Nov 022020
 

There are quite a few interesting (some would say strange) things about the Rhum Island / Island Cane brand, and the white rums in their portfolio.  For one thing, the rhums are bottled in Saint Martin, only the second island in the Caribbean where two nations share a border – the Netherlands and France in this case, for both the constituent country of Sint Maarten (south side) and the Collectivité de Saint-Martin (north side) remain a part of the respective colonizing nations, who themselves don’t share a border anywhere else.

Secondly, there is neither a sugar or rum making industry on Saint Martin, which until 2007  was considered part of – and lumped in with – the overseas région and département of Guadeloupe: but by a popular vote it became a separate overseas Collectivité of France. Thirdly, the brand’s range is mostly multi-estate blends (not usual for agricoles), created, mixed and bottled in Saint Martin, and sources distillate from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante. And the two very helpful gents at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest booth — who kept filling my tasting glass and gently pressing me to try yet more, with sad, liquid eyes brimming with the best guilt trip ever laid on me — certainly weren’t telling me anything more than that.

That said, I can tell you that the rhum is a cane juice blanc, a blend whipped up from rhums from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe, created by a small company in St. Martin called Rhum Island which was founded in 2017 by Valerie Kleinhans, her husband and two partners; and supposedly conforms to all the regulations governing Guadeloupe rhum production (which is not the AOC, btw, but their own internal mechanism that’s close to it).  Unfiltered, unaged, unadded to, and a thrumming 50% ABV. Single column still.  Beyond that, it’s all about taste, and that was pretty damned fine.

I mean, admittedly the nose wasn’t anything particularly unique – it was a typical agricole – but it smelled completely delicious, every piece ticking along like a liquid swiss watch, precisely, clearly, harmoniously.  It started off with crisp citrus and Fanta notes, and that evocative aroma of freshly cut wet grass in the sun.  Also brine, red olives, cumin, dill, and the creaminess of a lemon meringue pie.  There is almost no bite or clawing at the nose and while not precisely soft, it does present as cleanly firm.

Somewhat dissimilar thoughts attend the palate, which starts out similarly…to begin with.  It’s all very cane-juice-y — sugar water, watermelons, cucumbers and gherkins in light vinegar that are boosted with a couple of pimentos for kick. This is all in a minor key, though – mostly it has a herbal sweetness to it, sap and spices, around which coils something extra…licorice, cinnamon, something musky, bordering on the occasionally excessive.  The rhum, over time, develops an underlying solidity of the taste which is at odds with the clean delicacy of the nose, something pungent and meaty, and and everything comes to a close on the finish, which presents little that’s new – lemon zest, cane juice, sugar water, cucumbers, brine, sweet olives – but completely and professionally done.

This is a white rhum I really liked – while it lacked some of the clean precision and subtlety of the Martinique blanc rhums (even the very strong ones), it was quite original and, in its own way, even new…something undervalued in these times, I think. The initial aromas are impressive, though the muskier notes it displays as it opens up occasionally detract – in that sense I rate it as slightly less than the Island Rhum Red Cane 53% variation I tried alongside it…though no less memorable. 

What’s really surprising, though, is how easy it is to drink multiple shots of this innocent looking, sweet-smelling, smooth-tasting white, while enjoying your conversation with those who nod, smile, and keep generously recharging your glass; and never notice how much you’ve had until you try to express your admiration for it by using the word “recrudescence” in a sentence, and fall flat on your face.  But trust me, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it right up until then. 

(#774)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The name of the company that makes it is Rhum Island — this doesn’t show on the label, only their website, so I’ve elected to call it as I saw it.
  • This rhum was awarded a silver medal in the 2018 Concours Général Agricole de Paris
  • Shortly after April 2019, the labels of the line were changed, and the bottle now looks as it does in the photo below. The major change is that the Rhum Island company name has more prominently replaced the “Island Cane” title

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Oct 262020
 

It doesn’t say so, but A1710’s rhum “Brute,” stuffed into a bottle at a rip snorting 66%, is another example of a mini-terroire called a parcellaire – a single small section of an estate, like, oh the UF30E or the similar A1710 54.5% edition that was also issued in the year this was, 2017.  There are a few of these micro-terroire rhums floating around and while still uncommon, do show an interesting new direction for the rum world.  Though, for obvious reasons I don’t see them as becoming mass market products any time soon – more like exactingly made small batch artisanal rhums in the true sense, marketed to enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

To do that, however, depends on more than just slick marketing. The product actually has to taste good, be seen as out of the ordinary, and be able to showcase some small aspect of its company’s ethos and desire for quality. It’s got to be special. So far, I’ve seen nothing from A1710 that would do anything except lend support to that thesis, because the “Brute” is definitely one of the best white rhums around, even at that formidable strength. 

The canes used to make this rum all come from a single plot cultivated by a Mr. Paul Octave, with several varietals: black cane, yellow cane and Pen Epi Lèt. (More delicate and less robust than the hybrids which are cultivated for large-scale productions, these three types of canes are supposedly quite juicy). The cane juice is fermented for around five days, run through a creole 7-plate copper column still affectionately named “La Belle Aline”, is non-AOC compliant, and as far as I know, rested for some time but not aged or filtered or reduced in strength, resulting in 2,286 bottles of a 66% beefcake for the 2017 edition, all individually numbered.

The results of all that micro-management are amazing.The nose, fierce and hot, lunges out of the bottle right away, hardly needs resting, and is immediately redolent of brine, olives, sugar water,and wax, combined with lemony botes (love those), the dustiness of cereal and the odd note of sweet green peas smothered in sour cream (go figure).  Secondary aromas of fresh cane sap, grass and sweet sugar water mixed with light fruits (pears, guavas, watermelons) soothe the abused nose once it settles down.

It’s the taste that’s the real star of the show, the way this huge strength is tamed and made almost palatable. Yes it’s hot and spicy, but there’s a sort of smooth creaminess to the texture that permits it to be had neat and the high proof almost forgotten.  There’s salt and wax and light glue as before, combined with a sweeter note of marshmallows, light white fruits and it’s reminiscent of a watery fruit infusion to be had on a hot day on a tropical beach somewhere. There are other tastes of lychees, flowers, more fruits (heavier ones), cane sap, herbs (mint, perhaps a touch of sage and basil), but these dance around the central tastes and lend support rather than shouldering their way to the forefront, and the entire experience is really quite good, moving smoothly, almost sedately, inro a long, spicy and fruity finish that somehow preserves both strength and delicacy.

I really enjoyed the 54.5% La Perle, and scored it well, but the Brute is a cut even above that.  It’s a rum made by one guy on one parcel on one island and has a richness of aroma and flavour that it would seem almost a sin to put it in a barrel. The real money in the rum world is in utra-old  rums made by proud houses who reach back in time for barrels left to age for decades by generations past.  A1710 have shown that a brand new outfit, not adhering to a production standard of any kind, not even ageing what they come up with and simply releasing a rhum like this almost straight off the still, can provide us with something truly remarkable for an astoundingly affordable price.  For me, it’s worth every penny.

(#772)(88/100)


Other notes

Some historical background on A1710 is in the original La Perle review, adapted here:

A1710 was created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re neighbors), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of Martinique. The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jul 222020
 

By now most will be aware of my admiration for unshaven, uncouth and unbathed white rums that reek and stink up the joint and are about as unforgettable as Mike Tyson’s first fights.  They move well away from the elegant and carefully-nurtured long-aged offerings that command high prices and elicit reverent murmurs of genteel appreciation: that’s simply not on the program for these, which seek to hammer your taste buds into the ground without apology. I drink ‘em neat whenever possible, and while no great cocktail shaker myself, I know they make some mixed drinks that ludicrously tasty.

So let’s spare some time to look at this rather unique white rum released by Habitation Velier, one whose brown bottle is bolted to a near-dyslexia-inducing name only a rum geek or still-maker could possibly love. And let me tell you, unaged or not, it really is a monster truck of tastes and flavours and issued at precisely the right strength for what it attempts to do.

The opening movements of the rum immediately reveal something of its originality – it smells intensely and simultaneously salty and sweet and estery, like a fresh fruit salad doused with sugar water and vinegar at the same time. It combines mangoes, guavas, watermelons, green apples, unripe apricots and papayas in equal measure, and reminds me somewhat of the Barik white rum from Haiti I tried some time before. There’s also a briny aroma to it, of olives, bell peppers, sour apple cider, sweet soya sauce, with additional crisp and sharp (and plentiful) fruity notes being added as it opens up.  And right there in the background is a sly tinge of rottenness, something meaty going off, a kind of rumstink action that fortunately never quite overwhelms of gains the upper hand.

When tasted it presents  a rather more traditional view of an unaged white agricole rhum, being sharp, sweet, light, crisp.  Herbs take over here – mint, dill, fresh-mown grass and cane peel for the most part.  There’s a lovely sweet and fruity tang to the rhum at this point, and you can easily taste sugar water, light white fruits (guavas, apples, cashews, pears, papayas), plus a delicate hint of flowers and citrus peel, all commingling nicely.  As you drink it more it gets warmer and easier and some of that crisp clarity is lost – but I think that overall that’s to its benefit, and the 59% ABV makes it even more palatable as a neat pour and sip.  Certainly it goes down without pain or spite, and while there is less here than on other parts of the drink, you can still get closing notes of watermelon, citrus, pears, sugar water, and a last lemony touch that’s just right.

Evaluating a rum like this requires some thinking, because there are both familiar and odd elements to the entire experience.  It reminds me of clairins, but also of the Paranubes, even a mezcal or two, all mixed up with a good cachaca and a nice layer of light sweet. The smells are good, if occasionally too energetic, and tumble over each other in their haste to get out, but the the tastes are spot on and there’s never too much of any one of them and I was reminded a little of the quality of that TCRL Fiji 2009 I could never quite put my finger on – this rhum was equally unforgettable.

The rum grew on me in a most peculiar way.  At first, not entirely sure what to make of it, and not satisfied with its overall balance, I felt it shouldn’t do better than 82.  A day later, I tried it again, unable to get it out of my mind, and rated it a more positive 84 because now I could see more clearly where it was going.  But in the end, a week later and with four more tries under my belt, I had to admit how well assembled the rum truly was, and settled on my final score.  Any rum which grows in the mind like that, getting better each time, is the sure mark of one that deserves a lot more attention.  In this case it remains one of my happy discoveries of the entire Habitation Velier line, and is a great advertisement for both agricoles and the more unappreciated and overlooked white rums of no particular age.

(#746)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The name refers to the German still used to make the rhum
  • This 1st edition of this rhum had a brown bottle.  The 2nd edition uses a clear one. Both editions derive from a 2015 harvest.
  • From Bielle distillery on Marie Galante
  • It’s a little early for the Rumaniacs series but two of the members have reviewed it, here, neither as positively as I have.  My sample came from the same source as theirs.
Jul 062020
 

Rumaniacs Review #117 | 0742

Bardinet was a French company — now part of La Martiniquaise-Bardinet —  formed by Paul Bardinet in 1857 in the south of France: he came up with the not-terribly-original idea of blending various rhums, much as various merchant bottlers were doing across the channel. Arguably their most famous product was the Negrita brand, originally a blend of Reunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe rhums, which was first released in 1886 with the now famous (or infamous) picture of the black girl on the label.

That picture, drawn by Max Camis (a famous poster designer and press cartoonist of the time) is supposedly the oldest character in French advertising…it’s surprising to see such consistent longevity, and one wonders if in these times it should not be retired.  It has remained a visual staple of the Negrita brand for over a century, and maybe the brand owners feel it has created a heritage and cachet of its own that they are loath to change…but if 1423 be taken to task, and both they and Plantation can change names deemed culturally offensive, then surely this should be on someone’s list to speak to as well.

That polemic aside, one issue created by a label that has remained stable for so long, is difficulty in dating the bottle itself. The auction where it was sourced suggested a date of 1970s-1980s and the frayed and much decomposed back label seemed to refer to a person or place named Olympe, which, when I practiced my Google-fu, turned up a restaurant run by Olympe Versini, a starred chef who was the first woman to have a radio and TV show in France in the 1970s. Artur (see comments below this post) pointed out that not only were barcodes widely introduced in the 1980s but the referred to book on the label was published in 1981, so although originally I thought the 1970s were a good dating, the truth is that 1980s are probably correct.  We do not, unfortunately, know about any ageing it has been through, or how old it is.

Colour – Dark amber

Strength – 44%

Nose – Doesn’t lend itself to quick identification at all.  It’s of course pre-AOC so who knows what made it up, and the blend is not disclosed, alas. So, it’s thick, fruity and has that taste of a dry dark-red wine.  Some fruits – raisins and prunes and blackberries – brown sugar, molasses, caramel, and a sort of sly, subtle reek of gaminess winds its way around the back end.  Which is intriguing but not entirely supportive of the other aspects of the smell.

Palate – Quite good, better, in fact, than the nose. Soft, smooth, warm, slightly sweet, with lots of ripe fruits – mangoes, papayas, a slice of pineapple, plums, blackberries, cherries.  There’s a trace of coffee grounds, vanilla and a nice background tartness to the whole thing, a creamy citrus hint, that gives it an edge I like.

Finish – Short, warm, almost thick, smooth.  Mostly fruits and a bit of toffee and the tiniest whiff of brine.

Thoughts – It’s not a bad rhum — indeed, it’s quite interesting —  just one we don’t know enough about in terms of what went into its blend.  I’d suggest both Martinique and Guadeloupe, though that’s guesswork based on a taste that could be interpreted in many other ways. Good for a sip and a share, however, for those who like sipping back into history. 

(82/100)

Jun 222020
 

Clement has a stable line of releases that have remained consistent for a long time – the “Bar and Cocktail” range of mixers and the “Classic” mid-level bottlings of the Ambre, Vieux, Canne Bleu and three blancs (40º, 50º, 55º)’. There is also the “Prestige” range consisting of the VSOP, 6YO, 10YO, single cask, Cuvée Homère, the XO, and that famed set of really aged millésimes which comprised the original XO — the 1952, 1970 and 1976.  And for those with more money than they know what to do with, the Carafe Cristal, ultimate top of the line for the company but out of the reach of most of us proles.

Yet oddly, the trio of The Distiller Edition of their rhums, of which I only ever saw a single example (this one) receives little or no attention at all these days, and has dropped from popular consciousness. It seems to be a small series released around 2007 and sold primarily in Italy, perhaps an unrepeated experiment and included a “Cask Strength” 57.8% edition, and a “Non filtre” 43.5% variation. It suggests a tentative strategy to branch out into craft bottlings that never quite worked out and was then quietly shelved, which may be why it’s not shown on Clement’s website.

Photo courtesy of Sascha Junkert

That said, what are the stats? Of course, this being Clement, it’s from Martinique, AOC-certified, column still, aged in American oak, with 1,650 bottles released at a near standard 43.5% (aside from its blancs, most of the the company ‘s rums are in the mid-forties). The tres vieux appellation tells us it is a minimum of four years old, but my own feeling its that it’s probably grater than five, as I’ve read it was bottled around 2005 or so, which fits in with the somewhat elevated nature of its title and presentation (there’s one reference which says it’s 7-9 years old).

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an awesome undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a cut above the ordinary vieux rhums from Clement which most people have had.  It has a dark and sweet nose, redolent of plums and dark red cherries, caramel, vanilla ice cream and a touch of cinnamon dusted mocha.  Where’s the herbals? I scribbled in my notes, because those light, white-fruit, grassy notes weren’t really that much in evidence. Mind you, I did also smell olives, brine, flowers and a touch of nutmeg, so it wasn’t as if good stuff wasn’t there.

The palate was about par for the course for a rum bottled at this strength. Initially it felt like it was weak and not enough was going on (as if the profile should have emerged on some kind of schedule), but it was just a slow starter: it gets going with citrus, vanilla, flowers, a lemon meringue pie, plums and blackberry jam. This faded out and is replaced by sugar cane sap, swank and the grassy vegetal notes mixed up with ashes (!!) and burnt sugar. Out of curiosity I added some water , and was rewarded with citrus, lemon-ginger tea, the tartness of ripe gooseberries, pimentos and spanish olives. It took concentration and time to tease them out, but they were, once discerned, quite precise and clear. Still, strong they weren’t (“forceful” would not be an adjective used to describe it) and as expected the finish was easygoing, a bit crisp, with light fruit, fleshy and sweet and juicy, quite ripe, not so much citrus this time. The grassy and herbal notes are very much absent by this stage, replaced by a woody and spicy backnote, medium long and warm

Clement has always been a hard act for me to pin down precisely.  Their rhums don’t adhere to any one clear-cut company standard — like, say, Neisson, or Saint James or Damoiseau —  and it’s like they always try to sneak something in under the radar to test you, to rock the barrel a bit. That means that peculiar attention has to be paid to appreciate them – they do not reward those in a hurry. I make this point because although I usually feel a sense of frustrated impatience with the weak wispiness of standard proofed rums, some surpass this limitation and bat beyond their strength class, and I think this is one of these…up to a point. The Distiller’s Edition 2000 is not at the level of intensity or quality that so marked the haunting memories evoked by the XO, yet I enjoyed it, and could see the outlines of their better and older rhums take shape in its unformed yet tasty profile, and by no means could I write it off as a loss. 

(#738)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Over the years, knowing my fondness for stronger rums and the deadening effect these can have on the palate, I have made it a practice to do flights of standard strength first thing in the morning when the palate is fresh and still sensitive to such weaker rums’ profiles.
  • When released, the rhum retailed for about €60, but now in 2020, it goes for more than €300…if it can even be found. 
  • Post will be updated of Clement gets back to me on the background to these limited edition rhums, and what they were created to achieve.
May 112020
 

Saint James. It’s not a name that’s unknown, since it’s the source of one of the oldest surviving rums in the world (the mud-black 1885), the place where rum-swami Luca Gargano started working all those years ago, and where Marc Sassier now hangs his hat. They’ve been around — and have been among the largest Martinique agricole makers — for so long, that they sometimes get passed over in people’s estimation in favour of younger or more exciting or more innovative Martinique operations (like, oh, A1710, or the new parcellaires).  Yet year in and year out, their standard lineup continues to enthrall and impress and demonstrate they’re not laggards by any means.

Saint James divides its range of rums – and they make quite a few – into three main categories.  First, there’s the cocktail fodder, mostly whites like the Imperial Blanc Agricole, Royal Blanc Agricole, Blanc Agricole 55°, Fleur de Canne and that extraordinary pot-still Coeur de Chauffe, plus the Rhum Paille and Rhum Ambre which are young and standard strength low-end blends. At the top of the food chain lie the special “exceptional” editions, the millesimes, single casks, special blends and anniversary editions in fancy bottles which will set you back a pretty penny and provide a handsome adornment to your home bar.  But when it comes to value for money, it’s the mid-level “tasting rhums” in their stable that give most bang for the buck – the Rhum Vieux 3 Ans, the 4-5 YO blend of the Fleur de Canne Vieux, the 7 Year Old, 12 year old, and the best of this series, I think, the 15 year old…which, were it slightly cheaper, might have made it a Key Rum of the World instead of the 12

Because that 15 year old rhum is, to my mind, something of an underground, mass-produced steal.  It has the most complex nose of the “regular” lineup, and also, paradoxically, the lightest overall profile — and also the one where the grassiness and herbals and the cane sap of a true agricole comes through the most clearly.  It has the requisite crisp citrus and wet grass smells, sugar came sap and herbs, and combines that with honey, the delicacy of white roses, vanilla, light yellow fruits, green grapes and apples.  You could just close your eyes and not need ruby slippers to be transported to the island, smelling this thing.  It’s sweet, mellow and golden, a pleasure to hold in your glass and savour

The taste is a similarly striking combination of depth, lightness and flavour. White guavas and pears mix it up with gooseberries and tartly ripe white soursop; there’s caramel, vanilla, dried fruits held in delicate check by some florals and mint, without any becoming overbearing and hogging the show.  There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to stop and just pick out the highlights.  Salted butter, dates and caramel, almost tequila-like at times, a touch of brine and olives here and there, but it’s all extremely well integrated, leading to a finish that is not particularly long, but quite fragrant with all the flowery and fruity notes of a tropical isle that perhaps exists not so much in reality, as in our fond remembrances and imaginations.

What these tasting notes describe is a top-end, well-aged rhum of a standard lineup. But these words don’t do justice to exactly how — when compared with and against the 7 and 12 YO — it rises above them, and in our esteem. I think Marc Sassier has created a masterful example of a blender’s art that somehow moves beyond being something standard or regular or “same old same old”.

You see, it’s almost received wisdom that rums showing  off any company’s possibilities and street cred, those that build the brand by demonstrating the amazing quality of which they are capable, are the flagships, the uber-expensive halo-rums, the single barrel or single year’s offerings — look no further than the El Dorado 25, Abuelo Centuria, Appleton 50 or even Saint James’s own 250th Anniversary to see that principle in action. But to my mind, the full measure of a producing company is better found in the sometimes unloved mass-market mid-level offerings, made in quantity, priced to move…the aged blends which so often are sadly lacking in any kind of lore or romance. Any run-of-the-mill rum, of any age, that emerges from this kind of assembly-line mentality and process, yet still retains fires of lust, of allure, of sheer quality, is a kind of industrial miracle. As this one is.

(#725)(88/100)

Apr 272020
 

After more than a decade of sampling rums from around the world, Martinique remains one of those islands to whose myriad distilleries I keep returning. Yet sometimes, when I remark on my liking for them, it’s a 50-50 chance that people wonder what I’m talking about (or why). But no list of Key Rums could possibly be complete without examples from that island, and the real issue is not so much that there has to be one (because there are many worthy candidates), as which it could possibly be and which one to start with when there’s so much choice available. 

What I believe gets in the way of agricole rhums’ wider understanding and acceptance – especially in the USA – is a combination of price, low cost tabletop rum dominance (like Bacardi), that crazy distribution system they have over there (and an equally silly one in Canada), and a general unfamiliarity with the taste. These issues lead to a lack of experience with agricoles as a whole, a dissatisfaction with the (slightly higher) price, and that oft repeated sniff-and-grumble, about how they all seem to be the same. 

In response I usually point to Neisson, with that subtle, oily, oddly tequila-like profile of its rhums, or Saint James’s pot still white. And such rhums exemplify what I like about the wide, wild variety to be found on Martinique – Neisson, as described, Clement with its classical clean and almost austere profiles, and the solid and romantic quality of Saint James. There are others I’ve enjoyed over the years, of course – Trois Rivieres, Depaz, La Favorite, and others – but when casting around for the first candidate from Martinique to include as a Key Rum, it was to these that my mind turned, and eventually at Saint James that it halted.

Saint James makes four rums as part of its regular aged lineup: the 7, 12 and 15 year old aged rums, and the white Fleur de Canne.  They make many others – millesimes, special editions, XOs, etc, (and we should never forget that amazing pot still white which will remain a perennial favourite of mine) – but for the person who wants to dive in to an appreciation of the distillery’s heart, certainly the four regulars I mention deserve to be tried first, and for the price, I think they offer among the very value-for-money “suitcase rums” anyone could ask for. And when one has to somehow chose among them for the best intersection of utility, taste, price, quality and enjoyment, I believe, in my heart, that the Saint James 12 Year old is the one to get.

To some extent, it has a lighter nose than the luscious 7 year old we looked at recently (though both are made on a creole still from cane juice, and are of the same strength, 43% ABV, similarly aged in ex bourbon casks), and it seems a little more precise, more dialled in, each note clear and distinct.  There is the same deep fruity notes of ripe mangoes, peaches, vanilla, ripe cherries, and a prune or two. It manages that peculiar trick of smelling slightly sweet without actually presenting as cloying or overripe.  Indeed, lighter hints of flowers and white, watery fruit come out to balance the fleshy fruits very nicely with guavas and pears, to which, after some time, one can sense honey and wax and a dusting of coffee grounds.

The palate follows along from this profile, mixing light and deep tastes in a not-too-sweet and juicy parade of mutually supporting flavours: dried fruits, raisins, grapes, guavas, ripe apples and prunes. The secondary, clearer notes of flowers and aromatic tobacco integrate well with the darker ones, providing a little bit of each, nothing in excess.  In the review of the 7 year old I remarked that the grassy lightness we associate with agricole rhums was almost completely absent – here, it starts to be somewhat more evident, though still in the background and its real moment in the sun comes at the close: this ends the tasting with a surprisingly long, fruity and dry aromatic finish that somehow doesn’t brake the experience so much as goose the accelerator mischievously one last time, just to show you it can.

This is a rum that is a step up from the 7 year old but also, something of a different one. The extra ageing showed its influence, the blend is a bit better – actually, I’d love to see what a few extra points of strength might achieve with this thing.  But never mind.  It is a really good dram and the only surprise about it is why it’s not better known. What the 12 year old does so well, is press all buttons of our appreciation simultaneously.  The Coeur de Chauffe white is the most original rum of its kind Saint James makes (in my opinion at least); the 15 is the best in overall quality and taste, and the 7 year old is good quality for money since it’s also the cheapest….but it’s just that the 12 does them all so very well, at a level high enough to make it a must-have. 

You see, it’s in aggregate of the things we look for, that it comes into its own:  good enough to sip, distinct enough to mix, affordable enough to buy, and all-round good enough to give as a gift without shame or apology (or to keep, for the same reasons). By making this rum, Saint James takes agricoles in an interesting, slightly offbeat and distinctive-to-the-distillery direction, and demonstrates that with skill and experience and perhaps just the simple delight in making rhum, that high-grade magic for the masses can be made in a way that doesn’t break the bank.  Any rum that can do all these things at once is a keeper…and a Key Rum for sure. 

(#721)(85/100)

Mar 232020
 

Photo (c) Excellencerhum since mine turned out to be useless

If I had a single regret about tasting this exceptional cask strength millésime rum from Trois Rivieres which was distilled in August 2006 and bottled eight years later, it’s that I neglected the opportunity to find and try the single cask version of the same vintage.  That one was bottled at 43% while the cask strength I was trying here was more than ten points higher, and it would have been fascinating to see how they ranked against each other.

Yet even without that comparison, there’s no doubt when you put together a range of variously aged agricoles (as I had the opportunity to), the Trois Rivieres Millésime 2006 is going to be right up there in the rankings when the dust settles and the arguments are over. Not just because of its strength, which is spoiling-for-a-fight-strong 55.5% ABV, but because of excellence of its assembly. Trois Rivières has made one of the best indie agricole bottlings ever (the Chantal Comte 1980), and here, for themselves, they have done something almost as good.

The Trois Rivières Brut de fût Millésime 2006 (which is its official name) is relatively unusual: it’s aged in new American oak barrels, not Limousin, and bottled at cask strength, not the more common 43-48%. And that gives it a solidity that elevates it somewhat over the standards we’ve become used to. Let’s start, as always, with the nose — it just becomes more assertive, and more clearly defined…although it seems somehow gentler (which is quite a neat trick when you think about it). It is redolent of caramel and vanilla first off, and then adds green apples, tart yoghurt, pears, white guavas, watermelon and papaya, and behind all that is a delectable series of herbs – rosemary, dill, even a hint of basil and aromatic pipe tobacco.

That’s all fine, but agricole aromas are usually a cut above the norm anyway – I’d have been disappointed if I was displeased. What really distinguishes the 2006 – the year was apparently a very good one – is the palate.  It’s a smorgasbord of macerated fruit (apricots, papaya, pineapple and apples), some light but clear florals, crushed hazelnuts, honey … and marshmallows. It all comes together in a delectable combo of sweet, crisp and mellow tastes that almost demands to be had neat — and all this time, the profile continues to be rock-solid rather than sharp or clawing, going right down the line to the fruity, tart, citrus-y finish with its last fine dusting of coffee grounds, crushed nuts and vanilla.

How they developed and assembled it in such a way that the high ABV was completely tamed and smoothened out without losing any of its force, is a mystery.  The balance and complexity harmonize well, it’s tailor made for a late night sip and it encourages rhum appreciation. It’s unlike the rhum we looked at last week, even an opposite: the La Mauny was a low-rent starter rhum made to accompany cheerful and noisily boisterous back-alley socializing, while the 2006 demands somewhat more reflection and is, perhaps, better for that purpose. But to cut a long summary short, I’m just and simply impressed, and maybe I should stop writing, go out there, buy another one, and share it with my domino-playing squaddies. Because I’m pretty sure they’d quaff this one by the glassful.

(#713)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • There are two variations of this Millésime: the 2006 Private Vintage (45%) and the 2006 Single Cask (43%). Entrhums out of Belgium sampled them here (French). Seems like I’m not the only one to really like Trois Rivières.
  • My personal opinion is that this is not quite as good as the TR 1986, but a smidgen better than the TR 1975
Mar 192020
 

Staying with some of the lesser-known agricoles I’ve delayed writing about for far too long, let’s talk about La Mauny for a bit. This is one of the larger establishments on Martinque, and now owned by Campari, which bought both it and Trois Rivieres in late 2019, ending nearly three hundred years of (various) families’ or witless conglomerates’ control over it. That history is a bit lengthy, so I’ll put it at the bottom and dive right in to the main schtick.

The La Mauny distillery remains one of the largest in Martinique, both for its planted cane area and for its production. Each year, it grinds around 30,000 tonnes of sugar cane , more than half cut by hand, to produce three million liters of agricultural rum. The Heritage 1749 – that date refers to the estate’s founding – is, for all its grandiose titling, something of an entry level rhum, not one of the heavily aged, much-fussed-over badasses that establishes a candidacy for a rhum-halo. It’s 40% ABV, column distilled from cane juice, aged between one and two years in French oak and then given three months in porto casks for a bit of finishing.

Whatever the porto influence was, it didn’t make itself known on the nose, at least not noticeably. The whole thing was relatively mild, and displayed very musky, earthy, loamy initial scents at the beginning…gradually there were replaced with vanilla, caramel, and deep dark fruits, mostly plums and overripe prunes.  The crisp and light grassiness of the sort of agricole rhum with which we are more familiar, was almost entirely absent at this stage, but I had to admit…it surprised me (and that doesn’t happen all that often these days).

Okay so, on to palate.  Straw yellow in the glass, it was softer and less intense, which, for a forty percenter, was both good and bad.  Here the grassy and herbal notes took on more prominence, as did citrus, some tart unsweetened yoghurt, honey and cane juice. The youth was evident in the slight sharpness and lack of real roundness – the two years of ageing had some effect, just not enough to sand off everything that rasped, and additional hints of red grapes, wine and nuttiness showed the porton had done its thing about as well as could be expected. As for the finish, meh – short, slightly sweet, lemon meringue pie, some vanilla, a flower petal or two…and a dark wet earthy aftertaste, very mild, very faint, that took me back to the nose.

To be honest, it’s not really very interesting.  The Porto finish saves it somewhat from being a bore and a dismissive “it’s just another rum” remark.  But even so, I doubt it’ll ever be asked for by name in some upscale joint or to fill out the edges of a home bar. To me, it’s very much like that King of Diamonds rum DDL used to make: a cheap working man’s blue-collar friend, meant to be had in the village or a cheap back-alley cafe with ice, laughter, dominos…and to wash down rough conversations about life, not meandering discussions about the esoteric meanings of Balzac or Baudelaire. That might be a little esoteric for an explanation of how I perceive this young rhum, but it encapsulates what I think of it perfectly.

(#712)(80/100)


History

La Mauny was founded in 1749 when Ferdinand Poulain, count of Mauny (in northern France), acquired the estate via an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a local planter, and established a refinery there. In 1820, with Martinique becoming more important to France after the loss of St Domingue (Haiti), La Mauny invested in a still and began agricole production.  Unfortunately, consistency of ownership proved elusive – a pattern that would not significantly change for the next centuries – and the estate passed through several hands over the succeeding generations because of poor management, financial or production difficulties, or familial squabbles. At various times the Code and Lapiquonne families held ownership, and although the family of Tasher de la Pagerie, whose daughter Josephine married Napoleon, expressed an interest, negotiations fell through.

In 1923 La Mauny was sold to Théodore and Georges Bellonnie who enlarged and brought in new facilities such as a distillation column, new grinding mills and a steam engine. The distillery expanded hugely thanks to increased output and good marketing strategies and La Mauny rhums began to be exported around 1950. In 1970, after the Bellonnie brothers had both passed away, the Bordeaux traders and old-Martinique family of Bourdillon teamed up with Théodore Bellonnie’s widow and created the BBS Group.  The company grew strongly, launching on the French market in 1977. Jean Pierre Bourdillon, who ran the new group, undertook to modernize La Mauny. He began by reorganizing the fields in order to make them accessible to mechanical harvesting and built a new distillery in 1984 (with a fourth mill, a three column still and a new boiler) a few hundred meters from the old one, increasing the cane crushing capacity and buying the equipment of the Saint James distillery in Acaiou, unused since 1958.

The musical chairs of acquisition and disposal, however, were not over. In 1994, Martini and Rossi sold BBS the Trois Rivieres Distillery, where the enormously popular Duquesne rum was also made (note that in 1953, the Marraud de Grottes family who owned Duquesne, bought Trois Rivieres, not the other way round – they then sold to M&R). BBS kept Duquesne and the Trois Rivieres distillery going until 2003, when they closed it and sent its column stills to La Mauny, where TR rhum continues to be made. 

The BBS Group was subsequently bought by the Reunion sugar refining company Quartier Francais in 2007, but they let it go again in 2010 to Tereos (previously Beghin-Say) – all these companies dealt mostly in sugar, but had nothing to do with the spirits industry.  Tereos sold the BBS division and its brands in 2011 to la Martiniquaise, whose speciality was spirits and where the fit was better. But this created a problem, since La Martiniquaise already owned the Saint James, Dillon and Old Nick brands and producing estates, and getting ownership of BBS would give them control more than 60% of rhums produced in the French Islands.  The Competition Authority therefore mandated that La Martinquaise divest part of their portfolio, which they did by selling on BBS to the Cyrille Chevrillon Group (who again, had absolutely nothing to do with rhum – they were into pharmaceuticals, insurance, flowers and printing, for example). The story stops (for now) in 2019, when the Campari Group announced the acquisition of the Trois Rivières, Duquesne and La Mauny brands, for $ 60 million, which is where things lie for the moment.

Sources:


Other Notes

Admittedly, this is something of an obscure rhum and the only other review I found was from that undiscovered treasure of a Japanese site, Sarichiii, run by one of the few ladies in the rum blogosphere.  There is a single notation in Rum Ratings with a score of 3/10, which I’ll include for completeness, but not because I think it’s a review.

Mar 162020
 

With all those distilleries dotting the landscape of Martinique, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s rather little to chose among the agricoles they make aside from canny marketing. I used to think so myself, until I began to amass an ever-increasing series of tasting notes and memories on these rhums from the myriad estates, and realized that there are indeed noticeable points of difference between any one and any other.  And that’s not just between the distilleries, but among the various expressions issued from the same one, as well. 

Saint James is a good example of this, with their pot still white being a world away from their 7 year old; there are the various Neisson or Bally releases, and another is La Favorite, with their dissimilar pair of the Cuvée Privilège and Cuvée Spéciale. All the others follow similar trajectories of quality and variation

But these are perhaps bad examples. They are good rums, prestige rums, aged a bunch, known as special. At the same time, down by the docks, at the layman’s end of the spectrum for everyday hooch, lurks the La Favorite Coeur Ambrė — a cousin to their Rhum Vieux we looked at some years back and similar to most entry-level offerings usually ignored by the cognoscenti but snapped up by the unpretentious and had just so.

The Ambrė is cheap, it lacks any sort of serious pedigree (18 months ageing, 45% ABV), and you’d think there’s nothing to distinguish the humble Martinique-made, AOC-compliant rhum from any other bottom-feeding prole-supplying ambre out on the market made by the other maisons on the island. 

Well…yes. But don’t rush too quickly past this young rhum from la Favorite just yet, because I think that for what it is, it’s not half bad. Just take a sniff at it: the nose is sharp and a bit unrefined, yet remarkably clear for something so young – it has some herbs, some citrus, it’s a shade musty and dry, and also presents a nice amalgam of vanilla, cereals, rye bread and gruyere.

You are, admittedly, met with something of a blast of the pepper shaker when you taste it. Stay with it and it evens out nicely – there’s sweet and salt, crushed almonds and walnuts, musty rooms in need of dusting, straw baskets, and fresh cut lumber/  Quite a bit for something so young, I’d say, and that’s not even all – you get some herbals, grass, florals and light oakiness as well. Plus a twist of lemon zest. All of this concludes with a sharp and unrefined finish of grass, green apples and grapes, some bitter chocolate – it’s too ragged and jagged, though, which shows its youth and kind of messes up the good stuff that came before.

Overall, it needs some further ageing to be appreciated as a drink in its own right and since La Favorite has a few others up the value chain, they make no bones about relegating it as low-end  cocktail fodder. But I submit that it does possess a certain crisp liveliness, an unanticipated quality which its price and appearance don’t entirely convey. Admittedly, there aren’t a whole lot of tastes running around begging to be noticed, and the complexity is pedestrian at best. What I like is that it never pretends to be other than what it is, and those notes that were discernible are reasonably well-defined, mesh decently, and provide an interesting experience. For an agricole rhum less than two years old and costing in the forty-buck range, that’s hardly a disqualifier. In fact, I think it’s something of an achievement.

(#711)(80/100)


A quick history:

La Favorite is a small family owned distillery in Martinique which has an annual rum production of around 600,000 litres. The original sugar plantation was initially called “La Jambette” for a small adjacent river, and was renamed La Favorite in 1851 when Charles Henry acquired it, and subsequently installed a distillation apparatus and began making rhum; anecdotes refer to the islanders calling it their favourite rhum, or Napoleon himself remarking it was his, but who knows. The company ran into financial difficulties in 1875 (maybe this was due to the establishment of the French 3rd Republic, and the defeat of the monarchists whom the planters supported, but that’s outside the scope of this brief bio).  

Somehow the plantation limped along until 1891 when a hurricane did so much damage that the whole operation was shut down for nearly twenty years. Production recommenced in the early 20th century (1905 per the website, though other sources say 1909) when Henri Dormoy bought the company from Mr. Henry and added a railway line through the plantation.  The boost given by the first world war allowed La Favorite to become truly commercially viable and it has been chugging along ever since, still using steam powered distillery apparatus, hand-glueing the labels to the bottles, and manually applying the wax over the top. Since 2000 when Henri’s own son Andre (who had bought the shares of the distillery from the other family members) died, his son Paul Dormoy has run the show there, and was joined in turn by his own son Franck in 2006, making it one of the few family owned establishments remaining on the island.

Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually white – the colours refer to their labels’ hues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production.  The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constant – sugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtration – then the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you.  The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits.  However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any means…and therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini.  There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritime – seaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notes – papaya, guavas, pears, watermelon.  As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expected – the sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrus…and, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me.  Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palate — and the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum.  It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchin’ daiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#710)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed it – the Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago.

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#709)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Feb 232020
 

Recently we’ve looked at rums from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Mauritius (and that’s just since the year began) which goes a far way to showcasing the incredible variety of the spirit.  Today we’ll try something from Martinique – and when one considers the fame of Saint James, home of the near legendary 1885 Rhum (one of oldest rhums I’ve ever tried) and from which I’ve tasted several old editions from the past, well, it’s a wonder I haven’t come here more often to try their current offerings.

At this time, the Saint James lineup consists of five blanc rhums (Imperial, Royal, the 55º, Fleur de Canne and the really quite amazing pot-still Coeur de Chauffe), two basic mixers (Rhum Paille Agricole, Rhum Ambré Agricole), nine more “tasting rhums” which are the aged variants of the 3, Vieux, XO, 7, 12, 15, Cuvee 1765, Cuvee d’excellence and Brut de Fut 2003…and lastly, five “exceptional rhums” (their phrase, not mine), which are special editions, millesimes and so on. 

Today I won’t aim for the stratosphere with some ultra-expensive halo rum from the top end which none but the 1% can afford, but just speak to the mid-range 7 Year Old. All the usual stats apply for a Saint James rhum – AOC certified, cane juice origin, creole still, 43% strength, and nicely tropically-aged in small ex-bourbon casks.  

What’s interesting about Saint James is not only the distinctiveness of their rhum here, but its divergence from what is almost seen as the sine-qua-non of rhum agricole – the grassy, herbal lightness of a cane juice distillate. Nowhere in the initial nose do I detect herbs and green grass and that light crispness – instead, what I smell is  luscious, sweet, and spicy, almost but not quite heavy with fruits. There’s preaches in syrup, pineapple, light anise, unsweetened yoghurt, coffee grounds, honey and vanilla, and later, also some cinnamon. I think you have to admit, for a 7 year old to have all that is really quite remarkable. 

Ah but when sipped, all that changes, and the clodhoppers go away and it dons a pair of ballet slippers.  It’s stunningly fragrant, not quite delicate – that ballerina does have an extra pound or two – very firm and robust in flavour profile.  Just on the first sip you can taste flowers, pears, papaya, honey, vanilla, raisins, grapes, all pulled together with a delectable light and salty note. There are nice citrus hints, a tease from the oak, ginger and cinnamon, and overall, it sips as nicely as it mixes.  The finish is well handled, though content to play it safe – things are beginning to quieten down here, and it fades quietly without stomping on you – and certainly nothing new or original comes into being; the rhum is content to follow where the nose and palate led – fruits, pineapple, spices, ginger, vanilla – without breaking any new ground.

So all in all, a really vibrant piece of tropically aged work, deserving many of its plaudits. I’ve noticed on many a social media post that people throw around the words “gateway rum” and apply it consistently to the oversweetened bestsellers like the Zacapas or some of the traditional Demeraras from DDL.  Here’s one rum where the term really does apply, and what makes it so apropos is that there’s no messing around with the 7 YO Vieux, no enticement or blandishment with additives or fancy maturation or finishing (or those tiresome old made-up backstories).  It’s simply a very good mid range rhum, drinkable, mixable, flexible, and its great quality might just be that it makes you want to go up the ladder to the older rums immediately, just to see what magic Mark Sassier has done with those. Now that’s a gateway that means business, and completely earns the title.

(#704)(83/100)


Other notes

  • The Fat Rum Pirate noted the odd lack of agricole-ness on the nose as well, in his 2018 4.5 star review.
  • It’s completely irrelevant, but Luca Gargano started his rum career working for Saint James as a brand ambassador in the 1970s, before buying Velier.
Jan 302020
 

India is one of these countries that makes a lot of rum but is not reknowned for it — and if you doubt that, name five Indian rums, quick.  Aside from a few global brands like Amrut (who are more into whiskies but also dabbled in rum with the Old Port Deluxe and the Two Indies rums) rum makers from there seem, for the moment, quite happy to sell into their internal or regional markets and eschew going abroad, and are equally indifferent to the foreign rum festival circuit where perhaps they could get more exposure or distribution deals. Perhaps being located in the most populous region of the earth, they don’t need to. The market is literally right there for them.

One such product from India came across my radar the other day: named Rhea Gold Rum, it’s made in Goa on the west coast of the subcontinent, and I can truthfully say I knew nothing about it when I tried it, so for reasons that will become clear, let me run you straight past through the tasting notes before going on.

Light amber in colour and bottled at 43%, it certainly did not nose like your favoured Caribbean rum.  It smelled initially of congealed honey and beeswax left to rest in an old unaired cupboard for six months – that same dusty, semi-sweet waxy and plastic odour was the most evident thing about it. Letting it rest produced additional aromas of brine, olives and ripe mangoes in a pepper sauce.  Faint vanilla and caramel – was this perhaps made from jaggery, or added to after the fact? Salty cashew nuts, fruit loops cereal and that was most or less it – a fairly heavy, dusky scent, darkly sweet.

The palate continued that deep profile of rich and nearly overripe mangoes — big, soft, yellow and juicy, just on the edge of turning mushy.  Some tastes of pears, papayas, peaches, but not as sweet, accompanied by vanilla and nuttiness…but overall, the cloying thickness of overripe fruits became gradually dominating, even at that relatively tame strength, almost overpowering all others. There was no subtlety here, just a pillow fight. Finish was too faint and syrupy (in taste not in texture) to be interesting in any meaningful way.  It has some fruit, some salt caramel, it finishes and that’s pretty much it.

In my original written notes I opined that this is a spiced or added-to rum — such things are, after all, not unknown in India.  But in point of fact, it reminded me more strongly of the guava-based “rum” from Cuba called the Guyabita del Pinar, with which it seems to share kinship from half a world away, without being quite as good.

As it turns out, that wasn’t far off the mark. The company that makes it – Rhea Distillers – is much more famous (especially in Goa) for making variations of the local spiced alcoholic spirit based on cashews, or sometimes, coconut milk.  Called feni, it is the most popular tipple in the region, a softer, easier cousin to clairins, somewhat akin to grogues though made from fruit, not came — and is, as an aside, subject to a GI in its own right.

The Gold Rum was made from sugar cane juice according to the site and that makes it a  “real” rum – still, bearing in mind the priorities and main products of the company, the question of why it tastes so much of cashews is not hard to guess (nothing is written anywhere on the web page about production methods, except that cane spirit is the base).  Moreover, in those competitions where it was entered (ISWC 2018 and World Rum Awards 2018), it won prizes in the ‘flavoured’ or ‘spiced’ categories – not that of a straight product.

What else? Well, the front label wasn’t very helpful; the back label says, among other things, that it is aged in oak barrels without subsequent filtration for about three years and consists of “rum distillate”, water, E150a colouring, and without additional aromatics or artificial additives (the rest is health advisories, distribution and manufacturer data, shelf life and storage instructions). Well, I don’t know: it may not have any artificial additives, but it sure had something – maybe it was natural additives, like actual cashew fruit or macerate.

The website of the company also lacked any serious data, on either the product or the company background, but whatever the case and however they made it, this is definitely a spiced rum, and for me, not a very good one – perhaps a native of Goa who is used to the local drinks and buys the ubiquitous feni on the street would like it more than I did. Rhea  might be serving a captive market of millions but that’s hardly an endorsement of intrinsic quality or unique production style – or, in this case, of taste.  I found the Rhea unsatisfactory as a sipper, dominated by too few strong and oversweet tastes, and not a drink I could mix easily into any standard cocktail to showcase what aspects of it were more successful.  In short, not my thing.

(#697)(72/100)


Opinion

Full disclosure: I’m not really a fan of spiced rums, believing there’s more than enough good and unspiced stuff out there for me not to bother with rums that are so single mindedly flavoured to the point of drowning out subtler nuances of ageing and terroire…the “real” rum taste, which I prefer. So in a way it was good that I tasted it without knowing what it was. You really did get my unvarnished opinion on the rum, and that was also why I wrote the review that way.

Jan 132020
 

Photo (c) ModernBarCart.com

“White cane spirits are having a moment,” wrote Josh Miller of Inu a Kena in naming the Saint Benevolence clairin one of his top rums of 2019.  He was spot on about that and I’ve felt the same way about white rums in general and clairins in particular ever since I had the good fortune to try the Sajous in Paris back in 2014 and had my hair blown back and into next week – so much so that I didn’t just make one list of 21 good white rums, but a second one for good measure (and am gathering material for a third).

Given that Velier’s involvement has raised the profile of clairins so much, it’s surprising that one with the avowed intention of ploughing back all its profits into the community where it is made (see “other notes”, below) does not have more of a mental footprint in people’s minds.  That might be because for the most part it seems to be marketed in the USA (home of far too few rum blogs), whence its founders Chase and Calvin Babcock hail – and indeed, the first online write ups (from Josh himself, and Paul Senft on Got Rum), also stemmed from there.  Still, it is moving across to Europe as well, and Indy and Jazz Singh of the UK-based Skylark Spirits, couldn’t contain their glee at providing something to a ‘Caner Party in 2019 which we had not seen before and threatening dire violence if it was not tried right then and there.

They could well smile, because the pale yellow 50% “white” rum was an aromatic beefcake that melded a barroom brawler with a civilized Martinique white in a way that we had not seen before. It started rough and ready, true, with fierce and pungent aromas of wax, brine, acetones, and olives biffing the schnozz, and it flexed its unaged nature quite clearly and unapologetically.  There was a sprightly line of citrus/white sugar running through it that was pleasing, and after a while I could sense the sharpness of green apples, wasabi, unripe bananas, soursop mixing it up with softer scents of guavas and vanilla. Every now and then the salty, earthy notes popped back up as if to say “I exist!” and overall, the nose was excellent.

Unlike the overpowering strut of the Velier clairins, the taste here was quite restrained and less elemental, even at 50% ABV.  In fact, it almost seemed light, initially presenting a nice crisp series of sugar-water and lemon notes, interspersed with salted cucumber slices in sweet apple vinegar (and a pimento or two thrown in for kick).  Mostly it was crisp fruits from there – green grapes, red currants, soursop, unripe pears, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the laid back easiness of the Cabo Verde grogues, yet without ever losing a bit of its bad boy character, the way you can always spot a thug even if he’s in a tux, know what I mean?  Finish handled itself well – salt and sweet, some tomatoes (!!), a little cigarette tar, but mostly it was sugar water and pears and light fruits, a soft and easy landing after some of the aggro it presented earlier.  

All in all, really interesting, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste – it is, admittedly, something of a challenge to sample if one is not prepared for its rough and ready charms. It may best be used as a mixer, and indeed, Josh did remark it would work best in a ‘Ti Punch or Daiquiri.  He said it would make “for a fresh take on an old favorite”, and I can’t think of a better phrase to describe not just the cocktails one could make with it, but the rum as a whole. It lends richness and variety to the scope of what Haitian clairins can be.

(#692)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The source of the clairin is the area around Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, which is the second largest city in Haiti, and located in the central north of the country. There, sugar cane fields surround and supply the Dorcinvil Distillery, a third-generation family operation employing organic agricultural practices free from herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. The cane itself is a blend of several different varieties: Cristalline, Madame Meuze, Farine France and 24/14. After harvesting and crushing, the juice is fermented with wild yeasts for five to seven days, then run through a handmade Creole copper pot still, and bottled as is (I suspect there may be minor filtration to remove sediments or occlusions). It is unclear whether it is left to stand and rest for a bit, but my bottle wasn’t pure white but a very faint yellow, so the supposition is not an entirely idle one.
  • The company also produces a blended pot-column still Caribbean five year old rum I have not tried, made from from Barbados molasses and cane juice syrup from the Dominican republic
  • Charity Work: [adapted from Inu A Kena and the company website] Saint Benevolence rum is made by Calvin Babcock, who co-founded Living Hope Haiti, a charity providing educational, medical, and economic services in St Michel de Attalaye in Northern Haiti.  He works with his son Chase, the other half of the team. Along with their partners on the ground in St Michel de Attalaye, Living Hope Haiti (LHH) has built five elementary schools, four churches, an orphanage, a medical clinic, and funded other critically necessary infrastructure including bridges and water wells. They also provide three million meals per year to those in need. The work of LHH is almost entirely funded by the Babcock family, but with the introduction of Saint Benevolence, a new funding stream has come online. Besides LHH, Saint Benevolence funds two additional charities: Innovating Health International (IHI) and Ti Kay. IHI is focused on treating chronic diseases and addressing women’s health issues in Haiti and other developing countries, while Ti Kay is focused on providing ongoing TB and HIV care.  Since 100% of the profits of the rum go straight back to the community of origin, this is certainly a rum worth buying to support such efforts, though of course you’re also getting quite a good and unique white rum for the price.
Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

Dec 182019
 

Without bombast or any kind of major marketing push, without hype or hurry, Savanna on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean quietly built up its reputation over the last decade with the Grand Arôme series of rums deriving from their high ester still, and probably gave the new high-ester Jamaicans serious conniption fits. Yet for all its burgeoning street cred, it remains something of a relative unknown, while much more attention is lavished on the New Jamaicans and other companies around the Caribbean who are jacking up their taste levels. 

Savanna has of course been making rums its own way for ages, and by releasing this little gem with them, the Genoese concern of Velier might just be the one to catapult them to the next level and greater renown outside Europe.  After all, they did it for Caroini and DDL, why not here? 

The “Indian Ocean Still” series of rums have a labelling concept somewhat different from the stark wealth of detail that usually accompanies a Velier collaboration.  Personally, I find it very attractive from an artistic point of view – I love the man riding on the elephant motif of this and the companion Chamarel rum (although I must concede that my all time favourite design is the architectural-quality drawings of the various stills of the Habitation line). In any event, most of the info is on the back label (repeated in the copperplate-style narrative on the front): distilled November 2012, aged on Reunion in French oak casks, bottled February 2019.  It’s a column still product, but not, as far as I’m aware, of the HERR still.

It’s been said on many occasions of Velier’s rums, especially with the Jamaicans and Demeraras, that “the rum doesn’t feel like it’s X%”.  Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here, where the Savanna clocked in at 61% ABV, but nosed — and later tasted — like it was no more than standard strength. I mean, it started with a truly lovely, sweet, soft, warm nose.  Peaches in syrup and cream melded well with sugar water, ripe yellow mangoes, red grapes,and sweet red olives. Delectable in a good way, and I particularly enjoyed the lemon and cumin background, plus the yoghurt and sour cream with dill.  

The palate was also an amalgam of many good things, starting off tasting of sweet and very strong black tea with milk.  It developed fruity, sweet, sour and creamy notes which all met and had a party in the middle. There was lime zest, bags of ripe, fleshy fruits, cereals, red grapes, apples, cashews – it’s a smorgasbord of ongoing flavour porn, both sharp and crisp, and later one could even taste fanta and bubbly soda pop mixed in with a clean Riesling.  The strength was more discernible than it had been when I smelled it, just not in a bad way, and it was really well tamped down into something eminently drinkable, finishing off with a flourish of olive oil and brine, a touch of sweetness from the fanta, and more crisp almost ripe fruits.

Man, this was a really good dram.  It adhered to most of the tasting points of a true agricole — grassiness, crisp herbs, citrus, that kind of thing — without being slavish about it.  It took a sideways turn here or there that made it quite distinct from most other agricoles I’ve tried. If I had to classify it, I’d say it was like a cross between the fruity silkiness of a St. James and the salt-oily notes of a Neisson.

It’s instructive that although Savanna has been making high ester rums for at least the last two decades, their reputation was never as sterling or widespread as Hampden and Worthy Park who have been getting raves for their new branded rums from almost the very first moment they appeared on the stage. Perhaps that says something about the need in today’s world to have a promoter in one’s corner who acts as a barker for the good stuff. That could be a well known importer, it could be the use of a deep-pocketed secondary bottler with a separate rep of their own (think Rum Nation’s 2018 Reunion rum as an example), or a regular FB commentator.  

These forces have all now intersected, I think, and the rum is a win for everyone concerned. Savanna has greater exposure and fantastic word of mouth dating back to its seminal HERR 2006 10 year old; Velier has shown that even with the winding down of the Demeraras and Caronis they can find tasty, intriguing rums from around the world and bring them for us to taste; and I can almost guarantee that if this rum finds its way into enough hands, there will be no shortage of positive online blurbs and opinions from across the commenterati, many of whom will be happy to say that they knew it all along and are happy to be proved right.

(#685)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Habitation Velier has released a Savanna HERR Unaged 2017 white rhum, which is a good companion to this one, though it’s a bit more energetic and rambunctious and displayed less refinement…yet perhaps more character. 
  • I heard a rumour that Velier intended to release three Indian Ocean rums in this 2019 series, and indeed, around 2018, there were photos of Luca in India that surfaced briefly on FB.  However, nothing seems to have come of it and never responded to my queries on the matter.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being 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 didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

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 local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, 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 still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called 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. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.