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.

(#828)(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)

Feb 012021
 

Although the Rhum Rhum PMG is essentially a rhum made at Bielle distillery on Guadeloupe, it uses a Mueller still imported there by Luca Gargano when he envisioned producing a new (or very old) type of rhum agricole, back in 2005. He wanted to try making a double distilled rhum hearkening back to the pre-creole-still days, and provide a profile like that of a Pére Labat pot still rhum he had once been impressed with and never forgot.

Co-opting Gianni Capovilla into his scheme (at the time Capovilla was creating a reputation for himself playing around with brandy, grappa and eau de vie in Italy), the two made Marie Galante a second home for themselves as they brought their plan to fruition with Dominic Thierry, the owner of Bielle. “We used fresh, undiluted cane juice provided by the Bielle mills and then subjected it to a long fermentation in small 30hl steel cuvees, before double distilling it in two copper stills through a bain-marie (a water bath, or double boiler).” And in 2006 the first rhum came off the new still.

Although the plan was always to sell white (unaged) rhum, some was also laid away to age and the aged portion turned into the “Liberation” series in later years.  The white was a constant, however, and remains on sale to this day – this orange-labelled edition was 56% ABV and I believe it is always released together with a green-labelled version at 41% ABV for gentler souls. It doesn’t seem to have been marked off by year in any way, and as far as I am aware production methodology remains consistent year in and year out.

What the rhum does, then, is mark an interesting departure from the regular run of rhum agricoles which usually have a single pass through a creole column: here it has a longer fermentation time, and two runs through a pot still.  I would never dream of dissing the French islands’ blancs – they are often amazing drinks stuffed with squirming ferrets of flavour – but I gotta tell you, this thing is a quiet stunner that more than holds its own.

Nosing it immediately suggests a different kind of profile from the sweet grassy herbals of a true blanc. This is more like a Paranubes, or a clairin – it starts with that same wax and brine and olives and sweet hot dog relish, as if daring you to chuck it away; it calms down to more earthy flavours of black bread, salt butter, cream cheese, and a nice vegetable soup spiced up with a sweet soya sauce; then it gets pleasantly, crisply sweet – fennel, cane juice, citrus, lemon grass, and nice tart green apples.  Quite a series of aromas to work through, not something to be hurried if you can spare the time.

On the palate the brininess (which would have been off-putting here, I think) retreats and it becomes somewhat warmer.  At first the slight sour of a Korean chili sauce is evident, and a sweet-salt soya dunked into a soup with too much ginger and too many carrots.  But this is just the first sip or two – once one acclimatizes, other more traditional tastes that any agricole lover would recognize come out of hiding: citrus (limes); cane juice; green grapes and apples; cloves, rosemary and even a hint of firm yellow mangoes of the sort West Indians love with salt and chili pepper.  The rhum remains fresh and bright and not sharp at all, just exceedingly complex, with a lot of different layers chasing themselves up and down and around your tongue, before it finally fades away with closing notes of cardamom, papaya, mangoes, cucumbers in vinegar, swank and lime juice. It’s crisp and clean throughout, and the balance is really superb.

From the description I’m giving, it’s clear that I like this rhum, a lot. I think it mixes up the raw animal ferocity of a more primitive cane juice rhum with the crisp and clear precision of a Martinique blanc, while just barely holding the damn thing on a leash, and yeah, I enjoyed it immensely. I do however, wonder about its accessibility and acceptance given the price, which is around $90 in the US. It varies around the world and on Rum Auctioneer it averaged out around £70 (crazy, since Master of Malt have it for £48), which is problematic when one considers all the other very good blancs out there retailing for less. 

For people into their cocktails and who love white rums with real character, I would suggest it’s the bees knees, however.  It’s got great complexity, loads of flavour and is made at right angles to more popular and better known whites that aren’t as “difficult”. Yet at the same time it respects the traditions of rhum making; and it tastes amazing. It might not appeal to those now getting into the white rhum subculture – at least, not yet – but perhaps once in a while when there’s a bit of extra coin rattling around in the pockets, it’ll be worth it to splurge on this distinctive and original white rhum which gets far too little press. It may yet turn out to be that undiscovered gem we’re all look for, even if it’s not quite underpriced.

(#798)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Quotes and production details taken from Nomadi tra i Barrili by Luca Gargano © 2019 Velier Spa.
  • The PMG stands for Pour Marie Galante – “For Marie Galante”.
  • Tarquin Underspoon in her very readable (and positive) reddit review, comments on the price (a “craft tax”) as well and suggests alternatives if it is felt to be too steep.
Jan 262021
 

In an ever more competitive market – and that includes French island agricoles – every chance is used to create a niche that can be exploited with first-mover advantages.  Some of the agricole makers, I’ve been told, chafe under the strict limitations of the AOC which they privately complain limits their innovation, but I chose to doubt this: not only  there some amazing rhums coming out the French West Indies within the appellation, but they are completely free to move outside it (as Saint James did with their pot still white) – they just can’t put that “AOC” stamp of conformance on their bottle, and making one rum outside the system does not invalidate all the others they can and do make within it.

This particular rhum illustrates the point nicely. It’s an AOC rhum made from a very specific variety of cane coloured gray-purple (don’t ask me how that got translated to ‘blue’) which is apparently due to an abundance of wax on the stem. It’s been used by Habitation Clément since 1977 and supposedly has great aromatics and is richer than usual in sugar, and is completely AOC-approved.

Clément has been releasing the canne bleue varietal rhums in various annual editions since about 2000. Its signature bottle has gone through several iterations and the ice blue design has become, while not precisely iconic, at least recognizable – you see it and you know it’s a Clément rhum of that kind you’re getting.  Curiously, for all that fancy look, the rum retails for relative peanuts – €40 or less.  Maybe because it’s not aged, or the makers feared it wouldn’t sell at a higher price point. Maybe they’re still not completely sold on the whole unaged white rhum thing, even if the clairins are doing great business, and unaged blancs have gotten a respect of late (especially in the bar and cocktail circuit), which they never enjoyed before

What other types of cane Habitation Clément uses is unknown to me.  They have focused on this one type to build a small sub-brand around and it’s hard to fault them for the choice, because starting just with the nose, it’s a lovely white rum, clocking in at a robust 50% ABV. What I particularly liked about it is its freshness and clarity: it reminds me a lot of of Neisson’s 2004 Single Cask (which costs several times as much), just a little lighter. Salty wax notes meld nicely with brine and tart Turkish olives to start.  Then the crisp peppiness of green apples and yoghurt, sugar water, soursop and vinegar-soaked cucumber with a wiri-wiri pepper chopped into it. The mix of salt and sour and sweet and hot is really not bad.

It’s sharp on the initial tasting – that levels down quickly.  It remains spicy-warm from there on in, and is mostly redolent of fresh, sweet and watery fruit: so, pears, ripe green apples, white guavas.  There are notes of papaya, florals, loads of swank, avocados, some salt, all infused with lemon grass, ginger and white pepper.  The clarity and crispness of the nose is tempered somewhat as the tasting goes on, allowing softer and less aggressive flavours to emerge, though they do stay on the edges and add background rather than hogging the whole stage. The finish is delicate and precise; short, which is somewhat surprising, yet flavourful – slight lemon notes, apricots, cinnamon and a touch of unsweetened yoghurt.

So, what to make of this econo-budget white rhum? Well, I think it’s really quite good. The Neisson I refer to above was carefully aged, more exclusive, cost more…and yet scored the same — though it was for different aspects of its profile, and admittedly its purpose for being is also not the same as this one. I like this unaged blanc because of its sparkling vivacity, its perkiness, its rough and uncompromising nature which masks an unsuspected complexity and quality. There are just so many interesting tastes here, jostling around what is ostensibly a starter product (based on price if nothing else) — this thing can spruce up a mixed drink with no problem, a ti-punch for starters, and maybe a daiquiri for kicks. 

I don’t know what aspects of its profile derive from that bleue cane specifically because so far in my sojourn through The Land of Blanc I’ve experienced so many fantastic rhums and each has its own peculiar distinctiveness. All I can say is that the low pricing here suggests a rhum that lives and dies at the bottom of the scale…but you know, it really shouldn’t be seen that way.  It’s far too good for that.

(#796)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Production is limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest. Not precisely a limited edition but for sure something unique to each year.
  • Thanks to Etienne Sortais, who provided me with the sample, insisting I try the thing. He was certainly right about that.
Nov 302020
 

It says “rum” on the label, but for all intents and purposes we should be calling it rhum. Chamarel made it out of cane juice on the island of Mauritius, and it’s an easy-going, sweet-smelling, good-tempered cane juice rhum that got wrung out of a pot still on the island and somehow didn’t turn into some foul-smelling, cantankerous harridan in the process.  That’s probably deliberate, because had they done so, while it might have enthused the fanboys of unaged white lightning made in the backwoods, it might also cost a sale or two among the less adventurously minded.

Suffice to say, the rhum derives from cane that is grown and harvested on their estate, crushed within the day and the juice fermented for around 36 hours; then it’s run twice through Chamarel’s small (20 hL) copper pot stills and that’s about it.  Into the bottle with you, at a workmanlike 44%, white as water. It presents demurely and innocently – nothing to see here, folks, move along.

What comes out of it and into your glass is, to say the least, surprising.  You know me, I like those feral white rums north of 60% that barely contain their untamed ferocity and wild screaming tastes, and strut around thumping their chests like King Kong in a glass.  This one isn’t anything like that.  It’s warm and firm, with a sort gentle complexity rising to the nose: brine, olives, wax, swank, and watery fruit like pears and white guavas.  There’s a nice snap of sugar cane juice here, coconut water, vanilla, and a bagful of fruits that aren’t aggrieved and pissed off so much as resigned to just chilling out. 

On the tongue it gets crisper, clearer: which is good in its own way, yet creates other problems, the most notable of which is that it becomes evident that there are just a few clean tastes here, and that’s all. Light vanilla, cereals, nuts, almonds and chocolate, developing gradually into some acidic yellow fruits (unripe mangoes, pears, apricots) and a subtle line of citrus that could have been stronger.  It’s pleasant and easy to drink, and the finish is short and breezy — fruits and vanilla and some white chocolate — with nothing substantially new to add.

Overall, it’s a perfectly nice drink, yet I’m left vaguely dissatisfied, since it started so well and then just kind of dribbled away into an anonymity from which I felt the pot still and lack of ageing should have saved it. Was it perhaps too well tended and planed away to appeal to the masses?  Maybe.

So, no, this isn’t Rumzilla, or a King Kong of the blancs.  But with some effort it might get close to that big bad boy, because you can sense the potential, were it to be stronger and babied less in the cuts, allowed to have its head to go (no pun intended) a little ape. Then it could be, at the very least, the Son of Kong.  In a nice little perfume box.  I could completely live with that.

(#781)(79/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, cultivates its own sugarcane, and has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

Nov 052020
 

Reimonenq out of Guadeloupe is not a producer whose rhums I’ve tried much of, and so the initial attack of this Grande Reserve — nuts, nougat, toblerone, vanilla ice cream and sweet white chocolate — took me somewhat off balance.  The Vielli was a rhum aged 7 years, so I expected a bit of agricole-ness mixed up with more traditional aged olfactory components, not something like that, not right off. But there they were, clogging up my nose.  And that wasn’t all – the dourness of the opening was followed by stuff that was a lot more sprightly – dried apricots, pineapples, strawberry bubble gum, acidic green apples, mint, thyme and Fanta.  I mean, it started out relatively solid but became – or at least seemed to become – progressively more lighthearted, chirpy, progressively younger, as time went by. Not in age but in feeling.

Even the texture and taste of it on the tongue channeled some of that dichotomy, the musky and the crisp, balancing between an aged rhum and a more youthful expression. Sweet bubble gum and flowers, dill, hot black tea, no shortage of various citrus fruits (orange, lemon, red grapefruit), green grapes, brine, red olives.  There was even sweetness, marmalade on toasted bread vanilla, a touch of brown sugar, acetones and nail polish, if you could believe it, with a faint whiff of exotic kitchen spices wafting gently behind it all and morphing at last into an aromatic but dry finish, redolent of brine, spices, nail polish and sharp fruits that seemed to only grudgingly dissipate.  

I looked at my glass in some bemusement, checked the labelling. I got all that from 40%? From this? Wow.

I was really and pleasantly surprised by how well it presented, to be honest.  For a standard strength rhum, I expected less, but its complexity and changing character eventually won me over.  Looking at others’ reviews of rhums in Reimonenq’s range I see similar flip flops of opinion running through them all.  Some like one or two, some like that one more than that other one, there are those that are too dry, too sweet, too fruity (with a huge swing of opinion), and the little literature available is a mess of ups and downs.

Except the Caribbean Journal, which was perhaps overcome with a fit of hyper-enthusiastic vapours when it spoke glowingly of Reimonenq’s 6YO Grande Reserve, and said they made “rum for rum drinkers” (as opposed to mere “special rums” for the proles, apparently), and opined that such a category “…isn’t for everyone, [is] filled with rums of unique character, of sometimes too much strength, of uncanny personality.” Uh-huh. Right. Sure you aren’t working for their marketing department, buddy?

Still, you’d think that anything endorsed so positively – and in the main, reviews of their rhums are more upbeat than negative – should have a rather large footprint, but you’d be wrong – not many reviewers have bothered to try any, except the mastodon of the scene, Serge Valentin (here, here and here to start), and the man who channels his ethos, Marius Elder of Single Cask Rum.  And of course, there’s a few opinions on Rum Ratings, which are too few to make any comments about, but demonstrate the peculiar anonymity of the brand by their sheer paucity and are useful in their own way.

That’s rather odd, because Distillerie Reimonenq has been around since 1916 when it was founded by Joseph and Fernand Reimonenq in the commune of Sainte-Rose on Guadeloupe (the west “wing”, or Basse Terre) and as far as I know, continued under their ownership ever since.  Moreover, they have a wide range of column-still rhums (all cane juice based) that span many ages and many strengths and aren’t half bad.  Indeed, Reimonenq supplies indie bottlers from time to time, most notably Rum Nation, so why isn’t it better known and shown off with pride on social media more often? I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know I’ll be picking a few more of these to look at, and that right quick, as it’s clear I’ve been ignoring them for too long already.

(#775)(84/100)

 

Nov 022020
 

There are quite a few interesting (some would say strange) things about the Rhum Island / Island Cane brand, and the white rums in their portfolio.  For one thing, the rhums are bottled in Saint Martin, only the second island in the Caribbean where two nations share a border – the Netherlands and France in this case, for both the constituent country of Sint Maarten (south side) and the Collectivité de Saint-Martin (north side) remain a part of the respective colonizing nations, who themselves don’t share a border anywhere else.

Secondly, there is neither a sugar or rum making industry on Saint Martin, which until 2007  was considered part of – and lumped in with – the overseas région and département of Guadeloupe: but by a popular vote it became a separate overseas Collectivité of France. Thirdly, the brand’s range is mostly multi-estate blends (not usual for agricoles), created, mixed and bottled in Saint Martin, and sources distillate from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante. And the two very helpful gents at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest booth — who kept filling my tasting glass and gently pressing me to try yet more, with sad, liquid eyes brimming with the best guilt trip ever laid on me — certainly weren’t telling me anything more than that.

That said, I can tell you that the rhum is a cane juice blanc, a blend whipped up from rhums from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe, created by a small company in St. Martin called Rhum Island which was founded in 2017 by Valerie Kleinhans, her husband and two partners; and supposedly conforms to all the regulations governing Guadeloupe rhum production (which is not the AOC, btw, but their own internal mechanism that’s close to it).  Unfiltered, unaged, unadded to, and a thrumming 50% ABV. Single column still.  Beyond that, it’s all about taste, and that was pretty damned fine.

I mean, admittedly the nose wasn’t anything particularly unique – it was a typical agricole – but it smelled completely delicious, every piece ticking along like a liquid swiss watch, precisely, clearly, harmoniously.  It started off with crisp citrus and Fanta notes, and that evocative aroma of freshly cut wet grass in the sun.  Also brine, red olives, cumin, dill, and the creaminess of a lemon meringue pie.  There is almost no bite or clawing at the nose and while not precisely soft, it does present as cleanly firm.

Somewhat dissimilar thoughts attend the palate, which starts out similarly…to begin with.  It’s all very cane-juice-y — sugar water, watermelons, cucumbers and gherkins in light vinegar that are boosted with a couple of pimentos for kick. This is all in a minor key, though – mostly it has a herbal sweetness to it, sap and spices, around which coils something extra…licorice, cinnamon, something musky, bordering on the occasionally excessive.  The rhum, over time, develops an underlying solidity of the taste which is at odds with the clean delicacy of the nose, something pungent and meaty, and and everything comes to a close on the finish, which presents little that’s new – lemon zest, cane juice, sugar water, cucumbers, brine, sweet olives – but completely and professionally done.

This is a white rhum I really liked – while it lacked some of the clean precision and subtlety of the Martinique blanc rhums (even the very strong ones), it was quite original and, in its own way, even new…something undervalued in these times, I think. The initial aromas are impressive, though the muskier notes it displays as it opens up occasionally detract – in that sense I rate it as slightly less than the Island Rhum Red Cane 53% variation I tried alongside it…though no less memorable. 

What’s really surprising, though, is how easy it is to drink multiple shots of this innocent looking, sweet-smelling, smooth-tasting white, while enjoying your conversation with those who nod, smile, and keep generously recharging your glass; and never notice how much you’ve had until you try to express your admiration for it by using the word “recrudescence” in a sentence, and fall flat on your face.  But trust me, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it right up until then. 

(#774)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The name of the company that makes it is Rhum Island — this doesn’t show on the label, only their website, so I’ve elected to call it as I saw it.
  • This rhum was awarded a silver medal in the 2018 Concours Général Agricole de Paris
  • Shortly after April 2019, the labels of the line were changed, and the bottle now looks as it does in the photo below. The major change is that the Rhum Island company name has more prominently replaced the “Island Cane” title

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Oct 262020
 

It doesn’t say so, but A1710’s rhum “Brute,” stuffed into a bottle at a rip snorting 66%, is another example of a mini-terroire called a parcellaire – a single small section of an estate, like, oh the UF30E or the similar A1710 54.5% edition that was also issued in the year this was, 2017.  There are a few of these micro-terroire rhums floating around and while still uncommon, do show an interesting new direction for the rum world.  Though, for obvious reasons I don’t see them as becoming mass market products any time soon – more like exactingly made small batch artisanal rhums in the true sense, marketed to enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

To do that, however, depends on more than just slick marketing. The product actually has to taste good, be seen as out of the ordinary, and be able to showcase some small aspect of its company’s ethos and desire for quality. It’s got to be special. So far, I’ve seen nothing from A1710 that would do anything except lend support to that thesis, because the “Brute” is definitely one of the best white rhums around, even at that formidable strength. 

The canes used to make this rum all come from a single plot cultivated by a Mr. Paul Octave, with several varietals: black cane, yellow cane and Pen Epi Lèt. (More delicate and less robust than the hybrids which are cultivated for large-scale productions, these three types of canes are supposedly quite juicy). The cane juice is fermented for around five days, run through a creole 7-plate copper column still affectionately named “La Belle Aline”, is non-AOC compliant, and as far as I know, rested for some time but not aged or filtered or reduced in strength, resulting in 2,286 bottles of a 66% beefcake for the 2017 edition, all individually numbered.

The results of all that micro-management are amazing.The nose, fierce and hot, lunges out of the bottle right away, hardly needs resting, and is immediately redolent of brine, olives, sugar water,and wax, combined with lemony botes (love those), the dustiness of cereal and the odd note of sweet green peas smothered in sour cream (go figure).  Secondary aromas of fresh cane sap, grass and sweet sugar water mixed with light fruits (pears, guavas, watermelons) soothe the abused nose once it settles down.

It’s the taste that’s the real star of the show, the way this huge strength is tamed and made almost palatable. Yes it’s hot and spicy, but there’s a sort of smooth creaminess to the texture that permits it to be had neat and the high proof almost forgotten.  There’s salt and wax and light glue as before, combined with a sweeter note of marshmallows, light white fruits and it’s reminiscent of a watery fruit infusion to be had on a hot day on a tropical beach somewhere. There are other tastes of lychees, flowers, more fruits (heavier ones), cane sap, herbs (mint, perhaps a touch of sage and basil), but these dance around the central tastes and lend support rather than shouldering their way to the forefront, and the entire experience is really quite good, moving smoothly, almost sedately, inro a long, spicy and fruity finish that somehow preserves both strength and delicacy.

I really enjoyed the 54.5% La Perle, and scored it well, but the Brute is a cut even above that.  It’s a rum made by one guy on one parcel on one island and has a richness of aroma and flavour that it would seem almost a sin to put it in a barrel. The real money in the rum world is in utra-old  rums made by proud houses who reach back in time for barrels left to age for decades by generations past.  A1710 have shown that a brand new outfit, not adhering to a production standard of any kind, not even ageing what they come up with and simply releasing a rhum like this almost straight off the still, can provide us with something truly remarkable for an astoundingly affordable price.  For me, it’s worth every penny.

(#772)(88/100)


Other notes

Some historical background on A1710 is in the original La Perle review, adapted here:

A1710 was created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re neighbors), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of Martinique. The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

May 112020
 

Saint James. It’s not a name that’s unknown, since it’s the source of one of the oldest surviving rums in the world (the mud-black 1885), the place where rum-swami Luca Gargano started working all those years ago, and where Marc Sassier now hangs his hat. They’ve been around — and have been among the largest Martinique agricole makers — for so long, that they sometimes get passed over in people’s estimation in favour of younger or more exciting or more innovative Martinique operations (like, oh, A1710, or the new parcellaires).  Yet year in and year out, their standard lineup continues to enthrall and impress and demonstrate they’re not laggards by any means.

Saint James divides its range of rums – and they make quite a few – into three main categories.  First, there’s the cocktail fodder, mostly whites like the Imperial Blanc Agricole, Royal Blanc Agricole, Blanc Agricole 55°, Fleur de Canne and that extraordinary pot-still Coeur de Chauffe, plus the Rhum Paille and Rhum Ambre which are young and standard strength low-end blends. At the top of the food chain lie the special “exceptional” editions, the millesimes, single casks, special blends and anniversary editions in fancy bottles which will set you back a pretty penny and provide a handsome adornment to your home bar.  But when it comes to value for money, it’s the mid-level “tasting rhums” in their stable that give most bang for the buck – the Rhum Vieux 3 Ans, the 4-5 YO blend of the Fleur de Canne Vieux, the 7 Year Old, 12 year old, and the best of this series, I think, the 15 year old…which, were it slightly cheaper, might have made it a Key Rum of the World instead of the 12

Because that 15 year old rhum is, to my mind, something of an underground, mass-produced steal.  It has the most complex nose of the “regular” lineup, and also, paradoxically, the lightest overall profile — and also the one where the grassiness and herbals and the cane sap of a true agricole comes through the most clearly.  It has the requisite crisp citrus and wet grass smells, sugar came sap and herbs, and combines that with honey, the delicacy of white roses, vanilla, light yellow fruits, green grapes and apples.  You could just close your eyes and not need ruby slippers to be transported to the island, smelling this thing.  It’s sweet, mellow and golden, a pleasure to hold in your glass and savour

The taste is a similarly striking combination of depth, lightness and flavour. White guavas and pears mix it up with gooseberries and tartly ripe white soursop; there’s caramel, vanilla, dried fruits held in delicate check by some florals and mint, without any becoming overbearing and hogging the show.  There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to stop and just pick out the highlights.  Salted butter, dates and caramel, almost tequila-like at times, a touch of brine and olives here and there, but it’s all extremely well integrated, leading to a finish that is not particularly long, but quite fragrant with all the flowery and fruity notes of a tropical isle that perhaps exists not so much in reality, as in our fond remembrances and imaginations.

What these tasting notes describe is a top-end, well-aged rhum of a standard lineup. But these words don’t do justice to exactly how — when compared with and against the 7 and 12 YO — it rises above them, and in our esteem. I think Marc Sassier has created a masterful example of a blender’s art that somehow moves beyond being something standard or regular or “same old same old”.

You see, it’s almost received wisdom that rums showing  off any company’s possibilities and street cred, those that build the brand by demonstrating the amazing quality of which they are capable, are the flagships, the uber-expensive halo-rums, the single barrel or single year’s offerings — look no further than the El Dorado 25, Abuelo Centuria, Appleton 50 or even Saint James’s own 250th Anniversary to see that principle in action. But to my mind, the full measure of a producing company is better found in the sometimes unloved mass-market mid-level offerings, made in quantity, priced to move…the aged blends which so often are sadly lacking in any kind of lore or romance. Any run-of-the-mill rum, of any age, that emerges from this kind of assembly-line mentality and process, yet still retains fires of lust, of allure, of sheer quality, is a kind of industrial miracle. As this one is.

(#725)(88/100)

Apr 272020
 

After more than a decade of sampling rums from around the world, Martinique remains one of those islands to whose myriad distilleries I keep returning. Yet sometimes, when I remark on my liking for them, it’s a 50-50 chance that people wonder what I’m talking about (or why). But no list of Key Rums could possibly be complete without examples from that island, and the real issue is not so much that there has to be one (because there are many worthy candidates), as which it could possibly be and which one to start with when there’s so much choice available. 

What I believe gets in the way of agricole rhums’ wider understanding and acceptance – especially in the USA – is a combination of price, low cost tabletop rum dominance (like Bacardi), that crazy distribution system they have over there (and an equally silly one in Canada), and a general unfamiliarity with the taste. These issues lead to a lack of experience with agricoles as a whole, a dissatisfaction with the (slightly higher) price, and that oft repeated sniff-and-grumble, about how they all seem to be the same. 

In response I usually point to Neisson, with that subtle, oily, oddly tequila-like profile of its rhums, or Saint James’s pot still white. And such rhums exemplify what I like about the wide, wild variety to be found on Martinique – Neisson, as described, Clement with its classical clean and almost austere profiles, and the solid and romantic quality of Saint James. There are others I’ve enjoyed over the years, of course – Trois Rivieres, Depaz, La Favorite, and others – but when casting around for the first candidate from Martinique to include as a Key Rum, it was to these that my mind turned, and eventually at Saint James that it halted.

Saint James makes four rums as part of its regular aged lineup: the 7, 12 and 15 year old aged rums, and the white Fleur de Canne.  They make many others – millesimes, special editions, XOs, etc, (and we should never forget that amazing pot still white which will remain a perennial favourite of mine) – but for the person who wants to dive in to an appreciation of the distillery’s heart, certainly the four regulars I mention deserve to be tried first, and for the price, I think they offer among the very value-for-money “suitcase rums” anyone could ask for. And when one has to somehow chose among them for the best intersection of utility, taste, price, quality and enjoyment, I believe, in my heart, that the Saint James 12 Year old is the one to get.

To some extent, it has a lighter nose than the luscious 7 year old we looked at recently (though both are made on a creole still from cane juice, and are of the same strength, 43% ABV, similarly aged in ex bourbon casks), and it seems a little more precise, more dialled in, each note clear and distinct.  There is the same deep fruity notes of ripe mangoes, peaches, vanilla, ripe cherries, and a prune or two. It manages that peculiar trick of smelling slightly sweet without actually presenting as cloying or overripe.  Indeed, lighter hints of flowers and white, watery fruit come out to balance the fleshy fruits very nicely with guavas and pears, to which, after some time, one can sense honey and wax and a dusting of coffee grounds.

The palate follows along from this profile, mixing light and deep tastes in a not-too-sweet and juicy parade of mutually supporting flavours: dried fruits, raisins, grapes, guavas, ripe apples and prunes. The secondary, clearer notes of flowers and aromatic tobacco integrate well with the darker ones, providing a little bit of each, nothing in excess.  In the review of the 7 year old I remarked that the grassy lightness we associate with agricole rhums was almost completely absent – here, it starts to be somewhat more evident, though still in the background and its real moment in the sun comes at the close: this ends the tasting with a surprisingly long, fruity and dry aromatic finish that somehow doesn’t brake the experience so much as goose the accelerator mischievously one last time, just to show you it can.

This is a rum that is a step up from the 7 year old but also, something of a different one. The extra ageing showed its influence, the blend is a bit better – actually, I’d love to see what a few extra points of strength might achieve with this thing.  But never mind.  It is a really good dram and the only surprise about it is why it’s not better known. What the 12 year old does so well, is press all buttons of our appreciation simultaneously.  The Coeur de Chauffe white is the most original rum of its kind Saint James makes (in my opinion at least); the 15 is the best in overall quality and taste, and the 7 year old is good quality for money since it’s also the cheapest….but it’s just that the 12 does them all so very well, at a level high enough to make it a must-have. 

You see, it’s in aggregate of the things we look for, that it comes into its own:  good enough to sip, distinct enough to mix, affordable enough to buy, and all-round good enough to give as a gift without shame or apology (or to keep, for the same reasons). By making this rum, Saint James takes agricoles in an interesting, slightly offbeat and distinctive-to-the-distillery direction, and demonstrates that with skill and experience and perhaps just the simple delight in making rhum, that high-grade magic for the masses can be made in a way that doesn’t break the bank.  Any rum that can do all these things at once is a keeper…and a Key Rum for sure. 

(#721)(85/100)

Mar 232020
 

Photo (c) Excellencerhum since mine turned out to be useless

If I had a single regret about tasting this exceptional cask strength millésime rum from Trois Rivieres which was distilled in August 2006 and bottled eight years later, it’s that I neglected the opportunity to find and try the single cask version of the same vintage.  That one was bottled at 43% while the cask strength I was trying here was more than ten points higher, and it would have been fascinating to see how they ranked against each other.

Yet even without that comparison, there’s no doubt when you put together a range of variously aged agricoles (as I had the opportunity to), the Trois Rivieres Millésime 2006 is going to be right up there in the rankings when the dust settles and the arguments are over. Not just because of its strength, which is spoiling-for-a-fight-strong 55.5% ABV, but because of excellence of its assembly. Trois Rivières has made one of the best indie agricole bottlings ever (the Chantal Comte 1980), and here, for themselves, they have done something almost as good.

The Trois Rivières Brut de fût Millésime 2006 (which is its official name) is relatively unusual: it’s aged in new American oak barrels, not Limousin, and bottled at cask strength, not the more common 43-48%. And that gives it a solidity that elevates it somewhat over the standards we’ve become used to. Let’s start, as always, with the nose — it just becomes more assertive, and more clearly defined…although it seems somehow gentler (which is quite a neat trick when you think about it). It is redolent of caramel and vanilla first off, and then adds green apples, tart yoghurt, pears, white guavas, watermelon and papaya, and behind all that is a delectable series of herbs – rosemary, dill, even a hint of basil and aromatic pipe tobacco.

That’s all fine, but agricole aromas are usually a cut above the norm anyway – I’d have been disappointed if I was displeased. What really distinguishes the 2006 – the year was apparently a very good one – is the palate.  It’s a smorgasbord of macerated fruit (apricots, papaya, pineapple and apples), some light but clear florals, crushed hazelnuts, honey … and marshmallows. It all comes together in a delectable combo of sweet, crisp and mellow tastes that almost demands to be had neat — and all this time, the profile continues to be rock-solid rather than sharp or clawing, going right down the line to the fruity, tart, citrus-y finish with its last fine dusting of coffee grounds, crushed nuts and vanilla.

How they developed and assembled it in such a way that the high ABV was completely tamed and smoothened out without losing any of its force, is a mystery.  The balance and complexity harmonize well, it’s tailor made for a late night sip and it encourages rhum appreciation. It’s unlike the rhum we looked at last week, even an opposite: the La Mauny was a low-rent starter rhum made to accompany cheerful and noisily boisterous back-alley socializing, while the 2006 demands somewhat more reflection and is, perhaps, better for that purpose. But to cut a long summary short, I’m just and simply impressed, and maybe I should stop writing, go out there, buy another one, and share it with my domino-playing squaddies. Because I’m pretty sure they’d quaff this one by the glassful.

(#713)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • There are two variations of this Millésime: the 2006 Private Vintage (45%) and the 2006 Single Cask (43%). Entrhums out of Belgium sampled them here (French). Seems like I’m not the only one to really like Trois Rivières.
  • My personal opinion is that this is not quite as good as the TR 1986, but a smidgen better than the TR 1975