Aug 152021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

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

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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


Addendum

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

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

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

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

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


 

Jul 122021
 

With all the publicity and attendant pictures, conversations, comments, posts and other media razzamatazz attendant on the big agricole makers of the French Caribbean islands, we sometimes overlook the smaller rhum makers there. Like their more famous siblings, they have also been around for decades and centuries and although they remain not so well known, not so warmly endorsed and not so widely trumpeted, they quietly chug along year in and year out, and make their own juice…maybe unheralded and unsung, but a boss drink by any standard.

One of these places is Distillerie Poisson-Père Labat on Guadeloupe’s southern island of Marie Galante, named after the 17th century Dominican friar who modernized sugar making technology in the French islands (he was the proprietor of the Domaine de Fonds-Saint-Jacques on Martinique and owned slaves there, which leads to a complex and problematic legacy).  The small distillery is on the extreme west of Marie Galante, balancing off Bellevue in the east and Bielle and Capovilla in the centre, and I’m going to review four of their lesser known rhums over the next week or so.

Suffice to say, Labat has been in operation since 1916 as a distillery making rhum agricole (and as a sugar estate before that, since the 1860s – it supplied a local factory nearby) and continues to distill its cane juice on a copper column still brought in from Barbados in 1934.  Their rhums range from white (Labat 59º, 55º, 50º and 40º and a monster of 70.7º) to “Ambre” and “Boise” lightly aged from 6-18 months, and older versions aged 2, 3 and 8 years, and the top end millesimes and fancy pants editions aged more than ten.

The three year old reviewed first does not, then, provide any mysteries: it straddles the divide between the young ambre and boise rhums, and those of the more upscale aged expressions without any sort of attempt at exceptionalism, like its 2 YO cousin the L’Or. At 42% ABV it is less a Ti-Punch ingredient than something for tourists and those who like a young rums without fireworks to gently juice up a cocktail or something. 

(c) Poisson-Pere Labat (Publicity photo) New Version 45% ABV

Yet there’s more going on here than immediately seems to be the case with a strength that low.  It’s got a nose that is soft and herbaceous, redolent of acetones, varnish and more than a touch of turpentine and sugar water. It has the crispness of freshly aired laundry snapping on the line in the breeze of a hot summer day, tart white fruits (pears and guavas), bubble gum, plus the quick snap of lemon zest, and perhaps some crushed nuts. That’s really a lot of nose for a rhum so relatively anemic. I’ve made grumpy comments about standard strength wispiness before, but there’s little to find fault with here – it’s simply a delightful rumlet to smell.

Admittedly, the palate doesn’t quite drop the ball, though there is some drop-off in intensity now. It is a light and quiet and soft rhum, warm and delicately tasty, never losing its clarity or clean taste.  This is all about precise watery fruits – watermelon, papaya, pears dripping juice, mingled niely with the tartness of a ripe soursop. There’s a touch of soda pop like Sprite and Fanta, sugar water, acetones, even the hint of some brininess (this stays very much in the background), before it all fades out into a very clear finish that’s mostly like Mike’s Hard Lemonade with some watermelon thrown in. It’s actually quite impressive.

It’s possible that this 3 YO is no longer made, since it doesn’t appear on the Labat website — not an infallible indicator, since several other rhums they make aren’t there either — and because it has almost completely disappeared from the online literature and conversation (I’ve sent a message to inquire). What I see is mostly about the 8 YO, the soleil, the 55º and the 70.7. That’s okay, those are good too, it’s just surprising to see something as well made as this almost-midrange rhum given such short shrift.

Never mind.  If you find it, it may be pricey, as all agricoles are, relative to a molasses based rum of equal age.  But I argue it’s well made, it’s tasty and for sure it’ll wake up the drink, a cocktail, a party (and maybe even you) at the same time. Plus, it can be had by itself – almost – and it won’t entirely disappoint taken neat. Not a top-tier rhum, it represents its own level quite nicely indeed and remains a rhum that does quite a bit more than you think it does. Like my wife, it doesn’t nag or jab or needle, only soothes and welcomes…and in rhum terms, that quality might well be priceless.

(#836)(83/100)


Other notes

  • There are two versions of the 3 YO; the discontinued 42% ABV described here, and the current 45% ABV version. The switchover happened around 2018, as far as I know.
  • A biography of the company is available, too long to be ncluded here
Apr 112021
 

After a decade of observing the (mostly Europe-based) independent bottlers, I think it can be said with some assurance that they tend to stick with The Tried and True in their first years. In other words, they source and release rums from the canonical distilleries in the familiar countries – Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, or Jamaica, with occasional fliers from Belize, Cuba, Fiji, Australia or Trinidad being seen as second order efforts.

When it comes to distinguishing themselves from the herd, few show much real imagination.  Oh, for sure the Compagnie des Indes releases private blends like the Boulet de Canon and Dominador (and released a very fine Indonesian arrack several years ago); Rom Deluxe goes to the max with its massively proofed Jamaican DOK, L’Esprit does some amazing white rums, and several indies find a way to get rums aged for nearly three decades into their bottles – I merely submit this is more and better of the same. Truly new products that showcase something different are actually in rather short supply.

When it comes to doing something original, then, the Boutique-y Rum Company – a division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt website – is one to keep an eye on. Not only are they releasing rums from the “standard” countries, but they seem to really try to go someplace new – consider their Issan rum, the Labourdonnais, the O Reizinho or the Colombian Casa Santana. Those are rums from niche distilleries many have never even heard of before, and to add spice to the mix, there is of course the cool label design done by Jim’ll Paint It which are bright, clever, funny and chock full of little easter eggs for the knowledgeable.

Which leads us to this one. The Engenhos do Norte distillery is located in Madeira, an island considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa) and one of the few places outside the French islands that can use the term agricole legally. The rum is derived from cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine (that’s what the label shows), fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.  So although it doesn’t say so, it’s an aged rhum agricole. 1395 bottles were released, at a firm but not over-strong 48.8%, and the last I checked it was still selling for around forty quid which I think is a pretty good deal

Tasting notes. The nose is nice.  At under 50% not too much sharpness, just a good solid heat, redolent of soda, fanta, coca cola and strawberries.  There’s a trace of coffee and rye bread, and also a nice fruity background of apples, green grapes, yellow mangoes and kiwi fruit.  It develops well and no fault can found with the balance among these disparate elements.

I also like the way it tastes. It’s initially dry and peppery, but also crisp, tasting of marshmallows, and tart white fruits like guavas, Thai mangoes, unripe pears, soursop, papaya, watermelon and pineapple. There’s a nice thread of lemon underneath it all, cumin, vanilla, and a nice touch of brine and olives.  This all leads to a conclusion that is short and easy, redolent mostly of sweet watery fruit with a last musky brine taste, and some more lemon zest. 

In a peculiar way, it reminds me less of a French Island agricole than of a grogue from Cabo Verde.  There’s a sort of easy crispness to the experience, with the herbal notes evident but not as strong and clear and focused as a Martinique rhum is.  For centuries Madeirans drank their rhums unaged and white — of late they have begun to try and develop an aged rum industry and expand beyond the local market which thus far has consumed everything the small distilleries produce.  The development of real blending and ageing skill is still some years in the future, and thus far it’s only the small IBs like Boutique-y that have brought their rums to our attention. But I think that we should keep an eye out for the rhums from Madeira, all of them.  Based on the few I’ve tried, these guys know what they’re doing, know how to make a good rhum, and will be going places in the years to come.

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira.  Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro branco – white gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Mar 072018
 

#494

The Avuá brand of cachaça has a slightly different pedigree from independents in Europe who buy from brokers, and is closer to that of small new rum companies who buy selected stock direct from distilleries (e.g. Whisper, Toucan, and Real McCoy, for example).  Two New Yorkers – one a former brand manager for Red Bull, Pete Nevenglosky, the other a businessman and lawyer, Nate Whitehouse – developed a liking for the spirit and sensed (or thought they could exploit) a rising appreciation for craft spirits in the US – rum generally, cachaça specifically.  After some searching and sampling around, they settled on Fazenda da Quinta Agronegócios, a distillery just outside Rio dating back to 1923 which produces the trio of the da Quinta cachaças — an Amburana-aged, an oak-aged and a white. Starting with the Aburana and the white, these were rebranded for sale in the US as Avuá Amburana and Avuá Prata but I have not been able to establish anything particularly original about them that would set them apart from the da Quinta line

Never mind. Quite aside from these biographical details, I’m always on the lookout for interesting white rums, and so made it a point to check out the Prata just to see how well it fared.  Which was, for a 42% rested-but-not-aged pot still rum, not shabby at all, if not quite as feral or in-your-face as some of the French island blancs, or, for that matter, the clairins.  In fact, nosing it, the Prata presented as a rather genteel variation of such more elemental whites – akin to Cabo Verde grogues, really – and for that reason may actually be preferred by people who are put off excessive expressions of crazy and are more middle of the road.  It was redolent of sugar cane juice freshly pressed, oily, briny and with some olive action in the background, but also herbal notes of dill and a little sage, some faint rubber hints, and subtle acetone and florals rounding out the profile.  

The palate was not overly aggressive – at that strength it would have been surprising if it had been – and while quite dry, it reminded me somewhat of the unaged column still clairins, just gentler.  It was warm, sweet, and almost delicate, and also contained some of Neisson’s tequila and briny notes. Sugar water (and that’s white sugar, by the way), more dill, sage, rosemary and a little cinnamon, but what distinguished it after a few minutes was an unique (for cachacas) taste of musty earth and wet tropical vegetation that bordered on the funkiness of a Jamaican without ever actually being so.  The mouthfeel was rather light, warm and relatively smooth, so certainly the initial cuts and the resting period had their impact. As for the finish, nothing original there – just warm, aromatic sweet spices, and a vague mustiness that was far from unpleasant and made the rum stand out in its own way.

As a white rum the Prata cachaça carves out some interesting territory for itself: it’s not so crude and jagged as to be off-putting to the greater public; its tastes are pleasant, yet distinct enough not to be confused with other whites; and overall, one weakness (much like the Toucan No. 4) is that for the complexity that it does exhibit, it could easily be stronger and lose no adherents.  One is left with rather more titillating sensations and vague sensory memories than an explicit and clear-cut profile, and it showcases emergent potential rather than a solid current achievement. It’s interesting to note that the company is now also producing a Still Strength version (45%) to maybe address precisely this issue, and if they are doing that, we should be keeping an eye out for what else they’re doing in the next few years.  Because if they ever have the bolas to issue this white rum’s same profile at 50% or greater, I’d probably grin, take a deep breath, and dive right in.

(82/100)

Mar 042018
 

#493

The other day I read that there are supposedly forty thousand cachaça producers in Brazil ¹ — if that statistic is actually true, then most are probably from small ops like the 500+ or so in Haiti – backyard moonshineries, rather than medium to large commercial operations. But there is no doubting that they represent a significant slice of the global volume of cane-derived spirits and it’s too bad that so few reviews of them exist (perhaps the lack of exports is to blame – most is drunk in-country; or maybe we need some Brazilian spirits bloggers).

A major characteristic of cachaças, when aged, is the resting in barrels made of local hardwoods. That peculiarity of local ageing is, to me, rather crucial when it comes to distinguishing an aged cachaca from any other rum. It’s what makes aged cachaças unique — most of us are so used to our hooch being decanted from ex-bourbon barrels, that to address a Brazilian rum for the first time can come over as a startling experience (note – I am using the term rum and cachaça interchangeably).

Take for example the Cachaça Avuá Amburana, made by Fazenda da Quinta, a small 3rd generation outfit founded in 1923, located just outside Rio de Janeiro. Their cachaça is made from two types of sugar cane, has a 24 hours fermentation period, and is pot still distilled.  As the name implies, it is aged in barrels made of amburana wood (which supposedly imparts an intense colour and flavours of sweetish vanilla) for up to two years and is bottled at 40%.

Does the amburana make for a uniquely different taste profile?  Yes and no.  It certainly presented aspects that were similar to young agricoles – fresh and crisp aromas of watery pears, sugar cane sap, swank and watermelon just to start with, clear without real sharpness.  It’s after opening up for a few minutes that it shows its antecedents more clearly, because other smells, somewhat more unusual, begin to emerge – cinnamon, nutmeg, bitter chocolate, sawn lumber, wet sawdust, freshly baked dark bread.  Not your standard fare by any means.  

The palate was quite firm for a 40% rum, stopping just short of sharp and marrying complexity with a variety of flavours in decent balance with each other. It had both red wine and muskier whisky notes, and bags of the aforementioned spices – cinnamon and nutmeg. Vanilla, ginger, sugar water, gherkins, cucumbers, a sharp cheddar, sawdust…and also a weird line of sweet bubble gum.  And, of course, some herbal grassiness – but overall the defining taste was mostly the cinnamon and swank with that slight bitter background.  This continued smoothly into a longish finish that again brought out the bubble gum, some Sprite (or 7-Up, take your pick), faint citrus, more cinnamon and vanilla, and a bit of sugar cane sap. A little dry, overall, but pleasingly complex and tasty for all that. I just wish it had been bumped up in proof a few notches – at ~45% it might just be amazing.

Tasting the Avuá Amburana blind, without some experience or comparators around, you’d be hard pressed to identify the country of origin (though the slight bitterness, woodsy taste and cinnamon background would likely give it away), and might even confuse it with an agricole – probably to the displeasure of any Brazilian. Be that as it may, I quite liked it, and since its introduction in 2013 it’s made a quiet splash in North America, as well as winning awards in 2015 (Berlin Rumfest) and 2016 (Madrid Congreso del Ron).

Brazilians involved in the production of cachaças are at pains to distinguish them from agricoles, but any casual rum aficionado would have some difficulty following the logic – after all, both derive from cane juice, distilled on either pot or column stills, the cane juice has a short fermentation time and is processed soon after harvesting.  Regulations are specific to each region: for example, a cachaça can only be called so if it derives from Brazil and at least 50% of the blend is aged for a minimum of one year, and for me that’s a naming and production convention and not a serious departure from agricoles (to use another example, calling only a rum made in Guyana a “Demerara” does not make it any less of a rum).  Also, as briefly noted above and more applicable to Brazil, a cachaça can (but does not have to) be aged in local woods like jequabita, amburana, carvalho etc, and not the more “traditional” oak barrels like ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, limousin oak, and so on – however, since the type of wood of the ageing barrel is not a disqualifier for any rum or ron or rhum anywhere in the world (except perhaps Cuba), this again seems more a local peculiarity, not a fundamental difference between the two types of rum.

So in other words, given the cane juice origin, then either cachaça is a Brazilian agricole, or agricoles are French cachaças.  To me such distinctions are geographical, not fundamental. Irrespective of the pride that the producing countries bring to their indigenous rums, production philosophies and heritage, both have interesting products that are cool to drink and make killer cocktails. That the French island rhums currently get more good press than cachaças do is no reason to ignore the latter – taken with their uniqueness and taste and wide applicabilty, something like the Avuá Amburana is good to experience if you want to go a little off the beaten track without heading into the jungle altogether.  It’s a pretty nifty cachaça that’s well worth checking out.

(84/100)


Other notes

  • ¹ Messias Soares Cavalcante, A verdadeira história da cachaça. São Paulo 2011 page 608
  • Uncoloured, unfiltered.  Small batch production.  Each bottle is numbered
  • Ralfy gave the Avua an in-depth look on his video in May 2017.
  • Matt Pietrek, the Cocktail Wonk, used this rum to provide an introduction to cachaças, back in 2015. It’s also got some good historical notes on the founders.
Aug 202017
 

Rumaniacs Review #052 | 0452

None of the ‘Maniacs seem to have written anything on how old this things is, which is surprising given its price tag (about €170 or so), but both WhiskyAuction and Reference-Rhum say’s it’s a ten year old; the label (below) says its eleven so we’ll go with the older one.  Another odd thing is the strength – my sample said 45%, and various online shops quote it as being variously 45.4%, 46.2% or 42.7% – so after some digging around it seems that 2004 was a particularly good year and several single barrel issues were made, so pay attention to which one you’re getting.  Mine was evidently the 45.4% iteration made for LMDW in Paris and I accept the labelling on my sample was a misprint.

There’s already been enough written in these pages and others about Neisson so let’s move on without further ado because my sample is evaporating and I don’t want to waste any.

Colour – orange gold

Strength – 45.4%

Nose – Deep and controlled without sharpness, very tasty; pears, papaya, green apples; develops gradually with herbs and a sort of vegetable soup with just a hint of soy.  In the background there’s some oak and aromatic pipe tobacco.

Palate – A fragrant bowl of hot soup, really quite amazing. Some floral notes, some fruitiness of tart apples and a potpourri room freshener, far from unpleasant.  Tart apples, fleshy fruits, lemon zest, maggi cubes, brine and olives, more smoke, chocolate, ginger…how the rhum navigates its way among all these flavours, where an excess of any one could sink the whole thing, is really quite extraordinary.

Finish – Very pleasant, medium long, just north of light.  Floral and fruity, guavas and pears mostly, plus some oakiness held way back.  Here sweetness and vanilla come forward which isn’t entirely to my liking…but overall it closes off really well.

Thoughts – A really impressive agricole which demonstrates again why Neisson is one of the better rhum producers from Martinique.  There’s just so much going on here that it demands some patience and leisurely sipping to appreciate fully.  Mixing this into a cocktail might be a punishable offense in some countries.

(85/100)

Other Rumaniacs reviews of the Neisson 2004 can be found on the website.

 

Photo courtesy of Gaetan Dumoilin

Aug 132017
 

Rumaniacs Review #051 | 0451

Today we amble on over to Martinique, where Neisson is to be found: I have four of these fascinating AOC rhums to play with, and here’s the first  of them to sate the intangible palate and add to the historical record.

Neisson is, in my own opinion, one of the most singular makers of agricole rhum on Martinique, and I’ve used words like “fascinating”, “unusual” and “distinctive” to describe their remarkable products…there’s always something slightly off kilter in them, some cheerful, almost whimsical, sort of “essayons de cette façon,” or “leh we try dis” approach.  I’m not entirely convinced this makes them world beaters in every instance and iteration…but you’ll always know one when you try it, and perhaps that’s the aim all along.

Colour – Orange-Gold

Strength – 45%

Nose – Yoghurt and sour cream, sharp apple cider, fruit, and buttered green peas (I could not make this up if I tried).  It’s a nice nose, however, with just a tinge of olives in brine, some vanilla, marmalade, and bitter coffee.  How this all comes together is a mystery, but it does work…in its own way.

Palate – Winey, just a bit thin, quite warm.  Where’s the grassy and herbal stuff agricoles are supposed to have?  Let it wait, add a touch of water, and there it is: sugar cane sap, light vanilla and lemon ice cream, and is that some wasabi lurking in the background?  Sure it is.  Sour cream, some red grapes, red guavas wrap up the show.  Definitely not a standard agricole, so I’m going to add “intriguing” to the vocabulary as well.

Finish – Medium short, less impressive. Green grass, brine, vanilla, herbs, some oakiness (not much) and the musky brininess comes back to say a flashing goodbye.

Thoughts – Takes some getting used to.  As a personal thing, too many tequila-like notes don’t enthuse me, but once this meanders off the gradually unfolding of the rhum is remarkable, so apply some patience in assessing it as a sipping spirit.

(82/100)

Other Rumaniacs reviews of this rhum can be found in the website

Mar 032015
 

D3S_9074

A unique fifteen year old agricole that lacks something of the deep dark depth of the Damoiseau 1980 I so liked, but is a great and tasty example of the style nevertheless…as long as your tastes run that way.

As adolescents, among our most fervent wishes was to have coitus without interruptus the way a hobbit has breakfast: whenever possible, preferably all the time, twice daily if we could manage it (well, what teenager hasn’t?)  But as the years wound on, some reality entered that little fantasy: the truth is that unlimited anything gets boring after a while. One does not wish to eat manna from heaven every single day, do the same job day in and day out,  indulge in neverending bedroom calisthenics…or drink the same kind of rum all the time.

I relate this (possibly apocryphal) story to link to another conversation a fellow reviewer and I had not too long ago: that agricoles just weren’t his thing, and remain an acquired taste enveloped in a certain subtle snobbery for those who preferred them.  I understand this perspective, since agricoles as a whole are quite different from molasses based rums that reek of caramel, licorice, fruits, toffee and what have you.  And while I don’t care for the term “acquired taste” – this is where the imputed elitism has its source – the fact is that the gent was right: tastes do evolve: rums which are current favourites may lose their place in the sun, to be replaced by others you would have never dreamed of touching when you were just starting out.  Rhums are seen by their adherents to possess remarkable quality in their own right, no matter how much the taste profile bends away at right angles from what others have come to accept as more common (or better).

Anyway, remembering the  wonderful experience I had with the Damoiseau 1980, when I saw a bottle of the JM 1995 Rhum Tres Vieux 15 year old (which nowadays retails in the €200 range), I dived right in.  And believe me, when I say it’s different, those of you who prefer more traditional fare can take that as the absolute truth. It’s not for everyone necessarily, but for those whose palates bend in that direction, it’s quite a drink.

As is proper for a top-of-the-line aged product, the green bottle, sealed with wax and possessing a cool leather embossed label came in a fine wooden box that showcased its antecedents, its AOC designation – which means it adhered to stringent manufacturing guidelines such as how soon after reaping the source cane had to be distilled, additions, filtration, etc – and its age.  Now strictly speaking, this is a millésime, but it is noted as being a très vieux (very old)…it could just as easily be termed an XO, but I’m not a purist on the matter and will let it pass with just that comment.

The single-column copper-still rhum was a honey gold colour with coppery hints, and gave promise of a medium-light body, which the nose certainly confirmed. It gave forth immediate scents of freshly mown grass and crushed sugar cane, slightly sweet…and quite dry, though not enough to wrinkle the nose.  There were notes of toffee, salty peanut brittle, bon-bons, even a slightly sweetish bubble-gum background which balanced off the brininess. The 44.8% strength was just about right, I think, otherwise we might have really been struck with a dry desert wind on this one.

Still, I liked it, and as the taste developed, saw no real reason to change my opinion.  The palate was smooth and warm, where all the harmonies of the nose developed to a fuller expression – flowers, rain-wet grass, sugar cane rind stripped with the teeth, a flirt of tangerine rind, and biscuits with dry cheese — a liquid warm croissant with a dab of rich, freshly churned butter — all underlain with a sweetish vanilla background, and almost no oak tannins at all.  None of the individual components predominated over any other – the balance was really quite something. What also surprised me was the faint anise taste that revealed itself after a few minutes and melded well into the overall whole.  The finish was short to medium and reminded me a lot of the Clemente XO: both had that closing aroma of smouldering cane fields and vanillas that to this day evoke so many memories.

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century.   He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.  With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”.  In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and is among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique.

If I had fault to find at all in the rhum, it was its aridity, which subtly spoiled (for me) the smoothness of the overall experience, and is another reason I appreciated its relatively lower proof.  Though my sample set of agricoles is too small to make the claim with assurance, it may also speak to my palate being adulterated by rums that have added inclusions (like sugar) to smoothen out such a profile, a practice eschewed by AOC agricoles. Still, summing up, this is a rhum I’ll have to come back to, in the years to come, and will probably rise in my estimation much as the Clemente did. The J.M. 1995 is the kind of rum I’ve been pestered about for ages. People couldn’t quite describe it, but they said I had to sample it, and review it. I just had to.

Well, I did. They were right. It’s quite a lovely drinking experience

(#205. 86/100)


Opinion

Many French West Indian distilleries adhere to a certain puritan strain of rhum production (whether or not they apply for AOC rating).  They use cane juice, don’t add anything to their rhums to either colour them or adulterate them, often issue them at cask strength, and sniffily refer to molasses based rums with the somewhat disdainful moniker of “industrials”.  They may have a point – if there had ever been a pure ethos of rum making, shorn of all the modern and technical innovations, surely it is the agricoles which represent its continuance in modern times. They are a miniscule part of the rum world by volume of sales, yet they hang in there, producing these uniquely tasting, offbeat rums, seen by their tasting champions as exemplars of the craft the way it is, and was, meant to be.

I don’t really agree with that concept 100%, since it is in the nature of mankind to move forward and evolve…and to stick with “the way things were” forever strikes me as unreasoning, almost fanatical, adherence to a single tradition or ideology.  But there’s no doubt that JM, with rhums like this one, are probably on to something, and to tamper with the philosophy of how it’s made would be to discard a link with rum’s past, lose the variety that makes rum great, and leave us poorer for it.

So while not all aspects of the JM 1995 find favour with me (all apologies to the cognoscenti who feel the opposite is true), I acknowledge its distinctiveness and remarkable profile — and if I don’t entirely fall under its beguiling spell, I don’t hate it either, and maybe it’s all just a case of me still acquiring the taste.