Oct 052022
 

Even after the decade I’ve spent writing about Velier’s rums, the company still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat and surprise me when I least expect it, and the new Habitation Velier Amrut rum from India is this year’s contender for the rum I most wanted to try, the moment I saw Steve Magarry’s post about it on FB in September of 2022 (it popped up at Paris’s WhiskyLive a week later). Because, consider what a singular rum this is, and how many fascinating strands of the rum world it pulls together:  

It’s a pot still rum, from the HV line (which as you know, I consider a hugely important one) and an intersection with La Maison du Whisky’s “Antipodes” line of spirits – and therefore suggests, as the Indian Ocean series also did, that there is a move by independent bottlers to go further afield to new and unexplored territory in sourcing their barrels1.

In that vein, then, it’s also the only independent bottling of a rum from India itself that has crossed my path since Alt-Enderle’s “India” rum from Germany, back in 2014 (and that one was questionable). And it’s also not made by some no-name, just-opened small distillery with a single small pot still run by a pair of young enthusiastic backpacking European exiles, but a major whisky making house (one that my buddy in Calgary, Curt Robinson, just loves) which makes a popular rum line of its own. 

Thirdly, and perhaps as important, it highlights an emergent (and still relatively small) trend towards using other sources of sugar cane and its derivatives to make rum – in this case it’s not juice, not molasses, not vesou or ‘honey’, but the unrefined, nutrient-rich sugar known as jaggery.  We have met it before from India and always from the same company that makes this rum: Amrut (though I sometimes suspect Old Monk from Mohan Meakin may also use it). And yet even to say jaggery is only used (or made) in India is incorrect, because unrefined sugar of this kind is made around the world. In the Philippine Cordilleras it is inti, in Malaysia it is known as gula melaka and Thailand as namtan tanode; it’s used in making kokuto shochu in Japan and charandas in Mexico (where it called panela), and in both these latter cases the resultant is, while recognizably a rum, also different and completely fascinating. 

Years ago I heard stories about Luca wandering around India when the Indian Ocean series was being assembled in 2018, and there were always rumours that the series was never meant to be just two bottlings: but he never found the proper rums from major distilleries in India that he felt warranted inclusion – they were not pot still, not interesting enough, had additions, were too young, or whatever.  Yet clearly he had identified something at that stage and it was simply not ready then, because the Bangalore-based distillery of Amrut gave him a single barrel of pure jaggery-based rum to bottle in 2022, and this is it. Pot still, 62.8%, 7 years old, ex-bourbon barrel aged, aged in India. And it’s really quite something.

If aroma had a colour, I’d call this “gold”. It smells like a warm tropical evening with the dappled and fading light breaking through the trees in orange and yellow-brown. It’s a high ABV rum, sure, yet all one gets on that nose is ease and relaxation, molasses, vanilla, coconut shavings, coffee grounds, some freshly sawn wood and the firmness of an anvil wrapped in a feather blanket. There are also some fruits hovering around the edges of awareness – a mix of oranges, sugar cane, fleshy stoned fruit (very ripe) and spices like cumin, cinnamon and thyme held way way back, with just enough making it through to tease. It’s one of those rums that invites sustained nosing.

The taste presents more crisply, with somewhat more force, which I argue is exactly the way it should be. Like other Indian rums I recall, it shows off honey, maple syrup, licorice for the sweet stuff, then balances that with the freshness and tartness of pineapple, strawberries, ripe peaches and apricots a fat ripe yellow mango bursting with juice, and an intriguing line of spices (cumin and cinnamon), minerals and light ashiness that together are just different enough to excite, while not so strong as to derail the experience. Attention should also be drawn to a really nice and long finish, which has the sweet and salt of a caramel-laden latte, but is mostly musky and fruity, with some cinnamon, brine, light florals and brown sugar. 

LMDW Catalogue Entry (c) LMDW (click to expand)

A rum like this has to navigate a fine line, since it is not made for indigenous consumers or drinkers from the diaspora — like Amrut’s Two Indies or Old Port Deluxe (or the Old Monk itself, for that matter) — in a region where additives and spicing up do not attract quite the same opprobrium as they do elsewhere. It’s aimed at a western audience which is likely to be unfamiliar with such products and has its own criteria, and so an unadded-to spirit which is clearly a rum is a must…yet at the same time it must also present its own artisanal nature and country’s distilling ethos to show its differences from western-hemisphere rums. It can’t be just another Caribbean rum-wannabe, but its own product, made its own way, hewing to its makers’ ideals and own local tastes.

By that standard, all I can say is it succeeded swimmingly.  I thought it was an amazing, new, fresh and all-round tasty rum, one that was familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthral, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they were all quite top notch. It was a rum I wish I could have had more of right there. Habitation Velier’s Amrut may not point the way to a third major source of rum raw materials, and never be more than a niche market product as it is – rum folks are as clannish as the Scots when clinging to their favourites – yet I think we may be witnessing another front being opened in the ever widening battle to make rums more interesting, more global, more unique — and, at end, perhaps even more respected. At the very least, even if none of those things appeal or interest you, try the rum itself, just for itself, as it is.  It’s really damned fine.

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn.  This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Sep 142022
 

Based on really really true events, which may or may not be factual….

“A column still can produce this!” smirked Indy as he poured me a generous dram of the seven year old SBS Antiguan hooch and handed it over, daring me to refuse and making sure my head was bowed and cap reverently doffed. I imagine he would not have been displeased with some genuflection, so chuffed was he – and others – with this rum.  

I considered my glass carefully, pen poised over the famed Little Black Book of Tasting Notes, trying to focus yet also look everywhere at once, because I was in the basement bar of The Proofing Room in London, there was a lot going around me at the same time, a ton of rum chums were in attendance, and the rum was quite a handful to unpack at short notice.

I had landed in the UK a few hours before (two hours late), scampered to my fleabag hotel, dumped my stuff, ran over the road to TWE to get some tasting glasses (shout out to Kelvin who was super helpful and fun to hang with in the short time I had there), then back out to meet the my vagrant itinerant friend Richard Nicholson (of NZ Rum Society fame) at the Black Parrot rum bar, and then, after sampling five or six rums, we high-tailed it over to the ‘Room where Kris Von Stedingk was magisterially holding forth on the new 2022 range of rums released by the Danish outfit of 1423. I was out of breath even before sidling in.

The joint was peppered with Visiting Royalty of Rum Geekdom: Dan Greifer was tending bar, Andrew Nicolls was feverishly making daiquiris with rum from his own brand of William George, Kit Carruthers of Ninefold was soaking up info and a glass with equal gusto, Keegan Menezes was down at the back, Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits darting around making sure everyone had a charged glass, Vicki Ilankovan of Sated Online was mingling with her trademarked vivacity and energy, while others were calling hellos and pressing the flesh from all corners of the bar. And as Kris was in fine form with his presentation and we were derailing his spiel, Richard and I guiltily avoided his disapproving glare and snuck down to the back where the hoods huddle, and set up shop there.

I was glad it was the Antigua I started with, because that island’s distillery has been making great strides in its own experimental small batch production, dating right back to the work they were doing with the sherry cask edition back in 2016.  What I had here was a rum they sold to 1423 – that Danish outfit, you’ll recall, which is part owned by Josh Singh, the benevolent buddha of badass we left at Paris’s Maria Loca bar in 2019 but who went AWOL for this one. Antigua Distillers not only produced the subject of my very first review (the 1981 English Harbour 25YO) but has a new high-congener, full-proofed rum of its own that is supposedly off the scale and which I’ve been lusting after ever since it was released. This rum was one of its progeny.

I tried to listen to Kris rattle off the specs for the rum because he was an interesting and engaging speaker, but the serious rum convo (i.e., the “party”) in my corner was so loud (which was all Richard’s fault, I swear, the guy is just so noisy!) that I could barely hear him, and evidently Kris couldn’t either because he shouted at us to pipe down in best Ratzo style — “I’m workin’ here!” — so he could keep with the program and inform the populace and maybe sell some damned rum. We all flipped him the bird and shouted cheerfully ribald insults, then shut up. I started nosing, and then scribbling. Even at play, the ‘Caner has to work sometimes, alas.

The nose of this kinetically powered 64.9% ex-bourbon-barrel aged rum was aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated once again that well assembled column still rums can be the equal of any other kind (even if just one barrel’s outturn).  It smelled of vanilla ice cream, bubble gum, strawberries and an amazingly pungent mix of both light and heavier fruits like watermelon, green apples, grapes, peaches, and plums.  Into this was interspersed more neutral aromas of bananas, pears and papaya, and a sort of rich whipped cream that would drive a cat to ecstasy. Even with the distractions of more rums, more mixes and the loud hum of conversation, I was able to appreciate a real mastery of the craft with what came out of that bottle.

All this went into the Book with some haste, because things were moving fast, and the bar surface in front of me kept filling up with more and new glasses that had to be guarded from the potential depredations of light-and-sticky-fingered rum enthusiasts (we are not known for respecting the finer points of personal property when it comes to the good stuff). Andrew, enthusiastic as anything, kept making more William George daiquiris (which were really good — but even a tippler as practised at pilfering as Richard had trouble keeping up with the rollout), and because Kris was moving smartly along with his presentation, Jazz and Indy continued bringing more and more SBS rums to us back-bench louts. Brazil, Denmark, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Antilles…we had a minor United Nations of Rum going on here. Every time they poured another sample — which joined its partners on the countertop in front of me in an ever-expanding lineup —  they observed how slow I was going, and regarded me with the sorrowful disappointment of skilled guilt-trippers – “What, Lance, is what we’re doing here not good enough for you?” “You don’t like SBS any more or what?” and (more cuttingly) “Eh eh, bai, I thought you were a pro, man!” (that stung).

I hastily concentrated on moving on to the taste, and here I must simply observe how vibrant and alive the rum was. Sharp — of course it was — and hot, yet that dissipated quickly, and the tastes were at all times there, thrumming, compelling, well defined and completely solid. And there were lots of them. Tart fruits notes of soft yellow mangos, soursop, ripe gooseberries, strawberries, dark cherries and almost overripe pineapple started the party off. These were balanced by nutty flavours combined with unsweetened chocolate, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee grounds and even a touch of herbs and spices (dill and cumin). Under it all was bananas and the creaminess of a sweet caramel latte which segued beautifully into a finish of epic duration, redolent of the sweetness of sugar cane, the muskiness of caramel and molasses, and the slight bitterness of freshly sawn lumber and ground coffee beans.

What’s amazing about the rum is how well it sips, even at that dramatic proof point. There’s no straining for effect, no sense of extra ageing or esterification added for your edification, no vulgar “let’s whip this out shall we?” backdam bragaddocio of codpieces compared (this sort of thing is left to visiting rum chums in seedy rumbars). It’s an astounding, amazing, astonishing rum, one where the initial experiments I tasted all those years ago seem have come to a kind of glorious fruition. I know the distillery has its own branded rums, ramped up, beefed up, torqued up, squirting esters and proofage in all directions, and I’ve been after those for ages.  Until I get one of them, however, this will be a more than adequate substitute. 

It was with some regret that I moved to other rums in the SBS’s lineup for the year – yet for the remainder of my time at the bar I kept a glass of this thing running, and eventually considered it the best of the lot, when it was all over. We laughed and talked and discussed rums and had a whole load of fun dissing each other, and finally the whole thing devolved into a raucous party and jam session which was then relocated to Trailer Happiness after we got chased out of the Proofing Room. Yet I remember this rum so well, even without the tasting notes.  It showed that English Harbour’s Catch of the Day rum from 2018 which I had also enjoyed and continue to regard as an underpriced steal, had been no accident.

So, to wrap up this overlong “review” let me sum up for those who like it brief. SBS’s 7 Year Old 2015 High Congener Antigua rum is frikken’ phenomenal and I’m just annoyed with myself for not grabbing the damned bottle out of Indy’s hands when I had the chance. He might have decked me, and maybe I would have left the bar with head held high and feet held higher…but man, it would have been worth it to get this thing.

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Initially, based on the lack of disclosed detail on the label and the product sheet, I thought this was not a high congener rum but after the first posting, both Joshua and Kris came up to confirm that yes, it was. “There was no particular reason” for the oversight, Josh said, but my money is on simple forgetfulness, because no sane marketing guy would leave such a juicy tidbit out.  So anyway, I went back and changed the post a little and amended the title to make mention of the fact.
May 192018
 

#513

The question of why Velier would want to issue a well-endowed, claw-equipped high-test like this, is, on the surface, somewhat unclear.  Because my own opinion is that this is not a product for the general marketplace. It’s not aimed at beginners, 40% strength lovers or those with a sweet tooth who have two of every edition of the Ron Zacapa ever made. It’s an utterly unaged cask strength white with serious strength one point short of 60%, to which is bolted a massive 537.59 g/laa of esters…that puts in the realm of the Rum Fire Jamaican white, and that one packed quite a bit of gelignite in its jock, remember? Aside from serious rum-junkies, ester-loving deep-dive geeks and Demerara-rum fanboys (I’m all of these in one), I wonder who would buy the thing when there are so many great independent offerings of an aged Demerara out there (many of which are Port Mourant still rums themselves).

Let’s see if the tasting notes can provide some insight. At 59% ABV, I was careful with it, letting it open for a while, and was rewarded with quite an impressive and complex series of aromas: rubber and plasticene, nail polish remover, followed by a combination of sugar water, brine, watermelon, pears, roasted nuts, plus a firm, crisp-yet-light fruitiness which the strength did not eviscerate.  That’s always something of a risk with high proof rums, whose intensity can obliterate subtler nuances of flavour on nose or palate.

Unaged rums take some getting used to because they are raw from the barrel and therefore the rounding out and mellowing of the profile which ageing imparts, is not a factor.  That means all the jagged edges, dirt, warts and everything, remain. Here that was evident after a single sip: it was sharp and fierce, with the licorice notes subsumed into dirtier flavours of salt beef, brine, olives and garlic pork (seriously!). It took some time for other aspects to come forward – gherkins, leather, flowers and varnish – and even then it was not until another half hour had elapsed that crisper acidic notes like unripe apples and thai lime leaves (I get those to buy in the local market), were noticeable. Plus some vanilla – where on earth did that come from?  It all led to a long, duty, dry finish that provided yet more: sweet, sugary, sweet-and-salt soy sauce in a clear soup. Damn but this was a heady, complex piece of work. I liked it a lot, really.

Reading those tasting note and looking at the stats of the rum, I think you’d agree this is not your standard table rum; maybe even one that only a madman or a visionary would try to make money from, when it’s so obviously stuffed with sleeping leopards. Who on earth would make this kind of thing; and then, having been made, who is addled enough to buy it? Drink it?  And why?

To answer those questions, it’s useful to look at the man behind the rum.  Luca Gargano, whose Five Principles are now the source of equal parts merriment and respect, doesn’t often say it in as many words, but obeys another: I call it the Sixth Rum Principle, and it suggests that Luca believes that rum should be made pure, fresh, organic, without additives of any kind from cane through to still.  If he had a choice, I’m sure he’s prefer to have wild yeast do the fermentation of a wash gathered in the bark of trees hollowed out by the latest hurricane.

But a codicil to the Principle is simply that a rum need not necessarily be aged to be good…even fabulous. Now for a man who selected and popularized the extraordinary Port Mourant series of aged rums, that seems like bizarre thing to say, but look no further than the clairins from Haiti which have made such a splash in the rumiverse over the last four years, or any of the unaged French Island whites, and you’ll see that may really be on to something.

And that leads to the intersection of the Port Mourants and the Principle. I’m sure Luca was perfectly aware of the quality and reputation of the PM 1972, PM 1974 and PM 1975….to say nothing of the later editions. “What I wanted to do,” he told me recently in that utterly sure, subtly evangelic voice he uses in rum festivals around the world, “Is demonstrate how the rum everyone likes and appreciates – the Port Mourants, Foursquares, Jamaicans – started life.  Okay, they’re not for everyone. But for those who really know the profiles of the islands’ rums blind, they can now see what such rums were before any ageing or any kind of cask influence.”

Drinking this rum shows what results from applying that principle. There’s a whole raft of these whites out in the market right now, distinguished by lovely drawings of the stills from which they originate. I’m not sure how they sell, or who’s buying them, or even if they are making a splash in the perceptions of the larger rum world.  All I know is it’s an amazing rum that one should try at least once, even if it’s just to appreciate for the one time how the raging cataracts of a Port Mourant distillate started out, before the torrent of taste calmed down, evened out…and flowed into the ocean of all the other great PMs we have learnt to know and appreciate over the years.

(88/100)

May 182016
 

Nine Leaves French 2

A love note to the concept of kaizen

It’s an old joke of mine that Nine Leaves’ staff consists of  a master blender, office assistant, purchasing agent, bottler, General Manager, brand ambassador and sales office, and still only has one employee.  This was and remains Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who single-handedly runs his company in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, and basically issues some very young rums (none are older than six months) on to the world market. The unaged whites in particular are getting all sorts of acclaim, and I have one to write about in the near future.

Back in December 2014 I wrote about the six-month-aged 2014 French Oak, which I thought intriguing and pleasant to drink, though still a bit raw and having some issues in the way the flavours blended together.  Running into Mr. Takeuchi again a year later, I made it a point to try that year’s production, the The American Oak “Spring 2015” and this “Autumn 2015” … and can happily report that Nine Leaves, in its slow, patient, incremental way, is getting better all the time (and as a probably unintended side-effect, has made me buy a few more Japanese rums from other companies just to see how they stack up).

Just a brief recap: the rum was distilled in a Forsythe copper pot still, double distilled, using sugar cane juice from cane grown in Okinawa, so the rum is an agricole in all but name. Mr. Takeuchi himself decides when and how to make the cuts so that the heart component is exactly what he wants it to be. The rums are then aged for six months in the noted barrels, which are all new, and lightly toasted, according to a note Mr. Takeuchi sent me..

Nine Leaves French 1

The French Oak “Autumn 2015” rum was a bit lighter in hue than the American Oak version I tried alongside it, and also a little easier on the nose…and smoother, even rounder to smell, in spite of its 48% strength. There was a subtly increased overall depth here that impressed – though admittedly you kinda have to try these side by side to see where I’m coming from.  Aromas of fanta, orange, cinnamon, vanilla were clear and distinct, as clean and clear as freshly chiselled engravings, and after a while, sly herbal and grassy notes began to emerge…but so little that one could be forgiven for forgetting this was an agricole at all. This was something I have enjoyed about Nine Leaves’s rums, that sense of simultaneous delicacy and heft, and the coy flirtation between molasses and agricole profiles, while tacking unobtrusively to the latter. 

The profile on the palate continued on with that subtle dichotomy – it was slightly sweet and quite crisp, beginning with some wax and floor polish background, well controlled. Sugary, grassy tastes of cane juice, swank, vanilla, some oak, dill and incense led off, and while it displayed somewhat more sharpness and a little less body than the roundness of the nose had initially suggested, further softer notes of watermelon, cucumbers and pears helped make the experience a bearable one. As with the American, there was a chirpy sort of medium-long finish, as the rum exited with dry, bright, clean flavours of citrus, breakfast spices, some cinnamon and maybe a touch more of vanilla. It was clearly a young rum, a little rambunctious, a little playful, but overall, extremely well behaved.  I sure can’t tell you which agricole is exactly like it – Nine Leaves inhabits a space in the rum world uniquely its own, while never losing sight of its rummy antecedents.  That’s always been a part of its charm, and remains a core company competence.

Clearly Nine Leaves is slowly, patiently improving on its stable of offerings. I spent a few hours checking for news that the company intends to issue progressively more aged rums without result – it seems that the current idea is to continue with gradually improving the young rums that area their bread and butter (though I know that Yoshi has a few barrels of the good stuff squirrelled away in his warehouse someplace that he isn’t telling us about, and will issue a two year old American oak rum as a limited edition at some point).  I can’t fault the concept, and if a new distiller can make rums this decent, and improve a little bit every year, you can just imagine what they’ll be putting out the door within the decade. Until then, we could do a lot worse than try one of these lovely seasonal issues Nine Leaves makes.

Kampei!

(#274 / 84.5/100)


Other notes

  • Because of some obscure tax regulations in Japan regarding spirits three years old, Nine Leaves is unlikely to issue really aged rums for the foreseeable future
  • The French Oak cask rums are now no longer being produced.