May 302022
 

While there are hundreds of clairin makers in Haiti, and they have been making cane juice spirits there since before the country’s independence in 1804, widespread modern knowledge of the spirit only really came after 2014, when it was introduced to the global audience by Velier, the Italian company made famous by its Demeraras, Caronis, and Habitation pot still rums series. Strictly speaking, Velier’s stable of clairins consists of just five core products from five small distilleries, but this obscures the regular annual releases of the unaged whites, the aged variants, and the various blends.

Initially, clairins from three distilleries were released (Sajous, Casimir and Vaval) a fourth (from Le Rocher) was selected and became part of the canon in 2017, and in 2018 a fifth was put together from a small distillery in Cabaret called Sonsonwhich is, oddly enough, not named after either the owner, or the village where it is located. It was finally released to the market in 2021, but the cause for the delay is unknown. The rum, like Clairin Le Rocher (but unlike the other three) is made from syrup, not pure cane juice; and like the Clairin Vaval, derives from a non-hybridized varietal of sugar cane called Madam Meuze, juice from which is also part of the clairin Benevolence blend. All the other stats are similar to the other clairins: hand harvested, wild yeast fermentation, run through a pot still, bottled without ageing at 53.2%.

Similar aspects or not, the Sonson stands resolutely by itself. On the initial nose, the sensation is of a miasma of fuel, benzine, brine and wax in a semi-controlled nasal explosion. The thing, no joke, reeks, and if it doesn’t quite mirror the gleeful wild insanity of the original Sajousfondly if tremblingly remembered after all these yearswell, it certainly cranks out burnt clutch and smoking motor oil drizzled with the smoke of a farting kerosene camp stove. Thankfully this is brief, and setting the glass aside for a bit and coming back an hour later, it appears almost sedate in comparison: acetone, nail polish remover and some serious olivular action (is that a word?), the aroma of a freshly painted room in a spanking new house. And after that there’s apple cider, slightly spoiled milk, gooseberries, orange rind and bananas in a sort of Haitian funk party, behind which are timid scents of sugar water, fleshy fruits, herbs and spicy-hot Thai veggie soup sporting some lemongrass. And all that in an unaged rum? Damn.

The surprising thing is, the palate is almost like a different animal. It’s luscious, it’s sweeter, more pungent, more tart. It channels watery, rather mild fruitsmelons, pears, papayawhich in turn hold at bay the more sour elements like unripe pineapples, lemon zest and green mango chutney: you notice them, but they’re not overbearing. Somewhere in all of this one can taste mineral water, crackers and salt butter, the silkiness of a gin and tonic and the musky dampness of moss on a misty morning. It’s only on the finish that things finally settle down to something even remotely resembling a standard profile: it’s medium long, a little sweet, a little sour, a little briny, tart with yoghurt and a last touch of fruits and sweet red paprika.

Every clairin I’ve triedand that includes the other four Velier-distributed versions, the Benevolence and a couple from Moscoso distillersis different from every other. Even where there similar elements, they bend in different ways, and admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to remember that they are supposed to be sugar cane juice based drinks at all. The heft of the Sonson, and the amount of disorganised flavours at play within it, is really quite stunning…and disconcerting. I think it’s that first nose that confounds, because if one can get past its rough machine-shop rambunctiousness, it settles down and becomes really nice (within its limitsI agree, it’s not a rum for everyone).

It’s also a rum to take one’s time with: after leaving my glass on the go overnight, when I sniffed it the following morning most of the oily rubber notes had gone, leaving only fruit and cereal and estery aromas behind, and those were lovely. Yet the rum will polarize, because it is cut from a different cloth than most rums or rhums we know and like better, and its peculiarities will not find fertile ground everywhere. I believe that the clairin Sonson is a rum that required courage to make and fortitude to drink… and perhaps a brave and imaginative curiosity to love.

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The word clairin means “clear” in Haitian creole
  • Of the five Velier-released clairins, I still like Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher best on a tasting basis, but admire the Sajous and the Sonson most for sheer audacity.
  • Other reviews in the blogosphere are middling positive:

 

May 262022
 

Distilleries that go off on their own tangent are always fun to watch in action. They blend a wry and deprecating sense of humour with a quizzical and questioning mien and add to that a curiosity about the rumiverse that leads to occasional messy road kill, sure…but equally often, to intriguing variations on old faithfuls that result in fascinating new products. Killik’s Jamaican rum experiments come to mind, and also Winding Road’s focus on their cane juice based rums1, like they were single handedly trying to do agricoles one better.

Moving on from the standard proofed rums from Australia upon which the focus has been directed over the last weeks, we begin to arrive at some of those that take the strength up a few notches, and when we bring together a higher proof with an agricole-style aged rumas uncommon in Australia as almost everywhere elseit’s sure to be interesting. Such ersatz-agricoles rums are the bread and butter of the Winding Road Distilling Co in New South Wales (about 175km south of Brisbane), which is run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Camille Awad: they have two rums in their small portfolio (for the moment), both cane-juice based. The first, the Agricole Blanc was an unaged rum of this kind, one with which I was quite taken, and it’s the second one we’re looking at today.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Coastal Cane Pure Single Rum is rum with the source cane juice coming from a small mill in the Northern Rivers area (where WR are also located), and as far as I know is run through the same fermentation process as the blanc: three days in open vats using both commercial and wild yeasts, with the wash occasionally left to rest for longer (up to two weeks). Then the wash is passedtwicethrough their 1250 litre pot still (called “Short Round”) and set to age in a single 200-litre American oak barrel with a Level 3 char, producing 340 bottles after 31 months. Bottling is then done at 46% in this instance: that, however, will change to suit each subsequent release based on how it samples coming out of the ageing process.

 

Mark Awad’s avowed intention is to produce a distillate that combines the clarity of agricole rhums with a touch of the Jamaican badassery we call hogo, as well as representing, as far as possible, the terroire of NSW…specifically Northern Rivers, where they are. I can’t tell whether this is the rum that accomplishes that goal, but I can say it’s very good. The nose is lovely, starting with deep dark fruits (prunes and blackberries), opens up to lighter notes (bananas, oranges and pineapples) covered over with unsweetened yoghurt and feta cheese. There’s a nice low-level funkiness here that teases and dances around the aromas without the sort of aggressiveness that characterises the Jamaicans, combined with floral hints andI swear this is truesmoke, wet ashes, and something that reminds me of the smell on your fingers left behind by cigarettes after smoking in very cold weather.

Photo provided courtesy of Winding Road Distilling Co. (c) Mark Awad

The barrel influence is clear on the palatevanilla, some light caramel and toffee tastes are reminders that it’s not an unaged rum. But it’s also quite dry, not very sweet in spite of the lingering notes of lollipops and strawberry bubble gum, has flavours of brine and lemon-cured green Moroccan olives, and brings to mind something of a Speysider or Lowland whisky that’s been in a sherry cask for a bit. It’s one of those rums that seems simple and quiet, yet rewards patience and if allowed to open up properly, really impresses. Even the finish has that initially-restrained but subtly complex vibe, providing long, winey closing notes together with very ripe blue grapes, soft apples, brine, and a touch of lemony cumin.

I’m really intrigued with what Winding Road have done here. With two separate rums they have provided taste profiles that are quite divergent, enough to seem as if they were made by different companies altogether. There are aspects of this aged rum that are more pleasing than the unaged version, while others fall somewhat behind: I’d suggest the nose and the finish is better here, but honestly, they are both quite good, just in different ways.

The constant tinkering and experimentation that marks out these small Australian distillerieswho strive to find both their niche and that point of distinction that will set them apartclearly pays dividends. While I can’t tell you with assurance I tasted an individualistic terroire that would lead me straight to NSW (let alone Australia), neither did the Awads head into the outback at full throttle, going straight through the wall leaving only an outline of themselves behind. What they have in fact accomplished is far better: they have created a rum that is thoroughly enjoyable, one that takes a well known style of rum, twists it around and bounces it up and down a bit…and ends up making the familiar new again. I can’t wait for Release #2.

(#911)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website specs refer to a single 200-litre barrel and the initial math seems wrong if 340 700-ml bottles were issued (since that works out to 238 litres with zero evaporation losses). However, that only computes if you assume the distillate went in and came out at the same strength. Mark confirmed: “The figures on our website are correct, even though at first glance they may seem a bit off. We filled the barrel at 67.1% ABV and when it was decanted the rum came in at 65.1%. We ended up with just short of 169 litres which we then adjusted down to 46% ABV. This gave us a bit over 239 litres which resulted in 340 bottles, plus a little extra that went towards samples.”
  • As always, chapeau to Mr. and Mrs. Rum for their kind supply of the advent calendar.
May 192022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#909)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • These particular rums have been called “Lontan” since about 2003 — the word is a play on the French creole words long temps or “long time” (referring to the fermentation), and tan lon tan meaning “in the old days”. Previously, between 1997-2000 they were titled Varangue (verandah, perhaps a hint and a wink at where you should be drinking it), before which they were sold as Lacaze rhums…but of this last, few records remain and I couldn’t tell you much about them.
  • The sample says it’s aged in a cognac casks, which would explain the richness of the profile, but I can find no reference to that fact online anywhere (least of all on Savanna’s own site), and no photoghraph of the label is available.
  • Outturn 707 bottles
  • My thanks to Etienne Sortais, who generously sent me the sample
  • I’ve written a fair bit about Savanna rums, including a short bio of the company itself, so if your interest is piqued, there’s no shortage of material to go through.
Apr 212022
 

Image (c) Husk Distillers, from their FB Page

In the increasingly crowded Australian spirits marketplace, for a rum maker to stand out means it has to have a unique selling point, some niche aspects of its production that sets it apart in people’s minds from all the other contenders in the marketplace. Killik’s is the tinkering with the “Jamaican-style” of rum making; Jimmy Rum has its insouciant sense of humour, colourful owner and halcyon location; Beenleigh rests its laurels on being one of the oldest and its origin myth of the shipwrecked pot still; Cabarita Spirits has its vivacious solo proprietress, Brix goes with its yuppie urban vibe, and Bundaberg seems to take a fiendish delight in being equal parts derided and despised the world over. For Husk Distillers though, it’s the focus on producing cane juice based agricole-style rumsthis is what they term “cultivated rum” and what they have in fact registered as a trademark with IP Australia.

As was noted in the review of their “Bam Bam” Spiced rum, the company makes a gin called “Ink”, a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, a botanical, a spiced, and a few youngish aged rums. In August 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin-cane aged rum (as opposed to others made with cane having looser morals, one surmises), bringing to mind St Lucia Distillers’ “Forgotten Casks.” Like SLD, Husk had a reason to name this rum “The Lost Blend,” of course: the rum and its name was based on two barrels filled in 2014 and another in 2016 with cane juice distillate run off the 1000-litre hybrid pot-column stillbut in the aftermath of the Great Flood in 2017, the hand-written distillation notes that detailed the fermentation histories and distillation cuts for the two 2014 barrels, were destroyed, and so…

These are tragic circumstances for the distillation geek and technical gurus who want the absolute max detail (to say nothing of the distiller who might want to replicate the process). For the casual drinker and interested party, however, there is enough to be going on with: the rums from the two aforementioned years were aged until 2018 in a hot and dry tin shed, before being moved in that year to a cooler barrel warehouse until 2021 when they were slowly married and reduced, to be bottled in August 2021 at 43.5% without any additions, colourings or adulterations – 761 individually numbered bottles form the final release, which is not listed for purchase on the company’s website, because it was offered for sale only to locals at the door, and Husk Rum Club subscribers (as well as on BWS and some local shops).

What’s curious about The Lost Blend is how un-agricole-like it is at all stages of the sipping experience (this is not a criticism, precisely, but it is more than merely an observation). Take for example the nose: it displayed no real herbal grassiness that almost define the cane juice origin style of rum (even the aged ones). It started off with wet cardboard, fresh paint on damp drywall, and some new plastic sheeting. Then it moved on to gingerbread cookies, some plum liqueur, molasses, salt caramel and fudge. A touch of nutty white chocolate, brine, honey and a nice touch of light citrus zest for edge. Nicely warm and quite soft to smell, without any aggro.

If I had to use a single word to describe the palate it might be “spicy” (in multiple ways). And that’s because it wasinitial tastes were ginger, cinnamon, anise and vanilla, with a touch of pears, overripe apples, raisins, brown sugar and salted caramel ice cream. There were a few bitter notes of oak and old coffee grounds, but the citrus acidity was long gone here, and overall, even with a short and relatively dry finish that was redolent toffee and unsweetened dark chocolate it presented nicely as a light ‘n’ easy sipper that just wanted to please without going off like a frog in a sock.

Given that the Lost Blend was a rum comprising four- and six-year-old components, it’s almost as surprising to see so much come through the ageing process as what exactly emerged at the other end. I attribute the tastes I discerned to a combination of the subtropical climate and (a guess here) smaller and maybe newer casks that provided those quick and easy notes. What is more baffling is how little evidence there is of the rum actually being from cane juice, because tasted blind (as it was), my scribbled remarks read more like some solid young Latin-style ron than anything else. I did like it more than the spiced Bam Bam, though, and it is well made and works well as a softly tasty warm-weather sundowner: but my advice is to enjoy it for what it is and not to look for serious local terroire or a recognizable agricole-style flavour profilebecause that, I’m afraid, just isn’t there.

(#901)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and pat of the Panama to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
Apr 182022
 

The South African distillery of Mhoba is one of those small outfits like Richland, Privateer, A1710, Issan, Killik or J. Gow, that almost single handedly builds a reputation from scratch through dogged persistence and ever-increasing word of mouth, to the point where they exercise an influence on the whole conversation around rums. None of these are the only ones, or the first, to do what they do: but all of them have qualities that are more than just beginner’s luck, and elevateeven redefinethe category of rums for their entire country.

In the early 2010s, Mhoba’s founder, Robert Greaves, built several versions of his own small stills to continuously evolve and improve what he thought could be done with the rums he wanted to make; he played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and finally opened for serious business in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2017 he was able to demo his wares at the UK and Mauritius rumfests; buoyed by positive feedback there, in late 2018 he had a series of rums he felt were definitely worth showing off which he presented in London that year and in Paris a few months later.

These initial rums were unaged white rums (from cane juice) at different strengths, various pot still blends and overproofs (like the Strand 101 and 151, Bushfire, French Oak, etc) and were soon on commercial sale. One of the most intriguing rums in the stable was the long-ferment unaged Pot Still High Ester white rum, which began being bottled in 2018 (two batches) before really hitting their stride in 2019. Each of these high ester rums is stuffed into a bottle with a label in dark red (maybe to alert the unwary) that has a ton of info on itsource cane variety, harvest date, fermentation, still type, batch numberyet oddly, the actual congener count is absent. This is not a deal breaker, of course, but it does strike me as odd since the “high-ester” description is its main selling point (because of course being a cane-juice pot-still-distillate at strength isn’t already enough).

Anyway, these rums have all had the distinction of being made with about ⅓ dunder and with a three-week fermentation time using wild yeast, run through a pot still, and bottled consistently above 60% ABV (occasionally even over 70%). The one I’m writing about today is 66.2%, which is on the range’s weak side, I guess, but that in no way invalidated the intensity of what it presented.

Even nosed carefully, it was a powerful, sharp experience. It smelled like a whole shelf of fruits going off, poorly stored in a set of mouldy wooden crates stored under the waterlogged roof of an abandoned and dusty warehouse. Synthetic materials abounded: rubber, platicene, heavy plastic sheeting, new vinyl sofas, varnish, glue, nail polish remover, wax and a coat of cheap paint slapped onto fresh drywall. There’s a bagful of spanish olives cured in lemon juice and stuffed with pimentos, to which someone decided to add brine, olive oil and even more fruitspineapples, strawberries, gooseberries, and hard yellow mangoes and the real issue is how much there is. I spent literally an hour going back to this one glass just to tease out more, but the codicil was that I enjoyed the nose less each time, as I got successively battered into near catatonia by ever-changing aromas that just never settled down.

This was more than compensated for in the way it tasted, however. The palate was much much betterbetter integrated, better controlledwhile losing only some of the harsh pungency and untamed wildness the nose suggested I would find. It remained a stong and serious biff to the throat of course (it was a cheerfully violent street hood from start to finish, so that wasn’t going to change) but also nicely sweet and dry, with loads of pungent tastes: overripe Thai mangoes, pears, melons, peaches, kiwi fruits, bananas, orange peel, green tea and sugar cane juice. This took a breather here and there, and let in other tastes of acetones and turpentine…and if you could convert the smell of the inside of a nice new car to a taste, well, there was that too. There were notes of cream cheese, rye bread, strawberries, cinnamon, pineapples which also bled into the finishwhich in turn was nicely long, very sharp and tartly sweet and chemical (in a good way) with a last hint of flowers and overripe fruits.

This is a rum that should not be casually drunk or bought on a whim. It’s surely not “easy.” It’s a hugely potent and feral mix of a Jamaican funk bomb and a Reunion Grand Arome, a clarin’s irreverent offspring with a visiting DOK, and if not approached with caution should at least be drunk with respect. After trying it, Mrs. Caner asked me incredulously, “Is this something you’re actually supposed to drink?” She has a pointI honestly believe that the Mhoba High-Ester rum could wake up a dead stick.

But that said, let’s just try to unpack the experience. The rum had lots of impact, lots of edge, little that was gentle, and there was a whole lot going on, all the time. There were whole orchards of different fruity notes contained in that glass, most of which was a little sour, and I can’t say it entirely won me over: in that maelstrom of “everything but the kitchen sink” some elegance, some balance, some drinkability was lost. Still, you can’t fault its complexity and impact, and I completely believe @rum_to_me when he remarked on Instagram that “it would take over any cocktail in split seconds.”

And also, it does have its adherents and its fansI’m one of them. Not that I’m a high-ester funky junkie, no, and I don’t actively hunt out the biggest, baddest, bestest with the mostest. But at a time when there’s too much caution surrounding the regular regurgitation of Old Reliables from the Same Old Countries, it’s nice to see a rum maker from elsewhere put out a big screaming bastard like this one, that’s all brawn and sweat with maybe a bit of love thrown in as well. It’s a wildly ambitious, enormously challenging and technically solid rum that for sure will make any list of great white rums anyone cares to put together.

(#900)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For supplementary reading, I highly recommend Steve James’s 2019 three part deep dive into the initial releases of Mhoba as well as his company biography, and Rum Revelations’ 2021 interview with Robert Greaves
  • So far Rum-X has nine Mhoba high-ester expressions, ranging in strength from 65% to 78%, and average scores from 72 to 87, which is quite a bit of variation. Since all are unaged agricole-style pot-still rums, it suggests that the batch/harvest is of some importance in making a future selection among all these options.
  • This bottle is from Batch 2019HE3, Harvest May 2019, one of several from that year.
  • As of early 2022 Velier has released two Mhoba rums (both 2017 4 YO expressions), one for the HV line, and oneblack bottlerelease calledFAQ Plastic.Holmes Cay out of the US also has a 4YO 59% bottling from 2017.
Apr 112022
 

The brand of Ron De Mulata is a low end version of Havana Club, established in 1993: it was sold only in Cuba until 2005 when it gradually began to see some export sales, mostly to Europe (UK, Spain and Germany remain major markets). It is a completely Cuban brand, and has expanded its variations up and down the age ladder, from a silver dry rum, aged white, to rons aged 3, 5, 7 and 15 years, plus a Gran Reserva, Palma Superior and even an Elixir de Cuba. It is supposedly one of the most popular rums on the island, commanding, according to some sources, up to 10% of the local market.

Which distilleries make it is a tricky business to ferret out. This one, an aguardiente (see notes on nomenclature, below) is made from juice, and yes, the Cubans did make cane juice rons: it is labelled as coming from Destileria Paraiso (also referred to as Sancti Spiritus, though that’s actually the name of a town nearby), and others of more recent vintage are from Santa Fe, and still others are named. It would appear to be something of a blended cooperative effort by Technoazucar, one of the state-run sugar / rum enterprises (Corporacion Cuba Ron is another).

By the time the Mulata rums, including this aguardiente, started seeing foreign sales in 2005, the label had a makeover, because the green-white design on my bottle, with its diagonal separation, has long been discontinued. The lady remains the same (her colour has varied over the decades, and the name of the series makes it clear she is a part-white part black mestizo, or mulata), and the rum is unusual in that it is a cane juice rum to this day. However, since it continues to be made and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I am making the assumption that for all the updates in bottle and label design, the underlying juice has undergone no significant change and therefore does not qualify for inclusion in the Rumaniacs series. On that basis, it started out, and remains, a white 40% agricole-style rum, hence the title aguardiente.

You would not necessarily believe that when you smell it, though. In fact, it smells decidedly odd on first examination: dusky, briny, with gherkins, olives, some pencil shavings, and lemon peel. This is followed up by herbs like dill and cardamom before doing a ninety degree hard right into laundry detergent, iodine, medicinals, the watery, slightly antiseptic scent of a swimming pool (and yes, I know how that sounds). Fruits are vague at best, and as a purported cane juice rum, this doesn’t much adhere to the profile of such a product.

Upon a hefty shot, it does, however, move closer to what one would expect of such a rum. The shy timidity of the profile is something of a downer, but one can evince notes of iodine (not as bad as it sounds), sugar water, vanilla, grassiness, and watery fruit (pears, white peaches, guavas, unripe pineapples). There’s not much else going on here: the few agricole-like bits and pieces can be sensed, but lack the assertiveness to take them to the next level, and the finish is no help: it’s short, shy, no more than a light breeze across the senses, carrying with it weak hints of green peas, pineapples, and vanilla.

There’s no evidence for this one way or the other, but I think the rum is a filtered white with perhaps a little bit of ageing, and is probably coming off an industrial column still. It lacks the fierce raw pungency of something more down-to-earth made by the peasantry who want to get hammered (so go for greater strength) with no more than a basic ti-punch (so pungent flavours). This rum fails on both counts, and aspires to little more than being a jolt to wake up a hot-weather tropical cocktail. It doesn’t impress.

(#898)(70/100) ⭐⭐


Notes on nomenclature

The use of the wordrumin this essay is problematic and it has been commented on FB that the product reviewed here cannot be called a rum because (a) it is not made from molasses and (b) it is not aged. I don’t entirely buy into either of those arguments since no regulation in force specifies those two particular aspects as being requirements for naming it either rum (or ron) or aguardientethough they do prevent it from being called a Cuban rum.

However, there are the traditional rules and modern regulations of the Cuban rum industry which must be taken into account. Under these specifications, an aguardiente is not actually a cane juice rum at allit is the first distillate coming off the column still, usually at around 75%, retaining much flavour and aroma from the process (this is then blended with the second type of distillate, known as destilado de caña or redistillado which is much higher proofed and has fewer aromas and flavours, being as it is closer to neutral alcohol). By this tradition of naming then, my review subject should not even be called an aguardiente, let alone a rum.

Even the Denominación de Origen Protegida (the DOP, or Protected Designated of Origin) doesn’t specifically reference cane juice, although as per Article 20 rum must come fromraw materials made exclusively from sugar cane”, which doesn’t exclude it. And in Article 21 it mentions that aguardienteelsewhere and again noted (but not defined or required to be named such) as being the first phase distillate of around 75% ABVmust be aged for about two years and then filtered before going onto be blended. Article 23 lists several different types of añejos but unaged spirits and aguardientes are not mentioned except as before.

This leads us to two possibilities.

  1. Either what I have reviewed is a bottled first-phase distillate, which means it is aged for two years and a column still distillate deriving from molasses, named as per tradition. This therefore implies that all sources that state it is cane juice origin are wrong.
  2. This is an unaged cane juice distillate (from a column still), casually named aguardiente because there is no prohibition against using that name, or requirement to use any other term. Given the loose definition of aguardiente across the world, this possibility cannot be discounted.

Neither conjecture eliminates aguardiente as being from some form of sugar cane processing, because it is; and in the absence of a better word, and because it is not forbidden to do so, I am calling it a rum. However, I do accept that it’s a more complex issue than it appears at first sight, and the Cuban regs either don’t cover it adequately (yet), or deliberately ignore the sub-type.


 

Mar 232022
 

Photo (c) Husk Distillers

Of the New Australian distilleries that have emerged in the last ten years, Husk may be one of the older ones. Its inspiration dates back to 2009 when the founder, Paul Messenger, was vacationing in the Caribbean; while on Martinique, he was blown away by agricole rhums and spent the next few years establishing a small distillery in northern New South Wales (about 120km SE of Brisbane) which was named “Husk” when it opened in 2012. Its uniqueness was and remains that it uses its own estate-grown sugar cane to make rum from juice, not molasses, and is a field-to-bottle integrated producer unbeholden to any external processing outfit for supplies of cane, syrup, juice or molasses. Initially they used a pot still but as their popularity grew it was replaced with a hybrid pot-column still (the old still remains at the entrance to the distillery).

As is standard practice in Australia, while rums wait two years to age before being called “rum”, other spirits are made to fill the gap and provide cash flowin this case there was a gin called “Ink”, and a set of “Cane Spirits” products which were initially a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, plus a botanical and a spiced. These continue to be made and pay the bills but there were and are others: in 2015 avirgin cane rum,” came out, limited to 300 bottles; in 2016 a 3YO aged rum was released (the “1866 Tumbulgum”); in 2018 a 5 YO (“Triple Oak”) – all were cane juice rums and these days both are hard to find any longer. In 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin cane aged rum with “subtropical ageing” (coming soon to the review site near you) and in the spiced category, they have periodic releases of the spiced rum we are looking at today, which they call “Bam Bam” (for obscure reasons of their own that may or may not be related to a children’s cartoon, but then, they do say they make better rums than jokes).

The rum clocks in at standard strength (40%) and is, as far as I am aware, a pot still cane juice product, aged for 3 years in oak (not sure what kind or from where it came) and added spices of wattleseed, ginger, orange, cinnamon, golden berry, vanilla and sea salt. I should point out here that all of this was unknown to me when I tasted the samplethe labels on the advent calendar didn’t mention it at all.

So…the nose. Initially redolent of ripe, fleshy fruitsapricots, peaches, bananas, overripe mangoes and dark cherriesinto which are mixed crushed walnuts, pistachios and sweet Danish cookies plus a drop or two of vanilla. It’s soft and decidedly sweet with a creamy aroma resembling a lemon meringue pie topped with whipped cream, then dusted with cinnamon…and a twist of ginger off a sushi plate.

The taste maintains that gentle sweetness which so recalled a well done sweet pastry. There was cream cheese, butter, cookies and white chocolate, plus some breakfast-cereal notes and mild chocolate. A few fruits drift in and out the of the profile from time to time, a touch of lime, an apricot, raisins, a ripe apple or two. And with some patience, baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are noticeable, but it’s all rather faint and very light, leading to a short and quickly concluded finish with orange peel, vanilla, brown sugar, and that tantalising hint of cake batter that evokes a strong nostalgic memories of fighting with my brother for the privilege of finger-licking the bowl of cake mix after Ma Caner was done with it.

Overall, it’s a peculiar rum because there’s little about it that shouts “rum” at all (on their marketing material they claim the opposite, so your own mileage may vary). My own take is that it’s alcohol, it has some interesting non-rum flavours, it will get you drunk if you take enough of it and it has lovely creamy and cereal-y notes that I like. But overall it’s too thin (a function of the 40%) too easy, the spices kind of overwhelm after a while and it seems like a light rum with little greater purpose in life than to jazz up a mixed drink someplace. That’s not enough to sink it, or refuse it when offered, just not enough for me to run out and get one immediately.

(#893)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a chuck of the chullo to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always, to you both.
  • Husk refers to its rums as “agricoles” (see promo poster above) but incorrectly in my view, as this is a term that by convention, common usage and EU regulation refers to cane juice rhums made in specific countries (Madeira, Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique). A re-labelling or rebranding might have to be done at some point if the EU market is to be accessed. Personally, I think they should do so anyway. Nothing wrong with “agricole-style” or “cane juice rhum” or some other such variation, and that keeps things neat and tidy (my personal opinion only).
  • Long time readers will know I am not a great fan of spiced or infused rums and this preference (or lack thereof) of mine must be factored into the review. The tastes are as they are, but my interpretation of how they work will be different from that of anther person who likes such products more than I do. Mrs. Caner, by the way, really enjoyed it.
Mar 012022
 

Commercial publicity still

Rhum Mia is the product of a small distillery in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, run by two expatriate Frenchmen and which opened for business around 2017. I’m interested in eastern hemisphere rhums as part of my overarching fascination with all the branches of the rum tree, and while aged rums and rhums and rons not unnaturally get all the attention, the white rhums from that region are gradually beginning to gain more traction, and they exert a powerful fascination.

A few years ago I was gifted a sample by Reuben Virasami (the showrunner of Roob Dog Drinks which is well worth visiting) from this small outfit in Vietnam. I spent a fair amount of time on it and the backstory of the distillery, which I’ll add down below: but suffice to say, they continue to issue small batch cane juice rhums on their small column still, and these are then agedI use the term carefullyin clay pots called chum which are also and traditionally used to hold local rice liquors during fermentation.

Clearly if there is any residual effect of these vessels, it would result in a taste profile that presents at an angle to more familiar agricole-style rhums, whether aged or unaged. I am not fully conversant with the way in which clay vessels impact the taste of a rum, since serious experience is lacking here, but at the least I would expect many of the herbal, grassy, “green” notes to be retained. The initial 2018 expression did have those but seemed too weak for its purpose, no matter how unusual and unique it was, and to some extent that continued a year later with the 2019 release which came into my hands via John Go in the Philippines (he writes most of the rum reviews for Malt-Review).

The rum retained the makers’ tradition of being bottled at 45%, and there were many similarities with the previous year’s rhum: the smell continued to reek of glue, bookbindings, and the newly cracked pages of a glossy French fashion magazine, rubber and plastic. But there was a rather unpleasant scent of damp cigarette smokethe way it hangs in the air on a cold winter day, or smells when adhering to the latex gloves of your least favourite proctologistand this did little to enthuse. It was only after some minutes that I could discern some sugar water, cucumbers, gherkins in light vinegar and one anaemic pear, and a curious minerally smell. Overall it seemed less a rhum than a spirit with some rummy components.

On the palate, that cigarette ash note never really went away, though thankfully it remained subtle, joined by damp drywall, glue and dust for a few minutes, and then fading gently away. From that point on, the dominant flavours were watery fruitpears, watermelon, white guavas, kiwis, ripe soursop minus the “sour”, and yoghurt. Melons, papaya and some lemon-flavoured sugar water raised the profile a bit, though there was also an odd minerality sensed here and there, something along the lines of licking wet granite. The finish was all rightlight watery fruits, a touch of lemon zest, some grassy notes, and a touch of rosemary and dill.

Second to last glass on the right…..

After this experience, I hauled the Rhum Mia from the previous year out of the sample box in the basement and tried it again. The notes were pretty much on point and my memory had not failed: that one was intriguing but not really exceptional and scored on the median, and because it was an early variation, it held the promise of improvement as time passed and experience was gained. Alas, the 2019 edition is more of a disappointment. It wasn’t as if it lacked interest, was bereft of originality and even some punch: not at all, it had what it had and was a touch more distinct than its predecessor…it was just not as pleasant to drink. Somehow the herbal grassiness and tart fruit part of the profile had been dialled down while allowing less interesting notes to make up the difference. That, I’m afraid, was not to the rhum’s benefitor to mine.

(#888)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Thanks, of course, to John, who keeps sourcing interesting an offbeat rums for me to try and which he steadfastly refuses to label until after I’ve tried them.
  • We’ll take a look and see if the 55% bumped-up edition holds more promise in a week or two

Background Details

Saigon Liquoriststhe name of the small company behind the Mia brandis the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac helped establish things, cince they already had some background in the industry.

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a charity gala. In their current system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City. The sugarcane is peeled (and that peel is discarded), and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery.

There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the small column stillsomewhat more heads than usual are cut, which reduces the flavour (but also the hangover, apparently), and what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels (chums, used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made.


 

Feb 172022
 

To call Winding Road Distillery’s unaged cane spirit both an “agricole blanc” and a “virgin cane spirit” seems like something of a tautology, doesn’t it? But no worries: it’ll will be renamed at some point to make it simpler and to gain access to the EU and other places where the term “agricole” is clearly defined and protected (they are well aware of the naming conventions). This is fairly important for their future plans, since all their current rums, including what they’ve laid down to age, derive from cane juice. There are no plans to move away from that core source material any time soon…which says a lot for their determination to set themselves apart from most other Australian rum producers who work primarily (though not exclusively) with molasses.

In a separate post I have gone deeper into the background of this new Australian family-owned and operated distillery: for the moment the specs on the rhum are as follows. It is, as stated, made from fresh cane juice: given the distillery is located in the middle of sugar cane country in New South Wales (~175km south of Brisbane for the curious), this is far easier for them than, say, JimmyRum down south, though trucking juice to the distillery is done in both cases. Fermentation mostly takes three days in open vats using both commercial and wild yeasts, and sometimes the wash is left to rest for longer (up to two weeks) before being run through their 1,250-liter Australian-made pot still, which is given the evocative name of “Short Round” (I’m waiting to see if anyone will pounce on R2-D2 or BB-8 any time soon, but never mind). Once all that’s done, some is set to age, and the rest is slowly diluted down to 48% and bottled as a blanc.

And what a blanc it is. When Mr. & Mrs. Rum posted their daily advent calendar notes on Instagram last year, they started by saying that the rum “has been described as full of big HOGO aroma.” I can write to faithful readers that this is no more than the truth because once I smelled this thing it was all Pow! Biff! Bam! — immediate and serious pot still blanc action, big time. Not as feral as a clairin, perhaps…but not a mile away either. Glue, damp sawdust, cedar, varnish, turpentine, paint, plastic and (get this) benzene, released at a solid 48% and intense as hellanother ten points of proof and we could conceivably enter “easily weaponizable” territory. At the inception it was like standing at the intersection of the lumber and paint aisles of Home Depot. The funk is nicely controlled with this thing and it does the segue into green grapes, apples, pears, wet new-mown grass, sweet white cane vinegar, apples, cashews, orange peel and licorice really really well.

Aromas aside, cane juice rhums stand or fall on the complexity and pungent intensity of their tastes (which in turn impact how they fare in a daiquiri, a Ti-punch or a mojito, the most common uses they’re put to). Sampling it neat reveals nothing I would tell you to avoidin fact, it’s pretty good. The slightly higher strength helps, as it does in most blancsit’s dry, initially sharp and solidly tasty. First off come the woody and cereal-like notes of cheerios, sawdust and a touch of licorice and sandalwood. It’s not very sweet, though some sugar-water and lime is evident; then we get some cinnamon, vanilla, orange peel, nuts and a basket of mixed white light fruits, none of which are as fiercely crisp as the nose had beensome of the clarity of the nose was dialled down here. It all led down to a firm and lingeringly warm finish that reprised some glue, anise, light fruits and a touch of salt.

All in all, this is a seriously good unaged cane juice spirita real rhum, if you will. I don’t know if you could try it blind and know it was not from some famed agricole distillery boasting long years of pedigree. Certainly there are some aspects to it that were curious, pleasant and intriguingthe lack of ageing is evident in the rougher palate and its occasionally sharp profile, which is perhaps an Aussie twang and terroire coming outbut it doesn’t fall far from the reference rhums of the type with which we are more familiar, and it does its job with a sort of insouciant enthusiasm and a joie-de-vire which is evident in every sip.

(#885)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes:

  • The company history and profile can be found hereit started off small and was originally included here, but I found and was provided with more than usual detail, and so split it off as a separate post.
  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and pat of the pork-pie hat to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks again to you both.
Feb 032022
 

Brix Distillers is an interesting contrast to the JimmyRum distillery we looked at last week. With Jimmy’s, you got the impression of a down-to-earth, easygoing, somewhat blue-collar enterprise with a cheeky sense of humour that also provided good info on who and what it was. Brix, on the other hand, gives more of a yuppie vibe and emanates a youthful vigour that is paradoxically, also somewhat anonymous (none of the owners are identified on their website, for example). While Jimmy’s is definitely a distillery with a bar and restaurant (of sorts) attached later, one can easily get the impression that Brix’s is more of a cool all-in-one inner-city eating and drinking establishment built around the pot still on the premises (it’s the way the pictures they provide are composed). Or maybe it’s all about the cheerful rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne as to which is the cooler city, or something.

Be that as it may, let’s just go through what one can glean from the resources available. The distillery was founded in 2017 after two years’ worth of planning and setup, by James Christopher, Damien Barrow and Siddharth Soin, three friends who are also partners in a popular local restaurant. They sourced an 1800-litre copper pot still made in Australia (called “Molly”) and forged direct connections with suppliers and growers so as to source local ingredients as far as possible: Australian molasses and organic sugar cane from their supplier, a farm in Woongoolba close by the Rocky Point sugar mill (Southern Queensland, just south of Brisbane), locally-made spices, barrels and everything else they need. Their outturn includes a limited edition white cane juice spirit (“Urban Cane,” issued annually ), a white mixer, a lightly aged gold and a spiced rum, plus some flavoured mixes. There’s more ageing out back, and I’m sure we’ll see that in the years to come, as rum education and rum improvement are part of what Brix is all about as well.

Today’s review is about that “Urban Cane” spirit, which you’ll note is not called “rum” due to Australia’s naming regulations, which don’t recognize or allow unaged spirits to be called rums until they’ve been aged for two years 1. It’s mentioned here and there as being an agricole, but this is incorrect usage since the term has limited and specific applicabilityat best one can say it’s an agricole style rum, and “cane spirit” works just as well. It’s called “Urban” because essentially, in January 2020, four tons of cane was transported by refrigerated truck from Woongoolba to the distillery premises in Sydney, and crushed right there into cane juice. Then it was fermented (using an indigenous yeast), with excess husk matter chucked into the ferment for some additional kick and character, double distilled to 60% and then 87% ABV, then diluted down to 43.3% and bottled into 395 bottles.

It’s that husk matter, I think, that allows the unusual initial scents of this clear white rum to come to the fore: it has the dry, dusty, musty mildewed scents of an old room in an abandoned house. Paper, cereals andsomewhat paradoxicallyalso the smell of new paint. The dank loamy notes of dark earth freshly spaded over. This doesn’t sound all that appealing, I confess, but it really kind of is, and in any case, none of this hangs around for long, so be of good cheer. Soon, the scent of fruits and grass takes over: green herbs, crushed lime leaves, light strawberry bubble gum, some pineapple slices, cherries in syrup, tart mangoes and nicely ripe peachesit’s quite a transition, and the fruity character of what it all ends up as, is very pleasant to sniff.

To taste, some of that initial dryness shows up for a quick moment; then it vanishes, the tenor changes, and the most lingering impression one is left with is one of fruit and spiceslightly sweet, tart and even a touch bitter. One can taste green apples, pineapples, raisins, slightly sour not-quite-ripe-mangoes, apple cider and, if you can believe it, radishes, cilantro, lime leaves, and the fresh lemony brightness of a washing detergent. The finish doesn’t just repeat these notes, but adds some sweet soya sauce, mint, rosemary, citrus again and even some pine-y sort of resin and wraps it all up in a bow.

It’s really quite a fascinating rum, because while hewing to aspects of the expected profile of an unaged cane spirit, it dares to go off in its own directionthere’s stuff from all over the flavour map here, jangling and crowding and jostling happily together, not caring whether it works, just showing, maybe, that it can. It’s sweet, sour, salty, complex and a riot to drink, and while I wish it were a bit stronger, that’s my thing, not yours. And if perhaps one cannot taste this and immediately recognize more comforting, familiar fare (like, say, low-strength agricole blancs, clairins or unaged Jamaicans), I can tell you that in my opinion Brix’s Urban Cane Spirit can take its place among them as a white worth drinking, an unaged rum (yes, a rum) with its own peculiarity and originality of character, and that after all is said and done and the glass is empty, that it’s a rum you want to try again…and again.

(#881)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For those who don’t recognize the term, “Brixordegrees Brixis a unit of measurement of sugar content in a solution, usually alcohol.
  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and tip of the sombrero to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge when they heard of my interest (it was not for sale outside Australia). Thanks again to you both.
  • Shane Casey, the head distiller at Brix, comments on the background of the company, and some technical aspects of making the rum, as well as talking about rums in Australia, in the Fermenting Place podcast Episode 27.
Jan 122022
 

Over the last years, one of the inescapable conclusions I’ve come to is that rums that dare to be different or faithfully rep their terroire without reference to others, will always and only get niche acknowledgement from that sliver of the rumisphere that knows and understands the varieties of rum and is not reluctant to try something on the blank edges of the map. Wider acceptance by the larger mass of the rum buying public, though…that may be harder.

This is perhaps why some of the more artisanal cane derived spirits of the dayaguardientes, grogues, clairins, charandas, kokuto shochu, even cachaçasstruggle to find mainstream acceptance outside their limited areas of origin. It’s no accident that perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Japanese rum makers, Nine Leaves, holds the distinction of being popular and well-known not just because of good marketing, but because Takeuchi-san’s rums are the most approachable to a “western” palate, in a way the country’s other sugar cane spirits are not.

I begin with this comment because a similar train of thought went through my mind as I tried what I honestly believe to be one of the best of the Brazilian company Novo Fogo’s lineup, the pot-still distilled “Tanager” cachaça. Originally they labelled it a “cane juice spirit” but current labels all have the word “cachaça” there, and it is the first of their “Two Woods” series, released in 2017 and afterwards1. The ageing is still rather short: one year in Four Roses ex-bourbon barrels and three further months in arariba (Brazilian zebrawood) barrels, which they claim is what gives it the spirit that characteristic brown-red colour. As to why they named it after a bird, well, who knows (and frankly, who cares? – it’s a nice word, a nice name, and others have used stranger titles).

The woods have had a really interesting impact on the cachaça and changed it quite a bit. The nose, for example is lovely: nutty, salty and a touch tannic, redolent of cane juice, herbs, wet green grass, moss and a delicate line of strawberries and peaches. There’s a sort of damp earthiness to it, mixed up with spices like tumeric and cinnamon that I particularly liked.

The taste is less successful, perhaps because the slightly sharper attack of the zebrawood is more pronounced here, ameliorated by the relatively low proof point of 42%. It’s tannic, but also salty, fruity, loam-y and sweet, and there is that characteristic grassy and sugar cane sap profile of a cachaca, plus some vanilla and sweetly tart pears and white guavas. Cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin round things off in a pleasant, low key finish that just escapes being bitter and becomes, through some odd alchemy, crisply refreshing, like a lemon-mint drink.

Cachaças are, of course, meant to be drunk in a caipirinha, but Novo Fogo is aiming for a different market than the huge internal one of Brazil. The rum tastes like an agricole bent ninety degrees away from true, flavourful and interesting, but not so off the map as to be unapproachable. What’s also important is that the short ageing in that combination of woods has produced a rum that is closer than almost any cachaça I’ve ever tried to a profile that is recognizably a “regular rum”….if not completely.

Therein lies its intriguing and beguiling nature, and therein lies my appreciation for what it is. It may, in the end, be this and the others in the line that espouse a philosophy of finishing rather than ageing in local woods, that will allow Novo Fogo’s cachaças to appeal to a much greater audience than just the aficionados and deep divers who thus far have been its most faithful adherents. I wish them luck,

(#876)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple cachaças like Leblon, Jamel, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • One wonders, given all these stats, whether the Habitation Velier series will ever come knocking to take a few barrelsit seems to press all their buttons and they could sure do worse.
  • There’s more company background in their very well-designed website.
Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

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

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


 

Dec 022021
 

Photo (c) John Go

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

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

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

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

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

(#868)(86/100)


Other notes

  • On FB in 2018, there was a comment that the “2003 has been spotted with ~10g/L sugar in it…” deriving from Cyril’s work over at DuRhum. It’s not this one, but then, this 55% version was not tested as far as I am aware.
  • I was provided this unlabelled and unidentified sample by my cheerfully sneaky rum chum from the Philippines, John Gohe was testing me, I think, since he mixed it all up with a bunch of other unmarked samples of wildly varying quality). So those tasting noters are unedited and completely blind.
Sep 162021
 

Last time around we discussed a Brazilian cachaça from the environmentally astute company Novo Fogo which they called “Chameleon”it was aged about a year and meant to quietly blend in to the various mixes for which it was destined (hence the name). I felt it succeeded reasonably well on its own grounds, and the next step up the food chain, the “Barrel Aged” version that is the subject of today’s review, also follows in that traditionthough in my opinion, less successfully.

The details are pretty much the same with respect to the company (I’ve added it below the review to save needless repetition). Novo Fogo is based in the southern state of Paraná in Brazil, has a strong organic and environmental ethos, and makes a trio of cachaças ranging from the “Silver” to this young barrel aged iteration: the three are the more accessible, more familiar portion of their range because they are agedwhen they are aged at allin American ex-bourbon barrels: these are sourced from the Haven Hill distillery in this instance, taken apart, sanded and charred. 1

That combo of charring the American ex-bourbon barrels and longer ageing within them, has resulted in the most rum-like cachaça I’ve ever tried. None of the slightly bitter, off-kilter amburana aromas here, no sharp juddering teak notes. Instead, initial scents of vanilla, minerals and cold campfire ashes combine uneasily with more “traditional” caramel, brown sugar, and soft fruits. One can sense the brininess, olives and more pungent hints of a pot still distillate that processed a cane juice wash, but dialled way down and wafting away before one can properly come to grips with it. It’s 40% ABV and that’s part of it, of course, because the 43% Chameleon showed more character, even though it was younger.

The palate is better: it’s tasty on its own terms, and interesting, but ultimately a weak tea that once again fails to provide anything we have not already had from various lightly aged añejos, ambres or gold rums. Biscuits, cereal, whipped cream, plus sugar water and a few spices. A soft hint of peaches, maybe cherries. The few rummy flavours the nose had promised have headed for the hills like the Road Runner, leaving nothing behind but a thin dissipating dust cloud which promises all sorts of nice goodiesblack tea, fruit loops cereal, a flash of orange peel, spices and herbsand leaves your palate twitchingbut there’s no follow-through and they dissipate quickly. The finish is pretty much more of the same: short, clean, light, mostly sugar cane sap and frassy, herbal notes. Nothing specific, nothing to remember, nothing that stands out, and all gone too quick.

Aged cachaças are somewhat less popular and perhaps less well known. This is hardly surprising, since the purpose of a serious cachaça is to boost a caipirinha, and the wilder the profile of the cachaça, the better the caipirinha is supposed to be. That sort of crazy comes best from unaged spirits, as evidenced by the strong blancs making better ti’ punches in the French islands.

None of that off-the-reservation individuality is in evidence here. The barrel-aged cachaca Novo Fogo made seems almost shy, as if embarrassed to display anything so vulgar as an actual character. It is touted as a step up from its cousin (possibly based on the fallacy that more age = better rum), but smells muted and muffled, with most of the interesting stuff bleached outand then whatever remains has agreed to a non aggression pact. While rum-like enough to appeal to someone looking into the standard-strength Brazilian spirits market to see what the fuss is all about, I feel it lacks the decent low-level complexity which marked the Chameleon. In this case, the cheaper product gets my money.

(#851)(78/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
Sep 092021
 

In 2017 I wrote about a cachaça I had tried in Toronto from a Brazilian company named Novo Fogo, which means “New Fire” in Portuguese. That was an unaged, one-year-rested “Silver” cachaça that I liked quite a bit, and in doing my research after the fact, I discovered the company also had a number of other such spirits in the portfolio, resolved to try what I could, and subsequently scouted them out in the years that followed.

This cachaça, then, is the next one up the ladder for Novo Fogo. It is a blend of both aged and unaged spirits, derived from (of course) cane juice and departs from more traditional Brazilian cachaças in two interesting ways: it is made on a pot still (as opposed to the much more common column still spirits that dominate the industry); and it was aged for one year in American oak, not local woods like Amburana (which make Brazilian spirits so different to the palate conditioned by years of molasses-based rums or aged agricoles from the French islands). What this does is provide the drinker with the best of three worlds: the terroire of Brazil’s southern province of Paraná (the distillery is located there, not Minas Gerais where the most traditional cachacas are made) coupled with a more familiar aged profile based on American oakwhich in turn saves the more endangered Brazilian barrel woods from overharvesting.

The question is whether that translates into a cane juice spirit that we who cut our teeth on French island agricoles could both relate to and enjoy for its own character. The initial nose of the 43% cachaça does indeed smell promising: it is so green it squeaks going into a turn. It’s freshly cut green grass, steamed vegetables and palm fronds….if they were liquid. It smells herbal, of sugar water and citrus peel and kitchen spices, and yet also briny and solida bucket of salt beef mixing it up with sharp tannic and woodsy notes, and not too many sweet fleshy fruits.

The taste moves right along from there. Grassy and green tea flavours are prominent at first, but other sweet notes develop over time as well: light honey, caramel, vanilla, peas. After opening up, the fruits that seemed to be missing from the nose turn up here: watermelon, pears, white guavas, even sweet peas and steamed corn, mixed up with some soya, lemongrass and parsley in a mild vegetable soup. It leads to a quiet and short finish mostly characterized by grassy notes and some sweetish, very mild fruits.

Novo Fogo’s one year old cachaça is an interesting variation on rhums we know. The sweet, herbal notes are not out to lunch or abnormal, and the use of the American oak has helped maintain a lightly-aged profile that other cachacas with more aggressive use of native woods might not (as Delicana showed here and here, it can be a bit hit and miss). Overall, the whole experience is somewhat removed from that of young or unaged agricoles generally, which is as it should be, since we’re not talking about a French island rhum, or a cane juice spirit made in the Indian Ocean islands with the esters dialled up to “11”. The ancestry is, however, quite clear, and anyone who has had even a passing familiarity with agricoles will find much that is recognizable and enjoyable with the “Chameleon”, especially at that approachable strength of 43%.

That might be the secret behind the name: it is a rhuma cachaçamade in Brazil, but hews so close to the profile we know that it might in fact be taken for something else. Only the sly off-kilter notes and occasional divergences are there to tell you it’s not, and I submit that those differences are what make it interesting, and worth taking a chance onas long as you don’t mind going off the beaten track a bit.

(#849)(81/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • I reached out to Novo Fogo, curious to find out more about the name, and Luke McKinley responded from the Seattle office and repliedWe gave Chameleon its name because it’s a versatile cachaça that can “blend in” to a variety of cocktails. At just 1 year of age, it retains the sugarcane funk of our unaged Silver Cachaça, but picks up enough characteristics from the American oak ex-bourbon barrels to work in stirred, spirituous cocktails.

 

Aug 152021
 

It was probably a good thing that I first tried this innocent looking white rum1 released by the UK independent bottler El Destilado (not to be confused with the restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca) without knowing much about it. It came in a smallish bottle, sporting a starkly simple label I didn’t initially peruse too closely, and since I was at a rumfest, and it had been handed to me by a rum chum, well, what else could it be, right?

It might have been a rum, but even at the supposedly standard strength of 43.15% ABV, the juice burst with flavours that instantly recalled indigenous unaged cane juice like clairin, or a supercharged grogue fresh of the still and sporting serious attitude. It smelled, first of all, woodyresinous, musty, oily, lemony; it reeked of brine and olives, almonds, pine-sol air freshener and only at the back end, after taking some time to recover, were there a few shy hints of flowers and some rich, almost-gone fleshy fruits. That’s not much when you think about it, but I assure you, it made up in intensity what it lacked in complexity.

Okay, so this was different, I thought and tasted it. It was solid and serious, completely dense with all sorts of interesting flavours: first off, very pine-y and smokey. More pine soldid someone mix this with household disinfectant or something? This was followed by fresh damp sawdust of sawn lumber made into furniture right way and then polished with too much varnish, right in the sawmill (!!). Vegetable soup heavy on the salt, with generous doses of black pepper and garlic and cilantroand more pine. Barbeque sauce and smoky sweet spices, like hickory I guess. Darkly sweet but not precisely fruitythough there are some of thosemore like the heavy pungency of rotting oranges on a midden heap somewhere hot and tropical, closed off by a long and smoky finish redolent of lemon pine scent, and spoiling fruits, and more olives.

This was intense. Too raw and uncultured to be a serious top ender, white or otherwiseand I like white rums, as you knowbut defiantly original and really quite unique. I thought the pine notes were overbearing and spoiled the experience somewhatother than that, a completely solid rum that was probably cane juice, and probably unaged, and a cousin to the French island agricoles. Somewhere out there a bartender was loving this thing and blowing it kisses.

Which was correct, as confirmed by a more detailed look at that label. It was an unaged cane juice spirit called Aguardiente de Panela, came from Mexico, was akin to the Paranubes from Oaxaca and many others like it. I cautiously liked it“appreciated” might be a better term; it was tasty, quite original, and felt like it took rum in whole new directions, though it took care not to call itself that. I can say with some assurance that you would be unlikely to have tried anything like it before and therein might lie both its attraction and downfall. But I suggest that if you can, try it. It might be problematic finding any, given the limited outturn of 160 bottles (and indeed, it was something of a one-off, see my notes below this review).

Labelling the thing as an aguardiente (again, see further down) gives it a pretty broad umbrella, though clearly it is a cane juice derivative. It might have been better to use “cane spirit” to make the sale since aguardientes are a very loose category and present a moving target depending on where one is. Be that as it may, it is has all the hallmarks of a local back-country moonshine (decently made in this instance, to be sure), sporting the sort of artisanal handmade small-batch quality that makes rum geeks salivate as they search the world for the next clairin or grogue.

When such micro-still quality is found, the production ethos behind it that makes it so attractive creates issues for their producers. The output tends to be small and not easily scaled up (assuming they even want to); there somewhat inconsistent quality from batch to batch, and some simply don’t hold up over time. Moreover, such aguardientes or charandas or agricoles or unaged spirits are usually not made for a discerning international rum audience, but for local and regional consumption, by and for people who don’t know (and don’t care) that there are certain markers of consistency and quality asked for by foreign audiences. It isn’t for such tourists that it’s made (a point Luca also thought long and hard about, before promoting the Haitian clairins back in 2014).

This aguardiente perfectly encapsulates that issue. It is a unique and unusual, very distinctive small batch agricole-style cane juice rum in all the ways that matter. It satisfies its local audience just fine. That it doesn’t fly as well past its own terroire may not be its problem, but ours. That said, you certainly won’t find me complaining about what it’s like, because I want me some more. And stronger, if I can get it.

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

  • The origin of the cane juice spirit / aguardiente is one of those near-unknown family stills that dot the Mexican back country (the Paranubes was like that also), and made, as stated above, more for village consumption than export. Here, it came from a three-column still tended by Sr. Delfino Cruz, whichif one can go by the labelis in the small village of San Pablo Ameyaltepec where he produces mostly mezcal. This tiny community of less than two hundred is in the state of Puebla, with the more famous state of Oaxaca on its southeast border: the El Destilado boys were sourcing mezcal from him.
  • Charlie McKay, one of the founders, told me: “We actually only got one batch of the Aguardiente de Panela and then weren’t able to get it again. The Aguardiente was sourced while Michael and Jason were tasting some of Delfino’s mezcal and they noticed a bunch of liquid in drums, asked about it and he sheepishly allowed them to taste it. It’s sort of a side product he was making but more for locals rather than as his pride and joy. Anyway the liquid was super tasty and the guys bought a bunch of it on the spot. I believe, but I’d have to double check, that it was distilled in the same still that he makes his mezcal in. The panela aspect is the sugar he uses. Our current rum which is an Aguardiente de Caña is make from raw sugar cane juice, extracted straight from the plant and fermented. The panela is a preserved form of sugar that comes as set blocks […] usually from sort of conical shaped molds. It almost looks like a darker version of palm sugar that you’d get from an Asian grocer. Anyway this is rehydrated and fermented, then distilled which gives it a slightly different flavour profile to the more green Caña version. […] It was basically something Delfino wasn’t trying to sell us, but they boys saw it and had to taste it, then we got it, sold it all and now it’s gone.
  • ThePanelain the title is named after panela, an unrefined sugar which is made by boiling and evaporating cane juiceit’s therefore something like India’s jaggery which we have come across before. Panela is commonly made around South America (especially Colombia) and it’s not a stretch to say aguardiente can be made from it, hence the name.
  • The rum was distilled in a three column still and apparently fermented in tanks made of local pine woodwhich is where the pine notes must have carried over from. It is likely that wild yeast was used for the fermentation.
  • El Destilado, whose name is on the label, is a UK based indie bottler based on London, run by a trio of spirits enthusiastsMichael Sager, Alex Wolpert and Charlie McKay; their tastes seem run more into agave spirits than rum per se since this was one of only two cane spirits they have released so far amidst a plethora of mezcals from Oaxaca. As a separate note, I like their minimalist design philosophy a lot.
  • Another rum released by El Destilado is an equally obscure “Overproof” Oaxacan Rum at 52.3% which Alex over at The Rum Barrel took a look at a few months back.

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

Having a large band of tropical climate and a vibrant sugar industry, it would be odd in the extreme if Mexico did not have rums in its alcoholic portfolio. The truth is that their artisanal, indigenous rums are actually not well known: not just because of the overwhelming popularity and market footprint of mezcal and tequila, but because rum brands like Bacardi, Mocambo, Prohibido, Tarasco and other popular low-cost “decent-enough” sellers have the limelight. They tend to stick with the tried and true model of standard-proof light blends of middling age to saturate (primarily) their own and the American market. So the backcountry small-batch rums of long-standing productionwhich in these days of full proof and indigenous tradition are sometimes overlookedtend to have a hard time of it.

Leaving aside big brands and other alcoholic categories, however, there have always been many local cane distillates in Mexico, less exalted, less well known, often sniffed at. Some are as specific as charanda, others as wide ranging as aguardiente. The subject of today’s review is one of the latter, and if for purists it does not fall into our definitions of rum, I argue that if it’s a sugar cane distillate, it should be counted in “our” category, it needs a home and I’m perfectly happy to give it one.

Aguardientesthe word is a very broad catchall, akin to the generic English word “spirits,” translating loosely as fiery/burning waterare strong distilled alcoholic beverages, made from a variety of sources depending on the country or local tradition: macerated fruits (oranges, grapes, bananas, etc), grains (millet, barley, rice, beets, cassava, potatoes, tubers), or the classic sugar cane versions. They can be regulated under that name, and several have protected designations of origin.

Aguardiente as made in Mexico has a very supple definition, depending on where one is in that country and what the source material is. In some places it is a distilled cane spirit, in others it can be made from agave. It can be proofed down to 35%, or be stronger. It can be added to with spices, additives, you name itor not. It’s either a poor man’s drink or a connoisseur’s delight, an indigenous low-quality moonshine or the next wave of craft spirit-making to enthuse young hipsters looking for The Next Big Thing.

Globally, for the purpose of those who primary spirit is rum, aguardientes are and should be limited to those which derive from cane juice only, and indeed many such spirits are properly labelled as aguardiente de cana, or some such titular linguistic variation (in Mexico this is particularly important because of the move to call agave spirts like mezcal aguardiente de agave and create a separation within the term). Unsurprisingly in a category this broad, clairins, grogues, guaros, puntas, charandas, even cachaças, are lumped into it, sometimes incorrectlyit’s a term which requires qualifying words to nail down precisely. But for the moment and this review, consider it a cane-juice-based, small-batch, local (even traditional) alcoholic beverage, and judge it on that basis.

Sources:

I have drawn on general background reading, personal experiences, wikipedia and the Rumcast interview with Francisco Terraza (timestamp 00:30:01) for some of the information on aguardientes generally and Mexico specifically


Addendum

After posting the link to this review on Reddit’s /r/rumserious (full disclosureI am the moderator of that sub), City Barman made a comment that same evening which I felt was both enlightening and well written, and he kindly gave me permission to quote it here as an adjunct to the main review:

Back in 2003, we went with a friend to visit his family in Oaxaca. We enjoyed an almost three week bacchanal, sampling as many of the local spirits as we could get our hands on. Tequila, mezcal and aguardiente de caña ran through our blood. The only real value of 90% of what we drank was its ability to get one drunk, on the way cheap. A far majority of it was tolerable to OK, from a taste standpoint, at least to my arrogant Western palate. 10%, however, was special, unique, sometimes divine, and as I found out later, often fleeting.

It’s a very different way of life, a very different culture that allows these incredibly small producers to exist. There is a very fine line separating them betweenback-wood moonshinersandsmall batch artisans”. From month to month, a single distiller may find itself on different sides of said line. When one depends on naturally grown, fresh greens and wild, airborne yeast for the process, Mother Nature often overrides human intention. Replacing these things with more standardized, industrial methods would change the end product.

The process, by its very definition, is unpredictable and inefficient. It’s what makes the spirits cheap andeasyto produce and also affordable to the masses. It’s also what typically creates the magic, when it happens, often entirely by accident. Unpredictable and inefficient are two qualities that ensure the likes of Diageo and Rémy Cointreau will go nowhere near thecategory”, hence destroying it. The likes of Signor Gargano may find an audience for these unpredictable, small batches of joy. There may also be other producers, besides Señor Carrera, whose processes create a more consistent, predictable product.

Perhaps it’s perfectly fine and right that these spirits stay with their terroir. They represent the art in spirit making. Art that is intended for consumption, like live music and theater, is ephemeral and not entirely replicable. They also tend to be the ones that come closest to transporting their imbibers to Nirvana. Perhaps it’s good impetus to get us to escape our back yards, travel, and learn something about other human beings; their culture; their fears, hopes and dreams; their favorite drink.


 

Aug 052021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

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

 

Jul 262021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#839)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • For those who want more detailed background information, the company biography of Velier and the brief history of Pere Labat are both in the “Makers” section of this website.
Jul 222021
 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Jul 192021
 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#837)(84.5/100)


Other Notes