Mhoba Pot Stilled High Ester Rum (2019) – Review

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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.

Killik Handcrafted Silver Overproof – Review

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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.

Mía White Rhum Agricole (Vietnam)(2019) – Review

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Mar 012022
 

Commercial publicity still

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

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

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

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

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

Second to last glass on the right…..

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

(#888)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Background Details

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

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

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


 

Feb 172022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#885)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes:

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

Kalki Moon “Plant Cane” Australian Cane Spirit (Batch 1) – Review

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Feb 092022
 

Photo (c) Two Rum Chicks, used with their kind permission

There are five bottlings planned for the Australian Distillery Kalki Moon’s “Cane Farmer” Series, named as an homage to the farmers in Queensland who were instrumental in developing the state. The Plant Cane — an unaged white spirit which is a rum in all but name — was the second, introduced in December 2020, with spiced and darker aged expressions that can be called “rum” locally being developed for future release.

We’ll go into the background of the company later, but for now, let’s just talk about this white unaged spirit, made from molasses (yes, molasses, not juice), fermented with a commercial yeast for six days and then run through a 600-liter pot still called “Pristilla”…twice. The high proof spirit coming off the still is then diluted with water over a period of around eight weeks, down to the 44% we get here.


Kalki Moon has several stills – a small, 100-liter pot still (for gin) made in Australia, and another 200-liter pot still (for rum) bought in China were the original stills. Other stills were added later: Pristilla (for more rum), then “Marie” — another Chinese 1000-liter still sourced in 2020 (for yet more gin) — and in 2022 a 3000-liter Australian-made pot still will replace Pristilla (for even more rum). 


This white rum (I’ll call it that and ask for Australians’ indulgence in the matter) has certain similarities to both the Brix and the JimmyRum whites we’ve already looked at, but with its own twist. The rum has and interesting character…and the nose, it must be said, is really kind of all over the place. It starts out smelling of brine, olives and iodine, and even puts out a vague scent of pine-sol disinfectant, before remembering it’s supposed to be a rum and choking that off.  Then you get a sort of dhal or lentil soup with black pepper and masala spice, which in turn morphs into a more conventional Jamaican low-rent funkiness of banana skins, overripe fleshy stoned fruits and soft pineapples, and the hogo of meat beginning to go. When you’re done you feel like you’ve just been mugged by a happily unwashed baby fresh off his daily vegemite.

Photo (c) Justin Galloway, used with his kind permission

Never fear, though, most of all this confusion is gone by the time it’s time to start sipping the thing.  Here we get a solid, sweet, luscious depth: strawberries, pineapples, very dark and very ripe cherries, melons, papayas and squash (yes, squash).  Some squishy overripe Thai mangoes and maybe some guavas, with just enough citrus being hinted at to not make it a cloying mess, and just enough salt to balance all that off.  It’s not entirely a success, but not something you would forget in a hurry either.  The finish goes off in its own direction again, evidently forgetting (again) what it was supposed to be, and leaves me with a simultaneously dry and watery sort of cane-vinegar-wine vibe, cardboard, and a bland fruit salad where nothing can be picked out.

It’s an odd rum, and to be honest I really kinda like it, because for one, it really does taste like a rum, and two, even if the tastes and smells don’t always play nice and go helter skelter all over the place, there’s no denying that by some alchemy of Mr. Prosser’s skill, it all holds together and provides a punch of white rum flavour one can’t dismiss out of hand.  Not everything can be “like from the Caribbean” and not everything should be. With Kalki Moon’s first batch, my advice for most would be to mix this thing into a daiquiri or a mojito or something, and check it out that way…it’s really going to make those old stalwarts jump. For those of strength, fortitude, and Caner-style mad courage, drink it neat. You won’t forget it in a hurry, I’m thinking…just before you start wondering what a full proof version would be like.

(#883)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

 


Company  Background

Photo (c) Kalki Moon

Kalki Moon is named after an enduring image in the mind of the founder Rick Prosser, that of the full moon over the fields of Bundaberg in the neighbourhood of Kalkie, where he had built his house. After working for thirteen years and becoming a master distiller at the Bundaberg Distillery and dabbling in some consultancy work, Mr. Prosser decided to give it a shot for himself, and enlisted friends and family to help financially and operationally support his endeavours to build and run his own artisanal distillery, which opened in 2017 with two small stills. 

Australian law requires any spirit labelled “rum” to have been aged for two years, which places a burden on new startup distilleries wanting to produce it there…they have to make cash flow to survive for at least that long while their stock matures. That need to make sales from the get-go pushed the tiny distillery into the vodka- and gin-making business (gin was actually a last minute decision) — Mr. Prosser felt that the big brands produced by his previous employer, Diageo, had their place, but there were opportunities for craft work too.

Somewhat to his surprise, the gins he made – a classic, a premium, a navy strength and even a pink – sold well enough that he became renowned for those, even while adding yet other spirits to his company’s portfolio. Still, he maintains that it was always rum for which he was aiming, and gin just paid the bills, and in 2020 he commissioned a third, larger still (named “Marie”, after his grandmother) to allow him to expand production even further.  Other cash generating activities came from the spirits-trail distillery tourists who came on the tours afforded by having several brewing and distilling operations in a very concentrated area of Bundaberg – so there are site visits, tasting sessions and so on.

At the same time, he has been experimenting with rums – some, of course, ended up becoming the Plant Cane – but it took time to get the cuts and fermentation and still settings right, so that a proper rum could be set to age. At this point I believe the spiced and maybe the dark (aged) rums will be ready for release in 2022 or shortly thereafter. The gins are too well-made, too profitable and too widely appreciated, now, to be abandoned, so I imagine that Kalki will continue to be very much a multi-product company.  It remains to be seen whether the dilution of focus I’ve remarked on before with respect to small American distilleries who multi-task the hell out of their stills, will hamper making a truly great artisanal rum, or whether all these various products will get their due moment in the sun. Personally I think that if his gins can be good enough to win awards right out of the gate, it sure will be interesting to watch what Mr. Prosser does when he gets a head of steam under him, and the aged rums start coming out the door. So far, even the unaged rum he made is well worth a taste.


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and touch of the Panama to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge when they heard of my interest (it was not for sale outside Australia). Thanks again to you both.
  • A sample pic shows what I tasted from but it really lacks a visual something.  When I scoured around for bottle pics, I found the two (much better) photographs which you see included above, so many thanks to Justin Galloway and (chaste) kisses to the Two Rum Chicks, who kindly allowed me to use their work.

J.M. “Jungle” Rhum Agricole Blanc Edition Limitee (2017) – Review

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Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

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

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


 

Dec 122021
 

There are four operations making rum in Grenada – Renegade (the new kid on the block, operating since 2021), Westerhall, Rivers Antoine and Clarke’s Court, the last of which was formed in 1937, operating under the umbrella of the Grenada Sugar Factory (the largest on the island) and named after an estate of the same name in the southern parish of St. George’s.  This title in turn derived from two separate sources: Gedney Clarke, who bought the Woodlands estate from the French in the late 1700s, and a bay called “Court Bay” included with the property (this in turn was originally titled “Watering Bay” because of the fresh water springs, but how it came to change to Court is not recorded). The company sold rums with names like Tradewinds and Red Neck before the Clarke’s Court moniker became the standard, though the exact date this happened is uncertain. Pre-1980s, I would hazard.

The Clarke’s Court Pure White Overproof is a column-still, molasses-based blended white lightning made by that company, and is apparently the most popular rum on the Spice Island, best had with some Angostura bitters (the 43% darker rums made here are supposedly for the ladies, who “prefer gentler rums”).  Local wags claim it’ll add hair to your chest, strip the paint off anything, and can run your car if you don’t have any petrol. Older women reputedly still use it as a rub.

When it comes to seriously pumped-up Grenadian rums, Westerhall’s Jack Iron is not in this rum’s league, though it’s admittedly stronger; and had Clarke’s more distinct, it would have given Rivers Antoine a run for its money as the first Key Rum from Grenada.  It certainly buffs its chest and tries to muscle in on the territory of the famed white Jamaicans (I feel it was meant to take on J. Wray’s White Overproof, or even DDL’s amusing three-lies-in-one Superior High Wine…but it lacks their fierce pleasures and distinct profiles and at the end, is something of a cheap high proofed white rum shot with ‘tude and taste, a better Bacardi Superior with a dash of steroids.

This careful endorsement of mine does not, however, stop it from being something of a best-selling island favourite on Grenada, where it outsells Rivers (because of a larger facility that breaks down less frequently). As with other white rums across the Caribbean, it’s an affordable and powerful rum, a dram available to and drunk across all social classes —  it’s always been made and probably always will be. It’s emblematic of the island and widely known in a way Rivers – which is far older – is only now becoming, and local denizens with a creative juice-it-up bent cheerfully adulterate, spice up or make “bush” variations (such as the one I originally tried back in 2010) at the drop of a hat and in every rum shop up and down the island.

Now, it’s torqued up to 69% ABV, but sources are unclear whether it has been aged a bit then filtered, or is released as is, and while I can’t state it with authority, I believe it to be unaged: it has a series of aromas and tastes that just bend my mind that way.  The nose, for example, is redolent of minerals, dust, watery salt solution, the smell of the ocean on a seaport where the fish and salt water reek is omnipresent.  Some sweet swank and sugar cane juice – there’s a weird and pleasant young-agricole vibe to the experience – plus a delicate line of fruits: sharp, ester-y, unripe, tart and pungent, without the rich plumpness of better-made aged variants.  Kiwi fruit, and one of those cheap mix-everything-in fruit juice melanges. Honestly, I got a lot here, and had walked in expecting a lot less.

69% is strong for a rum, but not unbearable, and it’s just a matter of sipping carefully and expecting some heat for your trouble. Tastes of apples, cider, pears, all sour, begin the experience. These initial flavours are then muscled aside by tequila and brine and olives, not entirely pleasant, very solid; this then morphs into a sweet and sour soup, yeasty bread, cereals, sour cream, cream cheese, all very strong and firm, reasonably well developed and decently balanced. The fruits are also well represented – one can sense a fruit salad with cherries in syrup, plus gherkins and the metallic hint of a copper penny.  Overall, surprisingly creamy on the tongue, almost smooth: not what one would expect from something at this proof point.  It leads nicely into a hot, long finish, with closing notes of fruits (bananas, watermelon, mangoes) and some salt-sour mango achar, miso soup, and sweet soya.

When considered against the other big-name, well known, badass whites from the non-agricole, non-151-proof world, it’s easy to see why it gets less respect than the howitzers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Guyana (for my money, Cuba, T&T and Barbados have no overproof white rums that stand out, are as well known, or are so visibly a part of local culture in the way these are, though I’m sure I’ll catch some heated protests about that). It’s not exported in quantity, lacks a solid presence on the American bar and cocktail circuit, doesn’t often come in for mention and has no superstar brand ambassador or cocktail-slinging badass to champion its praises – many people reading this review will likely never have tried it. 

That said, I think it may be an undiscovered steal. Grenadians, to whom it’s a cultural institution, will swear by the thing and embrace anyone who speaks positively of the rum like a brother. Few will drink it neat: I do it so you don’t have to, but really, it’s not made to have that way, and that leaves it to boost a mix of some kind, like the locals who have it with a soda, juice or coconut water (when they don’t throw back shots in a rumshop, or nip at the backpocket flattie all day). The tastes are nothing to sneeze at, there’s enough raw flavour and bombast and attitude here to satisfy the desire for something serious for the rum junkie, and the bottom line is, it’s really and surprisingly good. It’s a worthy entry to the canon, and one can only hope it gets wider international acclaim. We can always use another one of these.

(#871)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • This review is based on two separate sample tastings – a mini from the 1990s and a more recent sample bottle bought from Drinks by the Dram.  The tastes were similar enough to suggest the blend has stayed the same for a long period.
  • The label has remained relatively unchanged for decades.  It is unknown when the rum was first introduced though.

Savanna Lontan 57° Grand Arome Unaged White Rum (Batch #2 2018) – Review

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Oct 312021
 

In the previous review I wrote about the Reunion-made Savanna HERR Blanc 57º White Rum (second batch, from 2018), and was surprised and pleased at the reaction it elicited: quite a few comments were made on various platforms, showing a really positive feeling about the rum. Today we will, as promised, go deeper into its brother rum, released in tandem with it each time one was issued, also 57% ABV, and also stuffed to the gills with an ester count that leaves the rum geek crowd with slightly trembling knees, quivering hands and clenching…well, you get my drift.

The “57” series of rums was part of a skunk works project which the Indian ocean island distillery of Savanna initiated back in 2005 where they let their Maître de Chai off the leash without any clear directions beyond “go”. The gentleman took them at their word, messing around with every variable of the production process he could — and what came out the other end was so off the reservation that when management peeled themselves off the floor, found their voices and timorously looked around for buyers, they realized that none existed if they wanted to sell it as a rum. And so the pungent distillate was left to rest in a steel tank for over a decade, until the rise of the New Jamaicans and a renewed appreciation for high ester rums squirting raw funk from every pore showed that yes, there was indeed a market for the thing.  The first edition was trotted out in the 2017 festival season, followed by this second one in 2018 with a limited run of 1500 bottles, all issued at 57% ABV (the pot still and column still versions were released concurrently).

The Jamaicans would probably sniff rather tolerantly (if not disdainfully) at an ester count of a “mere” 578.7 g/Hlpa which places the rum somewhere between the odd no-man’s land of Wedderburn (200-300) and Continental Flavoured (700-1600). And they would nod with distantly polite appreciation at a column still distillate generated from an experimental long fermentation of six days. On the face of it, they would hardly worry that their own street cred was in danger of being superseded and just on the basis of the numbers, they’re right.

Except that, not really…because the rum turned out to be really rather good, which is why it and its brothers have become sort of underground rumdork cult classics. Consider the nose: it was intense and sweet and tart, and started off, oddly enough, with an aroma of fresh sawdust and pencil shavings 1, combined with a freshly disinfected hospital room, iodine and pine sol. It morphed to sweet fruit infused water, redolent of watermelons and very light Thai mangoes – there were times it was almost delicate. Bags of strawberries, red grapefruit, bubble gum, kiwi fruits and green apples.  Behind all that, there almost seemed to be a sort of whisky finish to the whole thing and overall, what I got was a lot of florals and a lot of fruits, and those easily shouldered aside any other subtle notes.

The palate had an equal quality, though perhaps not as complex.  Here the pencil shavings took something of a back seat and just chilled out (maybe they were sulking), leaving some nice florals, ripe apples, lemons, pineapple, strawberries, grapefruit and licorice to carry the show, backed up by some cereal, cardboard and lightly musty tastes of varnish and damp tobacco. The fruitiness of the whole thing was a constant throughout, until it all came to a conclusion in a finish that was long, fruity, tart — almost sour — and just intense enough for government work.  Like the 57 HERR, it gained from being left alone to open up, because it didn’t do the old soldier thing and fade away, just gathered its forces and presented as solid and complex even an hour later.

So, a funny thing happened as I was tasting this Lontan 57 – I really liked it. What it lacked was some of the take-no-prisoners machismo of the pot still HERR 57, which seemed to revel in its own puissance (and afforded writers the rare opportunity to use the word “puissance”). That did not, however, mean it didn’t have some of the offbeat notes of Boomerang’s Strangé (or her perfume commercial), just that they were better controlled: it moved easily and elegantly through its paces, had a nice balance and just a few off notes. It shared and showed a similar line of descent with the HERR 57, while at all times being its own thing. This column still, molasses-based rum reminded me somewhat of Haitian clairins, even Mexican charandas, but its closest comparator might actually be another artisanal spirit we don’t get enough of yet, the oddly refined Cabo Verde grogues.

Tasting two 57s from the same year — the HERR and the Lontan — side by side, reveals their differing natures, showcases their differing origins, and the differing ways they were made.  It also demonstrates that if you have a maitre de chai who takes “go” to mean “where no-one has gone before,” then with some imagination and cheerful bombast, you can make a really sterling and tasty rum of firmness, originality and serious flavour. Sort of like this one.  It’s definitely a rum worth having on the shelf.

(#861)(86/100)


Other Notes

Savanna very helpfully classifies its rums using various words which tell the curious what its rums are: 

  • Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days, source can be either molasses or juice), 
  • Creol (aged and unaged agricoles from cane juice), 
  • Intense and/or Traditionnel (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), 
  • Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums).

Savanna HERR Blanc 57º White Rum (Batch #2 2018) – Review

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Oct 262021
 

The distillery of Savanna (on Reunion island in the Indian Ocean) is putting out so many collections and individual bottlings, so fast, that even something as relatively recent as this rum from 2018 has very much fallen by the wayside, recalled by few but high ester rum geeks and Savanna lovers.  It suggests something of the difference between them and an independent bottler, in that there is no single strongly-visible voice that stands in for them and their wares.

I make this point because when you come down to it, this rum is very similar to the Habitation Velier HERR unaged white, and yet many will remember that one and eagerly source it because of the cachet of the Velier name, while Savanna gets lost in the shuffle of its torrent of newer releases, the passage of time and the short memories of the pubic. Geeks know about Savanna….the rank and file of the casual rum drinkers would be hard pressed to find the distillery (let alone the island) on a map.

But I suggest this is an issue for the promotion by Savanna’s own marketing and perhaps of truly curious rum fans, and the various bloggers out there. The fact of the matter is that any rum coming out of Reunion deserves a look, Savanna more than most, because of that completely badass high ester alembic pot still they have going in some shadowed corner of their distillery. Though most of their rums are column still distilled, though they produce rums from both molasses and cane juice, and even though they have Grand Arome, Creol, Metis, Lontan and Intense branded rums up to wazoo, every now and then they seem to want to go off the reservation and trot that alembic out to show off and produce a special edition just because, well, they can.

The 57 Batch 2 rum we’re looking at today is one of a pair released in early 2018, whose only distinguishing characteristics from each other are the length of fermentation (11 days for this one), the ester levels (423.4 g/Hlpa for this rum) and the still that made it (the pot still, here).  In that sense, I feel the purpose of releasing the two rums (we’ll be looking at the other one in the next review) was somewhat more educational, to show people what a difference the three components could make when mixed and matched in interesting ways – both rums were released in early 2018, with an outturn of 1500 bottles and at a strength of 57º. The only thing I don’t know and remains unmentioned anywhere, was if it was juice or molasses based.

Perhaps the tasting can help, so let’s move right on to that.  Nose first: short version, it’s amazingly rich and fruity. It’s very precise and crisp, with a lot of things going on at the same time: grapes, lemon zest, sugar water, watermelon, papaya, and also green apples, gooseberries and some yoghurt.  There’s a nice evocation of laundry detergent, of white sheets drying outside in a snapping wind on a bright and sunlit day and a nice background of nail polish, acetones and kiwi fruits to make things interesting.

Palate, nice, more of the good stuff : lemon zest, red grapefruit, sour cherry sweets, bon bons, loads of light florals, and gives the impression of a juicy green apple crunching between the teeth. Some sweet cider and mint, quite sharp, with few musky or softening agents here…which takes it down a peg or two for a lack of integration and balance (some will inevitably call it a crazy jumble of everything except the kitchen sink, which may not be far off), but overall, quite a hefty, piquant, pungent dram.  I particularly want to draw attention to the long and lasting finish: this is fruity, a little sour, has a scent of pine needles and lemon dish detergent (this is not a bad thing, honestly) and like many high ester rums I’ve tried in the past (including the Jamaicans), gets a little bitter after a few hours in the glass, but overall, this is a minor complaint – the rum works, and how.

So there’s a lot of interesting things about this rum: the pot still distillation, the level of esters which is just about spot on, and the really fantastic taste and finish.  Apparently the rum was part of an experimental series which was initiated around 2005, at a time when such aromatics were confined to the bulk rum market and destined for confectionary or perfumes.  Savanna tinkered with fermentation lengths, bacterial strains, durations, stills and came up with this severely pungent hooch which I guess they simply did not know what to do with (one wonders why chucking it into a barrel was not an option, but maybe some did, who knows?).  While it is unaged by all standard definitions, it rested in inert steel tanks until the world changed around it and high ester rums became a thing — it is probably no coincidence that it was released in 2018, the same year as Habitation Velier’s HERR White.

There are fair bit of reviews around about the HERR 57: WhiskyFun scored Batch 1 (from 2017, same ester count and strength) 84 points the year it came out and commented wryly that it was “unknown territory” for him. Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel (rapidly turning into one of the better review sites out there), remarked on its incredible intensity of flavour and scored it a very high 92, and even Rum Ratings is littered with a few casual fans who erratically score and either love or hate the thing, but can’t stop talking about it. 

Savanna’s rums appeal to me because of their variety: molasses based or cane juice, pot still or column, long fermentations or short, bags of esters or just a sprinkling…it’s like everything that they make is on one end of the spectrum or another, a binary choice for all, and no middle ground to be seen anywhere. I kind of appreciate that kind of extremism which never takes the safe average but tries to push the boundaries.  Savanna makes something for just about every palate and while some succeed and some hit the wall, there are very few that are outright bad or downright boring. Here they produced a rum that will force you to have an opinion — and mine, for the absence of doubt, is definitely positive. It’s a hell of a tasty rum.

(#860)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Few sites I looked at mentioned the source but both Alex and Reuben noted it as being molasses. Still checking into it. 
  • 1500 bottle outturn.  Four batches in total were released by 2020, each with the same ester count and strength, but different outturns (B#1 2300, B#2 1500, B#3 unknown, B#4 1400).

El Destilado Aguardiente de Panela (Mexico) – Review

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Aug 152021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

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

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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


Addendum

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

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

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

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

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


 

William Hinton Edição Limitada Unaged White Rum (2017) – Review

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Jun 172021
 

 

Recapping some background for William Hinton — it is a Madeira based distillery with antecedents as far back as 1845; at one point, in the 1920s, it was the largest sugar factory on the island if not in Europe – but in 1986 it ceased operations for two decades, 1, and was then restarted in 2006 under the name Engenho Novo da Madeira, still making branded rum under the Hinton banner.  They make their own rums as well as exporting bulk elsewhere, which is how Fabio Rossi picked a few up for his Rare Rums collection back in 2017.

The company has three tiers of rum quality, with the lowest level being considered basic backbar “service” rums for mixing: there are three of these, from a 40% white we looked at in #829, a 9 months aged, and one that’s three years old. That 40% white was a flaccid agricole that could conceivably put a drinker to sleep out of simple boredom, but things get a lot more jazzed up and a whole lot more interesting with the premium or “Limited” level white (labelled as “Natural”). Neatly put, the two classes of rums generally and the two whites in particular, are night and day.

Some the stats of the two whites in the classes are the same – column still, cane juice origin…they are both agricoles. Fermented for 2-3 days with wild yeast (the other was 24 hours), and then run through that old refurbished column still that had been decommissioned (but kept) from the original estate at Funchal (Engenho do Torreão) when things shut down in 1986. And then, as if dissatisfied with this nod at tradition, they released the premium version without any ageing at all (unlike the “service” white which had been aged and then filtered back to transparency). It was also left at full strength, which is a serious attention grabbing 69%, enough to make the glass tremble, just a bit. 

That combination of zero ageing and high strength made the Edição Limitada blanco very much like some of those savage white rums I’ve written about here and here. And that’s a good thing – too often, when a company releases two rums of the same production process but differing proofs, it’s like all they do is take the little guy, chuck it on the photocopier and pressed “enlarge”. Not here. Oh no. Here, it’s a different rum altogether. 

The nose, for example, is best described as “serious” – an animal packing heat and loaded for bear: it starts with salt, brine, olives, wax, rubber, polish, and yet, the whole time it feels clear — fierce, yes, but clear nevertheless — and almost aromatic, not weighed down with too little frantically trying to do too much. A bit fruity, herbal to a fault, particularly mint, dill, sage and touch of thyme. There are some citrus notes and a warm kind of vegetal smell that suggests a spicy tom yum soup with quite a few mean-looking pimentos cruising around in it.

I particularly want to call attention to the palate, which is as good or better than that nose, because that thing happily does a tramping stomping goose step right across the tongue and delivers oodles of flavour: it’s like a sweeter version of the Paranubes, with rubber, salt, raisins and a cornucopia of almost ripe and fleshy fruits that remain hard and tart.  The taste is herbal (thyme and dill again), and also sports olives, vanilla, unsweetened yoghurt, and a trace of almost apologetic mint to go with the fruity heat. The finish is excellent — long and salty, loads of spices and herbs, and a very peculiar back note of minerals and ashes.  These don’t detract from it, but they are odd to notice at all and I guess they are there to remind you not to take it for granted.

The rhum, in short, is amazing. It upends several notions of how good a white can be and for my money gives Wray & Nephew 63% White Overproof some real competition in that category and even exceeds the Rivers Royale 69% out of Grenada, though they are different in their construction and don’t taste the quite same. The flavours are hot and spicy and there’s lots of them, yet they never get in each other’s way and are well balanced, complex to a fault and good for any purpose you might wish to put it. 

What this all leaves us with, then, is an agricole rhum that is powerful, herbal, floral and all round tasteful. It’s quality is in fact such a jump up from the “Service” white that I really must suggest you try the more premium rums, and this one, only after exploring the cheaper variants. Because if you do it the other way round you’ll really not want to have that much to do with the lesser parts of Hinton’s overall range. The Limitada excites that kind of admiration, and happily, it deserves every bit of it.

(#830)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • The rum is issued in lots (or batches), by year, and all front labels tell you which one it is (here it’s Lot #1 of 2017), though not how many lots in that year. Each such batch is 500 bottles or so — hence the “Limitada” in the name —  and both this and the bottle number is mentioned on the back label.

Bristol Spirits Labourdonnais Mauritius White Rhum – Review

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Jun 102021
 

As I remarked in a review opener last year, the UK indie Bristol Spirits appears to have fallen somewhat out of fashion of late, and its releases are not held up as ecstatically as they used to be, nor are reviews of their products either forthcoming or swooned over the way they used to be (that may be a function of the current pandemic as well). However, neither that nor the somewhat moribund website of the company should be taken as an indicator of any loss of focus or lack of activity. Mr. John Barret, the owner, with whom I had a most enjoyable conversation this morning (he just so happened to be wandering past the phone when I called and picked it up) rather wryly remarked that they are simply too busy with the real world to pay too much attention to the digital one, and are going great guns with their aged rum program irrespective of whether online attention is paid to their offerings or not.

One of their older products, predating the pandemic, is a cane juice rhum produced at Labourdonnais Distillery on the island of Mauritius (see below for further details on the distillery and estate). The Indian Ocean island is the home of other well known names like New Grove, Lazy Dodo, Grays, St. Aubin, Chamarel — and somewhere around 2010 or so, Bristol Spirits imported some unaged white rum from the distillery, and bottled a part of it immediately. The rest was left to age: some, matured in sherry wood, was released as a five year old rum in 2015 and this year (2021) they are pushing out the remainder in a 10 year old I’d be quite interested in.

For now, let’s just stick with this one: a 43% column still distillate deriving from cane juice, unaged, unfiltered, white, from a distillery few would likely know much about unless it was from The Fat Rum Pirate’s 4½ star review of the Boutique-y Rum Company’s 5 year old, back in 2019.

What surprised me about the rhum (for so we shall term it since it can’t be called an agricole) was how much like a Cabo Verde grogue it was. The nose, for example, channelled some of that same almost easy, relaxed scents as, oh, the Barbosa.  Nosing something like a dry white wine, it was redolent of freshly mown grass, green grapes and apples, sweet, light, and almost — but not quite — delicate. Cherries, raspberries and a touch of sour cider followed, as well as a sly hint of brininess after a few minutes.  Overall, the aroma had a distinctly agricole vibe to it, which of course was unsurprising. I liked it a lot.

The taste hardly faltered, which was a relief since a great nose does not always a great palate make. At 43% ABV it remained approachable, and an easy sip – warm yet cheerfully spicy; I tasted sugar water, the slight tang of tinned pears in syrup, white guavas, pears, papaya, all overlaid with the crisp and tart freshness of green apples, a bite of bubble gum and again, that trace of wine and brine in equal measure, lending character to the whole. That doesn’t sound like it should work, but yeah, it really kind of does.  The finish was nice and long, but here the complexity faded out and left mostly some fruity sugar water, which I accepted with as much grace as I could muster, the smell and flavours having so charmed me to begin with.

Now me, I like white rums. Not the over-filtered, clear, bland, anonymous and unaromatic cocktail fodder that clogs up far too many glasses, but clusterbombs of flavour like clairins or grogues, or the white lightning from Saint James, DDL, Depaz, Capovilla, Worthy Park, A1710, Issan, Savanna….well, the list is long, what can I say? Here’s another one to add to the list – it’s not fierce or feral, and doesn’t want to cause you pain. It is simply a compact and neat homunculus of a rumlet with oodles of flavour that dance and cavort across the senses, and one  that I will remember with great fondness.  

It occurs to me that it would probably retain all its charm and profile even if beefed up to a greater strength…however, I would argue that’s unnecessary, because it’s near perfect as a sipper exactly as it is, even if unaged. Mr. Barrett told me that Bristol never did really good business with it, and fell back to ageing the rest of their stock as a consequence. I think if more people had tried it when it was first released and whites had a better street cred at that point, then this Labourdonnais white wouldn’t have languished in the doldrums, but flown off the shelves. And in point of fact, as soon as this review goes up, I think I’m going  to go looking for one myself.

(#828)(86/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Mr. Barrett who was courteous and polite and answered all my usual questions. Couldn’t help but mention I was a big fan ever since I’d had the amazing Port Mourant 1980 all those years ago.
  • Outturn unknown
  • From the other references I saw, the label seem to be misspelled and the distillery name is one word, not two

Company Background

Labourdonnais is a distillery, of course, but is of relatively recent vintage, as are all such companies on Mauritius.  In 2006 the law was relaxed to permit rum distillation – before that all sugar cane planted on the island had to be made into sugar, the prime export crop.  As soon as this happened, the agricultural estate of Labourdonnais – home of the beautifully landscaped gardens and the famed Château de Labourdonnais – built a new distillery on their property, naming it Rhumerie des Mascareignes, and then renaming it La Distillerie de Labourdonnais in 2014, probably to line up with all the other agricultural and horticultural activities of the property for which it was better known. It has been making cane juice rum ever since, mostly white and lightly aged “amber” rums, but also exporting some bulk, primarily to Europe. 

Rhumerie de la Reunion (Savanna) “Varangue” Rhum Grand Arôme – 1990s

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May 242021
 

Photo pilfered from DuRhum.com

Rumaniacs Review #R-125 | 0823

Many of the rhums from the Reunion Island distillery of Savanna are a high-ester rum-geek’s dreams and fantasies: they are molasses-based, and benefit from longer fermentation times and a pass through their Savalle copper column still. The term for these rhums with congener levels greater than 800g/HLPA and minimum ester levels of 500g/HLPA is Grand Arôme, but Savanna has branded them with other names, now and in the past. 

Since 2003 or so they have been called the Lontan series of rums — this is a play on the French creole words long temps or “long time” (referring to the fermentation), and tan lon tan meaning “in the old days”.  Previously, between 1997-2000 they were titled Varangue (verandah, perhaps a hint and a wink at where you should be drinking it), before which they were sold as Lacaze rhums…but of this last, few records remain and I couldn’t tell you much about them.

The Varangue resulted from a 5-year R&D effort spearheaded by Laurent Broc who was once the Savanna’s Master Distiller and then the Distillery Director (he has since left the company), and was first released in 1997 to much acclaim: it was specifically aimed at raising both awareness and the reputation of Reunion rums, which at the time were not considered anything special. But it was likely ahead of its time, for it found no broad boozing audience in the rum crowd (unless it was domestic, or in France) and was not marketed to a broad geographical swathe. That said, it did great sales in the food and confectionary businesses. 

In the early 2000s when the new Savanna branded estate rums were initiated (Creol, Intense, Lontan, etc), the Varangue was rebranded as Lontan with better results and one could argue that it is with the concomitant rise of rumfests, social media and the New Jamaicans post-2010 that it was finally catapulted to the wider reknown the new name currently enjoys.

Colour – White

Age – Unaged

Strength – 40%

Nose – Initially, does not compare favourably against the Lontan Grand Arôme 40% released a few years later, but not all older rums are better than their replacements, it is true, so we move on. It gets better. Clean, briny, a touch herbal, but not much.  Glue, anise, floor polish and wax, a little rubber and acetones plus a very slight bitterness that I would attribute to oak had this been aged. Develops into a nice sweetness redolent of of pineapples, strawberries and overripe, almost past-their-prime fruit. 

Palate – Rather gentle and easy (no surprise, considering the strength).  Unfortunately this translates into a faint series of tastes one has to pay careful attention to tease out. Some furniture polish, those weird bitter oaky notes (what are they doing here?). Some nice acetones, and light fruity notes: pineapple again, strawberries, cane juice, light herbal notes of dill and rosemary.  

Finish – Short and light, almost watery.  Sweetly and tartly fruity – again, pineapple, plus gooseberry, five finger, and some mild sugar water

Thoughts – Overall, not really that impressed.  There’s a lot going on there, it’s just too faint to come to grips with, the balance among the various elements is poor.  Still, nose and palate aren’t bad at all. It’s pleasantly aromatic and shows something of what the entire Lontan series emerged from. I’d put it slightly ahead of its successor, but it’s within the margin of error

(78/100)

Savanna Lontan Traditionnel Grand Arôme (LMDW 60th Anniversary) White Rum- Review

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May 062021
 

The rums of the Reunion Island company Savanna span a wide stylistic gamut, depending on the source material (juice or molasses, for they utilize both), which still made them, and how many esters stuck around for the party (this is particularly the case with the high ester still Savanna casually uses to smack the unsuspecting and unwary into next week).  

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Velier’s book, they also release a whole raft of “sets” or types – for example, the Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days), Creol (aged and unaged agricoles), Intense (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), or Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums).  And that’s not even counting the cool-named varieties within those sets, like “Thunderstruck,” “Chai Humide,” “Wild Island,” or the utterly prosaic put-me-to-sleep-please “Belgium.” They seem to have no particular interest in releasing things at a consistent strength and you’ll find rums at standard strength right up to 67% (a 2019 creol I still get delicious nightmares about).

Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous variation of tastes in these rums – perhaps only the Guadeloupe boys can boast anything that jumps around the flavour wheel as much. You cannot make any predeterminations on “what I expect” with this distillery, and it would be foolhardy to try.  I’ve tasted those that are heavy on fruits, others that are more creamy or yeasty or flowery or creamy or are dark, light, heavy, solid, flaky….well, you get my drift.

Still, this 57% ABV grand arôme, which was released in 2016 for La Maison Du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary (they went into partnership with Velier the following year and formed LM&V), seemed at pains to make the point yet again.  In this case, it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical; herbs, wet grass, sweet pickles, hot dog relish (I know what this sounds like!); sugar water; iodine, papaya, strawberries; wax, brine and cucumbers in a light pimento-soaked vinegar.  I mean, seriously, does that remind you of any rum you’ve ever tried? I both liked it and wondered where the rum was hiding.

In fairness, the taste was pretty good and conformed more to the ideals. 57% was a good strength for it, and even with the slight roughness of it being unaged, it wasn’t savage, just warm and firm. It tasted initially of brine and olives and then did a switcheroo to light anise and sugar water, fresh sugar cane sap bleeding off the stalk, combined with the tartness of unripe white fruit (guavas, soursop, pears), orange peel and some delicate flowers.  A touch of caramel, toffee, breakfast spices, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon, maybe. It fell apart on the finish, alas – that was short, watery, thin, somewhat sweet and lacking any of the complexity with just some herbs, mint, dill, anise and swank drifting away into nothingness. 

In other words, the rum started out strong – and startling…that nose really was something – and then each successive stage was weaker than the one before it.  That it had more complexity and style than most whites is undeniable, it just wasn’t assembled that well (which is a purely personal opinion, of course).  Why LMDW would release an unaged Savanna rum for a major anniversary at a time when Reunion wasn’t much appreciated and super-aged rums were much more likely to attract attention and money, is anyone’s guess. It’s also a peculiarity of the rum that it comes from molasses but through some weird alchemy of the process, actually tastes more like an agricole, which I’m sure you’ll admit is quite a neat trick.

The Fat Rum Pirate in his four-star 2017 review of this rum, remarked “This won’t be for everyone but [..] but whilst similar to other high ABV whites, it has enough going on to be different.” That encapsulates my own feelings as well: while I enjoy (and sometimes fear) the untamed ferocity of the clairins, the Guyanese and Jamaican unaged crazies, or the more refined French island blancs, I also appreciate something original which has the courage to go off on a tangent, before somehow coming together as a recognizably good rum.  This one shows that happening in fine style and I’m happy to have had the chance to try it.

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The LMDW 60th Anniversary release has a 1,000-bottle outturn.  Bottle number noted on the label
  • As before, thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample. His unscored tasting notes can be found here.

Opinion

I’ve heard it bruited about from time to time (by the social media commentariat and never-silent chatterati) that rums which sport labels with [a number plus the word “Anniversary”] are presenting a deliberately misleading faux-age-statement.  I completely understand how any minor confusion could arise – when a rum says “50 Years” in large attention-grabbing typeface and then the Lilliputian word “Anniversary” barely visible below that, then the case is easy to make (looking at you, El Dorado, ignoring you, Plantation).

In the main, however, I disagree with the premise. It presupposes an erroneous and all-encompassing assumption of blinkered stupidity by rum drinkers who can’t differentiate the word “anniversary” from the term “years old” when buying something upscale.  Sometimes, such commentators really should extend consumers the courtesy of not thinking they (the consumers) automatically morons just because they (the talkers) know a smidgen more. Though to be fair, consumers really do owe it to themselves as well to pay close attention to what they’re buying.

Depaz Rhum Agricole Blanc “Cuvee de la Montagne” – Review

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Apr 182021
 

When most people spend money on rhum agricoles, they tend to go for the upscale aged (“vieux”) editions, those handily aged expressions or millesimes which have tamed the raw white juice dripping off the still by ageing them for several years. Consumers like the smooth sipping experience of an aged brown spirit, and not many consider that while such rhums do indeed taste lovely and are worth their price tag, the ageing process does take away something too – some of the fresh, snappy bite of a white rhum that hasn’t yet been altered in any way by wood-spirit interaction and a long rest.

Locals in the French West Indies have for centuries drunk the blanc rhum almost exclusively – after all, they didn’t have time to muck around waiting a few years for their favourite tipple to mature and in any case the famous tropical Ti-punch was and remains tailor made to showcase the fresh grassiness and herbal pizzazz of a well made blanc. To this day, just about every one of the small distilleries in the French islands, no matter how many aged rhums they make, always has at least one house blanc rhum, and just about all of them are great. In fact, so popular have they become, that nowadays increasingly specialized “micro-rhums” (my term) based on parcellaires and single varietals of sugar cane are beginning to become a real thing and make real sales. 

Depaz’s 45% rhum blanc agricole is not one of these uber-exclusive, limited-edition craft whites that uber-dorks are frothing over. But the quality and taste of even this standard white shows exactly how good the blancs were in the first place, and how the rhum makers of Depaz got it so right to begin with. Consider the nose: it is fresh, vegetal and frothily green, vibrantly alive and thrumming with aromas of crisp sugar cane sap, sugar water and tart watermelon juice.  And that’s the just for openers – it has notes of green apples, grapes, cucumbers in sweet vinegar and pimento, and a clean sense of fruits and soda pop, even some brine and an olive or two.  All this from a rum considered entry level.

The palate has difficulty living up to that kind of promise, but that should by no means dissuade one from trying it.  It’s a completely traditional and delectable agricole profile: sweet, grassy and very crisp on the tongue, like a tart lemon sherbet.  It tastes of lemon, cumin, firm white pears and papayas, and even shows off some firm yellow mangoes, soursop and star-apples. The 45% isn’t very strong, yet it provides a depth of flavour one can’t find much fault with, and this carries over into a nicely long-lasting, spicy finish that is sweet, green, tart and very clean. There’s a whole bunch of fruit left behind on the finish and it really makes for a nice neat pour, or (of course) a Ti-punch.

Depaz is located on the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, which is at the foot of  Mount Pelée  itself: it has been in existence since 1651 when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since. The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige, to name just a few. 

I have never tried as many of their rhums as I would like, and for a company whose rums I enjoy quite a bit, it’s odd I don’t spend more time and money picking up the range (I feel the same way about Bielle and Dillon). I keep adding to my knowledge-base of Depaz’s rhums year in and year out, however, and so far have found little to criticize and much to admire.  When even an entry level product of the line is as god as this one is, you know that here there’s a company who’s attending seriously to business, and from whom only better things can be expected as one goes up the line of their products.

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.

Chamarel Premium Classic Unaged White Rum – Review

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Mar 082021
 

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, that Mauritius outfit we last saw when I reviewed their 44% pot-still white, doesn’t sit on its laurels with a self satisfied smirk and think it has achieved something.  Not at all.  In point of fact it has a couple more whites, both cane juice derived and distilled on their Barbet columnar still: one at 42º (the “Classic 42”) for cocktails like a mojito, and the other delivering a sharper 52º and clearly meant for the islanders’ own beloved Ti-punch.

Chamarel distillery is situated in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, cultivates its own sugarcane, and has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and a very long history of distilling its own back-country hooch for local consumption, much like the grogues of Cape Verde or the clairins of Haiti..

After 2006, when rum production was finally legalized (previously all cane had to be made into sugar by law), it began to emerge from the shadows, to become something the world started paying attention to. It’s no coincidence that it was in 2008, at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies and a time of renewed interest in rum, that the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created their new distillery on a 400-hectare estate.

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper pot still (for one of their white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other white rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months (or more) before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations. In this case the classic is slowly reduced to 52% ABV over six months.

What comes out the other end and is released in a bottle smart enough to sport a doctorate from Cambridge, is a sleek stunner of a rum with a cosh in its back pocket. It’s an intense and crisply fiery taste bomb, and my Lord, was there a lot going on under its crinoline – a hot combo of wax, olives, brine and sugar water, acetone and paint thinner, which vied with a veritable smorgasbord of light and watery fruit for the dominance of the nose: guavas, pears, Thai mangoes, watermelon and guavas with a touch of pineapple and strawberry infused water. Slightly sweet, salty and sour, a really distinctive, slightly-addled nose. It’s sharp to smell, yet it’s the sharpness of clear and crisp aromas rather than any deficiency of youth and poor cuts such as too often mars young rums subsequently marketed as cocktail fodder: this thing, on the contrary, smells like you could take it to dinner at the Ritz.

Having already tried – and felt somewhat let down by – the restrained, near-lethargic nature of the Chamarel pot still white, I wasn’t looking for anything particularly “serious” when it came to how it tasted, aside from, perhaps, a bit of extra jolt from the higher proof point. I was happy to be disappointed: it was a firm and solid rhum on all fronts, both deep and sharp at the same time, laden with vegetals, wet grass, green apples, grapes, citrus, vanilla, pineapple and a mischievous hint of cider to shake things up.  Waiting a bit and then coming back to it, I noted a crisp melange of lemon, thyme, biryani spices, marzipan, more light and tart fruits, some unsweetened yoghurt and even the creamy back end of white chocolate and almonds.  It ended up closing the show with a last joyous and furiously spinning sense of fruit, citrus, pepper and a very hot green tea gurgling its way down.

Personally I have a thing for pot still hooch – they tend to have more oomph, more get-up-and-go, more pizzazz, better tastes.  There’s more character in them, and they cheerfully exude a kind of muscular, addled taste-set that is usually entertaining and often off the scale.  The Jamaicans and Guyanese have shown what can be done when you take that to the extreme.  But on the other side of the world there’s this little number coming off a small column, and I have to say, I liked it even more than its pot still sibling, which may be the extra proof or the still itself, who knows. 

The Premium Classic was simply a rhum that invigorated, and was hugely fun to try without any attempt to be “serious” or “important”.  And that’s a good thing here, I think, because it allows us to relax and just go with it.  Now, a lot of us drink rums just to get hammered, start a convo, have a good time – and if we don’t like it we chuck it away, or into a mix and any weakness is shrugged off by saying “others will like it” or “it’s not meant for sipping.” Meh. For me, either it works or it doesn’t and this one – frenetic, alcoholic and cheerfully unapologetic – does its thing so well, that the day I tried it I looked at the guy at the booth doing the talk and the pour and laughed in sheer delight, didn’t say a word and just held out my glass for more.  I haven’t heard much about this company or this rum since then, but I sure hope that gent remembers how much I liked his company’s product. 

(#807)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Although this is a rum (or rhum) deriving from cane juice, Mauritius does not have the right to call its products agricoles, and I follow the practise in my naming and description..

Rhum Rhum PMG Rhum Blanc Agricole 56º- Review

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Feb 012021
 

Although the Rhum Rhum PMG is essentially a rhum made at Bielle distillery on Guadeloupe, it uses a Mueller still imported there by Luca Gargano when he envisioned producing a new (or very old) type of rhum agricole, back in 2005. He wanted to try making a double distilled rhum hearkening back to the pre-creole-still days, and provide a profile like that of a Pére Labat pot still rhum he had once been impressed with and never forgot.

Co-opting Gianni Capovilla into his scheme (at the time Capovilla was creating a reputation for himself playing around with brandy, grappa and eau de vie in Italy), the two made Marie Galante a second home for themselves as they brought their plan to fruition with Dominic Thierry, the owner of Bielle. “We used fresh, undiluted cane juice provided by the Bielle mills and then subjected it to a long fermentation in small 30hl steel cuvees, before double distilling it in two copper stills through a bain-marie (a water bath, or double boiler).” And in 2006 the first rhum came off the new still.

Although the plan was always to sell white (unaged) rhum, some was also laid away to age and the aged portion turned into the “Liberation” series in later years.  The white was a constant, however, and remains on sale to this day – this orange-labelled edition was 56% ABV and I believe it is always released together with a green-labelled version at 41% ABV for gentler souls. It doesn’t seem to have been marked off by year in any way, and as far as I am aware production methodology remains consistent year in and year out.

What the rhum does, then, is mark an interesting departure from the regular run of rhum agricoles which usually have a single pass through a creole column: here it has a longer fermentation time, and two runs through a pot still.  I would never dream of dissing the French islands’ blancs – they are often amazing drinks stuffed with squirming ferrets of flavour – but I gotta tell you, this thing is a quiet stunner that more than holds its own.

Nosing it immediately suggests a different kind of profile from the sweet grassy herbals of a true blanc. This is more like a Paranubes, or a clairin – it starts with that same wax and brine and olives and sweet hot dog relish, as if daring you to chuck it away; it calms down to more earthy flavours of black bread, salt butter, cream cheese, and a nice vegetable soup spiced up with a sweet soya sauce; then it gets pleasantly, crisply sweet – fennel, cane juice, citrus, lemon grass, and nice tart green apples.  Quite a series of aromas to work through, not something to be hurried if you can spare the time.

On the palate the brininess (which would have been off-putting here, I think) retreats and it becomes somewhat warmer.  At first the slight sour of a Korean chili sauce is evident, and a sweet-salt soya dunked into a soup with too much ginger and too many carrots.  But this is just the first sip or two – once one acclimatizes, other more traditional tastes that any agricole lover would recognize come out of hiding: citrus (limes); cane juice; green grapes and apples; cloves, rosemary and even a hint of firm yellow mangoes of the sort West Indians love with salt and chili pepper.  The rhum remains fresh and bright and not sharp at all, just exceedingly complex, with a lot of different layers chasing themselves up and down and around your tongue, before it finally fades away with closing notes of cardamom, papaya, mangoes, cucumbers in vinegar, swank and lime juice. It’s crisp and clean throughout, and the balance is really superb.

From the description I’m giving, it’s clear that I like this rhum, a lot. I think it mixes up the raw animal ferocity of a more primitive cane juice rhum with the crisp and clear precision of a Martinique blanc, while just barely holding the damn thing on a leash, and yeah, I enjoyed it immensely. I do however, wonder about its accessibility and acceptance given the price, which is around $90 in the US. It varies around the world and on Rum Auctioneer it averaged out around £70 (crazy, since Master of Malt have it for £48), which is problematic when one considers all the other very good blancs out there retailing for less. 

For people into their cocktails and who love white rums with real character, I would suggest it’s the bees knees, however.  It’s got great complexity, loads of flavour and is made at right angles to more popular and better known whites that aren’t as “difficult”. Yet at the same time it respects the traditions of rhum making; and it tastes amazing. It might not appeal to those now getting into the white rhum subculture – at least, not yet – but perhaps once in a while when there’s a bit of extra coin rattling around in the pockets, it’ll be worth it to splurge on this distinctive and original white rhum which gets far too little press. It may yet turn out to be that undiscovered gem we’re all look for, even if it’s not quite underpriced.

(#798)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Quotes and production details taken from Nomadi tra i Barrili by Luca Gargano © 2019 Velier Spa.
  • The PMG stands for Pour Marie Galante – “For Marie Galante”.
  • Tarquin Underspoon in her very readable (and positive) reddit review, comments on the price (a “craft tax”) as well and suggests alternatives if it is felt to be too steep.
Jan 262021
 

In an ever more competitive market – and that includes French island agricoles – every chance is used to create a niche that can be exploited with first-mover advantages.  Some of the agricole makers, I’ve been told, chafe under the strict limitations of the AOC which they privately complain limits their innovation, but I chose to doubt this: not only  there some amazing rhums coming out the French West Indies within the appellation, but they are completely free to move outside it (as Saint James did with their pot still white) – they just can’t put that “AOC” stamp of conformance on their bottle, and making one rum outside the system does not invalidate all the others they can and do make within it.

This particular rhum illustrates the point nicely. It’s an AOC rhum made from a very specific variety of cane coloured gray-purple (don’t ask me how that got translated to ‘blue’) which is apparently due to an abundance of wax on the stem. It’s been used by Habitation Clément since 1977 and supposedly has great aromatics and is richer than usual in sugar, and is completely AOC-approved.

Clément has been releasing the canne bleue varietal rhums in various annual editions since about 2000. Its signature bottle has gone through several iterations and the ice blue design has become, while not precisely iconic, at least recognizable – you see it and you know it’s a Clément rhum of that kind you’re getting.  Curiously, for all that fancy look, the rum retails for relative peanuts – €40 or less.  Maybe because it’s not aged, or the makers feared it wouldn’t sell at a higher price point. Maybe they’re still not completely sold on the whole unaged white rhum thing, even if the clairins are doing great business, and unaged blancs have gotten a respect of late (especially in the bar and cocktail circuit), which they never enjoyed before

What other types of cane Habitation Clément uses is unknown to me.  They have focused on this one type to build a small sub-brand around and it’s hard to fault them for the choice, because starting just with the nose, it’s a lovely white rum, clocking in at a robust 50% ABV. What I particularly liked about it is its freshness and clarity: it reminds me a lot of of Neisson’s 2004 Single Cask (which costs several times as much), just a little lighter. Salty wax notes meld nicely with brine and tart Turkish olives to start.  Then the crisp peppiness of green apples and yoghurt, sugar water, soursop and vinegar-soaked cucumber with a wiri-wiri pepper chopped into it. The mix of salt and sour and sweet and hot is really not bad.

It’s sharp on the initial tasting – that levels down quickly.  It remains spicy-warm from there on in, and is mostly redolent of fresh, sweet and watery fruit: so, pears, ripe green apples, white guavas.  There are notes of papaya, florals, loads of swank, avocados, some salt, all infused with lemon grass, ginger and white pepper.  The clarity and crispness of the nose is tempered somewhat as the tasting goes on, allowing softer and less aggressive flavours to emerge, though they do stay on the edges and add background rather than hogging the whole stage. The finish is delicate and precise; short, which is somewhat surprising, yet flavourful – slight lemon notes, apricots, cinnamon and a touch of unsweetened yoghurt.

So, what to make of this econo-budget white rhum? Well, I think it’s really quite good. The Neisson I refer to above was carefully aged, more exclusive, cost more…and yet scored the same — though it was for different aspects of its profile, and admittedly its purpose for being is also not the same as this one. I like this unaged blanc because of its sparkling vivacity, its perkiness, its rough and uncompromising nature which masks an unsuspected complexity and quality. There are just so many interesting tastes here, jostling around what is ostensibly a starter product (based on price if nothing else) — this thing can spruce up a mixed drink with no problem, a ti-punch for starters, and maybe a daiquiri for kicks. 

I don’t know what aspects of its profile derive from that bleue cane specifically because so far in my sojourn through The Land of Blanc I’ve experienced so many fantastic rhums and each has its own peculiar distinctiveness. All I can say is that the low pricing here suggests a rhum that lives and dies at the bottom of the scale…but you know, it really shouldn’t be seen that way.  It’s far too good for that.

(#796)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Production is limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest. Not precisely a limited edition but for sure something unique to each year.
  • Thanks to Etienne Sortais, who provided me with the sample, insisting I try the thing. He was certainly right about that.

Habitation Velier Forsyth’s Pot Still Unaged White Rum (WPE) (2017) – Review

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Dec 302020
 

Hampden gets so many kudos these days from its relationship with Velier —  the slick marketing, the yellow boxes, the Endemic Bird series, the great tastes, the sheer range of them all — that to some extent it seems like Worthy Park is the poor red haired stepchild of the glint in the milkman’s eye, running behind dem Big Boy picking up footprints. Yet Worthy Park is no stranger to really good rums of its own, also pot still made, and clearly distinguishable to one who loves the New Jamaicans. They are not just any Jamaicans…they’re Worthy Park, dammit. They have no special relationship with anyone, and don’t really want (or need) one.

For a long time, until around 2005, Worthy Park was either closed or distilling rum for bulk export, but in that year they restarted distilling on their double retort pot still and in 2013 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came on a tour of Jamaica and took note. By 2016 when he released the first series of the Habitation Velier line (using 2015 distillates) he was able to convince WP to provide him with three rums, and in 2017 he got three more.  This one was a special edition of sorts from that second set, using an extended fermentation period – three months! – to develop a higher ester count than usual (597.3 g/hLpa, the label boasts). It was issued as an unaged 57% white, and let me tell you, it takes its place proudly among the pantheon of such rums with no apology whatsoever.

I make that statement with no expectation of a refutation. The rum doesn’t just leap out of the bottle to amaze and astonish, it detonates, as if the Good Lord hisself just gave vent to a biblical flatus. You inhale rotting fruit, rubber tyres and banana skins, a pile of warm sweet garbage left to decompose in the topical sun after being half burnt and then extinguished by a short rain. It mixes up the smell of sweet dark overripe cherries with the peculiar aroma of the ink in a fountain pen.  It’s musty, it’s mucky, it’s thick with sweet Indian spices, possesses a clear burn that shouldn’t be pleasant but is, and it may still, after all this time, be one of the most original rums you’ve tried this side of next week. When you catch your breath after a long sniff, that’s the sort of feeling you’re left with.

Oh and it’s clear that WP and their master blender aren’t satisfied with just having a certifiable aroma that would make a DOK (and the Caner) weep, but are intent on amping up the juice to “12”.  The rum is hot-snot and steel-solid, with the salty and oily notes of a pot still hooch going full blast. There’s the taste of wax, turpentine, salt, gherkins, sweet thick soya sauce, and if this doesn’t stretch your imagination too far, petrol and burnt rubber mixed with the sugar water. Enough?  “No, mon,” you can hear them say as they tweak it some more, “Dis ting still too small.” And it is, because when you wait, you also get brine, sweet red olives, paprika, pineapple, ripe mangoes, soursop, all sweetness and salt and fruits, leading to a near explosive conclusion that leaves the taste buds gasping.  Bags of fruit and salt and spices are left on the nose, the tongue, the memory and with its strength and clear, glittering power, it would be no exaggeration to remark that this is a rum which dark alleyways are afraid to have walk down it.

The rum displays all the attributes that made the estate’s name after 2016 when they started supplying their rums to others and began bottling their own. It’s a rum that’s astonishingly stuffed with tastes from all over the map, not always in harmony but in a sort of cheerful screaming chaos that shouldn’t work…except that it does. More sensory impressions are expended here than in any rum of recent memory (and I remember the TECA) and all this in an unaged rum. It’s simply amazing.

If you want to know why I’m so enthusiastic, well, it’s because I think it really is that good. But also, in a time of timid mediocrity where too many rum makers (like those Panamanians I was riffing about last week) are afraid to take a chance, I like ambitious rum makers who go for broke, who litter rum blogs, rumfest floors and traumatized palates with the detritus of their failures, who leave their outlines in the walls they run into (and through) at top speed.  I like their ambition, their guts, their utter lack of fear, the complete surrender to curiosity and the willingness to go down any damned experimentative rabbit hole they please. I don’t score this in the nineties, but God, I do admire it – give me a rum that bites off more than it can chew, any time, over milquetoast low-strength yawn-through that won’t even try gumming it.

(#790)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Outturn unknown.  
  • The Habitation Velier WP 2017 “151” edition was also a WPE and from this same batch (the ester counts are the same). 
  • In the marque “WPE” the WP is self explanatory, and the “E” stands for “Ester”

A1710 La Perle “Brute” Parcellaire White Rhum – Review

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Oct 262020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#772)(88/100)


Other notes

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

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