Mar 252018
 

#500

In one of those odd coincidences that crop up from time to time, I was polishing up my essay for one of Damoiseau’s ultra-premium halo rums – a 31-year-old inky bad boy from 1953 which is usually too rare or too pricey for most to bother with – when Single Cask posted his own in-depth evaluation.  We had a good laugh over that one, but in a way it’s good too, because while one person’s review of a single rum is fine, a better opinion can be formed with several people putting their snoots and their pens in.

Age-wise, the 1953 from Guadeloupe does not class with the ur-rum of the Aged Canon, the Longpond 1941 58 year old from Jamaica. Yet it is nearly as old as the 1972 37 year old Courcelles which was the first to truly switch me on to French Island rhums, and which is the oldest such aged product I’ve yet found – others, such as the Bally 1929 and Clement 1952 and the St James 1885 were made before 1953, but are younger. Whatever the case, it is a blast from the past, something we should try if we can just to get a sense of the evolution of rum and rhum and ron over the decades. And yes, also because it’s so damn cool to have something from the fifties.

So what was happening in 1953? The Cold War was in full swing, of course, Eisenhower was inaugurated as #34, Mossadegh was overthrown, Stalin died, Kruschev lived. The Kenyan Mau Mau uprising was going on while the Korean conflict “ended.” Everest was conquered.  Watson and Crick announced DNA, Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, the first Playboy came out, and Jacques Tati released the whimsical classic M. Hulot’s Holiday (a favourite of mine, along with Playtime). The rationing of cane sugar in the UK came to an end. The Brits suspended the British Guiana constitution and occupied the country militarily so as to make it safe for democracy.  And this rum came off the still in Damoiseau’s facilities.

I have no idea whether it was pure cane juice distillate or molasses – Guadeloupe has a history of mixing things up, which is part of their attraction for me – but just based on the way it nosed and tasted when run past other aged dinosaurs (the Courcelles, Damoiseau’s own 1980, the Cadenhead Green Label 1975 among others) I’m going to say it had at least some molasses-based spirit in the bag. It was a sort of mud brown opaque liquid that immediately made me remember the St James 1885, and poured thickly into a glass, even at its relatively low ABV of 42%.

But it smelled very nice for all that low power. Really. It had deep fruity flavours of blackberries and prunes, plus a lighter note of strawberries and orange peel, flambeed bananas, and it reminded me somewhat of a Bajan Black Rock rum, what with that underlying series of crisper smells.  Candied oranges, a flirt of caramel, some faint licorice, very ripe cherries added to the fun. However it was deeper than any of those, richer, smokier, and developed over time into a plump and rotund nose that steered you between the darkness of a crazy old fellow like the 1885, and the clarity of Damoiseau’s 1989 20 year old.  Which perhaps says something for bottles that have sat waiting their turn for many many decades.

The palate is perhaps where people will pause and look at the glass a second time.  That it was pungent and warm was beyond question: even at the rather anemic strength, one could easily appreciate the relative smooth profile, pick out some weak brine, prunes, chocolate covered dates, banana cake, strawberries and honey; and to that, over time, was added a few lighter balancing elements of unripe strawberries, maybe a stalk of lemongrass. Overall, what fruitiness there was, was dialled way back and became almost imperceptible, to be overtaken by something more like a mix between tannins and some much-too-strong unsweetened black tea, both a good and a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint.  As for the finish, not much could be said – warm, short and unfortunately weak. That said, here perhaps more could be discerned which were missing from the palate – black tea, honey, raisins, faint chocolate, plenty of crushed walnuts, if too little of the fruitiness I was looking for.

Taking all these aspects together, one must concede that it started well, it’s just that as it opened up, there emerged a sort of woody, smoky, nutty background: this gradually overwhelmed the delicate balance with the fruit which the rhum needed (my opinion), and that to some extent derailed the experience. Too, the flavours melded into each other in a way that a stronger strength might have separated, creating a somewhat indeterminate melange that was tasty, yes, just…indistinct. And not entirely successful.

After the fact, looking at the rhum coldly and practically and assessing it on price alone, I can’t tell you this is a must-have.  It’s the kind that relies on the numbers “5”, “3” and “1” to be taken seriously, but when it comes down to a tasting, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the halo…and the numbers become just that, numbers.  As with rums like the Black Tot (or even the St James, Clement or Bally rhums mentioned above), we’re buying to touch the past and reconnect with a sense of real heritage, back when the Cuban style of rum dominated the market, to see how what we drink now came from what was made then. It absolutely is a major product in that sense — just not exceptional, compared to what it costs, compared to what we might expect.

So, the Damoiseau 1953 nails the historical value and cool presentation ethos just fine, and it is different, fascinating, old, pretty good, and if that’s what you want, you’re good to go. You’ll be the belle of the ball showing it off, and all the stares and envious plaudits will surely be yours for the taking (unless someone trots out a Bally). The best thing to do — when you’re in the store looking at it, with your bonus cheque twitching in your pocket — is to ask yourself some very honest questions as to why you want to buy it and then proceed purely on that basis.  I ignored that advice myself, and that’s why you’re reading this review.

(85/100)


Other notes

The Single Cask review is really worth a read.  Also, he noted that it came from some “lost casks” but Herve Damoiseau, when confirming the age as 31 years for me (the rhum was bottled in 1984), didn’t know anything about that.

Jun 142017
 

#372

It’s always a pleasure to circle back to the now-established independent bottlers, especially those with which one has more than a glancing familiarity; they are the outfits who have carved themselves a niche in the rumiverse which for us consumers is composed of one part recognition, one part curiosity and eight parts cool rum.  The Compagnie des Indes is one of these for me, and while everyone is now aware they have started to issue the cask strength series of rums alongside lesser proofed ones (much like L’Esprit does), there will always remain a soft and envious green spot in my heart for the now-famous, Denmark-only, cask-strength editions.

This particular Danish expression is a Bellevue rum from Guadeloupe (Damoiseau, not the one on Marie Galante), and here I have to pause for a moment, stand back, and happily observe that in this day and age of rising prices, lowering ages and instantly sold out Bajan rums (did someone say Triptych? … sure you did), we can still get a rum aged for eighteen years.  I am aware that a simple calculus of years (and continental years at that) does not always confer quality – look no further than the Chantal Comte 1980 for an emphatic refutation of that idea – but when made properly, they often do.  And bar some hiccups here and there, this one is exceedingly well done.

As always, let’s start with the details before getting into the tasting notes. It’s a French West Indian rhum which does not adhere to the AOC designation, bottled at a crisp 55.1%, gold in colour, and with a 265-bottle outturn.  It was distilled in March 1998 and bottled in April 2016, aged in American oak barrels, in Europe – this is, as most will recall, a personal standard of the Compagnie, which does not favour tropical ageing (or cannot spare the time and expense to source them direct from Guadeloupe, take your pick).

Wherever it was aged, there was no fault to find with how it smelled: the nose was creamy caramel and cream cheese with only the very faintest hint of wax and rubber, and in any event, such traces vanished fast, giving way to dark fruits, not particularly sweet, like almost-ripe plums and cashews. At this stage such tannins and wooden hints as came later were discreet, even shy, and there were some light, playful notes of flowers, peaches, apricots, grasses and cinnamon.

Tasting it delivered a crisp, firm mouthfeel that was hot and salty caramel, plus a touch of vanilla.  Here the tannins and pencil shavings became much more assertive, suggesting an oaken spine as whippy and sharp as the cane my house-master used to bend across my backside in high school with such unfortunate frequency. In spite of the attendant orange peel,vanilla, cashews, raisins and lemongrass that could be sensed, it was also somewhat sharp, even bitter, and not quite as tamed as I might personally have wished (with perhaps some more aging it would have been? Who knows).  Behind all that, the additional flavours had their work cut out for them, not entirely successfully, and so I had to concede after a while that  it was well done…but could have been better.  The finish, however, was quite exceptional, showing more clearly the difference between an AOC-determined profile versus a more laid back Guadeloupe “let’s see what we can do here” kind of insouciance – it’s remarkably clear, offering for our final inspection caramel, nuttiness, toffee, with avocado, cumin and a hint of ginger.

So, in fine, a Guadeloupe rhum with lovely notes dancing around a great nose and fade, and quite a decent palate within its oaky limitations (which did admittedly cause it to slide down the rankings).  Fortunately that in no way sank the rhum, which, on balance, remained a lovely drink to savour neat….it just needed a softer comma of oak, so to speak, not the exclamation point we got.  I concede, however, that this was a minor blemish overall.

Although at the top end we are seeing a move towards pot still rums done up in interesting finishes, complete with fully tropical maturation, I believe there is still a place for longer European ageing without any finish at all.  Florent Beuchet, the maitre of CDI, has always championed this quiet, more patient route for his rums, which is perhaps why much of his aged hooch works so well – there’s a subtle, delicate richness to the experience that is not so much as odds with, as a counterpoint to, the badass in-yer-face brutality of those rums which slept for a shorter but more intense period in the Caribbean.  Both such types of rums have their place in our world – the issue does, after all, depend entirely on our preferences – and when a Guadeloupe rum presses so many of the right buttons as this one does, one cannot help but simply appreciate the quality of what makes it into the bottle at the other end.  This is a rum like that — it’s vibrant Caribbean sunshine issued for a colder clime, and I’m damned glad I managed to pilfer some from my snickering Danish friends from up north before they finished it all themselves.

(86/100)


Other notes

Feb 092017
 

Wow…

#341

The surprisingly heavy and dark Bellevue rhum made by L’Esprit purred salt and sweet caramel ice cream into my nose as I smelled it, revealing itself in so incremental a fashion, with such an odd (if excellent) profile that it almost had to be experienced to be properly appreciated, and it left me wondering whether this was a molasses rum, not one from cane juice.  It was bottled at the perfect strength for what it displayed, melding power and smoothness and warmth in a nose of uncommon quality.  Yet there was lightness and joyousness here too, a sort of playful melange of all the things we like in a rhum, skimping not at all on the secondary notes of prunes, plums, peaches, and pineapples.  It was plump, oily and aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated quite forcefully that the Epris Brazilian rum that had been my first introduction to the company had not been a one-off, one hit wonder.

Even to taste it, the experience did not falter or withdraw from its exuberance. The Bellevue seemed to operate on two levels of quality simultaneously – first there were the faint oily, rubbery notes, leavened with nougat, pink grapefruit and light citrus.  And behind that, almost at the same time, there was the real deal: honey, vanillas, olives and briny notes in perfect balance, chopped light fruits and flowers, plus a thin thread of licorice coiling through the whole thing.  There was just so much going on here that it rewarded a rather languorous approach to the tasting – usually I do all my tastings at the table with all the comparators within easy reach, but here, after ten minutes, I simply said “to hell with it” and went out onto the balcony, sat down to watch the sun go down, and idly observed the passers by below who didn’t share my good fortune at having a lovely rum like this one growling softly in my glass.  Even the finish kept on developing (not always the case with rhums or rums) – it was crisp and smooth and hot, long lasting, a real delight – it seemed to be a little more oaky than before, here, but the lasting memories it left behind were of a lot of hot, strong black tea, and burnt sugar resting easily on a bed of softer vanilla, tobacco and citrus notes.  It was, and remains, a solid, smooth, tasty, drinking experience, not quite as good as the Damoiseau 1989 20 year old…but close, damned close.

If you’re one of the fortunate owners of this nectar, let me run down the bare bones so that you know what you’re drinking: column still product, cask strength 58%, matured in a bourbon barrel for slightly more than twelve years.  This is not from the Habitation Bellevue distillery on Marie Galante, but from the Bellevue estate which is part of Damoiseau on Guadeloupe (the main island), founded in 1914 and bought by Louis Damoiseau in 1942 – commercial bottling began around 1953.  Like just about all commercial spirits operations in the West Indies, they ship bulk rum to Europe, which is, as far as I know, where this one was bought, so ageing was not tropical, but European.  Which, fortunately for us, didn’t diminish its achievement in the slightest.

My association with L’Esprit, that little French company from Brittany I wrote about earlier this week, came as a consequence of that Brazilian rum referred to above — that thing really impressed me.  And so I kept a weather eye out, and bought the first bottle made by L’Esprit that I saw, which just so happened to be this one…I have a few others from the company to go through so it won’t be the last either.  While thus far L’Esprit hasn’t made a whole lot of rums – twenty five or so the last time I looked – the worth of their wares is consistently high.  This one is no exception, an enormously satisfying rhum with exclamation points of quality from start to finish.

The minimal outturn should come in for mention: I’m used to seeing a “set” of a few hundred bottles from the various indies, a few thousand from Rum Nation, so there’s a fair chance some reader of this little blog will pick one up…but to see one of merely sixty bottles from a single cask, well, I may just be spitting into the wind (it was beaten, for the trivia nuts among you, by the Old Man Spirits Uitvlugt, a measly twenty eight bottles, and by the reigning world champion, the Caputo 1973 which had just one). The reason why the outturn is so relatively small, is because L’Esprit is bowing to the market – they know it’s mostly connoisseurs who love cask strength rums, but they’re few and far between, and it’s the general public who drive sales and buy the 46% versions.  What Tristan does, therefore, is issue a small batch of cask strength rums from the barrel (60-100 bottles) and the remainder gets tamped down to 46% and issued in 200-300 bottles.

After going head to head with as many agricole rhums as I can lay paws on for the last few years, there’s nothing but good I can say about the tribe as a whole.  I enjoy the fierce purity of the AOC Martinique rhums, their almost austere clarity and grassy cleanliness – yet somehow I find myself gravitating towards Guadeloupe a bit more often, perhaps because they have a slightly more experimental, almost playful way of producing their hooch (they never bothered with the AOC certification themselves, which may be part of it).  This gives the rhums from the island(s) a certain unstudied richness and depth that seems to have created a bridge between traditional molasses rums and agricoles (my personal opinion).  If you can accept that, then this Bellevue rhum demonstrates – in its fruity, oily, creamy, complex, balanced and warm way –  the potential and quality of the best of both those worlds.

87/100


Other notes:

  • Outturn 60 bottles
  • Distilled March 1998, bottled November 2010
  • The taste implies a molasses origin rather than cane juice, though I was never able to confirm it.

A last pic: Yeah, it’s out of focus and photobombed by The Little Caner…but we could all use some cheer and smiles once in a while, and I liked this one a lot anyway.

Jun 122016
 

Damoiseau 1989-2

The 1980 Damoiseau was no fluke, as this 1989 forcefully demonstrates.

Last week I wrote about the Longueteau Grande Reserve which I tasted in tandem with this excellent Damoiseau (and five or six others), and wow, did this one ever stand out. At the risk of offending that actually rather pleasant and inoffensive Grande Reserve, I think the Damoiseau shows what it could have been with some egging on.  (Actually, this is what the Pyrat’s XO could have been had they ever found their cojones, lost the oranges and dialled the whole thing up to “12”, but never mind).

Because frankly, I believe that the dark orange 58.4% twenty year old beefcake is one of the better rhums to come out of Guadeloupe – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, there are few, if any, missteps of any kind (unless you count the paucity of any single sterling point of achievement as a misstep) — there’s so much that’s right with it, that it seems almost churlish to point out where it fails to ascend to the heights of brilliance achieved by, oh, the Chantal Comte 1980 or even Damoiseau’s own 1980 older brother.

Dsmoiseau 1989-1

Consider first the smell of the thing: it was amazingly full bodied, with a charging, yelling, joyous nose – if Braveheart ever visited Guadeloupe, it’s this he would have been drinking and all the Scots would be speaking creole and we’d never have heard of that obscure Hebridean tipple.  Candied light oranges started the revels off (here’s where my reference to the Pyrat’s came in – observe the tact with which the citrus was presented here versus the overripe nonsense Patron has been selling).  Peaches, apricots, and brown sugar soaked in lime juice, which sounds a little loopy until you actually taste it. And after letting the rhum open up a bit and settle down, lovely aromas of honey, licorice and sweet soya came forward to lend piquancy and heft to the experience.

Damoiseau 1989There were fond memories of other agricoles issued at cask strength in my tasting, and  I felt no particular amped-up over-aggressive heat  from the 58.4% ABV at which it was bottled. The sharpness burned off in no time, leaving a warm solidity of the honey and soya to carry forward from the nose.  And then it was like slow fireworks going off – strongly heated black tea, coffee, chocolate, earthy, waxy and citrus notes detonated on the tongue in solemn grandeur.  Some fleshy fruits (more apricots and peaches), lemon zest and yes, those candied oranges were back again for an encore, dancing around the backbone of the other, firmer notes. The control of the oak, by the way, was pretty good, and in no way intrusive – at most there was some background of vanilla and vague tannins, and even that was in no way offensive or overbearing.

I was looking for the herbal and grassy profile of a true agricole, and must confess there were just about none.  It was just a really well-constructed panoply of tastes both strong and subtle, leading into a slow, warm finish as post-coital languor in a courtesan’s boudoir – you almost want to break out the newspapers and some shag for your pipe as you enjoy long, pleasant closing notes of coffee, orange peel, and bitter black chocolate.  What a lovely piece of work indeed.

As I’ve observed before, I have a slight, sneaking preference for Guadeloupe agricoles over Martinique ones (though both are good, of course – it’s like asking me who I love more,  Little Caner (my fast-growing cheeky son) or Canerette (my just-graduated, far-too-clever daughter)…a pointless exercise since both have aspects of real distinction which get equal adoration from their papa).  I must simply sum up by stating that the way traditional, classic agricole components in this rum have been melded with something that is almost, but not quite, a molasses product, is masterful. This, for its price, is a rum to treasure.

(#278 / 88/100)


Other notes:

  • Distilled April 1989, bottled January 2010, so, a whisker under 21 years old
  • Tasted in Paris in 2016, courtesy of Christian de Montaguère and Jerry Gitany.  I bought seventeen rums and tasted a raft more, which we all thought was fair.  Merci beaucoup, mes amis.
  • Nope, I never managed to acquire the Velier Damoiseau 1989 for a comparison.  But now I really want to.
  • €100 for this?  Great value for money. BUT….In an odd (but not entirely uncommon) coincidence, Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun wrote about this rhum this same week.  He rated it at 78, remarking on its ‘indefinite’ character.  Also, Single Cask Rum ran three Damoiseaus past each other (1989, 1991 and 1995) and it lost out to the other two…so balance their reviews with my more enthusiastic one.  If you can, try it yourself before buying.