Jan 022023
 

Having now looked at a few standard strength agricola rums from Madeira, it’s clear that for their own “standard line” company bottlings, many remain wedded to mass-audience standards that still appeal – for price and availability and approachability reasons, no doubt – to the general public. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that they don’t always provide that intensity of taste, that serious jolt of flavour, that something of a more robust strength provides.

A good example of the potential of moving beyond G-Rated crowd-pleasers is this six year old 2015-distilled Engenhos do Norte rum agricola, which was selected by and perhaps made for Rum Artesanal from Germany. Engenhos apparently does this for several indie bottlers (a search of Rum-X turns up most of them), though I’m unclear as to the exact mechanics, since it remains a “970” branded rum, with RA noted as the company that chose it. In any event, it is cane juice, column still, bottled at a solid 51.3%, and at that proof point, the comparison with the laid back and inoffensive “North” rums that we’ve looked at before (here, here and here) is really quite apparent – especially when tried side by side.

Consider first the nose: it is instantly pungent, rather thick and redolent of ripe dark fruits – prunes, plums, raisins, peaches in syrup, and has that slight tart sourness of ripe Kenyan mangoes.  It smells much firmer and more solidly constructed than Engenhos’s standard  agricolas from the North brand line. It remains, for most of the duration one smells it, somewhat thickly sweet mixed with light citrus and crisper fruit, and thankfully never cloying. Whispers of Danish pastries, caramel, vanilla, guavas and a faint touch of orange zest and a whiff of rubber round things out nicely

Tasting it is a pleasant experience, retreading the road of the nose, with a few short detours here and there. For example, although quite mouth-coating, hot and intense (at first), it’s also dry and a little tannic. Flavours of chocolate oranges and dates emerge, combining sweetness, fruitiness and nuttiness in a nice amalgam; this is set off and then overtaken by peaches, very ripe red apples, rose petals, raisins and a touch of caramel, vanilla and cinnamon, with just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper lurking behind it all. It all leads to an easy-going medium long finish combining fruits, some sugar cane juice on the edge of getting sour, and spices. It’s not sharp at all, rather lacking in body, but I submit that the strength overall is reasonably well chosen for the rum that ends up in the glass.

Compared to the others Engenhos do Norte agricolas, the nose is more intense, which is hardly a surprise, but the palate remained thin, which is. Still, I liked how it developed into a sort of spoiled fruit salad drizzled with sugar and caramel at first, then gets taken over by a slightly more traditional profile. Well constructed overall, it still lacks an individualism that I find odd – even after running several of these Madeiran rums side by side, I still can’t quite put my finger on any aspect of them that identifies the terroire specifically, which indicates more research is probably needed (by me). Too, although it is — and others are — a rum from cane juice, not all of the light green herbaceousness comes through in the sampling, and they exhibit a solidity at odds with the effervescent clarity and brightness most true agricoles display.

But all that aside, it’s a good mid-range rum, a tasty treat and it’s well selected. It shows off the potential of higher proofed rums, and marries a strong series of tastes to a deep and yet also occasionally sprightly series of lighter elements. The important thing is that it doesn’t play coy, doesn’t try to hide anything – everything you taste is on the table for you to accept, or not. On balance, I’d go with the former, because compared with the other rums from the company I’ve tried, they got a lot more right than wrong with this one.

(#959)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • 258 bottle outturn
  • The “970” refers to the year the line was first introduced.  EdN provided the detail, without explaining why they dropped the “1”.

Dec 222022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • There’s a stronger “Natural” at 60% which may remedy the shortcomings (as I see them) of this one; I’m looking to get one and see for myself.
  • Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira.  All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI Indicação Geográfica Protegida. The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale. 
  • The name “Natural” derives from its cane juice origins, but since all of Engenhos’s rums are agricolas, it’s unclear from the label why this is more natural than others.  It could be because it’s rested or unaged (the colour is actually very slightly tinged with yellow, suggesting a possible short period in a barrel – I was, however, unable to verify this by posting time). Other sources suggest it’s because it is made from sugar cane on small individual plots, which would make it a parcellaire – if true, it’s odd that it’s not more prominently stated, however, since that’s a great marketing plug.
  • All the above aside, at less than €40, this is decent value for money given those tastes it does have.
Dec 122022
 

Today we’ll continue with another rum from the island of Madeira and the company of Engenos do Norte, which, as its name suggests, is located in the north of Madeira Island.  The company was founded in 1928 by the merging of some fifty sugar factories at a time when it was simply not economical for individual small mills to operate. While they had been making rums on the island for centuries, it had a lesser importance to sugar, and most of the local rum was either consumed domestically or in Portugal (wine was actually much more popular and commonly made). In other words, though rum has a long pedigree on Madeira, the emergence of the rum (and local rum brands internationally) as an economic force and a serious revenue and tax generator, is very much a 21st century phenomenon.

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 Rum North “Barrica Nova” is a golden rum, not marketed as anything particularly special. As with all the others mentioned above, it’s cane juice derived, distilled on a column still, aged for three months in new French Oak barrels (hence the “barrica nova” in the title), and released at 40%. It’s very much a living room rum or for the bartender’s backbar, made for cocktails and not neat sipping; nor does it appear to be anything exclusive or limited — and while it’s on sale in Europe, so far I haven’t seen anyone’s review of it out there.

The rum’s initial nose presents with bright golden notes of citrus, green grapes, ginnips and unripe papaya, nicely fresh and quite light – not much of the grassy herbals as characterise a French West Indian agricole, yet close enough to suggest the commonality of origin. There are notes of green peas, fanta, and an apple-flavoured creamy yoghurt. There’s a touch of cream cheese, fresh wonderbread toast (!!), with light lemony aspects, and lurking quietly in the background, the rather peculiar aroma of old leather suitcases pulled from musty cupboards after long disuse. All these aromas are rather faint and the citrus and fruit sodas are more dominant, with the others providing a vague and uneasy backdrop that takes effort to tease out.

After that rather decent nose the palate falls flat from exhaustion at trying to keep up. The rum tastes watery, thin and sharp as a harridan’s flaying tongue. Notes of light fruits, honey, sugar water and vanilla predominate, but this is a scrawny kind of gruel, and even a few last minute bits and pieces – aromatic tobacco, salt caramel, old carboard and nail polish – don’t really make this a sip worth seeking. The finish is even weaker: short, light, sweet, inoffensive, mostly very light fruitiness – watermelon, papaya, white guava –  and requires too much effort to locate.

This rum is not my thing. Like the 980 Beneficiado, there’s just not enough going on to provide a taste profile of any distinction, and while 40% may be the preferred strength locally or for maximal exports, the faintness of what the palate presents demonstrates why some rums should simply be stronger. It enforces a limitation on the producers – probably for tax, regulatory or other reasons – that should be pushed past for the benefit of consumers who buy it. It’s no accident that the best-scoring Madeira-made rums we’ve seen so far have all been from independents who go cask strength and combine that with some decent ageing.

For the casual imbiber the weak-kneed profile doesn’t mean there is anything ostensibly, offensively wrong with the rum…and yet, for those who have a bit more experience, everything is. Even with the decent aroma, it’s too anonymous, too lacklustre and certainly does not bugle “Madeira!” from the rooftops – at best, it’s an exhausted squeak. It’s made too much for everyone, which really means for no-one, and you’ll forget about it five minutes after walking away. The ‘Barrica Nova’ is underwhelming, underachieving, underdelivering, and underperforming, and although I suppose that like a shotgun wedding’s reluctant groom it’ll grudgingly do what it’s meant to, in my book that doesn’t count as a compliment.

(#957)(75/100) ⭐⭐½