Sep 142022
 

Based on really really true events, which may or may not be factual….

“A column still can produce this!” smirked Indy as he poured me a generous dram of the seven year old SBS Antiguan hooch and handed it over, daring me to refuse and making sure my head was bowed and cap reverently doffed. I imagine he would not have been displeased with some genuflection, so chuffed was he – and others – with this rum.  

I considered my glass carefully, pen poised over the famed Little Black Book of Tasting Notes, trying to focus yet also look everywhere at once, because I was in the basement bar of The Proofing Room in London, there was a lot going around me at the same time, a ton of rum chums were in attendance, and the rum was quite a handful to unpack at short notice.

I had landed in the UK a few hours before (two hours late), scampered to my fleabag hotel, dumped my stuff, ran over the road to TWE to get some tasting glasses (shout out to Kelvin who was super helpful and fun to hang with in the short time I had there), then back out to meet the my vagrant itinerant friend Richard Nicholson (of NZ Rum Society fame) at the Black Parrot rum bar, and then, after sampling five or six rums, we high-tailed it over to the ‘Room where Kris Von Stedingk was magisterially holding forth on the new 2022 range of rums released by the Danish outfit of 1423. I was out of breath even before sidling in.

The joint was peppered with Visiting Royalty of Rum Geekdom: Dan Greifer was tending bar, Andrew Nicolls was feverishly making daiquiris with rum from his own brand of William George, Kit Carruthers of Ninefold was soaking up info and a glass with equal gusto, Keegan Menezes was down at the back, Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits darting around making sure everyone had a charged glass, Vicki Ilankovan of Sated Online was mingling with her trademarked vivacity and energy, while others were calling hellos and pressing the flesh from all corners of the bar. And as Kris was in fine form with his presentation and we were derailing his spiel, Richard and I guiltily avoided his disapproving glare and snuck down to the back where the hoods huddle, and set up shop there.

I was glad it was the Antigua I started with, because that island’s distillery has been making great strides in its own experimental small batch production, dating right back to the work they were doing with the sherry cask edition back in 2016.  What I had here was a rum they sold to 1423 – that Danish outfit, you’ll recall, which is part owned by Josh Singh, the benevolent buddha of badass we left at Paris’s Maria Loca bar in 2019 but who went AWOL for this one. Antigua Distillers not only produced the subject of my very first review (the 1981 English Harbour 25YO) but has a new high-congener, full-proofed rum of its own that is supposedly off the scale and which I’ve been lusting after ever since it was released. This rum was one of its progeny.

I tried to listen to Kris rattle off the specs for the rum because he was an interesting and engaging speaker, but the serious rum convo (i.e., the “party”) in my corner was so loud (which was all Richard’s fault, I swear, the guy is just so noisy!) that I could barely hear him, and evidently Kris couldn’t either because he shouted at us to pipe down in best Ratzo style — “I’m workin’ here!” — so he could keep with the program and inform the populace and maybe sell some damned rum. We all flipped him the bird and shouted cheerfully ribald insults, then shut up. I started nosing, and then scribbling. Even at play, the ‘Caner has to work sometimes, alas.

The nose of this kinetically powered 64.9% ex-bourbon-barrel aged rum was aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated once again that well assembled column still rums can be the equal of any other kind (even if just one barrel’s outturn).  It smelled of vanilla ice cream, bubble gum, strawberries and an amazingly pungent mix of both light and heavier fruits like watermelon, green apples, grapes, peaches, and plums.  Into this was interspersed more neutral aromas of bananas, pears and papaya, and a sort of rich whipped cream that would drive a cat to ecstasy. Even with the distractions of more rums, more mixes and the loud hum of conversation, I was able to appreciate a real mastery of the craft with what came out of that bottle.

All this went into the Book with some haste, because things were moving fast, and the bar surface in front of me kept filling up with more and new glasses that had to be guarded from the potential depredations of light-and-sticky-fingered rum enthusiasts (we are not known for respecting the finer points of personal property when it comes to the good stuff). Andrew, enthusiastic as anything, kept making more William George daiquiris (which were really good — but even a tippler as practised at pilfering as Richard had trouble keeping up with the rollout), and because Kris was moving smartly along with his presentation, Jazz and Indy continued bringing more and more SBS rums to us back-bench louts. Brazil, Denmark, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Antilles…we had a minor United Nations of Rum going on here. Every time they poured another sample — which joined its partners on the countertop in front of me in an ever-expanding lineup —  they observed how slow I was going, and regarded me with the sorrowful disappointment of skilled guilt-trippers – “What, Lance, is what we’re doing here not good enough for you?” “You don’t like SBS any more or what?” and (more cuttingly) “Eh eh, bai, I thought you were a pro, man!” (that stung).

I hastily concentrated on moving on to the taste, and here I must simply observe how vibrant and alive the rum was. Sharp — of course it was — and hot, yet that dissipated quickly, and the tastes were at all times there, thrumming, compelling, well defined and completely solid. And there were lots of them. Tart fruits notes of soft yellow mangos, soursop, ripe gooseberries, strawberries, dark cherries and almost overripe pineapple started the party off. These were balanced by nutty flavours combined with unsweetened chocolate, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee grounds and even a touch of herbs and spices (dill and cumin). Under it all was bananas and the creaminess of a sweet caramel latte which segued beautifully into a finish of epic duration, redolent of the sweetness of sugar cane, the muskiness of caramel and molasses, and the slight bitterness of freshly sawn lumber and ground coffee beans.

What’s amazing about the rum is how well it sips, even at that dramatic proof point. There’s no straining for effect, no sense of extra ageing or esterification added for your edification, no vulgar “let’s whip this out shall we?” backdam bragaddocio of codpieces compared (this sort of thing is left to visiting rum chums in seedy rumbars). It’s an astounding, amazing, astonishing rum, one where the initial experiments I tasted all those years ago seem have come to a kind of glorious fruition. I know the distillery has its own branded rums, ramped up, beefed up, torqued up, squirting esters and proofage in all directions, and I’ve been after those for ages.  Until I get one of them, however, this will be a more than adequate substitute. 

It was with some regret that I moved to other rums in the SBS’s lineup for the year – yet for the remainder of my time at the bar I kept a glass of this thing running, and eventually considered it the best of the lot, when it was all over. We laughed and talked and discussed rums and had a whole load of fun dissing each other, and finally the whole thing devolved into a raucous party and jam session which was then relocated to Trailer Happiness after we got chased out of the Proofing Room. Yet I remember this rum so well, even without the tasting notes.  It showed that English Harbour’s Catch of the Day rum from 2018 which I had also enjoyed and continue to regard as an underpriced steal, had been no accident.

So, to wrap up this overlong “review” let me sum up for those who like it brief. SBS’s 7 Year Old 2015 High Congener Antigua rum is frikken’ phenomenal and I’m just annoyed with myself for not grabbing the damned bottle out of Indy’s hands when I had the chance. He might have decked me, and maybe I would have left the bar with head held high and feet held higher…but man, it would have been worth it to get this thing.

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Initially, based on the lack of disclosed detail on the label and the product sheet, I thought this was not a high congener rum but after the first posting, both Joshua and Kris came up to confirm that yes, it was. “There was no particular reason” for the oversight, Josh said, but my money is on simple forgetfulness, because no sane marketing guy would leave such a juicy tidbit out.  So anyway, I went back and changed the post a little and amended the title to make mention of the fact.
Sep 122022
 

As I remarked in the review of the Damoiseau 2009, there is an emergent trend for agricole rhum makers to make their white rhums stronger. This boosts flavours and intensity and makes for a drink or a mix that has the kick of a spavined mule, and because the rum is unaged, you are getting hit with all those enormous sweet grassy and herbal agricole-style tastes. That not only wakes up a Ti-Punch (or anything else you chose to add it to) but supercharges it.

To some extent I think that this trend is meant to capitalise on the success of the high ester Jamaicans like the Rum Fire, Rum Bar, Wray & Nephew Overproof, together with the realisation by various rum makers (who previously just went with lighter whites) that such unaged rums – whether from cane juice or molasses – can be both stronger than the standard and way more exciting…and still people would buy them. 

One such rum comes from the brand of Takamaka Bay out of the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles, which is a distillery founded in 2002 (it’s actually called Trois Frères Distillery), and from the beginning made rums from both cane juice and molasses. Their initial lineup had a brawling cane juice blanc which was in fact stronger than others available at the time (it was 72% ABV), and which for some reason they discontinued by the early 2010s.  They replaced it with this one, three proof points lower and fully from molasses, for reasons that are obscure and may have to do with their major rebranding push around 2013-2014. It is part of their low end “Seychelles Series” of rums which includes infused, spiced and tinkered-with rums for the bar scene.

Now you would think that the producers of an overproof Wray-slaying-wannabe, which of course this aspires to be, would make every effort to ensure its product is packed with flavours of a fruit and candy shop and if it felt like being bellicose, pack itself with a nose the envy of a rutting troglodyte’s mouldy jockstrap. I stand here in front of you saying, with some surprise, that this just isn’t the case. The nose starts off okay, quite spicy, with notes of white chocolate, almonds, soy milk, creamy unsweetened yoghurt.  Then it adds a bit of grass and cumin, a shaving of zest from a lime or two. A pear, maybe two, some papaya. But that’s about it. The rum is so peculiarly faint it’s like it would need to stand twice in the same place to make a shadow.  This is an overproof? It’s more like slightly flavoured alcoholic water, and I say that with genuine regret.

Regret or not, this light faintness dominates the palate as well. It feels quite delicate (though always spicy – the effects of that 69% do not entirely vanish), yet somehow feels less, tastes less, smells less, not just in terms of intensity, or power to originate tectonic plate movement in your face – but in the aggregate sensation. There’s so little coming at you. You get alcohol, vanilla, cream, pears, swank, and that’s if you’re lucky. A touch of lemon zest. Maybe a flirt of licorice, some salt, a light cream cheese on wonder bread. And that’s all. The finish tries to redeem that by being long, dry, coughing up notes of light fruits (pears, Thai mangoes, white grapes), but alas, not enough to save it. For an overproof at this strength, we definitely have a failure to communicate.

Whatever the motivations or economic rationales were for switching the original overproof (which I rated 84 points) from cane juice to molasses, dropping the proof and simplifying the blend, my personal opinion is that Trois Frères might want to rethink that, and maybe even re-tinker. The rum is a disappointment for fans of the company which has other expressions of lesser proof that are really quite good and sells bulk rum abroad which is sometimes even better. It lacks serious tastes for something so strong, it provides no oomph to enthuse the barkeeps and mixologists who are looking for original expressions to enhance their creations, and no incentive for casual drinkers who’re looking for a unique profile. I’m no doomsayer, but I do believe that if something isn’t done to up this rum’s game, it might just arrive DOA and expire in obscurity…and that’s a shame, not least because I didn’t come here to write obituaries.

(#936)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum continues to be made on a column still, from molasses. Its predecessor was from cane juice and I always suspected it had a touch of pot still high ester juice sneaked in.  I had no such feeling here, obviously. The company website states that the current 38% “standard” Blanc does indeed have some of that pot still distillate added to it.
  • A biography of the company, last updated in 2021 can be found here.
  • The label has changed from the original 72% version, and its lesser-proofed successor which had a big “69” front and center on the label. I think this version was begun around 2020. The word “Bay” was also dropped from the labelling at around this time.
Sep 082022
 

The Bacardi Añejo “Cuatro” hews to all the markers of the long-running Gold and Añejo variations upon which its distillery’s fame rests.  It represents Bacardi in fine style, and those who pay the twenty five dollars or less it costs will find their comfort zone is well tended. Because, while it is a blend of mostly four year old rums (with some five and six year old rums mixed in), column still origin and filtered after ageing, the fact is that it represents the standards set by rums of yesteryear while positioning itself as an entry level almost-premium of today. Yeah…but no. There is not enough that’s original here.

Which is not to say it’s not pleasing by itself, within its limits, just that it has to be approached with some care, as it’s light to begin with, so the entire profile bends towards the subtle, not the club in the face. The nose, for example, is warm and gentle as befits a 40% light Cuban-style rum. It faithfully hits all the notes that made Bacardi famous – light caramel, cloves and brown sugar, some sharper tannins, tbacco and leather, interspersed with softer hints of banana, vanilla, green grapes, and perhaps some lemon and camomile tea thrown in.  Easy sniffing, gentle nosing, very pleasant, no aggro, no worries.

The same profile attends to the palate, which begins with some spiciness, but of course settles down fast.  It’s a bit rough around the edges – the dry and sharper woody tannic notes don’t mesh well with the leather, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened caramel – but overall the additional vanilla, citrus and banana tastes help it come together.  Some notes of black tea and condensed milk, a slight creaminess and then it’s on to a short, breathy finish that drifts languorously by, exhaling some sweet coffee and chocolate, a touch of molasses and freshly sawn lumber, and then it’s over.

To some extent the tasting notes as described say something about the pit of indifference into which the rum has fallen since its introduction. The issue is not that it’s good (or not), just that it’s not entirely clear what the points of it is. The gold or añejo of years past filled its duty admirably without going for an age statement, so why release the Cuatro at all?  Because it could eke out a few extra dollars? 

Summing up: the rum is okay, but in trying to be all things to all drinkers, falls into the trap of being neither great mixer not recommended sipper, being unsuited to fully satisfy either. For example, the filtration it undergoes removes the bite of youth and something of the biff-pow that a good mixing rum makes, and if that’s what it is, why not spend even less and go for the blanco or other even cheaper options? And at the other end, the age is too young to enthuse the connoisseur looking for a sipping rum – for such people, rightly or wrongly, sipping territory starts with rums older than five years, even ten…not four. 

Had Bacardi boosted the rum a few more proof points, aged it a bit more, then they might actually have had something new, even innovative — but rather than show a little courage and diversify into the bottom rung of premiums, Bacardi have copped out and played it safe. Since the Cuatro is not completely anonymous and does display some character, I suppose taken on its own terms it sort of kind of works — so long as you know and accept what those terms are.  I don’t, and couldn’t be bothered to find out, so it doesn’t work for me.

(#935)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Opinion

These days, Bacardi rums just can’t cop a break. Ignored by most serious rum folk, relegated to consideration as a supermarket shelf filler without distinction, they are deemed bottom feeders that have corrupted the innocent palates of whole generations of broke and brainless college students and made them switch to whisky. Bacard’s very ubiquity and massive sales disguise their “good ‘nuff” quality, and have been behind its inability to be taken seriously in the modern age.  From once being seen as the pinnacle of rumdom in the 1950s and ‘60s, the spiritous peak to which all wannabe rum distilleries aspired, the rums of the company have fallen to “commodity” status, while a decade’s worth of young and nimble indies and micro upstarts have taken aim at it and started to chip away at the edifice.  And you’d better believe that just about nobody even bothers to rate (let alone review) their rums without an occasional scoff and guffaw. That’s what selling more cheap rums than just about anyone else on the planet gets you.

Which is not to say that Bacardi is in any danger of losing the coveted space on or near the top of the sales heap. The shyly accepted subsidies (“oh no, we really can’t, really….oh well, but if you insist…”) that are funnelled to them in the land of purportedly meritocratic capitalism via enormous tax breaks and the despised Cover-Over Tax, ensure that when a Bacardi rum goes up against any other of equivalent stats, the Bat will be orders of magnitude cheaper, even if it is of no more than equal or lesser value.

Bacardi rums have just about always been light column still blends (with some pot still juice of unknown amount in the mix). The company has never really gone the full-proof limited-release route (the 151 doesn’t really count and is in any case discontinued), and while they dabbled their toes into the water of the indie bottling scene, it made no sense for them to do it if they couldn’t do it at scale – which they won’t, for the same reasons DDL more or less gave up on the Rares…the margins were too slim for volumes that were too small. Even the hyped special editions like the Paraiso didn’t break any seriously new ground – sure they were good blends, but to my mind there was nothing that wasn’t available elsewhere for less, and that 40% and the NAS? Today’s customers will not blow the money those cost on a product like that – they’re going after the boutique market, an area that I maintain Bacardi has never managed to successfully break into.

Except, in a way, they did try, with the trio of aged expressions of which the Cuatro is the youngest.  To my mind, even with my rather dismissive tasting notes, these three rums – the Cuatro, the Ocho and the Diez – are among the better budget-minded rums the company makes. They lack the anonymity of the superior, the blanco, the gold or the dark (or variants thereof).  They’re priced reasonably to move, and they have that veneer of true ageing about them.  Given the lack of any ultra-aged high-proofed rums out there made by their company, these might be the best we can expect from Bacardi for a while.


 

Sep 052022
 

The French island rum makers take ageing in a slightly different direction than most of those elsewhere in the world. A normal Caribbean distiller (actually just about any from anywhere), will take a rum and age it and then issue a blend of X years, and then progressively older ones, year in and year out, with the occasional special edition thrown into the mix. You never know from the main line of El Dorado rum, for example, what year any of them came from, since that’s unimportant – the age is. Ditto for others like Jamaica or St. Lucia or South and Central America, who for the most part follow “the age is the thing” principle for the well-known series of rums they issue. If they release a vintage year, it’s mostly something of a one-off, and even there the age remains the real selling point (if the limited outturn isn’t). 

Not so the guys from Martinique and Guadeloupe and Reunion. There, the idea that some years’ harvests or distillates are simply exceptional has long been an article of faith, and this is the basis for their own vintage releases, called millesimes. There, the age is not completely irrelevant but of lesser significance when compared to the specific year – and where that age is mentioned it’s usually in fine print, and it’s the year of distillation which gets the headline treatment and the Big Font. Which is why Clement’s 1952, 1970 and 1976 vintages are famous but you’d be hard pressed to remember how old any of them is, and ditto for the XO which is a blend of all of them.

The additional quality that makes the modern crop of such millesimes so outstanding (i.e., aside from the perception that the year of origin is so special, and what ageing they do get) is the gradual increase in the proof point at which they are issued.  Back when agricoles were just becoming a thing and in the decades before that when only known on the islands and France, the ABV of 50% — give or take — was a de facto standard.  Nowadays we’re seeing more and more really high proofed agricole rhums topping that by quite a margin, and they’re not only the whites, but aged expressions as well.

A good example of all these concepts is the subject of today’s review: a Guadeloupe rhum from Damoiseau, the millesime 2009, which comfortably hefts a large spiritous codpiece of 66.9% and whose age is mentioned nowhere on the label but is 7 years old according to all references. I’m seeing more and more of these hefty aged brawlers, and only rarely have I found any that stunk – this sure wasn’t one of them, and while the rhum does seem to be somewhat polarizing in the reviews I’ve read, me, I thought it was great.

Consider how it opens on the nose: admittedly, it’s very spicy, very punchy and doesn’t play nice for the first while. Some suggest it be tamed with some water, but I’m too witless for that and masochistically go for the full experience.  Once the fumes burn off it wastes no time, and lets loose a barrage of aromas of rich tawny honey fresh from the comb, flambeed bananas (with the wood-flames still licking up), caramel, bitter chocolate, coffee grounds. And this is before the fruits come in – tart gooseberries, mangoes, green grapes and greener apples, vanilla.  A combination of tart and sweet and musky, infused with cinnamon and cooking spices in a rich and sensuous amalgam that Mrs. Caner would likely swoon over.

As would be no surprise in something this highly proofed, the rhum displays a solid and almost fierce pungency when sipped. The agricole notes come out to play now, and one can taste sweet sugar cane sap; vanilla, pears, more of that burnt-wood-flambeed-banana vibe…and bags and bags of fruits. Pears, watermelon, ripe Thai mangoes, papaya, were the high points, with pastries coming up right behind – apple pie, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, cumin, rosemary, and as if dissatisfied that this still wasn’t enough, it added coffee, cardamom, and french toast (!!). Closing off the whole experience is a finish of real quality – it is long, surprisingly soft, fruity, creamy, redolent of spices, lighter fruits, sugar cane sap and a jam-smeared croissant still hot from the oven.

This is a rhum that I could go on tasting for an entire evening. As it was, I lingered over at the stand at the TWE Rum Show with Chetan of Skylark and the vivacious Clementine of Damoiseau, pretending to chat and admiring Chetan’s virulent blue shirt (which he insisted I mention in my review so…) while sneaking a second and third pour when I hoped they weren’t looking.

The strength is part of the quality of course, but I honestly believe that even if it was released at a more acceptable (i.e., lower) proof point, this is a rhum that would have succeeded like a boss.  The flavours are fierce and distinct and none jar or clash with any other.  The rum tastes completely solid and is a drinkable advertisement for the skill of whoever blended the thing.  It lasts a good long time, it’s not at all savage, and possesses such a gradually unfolding complexity, such a multitude of aromas and tastes, that you just want to take your time with it and keep it going for as long as you can.  I may not always agree with the millesime approach to rum making but when it works as well as this one does, it’s hard to fault the reasoning … and even harder not to buy a few bottles.

(#934)(89/100)


Other notes

  • Although I was and remain enthusiastic, take my opinion with some caution.  Marcus over at Single Cask despised it to the tune of 69 points in January 2021, though on Rum Ratings, four  people gave it a solid 9 (oddly, the standard proofed 42% version was more contentious, with five commentators each giving it a different score ranging from 4 to 10). On the other hand, The Rum Ration rhapsodized in 2020 that it was “one of the best rhums” he’d ever tried, and Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel in the UK — a notoriously hard marker — gave it a rousing 89/100 in late 2019. It will come down to your personal taste profile, to some extent.
  • There is a 42% version of this rum with pretty much the same label. As far as I know it is simply a reducer version of this one.
Aug 082022
 

Long time readers of this site will know something of my movement away from softer Spanish/Latin style rons over the years. There’s nothing particularly deficient about many of them (only some), and I have a soft spot for quite a few.  It’s just that I find most quite unadventurous, occasionally boring, sometimes added-to —  though of course they all have their adherents and supporters who buy them and keep the distilleries humming. At most, one can cast aspersions on their escutcheon with matters having to do with disclosure and/or adulteration, something which companies like La Hechicera and Dictador out of Colombia, Malecon from Panama and Mombacho out of Nicaragua (there are several others) have often been the target of. That does not mean, however, that they’re all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush of indifference and despite.

These thoughts occurred to me because I was forced to take an honest look at what these too-often mild-as-milkwater rums could do when done well, when I tried one that Bristol Spirits — one of the more venerable of the modern independents — had sourced from Venezuela.  The exact distillery it comes from is something of a mystery (more on that below); and it is a column still, molasses-based spirit, aged 12 years in refill American oak (ex-bourbon and in both Venezuela and Europe), un-chill-filtered, unadded-to and released at a robust 47% ABV…which I suggest is somewhat uninspiring and which Bristol calls “just about right”.

They may be on to something there, because frankly, there is little to find fault with.  The rum is crisp and tangy, with aromas jumping all over the map: initially quite fruity with scents of lemon meringue pie, pineapples, unsweetened yoghurt, bananas, it switches over after a few minutes and presents light caramel, vanilla, flowers and is light enough to present almost as an aged agricole-style rhum. It’s apparent simplicity belies an under-the-hood level of complexity I must confess to not expecting (which may be why John Barrett, Bristol’s owner, was smirking the entire time as I tried it).

Nose is one thing, though: and many rums of real olfactory promise falter and die on the palate.  At 47% this is reasonable sipping territory, which is to say, it won’t try to defenestrate my tongue.  Here, it must be conceded that the rum succeeds very nicely.  It has a good mouthfeel; it’s tangy and a little sour, yet with a solid underpinning of caramel and chocolate oranges. Ripe Thai mangoes and peaches are in evidence, some light fruit, and here again, it feels like a firm and slightly deeper agricole rhum, musky, a bit tannic, slightly sweet.  An interesting amalgam, all summed up by a shortish finish that showed off a last flirt of salt caramel ice cream with fruit bits sprinkled on top, a touch of light brine, some flowers, and it is over way too quickly.

So let’s talk a bit about Bristol, one of the stalwarts of the indie bottling ecosystem, a small company run by one man, John Barrett (he has recently brought in a young man, his son-in-law, to help run things). Bristol was established as far back as the 1990s, at the dawn of the modern rum renaissance, and if you really are curious, the Boys of Rumcast did a great interview with the man just a few weeks ago. Bristol Spirits, along with Renegade and Rum Nation, were the first indies I came into contact with that showed me the directions rum could go, and one of my best memories of the early rums I tried and wrote about, was the terrific PM 1980 25 year old that almost converted a dedicated single-malt lover to rums on the spot.  Bristol Spirits has faded from popular acclaim somewhat over the last five years or so, as new, young and aggressive little indies from all over Europe claimed market share and eyeballs of social media, yet they never went away, and their bright and simple labels have been a fixture at many a rumfest where I skulked around, and I’ve never actually had a bad one from the stable.

Bristol buys barrels like everyone else, trades them and exchanges them and sources stuff here and there, does some tinkering, blending and ageing of their own, holds on to stock they like, bottles stuff they think is ready. With respect to this Venezuelan rum, in my opinion, they hit the sweet spot, because it’s very ready. 

This is a rum that defies expectations (especially mine), and is one of the best Latin/Spanish heritage-style rums of my recent memory – in fact, it forces a reconsideration of what these distilleries can do, if juice like this becomes the norm rather than the exception it currently is. The strength is near-perfect, the notes shimmer in simple harmonies that speak of subtle and elegant arrangements which you can almost, but not quite, sense. There’s not a whole lot of oomph going on — consider it a serene chamber piece, not a symphony — and the level of complexity exhibited by a Hampden, for example, is not in evidence. Yet somehow it goes beyond all that, and at the end, it works, it tastes great and you enjoy it, and isn’t that what counts?

(#928)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Distillery

The producer noted on the label is stated as being “Destileria Sofa” which seems straightforward enough, except that you’ll never find a distillery of that name in Venezuela (and believe me, I tried).  Rum-X and various European shops make mention of it – always with respect to this very same rum and no other – and some remark it’s located in the NE of the country.  But that’s all you get.  There’s no mention of the distillery on google, reddit, wikidot or any other resource I can consult…except for one, and so, your intrepid soused reviewer got on to Simon over at Bristol Spirits: he’s the guy who helps me out when Mr. Barrett doesn’t pick up the phone. 

Long story short, it’s a distillery that makes a certain well regarded rum possibly named after a 16th century Carmelite nun, which has an association with Bacardi that prohibits it from using its own name on independent bottlings such as Bristol’s. So something similar to the “secret distillery” which Compagnie des Indes sometimes includes on its label, or how “A Jamaican Distillery” is used on occasion to avoid complications with the useage of a name like Worthy Park or what have you.  Most of the time you’re given enough to work with, as I was, but I’ll respect the confidentiality in print and not come right out with the name.

All that aside, even though permission was given to use the name of Destileria Sofa on the label as the source for the rum, I still don’t actually know what that represents or means or where the name comes from, so if anyone knows any better, or can provide information from Venezuela, feel free to send it along and I’ll add it to these notes.


Other Notes

  • After this review went up, Mads Heitmann, who runs the Danish webshop Romhatten, commented that the rum was tested at 10-11g/L sugar which he later confirmed with Bristol Spirits. If this is so (I have an outstanding email to them) it won’t change the review, which is locked, but it would explain something of the slight voluptuousness and sweetness the rum displayed, even if not particularly unpleasant in any way.
Jul 182022
 

To drink the still strength, high proofed “Bio” that Saint James distilled in July of 2020, is to be reminded what a distiller at the top of his game can do without even ageing his product.  Yes, they’ve made the pot still white I was so impressed by in 2019, but to try this 74.2% growler immediately afterwards (as I did) is like running the bulls in Pamplona in one year…then coming back later when all of them had been replaced by a particularly aggressive bunch of wild Kenyan Zebus that had been fed a diet of diced tigers and enough steroids to father a nation. It’s that kind of experience.

Here’s a rhum that ticks all the right boxes, and then some.  It’s a parcellaire micro-terroire rhum made with full attention to organic production methods, run through a column still and bottled as is – no ageing, no addition, no reduction. What you’re drinking is what comes dripping off the still.  It’s fierce, it’s savage, it’s tasty and as far as I’m concerned, the best unaged white I’ve ever tried…until I find the next one.

This kinetic whomp of proof hits you in the face right from the moment you pour the first shot, and so honesty compels me to suggest you give it a few minutes to settle down, because otherwise it bucks like an unbroken wild horse with half a pound of cayenne under its tail. And when you do sniff, its huge: brine, sweet soya sauce, cane sap, wet grass, and not just bags of fruit but whole sacks — pears, watermelon, papaya, guavas, apples, sweet Thai mangoes. It morphs over time and additional smells of iodine, smoked salmon, lemon juice and dill come to the fore, and more lurks behind in a sort of aromatic clarity and force we see all too rarely. 

And this intense panoply continues on the palate as well. That it is lip-puckeringly intense will come as no surprise, and once that is over and done with and one adjusts, the rich parade of flavour begins and the rhum becomes almost soft: it starts with damp earth, brine and olives, continues onto vegetal herbs, grass, dill, rosemary, then becomes clearer and crisper with cane juice, crushed walnuts, lime leaves (a lime cheesecake is what I kept thinking of) and glides to a precise finish that lasts what seems like forever, a finish that is dry, fruity, sweet, salty, overall delicious…and possibly the best rumkiss of my recent memory.

What a magnificent, badass, delicious rum this is. Rums I like or want to get deeper into are usually kept on the go for a few hours: three days later this thing was still in my glass and being refilled, and I was guarding it jealously from the depredations of Grandma Caner who kept innocently edging closer, twitching her fingers and trying to filch some. Everything about the entire profile seems more intense, more vibrant, more joyful and it’s a treat to just smell and taste and enjoy when one has more than just a few minutes in a tasting someplace.  Initially, when I had sampled this rhum at the Rum Depot in Berlin I had been impressed, and bought a bottle straightaway, yet with the time to really get into it without haste or hurry, I appreciated it even more the second time around. 

And it also upstages what I thought were other pretty serious pieces of work – Saint James’s pot still white, William Hinton’s Limitada and A1710’s Brute 66% to name just three. My serious opinion is that the beefcake of “Bio” points the way to rhums we may hope to get in the future; to try it is to be shown one of the most overwhelming, intensely tasty experiences that one is likely to have that year. And believe me, I honestly believe it’ll be worth it.

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

Some relatively new trends in modern rhum-making that this rhum epitomizes, is perhaps necessary in order to place Saint James’s “Bio” rhum in perspective.

One is the micro-terroire parcellaire approach to rhum production, where cane from a single small parcel or field or area of an estate is identified and harvested, and a rum (or rhum) made from that one area. Usually this is an experimental and limited run, meant to show off the characteristics a master distiller feels is characteristic and unique within that small plot of land. These days, most of the work in this direction appears to be coming from the French Island rhum makers like Neisson, HSE, A1710, Saint James and others like Renegade in Grenada, but for my money the first may have been the UF30E, if not the clairins from the micro-producers of Haiti.

This minimalist, small-batch approach also lends itself well to an emergent strain of sustainable, ecologically sound, carbon-neutral and environmentally friendly, organic or “bio” rhum production — which is still in its infancy, for now, yet gaining in importance and credibility. For rums, the term “certified organic” (and its variations) is not a mere catchphrase and marketing gimmick but refers to standard of production that today’s younger consumers take very seriously. Sales are built on such concepts.

And then there is ever-evolving rum-connoisseurship of the drinking classes, which, while once being perfectly happy with rhums and rums topping out at 50% ABV, now seems eager to go to the screaming limit. This leads to the curious (and occasionally amusing) race to the top of the proof pyramid to satisfy such demand, by producers – not all, but some. Ten years ago it was only independents and whisky-making rum bottlers who trafficked in such high ABV rums (151s were exceptions, for other reasons), but in the last couple of years the amount of rums issued north of 70% has ballooned and forced me to re-issue the Strongest Rums list not once, but twice, as new entrants kept getting added.

All of these aspects go into making the “Bio”, and may, as I remarked above, be a harbinger of rhums and rums to come. Cane juice is already considered a way to premiumize and mark out one’s products (high esters and “Jamaican methods” are another), and increasing proof combined with smaller production, limited-edition runs is here to stay.  Maybe they will not go mass market, but for smaller distilleries they can sure boost the margin and the sales in a way the bigger global producers can’t.


Other notes

  • Outturn is 5900 bottles
  • It remains remarkably affordable at around €60
  • Thanks to Dirk Becker and the really superlative staff of Berlin’s Rum Depot for bringing this to my attention and allowing me to taste first.
  • The rhum is edging into 151 territory (75.5%), but by no means is the Brut de Colonne to be considered a Ti Punch ingredient, not least because there’s a lower proofed 40% “Biologique” made and exported for that purpose (and another at 56.5% for the islanders) – indeed, some of the blurbs I’ve seen specifically mention it is to be had for and by itself.

 

Jul 142022
 

Belize, until recently, had somewhat withdrawn from the epicenter of avant-garde and popular rum culture. Traveller’s, the main distillery in the country, produced soft Spanish-heritage-style rums like the One-Barrel, Three-Barrel and Five-Barrel rums and the excellent Don Omario (not sure if it remains in production), yet it was overtaken by the full-proof pot-still ethos that have of late almost defined quality modern rums for the deep diving aficionados and connoisseurs. That’s not to say Belize’s rums weren’t popular – they were, and remain so, especially to those who knew about them and liked the style.  It’s just that in terms of wider appreciation and “must-have” collectors’ hunger, constant innovation, new expressions, relentless marketing and attendance at festivals the world over, Belize’s rums didn’t keep pace, and have lapsed into a sort of quiet somnolescence.

Two things have changed that view and helped raise the visibility of the country, more than a little. One was the establishment of the Copalli Distillery in 2016: this was (and is) a small, ecologically-minded organic rum maker utilizing sugar cane juice, and their small production outturn, while not reinventing the wheel, has received plaudits and good press (I have not tasted any…yet). In today’s world where environmental concerns, organic agriculture and sustainable practices are considered selling points and hallmarks of quality, the establishment of this distillery immediately created attention.

The other was a development in the USA, home of the micro-distilling culture that prides itself in starting up small outfits that produce every spirit known to man on their small stills (and are at pains to advertise a few that aren’t). In the US, strangely enough, and in spite of the success of Ed Hamilton, almost no indie bottler has ever bothered to establish itself as a serious endeavor to take on the Europeans: at best it’s an occasional one-off bottling that appears, like the Stolen Overproof — and yet that strikes me as really peculiar, given the proximity of the Caribbean and Central American distilleries, and the opportunities this offers. In 2019, however, somebody didn’t wait for the second knock: a new company called Windyside Spirits was established by New Yorker Eric Kaye and his wife, specifically to support their Holmes Cay brand, and they went in with the intention of being a serious independent bottler in their own right.

What does that have to do with Belize? Well, in their first year (2019) Holmes Cay tentatively released a Barbados Foursquare rum (selected so they could do a first bottling that would “knock it out of the park”) and it was so well received that they followed that up in 2020 with four more rums: from Guyana, Barbados (again), Fiji…and Belize. By now Barbados, Guyana and even Fiji were already well known and Belize was something of an outlier, but the combined street cred and positive word of mouth attendant on these releases certainly spilled over…and that small Central American nation was again being seriously considered as a rum maker of some note.


This rum was from the aforementioned Travellers Distillery, and the exact route it used to get to the US, whether via a broker and Europe or directly to the US, is unknown (the rear label suggests it was completely done in Belize). But clearly it went a long way, navigated the torturous byzantine byways of US regulations, and paid a lot of taxes, which is why it retails for a hundred bucks and more even in the US and that by itself might be an issue…to say nothing of the 61% ABV proof point, which would not recommend it to the casual fan of Captain Morgan or Bacardi. It is a column still product deriving from molasses, was aged from 2005 to 2020 in ex Bourbon casks and was released at full proof and without any additives or messing around.

What this produced, then was a dark reddish amber rum of some character.  Nosing it for the first time was quite a kinetic experience: it reminded me initially of a full proof Demerara rum: caramel, toffee, molasses, marshmallows (slightly singed), vanilla, mocha, and coconut shavings.  It took something of a detour by adding sly background notes of acetones, nail polish, a lemon zest, coca cola and even some licorice, and overall the impression was one of solid, well-aged, not-overly-complex rum of consistent quality.

The palate was (somewhat to my surprise) even better, though I was left regarding it rather dubiously and scribbling in my notes whether this was a Demerara or not and whether anything had been added.  Some woody tannins were in evidence, slightly bitter, plus coffee grounds, licorice, damp tobacco, caramel, molasses and brown sugar – I mean, it wasn’t, quite, but it sure had elements that a Guyana PM- or Enmore-lover would not be unhappy with. It also felt rather sweet (though not cloying, just a sort of background sense), and had a good bit of dark fruit action developing over time: very ripe dark cherries, black grapes, bananas, and dark unsweetened chocolate, all of wich went well with the toffee-caramel-molasses combo that had started the palate party.Ther finish, as befitted such a strong drink, was nicely long, mostly licorice, chocolate, coffee, and some tannins, a quietening down of that nose and palate, though one that did not add anything new, just toned it all down as it closed things off.


So for a rum chanelling the Spanish-heritage style (short fermentation, high ABV off a column still, flavour primarily by ageing), a bit on the odd side, but very nice; rums made in this way (even if by a former British colony) issued at proof have always excited my curiosity, perhaps because there are so few of them. That’s not to say this one works on all levels or fires on all cylinders because compared to others it is not quite as complex – the proof helps it get past that hurdle in a way that would not have succeeded as well as it did, had it been, say 40%. And then there are the taste and dark colour, which excite some doubts.

But I make that remark as a person who has tried more rums from around the world than most. For an American rum audience used slim pickings locally and to staring wistfully across the European rum shops, getting a rum like this must have been like a blast to usher in the zombie apocalypse. No additives, limited outturn, a tropical age statement of a decade and a half, single cask, and…was that really cask strength? The Belize 2005 took all the dials that rum-makers from Central and Latin America had consistently and puzzlingly left almost unturned for decades and spun them savagely around to “11”. As with the others in the line, the reviews it garnered were almost uniformly positive: Rum Revelations scored it 88 (“a flavour bomb”), Flaviar gave it a solid 8.0/10, Paste’s Jim Vorel penned an enthusiastic (if unscored) review, Rum Ratings’ three voters all said 9/10 and Rum-X had one reviewer award it 98 points. 

All of which probably says more about the strength of the desire North Americans have for rums that are better than the standard blah they too often have to put up with, than the intrinisc worth of the rum when looked at dispassionately. But still: the Belize 15YO shows that there is something better than ten-buck supermarket fodder available — and while it may be pricey, it is worth it, and demonstrates that there is indeed a market for indie bottlings made by Americans, for their side of the Atlantic.

(#923)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The reputation Holmes Key developed with this and other rums almost instantly led to two episodes on the podcast RumCast (#2 for the Barbados, and #30 for the Fiji) and blurbs, reviews and articles in various industry fora like Paste, GotRum, Drinkhacker, Rum Lab, Wine Enthusiast, Robb Report, Forbes, and Esquire (to name just a few). No European indie ever got that kind of press so fast, ands it points out – to me, at any rate – a huge unmet demand for the sort of rums they make and the model they use to produce them.
  • In his review on Rum Revelations, Ivar also remarked on the caramel and winey taste and wondered if Travellers had monkeyed around with it. I don’t doubt HC themselves were completely above board when they said they didn’t, but on the other hand, they took what they got on faith, so who knows?
  • Thanks to John Go, who sent me a sample.
Jul 112022
 

The Damoiseau 8 YO was for years one of the unsung stars of the brand, a rhum that has been made year in and year out for ages, and the one that edged most into premiumized territory without actually being one itself 1. But if its increasing online unavailability and absence on the webpage of the company is any indication, we might be seeing it headed for a decline and discontinuation, and if that’s true then my advice for those reading this review would be to stock up, because this is one pretty damned fine piece of work, and you’ll miss it once it’s gone. Yes there are older ones in Damoiseau’s portfolio, and yes there are worse (though not all are cheaper) – but as an all round people pleaser and near premium standard strength rhum, this one presses a lof of the right buttons.

For all that, you would be hard pressed to find a review of this specific rhum anywhere online. Rum Ratings has a single dismissive 4/10 assessment while Rum-X has seven, averaging out at 81 points; and not one of the english language regulars (including me, up to today) have ever written about it, and that includes reddit’s usually reliable /r/rum sub. I’m not casting blame on anyone for the omission, mind you, because that would be unfair: Damoiseau makes literally dozens of aged expressions, they vary in availability, and seems to cycle them in and out of production without notice (I’ve been told it’s a supply issue since they don’t always have enough rhums on hand to make the ones they want to, all the time); some have greater outturns, some less. I merely maintain that for a rhum that’s this good, it’s a pity that more attention was not paid.

Let’s go through the tasting, then (which came from a bottle I had bought for about €60 three years ago, if you’re curious about these things – I only just got around to opening it). The rhum is 42% and from cane juice, a quite straightforward agricole without any fancy flourishes.  It hails from Guadeloupe, run through a column still and aged in oak casks for eight years, then blended. If it was aged in Europe we’d hardly blink, and pass it by without stopping.

But nose it and you begin to get an indication of its hidden quality. It’s soft, warm, mellow and quite fruity, with just enough of a tang to it to stop it from being…well, boring. Vanilla ice cream, dates, white guavas, green peas, pears and watermelon can be sensed, which is good, but we’ve had rums that started like this and then lacked contrasting aromas to balance things off with something more tart, so do we get that, or will it just be a yawn through? Fear not: the rhum shows off some weak notes of pineapple and strawberries, as well as herbs (dill, rosemary, cardamom) and that indefinable green grassiness with lemon zest that marks the agricole rhum. There’s balance in the Force, so to speak and while it’s not particularly strong (that mild 42% has its downsides too), there’s little to complain about.

Although it gave a good account of itself on the plate, tastewise it’s not as complex as the nose suggested.  Again, fruits lead the way, soft, fleshy, rich, and musty:  overripe peaches, dates, apricots and prunes.  For a layer of sharper notes we have some apples and grapes (quite ripe), honey, a touch of licorice, honey and those herbs again, very faint now.  It’s good, just not as developed as one might wish.  The finish, though, is nice: short and spicy with a lingering aftertaste of coca cola, licorice, soft pineapples, grass, water melons and papaya.  It’s all there, just difficult to tease out at times.

The rhum, then, is an interesting balance of hits and misses.,  We sort of sense more than we get, yet the imagination does help enrich the experience. What I’ve described is what I smelled and tasted, and it worked well, even if it doesn’t all come together completely — as I said, the strength can be too mild for some. Yet I like Damoiseau rhums generally and this one specifically – had it been cheaper and more solid in the other criteria I might have noted it as a Key Rum, ahead of the Five Year Old. Perhaps the rhum’s best recommendation comes from Damoiseau themselves: they have released at least three different  8YO cuvees over the years from different years, suggesting they at least have great faith in its qualities.  Those are higher priced, of course — they get marketed as vintage premiums — so my suggestion would be to see if you can get the “standard” 8 YO when available, because to my mind it’s a really good rum, and an undiscovered steal.

(#922)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As noted, there are several rhums labelled as being eight years old in the Damoiseau stable. The one I write about is the one lacking any flourishes or badges of premiumization.  It’s not the 8 Year Old Cuvee du Millénaire from 2002 or 1993, or the Rhum Vieux Cuvée du XXIème siècle, which all come in a flask similar to the famed 1953; or the Millesime 2008 Cuvee (that one is 47.9%) or any of those made for other specific years.
  • Herve Damoiseau, when approached, said (as others had also suggested) that availability of stocks was the issue for the decline in releases of the standard 8 YO.  A new 2014-distilled version is due for release in 2022.
Jul 072022
 

When it comes to Australia, the wider world knows of Bundy and Beenleigh almost by default, because they are the big guns that export globally and allow us to try their stuff as found in a duty-free or released by the independent bottlers. But perhaps a better sense of the country could be provided if we run through the rums of those multitudinous small micro-distilleries that dot the landscape, because seriously, that’s where all the cool stuff and innovation seems to be happening as these New Australians seek for the elusive magic of a truly indigenous rum that could not be mistaken for anything else. Not all seriously try for that brass ring, and of those that do, not all succeed – what they all accomplish, however, is to enrich the rum landscape of the entire country, even if they simply make a “regular” rum.

One of the rums that doesn’t make a big thing about channelling some new style or method of production but is content to simply be good, is the rum called Amber “Tavern Style”  Batch No. 5, made by the bluntly-named Yack Creek Distillery (love that name: just saying that – “I had a Yack the other day” – reeks of badass rumgeek machismo, doesn’t it?).  

Photo (c) Yack Creek Distillery

The distillery is located in the Australian state of Victoria, and was founded in 2016 by two friends, Mick and Jamie, conforming to the pattern of many others: the guys were checking out whale sharks in Ningaloo (Western Australia) six years earlier, the conversation turned to spirits and opening a business, and in short order they had made plans. Then years were spent securing the  financing, buying and installing the necessary equipment, doing some training in the field, and the business was set to go. It was called “Yack” after the river and town near which they set up shop, and quite sensibly shortened its name, because calling it Yackandandah might have been a labelling problem and a tongue twister for lexically challenged. Unsurprisingly they have made gin (six varieties) and vodka (just one) to pay the immediate bills, before heading into whisky territory (where they are already up to the 16th edition) and the fifth iteration of their rum line.  The philosophy is to do multiple small batches a year rather than just a few large bones, so runs and outturns have thus far remained relatively modest.

Depending on how they feel, either blackstrap molasses, molasses or sugar cane honey — all locally sourced — is used, fermented with a commercial yeast and then run through a 1000-litre copper still with stainless steel columns (a 130-litre stainless steel and copper modular high column still is utilised for smaller batches and experimentation). For the Amber “Tavern Style” rum we’re discussing today, the distillate is put into an ex-bourbon cask for about four years, and then finished in a Meyrieux Bourgogne cask for a short period before being bottled at 48%.

What that does is produce a golden rum with an uncommonly pleasant nose that is assertive enough not to fade away into thin nothingness. It is, paradoxically both light and rich, redolent of blackberries in cream, cherries, raspberries and a bag of overripe plums.  At no point is it sharp or harsh, just firm and warm,  It changes a fair bit over time too: after a while one can sense oranges starting to go, some kimchi (!!), paint and freshly oiled leather harnesses, and a comfortably upholstered clean leather sofa.  You don’t get that every day in a rum, that’s for sure.

On the palate it continues to be a solid tasting rum with overripe fleshy fruit as before, and tastes a bit of dry sweet cereals, molasses, caramel, a touch of vanilla, brine, and that new-polished leather vibe. It’s not as vibrant as before, though, and the components one would expect to surge to the forefront – aromatic herbs, anise, spices and tart fruits – take a back seat. This leaves salty and musky flavours to take over, at the expense of a more complex multidimensional profile which the nose had hinted was possible. The finish operated at this level also: dry, wine-y, with notes of fat red grapes, licorice, olives, Danish butter cookies and some stale orange rind. It had a certain whiskey-like nature to it, suggesting a malt in rum’s clothing.

Like most new and small distilleries such as we have been reviewing of late, rums like this are youngish, decently made and solidly constructed, but not complex, uber-aged top-enders. They can’t be, because they are the distilleries’ bread and butter, sharing the stage with equally young whiskies and gins through economic necessity (for now). That limits them somewhat, and it’s a quiet achievement that this one succeeds as well as it does.

The Amber No. 5 is an unquestioned achievement of the mid range: it noses solid, tastes firm and finishes with some style, even if it does leave you wishing for more: at the end its informal title of “Tavern Style” pretty much says what the makers probably had in mind when they created it.  And yet, in spite of all that mid-brow aesthetic (or because of it) I really quite enjoyed it, especially in a simple Cuba Libre or with ginger beer, because the rum had enough notes to hold my interest and woke up the mix very nicely; it can even be had neat without undue discomfort. What it also does is remind me — a lot — of a Bacardi 8, a Young’s Old Sam, a young El Dorado or a Doorly’s: a seemingly regular, even overlooked, rum that is quite a bit better when you try it than the bare stats say it is.

(#921)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • I was told the outturn was about a hundred bottles. All are sold in the local area, most at the distillery itself in the small bar they have onsite. Obviously one made it to the 2021 advent calendar from which this sample was obtained, and for which I remain grateful to Mr. & Mrs. Rum for providing.
  • The logo on the company masthead is that of a Blue Murray Spiny Crayfish, commonly found in the creek and was designed by Jamie Heritage and his sister.
  • Yack Creek Distillery is one of a cluster of small family-run distilleries established over the last decade in and around Yackandandah and its surrounds. Backwoods Distilling is close by, and in the area are Barking Owl, Bilson’s, Glenbosch, joining the 10 or so distilleries in Victoria’s High Country.
Jul 042022
 

Photo (c) L’Homme a la Poussette on FB

Rumaniacs Review #136 | 0920

Rhum Jacsi (later named Rhum Jacksi) defies easy categorization and is a research exercise leading down several peculiar rabbit holes. All initial sources agree that the rhum was from Martinique, was made from the 1950s to the 1970s and it is usually to be found at 44% ABV (some later versions were 40%). The source / etymology of the name is not written down but is easily inferred. The distillery of origin is a mystery. The companies involved in its make are the only places one can go and that’s a sufficiently lengthy story to be split off into its own section under these brief tasting notes.

Rum-X is the only place that has any technical specifications: their entry for the rhum states it is from cane juice and done on a column still (of course any such thing as the AOC is undreamed of at this stage of rhum’s evolution), but since attribution is not provided, it’s hard to know who put that entry in, or on what basis.  That said, it’s from Martinique, so the statements are not unreasonable given its rhum-making history.  Age, unfortunately is a complete zero, as is the distillery of origin. We’ll have to accept we simply don’t know, unless someone who once worked for the brand in the 1960s and 1970s steps forward to clear matters up.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 44%

Photo (c) ebay.fr

Nose – Very herbal and grassy, and is clearly an agricole rhum from cane juice. Lots of vegetables here: carrot juice, wet grass, dark red olives, a touch of pimento, and a nice medley of lighter fruity notes – passion fruit, lime zest, yellow mangoes and an occasional flash of something deeper.  It feels better and more voluptuous over time, and I particularly like the aromas of clear citrus juice, soursop, pears, green apples and vanilla.

Palate – Much of the nose transfers seamlessly here, especially the initial tastes of crisp fruits – mangoes, ginnips, ripe apples.  Once you’re past this you also get cane sap, sugar water, a slice of lime, a bit of vanilla.  Light brininess, pears and apples follow that, balanced off by dark, ripe cherries, syrup and toffee. 

Finish – Doesn’t improve noticeably on what came before, and is medium long, but doesn’t get any worse either. Fruits, tart unsweetened yoghurt, miso soup, apple cider, sort of delicate amalgam of sweet and sour overlain with dusky notes of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch.

Thoughts – This is a rum I liked, a lot.  It’s made from cane juice, but feels deeper and richer than usual, and it reminded me of the old Saint James rhums that used to be heated to 40ºC before fermentation and distillation (in a sort of quasi-Pasteurization process). Not sure of that’s what was done here, and of course the distillery of origin is not known, but It feels half clean agricole and half molasses, and it’s all over delicious.

(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Historical details

The labels on the bottles that are now being sold (usually at auction) have the notation that it is certified by CDC. But that was just a sort of selection and verification process, guaranteed by Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano. Nothing in their history suggests that they — or Pernod, or Ricard who took them over — originated the brand, and so this leads us to another company mentioned on one of the bottles, that of J&S Violet (Freres), which have a far stronger claim to being the ones behind the first Jacsi rhums. 

Two brothers named Violet – Pallade and Simon – who were initially itinerant drapers, opened a small shop in the southern French town of Roussillon in 1866 (it is about 40km north of Marseille) and driven by a boom in aperitif wines, they created a blend of their own that combined red wine, mistelles and botanicals…and also quinine (perhaps they also wanted in on the sale of anti malarial drinks that would sell well in tropical colonies, though certainly their marketing of the spirit as a medicinal tonic in pharmacies alleviated problems with existing established vermouth makers as well).

This low-alcohol drink was actually called byrrh – the brothers did not invent the title, just appropriated it as their brand name – and was wildly popular, so, like Dubonnet (see below), the company grew quickly. By the 1890s they had storage facilities for 15 million litres of wine, and by 1910 they employed 750 people and distributed in excess of thirty million litres of byrrh a year – in 1935 Byrrh was France’s leading aperitif brand, apparently. Pallade and Simon passed away by the advent of the first world war, and Lambert’s sons Jacques and Simon (the J&S mentioned on the label and therefore also most likely the Jacques and Simon of the brand name) took over in 1920 – which sets the earliest possible time limit on the Jacsi brand. though I believe it to have been created some decades later.

In the post WW2 years, the demand for aperitifs faded as cognacs, brandies, whiskies and light rums surged in popularity. The Violet brothers tried to expand into other spirits at this time, and it was here, in around the mid-fifties, that we start to see the first Jacsi magazine and poster advertisements appear, which is why I can reasonably date the emergence of the Jacsi rhum brand to this time period. Like most print ads of the time, they touted blue waters, tropical beaches, lissome island women, sunshine and the sweet life that could be had for the price of a bottle. It’s very likely that stocks were bought from some broker in the great port of Marseille, just down the road, rather than somebody going to Martinique directly; and the rhums were issued at 44% even then.  

1950s Label with J& Violet Bros. Label. 44%

Alas, this did not help: sales of Byrrh continued to fall, the rhum business was constant but minimal, and in 1961, beset by internecine family squabbles over a path forward, Byrrh sold its entire business, vats, stocks and barrels, to another company involved in liqueurs and aromatic wines and aperitifs – Dubonnet-Cinzano. It is from 1961 that the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” appears on the label of Jacsi branded rhums and the “J&S Violet” quietly exits.

1961 Label – CDC mentioned

So who exactly were CDC? A bottler, certainly, though not a distillery, for these were indie / merchant bottlings, not estate ones. As noted, Jacsi rhums that have turned up for sale in the past few years, all have labels that refer to la Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano (CDC).  This is a firm which goes back to one Joseph Dubonnet, a Frenchman who created an aperitif modestly called Dubonnet in 1846 in response to a competition organised by the French Government to find a cordial which African legionnaires would drink and colonists could buy, that would disguise the bitter taste of the anti-malarial drug quinine (it therefore served the same purpose as the British gin and tonic in India). This was done at a time when fortified and flavoured wines and liqueurs – especially anises and absinthes – were very popular, so M. Dubonnet’s enterprise found its legs and grew into a large company in very short order.

Late 1960s label, still CDC referenced and at 44%

I could not ascertain for sure whether the Italian vermouth company Cinzano had a stake in Dubonnet or vice versa, but it strikes me as unlikely since they (Cinzano) remained a family enterprise until 1985 – and for now I will simply take the name as a coincidence, or that Dubonnet produced Cinzano under licence. CDC, then, dealt much with vermouths and such flavoured drinks, but like Byrrh, they were caught up in the decline of such spirits in the 1950s.  Their own diversification efforts and core sales were good enough to stave off the end, but by the 1970s the writing was on the wall, and they sold out to Pernod Ricard in 1976 – by then the family was ready to sell. Pernod and Ricard had just merged in 1975, and had started an aggressive expansion program, and were willing to buy out CDC to fill out their spirits portfolio, which had no vermouths of note. 

Post-1970s label for 40% version after Pernod Ricard acquisition. 40% ABV and Cusenier name.

By the 1970s, the brand name had been changed to Jacksie, and the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” moniker was retained on the label  for a while before being replaced by Cusenier, which was an Argentine spirits maker acquired at the same time by PC – that’s the last reference to the brand and the rhum that can be found. But in an interesting side note, both Dubonnet and Byrrh (now Pernod Absinthe) continue to be made in Thuir, where the facilities of Byrrh once were. Jacsi itself, however, has long since been discontinued and now exists only in these pages and the occasional auction when one goes on sale. For what it’s worth, I think they are amazingly good rums for the prices I’ve seen and the only reason they keep going for low prices is because nothing is known about them. Not any more.


 

Jun 132022
 

The official and very long name of this rum is “Pere Labat ‘70.7’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole de Marie Galante” and clearly wants to have a title that is as long as the ABV is high. That proof point, of course, is impressive by itself, since until quite recently, white agricole rhums tended to park themselves contentedly in the 50-55% space and made their reputations by beefing up Ti Punches that knocked defenseless cruise line tourists across the room.

However, it was never going to stay that way. Even before my list of the strongest rums in the world came out in 2019, it seems like there was a quiet sort of race to the top that’s been steadily building a head of steam over the last quarter century or so. Initially there were just the famed 151s dating back to the 1800s, then a few badass island champions came out with rums like the Sunset Very Strong (84.5%) from St. Vincent, Denros Strong (80%) from St. Lucia, the Grenadian outfit Rivers’ 90% beefcake (only sold locally) — and of course the Surinamese Marienburg 90 held the crown for a long time until it was dethroned in early 2022 by one of the indie bottlers who have slowly but surely begun to colonize the gasp-inducing low-oxygen high-altitude drinkosphere.

Somehow, though, agricoles and French island rums never really bothered.  Oh there were always a few: we saw rums like the 62% ABV Longueteau “Genesis”, Dillon had a 71.3% brut de colonne…but these were rarities, and sniffed at by most. What’s the point? was a not uncommon question. But gradually over the last few years, agricoles picked up the pace as well: Saint James released their Brut de Colonne blanc “BIO” at 74.2%, Longueteau upped the Genesis to 73.51%, Barikken, a French indie, said to hell with it and came up with one from Montebello at 81.6%…and somewhere around 2019 or so, Pere Labat, the small distillery at Poisson on Marie Galante, introduced us to their own overproof white, the “70.7” as it crept up the ladder of their progressively stronger expressions (40º, 50º and 59º).

No medals for guessing what the strength is: the number on the label. The rhum is an agricole, from cane juice; after a three day fermentation period using baker’s yeast it’s run through their single-column still (of which they have two), rested for an unspecified number of months in inert vats, and then bottled as is without dilution or reduction. That’s what brut de colonne means: straight from the still without any further processing or mucking about, and what that provides is a profile that’s about as close as you’re going to get to what terroire is all about – assuming you can handle what it delivers.

The rhum starts with a nose that is not actually all that unpleasantly sharp, just one that is firmly, deeply, strongly intense. It’s like an über-agricole: everything you like about cane juice rhums is here, dialled up a notch or four.  The aromas are herbal, grassy, fruity, and if you can make smells equal colours in your mind, then it’s a vibrant thrumming green.  Cucumbers, dill, green apples, soursop, peas, grapes, that kind of thing.  And more: after it opens up for a few minutes, you can get hints of strawberries, pine sol (!!), pineapples and – somewhat to my surprise – clothes fresh out of the dryer, hinting at fresh laundry detergent and fabric softener.

Tasting it requires some patience, because at the inception you’re getting old cardboard notes, some brine and olives, wet sawdust, and that may not be what you signed up for.  Be of good cheer, the good stuff is coming, and when it does, it arrives with authority – it tastes like watermelon with an alcohol jolt and a sprig of mint, a touch salty, but mostly sweet.  It tastes of pears, green grapes, apples, sugar cane stalks bleeding their sap, passion fruit, pomegranates, red currants and for a kick, adds cucumber slices in a sort of pepper infused white vinegar.  And underneath it all there’s that pungently tart thin sweetness of cane juice, yoghurt, lemongrass and ginger, moving smoothly to a long, fragrant finish of sweetened lemon juice, iced tea and a nice sweet and sour note that’s just this side of yummy.

The 70.7 works on just about every level it choses. Want power?  Want intensity of flavour?  With that high ABV, it delivers. Want the subtlety of complex notes working well together?  Yep, it has that too, with or without some water to tame it. You like an agricole profile but want one that brings something new to the party? This is one that will do you good, though of course it’s not to be taken lightly – all the above aside, when you’re sipping juice close to ¾ pure ethanol, then some caution is in order.

In short, what you get here is a seriously flavourful rum that starts with a bang, goes like a bat out of hell and stops just shy of overwhelming. Labat’s strongest white agricole is a well oiled, smoothly efficient flavour delivery system, as devoid of fat as Top Gun’s football players, and with little of it wasted, all of it for a purpose: to get as much taste into you before you start drooling and get poured into your bed by a highly annoyed significant other, even as you sport a sh*t eating grin on your face. Trust me. I know.

(#915)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Oddly, Labat’s web page does not list this rum anywhere.
  • Limited run of 3500 bottles. I think it was first issued in 2019, and it’s an annual release.
May 232022
 

Aside from their premium “Wild Series” line of rums with their striking black and white labels and dizzying proof points, the relatively new Danish indie Rom Deluxe also has various downmarket rum offerings. One step down from “Wild” is the Collector’s Series, originally meant to capture rums that were not quite as strong as the former but retaining much of the quality.  On the face of it and perusing the listings, I don’t honestly see much difference, however, aside perhaps in a lower price.

The subject of today’s review is the first batch of Release 3 which hails from Bellevue, which can lead to some confusion since there are three places (maybe more) with that rather common name — suffice to say it’s from Le Moule on Guadeloupe, and made by Damoiseau (see “other notes”, below). Unusually for the French islands, it’s a molasses based rum, column still, distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2021 — and so aged a whopping 23 years in a combination of both tropical and continental — at a solid 55.5% (another batch has a slightly higher proof point of 56.1%). Stats like that have the nerd brigade crossing their eyes and drooling, and not just in Denmark; with good reason, since we see such ageing from French island rums only rarely.

The rum, fortunately, did not disappoint.  The nose was middle-of-the-road complex, a Goldilocks-level symphony of just about enough, never too much and rarely too little. The nose was slightly briny, but not a Sajous level-salt wax explosion. It had fruits, but was not an ester-bomb – peaches, apples, melons, apricots, flambeed bananas.  A little smoke, a little wood, noting overbearing, and all these notes were balanced off with a pleasant melange of breakfast spices, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and a touch of licorice.

The palate settled down a bit and continued to channel an approach that eschewed the screeching sharp vulgarity of a fishwife’s flensing knife and went with something more moderate. There was salt caramel ice cream in Irish coffee, topped with whipped cream. Vanilla and brine, stewed apples, green peas, light pineapples, peaches in syrup. Things got a little odd somewhere in the middle of all this when distinct notes of wet ashes, rubber and iodine came out.  These however, didn’t stick around long and gave way to a dry, short, crisp finish redolent of strong hot black tea (sweetened with condensed milk), acetones, nail polish, brine and a last filip of toffee.

The whole rum, the entire sipping and drinking experience, really was very good. I like to think it channelled that school of thought propounded by Hesiod and Plautus (among many others) who promoted moderation in all things (“…including moderation,” quipped Oscar Wilde centuries later). It’s tasty without overdoing it, it’s firm without bombast, assertive where needed, one of the better rums coming off the island, and honestly, one can only wonder what made Rom Deluxe relegate a rum like this to the Collector’s Series and not to the more upmarket Wilds. 

No matter.  Whatever category it’s placed in, it’s really worth checking out of it ever turns up in your vicinity. I doubt you’d be disappointed.

(#910)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Outturn 258 bottles
  • Marque GMBV
  • The label and the stats are the same on both the 55.5% R3.1 and the 56.1% R3.2, except for the strength.
  • The rum is not an agricole, given it was made from molasses; this twigged a lot of people into believing it was not from MG BEllevue…but from Damoiseau (see next comment)
  • Note on origins: Originally this review mentioned Bellevue as being “…on the small island of Marie Galante just south of Guadeloupe (other distilleries there are Pere Labat and Velier/Capovilla at Poisson, and Bielle).” However, several people alerted me to overlooked inconsistencies here, because there is Bellevue on Marie Galante, another Bellevue at Le Moule in Guadeloupe (that’s Damoiseau’s place) and a third in Sainte Rose, also in Guadeloupe (which is Reimonenq). Because such confusions had arisen before (e.g. the TBRC 1999 Bellevue) most commentators felt it was a Damoiseau rum.  I got onto Kim Pedersen at Rom Deluxe and he wrote back “…you are right about the misprint on our website. It is a Bellevue from Damoiseau 🙂 […] there has been a lot of confusion about these rums, and I can see that my text on the webpage is more misleading than informative. So I think I have to change that despite the bottles is sold out.” So that means the review’s “sources” paragraph, and my title has been changed.
May 192022
 

After all these years of Savanna’s releases of new series, individual bottlings or millesimes, one can reasonably be nearing the point of exhaustion.  Perhaps no other primary producer outside of DDL, Privateer and maybe the French island distilleries with their annual cask editions, has so many releases from all over the map, relentlessly put out the door year in and year out. This is a connoisseur’s delight and to the benefit of consumers everywhere…but something of a collector’s nightmare. I doubt there’s anyone who has the entire series of this Reunion-based distillery’s Lontans, Intenses, Metises, Creols, Traditionnels, Grand Arôme, Maison Blanches and what have you, or even anyone willing to try (the way they would with, say Maggie’s Distiller’s Drawer outturns, or Velier’s Caronis).

However many exist and remain available, what they really are is elegant variations on a theme, whether that of molasses-based rum, agricole rhums, high ester flavour bombs, or interesting blends of their own that are aged and mixed up to provide a little something for everyone. There are several variations of the Lontans with their characteristic long-fermentations, some having finishes, others of various strengths, and varying ages: this one is a “Lontan” from 2007 bottled in 2014, and also a Grand Arôme, which is to say, a high ester rum. There’s a lot to get excited about here: cognac cask ageing, full proof 57%, and a solid six years old, so let’s dive right in.

Nose first: and as soon as you take a brief snootful, yes, that high-ester profile from Savanna is flexing its glutes, in spades. It’s a fruit salad lover’s delight – pineapples, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and any other kind of berry with a tart sweet crisp tang to it, all drizzled over with lemon juice and maybe some caramel, rosemary and damn, is that some red wine in there too? It’s really quite lovely and the strength allows for a richness that ensures you miss nothing (actually, the person two rooms over won’t miss anything either, as Grandma Caner proved when she shot out of her kitchen down the hall demanding to know what I was tasting today).

The strength allows an assertive and very aggressive, almost fierce, taste to comb across the palate: tart berries again (all of the abovementioned ones plus a few unripe mango slices in pimento-infused cane vinegar thrown in for good measure).  There is a curious and previously-unnoticed brine and olive component coiling around that does a good job of calming down the wild exuberance of what would otherwise have been an excess of sharp fruitiness (assuming there even is such a thing), and after the rum settles down one notices softer, neutral fruits: bananas, papayas, melons, pears, tomatos (!!), followed by avocados and salt, cherries, prunes and, for good measure, even a pinch of dill. I particularly commend the finish which is long, dry and aromatic in the best way: flowers, caramel, honey and a trace of that lemon-infused fruit salad (but not so much).

The whole experience is really flavourful and outright enjoyable, though admittedly the strength and tart sharpness might make it too intense for some who are unused to — or don’t care for — the Dirty-Harry-narrowed-eyes badassery of Savanna’s Grand Arôme rums. It occurs to me (blasphemy alert!!) that maybe, just maybe, some sweetening might take the edge off, but I hasten to add that I would not do so myself: a touch of water is enough to bring down the braggadocio this excellent six year old from Reunion displayed for me; and now, having written all my notes and tasted it a few more times, I think I’ll just finish off what remains. Grandma Caner is hovering casually around, with a glass “just happening” to be in her hand, so you can be sure if I don’t, she will…and given she doesn’t even like rum that much, that’s quite an endorsement.

(#909)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • These particular rums have been called “Lontan” since about 2003 — the word is a play on the French creole words long temps or “long time” (referring to the fermentation), and tan lon tan meaning “in the old days”.  Previously, between 1997-2000 they were titled Varangue (verandah, perhaps a hint and a wink at where you should be drinking it), before which they were sold as Lacaze rhums…but of this last, few records remain and I couldn’t tell you much about them.
  • The sample says it’s aged in a cognac casks, which would explain the richness of the profile, but I can find no reference to that fact online anywhere (least of all on Savanna’s own site), and no photoghraph of the label is available.
  • Outturn 707 bottles
  • My thanks to Etienne Sortais, who generously sent me the sample
  • I’ve written a fair bit about Savanna rums, including a short bio of the company itself, so if your interest is piqued, there’s no shortage of material to go through.
Apr 112022
 

The brand of Ron De Mulata is a low end version of Havana Club, established in 1993: it was sold only in Cuba until 2005 when it gradually began to see some export sales, mostly to Europe (UK, Spain and Germany remain major markets). It is a completely Cuban brand, and has expanded its variations up and down the age ladder, from a silver dry rum, aged white, to rons aged 3, 5, 7 and 15 years, plus a Gran Reserva, Palma Superior and even an Elixir de Cuba. It is supposedly one of the most popular rums on the island, commanding, according to some sources, up to 10% of the local market.

Which distilleries make it is a tricky business to ferret out.  This one, an aguardiente (see notes on nomenclature, below) is made from juice, and yes, the Cubans did make cane juice rons: it is labelled as coming from Destileria Paraiso (also referred to as Sancti Spiritus, though that’s actually the name of a town nearby), and others of more recent vintage are from Santa Fe, and still others are named. It would appear to be something of a blended cooperative effort by Technoazucar, one of the state-run sugar / rum enterprises (Corporacion Cuba Ron is another).

By the time the Mulata rums, including this aguardiente, started seeing foreign sales in 2005, the label had a makeover, because the green-white design on my bottle, with its diagonal separation, has long been discontinued. The lady remains the same (her colour has varied over the decades, and the name of the series makes it clear she is a part-white part black mestizo, or mulata), and the rum is unusual in that it is a cane juice rum to this day. However, since it continues to be made and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I am making the assumption that for all the updates in bottle and label design, the underlying juice has undergone no significant change and therefore does not qualify for inclusion in the Rumaniacs series. On that basis, it started out, and remains, a white 40% agricole-style rum, hence the title aguardiente.

You would not necessarily believe that when you smell it, though. In fact, it smells decidedly odd on first examination: dusky, briny, with gherkins, olives, some pencil shavings, and lemon peel.  This is followed up by herbs like dill and cardamom before doing a ninety degree hard right into laundry detergent, iodine, medicinals, the watery, slightly antiseptic scent of a swimming pool (and yes, I know how that sounds).  Fruits are vague at best, and as a purported cane juice rum, this doesn’t much adhere to the profile of such a product.

Upon a hefty shot, it does, however, move closer to what one would expect of such a rum. The shy timidity of the profile is something of a downer, but one can evince notes of iodine (not as bad as it sounds), sugar water, vanilla, grassiness, and watery fruit (pears, white peaches, guavas, unripe pineapples). There’s not much else going on here: the few agricole-like bits and pieces can be sensed, but lack the assertiveness to take them to the next level, and the finish is no help: it’s short, shy, no more than a light breeze across the senses, carrying with it weak hints of green peas, pineapples, and vanilla.

There’s no evidence for this one way or the other, but I think the rum is a filtered white with perhaps a little bit of ageing, and is probably coming off an industrial column still. It lacks the fierce raw pungency of something more down-to-earth made by the peasantry who want to get hammered (so go for greater strength) with no more than a basic ti-punch (so pungent flavours). This rum fails on both counts, and aspires to little more than being a jolt to wake up a hot-weather tropical cocktail. It doesn’t impress.

(#898)(70/100) ⭐⭐


Notes on nomenclature

The use of the word “rum” in this essay is problematic and it has been commented on FB that the product reviewed here cannot be called a rum because (a) it is not made from molasses and (b) it is not aged. I don’t entirely buy into either of those arguments since no regulation in force specifies those two particular aspects as being requirements for naming it either rum (or ron) or aguardiente – though they do prevent it from being called a Cuban rum.

However, there are the traditional rules and modern regulations of the Cuban rum industry which must be taken into account. Under these specifications, an aguardiente is not actually a cane juice rum at all – it is the first distillate coming off the column still, usually at around 75%, retaining much flavour and aroma from the process (this is then blended with the second type of distillate, known as destilado de caña or redistillado which is much higher proofed and has fewer aromas and flavours, being as it is closer to neutral alcohol). By this tradition of naming then, my review subject should not even be called an aguardiente, let alone a rum.

Even the Denominación de Origen Protegida (the DOP, or Protected Designated of Origin) doesn’t specifically reference cane juice, although as per Article 20 rum must come from “raw materials made exclusively from sugar cane”, which doesn’t exclude it. And in Article 21 it mentions that aguardiente – elsewhere and again noted (but not defined or required to be named such) as being the first phase distillate of around 75% ABV – must be aged for about two years and then filtered before going onto be blended. Article 23 lists several different types of añejos but unaged spirits and aguardientes are not mentioned except as before.

This leads us to two possibilities.

  1. Either what I have reviewed is a bottled first-phase distillate, which means it is aged for two years and a column still distillate deriving from molasses, named as per tradition.  This therefore implies that all sources that state it is cane juice origin are wrong.
  2. This is an unaged cane juice distillate (from a column still), casually named aguardiente because there is no prohibition against using that name, or requirement to use any other term. Given the loose definition of aguardiente across the world, this possibility cannot be discounted.

Neither conjecture eliminates aguardiente as being from some form of sugar cane processing, because it is; and in the absence of a better word, and because it is not forbidden to do so, I am calling it a rum. However, I do accept that it’s a more complex issue than it appears at first sight, and the Cuban regs either don’t cover it adequately (yet), or deliberately ignore the sub-type.


 

Mar 282022
 

Rum and rhum aficionados are no strangers to Depaz, the distillery on Martinique now owned by Bardinet-La Martiniquaise. The sugar factory and (later) distillery had once been a family operation  — the Depaz family from Livorno in Italy had been part of Martinique society since the 1700s — and was in existence even before its destruction by the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902. The estate’s modern history can truly be said to have begun with the reconstruction of the distillery in 1917; their immediate success at rum-making could be inferred from their winning of medals at the Marseille expos of 1922, 1927 and 1931, at a time when French island rhums were hardly very well known (even Bally only started making the good stuff around 1924). In 1989 the head of the family at the time, André Depaz, allowed a long time customer and distributor, the Bardinet Group, to take over Depaz, and in 1993 La Martiniquaise, another major spirits conglomerate who already owned Dillon, bought a controlling interest in Bardinet, and so remains the current owner.

The technical specs for this rhum are quite normal: cane juice source, column still distillate, a blend of rhums aged three years or more, 45%. Although these core stats have changed very little over the decades, I have to be honest and admit  I’d be interested to see what some 1960s or 1940s versions taste like and how they compare (like Olivier did, here). Because there’s little to find fault with in this rhum.  It presents an opening nose that is very nice, almost delicate, redolent of vanilla, flowers, white fruit plus watermelon and cane juice and sugar water. The almost quintessential agricole profile, yet even the relatively brief ageing period allows deeper notes ot be discerned — caramel, peaches, peas, brown sugar, that kind of thing. Stays light and clean, adding some saline and bananas at the back end. 

That’s quite an intro from a rhum positioned as entry level, not costing too much, and quite young. Admittedly, the palate is not quite up to that level, but it’s not too shabby either: it presents a bit rough and sharp and spicy at the beginning, until it settles down, and then it becomes softer and warmer, like a scratchy old blanket you use on the sofa while watching TV.  Sweet caramel, coconut shavings, vanilla, sugar cane juice, pears, apples, very ripe cherries and black grapes, are all noticeable right bout of the gate. The edges have not been entirely rounded off with some further ageing or blending, so much of the young and frisky nature of the rhum comes through, like a half-grown long-haired mutt that hasn’t quite adjusted to its strength.  The finish is sharpish, medium long, mostly sugar water, citrus, herbs, toffee, some fruits and a light hint of lemon grass. 

Depaz’s rhums have always been available in France, but there were few reviews around even from the old stalwarts of the online reviewing ecosystem from that country, perhaps because people tended to go for the more upscale editions like the distillery’s millesimes and indie bottlings rather than the “standard” line which this is — yet for the budget-minded cognoscenti, Depaz’s starters of the blanc, the XO and the Vieux are actually really quite good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  Fortunately, even for those who don’t want to spring for the full 700ml, gift sets in smaller sizes are available for the penny pinchers among us, such as the one I bought.

And I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have dropped a bit more coin on the whole bottle, because overall, although I feel it’s a rum better served in a Ti punch than on its own, it isn’t so bad that it can’t be had neat. It’s subtle and more complex than it appears at first sight, moves at an angle to the full-out grassy-herbal profile of a recognizable agricole, yet succeeds remarkably well – it explains why the aged offerings are so highly regarded and sought after, because if something this young can be made so well and taste so good, then what must they be like? To some extent, trying this rum is an affordable answer to that question.

(#894)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • You will observe that no controversy has ever been attached to the name of this rhum.
  • As with most other distilleries on the island, Depaz adheres to the AOC regulations so one can drink their rums with confidence that there’s been no mucking around with anything dodgy.
  • Other reviews one can find are the Fat Rum Pirate’s 2020 review (four stars), Rumtastic’s 2019 ambivalent and unscored review and Single Cask Rum’s evaluation from 2019 (85 points).
Mar 022022
 

Photo (c) Killik Handrcrafted, from their website.

When reviewing the Gold (rum) produced by the Melbourne-based distillery of Killik Handcrafted, I was less than enthusiastic, grumbling and mumbling that the mildly aged rum would impress in five years but right now was mostly potential with not enough follow-through. I made those remarks because I knew there was a rum in their portfolio that proved the skills did exist and which really did impress me, and it wasn’t aged or set in a barrel or anything: it was their full proof 59% unaged white. 

For the curious: Killik handcrafted is a small rum distillery started by the brothers Ben and Callan Pratt in 2019 (more background in a separate mini-bio here). They have a hybrid thousand-liter still that allows multiple configurations including that of a 4- or 6-plate column still, or a pot still; also make other spirits for cash flow; use molasses as the base; and have a local cooper help with getting barrels. They proudly represent themselves as the first hogo-centric distillery in Victoria (the Australian state in which Melbourne is located) because they love messing around with fermentation and cheerfully play with dunder and muck holes and wild yeast to see if they can bring some Cockpit to Killik.

Thus far the majority of the stocks they have laid down to age have been pot still distillates, and we have yet to see any of those aside from the Gold; on the other hand, the unaged whites of the Silver and ther Silver Overproof are all column still spirits. Which is interesting because usually, when we hear of unaged whites dripping from a column still, we tend think rather more of the French Caribbean islands, or Reunion, even some of the new Asian outfits — not Australia.  But that would be a mistake, because even if they don’t use the pot still for the unaged Silver, Killik is closer to those two badass Jamaicans, Hampden and Worthy Park… in spirit, in production and in results.

And what a result this was indeed. I can’t speak for the standard proof Silver which I haven’t tried, just the overproof, but I gotta say, it’s made so well that Jamaican rum lovers might want to cast a covetous eye over Down Under. Consider first the nose: “Damn!,” went my first notes, expressing some surprise, “Seriously, deeply, pungently, sharply fruity-sweet.” It’s redolent of the tip of a marker squeaking over a new whiteboard; strawberry milk shakes loaded down with extra vanilla ice cream; tart fruity yoghurt. There’s a bagful of sour-sweet fruits – apples, kiwi fruits, hard yellow mangoes (with an odd spicy scent that reminds me of those coming from Sri Lanka). In an odd reversal of standard, the glue, acetones and solvent come late to the party, swirling around a core of peaches and pineapples and very ripe apricots and bananas. They sure weren’t kidding about going for the hogo.

The heat of the 59% comes into its own on the palate. That sharp spiciness attendant on that strength is unavoidable, yet at no point is it really unpleasant: what it does is provide a rock solid foundation that makes each taste not some faint wispy sensation breathily experienced and instantly gone, but something of distinct force.  It starts off with acetones, nail polish remover, flowers and fruit juice, and none of the undesirable rotting-midden scents that admittedly add character when assembled properly, but so often detract from the overall experience when not. It’s nicely sweet, displays some interesting spices – cinnamon, rosemary, cardamom, even a whiff of chamomile – plus musky fruity flavours that develope really well.  Green peas, bananas, orange peel, bitter chocolate and coffee grounds, laban, slightly sour milk all get mixed into the taste profile, and it all comes to a long, dry and heated conclusion that is always crisp with distinct ripe fruity notes and some vegetable coordinates well dialled in.

This is one seriously good rum. I mean, it goes down so well — the flavours just pop, it hits all the high notes and at no time does it feel like it’s out of control and just hitting you with its junk because it can. It’s sweet but not too much; sour but not mouth-puckeringly so; musky within reason, sharp without cutting, and flavourful without throwing the spice cupboard at you and then following up with the kitchen sink. It’s a curiously cultured back-bar brawler that is unashamedly partisan in its inspirations, honestly hearkening back to its stated Jamaican antecedents without apology even as it goes its own way.

I tried the entire 2021 Australian Advent Calendar sample selection over a period of days in December last year, and this was the one that to me, of all the whites, stood out. It not only exceeded those in whose company I tasted it, but handily eclipsed its own siblings and proved once again (as if it needed to be proved at all) that unaged white rums of power are among the best value for money rums out there. With Killik’s Silver Overproof, unlike the Gold, I don’t want to wait five years to see what else they can do with it.  I want another bottle right now.

(#889)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a doff of the derby to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always, to you both.
Mar 012022
 

Commercial publicity still

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

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

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

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

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

Second to last glass on the right…..

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

(#888)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Background Details

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

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

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


 

Feb 072022
 

This is one of those times where I’ll circle back and fill in the detailed background later, since even a summary of more than three centuries of company life will still probably put the disinterested to sleep. 

In brief, Berry Bros & Rudd (or BBR) is a London-based wine and spirits enterprise (they have branches in several other countries) who dabble in their own bottlings of rum from time to time.  They were among the first indies to capture my attention back in 2012 or so with an extraordinary 1975 Port Mourant, but nowadays their star shines somewhat less brightly and few speak of their rums with the reverence they once were thought to command.

This rum sort of exemplifies why: it’s a rum from Haiti about which just about nothing can be found and is listed only in a few online shops which provide a bare minimum of detail.  It’s never come up for auction, is not on Rum-X’s database and nobody has reviewed it as far as I can tell. Neither Single Cask Rum nor Barrel Aged Thoughts, in their company bios, have even listed it, but then, nobody has a complete listing of BBR’s rums.

Based on the label and other sources, it is distilled in Haiti in 2004 – this of course immediately implies Barbancourt, the major and most renowned rum maker on the half-island and the only one who exports bulk to Europe where BBR would have picked up a few barrels.  As was customary a decade ago, the rum was released at 46% ABV and is column distilled, though whether molasses based or deriving from cane juice is unknown (I have little faith in the spelling convention of “rum” versus “rhum” on the label to determine the source).

That out of the way, what’s it like? It is, on initial nosing, quite pleasantly fruity and musky…but not herbal or grassy (suggesting but not confirming a molasses origin). Apples, raisins, dates and black grapes are the initial scents, followed by dark red cherries and a lingering ripe pineapple background that remains perceptible throughout. Once the rum settles down – it’s a bit thin at 46% and from time to time bites like an underfed, rice-eating, flea-bitten mongrel if one approaches it carelessly – there is a deeper note of honey, light molasses, pencil shavings and cream cheese on sourdough bread.

Some of this carries over to the palate, but not all. It tastes nicely of brine and a lightly salted trail mix of cashews and peanuts. Tart flavours of gherkins and sweet pickles creep in, leading to a firmer melange of crisp fruits and cough syrup (!!). Green grapes, unripe peaches and pears, some light orange zest and citronella. It feels watery at times, but there’s enough strength here to let more complex flavours seep through if one is patient.  The weakest point is the finish, which is less salty, sweeter and has an easy sort of fruit salad vibe going on. It’s short, breathy, easy and not too exceptional at this point: the nose remains the best part of it.

So, not a bad rum, but conversely, nothing to really write home about either.  It’s simply a competently assembled rum with no points of distinction and few weaknesses for which one might mark it down – maybe some more ageing, a few extra points of proof, would have elevated it. It’s too good to be anonymous blah, while unfortunately not staking out any tasting territory in your mind which would cause you to seriously recommend it to your friends as something they would have to try (as attends, say, every Hampden or WP rum ever made). Maybe it’s all down to BBR not having a serious rum department or in-house expertise to really select some good juice, but the upshot is that their 9YO Haitian rum from 2004 is no undiscovered masterpiece, just a forgotten rum that no-one will miss if it stays that way.

(#882)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical Notes

With the explosion of new and nimble independent bottlers on the European scene, some of the original bottlers we used to know a mere decade ago are fading from view, which is unfortunate.  They, these older ones, kept the flame of pure rums burning at a time when the world was glutted with anonymous blends and pointed the way to the possibilities of the rumworld we live in now. That said, I was never entirely free of the suspicion that most of these outfits had their origins in, and kept their love for, whisky as their primary focus — and rums were, at best, an afterthought. Wilson & Morgan, Cadenhead, Moon Imports, Samaroli, BBR and others, all started bottling whisky before they moved into the good stuff – but whatever the case is, they were and remain the inheritors of the merchant bottlers of old who serviced the distribution of rum around the empires they served, many of which were bought out or went under or are long out of business…and all but unknown now.

Such merchant bottlers had their origins in distributorships and spirits shops, and probably the oldest of these is the firm of Berry Brothers & Rudd in London, which, as all rum geeks are probably aware, was founded in 1698 by the surviving wife of the prematurely deceased, sadly unmissed and completely unknown Mr. Bourne, who opened a general grocery shop in that year with (one assumes inherited) funds sufficiently impressive for her to take premises opposite St. James Palace. The intricacies of the family line and business development over the centuries are too complex for this review, but by the early 1800s the shop had already moved into wine distribution and by the beginning of the 1900s was exclusively a wine and spirits merchant, bottling their own wines, sherries and whiskies well into the 20th century and expanding carefully, but globally. 

Rums seem to have been issued by BB&R on something of an irregular, ad hoc basis and the only ones predating the modern era that I know of, are a Jamaican rum from the 1960s which was auctioned in 2018, and another even rarer one from 1947/1948 that went under the hammer in February 2020 both at prices none of us can afford. Rums began to appear in the portfolio as a semi-regular thing in 2002, with a Long Pond 16YO from 1986 and a Versailles 1985 17 YO; these early editions were characterised by a simple, almost Edwardian-era label design ethos which (along with the bottle style) has now been changed several times over. Some of their modern bottlings have become very sought after, like the Jamaica 1977 or the Port Mourant 1975, but somehow the series as a whole never scaled the bar which others set so high, never got that cachet of “must have” attached to their initial work. Probably this was because of inconsistent releases and equally inconsistent quality…some were good, some were not, and some were simply okay. 

BBR continues to release rums from time to time, with a puzzling lack of publicity which may also be part of the reason their visibility is less than it could have been.  Nothing about their rum shelf is particularly impressive: not the selections, not the disclosure of what they do have, not the variety. And while they have expanded the original “Berry’s Own Selection” to now include an “Exceptional Cask” and a “Classic Range” series – sometimes distinguished, I suggest, more by price and rarity than by quality – there are never very many listed for sale or auction and no serious must-have rums to excite the cognoscenti as, say, Nobilis or Rom Deluxe does.  It remains to be seen whether the company wants to increase its footprint of well-made, well-aged rums from around the world, harness the rum-geek crowd’s enthusiasms into new and exciting ranges of young or aged expressions…or just be content to follow everyone else and remain a top tier wine and spirits merchant with a third tier rum selection.


 

Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

These days I rarely comment any longer on a bottle’s appearance – there was a time when I actually scored it as part of the review, though common sense suggested that it cease after the pointlessness of the practice became self-evident – but here I really must remark on the striking distinctiveness of the design. In colour and form it reminds me of Henri Rousseau’s savagely childish yet iconic jungle scenes. You sure won’t pass this bottle on a shelf if you see it.

But what is it? The Martinique distillery of J.M. is of course not an unknown quantity – I’ve looked at several of their rhums in the past and in “other notes” below I repeat some of their background.  Still, the rhums for which they are known are mostly aged agricoles, many of which are single cask or special editions. Surprisingly enough, this is the first of their whites I’ve taken the time to look at and it is not their regular workhorse blanc issued at 50º but a limited edition at 51.2% – what exactly makes it deserving of a special rollout and naming is somewhat nebulous. It may be something as simple as the distiller and cellar master, Nazair Canatous, coming up with a “blend of cuvées”1 which possessed a powerful set of aromatic profiles. How many bottles make it “limited” is not mentioned anywhere.

Since its introduction, the rhum has been rebranded: the simply-named “Jungle” is the first and only edition of that name, released in 2017 and then replaced the very next year by the retitled “Joyau Macouba” under which it continued to be marketed through to 2021 — but aside from some minor variations in strength, the two seem to be identical. They are also not really expensive, less than €10 pricier than the standard blanc which Excellence Rhum stocks at under thirty euros. 

And that makes it, I think, somewhat of a bargain since there are five year old agricoles that cost more and taste less. The nose of the “Jungle” is really lovely – delicately sweet herbal sugar water…with mint and lime juice (not lemon). It displays notes of brine mixed with and soda pop, something like a salty 7-Up. Fruity smells are always hovering around –  passion fruits, tart red currants, fine and faint lemon peel — and there are also some muskier notes of cereals and freshly baked bread lurking in the shadows, and they stay there for the most part.

If I had to chose, I think I’d go for the palate over the nose on this one: it’s just a shade better, richer (usually the reverse is the case).  It tastes like a salty, creamy lemon meringue pie topped with caramel and a clove or two; the core of it is a solidly-sweet, crisp, citrus-y firm taste, with enough of an edge to not make it a cream soda milquetoast. Around that swirl the herbs: thyme, cumin, dill, rosemary and cardamom, plus the grassiness of fresh green tea with touches of mint. Olives and brine kept in the background and always seem to be on the verge of disappearing, but they’re definitely there. This all concludes with a medium long finish that coats the palate without drying it out – sweet, delicately fruity and floral, and with the spices and herbs gradually fading out to nothingness.

Overall, this is a good white rhum, and I liked it, yet the question remains: what makes it special enough to warrant the limited treatment? The tastes are fine and the overall experience is a little less intense than some of those 50º standards all the agricole makers have as part of their portfolio…perhaps that’s what was considered the point of distinction, since here it was tamed a bit more, while remaining equally complex.

Be that as it may, for a rested-then-blended rhum agricole blanc, it holds up very well.  It is tart, tasty and tamed, and, within its limits, original.  Strictly speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to buy it when there are so many other white agricoles of comparable quality out there (some of which are cheaper).  But you know, we can’t always find relevance, catharsis or world-changing rhums every time we try one, and sometimes it’s simply a relief to find a bit-better-than-average product that eschews extreme sensory overload and simply aims for a little romance, and pleases at a price we can afford. That the “Jungle” manages to achieve that is something we should appreciate when we come across it.

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

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 was among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique until the Groupe Bernard Hayot, a Martinique-based and owned family conglomerate, bought it in 2002. Nowadays it (along with Clement and St. Lucia Distillers) is marketed by GBH’s spirit division, Spiribam.


 

Dec 122021
 

There are four operations making rum in Grenada – Renegade (the new kid on the block, operating since 2021), Westerhall, Rivers Antoine and Clarke’s Court, the last of which was formed in 1937, operating under the umbrella of the Grenada Sugar Factory (the largest on the island) and named after an estate of the same name in the southern parish of St. George’s.  This title in turn derived from two separate sources: Gedney Clarke, who bought the Woodlands estate from the French in the late 1700s, and a bay called “Court Bay” included with the property (this in turn was originally titled “Watering Bay” because of the fresh water springs, but how it came to change to Court is not recorded). The company sold rums with names like Tradewinds and Red Neck before the Clarke’s Court moniker became the standard, though the exact date this happened is uncertain. Pre-1980s, I would hazard.

The Clarke’s Court Pure White Overproof is a column-still, molasses-based blended white lightning made by that company, and is apparently the most popular rum on the Spice Island, best had with some Angostura bitters (the 43% darker rums made here are supposedly for the ladies, who “prefer gentler rums”).  Local wags claim it’ll add hair to your chest, strip the paint off anything, and can run your car if you don’t have any petrol. Older women reputedly still use it as a rub.

When it comes to seriously pumped-up Grenadian rums, Westerhall’s Jack Iron is not in this rum’s league, though it’s admittedly stronger; and had Clarke’s more distinct, it would have given Rivers Antoine a run for its money as the first Key Rum from Grenada.  It certainly buffs its chest and tries to muscle in on the territory of the famed white Jamaicans (I feel it was meant to take on J. Wray’s White Overproof, or even DDL’s amusing three-lies-in-one Superior High Wine…but it lacks their fierce pleasures and distinct profiles and at the end, is something of a cheap high proofed white rum shot with ‘tude and taste, a better Bacardi Superior with a dash of steroids.

This careful endorsement of mine does not, however, stop it from being something of a best-selling island favourite on Grenada, where it outsells Rivers (because of a larger facility that breaks down less frequently). As with other white rums across the Caribbean, it’s an affordable and powerful rum, a dram available to and drunk across all social classes —  it’s always been made and probably always will be. It’s emblematic of the island and widely known in a way Rivers – which is far older – is only now becoming, and local denizens with a creative juice-it-up bent cheerfully adulterate, spice up or make “bush” variations (such as the one I originally tried back in 2010) at the drop of a hat and in every rum shop up and down the island.

Now, it’s torqued up to 69% ABV, but sources are unclear whether it has been aged a bit then filtered, or is released as is, and while I can’t state it with authority, I believe it to be unaged: it has a series of aromas and tastes that just bend my mind that way.  The nose, for example, is redolent of minerals, dust, watery salt solution, the smell of the ocean on a seaport where the fish and salt water reek is omnipresent.  Some sweet swank and sugar cane juice – there’s a weird and pleasant young-agricole vibe to the experience – plus a delicate line of fruits: sharp, ester-y, unripe, tart and pungent, without the rich plumpness of better-made aged variants.  Kiwi fruit, and one of those cheap mix-everything-in fruit juice melanges. Honestly, I got a lot here, and had walked in expecting a lot less.

69% is strong for a rum, but not unbearable, and it’s just a matter of sipping carefully and expecting some heat for your trouble. Tastes of apples, cider, pears, all sour, begin the experience. These initial flavours are then muscled aside by tequila and brine and olives, not entirely pleasant, very solid; this then morphs into a sweet and sour soup, yeasty bread, cereals, sour cream, cream cheese, all very strong and firm, reasonably well developed and decently balanced. The fruits are also well represented – one can sense a fruit salad with cherries in syrup, plus gherkins and the metallic hint of a copper penny.  Overall, surprisingly creamy on the tongue, almost smooth: not what one would expect from something at this proof point.  It leads nicely into a hot, long finish, with closing notes of fruits (bananas, watermelon, mangoes) and some salt-sour mango achar, miso soup, and sweet soya.

When considered against the other big-name, well known, badass whites from the non-agricole, non-151-proof world, it’s easy to see why it gets less respect than the howitzers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Guyana (for my money, Cuba, T&T and Barbados have no overproof white rums that stand out, are as well known, or are so visibly a part of local culture in the way these are, though I’m sure I’ll catch some heated protests about that). It’s not exported in quantity, lacks a solid presence on the American bar and cocktail circuit, doesn’t often come in for mention and has no superstar brand ambassador or cocktail-slinging badass to champion its praises – many people reading this review will likely never have tried it. 

That said, I think it may be an undiscovered steal. Grenadians, to whom it’s a cultural institution, will swear by the thing and embrace anyone who speaks positively of the rum like a brother. Few will drink it neat: I do it so you don’t have to, but really, it’s not made to have that way, and that leaves it to boost a mix of some kind, like the locals who have it with a soda, juice or coconut water (when they don’t throw back shots in a rumshop, or nip at the backpocket flattie all day). The tastes are nothing to sneeze at, there’s enough raw flavour and bombast and attitude here to satisfy the desire for something serious for the rum junkie, and the bottom line is, it’s really and surprisingly good. It’s a worthy entry to the canon, and one can only hope it gets wider international acclaim. We can always use another one of these.

(#871)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • This review is based on two separate sample tastings – a mini from the 1990s and a more recent sample bottle bought from Drinks by the Dram.  The tastes were similar enough to suggest the blend has stayed the same for a long period.
  • The label has remained relatively unchanged for decades.  It is unknown when the rum was first introduced though.