Feb 202023
 

This is a sample review I’ve been sitting on for quite a while, and after trying it was never entirely certain I wanted to write about at all: but perhaps it’s best to get it out there so people can get a feel for the thing. It’s a rhum made in Vietnam since 2017 by a three-person outfit founded by an expatriate Martinique native named Roddy Battajon and occasionally turns up in social media feeds and in French and regional magazines — but, like other Vietnam rum brands we’ve looked at before (Mia, L’Arrangé Dosai and Sampan so far), lacks exposure and a more international presence. It’s the usual issue: too small for sufficient revenues to allow for rum festival attendance and a distribution deal, and the pandemic certainly did not help. Since 2022 they’ve entered into some partnership deals, however, so there is hope for a greater footprint in the years to come – for now the primary market for its rhums seems to remain regional, with some being for sale in France.

Mr. Battajon has been in Vietnam since around 2016, arriving with ten years of F&B experience in Europe under his belt, and after knocking around the bar circuit there for a while, felt that the high quality of local sugar cane and the mediocre local rhums (the most popular is called Chauvet, and there are bathtub moonshines called “scorpion” and “snake wine” which one drinks just to say one has) left a space for something more premium. He linked up with a Vietnamese partner who doubles up as General Manager in charge of procurement and product sourcing (bottles, labels, corks, cane juice, spares…), and an Amsterdam-based designer and communications guy. Navigating the stringent regulations, sinking his capital into a small alembic (a stainless steel pot still), bootstrapping his Caribbean heritage and tinkering the way all such micro-distillers do, he released his first cane juice rhum in early 2017 and has been quietly puttering along ever since.

The rum is made as organically as possible, sourcing pesticide-free cane from local farmers, and eschewing additives all the way – for now a “Bio” certification remains elusive since the certifying mechanism has not yet been instituted in Vietnam. However they recycle the bagasse into compost, and botanical leftovers into a sort of bitters, and have plans to use solar panels for energy going forward, as well as continuing to source organic cane wherever they can find it.

This then, finally brings us to the rhum itself.  So: cane juice, pot-still distilled from that little alembic (have not been able to establish the size or makeup), and bottled at a muscular 55% ABV. Mr. Battajon makes it clear in a 2017 interview, without stating it explicitly, that his vision of rhum is one of infusion and flavouring, not the “pure” one currently in vogue, though he is careful to make a distinction between what he does and a “rhum arrangé”. The company now makes several different lightly aged products but I have not seen anything to suggest that either an unaged white is available (yet) or that if it is, it is unadded-to. 

In various articles, listings and comments online, mention is made of coffee beans, pineapple, mangoes, other fruits, and various herbs, barks and spices being added to the ageing barrels. I had no idea this was the case when I tried it – it was a sample from Reuben Virasami, a fellow Guyanese and bartender who spent some time in Vietnam and who now resides in Toronto – and he didn’t provide any info to go along with it, so I gave it the same run-through that all rhums receive. In other words, I treated it as a straightforward product.

What the Legacy did, when I tried it, was transport me back to a corner of my mind inhabited by the Cuban Guayabita del Pinar. It had that same sense of sweetly intense fruitiness about it – the nose was rich with ripe, dripping pineapples, soft and squishy mangoes, some sugar cane sap, and a few spices too subtle to make out – cinnamon and maybe nutmeg, I’d hazard. 55% makes the arrival quite powerful, even overpowering, so care should be taking to avoid a nasal blowout – fortunately it’s not sharp or stabbing at all, just thick.

The palate is much more interesting because some of the sweet fruit intensity is tamped down.  That said, it’s not a whole lot different from the nose: pineapples, mangoes, yoghurt, a touch of breakfast spices, anise and red bell peppers, and something akin to maple syrup drizzled over hot pancakes.  There’s a delicate citrus line underlying the whole thing, something crisp yet unidentifiable, with an alcoholic kick lending emphasis, but behind that, not a whole lot to go on.  The finish was disappointing, to be honest, because it was short and presented nothing particularly new.

So yes, when all is said and done, the Legacy is very much along the line of the ‘Pinar except here it’s been dialled up quite a bit. Overall, it’s too sweet for me, too cloying, and you must understand that preference of mine in case you make a purchasing decision on the basis of this review – I don’t care for infused and spiced rums or arrangés, really, unless the addition is kept at a manageable, more subtle, level, not ladled into my face with a snow shovel.  Here, in spite of the extra proof points, that just wasn’t the case: I felt drenched in mango-pineapple flavours, and that strength amplified the experience to a level I was not enthusiastic about. If I want a cocktail, I’ll make one.

It would be unfair of me to score a rum of a kind I usually do not buy and don’t care for — since I don’t knowingly purchase or sample such rums, experience is thin on the ground, and then I’d be making an assessment of quality I’m not equipped to deliver. Therefore I’ll dispense with a score, just write my thoughts and comments, and leave it for others to rate when their time comes. But I’ll make this remark – if a company labels its product as a rhum without qualification (by excluding the words “spiced” or “infused” or “arrangé”) then it’s asking for it to be judged alongside others that are deemed more real, more genuine. That leaves the door open to a lot of criticism, no matter how organic and well made the rhum is, and here, that’s not entirely to its advantage.

(#974)(Unscored)


Other notes

  • Not sure what the origin of the company title Belami is. On the other hand the word “Legacy” is likely a call back to Mr. Battajon’s grandmother, from whom he drew inspiration.
  • This Legacy edition was 55% ABV. In the various expressions, the strength varies from ~48% to ~60%
  • I’ve written an email to the company asking for clarification on a few points, so this post will be amended if I get a response.
  • Because several years’ worth of the Legacy were issued (some at 55%, some stronger, some weaker), I’m unsure as to the age. None state the year of make on the label as far as I can tell, but online stores sometimes make mention of the one they’re selling.
Apr 212022
 

Image (c) Husk Distillers, from their FB Page

In the increasingly crowded Australian spirits marketplace, for a rum maker to stand out means it has to have a unique selling point, some niche aspects of its production that sets it apart in people’s minds from all the other contenders in the marketplace. Killik’s is the one tinkering with the “Jamaican-style” of rum making; Jimmy Rum has its insouciant sense of humour, colourful owner and halcyon location; Beenleigh rests its laurels on being one of the oldest and its origin myth of the shipwrecked pot still; Cabarita Spirits has its vivacious solo proprietress, Brix goes with its yuppie urban vibe, and Bundaberg seems to take a fiendish delight in being equal parts derided and despised the world over. For Husk Distillers though, it’s the focus on producing cane juice based agricole-style rums – this is what they term “cultivated rum” and what they have in fact registered as a trademark with IP Australia.

As was noted in the review of their “Bam Bam” Spiced rum, the company makes a gin called “Ink”, a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, a botanical, a spiced, and a few youngish aged rums. In August 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin-cane aged rum (as opposed to others made with cane having looser morals, one surmises), bringing to mind St Lucia Distillers’ “Forgotten Casks.” Like SLD, Husk had a reason to name this rum “The Lost Blend,” of course: the rum and its name was based on two barrels filled in 2014 and another in 2016 with cane juice distillate run off the 1000-litre hybrid pot-column still – but in the aftermath of the Great Flood in 2017, the hand-written distillation notes that detailed the fermentation histories and distillation cuts for the two 2014 barrels, were destroyed, and so…

These are tragic circumstances for the distillation geek and technical gurus who want the absolute max detail (to say nothing of the distiller who might want to replicate the process). For the casual drinker and interested party, however, there is enough to be going on with: the rums from the two aforementioned years were aged until 2018 in a hot and dry tin shed, before being moved in that year to a cooler barrel warehouse until 2021 when they were slowly married and reduced, to be bottled in August 2021 at 43.5% without any additions, colourings or adulterations – 761 individually numbered bottles form the final release, which is not listed for purchase on the company’s website, because it was offered for sale only to locals at the door, and Husk Rum Club subscribers (as well as on BWS and some local shops).

What’s curious about The Lost Blend is how un-agricole-like it is at all stages of the sipping experience (this is not a criticism, precisely, but it is more than merely an observation). Take for example the nose: it displayed no real herbal grassiness that almost define the cane juice origin style of rum (even the aged ones).  It started off with wet cardboard, fresh paint on damp drywall, and some new plastic sheeting. Then it moved on to gingerbread cookies, some plum liqueur, molasses, salt caramel and fudge. A touch of nutty white chocolate, brine, honey and a nice touch of light citrus zest for edge.  Nicely warm and quite soft to smell, without any aggro.

If I had to use a single word to describe the palate it might be “spicy” (in multiple ways).  And that’s because it was – initial tastes were ginger, cinnamon, anise and vanilla, with a touch of pears, overripe apples, raisins, brown sugar and salted caramel ice cream. There were a few bitter notes of oak and old coffee grounds, but the citrus acidity was long gone here, and overall, even with a short and relatively dry finish that was redolent toffee and unsweetened dark chocolate it presented nicely as a light ‘n’ easy sipper that just wanted to please without going off like a frog in a sock.

Given that the Lost Blend was a rum comprising four- and six-year-old components, it’s almost as surprising to see so much come through the ageing process as what exactly emerged at the other end. I attribute the tastes I discerned to a combination of the subtropical climate and (a guess here) smaller and maybe newer casks that provided those quick and easy notes. What is more baffling is how little evidence there is of the rum actually being from cane juice, because tasted blind (as it was), my scribbled remarks read more like some solid young Latin-style ron than anything else. I did like it more than the spiced Bam Bam, though, and it is well made and works well as a softly tasty warm-weather sundowner: but my advice is to enjoy it for what it is and not to look for serious local terroire or a recognizable agricole-style flavour profile — because that, I’m afraid, just isn’t there.

(#901)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and pat of the Panama to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
  • More notes on the company can be found in the Bam Bam Spiced Rum review.
Mar 012022
 

Commercial publicity still

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

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

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

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

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

Second to last glass on the right…..

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

(#888)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Background Details

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

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

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


 

Feb 172022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#885)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes:

  • The company history and profile can be found here – it started off small and was originally included here, but I found and was provided with more than usual detail, and so split it off as a separate post.
  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and pat of the pork-pie hat to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks again to you both.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being 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 didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

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 local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, 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 still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called 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. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an unambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • This batch was from 2018
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.