimately, I find it disappointing. Partly that’s because it’s impossible not to walk into any Velier experience without some level of expectations — which is why I’m glad I hid this sample among five others and tried the lot blind; I mean, I mixed up and went through the entire set twice — and Labat’s own rums, cheaper or younger, subtly equated or beat it, and one is just left asking with some bemused bafflement how on earth did that happen? 

But it’s more than just preconceived notions and thwarted expectations, and also the way it presents, samples, tastes. I think they key might be that while the rhum does display an intriguing mix of muskiness and clarity, both at once, it’s not particularly complex or memorable –  – and that’s a surprise for a rhum that starts so well, so intriguingly.  And consider this also: can you recall it with excitement or fondness? Does it make any of your best ten lists? The rhum does not stand tall in either people’s memories, or in comparison to the regular set of rums Père Labat themselves put out the door. Everyone remembers the Antigua Distillers “Catch of the Day”, or one of the two Neissons, that St. Lucia or Mount Gilboa…but this one? Runt of the litter, I’m afraid. I’ll pass.

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Jul 192021
 

 

There is a certain whimsy about a piscatorially titled distillery. “Poisson”, the small distillery also referred to as Père Labat is located on the west side of Marie Galante (the small island to the south of Guadeloupe) and means “fish” in French — which is, I’m sure you’ll grant, a rather odd name. 

Initially, I had thought that the estate was called that to commemorate the fishermen who might once have plied their trade on the nearby coastland, but no, nothing like that. It was given the name of the woman, Catherine Poisson, who bought the land from the estate of La Marechand of which it was originally a part – her actual relationship with the owners of that time is now lost to history, alas. The Père Labat business got tacked on later, by Edouard Rameau, a subsequent owner of the Poisson estate, who spearheaded its pivot away from sugar distillation and to the making of rhum, and casually appropriated the name of the famed Dominican friar who was instrumental in the development of the sugar industry of the French Caribbean islands back in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Poisson-Père Labat continues to operate, though its name recognition quotient is not what it once was (except among enthusiasts, who sing its praises). It makes several different varieties of rhums – blancs, blends and aged expressions – at various strengths, and the subject of today’s review is from their aged line.  It is creole column still distilled, aged eight years in oak, though in a curious omission, their site doesn’t actually mention what kind (Limousin, ex-Bourbon…).  

It is also bottled at a curiously weak 42% ABV: since many of their premium rhums — and the blancs — are bottled at a higher strength, one can only assume these were meant for the American or lower end market where an aged product is called for, but not so strong as to frighten away the average drinkers.

Well, never mind.  The fact is, the rhum really is pretty good. The nose, to start off with, is clean and crisp, and has both the bite and sweet of a very good, very dry Riesling. There is a low level citrus of red grapefruit and oranges, plus bags of other juicy stuff like ripe green apples, pears, red currants, red grapes, and some herbal touches that dance around the edges without ever becoming serious participants. Not to be too anthropomorphic here, but it seems like just a bubby, crisp and happy nose. It aims only to please.

There’s an equally varied amount of tastes when one sips the thing, too – the tart, spicy fruit carries over cleanly.  Apples, yellow mangoes, unripe papayas, blood oranges, and the less-sweet black grapes.  The sharp tartness that I noted in the nose seems much more controlled here, being willing to allow the moist tobacco, freshly mown green grass and other herbs like dill and parsley to have a brief moment to shine. Sadly, the denouement leaves a lot to be desired, for while the rum surmounts the low proof in tastes and smells, at the close it kind of falls apart and chokes.  It’s wispy, short, faint, with leather, smoke, chocolate, vanilla and some undifferentiated fruits closing off the show. Nice but not impressive.  

That’s too bad, really. Had the finish been up to the standard of what came before, this would have been superlative. It presses a lot of buttons and presents a pretty well-balanced profile with a fair amount jostling for attention under the hood.  

And so, let’s sum up by noting that it’s a (small) cut above the 3YO Rhum Vieux we looked at last time. There’s more going on, more complexity, and my dissatisfaction with the close set aside, it’s a pretty neat drink to have. But as with so many other such agricoles I praise from time to time, I just wish they had added a few extra points of proof to the potion, because then it would have really shone. For the moment, though, let’s be grateful what we have gotten: a middle-aged agricole rhum bottled at living room strength which will not disappoint.

(#837)(84.5/100)


Other Notes

Jun 172021
 

 

Recapping some background for William Hinton — it is a Madeira based distillery with antecedents as far back as 1845; at one point, in the 1920s, it was the largest sugar factory on the island if not in Europe – but in 1986 it ceased operations for two decades, 1, and was then restarted in 2006 under the name Engenho Novo da Madeira, still making branded rum under the Hinton banner.  They make their own rums as well as exporting bulk elsewhere, which is how Fabio Rossi picked a few up for his Rare Rums collection back in 2017.

The company has three tiers of rum quality, with the lowest level being considered basic backbar “service” rums for mixing: there are three of these, from a 40% white we looked at in #829, a 9 months aged, and one that’s three years old. That 40% white was a flaccid agricole that could conceivably put a drinker to sleep out of simple boredom, but things get a lot more jazzed up and a whole lot more interesting with the premium or “Limited” level white (labelled as “Natural”). Neatly put, the two classes of rums generally and the two whites in particular, are night and day.

Some the stats of the two whites in the classes are the same – column still, cane juice origin…they are both agricoles. Fermented for 2-3 days with wild yeast (the other was 24 hours), and then run through that old refurbished column still that had been decommissioned (but kept) from the original estate at Funchal (Engenho do Torreão) when things shut down in 1986. And then, as if dissatisfied with this nod at tradition, they released the premium version without any ageing at all (unlike the “service” white which had been aged and then filtered back to transparency). It was also left at full strength, which is a serious attention grabbing 69%, enough to make the glass tremble, just a bit. 

That combination of zero ageing and high strength made the Edição Limitada blanco very much like some of those savage white rums I’ve written about here and here. And that’s a good thing – too often, when a company releases two rums of the same production process but differing proofs, it’s like all they do is take the little guy, chuck it on the photocopier and pressed “enlarge”. Not here. Oh no. Here, it’s a different rum altogether. 

The nose, for example, is best described as “serious” – an animal packing heat and loaded for bear: it starts with salt, brine, olives, wax, rubber, polish, and yet, the whole time it feels clear — fierce, yes, but clear nevertheless — and almost aromatic, not weighed down with too little frantically trying to do too much. A bit fruity, herbal to a fault, particularly mint, dill, sage and touch of thyme. There are some citrus notes and a warm kind of vegetal smell that suggests a spicy tom yum soup with quite a few mean-looking pimentos cruising around in it.

I particularly want to call attention to the palate, which is as good or better than that nose, because that thing happily does a tramping stomping goose step right across the tongue and delivers oodles of flavour: it’s like a sweeter version of the Paranubes, with rubber, salt, raisins and a cornucopia of almost ripe and fleshy fruits that remain hard and tart.  The taste is herbal (thyme and dill again), and also sports olives, vanilla, unsweetened yoghurt, and a trace of almost apologetic mint to go with the fruity heat. The finish is excellent — long and salty, loads of spices and herbs, and a very peculiar back note of minerals and ashes.  These don’t detract from it, but they are odd to notice at all and I guess they are there to remind you not to take it for granted.

The rhum, in short, is amazing. It upends several notions of how good a white can be and for my money gives Wray & Nephew 63% White Overproof some real competition in that category and even exceeds the Rivers Royale 69% out of Grenada, though they are different in their construction and don’t taste the quite same. The flavours are hot and spicy and there’s lots of them, yet they never get in each other’s way and are well balanced, complex to a fault and good for any purpose you might wish to put it. 

What this all leaves us with, then, is an agricole rhum that is powerful, herbal, floral and all round tasteful. It’s quality is in fact such a jump up from the “Service” white that I really must suggest you try the more premium rums, and this one, only after exploring the cheaper variants. Because if you do it the other way round you’ll really not want to have that much to do with the lesser parts of Hinton’s overall range. The Limitada excites that kind of admiration, and happily, it deserves every bit of it.

(#830)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • The rum is issued in lots (or batches), by year, and all front labels tell you which one it is (here it’s Lot #1 of 2017), though not how many lots in that year. Each such batch is 500 bottles or so — hence the “Limitada” in the name —  and both this and the bottle number is mentioned on the back label.
Jun 142021
 

William Hinton from Madeira is not a name to conjure with in the annals of rum, but this is not the first time they have come up for mention – their distillery produced the Engenho Novo da Madeira rum that Rum Nation released with some fanfare back in 2017. The following year the company of Engenho Novo, Hinton’s new incarnation (and not to be confused with Engenhos do Norte, producer of the “970 Agricola”) released some rums for themselves, and we’ll be looking at these over the next week or so.

Hinton classify their rums into three tiers: (1) the exclusive single casks, which are blends of 6YO “new Hinton” rums and 25 YO “old Hinton” rums from before the shutdown in 1986 (see below) which are then finished in various other barrels like wine or whisky or what have you; (2) the premium range which consists of two rums, an award winning 6 YO and a high proof white; and (3) the bartenders’ mixes, for general audiences, which their website refers to, in an odd turn of phrase, as a “service rum.” One of that final category is the white rum we’re examining today.

The white is a cane juice agricole – a term which Madeira has a right to use – but it is not unaged.  While the site does not specifically say so, I was told it’s under a year, around six months, in French oak casks 1. It is bottled at 40%, column still, so nothing “serious”.  It’s made fit for purpose, that’s all.

Unfortunately that purpose seems to be to put me to sleep. Dare I say it is underwhelming? It is a soft and extremely light white rum with very little in the way of an aromas at all.  It’s delicate, flowery and admittedly very clean – and one has to seriously pay attention to make out some flowers, dill, herbs, grass, sugar water and wet moss (!!), before it disappears like a summer zephyr you barely sensed in the first place

The palate is better, and remains light and clean. It has a queer sort of dusty aroma to it, like old library books stored in long disused storage room. That gradually goes away and is replaced with a dry taste of cheerios, and some fruits.  Almonds and a curiously faint whiff of vanilla. I read somewhere that this white is  made to service a poncha — a very old cocktail from Portugal’s great seafaring days invented to combat scurvy (rum plus sugar plus lemon juice, and some honey) — not so much to replace Bacardi Superior … though you could not imagine them being displeased if it did.  Drinking it neat is probably a nonstarter since it’s so wispy, and of course there’s not much of a finish (at 40% I wasn’t looking for one). Briefly fruity and floral, a quick whiff of herbs, and it’s gone. 

Although it has some very brief tastes and aromas that I suppose derive from the minimal ageing (before the results of that process got filtered right back out again), the white displays little that would make it stand out. In fact, while demonstrably being an agricole, it hardly tastes like one at all. It’s what I’m beginning to refer to more and more often as a “cruise-ship white”, a kind of all-encompassing milquetoast rum whose every character has been bleached and out so its only remaining function is to deliver a shot of bland alcohol (like, say, vodka) into a mixed drink for those who don’t know or don’t care (or both).

That said, honesty compels me to admit that there was some interesting stuff in the wings, sensed but not seen, a trace only, perhaps only waiting to emerge at the proper time, but alas, not enough to save it. The premium series probably address such deficiencies, and if so, it was a smart move to separate the generalized cocktail fodder (which this is) from a more upscale and dangerous version aimed at more masochistic folks who’ll try anything once.  If you want to know the real potential of Hinton’s white rum, don’t stop and waste time dawdling with this one, go straight for the 69% and be prepared to have your socks blown off.  Unless you like soft and easy whites, I’d walk away from this one.

(#829)(75/100)


Background & History

It’s long been noted that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and continued its westward march by being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century.  From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a stable and very profitable cash crop in Madeira and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years. At that point, with Brazil and other Portuguese colonies becoming the main sources of sugar, the focus of Madeira switched to wine, for which it became renowned (sugar cane production continued, just at a reduced level). 

The British took some involvement in the island in the 1800s, which led to several inflows of their citizens, some of whom stayed – one of these was William Hinton, a businessman who arrived in 1838 and started the eponymous company seven years later.  First a sugar factory was constructed and a distillery was added — these were large and technologically advanced and allowed Engenho Hinton to become the largest sugar processor on the island, as well as the largest rum maker (though I’m not sure what rums they actually did produce) by the 1920s. 

Unfortunately, by the 1970s and 1980s as sugar production became more and more industrialized and global, more cheaply produced  sugar from Brazil and India and elsewhere cut into Hinton’s sales (they were part of a regulated EEC industry, so low-cost labour was not an option), and by 1986 the factory and distillery closed and the facilities were mothballed – the website gives no reasons for the closure, so I’m making an educated guess here, as well as assuming they did not sell off or otherwise dispose of what bean counters like me like to refer to as “plant”.

It was restarted by Hinton’s heirs in 2006 as Engenho Novo de Madeira with a column still and using Madeira sugar cane: here again there is scanty information on where this sugar cane comes from, their own property or bought from others. Whatever the source, the practice of using rendered sugar cane juice (”honey”) continued and notes from a brochure I have state that the column still was one restored in 1969 and again in 2007, suggesting that when the distillery closed, its equipment remained intact and in place.


 

May 062021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

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

Opinion

I’ve heard it bruited about from time to time (by the social media commentariat and never-silent chatterati) that rums which sport labels with [a number plus the word “Anniversary”] are presenting a deliberately misleading faux-age-statement.  I completely understand how any minor confusion could arise – when a rum says “50 Years” in large attention-grabbing typeface and then the Lilliputian word “Anniversary” barely visible below that, then the case is easy to make (looking at you, El Dorado, ignoring you, Plantation).

In the main, however, I disagree with the premise. It presupposes an erroneous and all-encompassing assumption of blinkered stupidity by rum drinkers who can’t differentiate the word “anniversary” from the term “years old” when buying something upscale.  Sometimes, such commentators really should extend consumers the courtesy of not thinking they (the consumers) automatically morons just because they (the talkers) know a smidgen more. Though to be fair, consumers really do owe it to themselves as well to pay close attention to what they’re buying.

Apr 292021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#816)(86/100)


Other notes 

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

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

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

Apr 182021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.
Apr 112021
 

After a decade of observing the (mostly Europe-based) independent bottlers, I think it can be said with some assurance that they tend to stick with The Tried and True in their first years. In other words, they source and release rums from the canonical distilleries in the familiar countries – Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, or Jamaica, with occasional fliers from Belize, Cuba, Fiji, Australia or Trinidad being seen as second order efforts.

When it comes to distinguishing themselves from the herd, few show much real imagination.  Oh, for sure the Compagnie des Indes releases private blends like the Boulet de Canon and Dominador (and released a very fine Indonesian arrack several years ago); Rom Deluxe goes to the max with its massively proofed Jamaican DOK, L’Esprit does some amazing white rums, and several indies find a way to get rums aged for nearly three decades into their bottles – I merely submit this is more and better of the same. Truly new products that showcase something different are actually in rather short supply.

When it comes to doing something original, then, the Boutique-y Rum Company – a division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt website – is one to keep an eye on. Not only are they releasing rums from the “standard” countries, but they seem to really try to go someplace new – consider their Issan rum, the Labourdonnais, the O Reizinho or the Colombian Casa Santana. Those are rums from niche distilleries many have never even heard of before, and to add spice to the mix, there is of course the cool label design done by Jim’ll Paint It which are bright, clever, funny and chock full of little easter eggs for the knowledgeable.

Which leads us to this one. The Engenhos do Norte distillery is located in Madeira, an island considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa) and one of the few places outside the French islands that can use the term agricole legally. The rum is derived from cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine (that’s what the label shows), fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.  So although it doesn’t say so, it’s an aged rhum agricole. 1395 bottles were released, at a firm but not over-strong 48.8%, and the last I checked it was still selling for around forty quid which I think is a pretty good deal

Tasting notes. The nose is nice.  At under 50% not too much sharpness, just a good solid heat, redolent of soda, fanta, coca cola and strawberries.  There’s a trace of coffee and rye bread, and also a nice fruity background of apples, green grapes, yellow mangoes and kiwi fruit.  It develops well and no fault can found with the balance among these disparate elements.

I also like the way it tastes. It’s initially dry and peppery, but also crisp, tasting of marshmallows, and tart white fruits like guavas, Thai mangoes, unripe pears, soursop, papaya, watermelon and pineapple. There’s a nice thread of lemon underneath it all, cumin, vanilla, and a nice touch of brine and olives.  This all leads to a conclusion that is short and easy, redolent mostly of sweet watery fruit with a last musky brine taste, and some more lemon zest. 

In a peculiar way, it reminds me less of a French Island agricole than of a grogue from Cabo Verde.  There’s a sort of easy crispness to the experience, with the herbal notes evident but not as strong and clear and focused as a Martinique rhum is.  For centuries Madeirans drank their rhums unaged and white — of late they have begun to try and develop an aged rum industry and expand beyond the local market which thus far has consumed everything the small distilleries produce.  The development of real blending and ageing skill is still some years in the future, and thus far it’s only the small IBs like Boutique-y that have brought their rums to our attention. But I think that we should keep an eye out for the rhums from Madeira, all of them.  Based on the few I’ve tried, these guys know what they’re doing, know how to make a good rhum, and will be going places in the years to come.

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira.  Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro branco – white gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Apr 042021
 

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

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

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

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#810)(80/100)

Feb 012021
 

Although the Rhum Rhum PMG is essentially a rhum made at Bielle distillery on Guadeloupe, it uses a Mueller still imported there by Luca Gargano when he envisioned producing a new (or very old) type of rhum agricole, back in 2005. He wanted to try making a double distilled rhum hearkening back to the pre-creole-still days, and provide a profile like that of a Pére Labat pot still rhum he had once been impressed with and never forgot.

Co-opting Gianni Capovilla into his scheme (at the time Capovilla was creating a reputation for himself playing around with brandy, grappa and eau de vie in Italy), the two made Marie Galante a second home for themselves as they brought their plan to fruition with Dominic Thierry, the owner of Bielle. “We used fresh, undiluted cane juice provided by the Bielle mills and then subjected it to a long fermentation in small 30hl steel cuvees, before double distilling it in two copper stills through a bain-marie (a water bath, or double boiler).” And in 2006 the first rhum came off the new still.

Although the plan was always to sell white (unaged) rhum, some was also laid away to age and the aged portion turned into the “Liberation” series in later years.  The white was a constant, however, and remains on sale to this day – this orange-labelled edition was 56% ABV and I believe it is always released together with a green-labelled version at 41% ABV for gentler souls. It doesn’t seem to have been marked off by year in any way, and as far as I am aware production methodology remains consistent year in and year out.

What the rhum does, then, is mark an interesting departure from the regular run of rhum agricoles which usually have a single pass through a creole column: here it has a longer fermentation time, and two runs through a pot still.  I would never dream of dissing the French islands’ blancs – they are often amazing drinks stuffed with squirming ferrets of flavour – but I gotta tell you, this thing is a quiet stunner that more than holds its own.

Nosing it immediately suggests a different kind of profile from the sweet grassy herbals of a true blanc. This is more like a Paranubes, or a clairin – it starts with that same wax and brine and olives and sweet hot dog relish, as if daring you to chuck it away; it calms down to more earthy flavours of black bread, salt butter, cream cheese, and a nice vegetable soup spiced up with a sweet soya sauce; then it gets pleasantly, crisply sweet – fennel, cane juice, citrus, lemon grass, and nice tart green apples.  Quite a series of aromas to work through, not something to be hurried if you can spare the time.

On the palate the brininess (which would have been off-putting here, I think) retreats and it becomes somewhat warmer.  At first the slight sour of a Korean chili sauce is evident, and a sweet-salt soya dunked into a soup with too much ginger and too many carrots.  But this is just the first sip or two – once one acclimatizes, other more traditional tastes that any agricole lover would recognize come out of hiding: citrus (limes); cane juice; green grapes and apples; cloves, rosemary and even a hint of firm yellow mangoes of the sort West Indians love with salt and chili pepper.  The rhum remains fresh and bright and not sharp at all, just exceedingly complex, with a lot of different layers chasing themselves up and down and around your tongue, before it finally fades away with closing notes of cardamom, papaya, mangoes, cucumbers in vinegar, swank and lime juice. It’s crisp and clean throughout, and the balance is really superb.

From the description I’m giving, it’s clear that I like this rhum, a lot. I think it mixes up the raw animal ferocity of a more primitive cane juice rhum with the crisp and clear precision of a Martinique blanc, while just barely holding the damn thing on a leash, and yeah, I enjoyed it immensely. I do however, wonder about its accessibility and acceptance given the price, which is around $90 in the US. It varies around the world and on Rum Auctioneer it averaged out around £70 (crazy, since Master of Malt have it for £48), which is problematic when one considers all the other very good blancs out there retailing for less. 

For people into their cocktails and who love white rums with real character, I would suggest it’s the bees knees, however.  It’s got great complexity, loads of flavour and is made at right angles to more popular and better known whites that aren’t as “difficult”. Yet at the same time it respects the traditions of rhum making; and it tastes amazing. It might not appeal to those now getting into the white rhum subculture – at least, not yet – but perhaps once in a while when there’s a bit of extra coin rattling around in the pockets, it’ll be worth it to splurge on this distinctive and original white rhum which gets far too little press. It may yet turn out to be that undiscovered gem we’re all look for, even if it’s not quite underpriced.

(#798)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Quotes and production details taken from Nomadi tra i Barrili by Luca Gargano © 2019 Velier Spa.
  • The PMG stands for Pour Marie Galante – “For Marie Galante”.
  • Tarquin Underspoon in her very readable (and positive) reddit review, comments on the price (a “craft tax”) as well and suggests alternatives if it is felt to be too steep.