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 collections – Old, 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.

Colour – Gold

Strength 44%

Nose – Luscious; 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.

Palate – There’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 tongue – the 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.

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

Thoughts –  I was right not to score this at the beginning of my rum journey, since in 2010, the chops to evaluate it was lacking – to 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 rhum — the 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 were — nowadays 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 blancs — even 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 500ml – I 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 damage – it’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 Ratings — even 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.
Nov 062023
 

A few months ago I posted a picture of what I was tasting that week on Instagram which included the Camikara 12 YO: I was surprised and pleased at the responses which said how much people had liked it — most of these came from those who had sampled it at that year’s UK rum festival. This is an export rum from India which has two younger siblings (a 3YO and an 8YO) and remains a rather unknown quantity to many, perhaps because they have all been issued quietly and without the serious social media fanfare as attends so many other rums these days, and been reviewed by too few.

Yet I think we’d better start paying some attention, because this rum presses a number of buttons that, had they been made in more familiar climes by more familiar names, would have had us checking it out almost by default. Consider: here is a rum from a single cane varietal, made from cane juice (not jaggery or molasses), pot still distilled, aged for twelve years and bottled at a solid 50% ABV. Plus, it’s from India which, while having a great record in whiskies, does not have a stellar reputation for rums, yet which has on occasion surprised us with products of uncommon quality.

Piccadily Distillers made this rum in Haryana, a northern Indian state – it abuts the Punjab, and is just due south of Solan: those with long memories may recall that this is where Mohan Meakin of Old Monk fame started things going back in the 1800s. Piccadily themselves are better known, especially in India, for their malt whiskies Indri and Whistler and it’s never been made clear exactly why they would branch out into rums on an international scale, though my own impression is the market in India is simply too crowded with ersatz rums already, and increasing premiumisation of the spirit in the West suggests an opportunity to break into that market with an unusual product from a near-unknown location.

So that’s the background: what about the rum?

Nosing it suggested that the company has dispensed with most of the subtly and never-quite-proved flavoured profiles of Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk line and (to a lesser extent) Amrut’s own export rums. This stuff is not bad at all – initially quite tart and fruity, with canned peaches and yellow mangoes blending nicely with laban and the faintest whiff of sour cream. This is followed by aromas of red grapes and apples in a pleasantly clean and just-shy-of-light series of smells that feel quite crisp, while at the same time balanced off with caramel, plums, aromatic tobacco, vanilla and green peas. The sweetness that one senses is kept very much under control which stops any one aspect of the nose to predominate.

What is somewhat surprising is the strength – we have not seen a rum from India that clocks in at 50% before (though they have been edging up of late, with the 60+% Habitation Velier Amrut being something of an outlier). This provides the taste with a firm landing on the palate, starting off with flambeed bananas, peaches, red guavas, green peas and those overripe mangoes. What distinguishes this phase of the experience is the spice-forward nature of the rum: one can with some effort make out vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, tumeric and sweet paprika, and it brings back fond memories of the spice markets in middle-eastern soukhs more than anything else. There are some hints of salted chocolate, honey, cardboard, dusty cupboards, cheerios, and the rum presents as heavier than the nose had initially suggested…but it’s pretty good, and the closing notes of damp port-infused tobacco, honey anise, herbs, citrus and (again) spices makes for a fascinating segue away from more familiar profiles.

I say “more familiar profiles” but really, this is a rum through and through and there’s no mistaking what it is. However, it must be stated that its agricole-style cane juice origins are somewhat lost in the middle of such long hot-weather ageing – the barrels do most of the heavy lifting of the profile, rather than the intrinsic nature of the cane juice distillate, which provides so much character to unaged whites from wherever – if Piccadily ever made such a white I’d be clamouring to get some. Moreover, my hydrometer tests this at 47.5% ABV, which works out to about 12g/L of something, so readers should take that into account – my own take is that it still tastes pretty good, but obviously that will not be everyone else’s opinion.

Summing up, then, I must say that as a whole, taking everything into consideration, the Camikara rum is a treat: even in the controlled environment of my study, I admired it (in company even more so) and am now sharing it with everyone I can, because noses well and tastes great with just enough originality and uniqueness to the profile to make one take a second look and maybe a third sip, and it deserves a wider consideration. Like many rums from parts of the world other than the standards, while the DNA is unmistakable, the variation is really kind of fascinating. I think it’s a solid addition to the mostly unknown slate of aged rums from Asia generally and India in particular. 

(#1037)(87/100)


Full disclosure: in early 2023 I was approached about taking a look at the 12YO by the head of Piccadily’s international business. He admitted they had no distribution in Canada and no facilities to get paid for a bottle, as is my practise: he offered to send me one if I could spot him dinner and a pint when next we were in the same area of the world. I consider that a firm deal, but since I have (as of this writing) not been able to make good, you should be aware of the source.


Other notes

  • Camikara means “liquid gold” in Sanskrit
  • The press blurbs talk about 956 barrels being laid to rest in 2009, of which only 6.6% remained twelve years later. Well, that works out to around 14,000 litres, so given its limited edition marketing (3600 bottles total, with 400 bottles to India, 1200 for the US, 400 for the UK and 800 for Europe), some has probably been left behind to age even further, and / or been blended into the younger releases. 
  • I like the whole origin story of barrels being overlooked and fortuitously “rediscovered” but consider the neglect and forgetting of nearly a thousand barrels to be ultimately unrealistic outside a press release, where anything goes.
  • Piccadily Distilleries is part of the Piccadily Group, which has three distilleries in the Northern part of India: Indri, Patiala, and Bawal. The distillery making the rum is unclear: Mr. Siddhartha Sharma in an interview with Rumporter says Indri, while Surrinder Kumar the company’s master distiller, said it was Patiala in an interview with MoneyControl (he notes it was when the Patiala plant was being refurbished that the barrels were rediscovered) – it is the latter that is on the label, but I do wonder at the confusion. 
  • The company’s copper pot stills are Indian made.
Sep 012023
 

Foursquare and WIRD and Mount Gay grab the lion’s share of social media attention from which originates so much of our news from Barbados, and so we sometimes overlook the fourth rum maker on the island, St. Nicholas Abbey.  They are a small boutique distillery that became famous a decade ago for their lovely etched squarish bottles which you could once get refilled at a discount if you presented it at the distillery (maybe no longer now, alas).

SNA remains tiny in comparison with the other distilleries, run as part of a heritage site of the same name, and managed by the Warren family (see my original reviews here and here for some details), and at the beginning, bought rum stock from Foursquare down the road to get their program off the ground – Richard Seale also provided support and advice.  Initially they issued 5, 10 and 12 YO aged rums — these were the first reviews of their line that I did —  and over time this trio has been added to and developed into some much more high end hooches: a 15 and 18 and 20 YO and (heaven forbid) even a 23 YO…which admittedly I’ve never seen or tried (but want to). The rums were (and to some extent remain) rather more expensive than is the norm for similarly aged rums, which I know from personal experience; yet they sold and continue to sell, and these days SNA cultivates its own cane and makes its own rums rather than buying externally.  What this has inevitably led to is a suite of younger rums like the unaged white, a white overproof — and a different 5YO than the one I sharpened my tasting buds on all those years ago. 

The stats for this 5YO, then: a lightish rum deriving from cane syrup (made in small batches from cane juice – so really, a sort of it-which-must-not-to-be-named agricole), coming off a pot-column hybrid still at 92% and then taken down to 65% or so for setting into ex-bourbon barrels. Like the white overproof it is a massive 60% ABV – and it’s a smart move to do so, since it allows the aficionados to get their intensity fix, while having exactly the same rum but weaker, sold to the general marketplace.

What surprises then, bearing in mind the tech sheet, is how relatively subdued the nose is at the beginning: some light and sweet honey, mead, plus a smorgasbord of white fruits (because of course there are); gradually one senses fanta, soda pop, 7Up, a little citrus, vanilla, and the slightly sour but still piquant sense of oranges gone off. The light fruits are always there, set off to some extent by brine, olives, unsweetened chocolate and the rich scent of overripe cashews (the ones with external seeds) which always reminds me of tequila for some reason.

The nose is somewhat rough, admittedly, and this is also the case on the palate.  What saves it is the rich and multilayered texture and intensity of the tastes that are handed over. Green peas, peaches, fruits, fleshy and ripe and juicy; a very firm profile, quite spicy.  Some unsweetened chocolate again, orange marmalade and a dusting of mint and vanilla, yet one misses the vaguely herbal and grassy notes which the source material suggests might be there. But anyway, it’s quite good, and the finish ends well: long, sweet and a little sour, some pineapple-in-syrup notes in the rear, mostly a nicely done fruit salad drizzled with Malibu and some fresh lime juice.

Chosing between the unaged overproof and this 5YO beefcake is pointless – they’re both good rums and serve different purposes.  Trying them together, I enjoyed each of them…in different ways. I felt that overall the unaged white held somewhat more character and likely made a better cocktail, because it had not yet been changed or tamed by age or wood; on the other hand, it was lacking the additional complexity and sharp firmness the 5 YO OP was showcasing. In a pinch I’d try to get the pair.  As for scores, well, back in the day I scored the standard strength 10-12-15 trio higher than I’m scoring this one now (if not by much): but whatever the score is, ultimately I think that this young overproof – with its level of controlled intensity and low-key voluptuousness – is pretty much on par with those venerable starter guns that SNA used to make its name all those years ago.

(#1022)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum is a blend without any years of distillation or bottling. They are evidently going for a long term consistent taste profile and specific barrels from specific years are the province of more premium bottlings up the line. The ‘single cask’ in the title suggests they decant a whole lot of rum into many casks at the same time, and blend them together over time within that set (otherwise they really would have years of make in the title)
  • The bottles remain the same, with glass etching of the abbey house engraved on each, and a mahogany tipped stopper.
Jul 192023
 

HSE – or Habitation Saint Etienne – is 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 say – it’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 strength – nothing 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 experience – and 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 2016 – it may even have been the first – and liked it to the tune of 86 points which for him, back then, was well nigh unheard of.
Jun 262023
 

“Asia may be the next region to discover for rummies,” I wrote back in 2018 when introducing audiences to Chalong Bay for the first time, and nothing between then and now has caused me to significantly alter that off-the-cuff prognostication. Already, back then, we were seeing interesting (if not always world-beating) rums from Tanduay from the Philippines, Mekhong from Thailand, Amrut from India, Sampan from Vietnam, and Laotian from Laos. Australia was ticking along under everyone’s radar, the Pacific islands were just getting more well known, and of course there was always Nine Leaves out of Japan. 

Not long after that new companies and new brands began to sprout up and become better known through exhibitions at rum festivals all over Europe: rums from artisanal companies like Renaissance (Taiwan), Mia (Vietnam), Naga (Indonesia), Samai (Cambodia), Issan (Thailand), Mana’o (Tahiti) rubbed shoulders with older and more established — but still barely known — brands like Teeda and Cor Cor (Japan), Old Monk (India), Kukhri (Nepal), Laodi (Laos), and Sang Som (Thailand again). This is what I mean when I remark that poor distribution and a fixation with the Caribbean sometimes obscures the seriously cool work being done elsewhere, and if it weren’t for an occasional indie release, we’d never even hear about some of them.

But I digress: Chalong Bay is one of the relatively new companies out there, founded in 2014 by a pair of French entrepreneurs from named Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis who saw Thailand as a good place to start a small artisanal distillery. They sourced a copper column still from France and went fully organic and all-natural: no chemicals or fertilisers for the cane crop, no burning prior to harvesting, hand harvesting, and a spirit made from freshly cut and crushed cane juice with no additives, sourced from local farmers from around the region they operate – Phuket, a tourist town on a spit of land jutting into the Andaman sea (the distillery is just south of the town of Phuket itself).

When last I looked at their rums, there wasn’t a whole lot of variety in the lineup.  Little or no aged juice, a white and some infusions and that was it.  Nowadays Chalong Bay sports three distinct lines – #001, which is the original pure unaged white rum at 40%, #002 the “Tropical Notes” series which is vapour-infused flavoured white rum (lemongrass, Thai sweet basil, cinnamon, kaffir lime are examples), and #003, a spiced variation mixed up with some nine different Asian botanicals. What their website doesn’t tell you is all the other stuff they make and which was on display at 2022’s WhiskyLive in Paris: a 2YO aged version, two different unaged whites (one wild yeast version with longer fermentation time, and another one at 57%), and this one, which was released by LMDW for their “Antipodes” collection last year – a 20 month old 62.1% growler (which is also called the Lunar Series, and represented in 2022 by the tiger on the label).  It came from two ex-bourbon barrels aged in France (not Thailand), so somewhat limited, though the exact outturn is unknown…I’d suggest around a thousand bottles, maybe a shade less.

That strength is off-putting for many, and with good reason – north of 60% is getting a little feral, and this cane juice rum is no exception — it’s snarly, gnarly and ugly and it doesn’t much like you. Behind all that aggro, however, is a full service agricole taste smorgasbord, plus a swag bag of gleefully provided extras.  It starts off with brine, olives and sugar water and that colourless sweet syrup they sometimes put into some concoction at Starbucks. There’s a a nice scent of hummus with unsweetened yoghurt and olive oil (and a pimento or two), but all that’s required here is a little patience: soon enough we get sweet deep fruits – strawberries, apricots, pears, raspberries, ginnips, kiwi fruit, and peaches and cream. Stick around long enough and citrus-like sodas like Sprite or Fanta make their appearance…and, even a faint tinge of mints…or mothballs.

Well…okay.  It’s interesting for sure, and it is deep and strong, if a little arid.  The taste is like that as well: sharp, dry, clean and fierce.  It tastes initially of sugar water, soda pop, coconut shavings, combined with a flirt of vanilla and as it opens up we get crisp fruits, some light toffee and more of those pale, easy going fruits like pears, papaya, melon and white guavas. Some water is good to have here, and I’m sure it would make a banging daiquiri.  The palate is the sort of thing that gives a bit more if you stick with it, and the finish is equally tasty (as well as being long and quite dry), without actually introducing much that hasn’t passed by already.

Overall, this is a rum that’s got a lot going on, is very tasty and a joy to smell. It reminds me of the O Reizinho we looked at last week, with some of that same dichotomy between the youth and the age: the two sides coexist, but uneasily. Recently I’ve tried a few rums that first made their bones as unaged unapologetic white beefcakes – clairins, the new Renegades, the Reizinho, etc – and were then aged a smidgen and released as sub-five year old rums (Rum Nation also did that with their first Jamaican white, you may recall). And while most are good – as this is – almost none of them have vaulted to the next level and blown my socks off…at least not yet.

The new and the original is always worth trying, and Chalong Bay has been on my radar for quite a while: what they have managed to do here for LMDW is just a few shots shy of spectacular. White rhums are admittedly something of an acquired taste, and maybe this rum will not find favour with a global, mellower audience which doesn’t eagerly or willingly (let alone deliberately) walk into a face-melting exercise in spirituous braggadocio.  Still: I think this is one hell of a rum, showing the heights to which a minimally aged white can aspire if not filtered to death or overly messed with — and if on this occasion it doesn’t quite make the peak, well, it comes damned close.

(#1008)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

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 cylinders — but 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 start – fruits 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 this – pineapples and strawberries show up, as well as soft squishy overripe oranges – but 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 solid – it 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 rums — which have been a hallmark of TBRC since their establishment — fluttering 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 releases — one aged, one not — whose 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 charandas – which 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 directions – nicely 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 before — which 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 other – this 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 happened — my guess is over the last decade ort so — but 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 well – a 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 too – but 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 unclear – for one thing, I’m not entirely sure the brand exists or is being made any longer. The source distillery is a mystery – as noted, Pitterson did issue a rhum from HSE before, and Marie Brizard, the subsequent owner, had a distribution relationship with La Mauny – so 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 nougat – in 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 well – nothing 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 notes – what 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 agricole – it implies such by the use of the “rhum blanc” on 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 notes – Marie 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 staples – the 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 bit – except 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 ready — which can be anywhere from three to six months — it’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 it – there’s a pale yellow tinge to it that hints at the wood influence, however minimal.

Anyway, what does it sample like? In a word – lekker. 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’punch — at which I’m sure this does a bang up job — for 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 promised – pears, 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 that – a 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 matter – my 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 thesis — because 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

Feb 202023
 

This is a sample review I’ve been sitting on for quite a while, and after trying it was never entirely certain I wanted to write about at all: but perhaps it’s best to get it out there so people can get a feel for the thing. It’s a rhum made in Vietnam since 2017 by a three-person outfit founded by an expatriate Martinique native named Roddy Battajon and occasionally turns up in social media feeds and in French and regional magazines — but, like other Vietnam rum brands we’ve looked at before (Mia, L’Arrangé Dosai and Sampan so far), lacks exposure and a more international presence. It’s the usual issue: too small for sufficient revenues to allow for rum festival attendance and a distribution deal, and the pandemic certainly did not help. Since 2022 they’ve entered into some partnership deals, however, so there is hope for a greater footprint in the years to come – for now the primary market for its rhums seems to remain regional, with some being for sale in France.

Mr. Battajon has been in Vietnam since around 2016, arriving with ten years of F&B experience in Europe under his belt, and after knocking around the bar circuit there for a while, felt that the high quality of local sugar cane and the mediocre local rhums (the most popular is called Chauvet, and there are bathtub moonshines called “scorpion” and “snake wine” which one drinks just to say one has) left a space for something more premium. He linked up with a Vietnamese partner who doubles up as General Manager in charge of procurement and product sourcing (bottles, labels, corks, cane juice, spares…), and an Amsterdam-based designer and communications guy. Navigating the stringent regulations, sinking his capital into a small alembic (a stainless steel pot still), bootstrapping his Caribbean heritage and tinkering the way all such micro-distillers do, he released his first cane juice rhum in early 2017 and has been quietly puttering along ever since.

The rum is made as organically as possible, sourcing pesticide-free cane from local farmers, and eschewing additives all the way – for now a “Bio” certification remains elusive since the certifying mechanism has not yet been instituted in Vietnam. However they recycle the bagasse into compost, and botanical leftovers into a sort of bitters, and have plans to use solar panels for energy going forward, as well as continuing to source organic cane wherever they can find it.

This then, finally brings us to the rhum itself.  So: cane juice, pot-still distilled from that little alembic (have not been able to establish the size or makeup), and bottled at a muscular 55% ABV. Mr. Battajon makes it clear in a 2017 interview, without stating it explicitly, that his vision of rhum is one of infusion and flavouring, not the “pure” one currently in vogue, though he is careful to make a distinction between what he does and a “rhum arrangé”. The company now makes several different lightly aged products but I have not seen anything to suggest that either an unaged white is available (yet) or that if it is, it is unadded-to. 

In various articles, listings and comments online, mention is made of coffee beans, pineapple, mangoes, other fruits, and various herbs, barks and spices being added to the ageing barrels. I had no idea this was the case when I tried it – it was a sample from Reuben Virasami, a fellow Guyanese and bartender who spent some time in Vietnam and who now resides in Toronto – and he didn’t provide any info to go along with it, so I gave it the same run-through that all rhums receive. In other words, I treated it as a straightforward product.

What the Legacy did, when I tried it, was transport me back to a corner of my mind inhabited by the Cuban Guayabita del Pinar. It had that same sense of sweetly intense fruitiness about it – the nose was rich with ripe, dripping pineapples, soft and squishy mangoes, some sugar cane sap, and a few spices too subtle to make out – cinnamon and maybe nutmeg, I’d hazard. 55% makes the arrival quite powerful, even overpowering, so care should be taking to avoid a nasal blowout – fortunately it’s not sharp or stabbing at all, just thick.

The palate is much more interesting because some of the sweet fruit intensity is tamped down.  That said, it’s not a whole lot different from the nose: pineapples, mangoes, yoghurt, a touch of breakfast spices, anise and red bell peppers, and something akin to maple syrup drizzled over hot pancakes.  There’s a delicate citrus line underlying the whole thing, something crisp yet unidentifiable, with an alcoholic kick lending emphasis, but behind that, not a whole lot to go on.  The finish was disappointing, to be honest, because it was short and presented nothing particularly new.

So yes, when all is said and done, the Legacy is very much along the line of the ‘Pinar except here it’s been dialled up quite a bit. Overall, it’s too sweet for me, too cloying, and you must understand that preference of mine in case you make a purchasing decision on the basis of this review – I don’t care for infused and spiced rums or arrangés, really, unless the addition is kept at a manageable, more subtle, level, not ladled into my face with a snow shovel.  Here, in spite of the extra proof points, that just wasn’t the case: I felt drenched in mango-pineapple flavours, and that strength amplified the experience to a level I was not enthusiastic about. If I want a cocktail, I’ll make one.

It would be unfair of me to score a rum of a kind I usually do not buy and don’t care for — since I don’t knowingly purchase or sample such rums, experience is thin on the ground, and then I’d be making an assessment of quality I’m not equipped to deliver. Therefore I’ll dispense with a score, just write my thoughts and comments, and leave it for others to rate when their time comes. But I’ll make this remark – if a company labels its product as a rhum without qualification (by excluding the words “spiced” or “infused” or “arrangé”) then it’s asking for it to be judged alongside others that are deemed more real, more genuine. That leaves the door open to a lot of criticism, no matter how organic and well made the rhum is, and here, that’s not entirely to its advantage.

(#974)(Unscored)


Other notes

  • Not sure what the origin of the company title Belami is. On the other hand the word “Legacy” is likely a call back to Mr. Battajon’s grandmother, from whom he drew inspiration.
  • This Legacy edition was 55% ABV. In the various expressions, the strength varies from ~48% to ~60%
  • I’ve written an email to the company asking for clarification on a few points, so this post will be amended if I get a response.
  • Because several years’ worth of the Legacy were issued (some at 55%, some stronger, some weaker), I’m unsure as to the age. None state the year of make on the label as far as I can tell, but online stores sometimes make mention of the one they’re selling.
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 rhum – Rivière-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 rich” is 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, florals – light and sweet, like hibiscus, lavender and maybe a dusty rose or two. And then, thirdly, the spices – cinnamon 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 evident – probably as the influence of the barrel took over Management – but in its place we get raisins, apples, prunes, then cereal and honey dripped over fresh toast. Though the finish was not spectacular – it 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 exalted – but still excellent, very solid – palate. 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.
Jan 022023
 

Having now looked at a few standard strength agricola rums from Madeira, it’s clear that for their own “standard line” company bottlings, many remain wedded to mass-audience standards that still appeal – for price and availability and approachability reasons, no doubt – to the general public. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that they don’t always provide that intensity of taste, that serious jolt of flavour, that something of a more robust strength provides.

A good example of the potential of moving beyond G-Rated crowd-pleasers is this six year old 2015-distilled Engenhos do Norte rum agricola, which was selected by and perhaps made for Rum Artesanal from Germany. Engenhos apparently does this for several indie bottlers (a search of Rum-X turns up most of them), though I’m unclear as to the exact mechanics, since it remains a “970” branded rum, with RA noted as the company that chose it. In any event, it is cane juice, column still, bottled at a solid 51.3%, and at that proof point, the comparison with the laid back and inoffensive “North” rums that we’ve looked at before (here, here and here) is really quite apparent – especially when tried side by side.

Consider first the nose: it is instantly pungent, rather thick and redolent of ripe dark fruits – prunes, plums, raisins, peaches in syrup, and has that slight tart sourness of ripe Kenyan mangoes.  It smells much firmer and more solidly constructed than Engenhos’s standard  agricolas from the North brand line. It remains, for most of the duration one smells it, somewhat thickly sweet mixed with light citrus and crisper fruit, and thankfully never cloying. Whispers of Danish pastries, caramel, vanilla, guavas and a faint touch of orange zest and a whiff of rubber round things out nicely

Tasting it is a pleasant experience, retreading the road of the nose, with a few short detours here and there. For example, although quite mouth-coating, hot and intense (at first), it’s also dry and a little tannic. Flavours of chocolate oranges and dates emerge, combining sweetness, fruitiness and nuttiness in a nice amalgam; this is set off and then overtaken by peaches, very ripe red apples, rose petals, raisins and a touch of caramel, vanilla and cinnamon, with just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper lurking behind it all. It all leads to an easy-going medium long finish combining fruits, some sugar cane juice on the edge of getting sour, and spices. It’s not sharp at all, rather lacking in body, but I submit that the strength overall is reasonably well chosen for the rum that ends up in the glass.

Compared to the others Engenhos do Norte agricolas, the nose is more intense, which is hardly a surprise, but the palate remained thin, which is. Still, I liked how it developed into a sort of spoiled fruit salad drizzled with sugar and caramel at first, then gets taken over by a slightly more traditional profile. Well constructed overall, it still lacks an individualism that I find odd – even after running several of these Madeiran rums side by side, I still can’t quite put my finger on any aspect of them that identifies the terroire specifically, which indicates more research is probably needed (by me). Too, although it is — and others are — a rum from cane juice, not all of the light green herbaceousness comes through in the sampling, and they exhibit a solidity at odds with the effervescent clarity and brightness most true agricoles display.

But all that aside, it’s a good mid-range rum, a tasty treat and it’s well selected. It shows off the potential of higher proofed rums, and marries a strong series of tastes to a deep and yet also occasionally sprightly series of lighter elements. The important thing is that it doesn’t play coy, doesn’t try to hide anything – everything you taste is on the table for you to accept, or not. On balance, I’d go with the former, because compared with the other rums from the company I’ve tried, they got a lot more right than wrong with this one.

(#959)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • 258 bottle outturn
  • The “970” refers to the year the line was first introduced.  EdN provided the detail, without explaining why they dropped the “1”.

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 that – leather, 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 pimento — not 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 pralines – makes 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 sensed – black grapes, prunes, overripe peaches, bananas – but 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 to – it’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 Moule — the other is Damoiseau — and 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 reason – they 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 two – yet 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 sure – it’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 experiences — but 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 potential – but 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 barrel – I 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 parcellaire – if 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 limited — and 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 light – not 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 pieces – aromatic tobacco, salt caramel, old carboard and nail polish – don’t really make this a sip worth seeking. The finish is even weaker: short, light, sweet, inoffensive, mostly very light fruitiness – watermelon, papaya, white guava –  and 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 producers – probably for tax, regulatory or other reasons – that 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 rooftops – at 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 standard – but 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

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 it – I 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 hails – the 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 transparent – and 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 reason – rums 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 still – something 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 52º – it’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 unimportant – the age is. Ditto for others like Jamaica or St. Lucia or South and Central America, who for the most part follow “the age is the thing” principle for the well-known series of rums they issue. If they release a vintage year, it’s mostly something of a one-off, and even there the age remains the real selling point (if the limited outturn isn’t). 

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

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

A good example of all these concepts is the subject of today’s review: a Guadeloupe rhum from Damoiseau, the millesime 2009, which comfortably 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 stunk – this sure wasn’t one of them, and while the rhum does seem to be somewhat polarizing in the reviews I’ve read, me, I thought it was great.

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

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

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

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

(#934)(89/100)


Other notes

  • Although I was and remain enthusiastic, take my opinion with some caution.  Marcus over at Single Cask despised it to the tune of 69 points in January 2021, though on Rum Ratings, four  people gave it a solid 9 (oddly, the standard proofed 42% version was more contentious, with five commentators each giving it a different score ranging from 4 to 10). On the other hand, The Rum Ration rhapsodized in 2020 that it was “one of the best rhums” he’d ever tried, and Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel in the UK — a notoriously hard marker — gave it a rousing 89/100 in late 2019. It will come down to your personal taste profile, to some extent.
  • There is a 42% version of this rum with pretty much the same label. As far as I know it is simply a reducer version of this one.
Aug 012022
 

It’s been years since I looked at any of the rums of Barbados’s boutique micro-distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey. This is not for want of interest, really – just opportunity. Plus, I had enthusiastically reviewed most of the original three-rum 81012 YO lineup (later expanded to five with the additions of the 5 and 15 YO), and felt no immediate need to search for and buy and try progressively aged and more expensive expressions like the 18, 20 and 23 year-olds that kept on coming out the door at standard strength – sooner or later one of them would cross my path, I told myself. 

As the years progressed they remained at the back of my mind, however, and after 2017 I got interested all over again. Because in that year they released the 60% overproof white —  and since I had quite liked the original 40% version tasted the year before, with its cane juice and pot still origins, intriguing taste and gentle complexity, I hastened to try the OP at the first opportunity (which came at the 2022 TWE Rumshow). The overproof white is, like its lesser-proofed sibling, made from rendered cane juice (‘syrup’) then run through the pot still before being allowed to rest for three months in inert tanks, and then bottled – the current crop of 40% and 60% whites derive from the same source, it’s just that one is reduced and the other isn’t – otherwise, they are identical.

The standard white I tasted in 2016 had teetered on the edge of untameability, and walked a fine line between too little and too much. It was original, yet still felt something like a work in progress where the final vision had yet to snap into focus more clearly; this one was quite a bit better and it wasn’t only the extra proof.  The thing smelled like a whole lot more was in there: sweet vanilla, sugar water, raspberries, cherries, and very little of the briny paraffin wax and floor polish that had marked out its predecessor.  That was present, I hasten to mention, just kept firmly in the background, allowing the fruity flavours and congeners their moment to shine.

The palate was also well assembled, and holds up well; creamy hot sweet vanilla-flavoured cocoa drizzled over a four-fruit ice cream – let’s say mango, cherry, cranberries and pineapple. It didn’t come with a ton of complexity – it was not that kind of rum – what I got was, however, more than sufficient for Government work, and it was firm and warm and intense enough that I could sip it and get something reasonably complex, and near-delicious without having half my glottis abraded. The finish was suitably long and near-epic, mostly light fruits in a salad, some breakfast spices, a touch of cumin, and a green apple slice or two. 

Clearly St. Nicholas Abbey have not rested on their laurels since I first ran across their wares back in 2011, or even since I sampled the initial white they made. The profile of the overproof is one that continues to work well for a rum that can be both mixer and sipper, and it straddles the divide neatly.  Best of all, it’s well made enough that it never seems to be a binary decision, but one that’s entirely up to the drinker and will satisfy either way, because it’s one of those rums with the “overproof” moniker that doesn’t have to be endured, just enjoyed.

(#926)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Previous reviews of the St. Nicholas Abbey range of rums provide most of the backstory to the estate and the rum-making operation. It remains (as of 2022) the smallest of the island’s distilleries.