Mar 272023
 

What we are trying today is the Co-Op Caribbean White Rum, which at around C$30 or less is comfortably within the reach of anyone’s purse if perhaps not their purpose. The rum is supplied to the Co-Op supermarket chain by a very interesting Calgary-based company called Minhas Distillery, which until recently didn’t have a distillery in the city, just a brewery, and whatever spirits they produced came from a distillery down in Wisconsin…which is all less than helpful in tracing the product since rum is really not in their portfolio.

What Co-op sells is a white rum in a sleek glass bottle, 40%, without any statement of origin beyond the “Minhas Distillery”. It is supposedly a Caribbean rum, yet no origin distillery is mentioned (let alone a country), and there’s no age, no still, no source material…in this day and age of full disclosure you almost have to admire the courage it takes to foist something so meaningless on the public and pretend it’s worth their coin. Admittedly though, none of this is necessarily a disqualification, because it could be a beast in disguise, a Hampden in hidingfor all we know, a few barrels could have been sourced under the table, or there could be a mad geeky rum nerd distiller lurking in the bowels of Minhas wielding dunder and lightning, ready to bring out the next Caribbean rum killing Canadian hooch.

Alas, sampling it dispels any such romantic notions in labba time. This so-called Caribbean rum is just shy of a one-note wonder. It is not fierce, given its living room strength, and does actually smell of something (which immediately marks it as better than the Merchant Shipping Co. White) – vanilla essence, and mothballs, coconut shavings, and lemon meringue pie. It smells rather sweet, there are some nice light floral hints here and there; and it has some crushed almond nuts smells floating around, yet there’s also a sort of odd papery dusty aroma surrounding it, almost but not quite like old clothes on a rack at a charity sale, and which reminds me of Johnson’s Baby Powder more than anything else (no, I’m not kidding).

The palate is where the ultimate falsity of all that preceded it snaps more clearly into focus. Flowers, lemon, even mothballs, all gone. The baby powder and old clothes have vanished. Like a siren luring you overboard and then showing its true face, the rum turns thin, harsh and medicinal when tasted, rough and sandpapery, mere alcohol is loosed upon the world and all you get is a faint taste of vanilla to make it all go down. Off and on for over an hour I kept coming back, but nothing further ever emerged, and the short, dusty, dry and sweet vanilla finish was the only other experience worthy of note here.

So. As a sipping rum, then it’s best left on the shelf. No real surprise here. As a mixer, I’m less sure, because it’s not a complete fail, but I do honestly wonder what it could be used for since there is so much better out thereeven the Bacardi Superior, because at least that one has been made for so long that all the rough edges have been sanded off and it has a little bit of character that’s so sadly lacking and so sorely needed here.

There’s more than enough blame to go around with respect to this white rum, from Minhas on down to those bright shining lights in Co-Op’s purchasing and marketing departments (or, heaven help us, those directing the corporate strategy of what anonymous spirits to rebrand as company products), none of whom apparently have much of a clue what they’re doing when it comes to rum. It’s not enough that they don’t know what they’re making (or are too ashamed to actually tell us), but they haven’t even gone halfway to making something of even reasonable quality. It’s a cynical push of a substandard product to the massesthe idea of making a true premium product is apparently not part of the program.

In a way then, it’s probably best we don’t know what country or island or distillery or still this comes from: and I sure hope it’s some nameless, faceless corporate-run industrial multi-column factory complex somewhere. Because if Co-Op’s Caribbean white rum descends from stock sourced from any the great distilleries of the French islands, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Guyana, Venezuela, Jamaica or Cuba (et al), and has been turned into thiswhether through ignorance, inaction or intentthen all hope is lost, the battle is over, and we should all pack our bags and move to Europe.

(#984)(74/100) ⭐⭐½


Background Notes

Minhas is a medium-sized liquor conglomerate based on Calgary, and was founded in 1999 by Manjit Minhas and her brother Ravinder. She was 19 at the time, trained in the oil and gas industry as an engineer and had to sell her car to raise finance to buy the brewery, as they were turned down by traditional sources of capital (apparently their father, who since 1993 had run a chain of liquor stores across Alberta, would not or could not provide financing).

The initial purchase was the distillery and brewery in Wisconsin, and the company was first called Mountain Crest Liquors Inc. Its stated mission was to “create recipes and market high quality premium liquor and sell them at a discounted price in Alberta.” This enterprise proved so successful that a brewery in Calgary was bought in 2002 and currently the company consists of the Minhas Micro Brewery in the city (it now has distillation apparatus as well), and the brewery, distillery and winery in Wisconsin.

What is key about the company is that they are a full service provider. They have some ninety different brands of beers, spirits, liqueurs and wines, and the company produces brands such as Boxer’s beers, Punjabi rye whiskey, Polo Club Gin, and also does tequila, cider, hard lemonades. More importantly for this review, Minhas acts as a producer of private labels for Canadian and US chains as diverse as “Costco, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Aldi’s, Tesco/Fresh & Easy, Kum & Go, Superstore/Loblaws, Liquor Depot/Liquor Barn” (from their website). As a bespoke maker of liquors for third parties, Minhas caters to the middle and low end of the spirits market, and beer remains one of their top sellers, with sales across Canada, most of the USA, and around the world. So far, they have yet to break into the premium market for rums.


Other Notes

  • I did contact them directly via social media and their site, and was directed via messenger to an email address that never responded to my queries on sourcing. However, after this post went up, Richard Seale of Foursquare got on to me via FB and left a comment that the distillate possibly came from WIRD (he himself had refused as the price they wanted was too low). The general claim on Minhas’s website is that their products are made with Alberta ingredients.
  • It’s my supposition that there is some light ageing (a year or two), that it’s molasses based and column still distilled. It remains educated guesswork, however, not verified facts.
  • Ms. Minhas’s father, having sold the liquor shops many years ago, has recently opened a large distillery in Saskatchewan with the same business model, but that is outside the scope of this article and so I have elected not to go into detail, and only include it here for completeness.
Mar 202023
 

Madagascar’s best known distillery’s rums have been the subject of three reviews in these pages, stretching from 2014 to 2021, yet even now it is unclear whether this has made anyone sit up and pay attention. For the most part the rum drinkers’ attention remained resolutely with the Caribbean nations, or the new ones emerging elsewheresuggesting that while Madagascar was unusual, it was apparently not enough to make it a global seller.

With or without such widespread recognition, Dzama still exists, however, still releases rums (a lotRum-X lists 29 of them), and can still be found on shelves, and even has a prestige 15 Year Old out there. So clearly it’s doing well. The rum being looked at today is their so called “classic” white (as opposed to the two other “prestige” editions), and irrespective of developments elsewhere in the blanc world is a very slightly aged rumtwo to four weeks, apparently, with no further details on how this was achieved, or with what. The rum is also molasses based, column still distilled, released at 40%, and it ended up in Canada somehow, which is where I picked it up.

There’s little else of note here, so we can dive right in. Nose is peculiar: fragrant citrus soap starts things off, something reminiscent of Irish Spring; lots of vanilla, which is sort of a signature with Dzama (see biography below); citrus peel and sugar water make an appearance but the aroma lacks the herbals greenness that marks out an agricole rhum (which in any case this isn’t). I do like the distinct lemon meringue pie notes, which Mrs. Caner said reminded her of lemonade from Kyrgyz pears, which I mention because, y’know, I promised. These smells are not all that strong or distinct and can be best found in contradistinction to several other standard strength white blends (such as those I was trying that day).

Taste wise, the lemony and custard notes are more pronounced (so is the soap). It has a decent body, warm, not too rough or sharp, and there are hints of unsweetened yoghurt, laban, milk and a pie crust fresh from the oven. A touch more licorice and ginger and maybe some cinnamon, leading to a quiet and undemonstrative finish which is too short, too faint … and frustratingly just starts to show off a few fruity notes when it all vanishes without so much as a goodbye.

These comments might lead you to believe it’s something to walk away from, but not really: I’ve tasted worse of this kind. It’s different, reasonably tastykind of an alcoholic 7-Up, which I think is undone by the vanilla, that weird soap vibe, a bit too much sweet and too few real taste chops. Too, the general lack of cohesion of everything else makes for a disappointing sipping experience, and even for something so relatively unaggressive, it’s surprising how little rum comes through in the final analysisit more resembles a doctored ethanol rather than some sort of well made local drink which has potential to represent its land of origin. That’s a pity, yet the potential of the brand remains, as it always has, which is why I keep coming back to their products: so who knows, one day they might make a white unaged rum I can really get behind. For now, this Cuvée Blanche is interesting for the geography, but not so much for the experience of drinking it.

(#982)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Background notes

Madagascar is that huge island off the south east coast of Africa; and the Dzama rums are made by Vidzar, formed in 1980 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be in the north produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. He concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane.

[Now, the theory is that the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found on Madagascar (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example, so I reserve judgement on that score. All the Dzama rums I’ve tried have that question lurking in the background anyway, as to whether something was added to or not. Dzama firmly maintains no synthetic or artificial additions, but this still leaves the door open for natural ones; and according to Rhum Attitude, the Cuvee Prestige white is apparently a kind of filtered infused rum here, so who is to say something similar isn’t happening here?]

But anyway, Mr. Fohine formed a company he called Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), which initially concerned itself with whisky bottling. It was located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, near to a village called Dzamadzar, and a few years later, as their operations expanded, production was transferred to Antananarivo (the capital, in the centre of the island). The company, which now claims a majority of rum market share in Madagascar, makes a range of rums, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Millésimé 1998 10 Year Old, Dzama 15 and 25 year old rums and a Cuvée Noire, as well as three blanche rums and a raft of infused and spiced versions. Most of these are untried by the vast majority of rum drinkers, and remain relatively unknown, though some have won prizes between 2010 and 2015, in Miami, Paris, Berlin and Madrid. It may just be a marketing thing, or the inability to get out there and run around the festival circuit.


 

Mar 102023
 

The last two reviews were of products from a Scottish rum maker called Sugar House, who bootstrapped a hybrid pot still, a batsh*t crazy production ethos and somehow came out with two unaged rums that should not have succeeded as well as they did…but did; and blew my socks off. This is what happens when a producer, no matter how small or how new, takes their rum seriously, really loves the subject, and isn’t averse to tinkering around a bit, dispenses with the training wheels, and simply blasts off. Juice like this is the high point of the reviewing game, where you see something original, something good, not terribly well known outside its place of origin, and aren’t afraid to champion it.

Consider then the polar opposite, the yin to Sugar House’s yang, a contrasting product which sports a faux-nautical title (we can be grateful that it omits any mentions or pictures of pirates), a strength of 40% and not a whole lot else. Merchant Shipping Co.’s branded product is in fact, a third party rum“imported Caribbean white rum”put together by Highwood Distillery in Alberta (in Canada), which is probably better known for the surprisingly robust Potter’s (gained when they bought out that lonely distillery from BC in 2005) and the eminently forgettable Momento, which may be the single most unread post on this entire site. Here they didn’t make the rum, but imported it, (the AGLC website suggests it’s probably from Guyana, which Highwood deals in for its own stable), and made it on contract for exclusive sale in Liquor Depot and Wine & Beyond stores in western Canada.

Let me spare you some reading: it’s barely worth sticking into a cocktail, and I wouldn’t stir it with the ferrule of my umbrella. Merchant Shipping white rum is a colourless spirit tucked into a cheap plastic bottle, sold for twenty five bucks, and somehow has the effrontery (please God, let it not be pride) to label itself as rum. I don’t really blame Highwood for thisit’s a contract rum after allbut I’m truly amazed that a liquor store as large and well stocked as Wine & Beyond could put their name behind abominable bottom feeder stuff like this.

Because it’s just so pointless. So completely unnecessary. It smells on first opening and resting and nosing, like mothballs left too long in an overstuffed and rarely-opened clothes closet, where everything is old, long-disused, and shedding. It smells like rubbing alcohol and faint gasoline, and my disbelieving notes right out of the gate ask “Wtf is this?? My grandmother’s arthritis cream?” It is a 40% spirit, but I swear to you there’s not much in here that says rum to anyoneit’s seems like denatured, filtered, diluted neutral spirit…that’s then dumbed down just in case somebody might mistake it for a real drink.

The palate continues this disappointment (although I’m an optimist, and had hopes); it tastes thin and harsh, oily, medicinal, all of it faint and barely thereeven for living room strength there’s little to write home about: a lingering unpleasant back-taste of sardines and olive oil, offset by a single overripe pear garnished with a sodden slice of watery melon and a squished banana, and if there is more I’d have to imagine it. Finish is gone so fast you’d think it was the road runner’s fumes, minus the comedy.

I can’t begin to tell you how this tasteless, useless, graceless, hopeless, classless, legless rum annoys me. Everything that could have given the spirit real character has been stripped away and left for dead. I said it was unnecessary and meant it: because you could pour the whole bottle down the drain and go to sleep knowing you’d never missed a thingyet it’s made, it’s on shelves, it sells, and a whole generation of young Canadians who can afford nothing else will go to their graves thinking this is what rum is and avoid it forever after. That’s what the implication of this thing is, and that’s the one thing it’s good at.

(#979)(65/100) ⭐½


Opinion

It gives me no pleasure to write reviews that slam a homegrown productbecause homegrown products are what give a country or an island or a territory or an acreage its unique selling point, its mental and physical terroire. That’s what’s wrong with this faux, ersatz “Caribbean” rum, because there’s absolutely nothing that says Canada here at all (let alone rum, and certainly not the Caribbean) and as noted above, it’s an import (a near neutral spirit import at that, apparently).

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear, one of those areas where there is serious potential for putting one’s country on the map lies in rums that don’t go for the least common denominator, don’t go for the mass-market miscellaneous dronish supermarket shelves, and certainly don’t go for the profit-maximizing-at-all-costs uber-capitalist ethos of the provincial liquor monopolies who could give a damn about terroire or real taste chops. It’s the blinkered mentality of them and the stores who follow it that allows rum like this to be made, as if the French rhum makers, global cane juice distillers, and the UK New Wave haven’t shown us, time and again, that better could be done, has been doneand indeed, should be done.


Other notes

  • There’s no tech sheet to go with the rum and nothing on the label, but I think it’s fair to say no self-respecting pot still ever made a rum like this, so, column still. Also, molassess based. It is probably aged a bit and then filtered, and my guess is less than a year.
Mar 062023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#978)(90/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


 

Feb 242023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#975)(88/100)

Dec 222022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#956)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Nov 272022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#954)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • It’s not stated but as far as I know, it’s Worthy Park distillate.
  • “Cuvée Daniel” refers to (L’Esprit’s owner and founder) Tristan Prodhomme’s second son; the Diamond “Cuvée Edgar” MPM unaged white referred to his first. He made these rums to commemorate them, which I think is a sweet gesture.
  • As always, I must commend the sleek little sample bottles L’Esprit favours, which fit nicely into a presentation box and are just cool as all get out.
  • Pot Still, 279-bottle outturn. Rested between July 2019 to October 2020 in inert tanks.
Nov 032022
 

Tanduay, in spite of being a behemoth of rum making in Asia (it sold nearly 23 million cases in 2021) with more than a 150-year history, has a spotty recognition in the west, largely because until relatively recently it sold most of its wares in Asia, and wasn’t all that common, or available anywhere else. What knowledge or reviews of the brand as existed, came from people who had friends in the Philippines who could bring a bottle over, or sip there on a sunny beach and write about the experience. And other Philippine brands like Limtuaco or Don Papa didn’t exactly set the world on fire and make sharp nosed distributors run to book tickets to the Philippine islands: because there as in much of Asia, a lighter, softer, sweeter and more laid back rum-style is much more in vogue.

But once people realised that Don Papa (in particular) was selling quite nicely in spite of all the hissy fits about sweetening, and saw other brands’ adulterated fare were not really hurt by all the vitriol emanating from social media’s rum clubs, it was inevitable that Tanduay would make sure it expanded into more lucrative markets and try and upgrade its sales to the premium segment, where the real pesos are. This is why, even though they began selling in North America from around 2013 (with a gold and a silver rum, probably as an alternative to Bacardi’s Blanco and Gold rums and their copycats), there’s been an increasing visibility of the brand in the European rum festival and tasting scene only since 2019, with more aged products becoming part of the marketing mix.

The rum we’re looking at today is not really in the premium world, though the Rum Howler suggested in his 2019 review that it was positioned that way. It’s actually a blend of oak-aged rums of no more than five years old, and it’s semi-filtered to a pale yellow (this could equally mean it’s a blend of aged and unaged stocks like the Probitas/Veritas but I doubt it). Molasses base from a “heritage” sugar cane, column still, 40%. Nothing premium or spectacular on the face of it.

The completely standard nature of its production belies some interesting if ultimately unexciting aromas. It’s soft, which is to be expected, and a touch briny. Some vanilla and coconut shavings are easy to discern, and these are set off by pears and green apples, ripe gooseberries and a touch of citrus peel. It’s an easy smell, with the combination of soft sweetness, light sour notes and tartness coming together nicely.

Taste-wise it’s light, easy, warm-weather drinking, with the standard proofage making it hard to pick out anything particularly hard-hitting or complex. There’s vanilla, almonds, papaya and watermelon to start, and these are joined with the aforementioned grapes and apples and some tartness of sour, unripe green mangoes and citrus peel. In the background there’s some coconut, light molasses and sweet spices; but really, it’s all so faint that the effort is not commensurate with the reward, and the near-nonexistent light finishsweet and lightly fruitydoesn’t help matters. It’s light enough so it can be had neat. The character, however, is too bland and it would be overwhelmed by anything you put bit into (including the ice cube), so it’s probably best to just mix it with a cocktail where the rum profile is the background, not the point.

This is a rum that competes with the Plantation Three-Star, Bacardi and Lamb’s white rums, the Havana Club 3 YO, Beenleigh 3 YO and others of that ilk, which serve as basic cocktail mixing rums with occasional flashes of better-than-expected quality popping up to surprise us (like the Montanya Platino or the Veritas, for example). The Tanduay Silver does not, however, play in the sandbox of agricoles or unaged white rums we’ve looked at before, and to my mind, they bowed to their cultural preferences and aged it to be as soft and easy as it iswhen an unaged, higher-strength product might have shown more chops and character, and displayed more courage in a market that is aching to have more such rums.

(#947)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • On both the Philippine and US company websites, there is no sign of the pale yellow “Silver” rum I’ve tried; it seems to be for European markets only, as the other two are resolutely colourless in their pictures, and named “white”. The specifications all seem to be the same: a lightly filtered, column-still blend of young rums under five years old.
Oct 242022
 

A kokuto shochu, one of the oldest spirits made in Japan, derives from unrefined sugar (kokuto) and in that sense it straddles an uneasy and somewhat undefined territory between agricole-style and molasses-based rums. Nosing the clear spirit demonstrates that: it opens with a lovely crisp agricole type brine and sweet alcohol, channelling sweet soda popFanta, 7-Up, a bit of funk, a bit of citrus; and then adds a pot still kind of funkiness to the mix, like the aroma of fresh glue on a newly installed carpet, paint, varnish, and a lota lotof fresh, light, tart, fruity notes. Guavas, Thai mangoes, strawberries, light pineapples, mixed fruit ice cream, yoghurt. Yamada Distillery makes two shochus and this is the one they call “Intense”based solely on how it smells, I believe them.

The taste is, in a word, light. There’s a reason for this which I’ll get to in a moment, but the bottom line is that this is a spirit to drink neat and drink easy because the flavours are so delicate that mixing it would shred any profile that a neat pour would lead you expect. It’s faint, it’s sweet, it’s extremely light, and what I think of when trying it is the soft florals of cherry blossoms, hibiscus; herbs like thyme and mint, mixed up with light yellow and white fruits, cherries, grapes. It’s enormously drinkable, and beats the hell out of any indifferently made 40% blanco in recent memory…and if the finish is practically nonexistent, well, at least there are some good memories from the preceding stages of the experience.

There’s a good reason for its lightness, its sippabilityand that’s because it’s a mere 30% ABV. By rum standards, where the absolute lower limit is 37.5% before heading into liqueur country, that disqualifies it from being considered a rum at all: even if we were to accept the dual fermentation cycle and its unrefined sugar base, to the rum-drinking world that strength is laughable. I mean, really?….30%??! One could inhale that in a jiffy, down a bottle without blinking, and then wash it down with a Malibu.


Consider the provenance and specs, and park the ABV for a moment. It comes from the Amami islands in southern Japan (between Kagoshima and Okinawa), made by a tiny, family run distillery on Oshima Island 1that has existed for three generations, since 1957 — that’s considered medium old by the standards of the islands, where firms can either be founded last year, or a century ago. Perhaps they are more traditional than most, because there are no on-site tastings, no distillery sales, and no websiteit seems to be a rare concession for them to even permit tours (maximum of five people), and have as much as a twitter and instagram account.

But that aside, the Nagakumo Ichiban Bashi is practically handmade to demonstrate terroire. The brown sugar is local, from Oshima, not Okinawa, and that island. They distil in a single pass, in a pot still. The resultant is rested, not aged (at least, not in the way we would understand it), in enamelled steel tanks for several years in a small solera system. And the resultant is really quite fascinating: similar enough to a rum not to lose me, and different enough to pique my interest. Even at its wobbly proof point, the whole thing has a character completely lacking in those anonymous, androgynous, filtered whites that sell everywhere.

Shochus generally, and kokuto shochus in particular, must, I think, be drunk and appreciated on their own level, with an understanding of their individual social and production culture. It is useful to come at them from a rum perspective, but perhaps we should give them space to be themselves, since to expect them the adhere to strength and profile of actual rums is to misunderstand the spirit.

Admittedly therefore, the low strength makes the shochu rate a fail when rated by western palates accustomed to and preferring sterner stuff. My personal feeling is that it works on its own level, and that nose, that lovely, robust, floral, aromatic nose…I mean, just smell that thing a few more timesit makes up for all its faintness of the palate. Perhaps the redeeming feature of the shochu is that you can channel your inner salaryman after work, sip and drink this thing multiple times, still not get a debilitating buzz on, and still find some notes to enjoy. There aren’t too many cask strength rums that allow you to do that.

(#945)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The LMDW entry for this shochu says it is made partly from Thai rice to which muscovado sugar is then added. This is wrong. The koji mould which is used for primary fermentation is developed on Thai rice. But rice is not used as a source of the wash.
  • Shochu is an entire spirit to itself, and kokuto shochu is a subset of that. For the curious there is a complete backgrounder available, with all sources noted.
  • The name on the label, 3S, is a Japanese concern that deals primarily in shochu (the three “S” moniker stands for “Super Shochu Spirits”) where they act as an independent bottler. They are a subsidiary of G-Bridge company, which is a more general trading house established in 2006.
  • I feel that the sugar cane derivative base of kokuto makes it part of the rum family. An outlier, true, but one which shares DNA with another unrefined-brown-sugar-based spirit such as we looked at with Habitation Velier’s jaggery-based Amrut, and the panela distillates of Mexico. If it doesn’t fall within our definitions then we should perhaps look more carefully at what those definitions are and why they exist. In any case, there are shochus out there that do in fact got to 40% and above. It suggests we pay attention to such variationsbecause we could, in all innocence, be missing out on some really cool juice.
Oct 032022
 

The full name of this rum is the “Barikenn ‘81.6’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc de Guadeloupe (Montebello). I imagine that just trying to say the whole thing in one breath distracts somewhat from the fact that this is one of the most powerful rums of recent memory (yes, I know there are others that eclipse itI made the list, after all), and if one loses focus and takes it too lightly then one might just find oneself being blasted into next week.

Most of us know something about Montebello, but who is Barikenn? At first I thought it was a lesser-known brand name from the small distillery on Guadeloupe from which the rhum hailsthe principle is not unheard of, after all. I was then corrected by a gent on Instagram who pointed out very politely that it was a French indie bottler, namely himself, Nicholas Marx (no relation to Karl), and the company was named after an old spelling variant of barrique, or barrel, in Breton. He founded the Brittany-based independent bottling outfit in 2019 in order to share his passion for high quality full-proof rums, free from adulterants and completely transparentand while he did not explicitly state it, I get the impression that until recently his market was primarily regional (much like Tristan Prodhomme of L’Esprit, which is also in Brittany, began his own operations).

If he felt that staying small was going to last, the reception of his bottlings soon disabused him of such notions. Starting out in 2019 with a pair of well regarded Foursquare and Worthy Park rums, he added a Guyanese 8 YO the following year which WhiskyFun rated 91 points … and people started to take notice. 2021 was when things got really interesting, because aside from a Mauritius and Fiji addition to the roster, he dabbled in water not many indies would dare to, so soon: unaged, white, column-still cane-juice rhum…at still strength (I amuse myself by wondering if he was taking a cue from Tristan’s high proofed South Pacific and Diamond whites). I bought a bottle in Berlin last year, and gingerly tasted it, feeling as nervous as on my first date all those years ago and with good reasonrums north of 80% can rearrange your insides, if not treated with care.

Nosing it makes the point quite clearly, because even a small and delicate sniff is like stuffing an oversalted maggi-cube up your nose, or snorting a spoonful of marmite seasoned with extra cayenne. I’m aware that this is a peculiar way for any rum reviews’s nose section to start but stay with me…it does develop. After a while one can sense lemon-infused sugar water, dish washing soap, tart pears, cranberries and red currants. A little rubber, a few acetones, a touch of vinegar (or sweet cider), and the notion one is left with after a few minutes, is one of commendable restraint in something so notionally powerful. Unlike, say, the Marienburg, the Wild Tiger or the Sunset Very Strong, the aromas on this Barikenn aren’t out to trample you flat (and then stomp on the pieces) but seem genuinely relaxed and easier than one might expect..

The taste is large, round and strong, for sure, but not, thankfully, harsh. Initial tastes are dirty, earthy, salty, yeasty, bread-y, quite pungently so, and the added marmite and vegetable soup flavours may not be to everyone’s taste. However, after some time these recede and give way to the fruit basket: bananas, red currants, strawberries, bubble gum, some pineapple slices, which leaves me wondering where this was hiding when I was smelling it. It does do somewhat better with some water, adding sweet and sour chicken, soya sauce, brine and a sort of sparkly and intense fruity note, plus plastic, brine and acetones, in a nice mix. It all leads to a long and sharp finish redolent of resin, plastic, unripe green fruits that’s really too thin and lacks heft…yet nothing I could genuinely warn you away from.

The whole thing just works. The whole experience is one of intensity, power and puissance which falters a bit at the end, yet the tastes are so pungent and deep that all I could think was that this is what the Marienburg could have aspired to, because the strength does not actually detract here as it did there: it just needs to be handled with some care and patience.

These days it seems there is some kind of obscure, unstated and never-acknowledged race to the top for these unaged white rums. Blending and filtration are lesser concerns, and it’s all about finding a rum that’s exceptional straight off the stillsomething raw and undiluted, a no-age ultra-proofed Sam Jackson style m*f*er that’s made to show it’s the meanest, the baddest and the tastiest, a rhum which can take out Mace Windu without busting a sweat or resorting to force lightning. The Barikenn Montebello is as serious and as tasty a white rum as you’ll have all year, proofed up and jacked up to a level of taste intensity that ensures you don’t just get the point…you get the whole kitchen sink as well.

(#940)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • 300 bottle outturn. The rhum was (column) distilled in 2019, rested in inert steel tanks, and bottled in 2021.
  • Source of the cane juice is single variety “red cane” which reputedly has exceptional taste qualities.
  • Barikenn has released another variation of this rhum in 2022, but at a milder 52ºit’s from the same 2019 batch.
Sep 262022
 

The Havana Club 3 Year Old Cuban rum (the one distributed by Pernod Ricard) is a delicately light cream shaded spirit, and one of those workhorses of the bartending circuit, much loved and often referenced by drinkers and mixologists from all points of the compass. That it’s primarily utilised in making mojitos or daiquiris and other such cocktails in no way dampens the enthusiasm of its adherents, with only occasional grumbles about access (by Americans) and how it may or may not compare against the Selvarey or the Veritas (Probitas) or any Jamaican of one’s acquaintance.

It’s been around almost forever, and if it was more versatile might even have made Key Rum status. However, as various comments here and here make clear, the consensus of opinion is that it’s best as a mixing rum (when not dismissed as being “only a mixing rum”). It bypasses the single barrel high proof ethos of today and remains very much was it always was, a blended rum that’s molasses based, column-still distilled, aged for three years in white oak, released at 40% ABV, and all done in Cuba. I gather it sells well and has remained a staple of cocktail books and bars both private and commercial.

When nosed it’s clear why the opinions are what they are. It smells quite creamy, but does have some claws. Aromas of vanilla, coconut shavings, almonds, and leather are there, and it’s the developing tart fruitred currants, tangerine rind, unripe applesand citrus that are its signature and which everyone comments on. I don’t find the citrus particularly heavy or overwhelming, just enough to make themselves felt. Overall, the nose is pretty much what I would expectlight, crisp and a bit weak.

The palate is somewhat more interesting, though it does start off as sharp and astringent as a Brit’s sense of humour. It feels a bit thin and the flavours need effort to tease out (that’s the 40% speaking). The citrus is more pronounced here, as are a few bitter notes of coffee grounds, tannins and toasted chestnuts. These are balanced off by vanilla, a lemon meringue pie and an oddly evocative wet hint of steaming air after a rain in the summer. At all times it is light and very crisp and could even have been an agricole were it not for the lack of the grassy herbals. And a comment should be spared for a delicate, short, dry and surprisingly smooth finish, even if it doesn’t bring much to the table beyond those notes already described above.

Clearing away the dishes, then, the HC 3 YO has its strengths and plays to those and stays firmly within its wheelhouse: ambition is not its thing and the rum doesn’t seek to change the world. Personally, having sipped it solo and then had it in a mix (I’m not a cocktail making swami by any stretch, so that duty is Mrs. Caner’s, because she really is), I think that while individually the elements of nose, palate and finish seem to be at odds and growl at each other here and there, in aggregate they cohere quite nicely. By that standard, it’s really quite a decent piece of work, one that deserves its “bartender classic” status….though to repeat, a neat pour is not really its forte, or my own preference in this instance.

(#938)(78/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Daniel G, a co-worker in my part of the world (which I can’t specifically identify for obvious reasons), who spotted me a generous sample from a bottle he had.
Sep 122022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#936)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum continues to be made on a column still, from molasses. Its predecessor was from cane juice and I always suspected it had a touch of pot still high ester juice sneaked in. I had no such feeling here, obviously. The company website states that the current 38% “standard” Blanc does indeed have some of that pot still distillate added to it.
  • A biography of the company, last updated in 2021 can be found here.
  • The label has changed from the original 72% version, and its lesser-proofed successor which had a big “69” front and center on the label. I think this version was begun around 2020. The wordBaywas also dropped from the labelling at around this time.
Aug 282022
 

[In the US] there are a small number of rum distilleries, and a large number of distilleries making rum, observed Will Hoekinga in our 2021 Rumcast interview, indirectly pointing to the paucity of quality American rum making. A corresponding remark I have made myself is that if the random picking of American rums to review results in just a minute percentage being really worth seeking out then the characteristics of the part can be extrapolated to the wholeand both together suggest that of the 600+ distilleries in the United states, only a handful are currently worthy of attention.

This is not a random pronouncement made without facts in evidence either, because after trying half a hundred rums with US branding, it’s clear that the best rums sold there are either imports from elsewhere by local indies (Holmes Cay, Stolen Overproof, Hamilton, Two James, K&L) or smaller distillers like Richland, Pritchard’s, Balcones, Privateer, Maggie’s Farm, or Montanya. For sure none of the big guns like Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Cruzan really go for the brass ring, being much happier to avail themselves of millions of subsidised dollars to make low cost rum of no serious distinction. And other rum makers like Kirk and Sweeney, One-Eyed Spirits, or Florida Caribbean Distillers contract out their blends and rums to other distilleries and can hardly be said to have a single world-shattering product in their lineup.

One of the best-regarded distilleries carrying the rum flag without mixing it up with other spirits (and getting loads of press for this and other more social aspects of the job) must surely be the small Colorado-based outfit of Montanya, which was established in 2008 and whose founder, Karen Hoskin, may be one of the most interviewed rum makers in the world after Richard Seale, Joy Spence and Maggie Campbell. Without even checking too hard I found articles here, here, here, here and here, dating back a decade or more, all of them displaying the same down to earth common sense, practicality and dedication to her craft that one sees too rarely in a land where too often the coin of the realm is visibility, not expertise (or, heaven forbid, a good rum).

Ms. Hoskin, who has loved rum for decades (the first rum she became enamoured with was in India in 1999 – I think she was visiting Goa), decided to begin her own distillery business at a time when her day job of graphic and web design was no longer of much interest. She and her husband set up the distillery in Crested Butte in 2008 with a 400-litre direct-fire Portuguese-made copper pot still1, and immediately began producing two rumsa Platino Light white and a lightly aged Oro dark; these two staples have been joined in the intervening year by the a limited edition Exclusiva, a 4YO Valentia, and a special 10th Anniversary edition. By 2018 their rums were available in just about every US state and they had started on a program of international distribution, especially in the UK and Europe.

The Platino which we are looking at today, is a lightly-aged, filtered, pot still white rum, released at an inoffensive 40%, without any additives or messing around, and it is based on a wash made from raw unprocessed sugar from Louisiana (i.e., unrefined…but not the “sugar cane” that some external sources speak of). Initially the rum also had a touch of caramelised cane juice honey added to it (which was always disclosed), but as of 2021 the practise has been discontinued.

For a company so otherwise forward-looking, I find this oddly conservative. For example, although there is an emergent strain elsewhere in the world, of making (if not showing off) white rums that are pure and unaged, it has yet to become a thing in America, where most white rums follow the Bacardi model of “filtration to white” after a short period of ageing. The rationale is that this gives the best of both worlds: some taste from the wash source, and some from the barrel, with none so stark as to overpower the cocktail for which it is made. This glosses over the fact that with industrial stills producing very high ABV distillate, the former is very unlikely, on top of which filtration also removes some of the very flavour elements distillers claim to be after. In Montanya’s case with the Platino, they have gotten around this by using pot stills so that more flavour is preserved at the other end, and a pine-based lenticular filter which removes most (but not all) of the colour, and yet not quite so much of the taste.

What taste does remain and gets carried forward on the nose, is, in a single word, intriguing. Though the rum is made from unrefined sugar, little of any kind of agricole style sap-profile comes throughinstead, what we get is a papery cardboard aroma of old and tattered textbooks…at least, at the inception. This is followed by quite a bit of funky sharp pineapples and sour fruithalf ripe mangoes, strawberries going off, some overripe oranges, that kind of thing. It gradually turns into a more solid smell that channels some cinnamon, vanilla and cardamom in a pretty good combination.

The palate just wants to keep the offbeat party going, and starts with an odd sort of minerally notelike a licking a penny, or tonic water searching for a limemixed up with the ashy charcoal of dying embers on a cold night (I know, right?). Once more the fruits ride to the rescue: mangoes, soursop, pineapples (again), plus pears, watermelon and papaya. There’s a touch of vanilla, figs and melons, and the whole is sparkly and light, with a more pronounced (but not overbearing) agricole-ness to the experience than the nose had suggested there would be. It all leads to a short finish, light and fruity with just a hint of brine and sweet buns hot out of the oven

My overall feeling, having had it on the go for the best part of an hour, remains one of real interestI’d like to try more of these; since all of Montanya’s production is small batch, the variation of the Platino over time would be fascinating to experience. This is not some cheap, easygoing, hot-weather cruise-ship staple, indifferently made and lazily redolent of the Caribbean’s standard profile of caramel, fleshy fruit and vanilla. We’ve had that a thousand times before and they’re too often all but interchangeable.

No, what we’re seeing here is traces of real originality. The Platino marries a sort of bizarre agricole-wannabe vibe with minerally notes, cereals and cardboardthen mixes them all up with sharp and funky fruits, as if it was playing its own obscure tasting game of rock-paper-scissors. In my reviews, a high score does not normally attend a light, white, living-room-strength, filtered rumone where a higher proof could emphasise its points more forcefullybut I confess to being somewhat seduced with this one. It’s really worth checking out, and if there ever comes an unaged version, now that would be something I’d buy sight unseen..

(#933)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website is admirably stuffed with production details, of which I have only taken a few bits and pieces. Some additional details provided by a very helpful Ms. Hoskin on short notice:
    • Montanya does not use fresh cane juice, as it is too difficult to transport from Lula in Louisiana. It is milled on site in Belle Rose and the fresh juice is processed there. Montanya receives 100% of what was in the cane plant in two separate forms which are subsequently recombined: raw unrefined molasses (12%) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%). The major difference is that these cane products never go to the refinery, so no processing with flocculants or other chemicals. It’s as raw, unadulterated and flavorful as you can get (and is akin to the panela of Mexico, or the unrefined sugar in kokuto shochu in Japan). It would be illegal to sell it in that form in a grocery store in the US.
    • Fermentation is open, water cooled, and lasts 6-7 days. The fermented wash goes into the still at about 17% ABV
    • Distillate comes off the still at about 74% ABV. Ms. Hoskin remarked in her email to me, “People say that can’t be done with alembics, but I am here to say it absolutely can.
    • Barrelling is at still strength, no reduction. “[This]…is somewhat unusual. Many of my colleagues water their distillate down before it goes into the barrel at about 54 to 58% alcohol. I started doing it my way because I just didn’t have a big enough rack house, but now that I do, I can’t see any reason to change.
  • My appreciation to the Skylark gents of Indy and Jazz Singhthe distributors of Montanya in the UK and the EUat whose residence I tried this rum (and quite a few others) in a small but epic Rum Show afterparty. I paid for my plunder with some rum loot of my own, and a special gift for them both from Mrs. Caner.
Aug 012022
 

It’s been years since I looked at any of the rums of Barbados’s boutique micro-distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey. This is not for want of interest, reallyjust opportunity. Plus, I had enthusiastically reviewed most of the original three-rum 81012 YO lineup (later expanded to five with the additions of the 5 and 15 YO), and felt no immediate need to search for and buy and try progressively aged and more expensive expressions like the 18, 20 and 23 year-olds that kept on coming out the door at standard strengthsooner or later one of them would cross my path, I told myself.

As the years progressed they remained at the back of my mind, however, and after 2017 I got interested all over again. Because in that year they released the 60% overproof whiteand since I had quite liked the original 40% version tasted the year before, with its cane juice and pot still origins, intriguing taste and gentle complexity, I hastened to try the OP at the first opportunity (which came at the 2022 TWE Rumshow). The overproof white is, like its lesser-proofed sibling, made from rendered cane juice (‘syrup’) then run through the pot still before being allowed to rest for three months in inert tanks, and then bottledthe current crop of 40% and 60% whites derive from the same source, it’s just that one is reduced and the other isn’totherwise, they are identical.

The standard white I tasted in 2016 had teetered on the edge of untameability, and walked a fine line between too little and too much. It was original, yet still felt something like a work in progress where the final vision had yet to snap into focus more clearly; this one was quite a bit better and it wasn’t only the extra proof. The thing smelled like a whole lot more was in there: sweet vanilla, sugar water, raspberries, cherries, and very little of the briny paraffin wax and floor polish that had marked out its predecessor. That was present, I hasten to mention, just kept firmly in the background, allowing the fruity flavours and congeners their moment to shine.

The palate was also well assembled, and holds up well; creamy hot sweet vanilla-flavoured cocoa drizzled over a four-fruit ice creamlet’s say mango, cherry, cranberries and pineapple. It didn’t come with a ton of complexityit was not that kind of rumwhat I got was, however, more than sufficient for Government work, and it was firm and warm and intense enough that I could sip it and get something reasonably complex, and near-delicious without having half my glottis abraded. The finish was suitably long and near-epic, mostly light fruits in a salad, some breakfast spices, a touch of cumin, and a green apple slice or two.

Clearly St. Nicholas Abbey have not rested on their laurels since I first ran across their wares back in 2011, or even since I sampled the initial white they made. The profile of the overproof is one that continues to work well for a rum that can be both mixer and sipper, and it straddles the divide neatly. Best of all, it’s well made enough that it never seems to be a binary decision, but one that’s entirely up to the drinker and will satisfy either way, because it’s one of those rums with the “overproof” moniker that doesn’t have to be endured, just enjoyed.

(#926)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Previous reviews of the St. Nicholas Abbey range of rums provide most of the backstory to the estate and the rum-making operation. It remains (as of 2022) the smallest of the island’s distilleries.
Jul 182022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

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

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

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

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

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


Other notes

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

 

Jun 132022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#915)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

 

Apr 182022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#900)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#898)(70/100) ⭐⭐


Notes on nomenclature

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

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

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

This leads us to two possibilities.

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

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