Dec 222023
 

Rumanicas Review R-161 | #1047

You want to careful ordering a Clement XO rhum because there is another one also named thus which is not this at all; and two others with the same bottle shape but different names. Fortunately the other XO has a different bottle style and a different strength and lacks the word “Très” (very) in the title, and the ones that do take the bottle design are called l’Elixir or Cuvée Spéciale XO. So just a little caution is all I’m suggesting.

In another odd circumstance, the subject of today’s retrospective also lacks almost any reviews in the online rumisphere aside from Rum-X (of course) and my own unscored 2010 review. In fact, it does not even appear on Clément’s own website under any of its various collectionsOld, Tradition, Modern, Iconic Blue Cane or Cuvee. The closest one gets to it is the sales on auction sites and as far as I can tell, RumAuctioneer put one up a few times, the last time being in 2021 where it fetched a surprisingly modest £150.

What this is is one of the first of the premium blends the company put out and is a marriage of what they felt was three exceptional years’ production: 1952, 1970 and 1976, which were also released as individual millesime bottlings. It’s unclear those individual releases were issued before or after this blended XO (I only managed to acquire samples of each many years later). But since the 1952 component has now run out, the specific blend comprising the XO is now defunct and while the company uses the same sleek bottle for other XO rhums, the label is subtly different for each, denoting a different product.

Note also that whether the rum is composed exclusively of those three vintages or is a blend that includes them, is currently unknown. Dave Russell in his 2017 review thought the latter, and David Kanj on Facebook (who brought it to my attention) said he had never been able to confirm it with Spiribam either. Will update, if I can nail it down one way or the other.

ColourGold

Strength 44%

NoseLuscious; deep fruitiness; persimmons, passion fruit. Herbs, cinnamon, vanilla, light toffee, apricots. Green apples and ripe dark grapes. Very appetising and aromatic, if not as crisp and clean as a modern agricole. Just really pungent and complex.

PalateThere’s a smoky, dry. leathery tang of an old port to the initial tastes, but it comes over nicely because of the heft and solidity n the tonguethe mouthfeel is really quite good. Apples, apricots, hard yellow mangoes on the edge of going soft, and raisins and red wine. To be honest, after years of acclimatising myself to rums at 60% ABV or greater, the XO here no longer demonstrates sharpness (as I commented in my original review) but crisp solidity, even a touch of softness.

FinishJust excellent. A fitting conclusion to a delicious dram. Crisp, slightly sweet, smooth, deep, dry and with yellow almost-overripe fruits at every turn.

ThoughtsI was right not to score this at the beginning of my rum journey, since in 2010, the chops to evaluate it was lackingto this day we still see too few agricoles in Alberta. Back then I commented on its sharpness and its taste without being too chuffed by it. Coming back after a span of nearly fourteen years, I appreciate it much more for what it is: one of the best aged agricole blends I’ve been fortunate enough to try. Those who have a bottle squirrelled away have a real treasure in their cabinets, a delicious dram representing a time traveller washing up on our modern shores, from the far off Days of Ago.

(88/100)


Other notes

  • The AOC was first established in 1996, so none of the component rhums conformed to the restrictions; irrespetive of the AOC on the label, then, those expecting a clean, grassy, herbal modern agricole might be somewhat taken aback by the profile, which has its own unique vibe. I assure you, however, it’s all to the good.
Nov 202023
 

Photo (c) MasterQuill.com

The Martinique distillery Clement has, since 1989, ceased making rhumthe brand’s juice has been distilled up the road at the facilities of Distillerie Simon, and from 2017 also and increasingly from Fonds-Preville (both are owned by the Hayot Group). The original premises, however, are still used for ageing, blending and bottling Clement rhums, and they still maintain the AOC designation. Depending on who you speak to then, it supposedly has at least some terroire harkening back to what old Homere Clement made on his plantation of Domaine de l’Acajou, the progenitor of the brand.

Clement was among the first agricole rhums I ever tried, and initially their precise and fussy and clearly-defined tastes weren’t entirely to my liking; over the years, of course, I “ketch sense” and learned to appreciate them for what they werenowadays I consider my (third) bottle of the Clement XO one of the best rhums I have to show people what an aged agricole is capable of. Over the years other Clement rhums showed their expertise: the release of the trio of 1952, 1970 and 1976 rhums, the special edition Cuvée Homère Clément Hors d’Âge, and an increasing amount of experimentals, single barrel expressions, millesimes and unaged blancseven a canne bleue of its own.

The subject of today’s review is an ostensibly simple 9 YO expression from 2002 – a Trés Vieux Rhum Agricole, all from 100% canne bleue, aged in a single cask of ex-bourbon, 587 bottle outturn (of 50cl bottles) and a nice and firm 46.8% strength. I suppose the “cask” must have been a big one to provide that many bottles after nine years, even if they were only 500mlI think we can assume either it was a slightly more sizeable container, rather than an American Standard Barrel 1, or the single barrel moniker is in error and it’s a blend of a couple or a few.

Whatever the ultimate provenance and barrel(s), this is a solid rhum that represents itself and its distillery very nicely indeed. It smells as fresh and bright and sparkly as bedewed sunlit grass and sheets fresh and clean from the laundry, with just a hint of citrus to the whole thing. Herbs, sugar cane sap, pears and white guavas take their turn, and It has additional notes of sweet caramel drizzled over vanilla ice cream, plus prunes, raisins, stewed apples and even a touch of coffee. An espresso of course, with a background chorus of leather, smoke and light tannins becoming evident with some water (though the rhum really doesn’t need that, honestly).

The pleasure here is in how pleasantly light it is to taste. It doesn’t sting, doesn’t bite, it’s not so heavy as to dissolve your tongue or so strong as to cause damageit’s clean and crisp and no-nonsense, briny with olives and gherkins and some musky sweet spices (cinnamon, fenugreek, rosemary, smoky paprika, masala and even a trace of Kashmiri chilli powder, I kid you not. The same fruits as on the nose reappear to balance this all off, and there’s remarkably little sour in the way this presents: just a nice, easy, almost light crisp white wine-type sensation, culminating in a finish of berries, burnt sugar, toffee and breakfast spices. It’s completely unthreatening and completely pleasurable to drink, and never once seems like it’s straining to make the case.

Honestly, without trying to oversell the rhum, I think it’s a minor treasure: not an undiscovered steal, precisely, more a rum whose qualities seem initially subdued, and so gets somewhat overlooked, and is now mostly forgotten. It grows in the memory over time, however; it gets better and holds up well not only against other brands, but one’s own evolving palate. And each subsequent tasting expands in the appreciation a bit more until you can’t quite put your finger on it, but somehow it has become a quiet personal favourite on its own terms, and a more valued bottle in the collection than those with seemingly stronger credentials. My sample is now gone after four tries to pin down its elusive and ephemeral impact, but these notes will help me remember its unpretentious quality and the enjoyment I took from it, for a long time to come.

(#1040)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • A second 2002 vintage bottling of 582 bottles at 41.6% and barrel #20070079 was done in September 2012 and is sometimes labelled as a 10 YO.
  • If your interest has been piqued and you’re googling for this thing, I’m sorry to report that you’ll find thin pickings. Rum-X doesn’t list it, neither does Rum Ratingseven Whiskyfun, which has more Clement reviews than anyone, hasn’t got this one. And whatever shops you turn up in the search will likely be pointing to a 10YO, a 15YO or some other variant with a different strength or year of make, so no luck there. In fact, the only unambiguous reference you will find is a 2015 review on the site of Master Quill (mostly whiskies to be sure, but quite a lot of rums as well), and that’s no surprise at all since he was the source of this sample, more than five years ago (so a big thank you to the man, even if it’s late in coming).
  • My photo of the sample didn’t work out and so I copied the one from Master Quill’s review.
Jul 192023
 

HSEor Habitation Saint Etienneis a small distillery on Martinique whose products I dally with on and off like a lovelorn swain who can’t make up his mind. They have all the usual products attendant upon Martinique’s distilling scene: unaged blancs, aged agricoles of various years with a finish or special barrrel ageing thrown in here or there, the occasional millesime, indie bottlers’ outputs and even a parcellaire or two for those who like to take apart miniscule deviations in a single distillery’s profile. All of the rhums from the distillery which I’ve tried have been very good, at any age and any strength, so it’s a wonder we don’t seek them out more assiduously.

They are the real deal, and produce a full suite of AOC rhums, yet I sometimes get the impression that they lag somewhat in people’s awareness or estimation behind other French island outfits such as, oh, J.M., Saint James, Damoiseau, Labatt or Clement (disregard this comment if you are already and always have been an HSE fan). Not that this matters much because like with any quality product, those who know, know. And clearly they know why.

The stats, then: the rhum is blend of unaged whites made on Martinique from cane juice on a column still, distinguished by being reduced after distillation down to 50° over a period of (get this!) six months. It is named after Titouan Lamazou, a French navigator, sailor, artist and writer who was famous for his sailing exploits (he won the arduous round the world Vendée Globe race in 1990 and gained the title of world racing champion in 1991). Also an accomplished artist, in 2015 he staged an exhibition of his portraits of women created over a number of years for his “Women of the World” project in collaboration with Habitation Saint Etienne, and since the first references to the rhum come right around this time, it’s reasonable to suppose the first edition came out in that year, or in 2016. It continues to be made as a limited release, which makes it a millesime rhum (this one is from 2021), and the label design is supposedly his own.

All that is fine, yet we’ve been burned by sweet smiles and pretty dresses before: sometimes the adornment is the best thing about it. I come before you to say, fear not, for this rhum is great. When nosing it at the Berlin Rumfests’s pre-festival group tasting (I had sneaked in and was invited to hang out with the cool kids) it started with an elegance I was not expecting, with a sweetly rounded aroma combining perfumed flowers and salt with lovely deep notes of sugar cane syrup. Keeping it on the go for an hour, it developed more muscular smells of dark red olives, hot olive oil just at the smoke point, sugar water, cucumbers, sprite and watermelons, all overlain by that light and almost delicate floral, even herbal aroma that made me think of sun-dappled flower-strewn clearings in green forests, steaming after a warm rain.

The depth and intensity of the palate was really quite superlative as well, and demonstrated no fall off from the way it smelled. It presented with a smooth texture, tasting of solvent, bubble gum and and melded the crisp tart sweetness of unsweetened yoghurt with lemon meringue pie, green grapes and apples. There is a clean snap of citrus and coffee grounds, a touch of sweet soya and a nice sort of understated sourness to it all, leading to a long and languorous finish redolent of lemon peel, pastries, laban and a very sweet and mild balsamic vinegar.

All this from a white unaged rum. It’s really quite amazing and a standout at every level, even while you’d strain to find a single point of excellence about it. It raises the bar all at once so the singularity I search for is tough to describe, except to sayit’s really good and can function well as a sipper, while not losing its ability to turbocharge a mix in fine style.

That a rhum with such a top notch profile doesn’t ring more bells or launch small cults, that it sells at an insanely low price of around or less than €40 is, on the face of it, incredibly fortunate for us rum proles, because for once we can actually get us a good one and not sell a kidney to do so. Sure it’s a branded product commemorating a sports figure, sure it’s a blend whose stats seem to make it just another blanc, and sure it’s unaged and taken at agricole’s standard strengthnothing besides the beautiful label design really marks it out. But I maintain that through some subtle alchemy known only to the makers, HSE created a quietly, sweetly, unprepossessing little masterpiece that lit up my eyes and brought a grin to my face from the moment I nosed it. It was the first really top rum I sampled at the beginning of my 2023 rum festival experienceand was still one of the best at the end.

(#1011)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The bottle notes it is a limited edition without elaboration, so for now I can’t tell you how many bottles are out there. Apparently there’s a 40% version out there as well.
  • Brief distillery background: Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique. Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement — who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using the original stills from HSE but relocating them to Simon (ageing remained at the Habitation), adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.
  • Of course I’m not the first to mention the rhum. My good friend Laurent Cuvier (he of the now-retired poussette) mentioned it enthusiastically way back in 2019 on a distillery visit when he got a try way before it was released, and again in his 2023 Paris Rhumfest roundup. Serge, ever ahead of the curve, tried an earlier edition back in 2016it may even have been the firstand liked it to the tune of 86 points which for him, back then, was well nigh unheard of.
Jun 192023
 

Some rum independents1 just have a certain…something. A kind of vibe, a sort of cool marketing pizzazz and reputational cred that sets them apart from the increasing number of such companies crowding the marketplace.

It’s a varied sort of thing: sometimes it’s a colourful and interesting owner or brand rep, like Mitch Wilson, Josh Singh, Karl Mudzamba, Eric Kaye, Luca, Fabio or Florent Beuchet. Other times it’s because of really good rums that fly under the radar, like Velier in the old days, or Tristan Prodhomme’s L’Esprit range, the one-off release of Stolen Overproof. And at other times it’s an unusual, even striking, bottle or label design, such as the original frosted glass bottles of the first Renegade rums, the Habitation Veliers with their informative label and delicate watercolours, the beautiful B&W photography of Rom Deluxe’s “Wild Series” or the superb minimalism of El Destilado’s Oaxacan rums.

Not many indies play in all three areas: those that do are assured of eyeballs and mindspace way beyond their actual market footprint, and here we are looking at a rum from one of them, That Boutique-y Rum Co. This offshoot of Atom Brands (which runs the Masters of Malt online shop in the UK) is almost like a masterclass in pressing all the marketing buttons at once. For one, they have a strikingly visual label ethos, having contracted with the artist Jim’ll Paint it, who includes factual information, easter eggs, sight gags and an irreverent sense of humour into all his brightly coloured designs. For another, they are repped around the place by the enormously likeable and knowledgeable Pete Holland (who also talks up Foursquare in his spare time when Richard can convince him to come in off the beach) — in a nice meta-twist, Pete is also on quite a few of the bottle labels himself. And thirdly their rums cover a wide gamut of the world’s most famous distillery selections (plus a few off the beaten track), many of which are really quite good.

Such an example is this rum, from the evocatively-named Madeiran distillery of O Reizinho (the name means “Little King”, “Kinglet” or “The Prince” depending on your translational tool), which some might recall fom when we met the rum before as Batch 1 which was released in 2018. Batch 2 was similar in that it was also an unaged white but with the proof jacked up to 57% and here, with Batch 3, the strength remains at 57% but it’s been aged for nine months in ex-Madeira casks, hence the bright gold colouring. Other details remain constant: cane juice, about a week’s fermentation, pot still. It can legally be called an agricole.

Even nine months’ ageing can produce some variations from the pure vegetal background of an unaged white going on all cylindersbut that does not appear to be the case with Batch 3 because if you close your eyes it could just as easily be one of those clear little monsters. Holy smokes, is this rum ever pungent. It exudes a sharp breath of vegetal, funky rumstink right from the startfruits going bad in hot weather, the chewing gum-flavoured bad breath of a furious fire-and-brimstone street preacher who doesn’t keep his distance (I wish I could tell you I made this up…), sharp strawberries and pineapples, green grapes, brine and pepper-stuffed olives. There’s some light citrus and watermelon cowering behind these, and some odd smells of what can only be described as potato starch in water, go figure, plus a hint of coconut shavings, ginger and lemon zest.

The palate is more balanced and dials down the aggro a fair bit, which is welcome. It’s warm and sweet (not too much), tastes of sugar cane sap, mint, olives, brine, olives with a background of pine sol, lemon, and hot cooking oil just at the smoke point. There are a few stray notes of green bananas, black peppers, vanilla and those coconut shavings. You can still sense the funkiness underlying all thispineapples and strawberries show up, as well as soft squishy overripe orangesbut it handles well, leading to a finish that’s medium long, no burn, quite warm, and brings each taste back to the front one last time for a final bow. Some brine, pine-y notes, olives and oranges, with softer vanilla and banana and coconut and nail polish. Nice.

So, what to say here? It’s different from the rums we usually try, enough to be interesting and pique our desire for a challenge. The strength is completely solidit might be off-putting to some so a few drops of water might calm things down to manageable levels. The combination of sweet and sour and salt is good; what makes this score slightly lower in my estimation is the ageing itself, because it transforms the rum into something subtly schizophrenic, that’s neither fish not fowl, neither quite presenting the crisp clarity of an unaged white brawler, nor a more modulated aged rum whose rough edges have been sanded off. Oh, and that Madeira cask in which it was aged? Anonymous at best.

That said, the rum is nicely balanced, smells great (after you get past the preacher) and tastes decent. It’s a well done product and overall, if I did prefer Batch 1, that’s entirely a personal preference and your mileage might vary. At the end of it all, what all these O Reizinho rums do is keep the flags of cheeky insouciance and reputation for interesting rumswhich have been a hallmark of TBRC since their establishmentfluttering nicely. And that’s good for all us rum drinkers who want to go off the reservation on occasion.

(#1007)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • It’s a little unclear which the rum actually refers to, since in 2018 TBRC released a 3YO aged batch #1 of 1936 bottles at 52.6% and with a label design pretty much the same as all the others. So there are clearly two streams of these O’Reiz releasesone aged, one notwhose labels might easily be confused: pay close attention to what you’re buying with them.
May 222023
 

Few even within the rum world and almost nobody outside it, will remember the small UK indie bottler El Destilado about which I and a couple of others wrote in our reviews of the fascinating, off-the-reservation Aguardiente de Panela, a rum from a tiny back-country distillery in Mexico. The three British guys who run El Destilado are unabashed agave lovers and dabble with rums only as a kind of sideshow; yet so enormous was the impact that that single limited edition artisanal rum made, that not only did I immediately try to buy all available rums which the little indie had released, but added the word panela to my vocabulary, started researching artisanal Mexican spirits like aguardientes and charandas, and marvelled yet again at the sheer diversity of sugar cane spirits.

This white unaged rum is another from the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and originates in a small hill town of some three thousand inhabitants called Santa Maria Tlalixtac, which is remote enough not to have any highway coming anywhere near it; one wonders how on earth the guys even found the place, let alone the third generation distiller who makes it, Isidore Krassel Peralta1. As with the Aguardiente noted above, the rum shares some DNA with grogues, clairins, backwoods cachacas, kokuto shochus, arrack and charandaswhich is to say it is made individually according to their own methods, and primarily for local consumption (see historical notes below) and with tastes blasting out in all directions.

Consider the production stats: the masterfully minimalist label states it derives from cane juice made from Java cane, itself grown on small fields at altitude, hand harvested, crushed with a gas-powered trapiche, fermented with naturally-occurring (“wild”) yeast for five days2 in seven 1200-liter stainless steel tanks, and then squeezed through an 8-plate steel column still which is of the founder’s own design and make dating back to the 1930s (it’s been tinkered with ever since), and which produces no heads or tails.

What comes out the other end and bottled for El Destilado is nothing short of amazing. There I was in the Black Parrot bar in London (with the itinerant Richard Nicholson, both of us making occasional sheep’s eyes at the helpful and very pretty bartender Marine who was pouring our flight of five and laughing at our seriousness), and when I took my first sniff of the white rum that is the subject of this review, so astounding was the initial nose that my first tremblingly written and near disbelieving comment was “Would you just smell that!!

Aromas jetted and frothed out of the glass in all directionsnicely intense musky and tart white cane juice spiked with alcohol were the first; then plasticine and rubber and brine, extremely dry and very very clear, stopping itself from being blade-sharp and dangerous by a mere whisker. Pine needles, lemon juice, yoghurt, olives and dish washing soap clashed and banged together without apology with crisp green apples, grapes and gooseberries, to say nothing of iodine, florals and even a touch of grass and herbs. The low strength — 41.5%, should have mentioned this beforewhich I would occasionally see as a problem, actually helps here because it tames what would otherwise be a hurricane of rumstink and tones it down so it actually becomes quite good and really accessible.

The fun doesn’t stop there, and the palate takes the handoff neatly, then sprints ahead. It tastes dry, arid, minty, and reeks of alcoholic cane juice, like a mojito or a ti-punch but without the additional ingredients (no, really). There are tastes of watery sugar cane syrup, licorice, crushed mint, ripe apples, grapes and even green peas (!!), tart, briny, pine-y and smoky all at once. “It’s almost a mescal,” observed Richard sagely, his eyes crossed and his speech slurred (though it was only our first rum of the evening), as he tried masterfully not to upchuck his lunch of South Island orc flank. I concurred in principle, but honestly, you’d not mistake one for the otherthis is a rum through and through and it concluded with a sort of rough, slouching grace: sharp, firm and gnarly, redolent of spearmint, sugar water, thyme, brine, half-ripe tart fruits and a bag of pepper-stuffed olives.

Man, that’s some experience, let me tell you, the more so because it does kind of come at you so unexpectedly, with all the in-your-face kinetic aggro of a 1970s Amitabh Bachchan movie. It’s a smorgasbord of smells and flavours that collapse together with a bang and the only real mystery is how a rum of a mere 41.5% can show off so much. Taken aback at first, I ended up with a completely positive opinion of the thing: because, at end, I truly felt that it was not some feeble attempt to copy nobler sires, but a celebration of gusto, of gumption, from a company unafraid to make bold gestures. Trust me, this is a rum from which you will not walk away unmoved. Unshaken you might be, but I can almost guarantee that you will be stirred.

(#998)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

The distillery of make doesn’t seem to have a name or a company title. It looks like it’s just called “Krassel’s” and they also make rum under their own brand of Cañada which is primarily marketed in the USA. If the name sounds vaguely Teutonic, that’s because it is: the paterfamilias left Germany just before the First World war and came to Veracruz in 1917. Working various odd jobs and constantly moving to where there was employment, he ended up in the Cañada region of Oaxaca, got married and assisted in small batch distillation on the distillery of the farm where he worked. After he gained sufficient expertise, he designed and built his own still and began distilling aguardiente on his own account in Santa Maria Tlalixtac, where he settled down.

That still is understandably famous, not the least because it continued to be tinkered with and improved upon as the years passed by Max’s three sons (Max Jr., Isidoro and one other). As the rum he produced improved in quality its reputation spread, but the lack of roads proved to be a hindrance to distribution and using mule pack trains to transport lots of 40-litre jugs was impractical. By the 1960s and beyond, the sons got pilot’s licences, bought a Cessna and used it to ferry their rum around the small surrounding communities for their fiestas and local shops. The third generation continued to be involved in the family enterprise, mostly Isidoro’s four sons.

It’s unclear when this happenedmy guess is over the last decade ort sobut two American distributors now manage the rum brand’s importation into the USA, so its profile is definitely increasing there. El Destilado is, however, a UK company run by a trio of young enthusiasts and is separate from these; they do not mention the Cañada brand at all and distribute mostly in the UK and Europe.


Other notes

  • The company website for Krassel’s is quite informative and is worth a read through
  • Alex over at the The Rum Barrel Blog has reviewed the overproof version of this rum in 2021 and scored it 81/100 on his scale (about 86 on mine). Rum-X has two ratings, one of 7/10 and one of 8/10. Not much else out there
  • Good background notes on aguardientes and Mexican rum culture can be found in the Panela review mentioned above.

 

Apr 242023
 

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that 99% of the readers of this article won’t know a thing about this rhum and its brand, and until I started researching the bottle, I didn’t either. That’s an increasingly rare thing these days, considering that the writings of so many stellar bloggers over the last decade, combined with Rum Ratings and Rum-X, make it almost impossible for any brand to escape notice. Yet here we are, sipping at a peculiar bottle of white rum I bought completely on a whim (mostly because I can’t resist not knowing more about it).

The company that released it was once an independent French bottler in Bordeaux called William Pitters who mostly specialised in cognac, and occasionally rums as wella couple of years ago Oliver Scars procured a 1970 HSE they had released, for example. They appear to have mostly issued rhums from Martinique as well as some punches and whiskies (Sir Pitterson whisky was a thing even if we don’t know who he was either) and on top of that, been something of a distributor toobut the source of their rhum was never disclosed. The date of formation of the company looks to be 2001, from a coming together of many tiny brands, and nowadays a much larger conglomerate called Marie Brizard Wine & Spirits is the owner1. This is more tangential to the review, though, so I provide their history below.

Exactly what we have in the glass is unclearfor one thing, I’m not entirely sure the brand exists or is being made any longer. The source distillery is a mysteryas noted, Pitterson did issue a rhum from HSE before, and Marie Brizard, the subsequent owner, had a distribution relationship with La Maunyso we don’t know source or still or (maybe) age. Yet, although no review or online store is to be found carrying this rhum, I suspect it’s still around, and if it’s been discontinued then it was in all likelihood fairly recently; the bottle and label design is too sleek and modern, the price paid was too low, and several small restaurants, bars and cafes in France mention on their menus that they have it.

Leaving aside the murkiness of the rhum’s origin, I can see why they would. It may “only” be a standard strength white rhum, it has a lovely opening nose of white chocolate, praline, almonds and nougatin other words, a bar of white toblerone (of the kind Grandma Caner reliably sends me every year at least once). It’s creamy and delicate, hardly seemingly dry at all; there is a light herbal aroma, grassy notes and sugar water that characterises an agricole, but here it’s mixed in with Danish butter cookies, chocolate cake batter like your mother allowed you to lick off the spoon after she was done; and unsweetened yoghurt.

The way it goes down is nice as wellnothing too bombastic, nothing too aggressive, just an easy sip, tasting of vaguely salty butter cookies, sugar water, vanilla and blancmange, plus a little toasted wonderbread and cheerios cereal (go figure). The herbal aspects of the aroma don’t really carry over here, and there are few if any citrus or acidic noteswhat one gets is mostly ‘neutral’ fleshy fruit like sapodilla, melon, dates, papaya, and the finish is mostly without distinction, being short, easy and mild, giving a last dash of cereal and sugar water fruits, with perhaps a bit of watermelon thrown in.

Overall it’s a rum that plants its flag firmly in the midrange. It appears made to be a mixing rum and is just good and easy enough to sip on (though this would not really be my recommendation). It may only be 40% ABV, but feels somehow heavier, firmer, a tad stronger and even if you’re used to more powerful cask strength fare, it can’t be denied that the rhum tries its best, gives a good account for itself, and is a decent price for what it does deliver. As I say, it’s not clear whether it remains a commercially manufactured product, but if you see a bottle for sale someplace on your rumshop excursions, it’s no loss if you get one.

(#991)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum does not claim to be an agricoleit implies such by the use of therhum blancon the label. Yet, given it supposedly hails from Martinique, the wording and spelling is not unjustified. Overall, based on taste, I’d say that it is indeed an agricole.
  • My bottle has a Portuguese tax stamp; I bought it with a batch of Madeira rhums so it may have simply ended up there. The lack of production and geographical information is unfortunate.

Historical notesMarie Brizard

The firm of Marie Brizard was founded way back in 1755 by (you guessed it) Marie Brizard whose anisette was hit among the members of the ancien régime and who soon branched out into citrus liqueurs. The company stayed privately held by her descendants, and moved into sales all over the American continents over the following century; they started their own modern advertising in the late 1800s and were even exhibited in several World’s Fairs. Expanding the portfolio to include other spirits (as well as fruit juices and cordials) were good business decisions for the company, and by the post-WW2 years, due to canny product placement in French films of the time, the brands became near-iconic. William Grant bought in with a minority stake in the 1980s as a consequence of their distributorship arrangement for whisky dating back to the 1950s, but were so excluded from any decision-making that in 1994 they relinquished their association.

This situation of familial ownership, control and decision making continued until 2013, when a severe downturn in the market and mounting losses forced Marie Brizard to convert debt to shares…which were then snapped up by an American investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, who held nearly 20% of the voting rights. Continuing cash flow problems opened the doors for capital injections and share purchases by Compagnie Européenne de Prize de Participation (COFEPP, holding company which heads the La Martiniquaise Bardinet group), which as of 2019 held a majority shareholding of 51% while aiming for more, and can therefore be said to own the company…and so also the Pitterson brand.

Apr 172023
 

After more than a decade of writing about rhum agricole, its not entirely surprising that I’ve written more about Martinique rhums than Guadeloupe’s or Reunion’s or Madeira’s…yet more about Damoiseau’s products than any other distillery on any of these islands. There’s just something about the subtly sumptuous roundness of their rhums that appeals to me, which is an observation I’ve made about Guadeloupe rhums as a whole before. Martinique rhums may be more elegant, more artistic, more precisely dialled in…but Guadeloupe’s rhums are often a whole lot more fun.

Therefore my statistical appreciation for Damoiseau makes it peculiar that I’ve never actually written anything about one of their solid, down to earth island staplesthe 50º rhum agricole blanc, in this case, which is one of their regular line of bartenders’ rhums that also comes in variations of 40º and 55º (the numbers represent the ABV). And oddly, I’ve been keeping a weather eye out for it, ever since Josh Miller did his personal agricole challenge back in 2016 and the 55º came out on top.

Today we’ll get to that, and to begin with, let’s run down the stats. It is a cane juice rhum (of course), immediately set to ferment after crushing for a day or two (24-36 hours is the usual time), before being run through a traditional column still to emerge frothing, hissing, spitting and snarling at around 88% ABV (this is what Damoiseau’s own site says, and although there are other sources that say 72%, you can guess which one I’m going with). Here’s where it gets interesting: the rhum is in fact aged a bitexcept they don’t call it that. They say it’s “rested”by which they mean the distillate is dunked into massive wooden foudres of perhaps 30,000-litre capacity and left to chill out and settle down and maybe play some dominos while being regularly aerated by constant stirring and agitation. Then after it’s considered to be readywhich can be anywhere from three to six monthsit’s drawn off, diluted to the appropriate strength, and bottled. It’s unclear whether any filtration takes place to remove colour but somehow I doubt itthere’s a pale yellow tinge to it that hints at the wood influence, however minimal.

Anyway, what does it sample like? In a wordlekker. It reminds me of all the reasons I like unaged white rhums and why I never tire of sampling agricoles. It smells of gherkins and light red peppers in sweet vinegar; brine and olives and sweet sugar water. Then of course there are pears, cooking herbs (parsley and sage and mint), green grasses, watermelon, and papaya and it’s just a delight to inhale this stuff.

While the stated purpose of such white rhums is to make a ti’punchat which I’m sure this does a bang up jobfor consistency’s sake I have to try ‘em neat and here too, there’s nothing bad to say…the heated pungency of the rhum is amazing (I can only imagine what the 55º is like). It is unapologetically rough when initially sipped without warning, then calms down quickly and ends up simply being strong and unyielding and flavourful beyond expectations. There is the obligatory note of sugar cane sap, the sense of new mown grass on a hot and sunny day with the sprinkler water drying on hot concrete alongside. There are the watery fruit the nosed promisedpears, white guavas, papayas; some delicate citrus notes (lime zest and cumin); a touch of basil and mint; and overall a smooth and almost-hot potency that slides on the palate without savagery or bite, just firmness and authority. And the finish is exactly like thata bit shortish, sweet, minerally, and herbal with sugar cane sap, light fruits…the very model of a modern major agricole.

 

This is a blanc rhum that still surprised with its overall quality. For one thing, it was more civilised than other such rhums I recall (and I remember the Sajous), and there were subtle notes coiling through the experience that suggested the foudres in which it rested had a bit more to offer than just sage advice. For another it’s quite clean goes down rather more easily than one might expect and while never straying too far from its cane juice roots, still manages to provide a somewhat distinct, occasionally unusual experience.

So, rested or aged, oak or steel, unaged or not quite…it doesn’t really mattermy contention is simply that any time in a reactive environment, however short, does change the base distillate, if only a little. That’s merely an observation, mind, not a criticism; in any case, the taste profile does support the thesisbecause the 50 is subtly drier, richer and more complex than some completely fresh unaged still strength cane juice popskull that I’ve had in years past. It tastes pretty damned fine, and at the end, it comes together with a sort of almost-refined rhythm that shouldn’t work, but yet does, and somehow manages to salvage some elegance from all that rough stuff and provides a tasting experience to savour.

(#989)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Jan 162023
 

In all the excitement about the latest releases from the Reunion distillery of Savanna, it’s always good to keep in mind that there are two other distilleries on the island making some pretty good rhumRivière-du-Mât and Isautier. I’d suggest that the former is probably the lesser known, but Isautier is gaining some traction of late, because there have been quite a few neat rhums emerging from the distillery in recent years that are making some waves and exciting serious attention.

So let’s forego any long introductory perambulations and get right down to the facts at hand. This is a cane juice origin rhum, made by the named distillery, on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. It’s one a pair of rhums named after two sailing ships used by the Isautier brothers to transport their cargos to and from Reunion in the 19th and early 20th century, and this one is an agricole distilled off a column still (its twin, the L’Apollonie, is a traditionnel, made from molasses). The nice part is that it’s cognac-cask aged for the full 15 years (no short finishes or dual-ageing for these boys) and the results, bottled at 55.3%, is at pains show all the notes that were wrung out of the process.

Nose: “lightly richis the only term that comes to mind, and the aromas come in three distinct sets. First, it’s sweet strawberry bubble gum, bags of tart mangoes, gooseberries, dark grapes, and oranges and lemon peel. Second, floralslight and sweet, like hibiscus, lavender and maybe a dusty rose or two. And then, thirdly, the spicescinnamon and cloves, rounded out and complemented by a touch of vanilla and coconut, and it gets more precise and distinct as the minutes click by. It’s the sort of nose that encourages one to keep it on hand for a second and third sniff, just to see if anything new popped up since the last time.

The palate has sparkly and light notes, exhibiting the sort of happy perkiness Mrs. Caner displays when she gets to buy a new Prada purse. It’s nicely, restrainedly sweet, with notes of cinnamon, cloves and herbs (like oregano, parsley and rosemary, how’s that for an odd combo?). The fresh green grassiness of an agricole is less evidentprobably as the influence of the barrel took over Managementbut in its place we get raisins, apples, prunes, then cereal and honey dripped over fresh toast. Though the finish was not spectacularit more or less summed up the fruity freshness that had preceded it and added a touch of spices and lasted a decently long time,

Overall, I’d have to sum up by noting that the L’Elise had a terrific nose followed by a rather less exaltedbut still excellent, very solidpalate. Admittedly it doesn’t spark a riot on the tongue, however fascinating it smelled five seconds earlier, yet the quality can’t be gainsaid, and the denouement was a nice conclusion to a very pleasing drinking experience. If nothing else, it demonstrated that even if Savanna might have a lock on the high ester fruit bombs, the aged rhums made elsewhere on the islands are no slouches. By any standard, this is pretty fine stuff.

A rhum like this excites curiosity, invites idle wonderings. Like “Where’s Isautier?” “Who is Isautier?” “Is this an agricole rhum?” “What’s the L’Elise?” “Who is John Galt?” Stuff like that. Drax might do us all one better by asking, with perfect seriousness, “Why is Isautier?” And you know, maybe this rhum actually is an answer: Isautier’s L’Elise 15 year old rhum exists because they wanted it to, to reflect their heritage and show off their own rum-making street cred and just put something out there that’s really damned cool. The nice thing about the rum, then, is that when all is said and done, it answers all those questions solely with itself.

(#966)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum is part of LMDW’s “Antipodes” collection for 2022/2023. In geography, the antipode of any spot on Earth is the point on Earth’s surface diametrically opposite to it, and antipodal points are as far away from each other as possible. LMDW’s catalogue (p.2, and p.154) notes that the collection “pays tribute to contrasts and opposites through spirits sourced from across the globe….showcasing the duality found in styles and profiles.” Given the catalogue of antipodal spirits and drinks is pretty all-inclusive, it’s not really very meaningful beyond being their theme for 2023.
  • For those who are interested in a deeper look at the background of Isautier, this little biography helps fill in some historical blanks.
Dec 262022
 

Photo courtesy of Steve James at The Rum Diaries Blog, who kindly chipped in after my own photo got corrupted.

The clear, light, and distinct nose on this Guadeloupe agricole is really quite sumptuous, and hearkens back to a time before more formal rules were put into place (even on Guadeloupe) as to how cane juice rhums were put together. It has a clean sweetness to it, quite crisp, redolent of grapes, green apples and a touch of vanilla and caramel to start. Sweet and sour chicken with tons of vegetables, sweet soya. And it develops into more complex territory after thatleather, freshly mown hay, citrus peel, cumin and pomegranates and was that oregano I smelled there? It could be, quite possibly. It’s just a low key, precise and controlled series of aromas.

Tastewise, it’s not too shabby either, and I remember thinking, it’s been a while since I had something quite like this, from Guadeloupe or anywhere else. It opens with salty, unsweetened, nearly-bitter chocolate flavoured with pimentonot one of my favourites, but I have tried some on occasion when feeling adventurous (or stupid, take your pick). Coffee grounds (fresh ones, still steaming, not yesterday’s batch which I get at the office), some leather, caramel, toffee, almonds and pralinesmakes me wonder where the agricole is hiding, as the citrus is not to be found and the cane sap and herbal notes aren’t playing nice. Still, there are some fruits to be sensedblack grapes, prunes, overripe peaches, bananasbut not anything crisper than that. It concludes with some lighter notes, of apples and hard yellow mangoes, a touch of sugar water, and it’s quite long for 42% ABV, gliding to a serene stop next to the sign saying “have another sip.”

Which, if you ever locate this almost forgotten rhum, you would be well advised toit’s pretty fine, honestly.


As I noted above, it’s 42% ABV, a cane juice, column-still rhum from the Gardel distillery which is located in the north-east of Grand Terre in the commune of Le Moule. Gardel, owned by Générale Sucrière (itself a major player in the global sugar refining industry) is one of two distilleries in Le Moulethe other is Damoiseauand earns some of its distinction by being the sole sugar refinery on the main island. Gardel doesn’t make any rhums of its own any longer, but it was known for selling rum stock to brokers and others – they ceased distillation in 1992 and destroyed or sold their stills shortly thereafter, so this rhum is among the last that came from there (see also other notes below), even if it came to us via the independent bottler path.

It’s been some time since we reviewed any rums from the “Secret Treasures” line originally created by the Swiss concern Fassbind, and not without good reasonthey sold off their spirits distribution portfolio way back in 2005 to another Swiss distributor called Best Taste which wasn’t interested in any indie bottling operations, and so punted it over to a German company called Haromex. Almost all of the reviews of Secret Treasures rums came from the pre-sale bottlings, which, like Renegade, were perhaps somewhat ahead of their time, and that’s probably why Fassbind was glad to let them go.

Haromex changed the bottle style while keeping something of the label design ethos in the initial post-acquisition period, but nothing has now been issued under the ST label for many years now: the last of them, two St Lucia bottlings (here and here, both quite good) were probably leftovers from the sale. There were some attempts at blends“South America” and “Old Caribbean” were twoyet it’s unlikely you ever heard of either and I never saw them to buy, which tells you all you need to know about what an impact they made. Nowadays Haromex has settled on being a distributor and shows up at European rum festivals here and there to tout its brands…but no rums they themselves have had a hand in bottling.


Fassbind and Secret Treasures may have come on the indie scene too early, and it’s too bad they did not continue: because this is quite a lovely rum. Almost forgotten now except by those Europeans who picked up bottles here and there a decade ago, it shows that it’s not enough to simply have a shuttered distillery to make a name and have a following (did somebody say Caroni?). Nor is it enough to have good production values that people remember. If the audience isn’t there and there is no larger voice to proselytise for it, brand name and rum and distillery will vanish, as Gardel pretty much has.

And that’s a shame for rums which may not have been the best out there, but which at least showed promise, tasted great, and which we didn’t have enough of. They helped chart a path many other small outfits followed in the years that came after, and enriched and educated those like me who consider themselves fortunate to have tried a few. Who knows what Fassbind could have achieved, had they stuck with it. This rum and others of the line give us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

(#961)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • My remarks on “the last rum from Gardel” notwithstanding, several independent bottlers have bottled Gardel rhums/rums prior to the cessation of distillation. A non exhaustive list is:
    • Gardel Rhum Vieux Cuvee Ultime 45%
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1992 11YO 42% Std Label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 13 YO 42% Black label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 14 YO 42% Std Label
    • Bristol Spirits Gardel Rhum 1992 10 YO 46%
    • Renegade Gardel 1998 11YO 46% (Chateau Latour)
    • Renegade Gardel 1996 11YO 46% (Chateau Lafleur)
    • Moon Import Gardel 1992 10YO 46%
    • Moon Import Gardel 1982 18 YO 46%
    • Rumclub Gardel 1983 38 YO 46.6% (GMG)
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 20 YO 57.8%
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 18 YO 57.2%
    • Silver Seal “Cigar Choice” 1977 32 YO 50.8%
    • Murray McDavid Gardel 1998 12 YO 46%
    • Douglas Laing Caribbean Reserve 1992 9 YO 46%
  • The source of the post-1992 distillates remains unknown, but as Flo remarked in his deep dive into the distillery, it’s very likely Damoiseau/Bellevue.
  • I’ve elected to keep this rum in the main section and not the Rumaniacs, even though it’s definitely a Golden Oldie that’s dead and gone.
  • This particular Gardel has come up on Rum Auctioneer a few times in 2021-2022, averaging out at about £150 these days. Who knows, it may all be the same bottle (impossible to tell for sure, since, unlike the 1992 edition with the classic cream-yellow-brown label, here the bottle number is not provided).
Dec 222022
 

So here we are again with another rum agricola from Engenhos do Norte, the biggest distillery in Madeira, and another in their line of starter rums from cane juice, column stills and bottled at an inoffensive 40%. These are rums that any cask strength aficionado would be well advised to try neat and first thing in the session, because they have, so far, proved to be relatively light and are easily shredded by the addition of water, a mix or the slightest hint of harsh language. Say “damn!” in front of the “Natural”, and it’ll vanish in a puff of offended vapour.

Of course, rums like this are not made for such people, but for the larger masses of easy rum drinkers who like the spirit, enjoy a decent mix, but can’t name and don’t care about the varieties, know three basic cocktails, and don’t feel they should be assaulted by every variation that crosses their path. For this segment of the drinking population “it tastes good” is recommendation enough.

By that standard this rum both succeed and fails. It has, for example, a really impressive nose, the best of this line I’ve yet come across. It is in its characteristics, almost clairin-like, although gentler, and softer, and slightly sweeter, less inclined to damage your face. It’s redolent of brine and olives, and feels hefty, almost muscular, when inhaled. There’s iodine and s slight fish market reek (well controlled, to be sureit’s hesitant, even shy). After a while some more vegetal and grassy notes begin to emerge, a kind of delicate yet firm green lemony scent that’s quite pleasing and hearkens to the rum’s cane juice roots (though one can be forgiven for wondering why it didn’t lead with that instead of making us wait this long to become a thing).

Anyway, the palate: initially salty and briny, with the low strength preventing it from entering bitchslap territory and keeping itself very much in “we’re not here to make a fuss” mode. It’s pleasingly dry, nicely sweet and quite clear, and has a taste of gingersnap cookies and raisins, but the cane juice action we sensed at the tail end of the nose is AWOL again. It feels rather flattened and tamped down somehow and this is to its detriment. With a drop of water (not that it’s needed), additional wispy hints of sweet pears, guavas, papaya and watermelon are (barely) noticeable, and there’s a slight gaminess pervading at the back end…which is enough to make it interesting without actually delivering more than what the nose had grudgingly promised. Finish is demure, light, clear, delicately sweet and grassy and quite clean. Some vanilla cinnamon, light honey, with maybe a squirt or two of lemon juice…and you have to really strain to get even that much.

Engenhos have said in a video interview that their proximity to the sea gives their rums a unique and individual taste, but of course any island in the Caribbean can make that claim, and they don’t have a clear line of distinctiveness, so no, I don’t really buy that. They have something in their production process that’s different, that’s all, and it comes out in a profile that’s simply not as exciting as others in the West Indies who do more to make their rums express an individualistic island terroire.

This is what I mean when I said the rum both succeeds and fails. It has some interesting notes to play with, yet refuses to capitalise on them and doesn’t take them far enough. 40% ABV is insufficient for them to really come out and make a statement for Madeira: a few more proof points are needed. And what one gets in the glass is not different enough from, or better than, a standard French Island agricole to excite the drinking audience into new allegiances in their drinks. And speaking of the audience: it’s a long standing article of faith that the greater mass of rum drinkers and buyers mostly buy rums that are “okay”, without seeking to extend their experiencesbut what this obscures is the fact that most people are innately conservative and don’t switch favoured drinks and brands easily or even willingly, without a good reason. The “Natural” does not provide enough of such a reason to switch up one’s familiar agricoles. It has potentialbut so far it remains unrealized.

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • There’s a stronger “Natural” at 60% which may remedy the shortcomings (as I see them) of this one; I’m looking to get one and see for myself.
  • Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI Indicação Geográfica Protegida. The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.
  • The name “Natural” derives from its cane juice origins, but since all of Engenhos’s rums are agricolas, it’s unclear from the label why this is more natural than others. It could be because it’s rested or unaged (the colour is actually very slightly tinged with yellow, suggesting a possible short period in a barrelI was, however, unable to verify this by posting time). Other sources suggest it’s because it is made from sugar cane on small individual plots, which would make it a parcellaireif true, it’s odd that it’s not more prominently stated, however, since that’s a great marketing plug.
  • All the above aside, at less than €40, this is decent value for money given those tastes it does have.
Dec 122022
 

Today we’ll continue with another rum from the island of Madeira and the company of Engenos do Norte, which, as its name suggests, is located in the north of Madeira Island. The company was founded in 1928 by the merging of some fifty sugar factories at a time when it was simply not economical for individual small mills to operate. While they had been making rums on the island for centuries, it had a lesser importance to sugar, and most of the local rum was either consumed domestically or in Portugal (wine was actually much more popular and commonly made). In other words, though rum has a long pedigree on Madeira, the emergence of the rum (and local rum brands internationally) as an economic force and a serious revenue and tax generator, is very much a 21st century phenomenon.

Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI (Indicação Geográfica Protegida). The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.

The Rum North “Barrica Nova” is a golden rum, not marketed as anything particularly special. As with all the others mentioned above, it’s cane juice derived, distilled on a column still, aged for three months in new French Oak barrels (hence the “barrica nova” in the title), and released at 40%. It’s very much a living room rum or for the bartender’s backbar, made for cocktails and not neat sipping; nor does it appear to be anything exclusive or limitedand while it’s on sale in Europe, so far I haven’t seen anyone’s review of it out there.

The rum’s initial nose presents with bright golden notes of citrus, green grapes, ginnips and unripe papaya, nicely fresh and quite lightnot much of the grassy herbals as characterise a French West Indian agricole, yet close enough to suggest the commonality of origin. There are notes of green peas, fanta, and an apple-flavoured creamy yoghurt. There’s a touch of cream cheese, fresh wonderbread toast (!!), with light lemony aspects, and lurking quietly in the background, the rather peculiar aroma of old leather suitcases pulled from musty cupboards after long disuse. All these aromas are rather faint and the citrus and fruit sodas are more dominant, with the others providing a vague and uneasy backdrop that takes effort to tease out.

After that rather decent nose the palate falls flat from exhaustion at trying to keep up. The rum tastes watery, thin and sharp as a harridan’s flaying tongue. Notes of light fruits, honey, sugar water and vanilla predominate, but this is a scrawny kind of gruel, and even a few last minute bits and piecesaromatic tobacco, salt caramel, old carboard and nail polishdon’t really make this a sip worth seeking. The finish is even weaker: short, light, sweet, inoffensive, mostly very light fruitinesswatermelon, papaya, white guavaand requires too much effort to locate.

This rum is not my thing. Like the 980 Beneficiado, there’s just not enough going on to provide a taste profile of any distinction, and while 40% may be the preferred strength locally or for maximal exports, the faintness of what the palate presents demonstrates why some rums should simply be stronger. It enforces a limitation on the producersprobably for tax, regulatory or other reasonsthat should be pushed past for the benefit of consumers who buy it. It’s no accident that the best-scoring Madeira-made rums we’ve seen so far have all been from independents who go cask strength and combine that with some decent ageing.

For the casual imbiber the weak-kneed profile doesn’t mean there is anything ostensibly, offensively wrong with the rum…and yet, for those who have a bit more experience, everything is. Even with the decent aroma, it’s too anonymous, too lacklustre and certainly does not bugle “Madeira!” from the rooftopsat best, it’s an exhausted squeak. It’s made too much for everyone, which really means for no-one, and you’ll forget about it five minutes after walking away. The ‘Barrica Nova’ is underwhelming, underachieving, underdelivering, and underperforming, and although I suppose that like a shotgun wedding’s reluctant groom it’ll grudgingly do what it’s meant to, in my book that doesn’t count as a compliment.

(#957)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


 

Dec 052022
 

By now Saint James needs little introduction. It is one of the premiere rum makers on Martinique, has a long and proud history, and isn’t particularly nervous about straying off the reservation from time to time. They have made rhums in their illustrious history that are among the best, the most original or the most storied (not always at the same time, of course) – such as the legendary 1885, the pot still blanc, and most recently, the stunning Magnum series entry of the 2006 15 Year Old with which I was so enthralled.

However, in between all these top end superstars, we must not allow ourselves to forget the standard line of rhums they make: ambre, gold, blanc, and what have you. The Fleur de Canne (“Flower of the Cane”) is not exactly a beginner’s rum, or a standardbut it’s very good indeed and carries the rep of the distillery in new (but not crazy) directions. The logic probably goes something like this: if one of their lesser known, not-quite-off-the-shelf efforts can be this good, what must the uber premiums be like, right?

Specs are straightforward: cane juice rhum, column still, no ageing, 50%. More need hardly be said, except, why not just call it a straight blanc? What’s with all the fancy titling? According to Marc Sassier, it’s made from cane harvested exclusively during the dry season, which he says gives it a more robust and fruity flavour profile. Well, that’s certainly possible. What it does, then, is add yet another white rhum to to the existing rhums of the Imperial Blanc 40°, Blanc Agricole 55°, the three “bio” rhums of various strengths, and the Coeur de Chauffe. You wouldn’t think there were so many variations, but yeah, here they are, and the best part is not so much that there’s something for everyone (and everyone’s wallet) in that stable, but that they’re all pretty fine ponies to take out for a trot. This one is particularly good.

The Fleur de Canne is a bit of a special edition, something of a unique experimental, and I think it’s made in limited quantities (in an odd omission, it’s not on the company’s website). I’ve had it three times now, and liked it a little better each time. The nose, for example, channels straight agricole goodness: a nice green grassiness mixed with the cleanliness of fresh laundry aired and dried in the sun. It’s neat and clean, as crisp as a breaking glass rod, redolent of cucumber slices in vinegar with a pimento for kick, red and yellow half-ripe fruits like mangoes, persimmons, pomegranates, and very ripe sweet apples. It has the tart and citrus aromas of a lemon sherbet mixed with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon, and behind all that is a hint of acetones and furniture polish.

Tasting it continues that odd mix of precision and solidity, and really, the question I am left with is how is a rum dialling in at 50% ABV be this warm and smooth, as opposed to hot and sharp? It’s dry and strops solidly across the palate. Sugar water, ripe freshly sliced apples, cider, lemon zest and nail polish remover, all of which crackles with energy, every note clear and distinct. Lemon zest, freshly mown grass, pears, papaya, red grapefruits and blood oranges, and nicely, lightly sweet and as bright as a glittering steel blade, ending up with a finish that’s dry and sweet and long and dry and really, leaves little to complain about, and much to admire.

You’d think that the stronger 55º blanc would make more of a statement with that proof point: but it’s ultimately just one strong rum within the standard lineup. When it comes to comparisons, it’s the Brut de Colonne “Bio” at 74.2% that the Fleur de Canne is probably better to rank against. Both are special editions in their own way, and I think both serve as sounding boards and test subjects for Marc Sassier’s talent, restless curiosity and desire to tweak the levers of the universe with something a little off the reservation. The construction of the Fleur de Canne is granite-solid in its fundamentals, and yet such is the overall quality that we don’t sense the wheels squeaking. Honestly, I can’t say that the rum is some kind of new and stylistic breakthrough; but it is a rhum to cherish, starting out slow and deceptively simple, getting a head of steam behind it, and then turning out to be so well made that it’s hard to put down even when the glass, and maybe the bottle, is empty.

(#956)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Dec 012022
 

Every year, especially as the Madeira rumfest comes around, there is a flurry of posts and interest about rums from the islands of that Portuguese Autonomous Region (it’s one of two such regionsthe other is the Azores). The better known rums originating there are from the distilleries of O Reizinho, Engenho Novo (which makes William Hinton rums) and Engenhos do Norte, and these three rub shoulders with yet others like Abel Fernandes, Vinha Alta and Engenhos da Calheta. Not surprisingly, there are occasional independent releases as well, such as those from Rum Nation and That Boutique-y Rum Co.

One of the reasons Madeira excites interest at all is because they are one of the few countries covered by its own GI (the Madeiran Indicação Geográfica Protegida), and so can legally and properlyat least within the EUuse the term agricole when referring to their cane juice rums (which is practically all of them). Yet, paradoxically, they remain relatively niche products which have only recentlywhich is to say, within the last decade or sostarted to make bigger waves in the rum world, and few writers have spent much time on their products: WhiskyFun has done the most, with eight and there’s a scattering of others from Single Cask Rum, Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate and myself.

Today we’ll begin a few Madeiran reviews to raise that visibility a bit more, with some rums from what is perhaps the largest of the distilleries, Engenhos do Norte: although google translate will tell you that the Portuguese word engenho means “ingenuity” it really translates into “sugar mill”, which is what most of these companies started out as. Engenhos do Norte was formed by a merger of some fifty mills in either 1927 or 1928, depending on the sourcethey were forced to come together to remain economically viable (see “Other notes”, below). Their best known brands are the 970 series (introduced in 1970, which is not a coincidence), Branca and Larano, though of late they’ve added more.

One of the more recent additions is the Rum Agrícola Beneficiado 980 — that “980” is an odd shorthand for the year it was introduced, which is to say, 1980 — which is a fresh cane juice rum, 40.5% ABV, column-still made and left to sleep: the final blended rum is from rums aged 3, 6 and 21 years, and although it is not mentioned what kind of barrels are used, I have one reference that it is French Oak and have sent an inquiry down to Engenhos to ask for more details. The proportions of the aged components are unstated, but attention should be paid to the word “beneficiado” (beneficiary) – what this means is that a little cane honey has been added round out the profile, which may be why a hydrometer test, or even straight tastings, tend to comment on a slight sweetness to the profile (it is this which the words on the back label “+ mel de cana e caramelo” mean).

This sweetness is not, however, immediately noticeable when nosing the rum; initially the scent is one of cardboard, brine, light olives and dates, combined with damp tea leaves and aromatic tobacco. Pralines and a caramel macchiato, cloves and milkwhat an odd nose, the more so because it presents very little more commonly accepted agricole elements. There’s a bit of yoghurt mixed up with Dr. Pepper, ginger ale, a kind of sharp and bubbly soda pop, and behind it all, that sense of an overripe orange beginning to go off.

Similarly disconcerting notes appear when tasting it: it’s a bit rough, a bit dry, with rubber, acetones, and brine combining uneasily with honey, vanilla, caramel, toffee and badly made fudge. You can probably pick out additional hints of sweet vanilla ice cream, some tartness of guavas, a touch of citrusnot much more. The finish completes the tasting by being short, mild and inoffensive, presenting a few last caramel and molasses notes set off with Dr. Pepper, licorice, raisins and some oranges. It’s okay, but very different from any agricole you’ve likely tried before, which is both good and bad, depending on your preferences.

Overall, I think the Beneficiado’s weakness is that the freshness of a good grassy, herbal, fruity offset just isn’t there…and if it is, it’s too mild to make a dent. It’s like tasting flavoured fine sandpaper, really, and at just a hair over forty percent strength, it’s too thin to present with any serious assertiveness. Does it work on its own level, with what it actually is (as opposed to what I was expecting, or wished for)? To some extent, yesit just doesn’t go far enough to capitalise on its few strengths, and therefore what we get is a stolid, rather dour rum, one that lacks those sparkling, light aspects that would balance it better, and make it an agricole worth seeking out.

(#955)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Historical Notes

  • It’s long been known that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and was being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century. From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a profitable cash crop in Madeira (the main island, which gave its name to the group) and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years.
  • 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 ponchas, 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.
  • That said, for all its profitability and importance, the sugar industry has been on the edge of a crisis for most of its history: competition from Brazil in the 16th century, sugar cane disease in the 17th, leading to alternative (and competitor) crops like grapes (which led to a much more profitable wine industry) in the 17th and 18th centuries, a resurgence of fungal disease in the late 19th century; the restriction of available land for cane farming in the 20th century (especially in the 1920s and 1930s) … all these made it difficult to have a commercial sugar industry thereno wonder the mills tried to band together. By the 1980s sugar cane farming was almost eliminated as a commercial cash crop, yet even though sugar continued to decline in prices on the world marketsdue to cheaper sources of supply in India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growing health consciousness of first world consumersit stubbornly refused to die. It was kept alive on Madeira partially due to the ongoing production of rum, which in the 21st century started to become a much more important revenue generator than sugar had been, and led to the resurgence of the island as a quality rum producer in its own right.
  • In the early 2010s, 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 made them sell occasional barrels, or bottle for third parties. That’s how, for example, we got the Boutique-y Madeira rum from 2019.
  • The distillery is located in the north of Madeira in the small town of Porto da Cruz, and considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa).
  • The rum is derived from juice deriving from fresh cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine, fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.
Nov 172022
 

Whatever my personal opinions on the need for the four Magnum rums to exist as a separate collection as opposed to being folding into other series, they are there, they’re a fact of life and we move on. In any case, we’ve learnt a bit about the legendary photo agency (even if we’re not into current history) and read up about the style and importance of Elliot Erwitt (even if we’re not photographers or understand the connection), and have tasted four new rums from old and proud houses, so it’s by no means a waste.

Moreover, for all their variations in quality, the fact is the rums really are kind of good, and this is a way to make them shine and gain (even more) popular acclaim. “Good” did I say? Wellyes, though perhaps I understate matters. The Foursquare, for all my relative lack of enthusiasm was quite decent (many disagreed and thought it was much better), and the Hampden and the Mount Gay rums were, I thought, excellent in their own right. But when it comes ot the Saint James, the lowest proofed of the lot, “good” or “excellent” just doesn’t cut it. Because this is a rum that’s exceptional.

Part of that may have been the completely approachable strength (45%) and part was surely the impact of fifteen years ageing in Martinique: we rarely see agricole rhums that old, so by itself that’s a selling point; plus, this may be the first indie bottling Saint James have ever allowed (like Appleton’s pot still collection, another Velier coup from a couple of years back). The real takeaway is that this rum combines an agricole sensibility with a long-term barrel-ageing philosophy (much as the Bally 18 YO did) and while of course I can’t speak for your experience or to your preferences, when I tried it, it was love at first sip.

The first notes of the rum opened with a complex symphony so rich I slugged the shot down, then poured a second glass immediately, just to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with me. There was a complex fruit symphony of tart gooseberries, miso, very ripe gooseberries and mangoes, and a smorgasbord of all the sour funkiness I would normally have associated with Jamaica. Pineapples, cherries, sprite, lemon rind, honey, and that was before a panoply of cane sap and herbals made themselves known: fennel, rosemary, cloves, jasmine. The balance was superb and each delicate aromatic chip was clear, bright, and neither dominating nor dominated by, any other.

It was a great experience tasting it, as well. It felt just right on the tongue, silky, velvety, rich, and the tastes just went on from there. A lot of the bright and effervescent character remained, sweet, sour, tart, clean and voluptuous: pineapple slices and light yellow Thai mangoes, plus 7Up, honey, with additional threads of vanilla, cinnamon, rosemary and cardamom, plus just enough coffee grounds, chocolate and woodsmoke to present an intriguing and welcome counterpoint. The prevalence of dried fruitsthankfully not oversweetbrought to mind aged armagnacs or cognacs, especially when combined with a hint of aromatic damp tobacco. And it led to a really nice finish, surprisingly long, presenting a finale of delicious, sweetly gentle florals, bananas, honey, fruits and anise.

Like Stuart Pearce of the underrated review site Secret Rum Bar, I have tended to view much-reduced aged agricole rhums with some hesitation, some reluctance, even occasional suspicion; and in his own review he noted that he felt the palate became somewhat flat, hence his lower score. I thought otherwise myself, though: it dialled down from the impact the nose had made, to be sure, yet I didn’t think any quality was truly lost.

Frankly, my opinion was (and remains, after sneaking a second round in at the Paris Whisky Live later in the year) that it is hard to see how it could have been improved upon. It’s one of the best aged agricoles I’ve ever tried, and to my mind, is some kind of wonderful. It dares to take a chance, to not so much go off the beaten track as delicately careen along the skirting to show possibilities, hinting, not bludgeoning. It marries a solid age not often seen in agricole rhums, with a lower strength that allows all the complexities of the barrels and the gradual transmutation of the rhum, to be presented in their full flower. To bring this up to cask strength but make it younger would not have worked as well, and to simply age it without addressing the balance of tastes and intensity would have invited failure. Saint James drew upon all the skills they hadand that’s a lotand ended up providing Velier, and us, with one of those miraculous rhums that achieves its immediate goals of being just damned good…and then continues climbing towards an even higher sensibility.

(#951)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Once again it seems like I have a minority opinion. Secret Rum Bar rated it 84 points, WhiskyFun gave it 88, while Rum-X has an average of 84 points off of 12 ratings.
  • As with the other rums in this quartet, the outturn is 600 magnums and 1200 bottles.
  • The photograph on the label is from 2005 and depicts a scene from the wedding of a friend of Erwitt’s in Rome. The woman shown in silhouette is the bride.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Oct 032022
 

The full name of this rum is the “Barikenn ‘81.6’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc de Guadeloupe (Montebello). I imagine that just trying to say the whole thing in one breath distracts somewhat from the fact that this is one of the most powerful rums of recent memory (yes, I know there are others that eclipse itI made the list, after all), and if one loses focus and takes it too lightly then one might just find oneself being blasted into next week.

Most of us know something about Montebello, but who is Barikenn? At first I thought it was a lesser-known brand name from the small distillery on Guadeloupe from which the rhum hailsthe principle is not unheard of, after all. I was then corrected by a gent on Instagram who pointed out very politely that it was a French indie bottler, namely himself, Nicholas Marx (no relation to Karl), and the company was named after an old spelling variant of barrique, or barrel, in Breton. He founded the Brittany-based independent bottling outfit in 2019 in order to share his passion for high quality full-proof rums, free from adulterants and completely transparentand while he did not explicitly state it, I get the impression that until recently his market was primarily regional (much like Tristan Prodhomme of L’Esprit, which is also in Brittany, began his own operations).

If he felt that staying small was going to last, the reception of his bottlings soon disabused him of such notions. Starting out in 2019 with a pair of well regarded Foursquare and Worthy Park rums, he added a Guyanese 8 YO the following year which WhiskyFun rated 91 points … and people started to take notice. 2021 was when things got really interesting, because aside from a Mauritius and Fiji addition to the roster, he dabbled in water not many indies would dare to, so soon: unaged, white, column-still cane-juice rhum…at still strength (I amuse myself by wondering if he was taking a cue from Tristan’s high proofed South Pacific and Diamond whites). I bought a bottle in Berlin last year, and gingerly tasted it, feeling as nervous as on my first date all those years ago and with good reasonrums north of 80% can rearrange your insides, if not treated with care.

Nosing it makes the point quite clearly, because even a small and delicate sniff is like stuffing an oversalted maggi-cube up your nose, or snorting a spoonful of marmite seasoned with extra cayenne. I’m aware that this is a peculiar way for any rum reviews’s nose section to start but stay with me…it does develop. After a while one can sense lemon-infused sugar water, dish washing soap, tart pears, cranberries and red currants. A little rubber, a few acetones, a touch of vinegar (or sweet cider), and the notion one is left with after a few minutes, is one of commendable restraint in something so notionally powerful. Unlike, say, the Marienburg, the Wild Tiger or the Sunset Very Strong, the aromas on this Barikenn aren’t out to trample you flat (and then stomp on the pieces) but seem genuinely relaxed and easier than one might expect..

The taste is large, round and strong, for sure, but not, thankfully, harsh. Initial tastes are dirty, earthy, salty, yeasty, bread-y, quite pungently so, and the added marmite and vegetable soup flavours may not be to everyone’s taste. However, after some time these recede and give way to the fruit basket: bananas, red currants, strawberries, bubble gum, some pineapple slices, which leaves me wondering where this was hiding when I was smelling it. It does do somewhat better with some water, adding sweet and sour chicken, soya sauce, brine and a sort of sparkly and intense fruity note, plus plastic, brine and acetones, in a nice mix. It all leads to a long and sharp finish redolent of resin, plastic, unripe green fruits that’s really too thin and lacks heft…yet nothing I could genuinely warn you away from.

The whole thing just works. The whole experience is one of intensity, power and puissance which falters a bit at the end, yet the tastes are so pungent and deep that all I could think was that this is what the Marienburg could have aspired to, because the strength does not actually detract here as it did there: it just needs to be handled with some care and patience.

These days it seems there is some kind of obscure, unstated and never-acknowledged race to the top for these unaged white rums. Blending and filtration are lesser concerns, and it’s all about finding a rum that’s exceptional straight off the stillsomething raw and undiluted, a no-age ultra-proofed Sam Jackson style m*f*er that’s made to show it’s the meanest, the baddest and the tastiest, a rhum which can take out Mace Windu without busting a sweat or resorting to force lightning. The Barikenn Montebello is as serious and as tasty a white rum as you’ll have all year, proofed up and jacked up to a level of taste intensity that ensures you don’t just get the point…you get the whole kitchen sink as well.

(#940)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • 300 bottle outturn. The rhum was (column) distilled in 2019, rested in inert steel tanks, and bottled in 2021.
  • Source of the cane juice is single variety “red cane” which reputedly has exceptional taste qualities.
  • Barikenn has released another variation of this rhum in 2022, but at a milder 52ºit’s from the same 2019 batch.
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 unimportantthe 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 yearand 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 takewas 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 hoists 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 heftily aged brawlers, and only rarely have I found any that stunkthis 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 intart 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 behindapple 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 qualityit 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 reasoningand 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 UKa notoriously hard markergave 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 182022
 

To drink the still strength, high proofed “Bio” that Saint James distilled in July of 2020, is to be reminded what a distiller at the top of his game can do without even ageing his product. Yes, they’ve made the pot still white I was so impressed by in 2019, but to try this 74.2% growler immediately afterwards (as I did) is like running the bulls in Pamplona in one year…then coming back later when all of them had been replaced by a particularly aggressive bunch of wild Kenyan Zebus that had been fed a diet of diced tigers and enough steroids to father a nation. It’s that kind of experience.

Here’s a rhum that ticks all the right boxes, and then some. It’s a parcellaire micro-terroire rhum made with full attention to organic production methods, run through a column still and bottled as isno ageing, no addition, no reduction. What you’re drinking is what comes dripping off the still. It’s fierce, it’s savage, it’s tasty and as far as I’m concerned, the best unaged white I’ve ever tried…until I find the next one.

This kinetic whomp of proof hits you in the face right from the moment you pour the first shot, and so honesty compels me to suggest you give it a few minutes to settle down, because otherwise it bucks like an unbroken wild horse with half a pound of cayenne under its tail. And when you do sniff, its huge: brine, sweet soya sauce, cane sap, wet grass, and not just bags of fruit but whole sackspears, watermelon, papaya, guavas, apples, sweet Thai mangoes. It morphs over time and additional smells of iodine, smoked salmon, lemon juice and dill come to the fore, and more lurks behind in a sort of aromatic clarity and force we see all too rarely.

And this intense panoply continues on the palate as well. That it is lip-puckeringly intense will come as no surprise, and once that is over and done with and one adjusts, the rich parade of flavour begins and the rhum becomes almost soft: it starts with damp earth, brine and olives, continues onto vegetal herbs, grass, dill, rosemary, then becomes clearer and crisper with cane juice, crushed walnuts, lime leaves (a lime cheesecake is what I kept thinking of) and glides to a precise finish that lasts what seems like forever, a finish that is dry, fruity, sweet, salty, overall delicious…and possibly the best rumkiss of my recent memory.

What a magnificent, badass, delicious rum this is. Rums I like or want to get deeper into are usually kept on the go for a few hours: three days later this thing was still in my glass and being refilled, and I was guarding it jealously from the depredations of Grandma Caner who kept innocently edging closer, twitching her fingers and trying to filch some. Everything about the entire profile seems more intense, more vibrant, more joyful and it’s a treat to just smell and taste and enjoy when one has more than just a few minutes in a tasting someplace. Initially, when I had sampled this rhum at the Rum Depot in Berlin I had been impressed, and bought a bottle straightaway, yet with the time to really get into it without haste or hurry, I appreciated it even more the second time around.

And it also upstages what I thought were other pretty serious pieces of workSaint James’s pot still white, William Hinton’s Limitada and A1710’s Brute 66% to name just three. My serious opinion is that the beefcake of “Bio” points the way to rhums we may hope to get in the future; to try it is to be shown one of the most overwhelming, intensely tasty experiences that one is likely to have that year. And believe me, I honestly believe it’ll be worth it.

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

Some relatively new trends in modern rhum-making that this rhum epitomizes, is perhaps necessary in order to place Saint James’s “Bio” rhum in perspective.

One is the micro-terroire parcellaire approach to rhum production, where cane from a single small parcel or field or area of an estate is identified and harvested, and a rum (or rhum) made from that one area. Usually this is an experimental and limited run, meant to show off the characteristics a master distiller feels is characteristic and unique within that small plot of land. These days, most of the work in this direction appears to be coming from the French Island rhum makers like Neisson, HSE, A1710, Saint James and others like Renegade in Grenada, but for my money the first may have been the UF30E, if not the clairins from the micro-producers of Haiti.

This minimalist, small-batch approach also lends itself well to an emergent strain of sustainable, ecologically sound, carbon-neutral and environmentally friendly, organic or “bio” rhum productionwhich is still in its infancy, for now, yet gaining in importance and credibility. For rums, the term “certified organic” (and its variations) is not a mere catchphrase and marketing gimmick but refers to standard of production that today’s younger consumers take very seriously. Sales are built on such concepts.

And then there is ever-evolving rum-connoisseurship of the drinking classes, which, while once being perfectly happy with rhums and rums topping out at 50% ABV, now seems eager to go to the screaming limit. This leads to the curious (and occasionally amusing) race to the top of the proof pyramid to satisfy such demand, by producersnot all, but some. Ten years ago it was only independents and whisky-making rum bottlers who trafficked in such high ABV rums (151s were exceptions, for other reasons), but in the last couple of years the amount of rums issued north of 70% has ballooned and forced me to re-issue the Strongest Rums list not once, but twice, as new entrants kept getting added.

All of these aspects go into making the “Bio”, and may, as I remarked above, be a harbinger of rhums and rums to come. Cane juice is already considered a way to premiumize and mark out one’s products (high esters and “Jamaican methods” are another), and increasing proof combined with smaller production, limited-edition runs is here to stay. Maybe they will not go mass market, but for smaller distilleries they can sure boost the margin and the sales in a way the bigger global producers can’t.


Other notes

  • Outturn is 5900 bottles
  • It remains remarkably affordable at around €60
  • Thanks to Dirk Becker and the really superlative staff of Berlin’s Rum Depot for bringing this to my attention and allowing me to taste first.
  • The rhum is edging into 151 territory (75.5%), but by no means is the Brut de Colonne to be considered a Ti Punch ingredient, not least because there’s a lower proofed 40% “Biologique” made and exported for that purpose (and another at 56.5% for the islanders) – indeed, some of the blurbs I’ve seen specifically mention it is to be had for and by itself.

 

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 thingsI 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 completelyas I said, the strength can be too mild for some. Yet I like Damoiseau rhums generally and this one specificallyhad 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 coursethey get marketed as vintage premiumsso 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.

ColourGold

Strength – 44%

Photo (c) ebay.fr

NoseVery 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 notespassion 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.

PalateMuch of the nose transfers seamlessly here, especially the initial tastes of crisp fruitsmangoes, 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.

FinishDoesn’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.

ThoughtsThis 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 theyor Pernod, or Ricard who took them overoriginated 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 VioletPallade and Simonwho 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 byrrhthe brothers did not invent the title, just appropriated it as their brand nameand 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 yearin 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 aperitifsDubonnet-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 LabelCDC 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 liqueursespecially anises and absintheswere 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 PCthat’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 aboutassuming 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 andsomewhat to my surpriseclothes 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 authorityit 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 lightlyall 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.