May 262022
 

Distilleries that go off on their own tangent are always fun to watch in action. They blend a wry and deprecating sense of humour with a quizzical and questioning mien and add to that a curiosity about the rumiverse that leads to occasional messy road kill, sure…but equally often, to intriguing variations on old faithfuls that result in fascinating new products. Killik’s Jamaican rum experiments come to mind, and also Winding Road’s focus on their cane juice based rums1, like they were single handedly trying to do agricoles one better.

Moving on from the standard proofed rums from Australia upon which the focus has been directed over the last weeks, we begin to arrive at some of those that take the strength up a few notches, and when we bring together a higher proof with an agricole-style aged rum — as uncommon in Australia as almost everywhere else — it’s sure to be interesting. Such ersatz-agricoles rums are the bread and butter of the Winding Road Distilling Co in New South Wales (about 175km south of Brisbane), which is run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Camille Awad: they have two rums in their small portfolio (for the moment), both cane-juice based. The first, the Agricole Blanc was an unaged rum of this kind, one with which I was quite taken, and it’s the second one we’re looking at today.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Coastal Cane Pure Single Rum is rum with the source cane juice coming from a small mill in the Northern Rivers area (where WR are also located), and as far as I know is run through the same fermentation process as the blanc: three days in open vats using both commercial and wild yeasts, with the wash occasionally left to rest for longer (up to two weeks). Then the wash is passed — twice — through their 1250 litre pot still (called “Short Round”) and set to age in a single 200-litre American oak barrel with a Level 3 char, producing 340 bottles after 31 months. Bottling is then done at 46% in this instance: that, however, will change to suit each subsequent release based on how it samples coming out of the ageing process.

 

Mark Awad’s avowed intention is to produce a distillate that combines the clarity of agricole rhums with a touch of the Jamaican badassery we call hogo, as well as representing, as far as possible, the terroire of NSW…specifically Northern Rivers, where they are.  I can’t tell whether this is the rum that accomplishes that goal, but I can say it’s very good. The nose is lovely, starting with deep dark fruits (prunes and blackberries), opens up to lighter notes (bananas, oranges and pineapples) covered over with unsweetened yoghurt and feta cheese. There’s a nice low-level funkiness here that teases and dances around the aromas without the sort of aggressiveness that characterises the Jamaicans, combined with floral hints and – I swear this is true – smoke, wet ashes, and something that reminds me of the smell on your fingers left behind by cigarettes after smoking in very cold weather.

Photo provided courtesy of Winding Road Distilling Co. (c) Mark Awad

The barrel influence is clear on the palate – vanilla, some light caramel and toffee tastes are reminders that it’s not an unaged rum. But it’s also quite dry, not very sweet in spite of the lingering notes of lollipops and strawberry bubble gum, has flavours of brine and lemon-cured green Moroccan olives, and brings to mind something of a Speysider or Lowland whisky that’s been in a sherry cask for a bit.  It’s one of those rums that seems simple and quiet, yet rewards patience and if allowed to open up properly, really impresses. Even the finish has that initially-restrained but subtly complex vibe, providing long, winey closing notes together with very ripe blue grapes, soft apples, brine, and a touch of lemony cumin.

I’m really intrigued with what Winding Road have done here. With two separate rums they have provided taste profiles that are quite divergent, enough to seem as if they were made by different companies altogether. There are aspects of this aged rum that are more pleasing than the unaged version, while others fall somewhat behind: I’d suggest the nose and the finish is better here, but honestly, they are both quite good, just in different ways.

The constant tinkering and experimentation that marks out these small Australian distilleries — who strive to find both their niche and that point of distinction that will set them apart — clearly pays dividends. While I can’t tell you with assurance I tasted an individualistic terroire that would lead me straight to NSW (let alone Australia), neither did the Awads head into the outback at full throttle, going straight through the wall leaving only an outline of themselves behind.  What they have in fact accomplished is far better: they have created a rum that is thoroughly enjoyable, one that takes a well known style of rum, twists it around and bounces it up and down a bit…and ends up making the familiar new again. I can’t wait for Release #2.

(#911)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website specs refer to a single 200-litre barrel and the initial math seems wrong if 340 700-ml bottles were issued (since that works out to 238 litres with zero evaporation losses). However, that only computes if you assume the distillate went in and came out at the same strength. Mark confirmed: “The figures on our website are correct, even though at first glance they may seem a bit off.  We filled the barrel at 67.1% ABV and when it was decanted the rum came in at 65.1%.  We ended up with just short of 169 litres which we then adjusted down to 46% ABV.  This gave us a bit over 239 litres which resulted in 340 bottles, plus a little extra that went towards samples.”
  • As always, chapeau to Mr. and Mrs. Rum for their kind supply of the advent calendar.
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 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.
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 word “rum” in 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 aguardiente – though 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 all – it 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 from “raw materials made exclusively from sugar cane”, which doesn’t exclude it. And in Article 21 it mentions that aguardiente – elsewhere and again noted (but not defined or required to be named such) as being the first phase distillate of around 75% ABV – must 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.


 

Mar 232022
 

Photo (c) Husk Distillers

Of the New Australian distilleries that have emerged in the last ten years, Husk may be one of the older ones.  Its inspiration dates back to 2009 when the founder, Paul Messenger, was vacationing in the Caribbean; while on Martinique, he was blown away by agricole rhums and spent the next few years establishing a small distillery in northern New South Wales (about 120km SE of Brisbane) which was named “Husk” when it opened in 2012. Its uniqueness was and remains that it uses its own estate-grown sugar cane to make rum from juice, not molasses, and is a field-to-bottle integrated producer unbeholden to any external processing outfit for supplies of cane, syrup, juice or molasses. Initially they used a pot still but as their popularity grew it was replaced with a hybrid pot-column still (the old still remains at the entrance to the distillery).

As is standard practice in Australia, while rums wait two years to age before being called “rum”, other spirits are made to fill the gap and provide cash flow – in this case there was a gin called “Ink”, and a set of “Cane Spirits” products which were initially a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, plus a botanical and a spiced. These continue to be made and pay the bills but there were and are others: in 2015 a “virgin cane rum,” came out, limited to 300 bottles; in 2016 a 3YO aged rum was released (the “1866 Tumbulgum”); in 2018 a 5 YO (“Triple Oak”) – all were cane juice rums and these days both are hard to find any longer. In 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin cane aged rum with “subtropical ageing” (coming soon to the review site near you) and in the spiced category, they have periodic releases of the spiced rum we are looking at today, which they call “Bam Bam” (for obscure reasons of their own that may or may not be related to a children’s cartoon, but then, they do say they make better rums than jokes).

The rum clocks in at standard strength (40%) and is, as far as I am aware, a pot still cane juice product, aged for 3 years in oak (not sure what kind or from where it came) and added spices of wattleseed, ginger, orange, cinnamon, golden berry, vanilla and sea salt. I should point out here that all of this was unknown to me when I tasted the sample — the labels on the advent calendar didn’t mention it at all.

So…the nose.  Initially redolent of ripe, fleshy fruits — apricots, peaches, bananas, overripe mangoes and dark cherries — into which are mixed crushed walnuts, pistachios and sweet Danish cookies plus a drop or two of vanilla. It’s soft and decidedly sweet with a creamy aroma resembling a lemon meringue pie topped with whipped cream, then dusted with cinnamon…and a twist of ginger off a sushi plate.

The taste maintains that gentle sweetness which so recalled a well done sweet pastry. There was cream cheese, butter, cookies and white chocolate, plus some breakfast-cereal notes and mild chocolate.  A few fruits drift in and out the of the profile from time to time, a touch of lime, an apricot, raisins, a ripe apple or two. And with some patience, baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are noticeable, but it’s all rather faint and very light, leading to a short and quickly concluded finish with orange peel, vanilla, brown sugar, and that tantalising hint of cake batter that evokes a strong nostalgic memories of fighting with my brother for the privilege of finger-licking the bowl of cake mix after Ma Caner was done with it.

Overall, it’s a peculiar rum because there’s little about it that shouts “rum” at all (on their marketing material they claim the opposite, so your own mileage may vary). My own take is that it’s alcohol, it has some interesting non-rum flavours, it will get you drunk if you take enough of it and it has lovely creamy and cereal-y notes that I like.  But overall it’s too thin (a function of the 40%) too easy, the spices kind of overwhelm after a while and it seems like a light rum with little greater purpose in life than to jazz up a mixed drink someplace. That’s not enough to sink it, or refuse it when offered, just not enough for me to run out and get one immediately.

(#893)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a chuck of the chullo to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always, to you both.
  • Husk refers to its rums as “agricoles” (see promo poster above) but incorrectly in my view, as this is a term that by convention, common usage and EU regulation refers to cane juice rhums made in specific countries (Madeira, Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique). A re-labelling or rebranding might have to be done at some point if the EU market is to be accessed. Personally, I think they should do so anyway. Nothing wrong with “agricole-style” or “cane juice rhum” or some other such variation, and that keeps things neat and tidy (my personal opinion only).
  • Long time readers will know I am not a great fan of spiced or infused rums and this preference (or lack thereof) of mine must be factored into the review. The tastes are as they are, but my interpretation of how they work will be different from that of anther person who likes such products more than I do. Mrs. Caner, by the way, really enjoyed it.
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.
Jan 122022
 

Over the last years, one of the inescapable conclusions I’ve come to is that rums that dare to be different or faithfully rep their terroire without reference to others, will always and only get niche acknowledgement from that sliver of the rumisphere that knows and understands the varieties of rum and is not reluctant to try something on the blank edges of the map. Wider acceptance by the larger mass of the rum buying public, though…that may be harder.

This is perhaps why some of the more artisanal cane derived spirits of the day – aguardientes, grogues, clairins, charandas, kokuto shochu, even cachaças – struggle to find mainstream acceptance outside their limited areas of origin.  It’s no accident that perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Japanese rum makers, Nine Leaves, holds the distinction of being popular and well-known not just because of good marketing, but because Takeuchi-san’s rums are the most approachable to a “western” palate, in a way the country’s other sugar cane spirits are not.

I begin with this comment because a similar train of thought went through my mind as I tried what I honestly believe to be one of the best of the Brazilian company Novo Fogo’s lineup, the pot-still distilled “Tanager” cachaça.  Originally they labelled it a “cane juice spirit” but current labels all have the word “cachaça” there, and it is the first of their “Two Woods” series, released in 2017 and afterwards1. The ageing is still rather short: one year in Four Roses ex-bourbon barrels and three further months in arariba (Brazilian zebrawood) barrels, which they claim is what gives it the spirit that characteristic brown-red colour. As to why they named it after a bird, well, who knows (and frankly, who cares? – it’s a nice word, a nice name, and others have used stranger titles).

The woods have had a really interesting impact on the cachaça and changed it quite a bit.  The nose, for example is lovely: nutty, salty and a touch tannic, redolent of cane juice, herbs, wet green grass, moss and a delicate line of strawberries and peaches. There’s a sort of damp earthiness to it, mixed up with spices like tumeric and cinnamon that I particularly liked.

The taste is less successful, perhaps because the slightly sharper attack of the zebrawood is more pronounced here, ameliorated by the relatively low proof point of 42%.  It’s tannic, but also salty, fruity, loam-y and sweet, and there is that characteristic grassy and sugar cane sap profile of a cachaca, plus some vanilla and sweetly tart pears and white guavas. Cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin round things off in a pleasant, low key finish that just escapes being bitter and becomes, through some odd alchemy, crisply refreshing, like a lemon-mint drink.

Cachaças are, of course, meant to be drunk in a caipirinha, but Novo Fogo is aiming for a different market than the huge internal one of Brazil. The rum tastes like an agricole bent ninety degrees away from true, flavourful and interesting, but not so off the map as to be unapproachable. What’s also important is that the short ageing in that combination of woods has produced a rum that is closer than almost any cachaça I’ve ever tried to a profile that is recognizably a “regular rum”….if not completely.  

Therein lies its intriguing and beguiling nature, and therein lies my appreciation for what it is. It may, in the end, be this and the others in the line that espouse a philosophy of finishing rather than ageing in local woods, that will allow Novo Fogo’s cachaças to appeal to a much greater audience than just the aficionados and deep divers who thus far have been its most faithful adherents. I wish them luck,

(#876)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple cachaças like Leblon, Jamel, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • One wonders, given all these stats, whether the Habitation Velier series will ever come knocking to take a few barrels – it seems to press all their buttons and they could sure do worse.
  • There’s more company background in their very well-designed website.
Dec 022021
 

Photo (c) John Go

2003 was clearly a good year for the small Marie Galante distillery of Bielle, since there are several different editions of that year’s rhums on the market: a Hors d’Age 52.9%, a Vieux 9 YO at 49%, a Millésime 2003 Brut de Fût 8YO at 52.8% and yet another special release at 53.1%.  Varying ages and strengths, but one doesn’t release that many iterations of a single year without some sort of belief in the underlying quality of the distillate made in that year.

Taking this version out for a spin demonstrates that that belief is not mere wishful thinking or misguided optimism. It’s really quite interesting: for example, wood, paint, glue and sawdust start the ball rolling, with a certain hogo-y sourness of spoiled fruit. This is fades away in almost no time, leaving honey, cheerios, cereals, salt caramel and vanilla in an uncertain truce with the opening aromas. It does develop nicely from there, becoming surprisingly complex with additional fruits and citrus and cinnamon, while retaining the characteristic clarity and cleanliness of agricoles.  And then, as if bored, it adds a queer ashy, metallic, medicinal filip to the back end which is truly unusual – I went back through all my previous Bielle reviews and found nothing quite like it.

Taste-wise it continues that above average quality and parallels the nose almost exactly: it’s hotter than expected (but okay, 55% is not exactly tame), and again, here, the paint thinner, fresh-sawn planks and varnish lead the way: it’s almost like walking through Home Depot’s lumber section. This is followed by  cereal, caramel and vanilla, with fruits apparently taking a vacation at this point, because the impression it laves is one of caramel-toffee saltiness rather than crisp fruity acid-sweetness.  There’s some watermelon and light pears coiling around the background, but that’s about it. Oh, and the finish is excellent: long, dry, almost smoky, a hint of ash and iodine, and then a faint recap of the slightly sour fruits mixed in with caramel and cinnamon…plus what sure seemed like maple syrup, but that may be reaching.

The distillery: located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. As recently as six years ago it was another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the local islanders, rum deep divers and the French seemed to know very much … but my experience with their output (and not just Capovilla’s) over the years suggests they really know what they’re doing.

Still, back to the rhum: I’m not entirely sure how old it is: there’s no mention on the label or the box and other 2003 vintages are a rough guide at best; and no online resources I’ve found make any age statement. My guesstimate is about 6-8 years, (if it was double digits it would likely be much more expensive). It’s a cane-juice derived agricole, column still produced, and a really good all round rhum for any purpose. I particularly enjoyed its departure from the norms usually exhibited by cane juice rhums – not much herbals or clean green grass here, just real complexity, solid assembly and a construction that allows each note its individuality. These days I think it’s more likely to be found at auction or in a private sale than on a store shelf, but however it crosses your path, if you find a bottle at a decent price, you wouldn’t be losing out.

(#868)(86/100)


Other notes

  • On FB in 2018, there was a comment that the “2003 has been spotted with ~10g/L sugar in it…” deriving from Cyril’s work over at DuRhum.  It’s not this one, but then, this 55% version was not tested as far as I am aware.
  • I was provided this unlabelled and unidentified sample by my cheerfully sneaky rum chum from the Philippines, John Go – he was testing me, I think, since he mixed it all up with a bunch of other unmarked samples of wildly varying quality). So those tasting noters are unedited and completely blind.
Sep 092021
 

In 2017 I wrote about a cachaça I had tried in Toronto from a Brazilian company named Novo Fogo, which means “New Fire” in Portuguese. That was an unaged, one-year-rested “Silver” cachaça that I liked quite a bit, and in doing my research after the fact, I discovered the company also had a number of other such spirits in the portfolio, resolved to try what I could, and subsequently scouted them out in the years that followed.

This cachaça, then, is the next one up the ladder for Novo Fogo.  It is a blend of both aged and unaged spirits, derived from (of course) cane juice and departs from more traditional Brazilian cachaças in two interesting ways: it is made on a pot still (as opposed to the much more common column still spirits that dominate the industry); and it was aged for one year in American oak, not local woods like Amburana (which make Brazilian spirits so different to the palate conditioned by years of molasses-based rums or aged agricoles from the French islands).  What this does is provide the drinker with the best of three worlds: the terroire of Brazil’s southern province of Paraná (the distillery is located there, not Minas Gerais where the most traditional cachacas are made) coupled with a more familiar aged profile based on American oak… which in turn saves the more endangered Brazilian barrel woods from overharvesting. 

The question is whether that translates into a cane juice spirit that we who cut our teeth on French island agricoles could both relate to and enjoy for its own character.  The initial nose of the 43% cachaça does indeed smell promising: it is so green it squeaks going into a turn. It’s freshly cut green grass, steamed vegetables and palm fronds….if they were liquid. It smells herbal, of sugar water and citrus peel and kitchen spices, and yet also briny and solid — a bucket of salt beef mixing it up with sharp tannic and woodsy notes, and not too many sweet fleshy fruits. 

The taste moves right along from there.  Grassy and green tea flavours are prominent at first, but other sweet notes develop over time as well: light honey, caramel, vanilla, peas.  After opening up, the fruits that seemed to be missing from the nose turn up here: watermelon, pears, white guavas, even sweet peas and steamed corn, mixed up with some soya, lemongrass and parsley in a mild vegetable soup.  It leads to a quiet and short finish mostly characterized by grassy notes and some sweetish, very mild fruits. 

Novo Fogo’s one year old cachaça is an interesting variation on rhums we know. The sweet, herbal notes are not out to lunch or abnormal, and the use of the American oak has helped maintain a lightly-aged profile that other cachacas with more aggressive use of native woods might not (as Delicana showed here and here, it can be a bit hit and miss). Overall, the whole experience is somewhat removed from that of young or unaged agricoles generally, which is as it should be, since we’re not talking about a French island rhum, or a cane juice spirit made in the Indian Ocean islands with the esters dialled up to “11”. The ancestry is, however, quite clear, and anyone who has had even a passing familiarity with agricoles will find much that is recognizable and enjoyable with the “Chameleon”, especially at that approachable strength of 43%.  

That might be the secret behind the name: it is a rhum – a cachaça – made in Brazil, but hews so close to the profile we know that it might in fact be taken for something else.  Only the sly off-kilter notes and occasional divergences are there to tell you it’s not, and I submit that those differences are what make it interesting, and worth taking a chance on…as long as you don’t mind going off the beaten track a bit.

(#849)(81/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • I reached out to Novo Fogo, curious to find out more about the name, and Luke McKinley responded from the Seattle office and replied “We gave Chameleon its name because it’s a versatile cachaça that can “blend in” to a variety of cocktails. At just 1 year of age, it retains the sugarcane funk of our unaged Silver Cachaça, but picks up enough characteristics from the American oak ex-bourbon barrels to work in stirred, spirituous cocktails.”

 

Aug 152021
 

It was probably a good thing that I first tried this innocent looking white rum1 released by the UK independent bottler El Destilado (not to be confused with the restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca) without knowing much about it. It came in a smallish bottle, sporting a starkly simple label I didn’t initially peruse too closely, and since I was at a rumfest, and it had been handed to me by a rum chum, well, what else could it be, right?

It might have been a rum, but even at the supposedly standard strength of 43.15% ABV, the juice burst with flavours that instantly recalled indigenous unaged cane juice like clairin, or a supercharged grogue fresh of the still and sporting serious attitude.  It smelled, first of all, woody — resinous, musty, oily, lemony; it reeked of brine and olives, almonds, pine-sol air freshener and only at the back end, after taking some time to recover, were there a few shy hints of flowers and some rich, almost-gone fleshy fruits. That’s not much when you think about it, but I assure you, it made up in intensity what it lacked in complexity. 

Okay, so this was different, I thought and tasted it. It was solid and serious, completely dense with all sorts of interesting flavours: first off, very pine-y and smokey. More pine sol — did someone mix this with household disinfectant or something? This was followed by fresh damp sawdust of sawn lumber made into furniture right way and then polished with too much varnish, right in the sawmill (!!). Vegetable soup heavy on the salt, with generous doses of black pepper and garlic and cilantro…and more pine.  Barbeque sauce and smoky sweet spices, like hickory I guess. Darkly sweet but not precisely fruity – though there are some of those – more like the heavy pungency of rotting oranges on a midden heap somewhere hot and tropical, closed off by a long and smoky finish redolent of lemon pine scent, and spoiling fruits, and more olives.

This was intense.  Too raw and uncultured to be a serious top ender, white or otherwise — and I like white rums, as you know — but defiantly original and really quite unique.  I thought the pine notes were overbearing and spoiled the experience somewhat…other than that, a completely solid rum that was probably cane juice, and probably unaged, and a cousin to the French island agricoles.  Somewhere out there a bartender was loving this thing and blowing it kisses.

Which was correct, as confirmed by a more detailed look at that label. It was an unaged cane juice spirit called Aguardiente de Panela, came from Mexico, was akin to the Paranubes from Oaxaca and many others like it. I cautiously liked it – “appreciated” might be a better term; it was tasty, quite original, and felt like it took rum in whole new directions, though it took care not to call itself that. I can say with some assurance that you would be unlikely to have tried anything like it before and therein might lie both its attraction and downfall. But I suggest that if you can, try it. It might be problematic finding any, given the limited outturn of 160 bottles (and indeed, it was something of a one-off, see my notes below this review).

Labelling the thing as an aguardiente (again, see further down) gives it a pretty broad umbrella, though clearly it is a cane juice derivative. It might have been better to use “cane spirit” to make the sale since aguardientes are a very loose category and present a moving target depending on where one is. Be that as it may, it is has all the hallmarks of a local back-country moonshine (decently made in this instance, to be sure), sporting the sort of artisanal handmade small-batch quality that makes rum geeks salivate as they search the world for the next clairin or grogue.

When such micro-still quality is found, the production ethos behind it that makes it so attractive creates issues for their producers. The output tends to be small and not easily scaled up (assuming they even want to); there somewhat inconsistent quality from batch to batch, and some simply don’t hold up over time. Moreover, such aguardientes or charandas or agricoles or unaged spirits are usually not made for a discerning international rum audience, but for local and regional consumption, by and for people who don’t know (and don’t care) that there are certain markers of consistency and quality asked for by foreign audiences. It isn’t for such tourists that it’s made (a point Luca also thought long and hard about, before promoting the Haitian clairins back in 2014).

This aguardiente perfectly encapsulates that issue.  It is a unique and unusual, very distinctive small batch agricole-style cane juice rum in all the ways that matter.  It satisfies its local audience just fine. That it doesn’t fly as well past its own terroire may not be its problem, but ours. That said, you certainly won’t find me complaining about what it’s like, because I want me some more. And stronger, if I can get it.

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

  • The origin of the cane juice spirit / aguardiente is one of those near-unknown family stills that dot the Mexican back country (the Paranubes was like that also), and made, as stated above, more for village consumption than export. Here, it came from a three-column still tended by Sr.  Delfino Cruz, which — if one can go by the label — is in the small village of San Pablo Ameyaltepec where he produces mostly mezcal. This tiny community of less than two hundred is in the state of Puebla, with the more famous state of Oaxaca on its southeast border: the El Destilado boys were sourcing mezcal from him.
  • Charlie McKay, one of the founders, told me: “We actually only got one batch of the Aguardiente de Panela and then weren’t able to get it again. The Aguardiente was sourced while Michael and Jason were tasting some of Delfino’s mezcal and they noticed a bunch of liquid in drums, asked about it and he sheepishly allowed them to taste it. It’s sort of a side product he was making but more for locals rather than as his pride and joy. Anyway the liquid was super tasty and the guys bought a bunch of it on the spot. I believe, but I’d have to double check, that it was distilled in the same still that he makes his mezcal in.  The panela aspect is the sugar he uses. Our current rum which is an Aguardiente de Caña is make from raw sugar cane juice, extracted straight from the plant and fermented. The panela is a preserved form of sugar that comes as set blocks […] usually from sort of conical shaped molds. It almost looks like a darker version of palm sugar that you’d get from an Asian grocer. Anyway this is rehydrated and fermented, then distilled which gives it a slightly different flavour profile to the more green Caña version. […] It was basically something Delfino wasn’t trying to sell us, but they boys saw it and had to taste it, then we got it, sold it all and now it’s gone.”
  •  The “Panela” in the title is named after panela, an unrefined sugar which is made by boiling and evaporating cane juice – it’s therefore something like India’s jaggery which we have come across before. Panela is commonly made around South America (especially Colombia) and it’s not a stretch to say aguardiente can be made from it, hence the name.
  • The rum was distilled in a three column still and apparently fermented in tanks made of local pine wood – which is where the pine notes must have carried over from. It is likely that wild yeast was used for the fermentation.
  • El Destilado, whose name is on the label, is a UK based indie bottler based on London, run by a trio of spirits enthusiasts — Michael Sager, Alex Wolpert and Charlie McKay; their tastes seem run more into agave spirits than rum per se since this was one of only two cane spirits they have released so far amidst a plethora of mezcals from Oaxaca. As a separate note, I like their minimalist design philosophy a lot.
  • Another rum released by El Destilado is an equally obscure “Overproof” Oaxacan Rum at 52.3% which Alex over at The Rum Barrel took a look at a few months back. 

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

Having a large band of tropical climate and a vibrant sugar industry, it would be odd in the extreme if Mexico did not have rums in its alcoholic portfolio.  The truth is that their artisanal, indigenous rums are actually not well known: not just because of the overwhelming popularity and market footprint of mezcal and tequila, but because rum brands like Bacardi, Mocambo, Prohibido, Tarasco and other popular low-cost “decent-enough” sellers have the limelight. They tend to stick with the tried and true model of standard-proof light blends of middling age to saturate (primarily) their own and the American market. So the backcountry small-batch rums of long-standing production — which in these days of full proof and indigenous tradition are sometimes overlooked — tend to have a hard time of it.

Leaving aside big brands and other alcoholic categories, however, there have always been many local cane distillates in Mexico, less exalted, less well known, often sniffed at. Some are as specific as charanda, others as wide ranging as aguardiente.  The subject of today’s review is one of the latter, and if for purists it does not fall into our definitions of rum, I argue that if it’s a sugar cane distillate, it should be counted in “our” category, it needs a home and I’m perfectly happy to give it one.

Aguardientes – the word is a very broad catchall, akin to the generic English word “spirits,” translating loosely as fiery/burning water – are strong distilled alcoholic beverages, made from a variety of sources depending on the country or local tradition: macerated fruits (oranges, grapes, bananas, etc), grains (millet, barley, rice, beets, cassava, potatoes, tubers), or the classic sugar cane versions. They can be regulated under that name, and several have protected designations of origin. 

Aguardiente as made in Mexico has a very supple definition, depending on where one is in that country and what the source material is. In some places it is a distilled cane spirit, in others it can be made from agave. It can be proofed down to 35%, or be stronger. It can be added to with spices, additives, you name it…or not. It’s either a poor man’s drink or a connoisseur’s delight, an indigenous low-quality moonshine or the next wave of craft spirit-making to enthuse young hipsters looking for The Next Big Thing. 

Globally, for the purpose of those who primary spirit is rum, aguardientes are and should be limited to those which derive from cane juice only, and indeed many such spirits are properly labelled as aguardiente de cana, or some such titular linguistic variation (in Mexico this is particularly important because of the move to call agave spirts like mezcal aguardiente de agave and create a separation within the term). Unsurprisingly in a category this broad, clairins, grogues, guaros, puntas, charandas, even cachaças, are lumped into it, sometimes incorrectly – it’s a term which requires qualifying words to nail down precisely. But for the moment and this review, consider it a cane-juice-based, small-batch, local (even traditional) alcoholic beverage, and judge it on that basis.

Sources:

I have drawn on general background reading, personal experiences, wikipedia and the Rumcast interview with Francisco Terraza (timestamp 00:30:01) for some of the information on aguardientes generally and Mexico specifically


Addendum

After posting the link to this review on Reddit’s /r/rumserious (full disclosure – I am the moderator of that sub), City Barman made a comment that same evening which I felt was both enlightening and well written, and he kindly gave me permission to quote it here as an adjunct to the main review:

“Back in 2003, we went with a friend to visit his family in Oaxaca. We enjoyed an almost three week bacchanal, sampling as many of the local spirits as we could get our hands on. Tequila, mezcal and aguardiente de caña ran through our blood. The only real value of 90% of what we drank was its ability to get one drunk, on the way cheap. A far majority of it was tolerable to OK, from a taste standpoint, at least to my arrogant Western palate. 10%, however, was special, unique, sometimes divine, and as I found out later, often fleeting.

It’s a very different way of life, a very different culture that allows these incredibly small producers to exist. There is a very fine line separating them between “back-wood moonshiners” and “small batch artisans”. From month to month, a single distiller may find itself on different sides of said line. When one depends on naturally grown, fresh greens and wild, airborne yeast for the process, Mother Nature often overrides human intention. Replacing these things with more standardized, industrial methods would change the end product.

The process, by its very definition, is unpredictable and inefficient. It’s what makes the spirits cheap and “easy” to produce and also affordable to the masses. It’s also what typically creates the magic, when it happens, often entirely by accident. Unpredictable and inefficient are two qualities that ensure the likes of Diageo and Rémy Cointreau will go nowhere near the “category”, hence destroying it. The likes of Signor Gargano may find an audience for these unpredictable, small batches of joy. There may also be other producers, besides Señor Carrera, whose processes create a more consistent, predictable product.

Perhaps it’s perfectly fine and right that these spirits stay with their terroir. They represent the art in spirit making. Art that is intended for consumption, like live music and theater, is ephemeral and not entirely replicable. They also tend to be the ones that come closest to transporting their imbibers to Nirvana. Perhaps it’s good impetus to get us to escape our back yards, travel, and learn something about other human beings; their culture; their fears, hopes and dreams; their favorite drink.”


 

Aug 052021
 

Most independents who release rhums from Savanna, that distillery on Réunion which until five years ago was practically in rum’s ultima Thule, stick with their agricoles – the cane juice rhums, for which the distillery (and indeed the island) is best known. Once in a while a more adventurous indie will go and check out what they can do with their molasses based rums (like Rum Nation did with that badass 2011 7YO Traditionelle in 2018). Those occasional oddballs do succeed, but it’s the cane juice rhums that turn heads, because Savanna boosts and amplifies and juices them up to “12” by running them through the high ester still those boys use with such aplomb. And at the other end, some really good hooch gets wrung out.

Aside from Savanna’s own stable of rhums — their expressions have bred like concupiscent lapines — the indies and their audiences are having a field day with them. Rum Nation, as far back as 2016 and way ahead of the curve, had this one on the grid, and it was a good complement to their Caribbean expressions – laid down to rest in 2009, aged seven years and released to the festival circuit in 2016 and 2017. Surprisingly, almost nobody has reviewed the thing, which may simply be because of the lion’s share of the attention directed at Rum Nation was on other serious hooch on display that year: the Rares, the presentation-level Caroni 21 YO and that amazing 30 YO blended Jamaican, as well as the brawny 60.5% Traditionnelle, a year later.

So on the face of it, it seems to be another one of those really neat Rum Nation products that Fabio Rossi, the former owner, used to wryly refer to and toss off as “entry level”.  45% ABV, agricole, medium-youngish, nothing to write home about, Mommy would probably not be interested. And yet, and yet…it’s really quite a nifty piece of work. 

Take, for instance, that lovely little nose it has. It is sweet, light, aromatic, with occasional whiffs of bubble gum and strawberries. There’s a touch of sweet rosewater and sugar cane juice, light caramel, nougat, almonds and marzipan. And as it opens up over the minutes (I kept this on the go for the best part of half an hour), it happily provides even more: citrus peel, pears, mangoes and green grapes. The estery touch of Savanna is there, never outsized or excessive, out to seduce not to bludgeon, and in that sense the strength is exactly right for its purpose.

The taste is where many rums show their chops and sink or swim: because not everyone really bothers to spend an inordinate amount of time nosing what is, in any event, a social drink. Happily, I can report that all is good here also: initial tastes of cereal, malty cream, seeming to be a dampened down and not as tightly crisp or tart as the nose suggests it might be. There are notes of fanta and citrus based fruit juices, hanging around with light vanilla, tamarind (this was a surprise), more marzipan, almost but fortunately never overstepping the point of vague bitterness.  I must particularly mention the mint chocolate, oranges and a nice sweet creaminess at the back end, and the way it closed up shop: because that is where is many rums, satisfied they’ve given what they needed to, don’t think they need any kind of enthusiastic finale.  Here we have a finish that is light, crisp, sleek, sweet and dry, nicely fruity (light cherries and pineapples slices in syrup), maintaining a delicate citrus action, adding some cereal hints, and ending the sip on a fading, demure note

This is a very impressive dram for something so relatively young and standard-proofed. It lacks the rough-hewn brutality of a full proof rum clocking in over fifty, yet it’s tasty as all get out, softly solid as a Sealy posturepedic, while paradoxically retaining a light and crisp character throughout all those fancy labial and olfactory perambulations. I think of it as an unappreciated little gem, and if still available, it’s a good buy.  Sure, Savanna’s own Lontan and Grand Arome series are quite good (and the 2006 10 YO HERR remains spectacular), but you wouldn’t do yourself a disservice to try this one. It’s an approachable and affordable mid-range rhum that reeks esters while trying hard to pretend it doesn’t, all while serving up a strikingly lovely and winsome profile with sweetly understated verve and panache.

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Lots of unknown on this. The location of ageing is not precisely identified, though the “Aged in the Tropics” on the back label strongly implies full Reunion ageing.  Outturn is not mentioned, nor, surprisingly enough, is the distillery noted anywhere on the label.  I was told Savanna back in the day (not Riviere du Mat or Isautier, the only other two distilleries on the island), and have an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi asking about the other details

 

Jul 222021
 

 

Poisson-Père Labat, who worked for the most part with blancs, blends and mid range rhums, came late to the party of millesime expressions – at least, so far as I have been able to establish – and you’d be hard pressed to find any identifiable years’ rhums before 1985.  Even now I don’t see the distillery releasing them very often, though of late they seem to be upping their game and have two or three top end single casks on sale right now.

But that has not stopped others from working with the concept, and in 2017 Velier got their mitts on a pair of their barrels. That was the year in which, riding high on the success of the classic Demerara rums, the Trinidadian Caronis and the Habitation Velier series of pot still rums (among others), they celebrated the company’s 70th birthday.  Though it should be made clear that this was the company’s birthday, not the 70th year of Luca Gargano’s association with that once-unknown little distributor, since he only bought it in the early 1970s. 

In his book Nomade Tra I Barili Luca – with surprising brevity – describes his search for special barrels from around the world which exemplified his long association with the spirit, sought out and purchased for the “Anniversary Collection”; but concentrates his attention on the “Warren Khong” subset,  those rums whose label designs were done by the Singapore painter. There were, however, other rhums in the series, like the Antigua Distillers’ 2012, or the two Neissons, or the Karukera 2008.  And this one.

The rhum he selected from Poisson-Pere Labat has all the Velier hallmarks: neat minimalist label with an old map of Marie Galante, slapped onto that distinctive black bottle, with the unique font they have used since the Demeraras. Cane juice derived, 57.5% ABV, coming off a column still in 2010 and aged seven years in oak.

It’s a peculiar rhum on its own, this one, nothing like all the others that the distillery makes for its own brands. And that’s because it actually tastes more like a molasses-based rum of some age, than a true agricole. The initial nose says it all: cream, chocolate, coffee grounds and molasses, mixed with a whiff of damp brown sugar. It is only after this dissipates that we get citrus, fruits, grapes, raisins, prunes, and some of that herbal and grassy whiff which characterizes the true cane juice product. That said I must confess that I really like the balance among all these seemingly discordant elements.

The comedown is with how it tastes, because compared to the bright and vivacious effervescence of the Pere Labat 3 and 8 year old and the younger blends, the Velier 7 YO comes off as rather average. It’s warm and firm, leading in with citrus zest, a trace of molasses, aromatic tobacco, licorice and dark fruits (when was the last time you read that in a cane juice rhum review?), together with the light creaminess of vanilla ice cream. There’s actually less herbal, “green” notes than on the nose, and even the finish has a brief and rather careless “good ‘nuff” vibe to it – medium long, with hints of green tea, lemon zest, some tartness of a lemon meringue pie sprinkled with brown sugar and then poof, it’s over.

Ultimately, I find it disappointing. Partly that’s because it’s impossible not to walk into any Velier experience without some level of expectations — which is why I’m glad I hid this sample among five others and tried the lot blind; I mean, I mixed up and went through the entire set twice — and Labat’s own rums, cheaper or younger, subtly equated or beat it, and one is just left asking with some bemused bafflement how on earth did that happen? 

But it’s more than just preconceived notions and thwarted expectations, and also the way it presents, samples, tastes. I think they key might be that while the rhum does display an intriguing mix of muskiness and clarity, both at once, it’s not particularly complex or memorable –  – and that’s a surprise for a rhum that starts so well, so intriguingly.  And consider this also: can you recall it with excitement or fondness? Does it make any of your best ten lists? The rhum does not stand tall in either people’s memories, or in comparison to the regular set of rums Père Labat themselves put out the door. Everyone remembers the Antigua Distillers “Catch of the Day”, or one of the two Neissons, that St. Lucia or Mount Gilboa…but this one? Runt of the litter, I’m afraid. I’ll pass.

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Jul 192021
 

 

There is a certain whimsy about a piscatorially titled distillery. “Poisson”, the small distillery also referred to as Père Labat is located on the west side of Marie Galante (the small island to the south of Guadeloupe) and means “fish” in French — which is, I’m sure you’ll grant, a rather odd name. 

Initially, I had thought that the estate was called that to commemorate the fishermen who might once have plied their trade on the nearby coastland, but no, nothing like that. It was given the name of the woman, Catherine Poisson, who bought the land from the estate of La Marechand of which it was originally a part – her actual relationship with the owners of that time is now lost to history, alas. The Père Labat business got tacked on later, by Edouard Rameau, a subsequent owner of the Poisson estate, who spearheaded its pivot away from sugar distillation and to the making of rhum, and casually appropriated the name of the famed Dominican friar who was instrumental in the development of the sugar industry of the French Caribbean islands back in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Poisson-Père Labat continues to operate, though its name recognition quotient is not what it once was (except among enthusiasts, who sing its praises). It makes several different varieties of rhums – blancs, blends and aged expressions – at various strengths, and the subject of today’s review is from their aged line.  It is creole column still distilled, aged eight years in oak, though in a curious omission, their site doesn’t actually mention what kind (Limousin, ex-Bourbon…).  

It is also bottled at a curiously weak 42% ABV: since many of their premium rhums — and the blancs — are bottled at a higher strength, one can only assume these were meant for the American or lower end market where an aged product is called for, but not so strong as to frighten away the average drinkers.

Well, never mind.  The fact is, the rhum really is pretty good. The nose, to start off with, is clean and crisp, and has both the bite and sweet of a very good, very dry Riesling. There is a low level citrus of red grapefruit and oranges, plus bags of other juicy stuff like ripe green apples, pears, red currants, red grapes, and some herbal touches that dance around the edges without ever becoming serious participants. Not to be too anthropomorphic here, but it seems like just a bubby, crisp and happy nose. It aims only to please.

There’s an equally varied amount of tastes when one sips the thing, too – the tart, spicy fruit carries over cleanly.  Apples, yellow mangoes, unripe papayas, blood oranges, and the less-sweet black grapes.  The sharp tartness that I noted in the nose seems much more controlled here, being willing to allow the moist tobacco, freshly mown green grass and other herbs like dill and parsley to have a brief moment to shine. Sadly, the denouement leaves a lot to be desired, for while the rum surmounts the low proof in tastes and smells, at the close it kind of falls apart and chokes.  It’s wispy, short, faint, with leather, smoke, chocolate, vanilla and some undifferentiated fruits closing off the show. Nice but not impressive.  

That’s too bad, really. Had the finish been up to the standard of what came before, this would have been superlative. It presses a lot of buttons and presents a pretty well-balanced profile with a fair amount jostling for attention under the hood.  

And so, let’s sum up by noting that it’s a (small) cut above the 3YO Rhum Vieux we looked at last time. There’s more going on, more complexity, and my dissatisfaction with the close set aside, it’s a pretty neat drink to have. But as with so many other such agricoles I praise from time to time, I just wish they had added a few extra points of proof to the potion, because then it would have really shone. For the moment, though, let’s be grateful what we have gotten: a middle-aged agricole rhum bottled at living room strength which will not disappoint.

(#837)(84.5/100)


Other Notes

Jun 212021
 

Over the last decade or so, there has been an ever increasing stable of small independent bottlers popping up.  Some produce one iteration of a rum and then fold; others associate themselves with a celebrity and produce rums in quantity, often blended, catering to the mid-to-low tiers of consumption; and some combine sales of blends with sales of high end single cask bottlings. Few stay exclusively with just releasing a few hundred bottles of a cask every now and then, because such releases are perhaps the hardest to market effectively and make money from. There is a crowded market already, and if one does not have a ready buyer on hand, it’s a money losing proposition, with very thin margins.

Indeed, most of the successful single cask indies eventually do one of two things: either they increase the amount of such bottlings, or they combine it with other sources of income that subsidizes or cushions any price shocks. That could be either another line of business altogether, like the SMWS and its “actual” business of whiskies, or other types of rums. 1423, Rum Nation, and Compagnie des Indes all follow the latter route. 1423 has the Companero and Esclavo line, Rum Nation had their blended starter rums (and their whisky business), and the Compagnie also dabbles in their own blends like the Tricorne, Dominidad, Veneragua or Caraibe.

So also does L’Esprit, the tiny company in Brittany which to me is one of the most unsung, underappreciated and underrated indies out there (together with Chantal Comte). Their original and perhaps main line of business continues to be whiskies, but the rums they put out the door are sometimes nothing short of amazing (like the white mastodons of the South Pacific Distillers and Diamond. Tristan Prohomme often releases two variants of the rums he bottles – one more or less diluted-to-standard proof version for three quarters of the outturn, and one barrel proof version for the remainder.  So there’s something for everyone and neatly squelches any comments (from snarky writers like me) about how the rums could be stronger, or weaker.

What we’re looking at today is a Haitian rum from the well known Barbancourt Distillery, column-distilled in 2004 and released in 2016 at a firm 46% that should appeal to most consumers.  I’ll bet that few know anything about it, however… unless they have read the review of its 66.2% twin, which garnered a hefty 86 points from me and another 87 points from WhiskyFun.  Was its lesser proofed sibling on that level?

I thought so, yes.  It was not as deep and intense as the stronger one, but this was to its advantage, because subtler notes I missed before came out more distinctly, without being bludgeoned flat into the ground by a high strength steamroller. The nose started off beautifully, with acetone, grass, lemon zest and the delicate herbals of a cane juice rhum (which this is).  There was a fat sort of philly-cheese-on-a-freshly-baked-bagel vibe going on, and it also nosed quite well, of herbs and cooking spices — and though fairly clean and light, it provided aromas that had a certain heft to them as well. 

The palate was also quite impressive.  Some fruit starting to go off (strawberries, mangoes, that kind of thing), faint vanilla and caramel, and delicate crispness of white and watery fruits: pears, guavas, watermelon, papaya. It lacked the authority and sureness I sensed on the aromas, but it was quite complex, as well as being distinct enough for individual bits and pieces to be picked out and appreciated, and the balance was excellent throughout. The finish was long and nicely dry, quite spicy, summing up the watery fruits, acetones, tartness and creaminess that had been the showcase of the nose and palate. 

This is a good rum: I liked it almost as much as the stronger 66.2%, but frankly, there’s not much to chose between them – the tastes and aromas are the same uniformly top notch experiences, just not as extreme.  The complexity and balance can hardly be faulted, and it’s just that I prefer the intensity and forcefulness of the cask strength rhum to this one.  Even so, I score the 46% version here about the same.  And really, let’s be clear: here is a rum in two choices for the buyer, that is all about preference and one’s individual taste. You could, without even looking, pick either bottle of this quietly released, well-made Haitian, and no matter which one ends up in your glass, still come up with a good drinking experience.

(#831)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Note the NEAT glass.  I was not, and remain, unimpressed.  A copita, or a glencairn, remains my tasting glasses of choice. If you want a dissertation on glasses and choices, Single Cask did a really good job in a two part series here and here.
  • Also, a nod of appreciation to the aesthetic of Tristan Prodhomme’s beautiful sampling kits. I really like those squared off little bottles. Full disclosure: Tristan and I traded samples here.
  • Whiskyfun scored it 86 points.  Leaving aside his scores and mine, the comparison of the two strengths of rhums from the same barrel  by both of us, is an interesting commentary on how varied proof points influence the assessment.
Jun 172021
 

 

Recapping some background for William Hinton — it is a Madeira based distillery with antecedents as far back as 1845; at one point, in the 1920s, it was the largest sugar factory on the island if not in Europe – but in 1986 it ceased operations for two decades, 1, and was then restarted in 2006 under the name Engenho Novo da Madeira, still making branded rum under the Hinton banner.  They make their own rums as well as exporting bulk elsewhere, which is how Fabio Rossi picked a few up for his Rare Rums collection back in 2017.

The company has three tiers of rum quality, with the lowest level being considered basic backbar “service” rums for mixing: there are three of these, from a 40% white we looked at in #829, a 9 months aged, and one that’s three years old. That 40% white was a flaccid agricole that could conceivably put a drinker to sleep out of simple boredom, but things get a lot more jazzed up and a whole lot more interesting with the premium or “Limited” level white (labelled as “Natural”). Neatly put, the two classes of rums generally and the two whites in particular, are night and day.

Some the stats of the two whites in the classes are the same – column still, cane juice origin…they are both agricoles. Fermented for 2-3 days with wild yeast (the other was 24 hours), and then run through that old refurbished column still that had been decommissioned (but kept) from the original estate at Funchal (Engenho do Torreão) when things shut down in 1986. And then, as if dissatisfied with this nod at tradition, they released the premium version without any ageing at all (unlike the “service” white which had been aged and then filtered back to transparency). It was also left at full strength, which is a serious attention grabbing 69%, enough to make the glass tremble, just a bit. 

That combination of zero ageing and high strength made the Edição Limitada blanco very much like some of those savage white rums I’ve written about here and here. And that’s a good thing – too often, when a company releases two rums of the same production process but differing proofs, it’s like all they do is take the little guy, chuck it on the photocopier and pressed “enlarge”. Not here. Oh no. Here, it’s a different rum altogether. 

The nose, for example, is best described as “serious” – an animal packing heat and loaded for bear: it starts with salt, brine, olives, wax, rubber, polish, and yet, the whole time it feels clear — fierce, yes, but clear nevertheless — and almost aromatic, not weighed down with too little frantically trying to do too much. A bit fruity, herbal to a fault, particularly mint, dill, sage and touch of thyme. There are some citrus notes and a warm kind of vegetal smell that suggests a spicy tom yum soup with quite a few mean-looking pimentos cruising around in it.

I particularly want to call attention to the palate, which is as good or better than that nose, because that thing happily does a tramping stomping goose step right across the tongue and delivers oodles of flavour: it’s like a sweeter version of the Paranubes, with rubber, salt, raisins and a cornucopia of almost ripe and fleshy fruits that remain hard and tart.  The taste is herbal (thyme and dill again), and also sports olives, vanilla, unsweetened yoghurt, and a trace of almost apologetic mint to go with the fruity heat. The finish is excellent — long and salty, loads of spices and herbs, and a very peculiar back note of minerals and ashes.  These don’t detract from it, but they are odd to notice at all and I guess they are there to remind you not to take it for granted.

The rhum, in short, is amazing. It upends several notions of how good a white can be and for my money gives Wray & Nephew 63% White Overproof some real competition in that category and even exceeds the Rivers Royale 69% out of Grenada, though they are different in their construction and don’t taste the quite same. The flavours are hot and spicy and there’s lots of them, yet they never get in each other’s way and are well balanced, complex to a fault and good for any purpose you might wish to put it. 

What this all leaves us with, then, is an agricole rhum that is powerful, herbal, floral and all round tasteful. It’s quality is in fact such a jump up from the “Service” white that I really must suggest you try the more premium rums, and this one, only after exploring the cheaper variants. Because if you do it the other way round you’ll really not want to have that much to do with the lesser parts of Hinton’s overall range. The Limitada excites that kind of admiration, and happily, it deserves every bit of it.

(#830)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • The rum is issued in lots (or batches), by year, and all front labels tell you which one it is (here it’s Lot #1 of 2017), though not how many lots in that year. Each such batch is 500 bottles or so — hence the “Limitada” in the name —  and both this and the bottle number is mentioned on the back label.
Jun 142021
 

William Hinton from Madeira is not a name to conjure with in the annals of rum, but this is not the first time they have come up for mention – their distillery produced the Engenho Novo da Madeira rum that Rum Nation released with some fanfare back in 2017. The following year the company of Engenho Novo, Hinton’s new incarnation (and not to be confused with Engenhos do Norte, producer of the “970 Agricola”) released some rums for themselves, and we’ll be looking at these over the next week or so.

Hinton classify their rums into three tiers: (1) the exclusive single casks, which are blends of 6YO “new Hinton” rums and 25 YO “old Hinton” rums from before the shutdown in 1986 (see below) which are then finished in various other barrels like wine or whisky or what have you; (2) the premium range which consists of two rums, an award winning 6 YO and a high proof white; and (3) the bartenders’ mixes, for general audiences, which their website refers to, in an odd turn of phrase, as a “service rum.” One of that final category is the white rum we’re examining today.

The white is a cane juice agricole – a term which Madeira has a right to use – but it is not unaged.  While the site does not specifically say so, I was told it’s under a year, around six months, in French oak casks 1. It is bottled at 40%, column still, so nothing “serious”.  It’s made fit for purpose, that’s all.

Unfortunately that purpose seems to be to put me to sleep. Dare I say it is underwhelming? It is a soft and extremely light white rum with very little in the way of an aromas at all.  It’s delicate, flowery and admittedly very clean – and one has to seriously pay attention to make out some flowers, dill, herbs, grass, sugar water and wet moss (!!), before it disappears like a summer zephyr you barely sensed in the first place

The palate is better, and remains light and clean. It has a queer sort of dusty aroma to it, like old library books stored in long disused storage room. That gradually goes away and is replaced with a dry taste of cheerios, and some fruits.  Almonds and a curiously faint whiff of vanilla. I read somewhere that this white is  made to service a poncha — a very old cocktail from Portugal’s great seafaring days invented to combat scurvy (rum plus sugar plus lemon juice, and some honey) — not so much to replace Bacardi Superior … though you could not imagine them being displeased if it did.  Drinking it neat is probably a nonstarter since it’s so wispy, and of course there’s not much of a finish (at 40% I wasn’t looking for one). Briefly fruity and floral, a quick whiff of herbs, and it’s gone. 

Although it has some very brief tastes and aromas that I suppose derive from the minimal ageing (before the results of that process got filtered right back out again), the white displays little that would make it stand out. In fact, while demonstrably being an agricole, it hardly tastes like one at all. It’s what I’m beginning to refer to more and more often as a “cruise-ship white”, a kind of all-encompassing milquetoast rum whose every character has been bleached and out so its only remaining function is to deliver a shot of bland alcohol (like, say, vodka) into a mixed drink for those who don’t know or don’t care (or both).

That said, honesty compels me to admit that there was some interesting stuff in the wings, sensed but not seen, a trace only, perhaps only waiting to emerge at the proper time, but alas, not enough to save it. The premium series probably address such deficiencies, and if so, it was a smart move to separate the generalized cocktail fodder (which this is) from a more upscale and dangerous version aimed at more masochistic folks who’ll try anything once.  If you want to know the real potential of Hinton’s white rum, don’t stop and waste time dawdling with this one, go straight for the 69% and be prepared to have your socks blown off.  Unless you like soft and easy whites, I’d walk away from this one.

(#829)(75/100)


Background & History

It’s long been noted that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and continued its westward march by being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century.  From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a stable and very profitable cash crop in Madeira and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years. At that point, with Brazil and other Portuguese colonies becoming the main sources of sugar, the focus of Madeira switched to wine, for which it became renowned (sugar cane production continued, just at a reduced level). 

The British took some involvement in the island in the 1800s, which led to several inflows of their citizens, some of whom stayed – one of these was William Hinton, a businessman who arrived in 1838 and started the eponymous company seven years later.  First a sugar factory was constructed and a distillery was added — these were large and technologically advanced and allowed Engenho Hinton to become the largest sugar processor on the island, as well as the largest rum maker (though I’m not sure what rums they actually did produce) by the 1920s. 

Unfortunately, by the 1970s and 1980s as sugar production became more and more industrialized and global, more cheaply produced  sugar from Brazil and India and elsewhere cut into Hinton’s sales (they were part of a regulated EEC industry, so low-cost labour was not an option), and by 1986 the factory and distillery closed and the facilities were mothballed – the website gives no reasons for the closure, so I’m making an educated guess here, as well as assuming they did not sell off or otherwise dispose of what bean counters like me like to refer to as “plant”.

It was restarted by Hinton’s heirs in 2006 as Engenho Novo de Madeira with a column still and using Madeira sugar cane: here again there is scanty information on where this sugar cane comes from, their own property or bought from others. Whatever the source, the practice of using rendered sugar cane juice (”honey”) continued and notes from a brochure I have state that the column still was one restored in 1969 and again in 2007, suggesting that when the distillery closed, its equipment remained intact and in place.


 

Jun 102021
 

As I remarked in a review opener last year, the UK indie Bristol Spirits appears to have fallen somewhat out of fashion of late, and its releases are not held up as ecstatically as they used to be, nor are reviews of their products either forthcoming or swooned over the way they used to be (that may be a function of the current pandemic as well). However, neither that nor the somewhat moribund website of the company should be taken as an indicator of any loss of focus or lack of activity. Mr. John Barret, the owner, with whom I had a most enjoyable conversation this morning (he just so happened to be wandering past the phone when I called and picked it up) rather wryly remarked that they are simply too busy with the real world to pay too much attention to the digital one, and are going great guns with their aged rum program irrespective of whether online attention is paid to their offerings or not.

One of their older products, predating the pandemic, is a cane juice rhum produced at Labourdonnais Distillery on the island of Mauritius (see below for further details on the distillery and estate). The Indian Ocean island is the home of other well known names like New Grove, Lazy Dodo, Grays, St. Aubin, Chamarel — and somewhere around 2010 or so, Bristol Spirits imported some unaged white rum from the distillery, and bottled a part of it immediately. The rest was left to age: some, matured in sherry wood, was released as a five year old rum in 2015 and this year (2021) they are pushing out the remainder in a 10 year old I’d be quite interested in.

For now, let’s just stick with this one: a 43% column still distillate deriving from cane juice, unaged, unfiltered, white, from a distillery few would likely know much about unless it was from The Fat Rum Pirate’s 4½ star review of the Boutique-y Rum Company’s 5 year old, back in 2019.

What surprised me about the rhum (for so we shall term it since it can’t be called an agricole) was how much like a Cabo Verde grogue it was. The nose, for example, channelled some of that same almost easy, relaxed scents as, oh, the Barbosa.  Nosing something like a dry white wine, it was redolent of freshly mown grass, green grapes and apples, sweet, light, and almost — but not quite — delicate. Cherries, raspberries and a touch of sour cider followed, as well as a sly hint of brininess after a few minutes.  Overall, the aroma had a distinctly agricole vibe to it, which of course was unsurprising. I liked it a lot.

The taste hardly faltered, which was a relief since a great nose does not always a great palate make. At 43% ABV it remained approachable, and an easy sip – warm yet cheerfully spicy; I tasted sugar water, the slight tang of tinned pears in syrup, white guavas, pears, papaya, all overlaid with the crisp and tart freshness of green apples, a bite of bubble gum and again, that trace of wine and brine in equal measure, lending character to the whole. That doesn’t sound like it should work, but yeah, it really kind of does.  The finish was nice and long, but here the complexity faded out and left mostly some fruity sugar water, which I accepted with as much grace as I could muster, the smell and flavours having so charmed me to begin with.

Now me, I like white rums. Not the over-filtered, clear, bland, anonymous and unaromatic cocktail fodder that clogs up far too many glasses, but clusterbombs of flavour like clairins or grogues, or the white lightning from Saint James, DDL, Depaz, Capovilla, Worthy Park, A1710, Issan, Savanna….well, the list is long, what can I say? Here’s another one to add to the list – it’s not fierce or feral, and doesn’t want to cause you pain. It is simply a compact and neat homunculus of a rumlet with oodles of flavour that dance and cavort across the senses, and one  that I will remember with great fondness.  

It occurs to me that it would probably retain all its charm and profile even if beefed up to a greater strength…however, I would argue that’s unnecessary, because it’s near perfect as a sipper exactly as it is, even if unaged. Mr. Barrett told me that Bristol never did really good business with it, and fell back to ageing the rest of their stock as a consequence. I think if more people had tried it when it was first released and whites had a better street cred at that point, then this Labourdonnais white wouldn’t have languished in the doldrums, but flown off the shelves. And in point of fact, as soon as this review goes up, I think I’m going  to go looking for one myself.

(#828)(86/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Mr. Barrett who was courteous and polite and answered all my usual questions. Couldn’t help but mention I was a big fan ever since I’d had the amazing Port Mourant 1980 all those years ago.
  • Outturn unknown
  • From the other references I saw, the label seem to be misspelled and the distillery name is one word, not two

Company Background

Labourdonnais is a distillery, of course, but is of relatively recent vintage, as are all such companies on Mauritius.  In 2006 the law was relaxed to permit rum distillation – before that all sugar cane planted on the island had to be made into sugar, the prime export crop.  As soon as this happened, the agricultural estate of Labourdonnais – home of the beautifully landscaped gardens and the famed Château de Labourdonnais – built a new distillery on their property, naming it Rhumerie des Mascareignes, and then renaming it La Distillerie de Labourdonnais in 2014, probably to line up with all the other agricultural and horticultural activities of the property for which it was better known. It has been making cane juice rum ever since, mostly white and lightly aged “amber” rums, but also exporting some bulk, primarily to Europe. 

Apr 292021
 

The small Martinique brand (once a distillery) of Dillon is not one which makes rhums that raises fiercely acquisitive instincts in the cockles of anyone’s hearts, if one goes by the dearth of any kind of online commentary on their stuff. When was the last time you saw anyone, even on the major French language Facebook rhum clubs, crow enthusiastically about getting one? And yet Dillon has a complete – if small – set of rhums: aged versions, blancs, mixers etc.  And those that I have tried (not many, which is my loss) have been quite good. 

Today’s subject is not a distillery brand, but from one of the independents, Florent Beuchet’s Compagnie des Indes.  Long time readers of these reviews will know of my fondness for Florent’s selections, which mix up some occasionally interesting offbeat rums with the more common fare from Central America and the Caribbean that all the indies bottle.  For example, there was the Indonesian rhum released in 2015, the recent 10-Cane rum, rums from Fiji, some from Guadeloupe, and even Guatemala. 

So here is a rhum from Dillon, which nowadays has its distillation apparatus located in Depaz’s facilities (see biographical notes, below), and this makes Dillon more of a brand than a complete cane-to-cork operation. It’s a single barrel offering, 2002 vintage which was aged in Europe for 9 years of the total of 13, bottled at a quiet 44%. Note that two Dillon barrels were bottled in 2015, MA56 with a 298-bottle outturn, and MA67 with 322, but my sample didn’t mention which it was so I contacted the source, the Danish rum tooth fairy Nicolai Wachmann…and it was MA67 for those who absolutely need to know.

Whatever the case, I must advise you that if you like agricoles at all, those smaller names and lesser known establishments like Dillon should be on your radar. Not all of the rhums they make are double-digit aged, so those that are, even if farmed out to a third party, are even more worth looking at. Just smell this one, for example: it’s a fruitarian’s wet dream. In fact, the aroma almost strikes me like a very good Riesling mixing it up with a 7-up, if you could conceive of such an unlikely pairing. Lighter than the Savanna HERR and much more delicate than even a low-strength Hampden, it smells crisp and very clean, with bags of pineapple slices, green grapes, apples, red grapefruit, bubble gum and lemon zest, all underlaid by a nice nutty and creamy white chocolate and some vanilla and flowers.

Strength is a major component of the assessment of a rhum like this.  44% is the wrong ABV for a woody and character-laden deeper rum like, say a Port Mourant (I think – your mileage may vary), but for a lighter and more scintillating agricole such as the Dillon, it’s spot on. Much of the nose bleeds over to the taste: sprite, grapefruit, lemon zest, pineapples, strawberries, and also ripe mangoes, green grapes, apples, pears and a touch of cinnamon and vanilla.  At first it feels too light, too easy, but as one gets used to the underlying complexity and balance, a really well-assembled piece of work slowly comes into focus. And this is the case even on the finish: it’s tight, medium-long, and always completely under control, never overstaying its welcome, never being bitchy, never hurrying off before the last bit of flavour – citrus peel, vanilla, whipped cream, pineapples – is showcased.  

In short, though released some years ago and getting harder to find, I think this is one of those rhums that got unnecessarily short shrift from the commentariat then, and gets as little now – because it’s something of a steal. Dillon may be off the map for all those people who love posting pictures of their latest acquisitions from Hampden, WP, Fiji, Foursquare or the ultra-aged indie-release of a wooden still rum; and it barely registers in comparison to better known agricole makers like Saint James, Clement, Damoiseau, Neisson or JM (among others).  I just think it should not be written off quite so fast — because even for a single barrel release where singular aspects of the cask’s profile is what led to its selection in the first place, it’s a flavourful, well-layered, well-balanced dram that is at that a near perfect strength to showcase its attributes. And there are really quite a lot of those, for anyone desirous of checking out a lesser known marque.

(#816)(86/100)


Other notes 

Dillon was established in 1690 when the site of the distillery in Fort de France was settled by Arthur Dillon, a soldier with Lafayette’s troops in the US War of Independence. A colonel at the age of sixteen, he married a well-to-do widow and used her funds to purchase the estate, which produced sugar until switching over to rhum in the 19th century. 

The original sugar mill and plant was wiped out in the 1902 volcanic eruption of Mont Pele, and eventually a distillery went into operation in 1928, by which time there had been several changes in ownership.  In 1967 Bordeaux Badinet (now Bardinet / La Martiniquaise Group) took over, the mill closed and the original Corliss steam engine and the creole column still was sent up the road to Depaz…so nowadays Dillon continues growing its own cane, but the distillation and bottling is done by Depaz, which is owned by the same group.

Dave Russell of Rum Gallery, who actually visited the distillery, remarked that the creole single column still is still in operation and is used specifically to make the Dillon marque, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from Depaz’s own rhums.

Apr 182021
 

When most people spend money on rhum agricoles, they tend to go for the upscale aged (“vieux”) editions, those handily aged expressions or millesimes which have tamed the raw white juice dripping off the still by ageing them for several years. Consumers like the smooth sipping experience of an aged brown spirit, and not many consider that while such rhums do indeed taste lovely and are worth their price tag, the ageing process does take away something too – some of the fresh, snappy bite of a white rhum that hasn’t yet been altered in any way by wood-spirit interaction and a long rest.

Locals in the French West Indies have for centuries drunk the blanc rhum almost exclusively – after all, they didn’t have time to muck around waiting a few years for their favourite tipple to mature and in any case the famous tropical Ti-punch was and remains tailor made to showcase the fresh grassiness and herbal pizzazz of a well made blanc. To this day, just about every one of the small distilleries in the French islands, no matter how many aged rhums they make, always has at least one house blanc rhum, and just about all of them are great. In fact, so popular have they become, that nowadays increasingly specialized “micro-rhums” (my term) based on parcellaires and single varietals of sugar cane are beginning to become a real thing and make real sales. 

Depaz’s 45% rhum blanc agricole is not one of these uber-exclusive, limited-edition craft whites that uber-dorks are frothing over. But the quality and taste of even this standard white shows exactly how good the blancs were in the first place, and how the rhum makers of Depaz got it so right to begin with. Consider the nose: it is fresh, vegetal and frothily green, vibrantly alive and thrumming with aromas of crisp sugar cane sap, sugar water and tart watermelon juice.  And that’s the just for openers – it has notes of green apples, grapes, cucumbers in sweet vinegar and pimento, and a clean sense of fruits and soda pop, even some brine and an olive or two.  All this from a rum considered entry level.

The palate has difficulty living up to that kind of promise, but that should by no means dissuade one from trying it.  It’s a completely traditional and delectable agricole profile: sweet, grassy and very crisp on the tongue, like a tart lemon sherbet.  It tastes of lemon, cumin, firm white pears and papayas, and even shows off some firm yellow mangoes, soursop and star-apples. The 45% isn’t very strong, yet it provides a depth of flavour one can’t find much fault with, and this carries over into a nicely long-lasting, spicy finish that is sweet, green, tart and very clean. There’s a whole bunch of fruit left behind on the finish and it really makes for a nice neat pour, or (of course) a Ti-punch.

Depaz is located on the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, which is at the foot of  Mount Pelée  itself: it has been in existence since 1651 when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since. The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige, to name just a few. 

I have never tried as many of their rhums as I would like, and for a company whose rums I enjoy quite a bit, it’s odd I don’t spend more time and money picking up the range (I feel the same way about Bielle and Dillon). I keep adding to my knowledge-base of Depaz’s rhums year in and year out, however, and so far have found little to criticize and much to admire.  When even an entry level product of the line is as god as this one is, you know that here there’s a company who’s attending seriously to business, and from whom only better things can be expected as one goes up the line of their products.

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.
Apr 042021
 

Back in 2019 before the world changed, I was fortunate enough (and for the first time ever), to get a “blogger” badge at the Berlin Rumfest.  This did not, of course, class with the far cooler “Exhibitor” or “Judge” badge that others ostentatiously wore front and center.  Nor did it come with any kind of perks: I did not get let in free; it conferred no free samples or extra goodies; I was not plied with hats, shirts, glasses, and the thing absolutely did not give free entrance to master classes and seminars. In fact, it was so small and drab it could almost be overlooked altogether. Yet I was inordinately proud that I had one, and preened to all and sundry until I was brought down to earth by (who else?) The Little Caner, who asked in that ego-deflating manner he has perfected from his old age of fourteen, what it was good for.

In fine, just one thing: it allowed me to get in one hour earlier than everyone else, and since I usually try to arrive at the opening bell, this was a godsend, because it meant I could talk to some of the busier booth people without a crowd, before they got distracted. So there I was at 11a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning looking for old friends and new ones, and spotted Benoit Bail over at the Saint James stand.  He was talking with Marc Sassier (the resident oenologist who is in charge of production at Saint James on Martinique) — I wandered over to say hello, and we started talking about white rhums, of which three examples were on the tabletop.

Now, I had tried that shudderingly powerful 60º colourless Hammer of Thor that was the Coeur de Chauffe earlier that year and Marc allowed it was definitely deserving of all the plaudits (it was a non-AOC pot-still white, unusual for Martinique). “But you should try the other two as well,” he said, pointing to the bottles. My eye went first to the frosted bottle of the 50% Fleur de Canne, and he suggested I try it after the 40% red-lettered version. “Forget the Imperial name,” he told me, “This rhum is the original, just watered down for the bartenders circuit. Good to start you off.”

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

Everyone laughed. “They are all sipping rums to someone,” Marc smiled, and he and Benoit courteously left me to try the soft white rhum. 

And indeed, I enjoyed the nose immensely – it had a nice lemony and herbal opening, like rain on freshly mown grass on a hot clear day. You could almost smell the sunlight. It had all the hallmarks of a really well made agricole rhum: herbs, dill, parsley and a trace of coriander; crisp cucumbers in sweet apple cider, with a red sweet pepper dropped in for kick. A lovely, clean aroma of a natural product.

I looked up from my note-taking. “All the usual?” I called over. “Cane juice, crushing within 48 hours of harvest, quick fermentation, creole still?” 

Marc looked highly amused. “It would not have the “AOC” on the label without it,” he pointed out. And of course he was right: that appellation is very strict and fiercely adhered to — Saint James would hardly mess around with it. “Just checking,” I said, glad he wasn’t offended — maybe he knew me well enough from my writing to understand why I’d ask the question. He went back to his conversation, and I went back to my tasting.

I liked the palate, but here the softening to 40% and its more uncouth nature worked against it, and it lacked something of the finesse I expect from a well-made white. Now, the grassy, tangy freshness of the nose carried over – it was just weak and lacked the assertiveness that would make a statement and allow the flavours to pop. That said, there was some roughness in the notes of lime, bitters, tart fruits, sugar cane sap and green apples which was evident on the neat pour, and it was quickly over. The finish was as crisp and short, and as sharp as Mrs. Caner’s criticisms of my many failings…but it must be said that many of the aromas of the nose – tart apples, grass, dill, lemongrass – carry through. “It’s quite an experience,” I remarked later to Benoit and Mark, when we were discussing the rhums.

Saint James has a range of what some generously refer to as “starter” or “cocktail” rums. The Imperial Blanc, the first of these, retails for around €20, and is succeeded up the price and value chain by the Royal Blanc Agricole (50º, also red lettered label), then the blue-letter variation of the Rhum Blanc Agricole 55º and the rather more upscale frosted bottle of the Fleur de Canne (50º) which is sort of a special edition white, the last of the column-still unaged blancs before the Coeur de Chauffe blows them all into next week.

I’ve tried quite a few of these whites from the company, and the thing is, what impresses about the Imperial is its cost benefit ratio — it tastes well and noses even better for the first and cheapest rhum in that lineup. The profile is reasonably good, isn’t strong enough to offend or frighten, and provides most of what is required of a low-level intro to unaged agricoles.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes a great Ti’ punch – you need to go to 50º for that to happen, and Clement and Damoiseau provide stiff competition as well – but its very good at providing a flavourful jolt to whatever you feel like adding it to, even at standard strength.  So while I wouldn’t say it’s a key rum of any kind, it certainly is tailor made for bars, and for anyone of lean purse who wants to start working on his knowledge of the blanc side. 

(#810)(80/100)