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.
Mar 012022
 

Commercial publicity still

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

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

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

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

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

Second to last glass on the right…..

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

(#888)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Background Details

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

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

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


 

Feb 242022
 

Photo (c) Killik Handcrafted


Note: Although the bottle label does not refer to the product asrum” – which suggests that under Australian law it cannot be so called because it is aged less than two yearsI am referring to it as such given the fact that under rules elsewhere in the world (and my own common sense) all of its production criteria make it one.


Killik Handcrafted Rum is a small distillery in southern Australia that shares several similarities with its neighbour in Melbourne, JimmyRum, and, in fact, with several others that will form part of this small series of Australian rums. For one, it is of recent vintage, having been envisioned, established and brought to operation in 2019 by a family team (Ben and Callan Pratt); makes gin and cocktails to help cover costs until the rum stuff gets a head of steam; and has an attached cafe to the distillery which gets the urban customers rolling in for a bite to eat to go with the tasting menu. The distillery compound in a picturesque section of eastern Melbourne just by Sherbrooke Forest makes for a good location to entice day-trippers and tourists who stop by for a snack and a cocktail.

What distinguishes the small distillery from otherswho also have a good location, also established an on-site restaurant-cum-cafe and also had to come up with imaginative approaches to survive doing lockdownsis its stated focus on recreating a high-ester, hogo-laden series of rums. This they do (according to their website) primarily by using “a wild fermentation process” that I can only assume is by utilisation of a non commercial yeast strain or wild yeast itself. Whether they actually follow what high-ester Jamaican rum makers douse muck to supercharge ester fermentationcannot be gleaned from that website, which is actually not very helpful about much and doesn’t even mention what kind of still they use or whether they start off with molasses or cane juice.

However, Mr. and Mrs. Rum’s daily instagram notes in December 2021 fill in the pieces: the company uses molasses, and yes, they do add in dunder at various stages of the ferment; the still is a 1000-liter hybrid with option for four plates, six plates, or pot distillation; and they source barrels from a local cooperage. All that leads us into the three rums they make: the silver, the silver overproof and the one we’re looking at today, the “Gold” which was aged in Chardonnay casks (for less than two years, hence the qualifier about calling it a “rum”) and is noted as being a high ester rum with a strength of 42% ABV but with no reference to whether it is from pot or column still, or a blend. Honestly, I wish this kind of thing was better explained and laid out for the genuinely curious (and these days, that’s most of us).

Clearly the Gold is made for a market that is timorous in its tastes, because 42% is not, I suggest, enough to showcase serious hogo action (though it does dampen it down enough so that the uninitiated would not to leave the premises traumatised, tearful and trembling). The first aromas are a testament to that: paint, plasticine, rubber overlaid with the forest green scent of damp rotting logs covered with moss and Fisherman’s Friend cherry bonbons. That may not sound like something you’d want to bring home to Mommy, but it really is not too shabby, and in any case, be of good cheer, for there’s more and better coming. As the initial sharply fruity and offbeat aromas dissipate, they are replaced by vanilla, sweet Danish cookies, caramel, toffee, nougat, nuts and honeynot too strong, quite straightforward here, and good enough for Government work.

The palate stays with this easygoing motif and lets the aggro of the initial nose go its own way (which I submit is our loss); there’s some initial brine and olives, a faint lingering memory of rubber, and then a small bowl of fruit is opened up: pears, melons, papaya, a touch of strawberries and tart mangos, and a pimento infused bitter chocolate or two for kick. There’s some caramel and sweet dark grapes coiling around behind it all, and the whole experience wraps up in a short, breathy finish with just the memory of some fruits, a bit of tart but creamy yoghurt, and that’s all she wrote.

So, how to rate it? Now, I ran it through my glass blind and didn’t know anything about it before beginning, so I went in with no preconceived notions and came to the conclusion I did based purely on the tasting and a knowledge of the strength; and the score it was given reflected a better-than-average sort of quality, because all this high-ester hogo business was not on my radar and I discovered it for myself. Would I have rated it higher had I known it was daring to be a Jamaican, or lower for not being one? Maybe, but that’s why I taste and score first and research later wherever possible, and not the other way ‘round.

Short version, the rum feels like an entry-level product, with the esters evident, dissipating fast, and not making enough of a statement. While the rum’s tastesespecially the first onesare interesting, they lack force, complexity, integration. And yet for all that, the Killik Gold is not a fall-down fail. It’s merely a rum that starts well, is minimally aged, and in the early stages of being something else, something in the producers’ minds which has yet to snap more clearly and more distinctively into focus. In five years Killik will probably have something really fascinating for us to try: here though, we’re being given an early essay in the craft, a rum that suggests rather more exciting potential than it currently manages to deliver.

(#887)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a finger-tap to the fedora to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks again to you both.
  • The website entry for this rum notes it as being aged 12 months in Chardonnay casks, nothing else.
  • At first I thought the logo represented an aboriginal motif similar to the Canadian First NationsInukshuk (a marker made from carefully placed stones), but Killik’sAboutpage showed that the name and the logo they chose was no accident and actually related to shipping: The name “Killik” is derived from the word “killick”, being an old anchor handcrafted by encasing stone in a wooden frame. To us, Killik represents strength and stability, while taking a nod to the classic archetype of bottles of rum making their way around the Caribbean on old rustic ships. After reading around some more, I found out that a killick was also a slang term for a sailor first class (orleading seaman” – the term has been retired) in the Royal Canadian Navy. The discontinued old style insignia for this rank used to be a ‘fouledanchoran anchor with a length of rope twisted around it). Both term and insignia continue to be used in other navies, including the British, from whence it probably originated.