Feb 162024
 

“Oh wow!” I wrote with a sort of delighted and startled surprise when first nosing Archie Rose’s 40% white rum they called White Cane. I had not tried anything from the distillery before – indeed, I knew very little about it — but the rich and oily scent of a mechanic’s shop fumigated with vanilla flavoured acetones was really not what I had expected as an opening salvo. And it didn’t stop there, because the seeming light ‘n’ easy aromas it started out with contained quite a bit more oomph than was initially apparent – once it opened it up it was brine, olives, ripe and watery fruits, lots of pears and papaya, figs and persimmons, even a hint of caramel and some sweet yet tart apple cider. The nose displayed a thickness and depth that was quietly impressive – one does not often see this kind of profile in a standard proof rum very often.

Putting down my glass, I looked curiously at the sample label. Who was is this outfit? What was behind the name? Was it a left-handed nod to WW1 ack-ack fire, maybe, or a hat tip to Riverdale and the comics? An old but forgotten relative, perhaps, or a gone-to-seed second eleven cricket player from the past who nobody except the owners remembered? 

Apparently not. Some references suggest that “Archie” was a slang word, a pseudonym for an underground distilling bootlegger at a time in the 1800s when the temperance movement was ascendant in Australia and distillation was illicit, if not quite illegal; and since the founder, Will Edwards established the distillery in its first location in Rosebery, an inner suburb of south Sidney, the name seemed a good fit. A more prosaic alternative is that the neighbourhood itself was named after an uninspiring and obscure 19th century British PM, Archibald Primrose, and the distillery took the contracted form of his name, so take your pick. 

Anyway, it was apparently the first new distillery in the city since 1853 (one wonders what the previous one was) and comprised of several Italian made fermentation tanks (named after rappers), and three hand built gas-powered steam-boiler-heated 3600-litre pot stills made by Peter Bailey, who at the time was the country’s only still maker. It was mostly family financed, and sported a very good bar right next to the distillery to help make ends meet.

“White Cane” was and remains the company’s only unaged rum (there are some experimentals coming as well, however), and it’s interesting that they went with that name instead of the near universal “cane spirit” moniker everyone else has been using over there. The source cane came from Condong up in NSW just south of Brisbane, so the molasses likely originated from the Condong Sugar Mill, and the wash blended two kinds of molasses – high test and B-grade —  fermented with two different yeasts for 4-16 days, then run through their main and pilot still at least twice, with part being “cold” (or vacuum) distilled.

That fermentation and complex distillation was probably why the taste, as well as the nose, had enough chops to excite some curiosity, if not outright enthusiasm. It presented like a crisp, tangy, citrus-like 7-up, with green apples, pineapples, ripe pears on the edge of going off, red grapes and a subtle bite of ginger. The nose, I felt, was better, but for the taste to be this interesting at 40% did demonstrate that the awards the rum won (three so far) was not mere happenstance or flinging medals at everything that turned up. The palate continued to provide subtle and almost delicate notes: white chocolate, crushed walnuts some mint, fennel, sweet coconut shavings and some faint mustier cardboard notes, leading to a short, easy, sweet and spicy finish redolent of cinnamon and ginger and papaya. Nice.

Names and origins aside, currently the distillery boasts five different rums (and fifteen whiskies, ten gins, four vodkas and various other alcoholic products, lest you err in thinking their focus is on the Noble Spirit). Their origin was, and remains primarily in, whisky, for which they have won oodles of awards, and boosted their cash flow so well that in 2020 they were able to float A$100 million financing to move to Banksmeadow, a few kilometres south of the original location, leaving Rosebery to be a sort of visitor’s area for tours, classes and other events. Two massive new pot stills were also installed allowing production to be significantly increased.

As always, there is the downside that such a wide variety of spirits production dilutes focus on any single one. Not something I can blame a distillery for, since making payroll, paying rent and expanding the business is what it’s about, but lessening the attention that can be paid to developing and improving one product. Clearly whisky is the core business and everything orbits that priority (my opinion); and we must be careful not to over-romanticize the myth of the Great Little Solo Distiller Working in Obscurity, since commercial enterprises do make good juice, and not always by accident or as throwaways. Recent “Heavy Cane,” “Virgin Cane” and other experimental rums Archie Rose is playing with point to a committed and interested distilling team that wants to do more than just make another supermarket rum.

The White Cane, even at 40%, is pretty good and that’s an endorsement I don’t give often. I think the panoply of tastes — admittedly delicate and occasionally too faint and hard to pick apart — play well together, don’t overstay their welcome or allow any one element to hog the show, and provide a nice drinking experience. Sometimes just as much work goes into an unaged spirit as an aged one — perhaps more since there’s no backstop of ageing to improve anything so what comes off the still had better be ready — and it’s clear the distiller paid attention to the entire production process to provide both mixing and sipping chops. One can only hope the distillery expands the range and ups the proof, because then not only would it likely garner even more awards, but I’d  be able to bug Steve Magarry yet again…to get me a whole bottle, not just a sample.

(#1058)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 7. This is Batch #2 from 2023. Batch #1 was introduced in 2022
  • Production notes from company webpage.
Dec 022023
 

Almost all of Capricorn Distilling’s current line up of releases are good ones, and they haven’t even started a serious ageing program yet. Whether this is a matter of their desire to tinker and see what happens, or a clearly thought-out distillation philosophy, is unknown to me. What I do know, is that having tried their standard range (not the spiced, infused, gins, liqueurs or anything else) I can honestly state that if you get a white unaged Australian rum this year, you could do worse than buy a case of their juice generally – and the High Ester in particular. Because that thing is damned good: it channels Jamaica by way of Reunion, adds a measure of outback attitude, and sports serious rum making mojo on all levels. 

It’s on par with the overproofs of Black Gate or Killik (especially the latter’s Silver) in my estimation, and indeed it shares some of those rums’ DNA: molasses-based based, a 10-15 day fermentation using a different yeast from the Coastal Cane, some dunder for kick (and maybe a diced dingo or two, who knows? — with Warren, you get the impression that anything is possible). Then there’s a single pass-through on Rocky (the double retort pot still), after which it’s left to rest for a while and diluted down to 51% before bottling. 

If that sounds interesting, wait until you nose it, because while it’s not quite as well rounded as the Pure Single Rum, it’s hot, it’s spicy, it’s clean as new steel, and really crisp. There’s a sense of sparkling wine about it – chianti, Riesling, plus some 7up, and pineapples.  Lemony cumin, ginger, florals, cinnamon, which slowly merges with a damper aroma of rain on hot clay bricks and then softens into coconut shavings, oatmeal cookies and white chocolate crusted with almonds. The clear metallic sweat of someone who’s been exerting themselves in very cold weather after just having had a bath (yeah, I know how barmy that sounds). Juicy and ripe white fruits – papaya, guavas, pears, green apples and a few slices of pineapple. This is clearly a rum that enjoys Christmas.

The palate is somewhat more subdued, while still professing a certain originality. First there’s that clean scent of fresh laundry hot from the drier, followed by a sweet, tart, yoghurt, and citrus-y hints of ripe fruits that have not yet started to go. What distinguishes the taste is the way the sour miso soup or kimchi comes out swinging here, as does a kind of  sweet-salt tartness of, say, pickled tomatoes and bell peppers (with a reaper thrown in for good measure). Added to that are notes of pine, cinnamon, licorice, ginger, wet sawdust, fruits…it just keeps chugging along, one taste after another. This one rum packs a lot in its jock and isn’t afraid to sport it, right down to the aromatic, long, dry, fruity and crisp finish that immediately encourages another pour.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s occasionally hit and miss (that’s why I tried it multiple times), and the crisp sourness mixed with sweet and salt won’t be to everyone’s taste. And indeed, Wally told me that his own team liked the Pure Single Rum best; my friend and tasting chum Logan also felt it lagged (slightly) behind the Pure Single and even the Coastal Cane. 

I completely get that, because they are good rums in their own right, and I’ve reviewed them with genuine affection, scored them well. But for my money, those — while excellent in their own pitch — don’t break new ground with quite the same in-yer-face insouciance, don’t get hit outside the boundary, and remain satisfied with a solid bouncy four into deep fine leg. The High Ester Cane, in contrast, appeals to my love of the original, the offbeat, the new, and has no hesitation going for a powerful, lofty out-of-the-park six. It walks up to your wicket, hits you over the head and drags you off the field, and, love it or like it or hate it, you’ll always know you’ve had something different that day. That’s not a compliment in everyone’s book, but it sure is in mine.

(#1043)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My fellow Calgarian reviewer, friend and redditor, FarDefinition2, as well as another redditor FrostyThought8591 both felt the High Ester was not quite as good as the Pure Single or the Coastal Cane, but both agreed it would shine in cocktails. This is why sharing samples around and checking for feedback is so useful – it not only gives consumers another opinion, it also forces me to consider other points of view.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins date back to  2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the ever-present cash flow generator of gins. The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.

Nov 152023
 

Brisbane’s Rum Revolution in Down Under has just ended last weekend, and among the many excited questions of “were you there?” and “did you drink this?” posted on social media, were a surprising number of accolades given to Capricorn, the little distillery run by Warren Brewer (also and variously called Walter, Wal, Wally, Warren and Wally Walter, depending on how he’s feeling on the day), south of Brisbane. People were getting all gobsmacked over the High Ester rum (rightfully so methinks) and I’m hoping we’ll see it at a rumfest in Europe next year, so we can see how others feel about it.

Alas, today I’m not reviewing that one (although I want to) but will instead focus on another very interesting experimental rum the distillery makes, the Dumpster Diver, which among other things, demonstrates that West Indians are not the only people out there with a sharp and obscure sense of humour. Now, this is an unaged rum, white, molasses-based, jacked up to the nines by using a cane juice acid, muck, and natural ferment to supercharge the thing; it was fermented for about thirty days, distilled in a single pass through the double retort pot still (that’s the one named Rocky), then left to snooze in a stainless steel vat for a couple of months. I’d like to think Warren then chucked it into a dumpster out back behind the shed for people to fish out when they wanted some, but naaah, he just bottled it…at 62%. It is not currently available in shops (it remains something of a trial release and not mentioned on the company website), and Wally tells me it can always be had to buy at the back door of his distillery where they sign waivers before tastings (well…not really: but they are warned what to expect so as to cushion the shock).

Normally at this point I’d tell you about the distillery and its background; however, that’s already available (reprinted below), and the only thing to add to it is that I think Walter deserves the praises, because this rum is really quite a blast to have neat…or, as he reminds me, in a totally awesome martini. This is one rum that’ll cure what ails you.

So, let’s just dive right in. Nose first: it’s redolent of cucumbers and a few pimentos in white vinegar, really hot and sharp. There’s an element of dusty houses, old cupboards, granny’s unused bloomers (best not go there) and a whole lot of dry and expired cereals. The smell is slightly sweet, and also sour, channelling gherkins and diluted balsamic vinegar: there is a sort of kimchi vibe here that’s quite nice, and even some ashlan-foo (which made Mrs. Caner sigh with nostalgia when I passed the glass to her to confirm). The intensity fades after it opens up and remains well controlled and rather quiescent most of the time. Towards the end, things get weird for a while — it could be just me but I thought I nosed some disinfectant, pine sol and even the slight acrid hint of a chlorine bleach, which makes it slip in my estimation, but overall, the nose is really quite something – not one you’ll forget in a hurry, and somewhat reminiscent of an agricole.

Photo (c) and courtesy of Josh Wall

It is also excellent on the palate: strong, firm, solid, and very dry.  Letting it stand to let the harsh alcohol burn off is probably a good idea, or alternatively, some might like to add a little water. This allows a solid taste experience to unfold, starting with an air of clean white laundry flapping in the breeze on a sunny day, white wine and tart fruits, plus unsweetened yoghurt, which presents a sort of crisp fruitness that is very pleasant.  Pomegranates, figs, dragon fruit, soursop and other unusual stuff like that, but also citrus, green apples and grapes, each snapping crisply into focus and then quickly moving aside for the next one. As for the finish, well, pretty damned fine: dry, dusty, fruity, nicely long, with acetones, nail polish remover and bubble gum – plus the usual fruit salad rounding things out.

New rums like this from far-flung locations are why I stay in the game.  It’s such an interesting dram, on so many levels. It shows a lot of rough edges – “like a country bai com’ to town” – and a demonstrable lack of couth is right there, front and centre – you can almost smell it sweating and sweltering in the heat.  And yet it’s a completely solid rum, channelling Hampden by way of Worthy Park with a little TECA thrown in, before adding its own exuberant Queensland twist. It’s rough, it’s brutal, it’s got tastes and to spare, attitude beyond reason and when you’re done you will realise that it’s also an immensely enjoyable drink on its own terms. And yeah, it really does make a seriously sleazy, filthy, barkin’ mad martini.

(#1039)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Disclosure: although Warren and I agreed I’d send him something from my stocks to pay off for the samples he sent to me in Canada, as of this writing I have not yet done so. Just waiting for my empty sample bottles to arrive, though, and all will be settled.
  • I’ve asked for a photo of the bottle and label, as none appear to be available online, even on the company’s social media pages. My sincere thanks to Josh Wall of the Brisbane Rum Club FB page, who kindly allowed me to use his photograph of the rum bottle and its label. Ta, and a hat tip, mate.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins began in 2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the everpresent cash flow generator of gins.The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.


 

Aug 292023
 

The real question is not so much how good this Malabari Vaatte is, where it originates, or what it purports to be…but what exactly it is. Part of the issue surrounding the Mandakini is that the wording on the label could equally well be describing a real rum, a disguised alcoholic beverage claiming to be one, a spiced spirit, or some peculiar amalgam of all of the above. 

The rum (I’ll use the term for now) is made in Canada, and therefore falls into the rabbit hole of the country’s arcane liquor laws, one of which, like Australia’s, states that a rum — assuming it meets the basic criteria of being made from cane derivatives like molasses, juice or vesou — can only be so labelled if it is aged for a minimum time of one year. That’s all well and good except for this catch: the same terms one would use to describe a true rum not quite meeting the criteria (for example by being a completely unaged one), are also used to describe a neutral spirit that is doctored up to be more palatable. In this case it is labelled as being an “unaged spirit from sugar cane extract” which could be either one or the other, or neither. So which is it, exactly? The producers never say. 

After scanning all available sources without resolution, I finally picked up the phone and asked them directly. The bottom line is that the Mandakini derives from a wash of blackstrap molasses fermented with natural yeast for two weeks or more, and is then double-distilled through a third party’s pot-still, after which a small amount of neutral spirit is added to the mix and it’s diluted down to 46%. There’s a reason for the addition, according to Abish Cheriyam, one of the founders who very kindly took the time to tell me all about it – it’s to bring the price down so it’s affordable to the target audience, as well as smoothening out batch variation.

Trying it out (with three other Indian rums on the table as comparators) makes it obvious that this is not a rum of the kind we know, even taking into account its heritage. The nose is all sweet light candy and icing sugar, some vague sugar water, swank, lime peel, peppermint, bananas, and the kind of weak syrupy essence they dash into your flavoured coffee. Unfortunately the neutral spirit takes away from what could otherwise develop into much more interesting drink: it smells too much like a lightly sweet vodka. Those who are into Jamaican high ester beefcakes or strong unaged indigenous white rums will not find the droids they’re looking for here, and will likely note that this does not channel a genuine product made by some village still…at least not what they’ve come to expect from one.

The taste also makes this point: it is quite inoffensive, and it doesn’t feel like 46%, which to some extent is to its credit. Light, sweet, a little sharp, yet the downside is that there is too little to distinguish it. Some light florals, sugar water, coconut shavings, bananas and maybe the slightest touch of allspice. There is nothing distinctive here, and the rum feels too tamped down and softened up. I try to keep an open mind and am not exactly looking for the raw nastiness and sweat infused crap that real moonshine (like, oh, say, clairin) is often at pains to provide – but at least a hint of such brutality would have been nice. It shrugs and coughs up a touch of mint, alcohol, medicine, cotton candy, it flexes its thin body a bit, and that’s pretty much the whole ball game. The finish is short, light, has some alcohol fumes, white fruit and light candy floss to recommend it, but alas is gone faster than my paycheck into Mrs. Caner’s hands when purses are on sale.


While members of the Indian diaspora would probably get this, the rum does not channel the subcontinent to me, and that’s not a guess, because Mandakini, irrespective of its Indian origins (all three of its founders are from the southern state of Kerala), is actually made by a small craft distillery called Last Straw, in Ontario. This is a small family outfit that was founded in 2013 as a whisky distillery with two small stills; it makes all kinds of spirits on its own account — whisky, vodka, gin, rum and experimentals (including the fragrantly named “Mangy Squirrel Moonshine”) — and nowadays also does contract distilling, designing products from scratch for any client with an idea.

Clearly Abish Cheriyam, Alias Cheriyam and Sareesh Kunjappan – engineers all, who have worked and lived in Canada for many years – had such an idea, one that they felt deeply about, though unlike the Minhas family in western Canada, they had no background in the spirits business aside from their own enthusiasm. They did however, identify some gaps in Canada’s liquor landscape: there was very little Indian liquor on the shelves aside from Amrut’s whiskies or their Two Indies and Old Port rums, and Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk; and none at all that was an Indian equivalent to vaatte, a locally distilled liquor native to Kerala (also called patta charayam or nadan vaattu charayam), which, though banned in the state since the late 1990s (a holdover from pre-independence days when the Brits forbade local liquor so as not to damage sales of their own), retains an underground popularity almost impossible to stamp out. Rural folks disdain the imported whiskies and rums and gins – they leave that frippery to city folks who can afford it, and much prefer their locally-made hooch. And like Jamaicans with their overproofs or Guyanese with their High Wine, no wedding or other major social occasion is complete without some underground village distiller producing several gallons to lubricate the festivities.

Since they could not afford to launch a distillery or wait for the endless licensing process to finish, they went to Last Straw to have them create it, and after experimenting endlessly with various blends and combinations, launched in August 2021, calling it a Malabari Vaatte (the similarity of that word to “water” is likely no accident), and aiming at the local Sri Lankan and Indian diaspora. Both the shape of the bottle and the lettering in five languages (Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telegu) is directed at this population and the fact that the first batch sold out within days in Ontario – at the distillery, because they had not gotten a deal with the LCBO at the time – suggests it worked just fine. People were driving from all over the province to get themselves some.

In Kerala, Malabari vaatte is often made from the unrefined sugar called jaggery or from red rice like arrack, and also with any fruits or other ingredients as are on hand; it has a long and distinguished history as a perennially popular underground hooch, and that very likely comes from its easygoing nature which this one channels quite well. It shares that with other Asian spirits, like Korean shojus, Indonesian arracks, Cabo Verde grogues, or Vietnamese rượu: in other words, it is a (sometimes flavoured) drink of the masses, though Abish was at pains to emphasise that no flavourings or additives (aside from the aforementioned neutral alcohol) were included in his product.

As a casual hot weather drink and maybe a daiquiri ingredient, then, I freely admit it’s quite a pleasant experience, while also observing that true backwoods character is not to be looked for. To serious rum drinkers or bartending boozehounds who mix for a living, that’s an issue — some kind of restrained unhinged lunacy is exactly what we as rum drinkers want from such a purportedly indigenous drink. A sort of nasty, tough, batsh*t-level taste bomb that leaves it all out there on the table.

That said, I can see why it sells — especially and even more so to those with a cultural attachment for it – Old Monk tapped into that same vein many decades earlier. But that to some extent limits the Mandakini to that core audience, since people without that connection to its origins might pass it by. For all its good intentions and servicing the nostalgia and homesickness of an expatriate population far from their homelands, the Mandakini does not yet address the current market of the larger rum drinking population. It remains to be seen whether it can surmount that hurdle and become a bigger seller outside its core demographics. I hope it does.

(#1021)(74/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The name “Mandakini” is a common female name, familiar to most Indians from north or south. It was chosen not to represent anyone in particular but to instantly render it relatable and recognizable.
  • The “Malabari” in the title refers to Kerala’s Malabar Coast, famed for its spices: it’s where Vasco da Gama made landfall in 1498 after rounding Africa.
  • There is currently a 65% ABV version of the Mandakini called “Malabari 65”, available at the distillery in Vaughn. This is one I wouldn’t mind trying just to see how it compares. If they were to make a high ester version of that, my feeling is it would fly off the shelves.
  • The range is now expanded to the original Malabari Vaatte, the 65, a Spiced Vaatte, and a Flavoured Vaatte. The latter two are apparently closer to the kind of drinks the founders initially envisioned and which are popular in Kerala, having ginger, cardamom and other spices more forward in the profile.
Jul 282023
 

You can bet your bottom dollar that every review or writeup about the cannily named Outlier Distilling Company will find some way to mention that it’s not in the Caribbean (see?) but somewhere strange off the beaten track – the Isle of Man in this case – and has a name that is completely appropriate to what it is. And without doubt, most will also note that the founders, Rick Dacey and Ian Warborn-Jones, set up shop in a small milking shed in a farm there, because, y’know, stuff like this just writes itself and it would be criminal to leave it out.

Outlier is another recently-established (and very tiny) British craft distillery, already making waves in the local rum world; it joins other new UK-based rum-making companies like Ninefold, Islay Rum Co, Sugar House, Retribution and J. Gow which are showing that good rum doesn’t have a nationality and can be well-made in places that don’t immediately spring to mind when considering the spirit. It was founded in November 2019: they boys set up shop in the aforementioned milking shed (one assumes the cows were long gone by this time, otherwise they might have redefined Manx terroire right there) with a small wood-fired 160-litre hybrid still, and established their credentials and their philosophy right away, by issuing an instantly-sold-out elderberry- and blackberry-based schnapps called “Hedge Fund” and a 55% rum they called “Pudtroleum” for the 2020 Christmas season (that they were able to do so in the middle of a global pandemic and lockdown is no mean feat).

By 2022 the still had been pretty much run in and the kinks worked out, and they released their next rum, the mild mannered 41% “Hoolie” – it’s a slang term meaning a high wind or a blustery day, as in “It’s blowing a hoolie,” which is something of a backhanded homage to their island, where such blows are constant. They ferment their molasses-based wash using local yeast for anything up to two weeks depending on the weather, then run it through their still twice, and reduce the resultant spirit down to a manageable strength. 

41% was chosen so as to allow for easier acceptance and there’s no ageing here, it’s a white rum straight off the still. In the hands of a someone still using training wheels this could result in a hot mess of keck, but here what we get is quite an interesting, tasty little rumlet, which starts right off  by channelling crisp aromas of flowers, cucumbers in sweet balsamic vinegar, soya sauce, brine, olives, figs and sugar water (and all that in the first thirty seconds).  The fresh cleanliness of the smell hints pleasingly at a cane juice rum, and throughout it remains soft, presenting light fruity notes – apricots, grapes, overripe apples, and even a touch of candy floss.

To taste, also very easy drinking.  It’s light and creamy, sweet, dusty and watery (which at first I regarded with some dismay, fearing a dilution of taste), but then it finds its legs as it opens up and more muscular aspects emerge (and that’s saying something, given it’s a relatively mild strength).  White fruits, guavas, lychees, melons, papaya, a touch of citrus for bite and some fanta and sprite to smoothen that out.  Marshmallows, slightly singed, and again, that candy floss element. The finish is short and breathy, mostly of cheesecake, marshmallows and citrus, and it’s gone too fast, which is a shame.

Naming this rum ‘Hoolie’ is an odd choice, I thought, given what it supposedly represents; and the rum is hardly a tempest, more a sprightly autumn blow that heralds the approach of colder weather, without actually being a wintry gale itself. Never mind, though: what I like about it is the integration of the various elements and how tasty they are: the rum samples like a cross between a beefed up Riesling and a mild unaged agricole, producing an off the wall love child that succeeds swimmingly by not trying to be too much to all people. The Hoolie makes a nice little daiquiri, and indeed, much of the company’s efforts surrounding its promotion have involved cocktail circuit demos and bar popups (it is a component in Trailer Happiness’s featured zombie blend, for example) – it is not made to be a premium sipper, and doesn’t pretend to be one.

Just as the Australians a world away are doing, the new crop of British distilling entrepreneurs who have sprung up in the last decade are eschewing mass-market sales and redefining small-scale quality rum in their own way, while never losing sight of the spirit’s basic DNA. What Outlier has done is rejig the pieces and the techniques they are using to make rum, just a bit, and here have succeeded in making quite an interesting and tasty rum that speaks well for their abilities. Better yet, the stuff that came after this rum is even better: for now, though, I’ll just leave you with my appreciation for the Hoolie’s succulent charms, and save other reviews from the brand’s expanding portfolio for the future.

(#1013)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Neither of the two founders is actually from the Isle of Man: both now call it home
  • The two heads on the label channelling Aeolus and blowing wind, are caricatures of Rich and Ian. 
  • Label design is, in a nice touch, actually credited for once: to Meg ‘Stedhead’ Hindley.
Jul 192023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

That a rhum with such a top notch profile doesn’t ring more bells or launch small cults, that it sells at an insanely low price of around or less than €40 is, on the face of it, incredibly fortunate for us rum proles, because for once we can actually get us a good one and not sell a kidney to do so. Sure it’s a branded product commemorating a sports figure, sure it’s a blend whose stats seem to make it just another blanc, and sure it’s unaged and taken at agricole’s standard strength – nothing besides the beautiful label design really marks it out. But I maintain that through some subtle alchemy known only to the makers, HSE created a quietly, sweetly, unprepossessing little masterpiece that lit up my eyes and brought a grin to my face from the moment I nosed it. It was the first really top rum I sampled at the beginning of my 2023 rum festival experience – and was still one of the best at the end. 

(#1011)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The bottle notes it is a limited edition without elaboration, so for now I can’t tell you how many bottles are out there. Apparently there’s a 40% version out there as well.
  • Brief distillery background: Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using the original stills from HSE but relocating them to Simon (ageing remained at the Habitation), adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.
  • Of course I’m not the first to mention the rhum. My good friend Laurent Cuvier (he of the now-retired poussette) mentioned it enthusiastically way back in 2019 on a distillery visit when he got a try way before it was released, and again in his 2023 Paris Rhumfest roundup. Serge, ever ahead of the curve, tried an earlier edition back in 2016 – it may even have been the first – and liked it to the tune of 86 points which for him, back then, was well nigh unheard of.
May 222023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#998)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

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

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

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


Other notes

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

 

Apr 172023
 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

(#989)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Mar 062023
 

As soon as the review for the Sugar House unaged white went up, a flurry of comments resulted: “It’s not too shabby” admitted one FB denizen, “But I prefer the OP.” This was immediately seconded by another who said “Love the OP” and followed it up with a flaming icon; and right on the heels of those two remarks, another chipped in over at the NZ Rum Club, and said that yep, the OP was the sh*t there too.

I completely get that, because I have a thing for really strong rums. It’s a mixed bag, as any reader of this list can attest, but when not created with indifference to merely round out a portfolio, when made with understanding, with passion and skill, and yes, even with love (there, I said it), those snarling vulpine bastards will release your inner masochist to the point where you almost look forward to sharp pungency of their addled profiles skewering your palate.

And so when I read these quick comments, I had to hold my hands like Dr. Strangelove to stop the spoilers from coming, and from commenting that this review was already mostly written. Sugar House, one of the New Scottish distilleries (as I term them), has made three rums since they opened that excited a whole lot of attention, interest, commentary, appreciation and glass wobbling: the unaged white, the Blood Tub…and the 62.6% growler of the Overproof. No way it could be ignored.

Unleashed on the public in 2020 (that was batch #1 of 117 bottles), this was a rum deriving from  wash that had fermented for four weeks (!!) using only wild yeast, was run through the pot still and pretty much left as it was.  It was on display (carefully leashed, muzzled and caged for good measure) as late as 2022 when I rather thoughtlessly said “yes, sure” to Ross Bradley, the owner and distiller who was manning the innocuous Sugar House booth at the TWE Rumshow (neither of us knew who the other person was). He poured me a generous shot and stood back to, as Scotland Yard likes to say, “await developments.” (Although maybe he just wanted to be outside the spatter zone).

It’s probable that the strength was no accident, being just a hair off the Wray & Nephew White Overproof, which in turn WP is taking aim at with its own Rum Bar 63%. And when sniffed, well, it gave those legendary badasses some serious competition – it channelled such a crazed riot of rumstink that it was difficult to know where to start. Initially my increasingly illegible handwriting made mention of acetones, plastic, and a sort of sweet paint thinner (is there such a thing?). The nose was a wild smorgasbord of contrasting aromas that had no business being next to each other: salt and cardboard, rye bread liberally coated with sweet strawberry-pineapples jam…over which someone then sprinkled a liberal dose of black pepper. Fruits both spoiled and unripe, machine oil, drywall. There was a chemical, medicinal, varnish and turpentine aspect to the nose that may affront, but I stand here to tell you that it’s a terrific sets of aromas and if I had appreciated the original white rum I had started with, I really liked this one.

Did I say the smells were terrific? The palate was too, and indeed, strove mightily to surpass the nose. Here it seemed to be going in reverse gear, with the acetones, paint thinner, turps and furniture polish dialled back, and the fruits surged to the fore – big, bold, piquant, ripe, luscious, fresh stoned fruit of all kinds. And not just fruit – funk, vanilla ice cream, some oak action (odd since it’s unaged), and a deep exhalation of port infused cigarillos, damp tobacco, tanned leather and the sweat of particularly well-used three day old gym socks.  Even the finish, medium long and vibrantly fresh, channelled something of this cornucopia, though you could see it was running out of steam and thankfully calmed down to show off some last apricots, yellow mangoes, pineapples and gooseberries – plus some cherry coke and ginger in the final stages.

That’s quite a lot, yes: and I’m not saying that this is the best and most perfumed rum you’ll ever drink and introduce to all your non-rummy friends as the “one you have to try”; but in its wild cacophony of tastes and smells that pelt everything including the kitchen sink at your senses, it’s almost unbelievable that something so memorable comes out the other end. I particularly liked how Sugar House harnessed, balanced and almost-but-not-quite tamed an intensity and pungency of flavour that in less careful hands would have devolved into an uncoordinated, discombobulated mess.

So is it good, bad, great, or terrible? The answer is yes. To paraphrase a certain film I love to hate, it’s, All-Go-No-Quit-Big-Nuts rum-making, for good or ill (which makes the lack of follow-up batches by Sugar House something of a disappointment).  I think the Overproof is an amazing rum, with character and to spare. It sports big tastes, great aromas, and is one of the best and most original whites in recent memory, giving the Jamaicans a serious run for their money. It froths, it bubbles, it hisses, it spits, it takes no prisoners, it’s a joyous celebration of unaged rum, and if you don’t have an opinion on it when you’re done, any opinion at all, maybe you should check your insurance premium when you get home, because it might just have “deceased” stamped on it.

(#978)(90/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


 

Mar 032023
 

Sugar House, along with Ninefold, J. Gow, Islay Rum Co and other distilleries now opening in the UK, may represent the Brit’s answer to the diminution of the merchant bottling trade, or perhaps the growing expense of getting the best casks out of the brokerages by an ever-increasing number of independents. It speaks to the desire of a new crop of aggressive young Turks to not be beholden to third parties for barrels of rum or blending skills, but to let loose and harness their own creative impulses to the max, and go out there and break some sh*t, to see what comes out the other end, frothing and hissing and dissolving glasses, taste buds and noses in equal measure.

While excitement attends the opening of any new craft micro-distillery launched by some enthusiastic young bravos, visionary lone founders or a husband and wife team that subsist on pizzazz and chutzpah and high hopes more than cold cash, they tend to be found most often in the Caribbean, Asia or Africa, with a smattering elsewhere. One does not immediately think of Scotland as rum country, know what I mean? Yet slowly but surely, small, exciting, well branded and cannily-marketed little startups are beginning to make a dent in the rumiverse over there, and Sugar House is surely one of them.

Founded in 2017 by owner and distiller Ross Bradley, it is not located in some rolling peat-smelling Scottish highland glen with fog, heather and deer in all directions, but in the down-to-earth, less than romantic industrial area just north west of the small town of Dumbarton, itself to the NW of Glasgow. Initially he used the Strathleven Distillery to pot distil the rum (and called it the Spirit of Glasgow) but as of 2018, their own equipment probably arrived and Mr. Bradley set up shop in the Vale of Leven Industrial Estate. There, welding a hybrid 1400-litre pot still (with a 12 plate rectifying column bolted on) to imported high grade molasses (Wes noted in 2018 that it was from Guyana) and a week-long fermentation time, Sugar House produces a 90% ABV spirit. Some of that goes to age, some of gets released as an unaged white, still more goes into the spiced and infused rums they also sell, and some just gets tinkered with in one fashion or another and released as an experimental, limited edition. 

For the moment, none of these are under the microscope except the white, which in this case is from the 2022 batch on display at the first TWE Rumshow, and not the same as the blue labelled one Wes reviewed five years ago. He liked it a lot, and batch variation or no, new recipe or not, this Scottish rum packed quite a wallop for me as well.  Consider: the nose was light and fruity, felt solid and clean, and smelled fruity, a bit malty and even beer-like, with a nice play of hops lurking in the background. There was cardboard, light watery fruit, cherries, a fine touch of funkiness (not much), some green peas and melted butter, papaya and salt, and say what you will but I thought it was different and good (though I tried manfully to keep my face impassive at the booth that day and mumbled something doofus-like, like “Hmm” and “”ok” and “interesting” which probably made the guys wonder why they were wasting time talking to me).

For 43% the palate really was surprisingly robust as well.  Not sharp, just punchy – it channelled a sort of earthiness of dark wet loam, damp sea wind, and again, beer, mustiness, and some ashes (all this, in an unaged white rum?). It progressed sweetly and naturally to a sort of peppery, fruity, tart series of tastes – unsweetened yoghurt, pineapple and cordite mixed with sharp unripe fruits is the best I can explain it, though later some of the depth started fade as I stuck with it. It was remarkably pleasant by itself ( I was told it was even better in a mojito) and while the finish brought nothing new to the table — it mostly summed up the preceding experience — it was as sweetly and lightly loving as a wife’s kiss in the morning, and a nice summation of the drink as a whole.

It’s too early to tell the kind of impact a small craft distillery will have on the global rumisphere in years to come, but for now Sugar House is certainly making a splash locally and in Europe, where the desire of the tippling public for something new and interesting will certainly garner them plaudits and (hopefully) increase sales. Sales that I hope expand to other parts of the world, where stuff like this is in short supply as the race to premiumise gathers force and steam and relegates whites to the unfairly dismissed margins. But you know, I enjoyed and liked this standard proof unaged white rum a lot — the tastes were a mix of old and new, familiar and different, oddly unique and comfortingly the same…and it was a fun drink on top of it all. That sort of combination is rare, is welcome when it’s experienced, and to have it on display with products made so early in the lifecycle of a new company speaks well for their future endeavours.  I think it’s something of an undiscovered gem.

(#977)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

 

Feb 242023
 

When it comes to Guyanese rum, I’m afraid that much as I enjoy DDL’s wares from time to time – more so of late, since they took the bull by the horns and released rums with less additions –  the really good stuff, the best stuff, to me, still comes from the indies.  Alas, Velier has moved away from the Demerara rums and I can’t afford the ones that remain on the secondary market, but fortunately for us all, there is no shortage of other independent bottlers out there to satisfy our thirst for the output of those lovely wooden heritage stills.  

And one of the more intriguing developments in the Demerara rumisphere by these indies, is the (occasional) release of high proof unaged white rums which were previously deemed the province of the French island rhum makers, and the Jamaicans.  We’ve seen a few of these hefty molasses-based whites before, of course, whether aged a little or not at all – any list of bartenders’ favourites can’t be complete without the J Wray 63%, Hampden’s Rum Fire and Worthy Park’s Rum Bar rums, and to be sure there are others from St. Vincent, Grenada, Suriname and even Guyana (where the DDL Superior High Wine is a sort of local classic to this day).

For the most part, however, something like the L’Esprit MPM is a rare thing.  A one-off unaged white from the Port Mourant pot still, we’ve actually seen its near-twin before – the “Cuvee Edgar” 2º Edition, which shared much of the DNA of the rum we’re hear to discuss today – the First Edition. Both are Port Mourant wooden pot still rums (the label is a misprint where it says “single pot still”), both were issued to celebrate the birth of Tristan Prodhomme’s son Edgar, both are rested and not aged for about a year in inert steel tanks, and both jacked up to a strength that would have your nether regions puckering (85%), and frankly, when tasting it I wondered if it wasn’t just a bit too much for us mere mortals.

Because think about it: 40% ABV is standard strength and if taken too quickly is still a bit of a bash to the snoot when sniffed and a quick stab to the glottis when sampled. This rum is more than twice that strength, and believe me, it shows, it’s not afraid to say it, and looking at it, remembering the last time, I morbidly wondered what it had had for breakfast that day: diced and fried reviewers, maybe?

A deeper inhale than a delicate little somelier-taking-a-toot sniff I took of this clear popskull might have caused my DNA to unravel, so I took my time. Which was a good idea, as the fierce power of the aromas was off the charts; on the flip side, it allowed a lot to come through over the ten minutes I initially spent with it (the glass ended up going for two days). First, there was a near-rank orange juice past the sell-by date; then dry, fruity, meaty, briny notes all at once, savage and hard hitting. It had the soft dampness of dew on a cool misty morning in trees nestled in mountain foothills; the gasoline stink of an open jerry-can, and yet all that was offset by hot samosas and a badly made currywurst in an cheap imbiss down in Steglitz. It was dirty and aromatic and not even halfway done yet, because the aromas kept pouring out of the glass: anise and lemongrass, a touch of bitters, mauby, sorrel, unsweetened bitter chocolate and just a ton of overripe prunes, before doing a segue into a garbage pile in hot weather mixed up with the musky pungency of an untended outhouse. Yeah I know, it’s a lot and sounds this side of awful, but damn, this thing was intense, it was fun to try, and fending off the strength became a kind of game to see who would win, me or the rum.

Thankfully the palate calmed down; it was still a massive gut punch, yet it was somehow not as intent on causing damage as it was proving it was the biggest and baddest thing in the room that day.  First off was rubber, plastic and lots of furniture polish  Then it got sweet and creamy, channelled some Danish cookies and whipped cream, and added anise and a light fruit jam spread over salt crackers; and just to prove it had more up its sleeves than just its arms, there was a whiff of some olive oil spread over toasted black bread.  It sure wasn’t your standard profile, but it the same time it was pungent, riotous, brutal and expressive to a fault.

And the finish, well that was epically long – briny, dry, deep, reeking of toasted bread, crackers, fish in olive oil (!!), smoke from a kero stove, licorice and damp sawdust, yet not sharp or damage inducing at all.  It was more like a massive teutonic monument, solidly implacable, demanding you respect its awesomeness.  Or something like that.  As you can tell, I was quite enthused.

In a recent virtual tasting I was part of, an O Reizinho Madeira 9 month old near-white agricole rhum from Boutique-y was one of my favourites of the evening, but it confused the hell out of the whisky guys in attendance, who grudgingly admitted it had some chops (then crossed themselves while looking furtively around to see if anyone had heard), but struggled to put into words exactly what made it so good – perhaps it was because unaged whisky has never been a thing in the malty world except maybe among moonshiners the way unaged rum has been for us. Given their perplexity, I’m not sure I would dare give them this one to try — if the O Reiz made them scratch their sporrans, the L’Esprit might unravel their kilts altogether.  

Because to my mind, it’s not just that L’Esprit makes great rums and Tristan knows how to pick ‘em – it’s simply that of all the Guyanese rums made on all those many stills, Port Mourants at any age seem to be the pick of the litter. Here that’s proved once again — I liked it a lot, even more than the 2º Edition, and that was no slouch either. For its pungency, its richness, its depth, the neverending finish, all those insane tastes and yes, even the strength. The rum is fierce, it’s powerful, it jets fire from each nostril and were you to expel a belch and a flatus after a sip of it, seismometers would quiver and the bar would be empty a second later. It’s that kind of experience, and who wouldn’t want to try it for all that, if even just the one time?

(#975)(88/100)

Dec 222022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • There’s a stronger “Natural” at 60% which may remedy the shortcomings (as I see them) of this one; I’m looking to get one and see for myself.
  • Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira.  All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI Indicação Geográfica Protegida. The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale. 
  • The name “Natural” derives from its cane juice origins, but since all of Engenhos’s rums are agricolas, it’s unclear from the label why this is more natural than others.  It could be because it’s rested or unaged (the colour is actually very slightly tinged with yellow, suggesting a possible short period in a barrel – I was, however, unable to verify this by posting time). Other sources suggest it’s because it is made from sugar cane on small individual plots, which would make it a parcellaire – if true, it’s odd that it’s not more prominently stated, however, since that’s a great marketing plug.
  • All the above aside, at less than €40, this is decent value for money given those tastes it does have.
Dec 052022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#956)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Nov 272022
 

I view L’Esprit’s unaged still-strength white rums the way I regard Mrs. Caner – with besotted love not unmixed with a little dread.  Treat her right and there’s no end of the amazing wonders and complexities that will be provided; drink carelessly and you’ll be belted into next week.  Seeing the stats, is clear to see why: the rum is distilled in 2019 in Jamaica, and taken at 85.6% as it dripped and smoked and frothed off the still, then released without any ageing into the wild, unfiltered and unadded-to, and completely, fiercely, joyously untamed. You get the nervous feeling that when you drink it, you can sense the Grim Reaper on your shoulder clearing his throat.

So you can understand both my awe and my trepidation. On the outside, as a white rum, it looks meek and demure (another similarity it shares with my better half), but hard experience with L’Esprit’s recent outturns of this kind have taught me some measure of caution. The initial sniff showed why this was a good idea: it was a wild storm of competing, fighting, angry tastes from all over the map, starting with coconut milk with a touch of gaminess, vanilla, and flambeed bananas drizzled with hot bitter caramel syrup.  As if unsatisfied, it moved on to rubber and tar on a hot day. Glue, solvent, acetones, and behind it all, the rank meatiness of a midden heap, brine and hogo gone wild, into which somebody spilled a bucket of used engine oil.  If there were any fruits around, they were blattened flat by this huge wave of rumstink, and yet, for all that this reads like some kind of crazy, it’s still somewhat better and more interestingly assembled than the Long Pond TECA.

And at that strength, when sipped, well, it provided all the acres of hurt one can expect from that huge pail of proof. It was hot, spicy, initially reeking of stripped out gears and a burnt clutch on an old Land Rover – this was brief and dissipated swiftly, being replaced by ethanol, medicinals, a tart sort of sweetness (yoghurt, citrus, green apples, grapes, strawberries) and sourness (miso soup, Thai sweet chili, soya)…and then it really got going. There was the bitter clarity of licking a copper penny. It tasted of hot and very strong unsweetened black tea, on the good side of being bitter. And then it got more creamy and spicy and warm at the back end, before relaxing into a finish that was long, sweet, salty, sour, bitter – as if all taste receptors got switched back on at once — coughing up citrus, juniper, quinine and mineral water to go with the pears and green apples that closed the show.

Damn, but this was one serious rum. It’s just this side of excessive, and is the sort of thing a resident of Trenchtown would splash on before heading to the local rum shop for a duck curry and a brawl. The tastes are completely off the scale, they’re all over the place like a half-drawn roadmap leading to an undiscovered country and it’s a small miracle that they work together as well as they do. And admittedly, it’s too fierce on the attack: the lips are numbed, the tongue paralyzed, the taste buds burnt out in a bright flash of heated sulphur and brimstone, and this will not be a rum that finds favour with many except Los Extremos who inhale this kind of thing with their morning wheaties.

And yet, and yet…it’s not entirely a bad product : once it settles down it’s a really quite interesting piece of work, in spite of its undiluted demon-piss vibe. What it does, better than most with similar specs, is unashamedly channel trashy 1980s Ahnuld, Sly, Chuck and Dolph Lundgren action movies of the sort we remember fondly today. It drops massive taste bombs, huge sharp congeners, sweat, harsh language and liquid gelignite left right and centre the way those stars dropped one liners and cool kills. I’m not sure that’s a description or a profile that’ll appeal to everyone, but for those who are willing to park their doubts, I think L’Esprit’s Jamaican white brawler is simply one to beware of, treat with respect…and maybe, once one adjusts to its fierce character, even to love.

(#954)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • It’s not stated but as far as I know, it’s Worthy Park distillate.
  • “Cuvée Daniel” refers to (L’Esprit’s owner and founder) Tristan Prodhomme’s second son; the Diamond “Cuvée Edgar” MPM unaged white referred to his first. He made these rums to commemorate them, which I think is a sweet gesture.
  • As always, I must commend the sleek little sample bottles L’Esprit favours, which fit nicely into a presentation box and are just cool as all get out.
  • Pot Still, 279-bottle outturn. Rested between July 2019 to October 2020 in inert tanks.
Sep 122022
 

As I remarked in the review of the Damoiseau 2009, there is an emergent trend for agricole rhum makers to make their white rhums stronger. This boosts flavours and intensity and makes for a drink or a mix that has the kick of a spavined mule, and because the rum is unaged, you are getting hit with all those enormous sweet grassy and herbal agricole-style tastes. That not only wakes up a Ti-Punch (or anything else you chose to add it to) but supercharges it.

To some extent I think that this trend is meant to capitalise on the success of the high ester Jamaicans like the Rum Fire, Rum Bar, Wray & Nephew Overproof, together with the realisation by various rum makers (who previously just went with lighter whites) that such unaged rums – whether from cane juice or molasses – can be both stronger than the standard and way more exciting…and still people would buy them. 

One such rum comes from the brand of Takamaka Bay out of the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles, which is a distillery founded in 2002 (it’s actually called Trois Frères Distillery), and from the beginning made rums from both cane juice and molasses. Their initial lineup had a brawling cane juice blanc which was in fact stronger than others available at the time (it was 72% ABV), and which for some reason they discontinued by the early 2010s.  They replaced it with this one, three proof points lower and fully from molasses, for reasons that are obscure and may have to do with their major rebranding push around 2013-2014. It is part of their low end “Seychelles Series” of rums which includes infused, spiced and tinkered-with rums for the bar scene.

Now you would think that the producers of an overproof Wray-slaying-wannabe, which of course this aspires to be, would make every effort to ensure its product is packed with flavours of a fruit and candy shop and if it felt like being bellicose, pack itself with a nose the envy of a rutting troglodyte’s mouldy jockstrap. I stand here in front of you saying, with some surprise, that this just isn’t the case. The nose starts off okay, quite spicy, with notes of white chocolate, almonds, soy milk, creamy unsweetened yoghurt.  Then it adds a bit of grass and cumin, a shaving of zest from a lime or two. A pear, maybe two, some papaya. But that’s about it. The rum is so peculiarly faint it’s like it would need to stand twice in the same place to make a shadow.  This is an overproof? It’s more like slightly flavoured alcoholic water, and I say that with genuine regret.

Regret or not, this light faintness dominates the palate as well. It feels quite delicate (though always spicy – the effects of that 69% do not entirely vanish), yet somehow feels less, tastes less, smells less, not just in terms of intensity, or power to originate tectonic plate movement in your face – but in the aggregate sensation. There’s so little coming at you. You get alcohol, vanilla, cream, pears, swank, and that’s if you’re lucky. A touch of lemon zest. Maybe a flirt of licorice, some salt, a light cream cheese on wonder bread. And that’s all. The finish tries to redeem that by being long, dry, coughing up notes of light fruits (pears, Thai mangoes, white grapes), but alas, not enough to save it. For an overproof at this strength, we definitely have a failure to communicate.

Whatever the motivations or economic rationales were for switching the original overproof (which I rated 84 points) from cane juice to molasses, dropping the proof and simplifying the blend, my personal opinion is that Trois Frères might want to rethink that, and maybe even re-tinker. The rum is a disappointment for fans of the company which has other expressions of lesser proof that are really quite good and sells bulk rum abroad which is sometimes even better. It lacks serious tastes for something so strong, it provides no oomph to enthuse the barkeeps and mixologists who are looking for original expressions to enhance their creations, and no incentive for casual drinkers who’re looking for a unique profile. I’m no doomsayer, but I do believe that if something isn’t done to up this rum’s game, it might just arrive DOA and expire in obscurity…and that’s a shame, not least because I didn’t come here to write obituaries.

(#936)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum continues to be made on a column still, from molasses. Its predecessor was from cane juice and I always suspected it had a touch of pot still high ester juice sneaked in.  I had no such feeling here, obviously. The company website states that the current 38% “standard” Blanc does indeed have some of that pot still distillate added to it.
  • A biography of the company, last updated in 2021 can be found here.
  • The label has changed from the original 72% version, and its lesser-proofed successor which had a big “69” front and center on the label. I think this version was begun around 2020. The word “Bay” was also dropped from the labelling at around this time.
Jul 182022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

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

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

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

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

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


Other notes

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

 

Jun 132022
 

The official and very long name of this rum is “Pere Labat ‘70.7’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole de Marie Galante” and clearly wants to have a title that is as long as the ABV is high. That proof point, of course, is impressive by itself, since until quite recently, white agricole rhums tended to park themselves contentedly in the 50-55% space and made their reputations by beefing up Ti Punches that knocked defenseless cruise line tourists across the room.

However, it was never going to stay that way. Even before my list of the strongest rums in the world came out in 2019, it seems like there was a quiet sort of race to the top that’s been steadily building a head of steam over the last quarter century or so. Initially there were just the famed 151s dating back to the 1800s, then a few badass island champions came out with rums like the Sunset Very Strong (84.5%) from St. Vincent, Denros Strong (80%) from St. Lucia, the Grenadian outfit Rivers’ 90% beefcake (only sold locally) — and of course the Surinamese Marienburg 90 held the crown for a long time until it was dethroned in early 2022 by one of the indie bottlers who have slowly but surely begun to colonize the gasp-inducing low-oxygen high-altitude drinkosphere.

Somehow, though, agricoles and French island rums never really bothered.  Oh there were always a few: we saw rums like the 62% ABV Longueteau “Genesis”, Dillon had a 71.3% brut de colonne…but these were rarities, and sniffed at by most. What’s the point? was a not uncommon question. But gradually over the last few years, agricoles picked up the pace as well: Saint James released their Brut de Colonne blanc “BIO” at 74.2%, Longueteau upped the Genesis to 73.51%, Barikken, a French indie, said to hell with it and came up with one from Montebello at 81.6%…and somewhere around 2019 or so, Pere Labat, the small distillery at Poisson on Marie Galante, introduced us to their own overproof white, the “70.7” as it crept up the ladder of their progressively stronger expressions (40º, 50º and 59º).

No medals for guessing what the strength is: the number on the label. The rhum is an agricole, from cane juice; after a three day fermentation period using baker’s yeast it’s run through their single-column still (of which they have two), rested for an unspecified number of months in inert vats, and then bottled as is without dilution or reduction. That’s what brut de colonne means: straight from the still without any further processing or mucking about, and what that provides is a profile that’s about as close as you’re going to get to what terroire is all about – assuming you can handle what it delivers.

The rhum starts with a nose that is not actually all that unpleasantly sharp, just one that is firmly, deeply, strongly intense. It’s like an über-agricole: everything you like about cane juice rhums is here, dialled up a notch or four.  The aromas are herbal, grassy, fruity, and if you can make smells equal colours in your mind, then it’s a vibrant thrumming green.  Cucumbers, dill, green apples, soursop, peas, grapes, that kind of thing.  And more: after it opens up for a few minutes, you can get hints of strawberries, pine sol (!!), pineapples and – somewhat to my surprise – clothes fresh out of the dryer, hinting at fresh laundry detergent and fabric softener.

Tasting it requires some patience, because at the inception you’re getting old cardboard notes, some brine and olives, wet sawdust, and that may not be what you signed up for.  Be of good cheer, the good stuff is coming, and when it does, it arrives with authority – it tastes like watermelon with an alcohol jolt and a sprig of mint, a touch salty, but mostly sweet.  It tastes of pears, green grapes, apples, sugar cane stalks bleeding their sap, passion fruit, pomegranates, red currants and for a kick, adds cucumber slices in a sort of pepper infused white vinegar.  And underneath it all there’s that pungently tart thin sweetness of cane juice, yoghurt, lemongrass and ginger, moving smoothly to a long, fragrant finish of sweetened lemon juice, iced tea and a nice sweet and sour note that’s just this side of yummy.

The 70.7 works on just about every level it choses. Want power?  Want intensity of flavour?  With that high ABV, it delivers. Want the subtlety of complex notes working well together?  Yep, it has that too, with or without some water to tame it. You like an agricole profile but want one that brings something new to the party? This is one that will do you good, though of course it’s not to be taken lightly – all the above aside, when you’re sipping juice close to ¾ pure ethanol, then some caution is in order.

In short, what you get here is a seriously flavourful rum that starts with a bang, goes like a bat out of hell and stops just shy of overwhelming. Labat’s strongest white agricole is a well oiled, smoothly efficient flavour delivery system, as devoid of fat as Top Gun’s football players, and with little of it wasted, all of it for a purpose: to get as much taste into you before you start drooling and get poured into your bed by a highly annoyed significant other, even as you sport a sh*t eating grin on your face. Trust me. I know.

(#915)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Oddly, Labat’s web page does not list this rum anywhere.
  • Limited run of 3500 bottles. I think it was first issued in 2019, and it’s an annual release.
May 302022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

 

Apr 182022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#900)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For supplementary reading, I highly recommend Steve James’s 2019 three part deep dive into the initial releases of Mhoba as well as his company biography, and Rum Revelations’ 2021 interview with Robert Greaves
  • So far Rum-X has nine Mhoba high-ester expressions, ranging in strength from 65% to 78%, and average scores from 72 to 87, which is quite a bit of variation. Since all are unaged agricole-style pot-still rums, it suggests that the batch/harvest is of some importance in making a future selection among all these options. 
  • This bottle is from Batch 2019HE3, Harvest May 2019, one of several from that year. 
  • As of early 2022 Velier has released two Mhoba rums (both 2017 4 YO expressions), one for the HV line, and one “black bottle” release called “FAQ Plastic.” Holmes Cay out of the US also has a 4YO 59% bottling from 2017.
Mar 022022
 

Photo (c) Killik Handrcrafted, from their website.

When reviewing the Gold (rum) produced by the Melbourne-based distillery of Killik Handcrafted, I was less than enthusiastic, grumbling and mumbling that the mildly aged rum would impress in five years but right now was mostly potential with not enough follow-through. I made those remarks because I knew there was a rum in their portfolio that proved the skills did exist and which really did impress me, and it wasn’t aged or set in a barrel or anything: it was their full proof 59% unaged white. 

For the curious: Killik handcrafted is a small rum distillery started by the brothers Ben and Callan Pratt in 2019 (more background in a separate mini-bio here). They have a hybrid thousand-liter still that allows multiple configurations including that of a 4- or 6-plate column still, or a pot still; also make other spirits for cash flow; use molasses as the base; and have a local cooper help with getting barrels. They proudly represent themselves as the first hogo-centric distillery in Victoria (the Australian state in which Melbourne is located) because they love messing around with fermentation and cheerfully play with dunder and muck holes and wild yeast to see if they can bring some Cockpit to Killik.

Thus far the majority of the stocks they have laid down to age have been pot still distillates, and we have yet to see any of those aside from the Gold; on the other hand, the unaged whites of the Silver and ther Silver Overproof are all column still spirits. Which is interesting because usually, when we hear of unaged whites dripping from a column still, we tend think rather more of the French Caribbean islands, or Reunion, even some of the new Asian outfits — not Australia.  But that would be a mistake, because even if they don’t use the pot still for the unaged Silver, Killik is closer to those two badass Jamaicans, Hampden and Worthy Park… in spirit, in production and in results.

And what a result this was indeed. I can’t speak for the standard proof Silver which I haven’t tried, just the overproof, but I gotta say, it’s made so well that Jamaican rum lovers might want to cast a covetous eye over Down Under. Consider first the nose: “Damn!,” went my first notes, expressing some surprise, “Seriously, deeply, pungently, sharply fruity-sweet.” It’s redolent of the tip of a marker squeaking over a new whiteboard; strawberry milk shakes loaded down with extra vanilla ice cream; tart fruity yoghurt. There’s a bagful of sour-sweet fruits – apples, kiwi fruits, hard yellow mangoes (with an odd spicy scent that reminds me of those coming from Sri Lanka). In an odd reversal of standard, the glue, acetones and solvent come late to the party, swirling around a core of peaches and pineapples and very ripe apricots and bananas. They sure weren’t kidding about going for the hogo.

The heat of the 59% comes into its own on the palate. That sharp spiciness attendant on that strength is unavoidable, yet at no point is it really unpleasant: what it does is provide a rock solid foundation that makes each taste not some faint wispy sensation breathily experienced and instantly gone, but something of distinct force.  It starts off with acetones, nail polish remover, flowers and fruit juice, and none of the undesirable rotting-midden scents that admittedly add character when assembled properly, but so often detract from the overall experience when not. It’s nicely sweet, displays some interesting spices – cinnamon, rosemary, cardamom, even a whiff of chamomile – plus musky fruity flavours that develope really well.  Green peas, bananas, orange peel, bitter chocolate and coffee grounds, laban, slightly sour milk all get mixed into the taste profile, and it all comes to a long, dry and heated conclusion that is always crisp with distinct ripe fruity notes and some vegetable coordinates well dialled in.

This is one seriously good rum. I mean, it goes down so well — the flavours just pop, it hits all the high notes and at no time does it feel like it’s out of control and just hitting you with its junk because it can. It’s sweet but not too much; sour but not mouth-puckeringly so; musky within reason, sharp without cutting, and flavourful without throwing the spice cupboard at you and then following up with the kitchen sink. It’s a curiously cultured back-bar brawler that is unashamedly partisan in its inspirations, honestly hearkening back to its stated Jamaican antecedents without apology even as it goes its own way.

I tried the entire 2021 Australian Advent Calendar sample selection over a period of days in December last year, and this was the one that to me, of all the whites, stood out. It not only exceeded those in whose company I tasted it, but handily eclipsed its own siblings and proved once again (as if it needed to be proved at all) that unaged white rums of power are among the best value for money rums out there. With Killik’s Silver Overproof, unlike the Gold, I don’t want to wait five years to see what else they can do with it.  I want another bottle right now.

(#889)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a doff of the derby to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always, to you both.