Apr 112021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

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

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

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

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

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#810)(80/100)

Mar 302021
 


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Oct 282015
 

Saint James 1885 cropRumanicas Review 010 | 0410

Yes, you read that right. 1885.  Holy molasses this thing is old. How can anyone even begin to assess a spirit that was made so incredibly long ago? I’m literally in awe.

What was going on back then anyway? Sino French war in Vietnam; the Mahdist army overran Khartoum and killed General Gordon; AT&T was incorporated in New York; Gottlieb Daimler patented his engine; the North West rebellion in Canada; the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York harbour; the Third Anglo-Burmese war…and St. James began bottling its vintages that year, same year as they introduced the square bottle. It may be the very first ever made, anywhere.

At around £6000 per bottle, all one can say is “ouch,” be grateful for the sample, and dive in on bended knee with head reverently bowed.

Colour – dark brown, almost black

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dark dark dark and so very plush. Made me feel I was sinking into an old Chesterfield. Plums, dark grapes, figs and black olives without the salt. Some vegetal in the background (really far in the bushes). Deep and thick, smoky, dusty.  Not very sugary at all, and had some essence of tart and juicy overripe pears. Then soy sauce and teriyaki, mixed with dark molasses soaked brown sugar. Fresh and heavy, both at the same time.

Palate – Warm, full-bodied, thick and heavy. Must have been made before the French islands moved full time to cane juice. Dark prunes and cherries in syrup…and yet, and yet…where’s the sugar? Treacle, bitter chocolate, pancakes and maple syrup, a cereal note in there somewhere, maybe rye bread. Molasses, plums and pomegranates, a flirt of anise, some oakiness but nothing excessive. Incredibly deep and tasty, amazingly well balanced.

Finish – Short and warm.  Some last notes of licorice, molasses and raisins, and some dry earthy mustiness to wrap it all up.

Thoughts – It was a fantastic rhum (rum?). Can’t imagine what a more leisurely tasting spanning many days would be like.  The depth of the thing is amazing, and I felt it worked well even for a more modern palate: it was quite a remarkably rich and complex beast, and it felt almost sacrilegious to drink it at all.

Other – No idea how long it was aged prior to bottling. According to Antique wines & Spirits, it was bottled in 1952. Can it truly be 67 years old? No, not really.  According to Benoît Bail who spoke to the master blender at St. James, all the 1885 stocks were in fact destroyed in the eruption of Pelee in 1902.  Some bottles of the 1885 were over in Europe and Cointreau (when they took over the distillery), was able to locate many of them in Amsterdam, Paris and London, and sent them back to Martinique, where there were still on sale at St. James into the 1990s. The master blender was of the opinion that the rhum itself was/is 8-10 years old, not more.

Also, the different taste of the rums from that time (until the 1930s) arises because the cane juice was heated (not boiled) at around 40°C before fermenting it. Pasteurization, you see, had not yet made a big splash and large steel tanks were not common.

I heard that Luca Gargano of Velier bought 300 bottles of this as an investment kin the 1980s.  I can just marvel at the perspicacity and far-sightedness of the man.

(90/100)

See also: Cecil’s (French) review on DuRhum is also pretty good.

Oct 192015
 

Bally - 6 ans 1Rumanicas Review 009 | 0409

Oh, tough one to research.  Loads of 1929 and 1930s photos out there, rien on this one. Not a millesime, because J. Bally helpfully places the year on that little smiley label at the top for those.  But with that fading old-style label, maybe pre-1980s?  Earlier? Not sure.  Still, J. Bally’s original domicile on Plantation Lajus du Carbet was closed back in 1989 (current rhums are made at a consolidated site at Plantation Simon using the original recipe), so at least we have something suitably aged here.  Whatever.  It was a neat little piece of history to be trying.  Note the cheap tinfoil cap, which perhaps says something about the makers’ esteem for their own product, back in the day…makes a man happy for modern plastic. I spoke to the company history a little here.

Colour – Dark Amber/Mahogany

Strength – 45%

Nose – Heated, not sharp. Very fruity, dark stuff, at the edge of over-ripeness.  Rich and fragrant and oh-so nice. Ripe peaches and plums; apricots just starting to go like an ageing strumpet past her prime; coconut shavings and a squirt of lime juice over the lot.  Also a faint background of musky brininess and sugar, like tequila.

Palate – Nice! Medium to full bodied, firm, warm and silky to taste. Dusty old books, dark sweet chocolate (RitterSport “rum, raisins and hazelnuts,” maybe that was it). More plums, plus some squashy blueberries, plus the taste of cumin and coriander and the same salt-sweet mustiness from the nose.  All in all, very tasty, and had sufficiently heated silky mouthfeel to make it an pretty good rhum, even for only six years ageing.

Finish – warm and lasting. Great black cake and tequila closing notes.  Somehow they didn’t interfere with each other (not always the case).

Thoughts – Wish I knew when it was made.  Actually, I wish I had the whole damned bottle.

(84/100)

 

 

 

Aug 062015
 

La Favorite 1990 - box

Rumaniacs Review 008 | 0408

Founded in 1842 and remaining a small family owned outfit in Martinique, La Favorite makes this AOC designated rhum vieux, aged a minimum of three years (I’ve been told it is five years old).  They make a big deal of the transmission of distillation technique and blending from father to son, as well as their selection of only the best cane, the natural fermentation, and controlled distillation (using steam powered equipment).  I’ve gone into the history of the company a little more here.

This gold rhum derives from pot still, issued at 40% in 1990.  One wonders why they didn’t keep it longer, if the year was such a good one.  And what’s with the cheap tinfoil cap?

Colour – Amber-Dark Gold

Nose – Wow. A very punchy, pot still profile (almost like a clairin with a tan). Pungent, briny, oily, chewy. Like a pail of salted beef. Grassy and green mango hints permeate here and there. Morphs well into black cake, chopped dark fruit (prunes, black grapes) and olives. More than 40% might have been too much, and I don’t say that very often.

Palate – A bit raw, toasty and spicy. Rubber and plasticine.  Emergent deep notes of black olives, dates, cereal, caramel, vanilla and smoke (in that order, for me). With water, an amazing thread of green apples and citrus, tart lemon zest (like a meringue), yet the dusky brine never entirely leaves the profile.

Finish – Medium short and warm, not dry at all. Some of that saltiness continues, but mostly wax and lemon and some unsweetened caramel

Thoughts – Unusual, in a good way. Really a lot of flavour here. This is one of those times I think 40% is okay. Stronger would have been more intense yes, but might also have shredded the balance of sweet, salt, grass and citrus.

(83/100)

La Favorite 1990

Jul 072015
 

LaMartiniquaise Rhum 1950-001

Rumaniacs Review 006 | 0406

This brand no longer exists, but the company (La Martiniquaise) formed in 1934, still does. My research turned up not only this photo from the 1940s/1950s edition, but an even older bottle from the 1850s (which sells for four thousand quid on oldliquors.com…ouch!).  Produced by L.M. Charenton le Pont from rhum imported from Martinique, then aged and bottled in France. The Sage said it was a 1950s rhum while others suggest 1940s, I trend to the latter here. 40%

Colour – Dark amber.

Nose – Rich, clean, warm.  Like a clear, clean cognac…nice. Earthy. Cinnamon, cloves, caramel and burnt sugar.  A sort of sharp thread of spice runs through this thing, added to honey and syrup over pancakes.

Palate – After the colour and nose, not quite as heavy as expected to taste. Still, maybe some molasses or syrup crept in here somewhere.  Smoke, sawdust, anise, licorice.  Cloves and caramel and more licorice emerge with a drop of water.  Aside from some raisins, fruity notes surprisingly absent.  Some green olives in brine.  At the back end, slight bitterness of gone-off caramel, vanilla and charred wood

Finish – Shortish, warm, smooth.  Caramel and vanilla dominate, with smoke and tobacco closing up the shop.

Thoughts – Really like this one. The depth and anise notes remind me of Damoiseau, or Courcelles. It may have been a rhum for the proles back in the day, but its quality is way above that. Wish it was a bit stronger….at 45% or so this thing would have been exceptional.

(85/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

La Martiniquaise

Jun 292015
 
Barbancourt 15

Photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange

Rumaniacs Review 005 | 0405

The forerunner of the still excellent fifteen year old rhum made in Haiti to this day, this one was generated in the 1970s, and it’s a pretty good rhum even after a remove of so many years.  Pot still 43%, about 15,000 bottles were issued according to The Sage, while The Whisky Exchange says 20,000…doesn’t matter, they’re rare as hen’s teeth these days anyway.  I think the recipe they used then is a little different than the current iteration of the 15, but not by much.  Note also the similarity of the box to today’s edition.

Nose: Oddly thin and discombobulated. Spicy, not too much. Nuts, caramel, port infused pipe tobacco, black grapes, some zest. Gets easier as you keep at it, rewards some patience and savouring.

Palate: Light bodied yet not anorexically thin, thank God (hate those). Some beef and biceps kept under velvet sleeves – 43% is great here.  Not quite a molasses background, but some – caramel, vanilla, toffee, crushed walnuts, ice cream without enough cream. Black grapes continue, red guavas, some anise and fennel and black tea (without sugar).  A shade too thin, really – still, you can’t fault the fact that it’s delicious.

Finish: Medium short, unremarkable.  Nothing more than the aforementioned spices and toffee to report. Goes down nicely, and at least it doesn’t hate you.

Thoughts: Amazing how consistent this is in quality to the current 15 year old, which I quite liked. Still, tasted after the >25 Year Old Veronelli, you can sense the difference. Surprised this was/is a cane juice product — has elements that hearken more to molasses, but what do I know?  A pretty good all-round rhum in all times, in all worlds.

(83/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

Barbancourt 1970s 15 yr old

May 282015
 
rhum-barbancourt-reserve-veronelli-over-25-years-old-rum-003

Photo shamelessly cribbed from Lo Spirito Dei Tempi

Rumaniacs Review 003 | 0403

A craft bottling from 1977, made by Luigi Veronelli of Milan, who had visited Haiti and was so impressed with the Big B, he was granted permission to take a few barrels.  Outturn 1196 bottles, 43%.  Note the age statement…greater than 25 years.  One can only sigh with envy.

Nowadays, fresh pressed cane juice is no longer used to make Barbancourt rums, but reduced syrup; and the old Charentaise still is gone, replaced by more modern apparatus.  This allows greater volume, but perhaps some of the older taste profile has been sacrificed, as this rum implies.

Nose: Rich, very warm, not quite spicy. Nuts, caramel, coconut shavings, black grapes.  Faint mint and hot tea. Excellent stuff.  Invites further nosing almost as of right.

Palate: Medium to light body.  Remarkably smooth, wish it had been a bit less thin. Fruity, of the just ripening, sharp kind – grapes, apples just sliced…wtf?  Let me check that again. Mmm…yes, it was as I said.  Also: the watery clarity of peeled cucumbers (no, really); more tea, some smoke, faint vanilla, toffee, nougat and caramel, but also well melded with more “standard” agricole flavours of grass, green tea.  Really goes down well.  Perhaps I was wrong, though…let’s try another sip.  Nope, still good.

Finish: Not too long.  Some last smoky, aromatic tobacco notes, a bit of dried fruit. You can help it along with another taste. Perhaps three. A rum this old and this rare deserves to be generously sampled.  All in the name of science, of course.

Thoughts: there’s a subterranean voluptuousness, a complex richness coiling inside this rum that I cannot recall from the current stable of Barbancourt’s products, even the 15 year old. Maybe it was the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Barbancourt’s old stock; maybe it’s the still; maybe it’s just the history. Whatever the case, I understand why so many Europeans on a grail quest for it.

(89/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

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