Dec 012022
 

Every year, especially as the Madeira rumfest comes around, there is a flurry of posts and interest about rums from the islands of that Portuguese Autonomous Region (it’s one of two such regionsthe other is the Azores). The better known rums originating there are from the distilleries of O Reizinho, Engenho Novo (which makes William Hinton rums) and Engenhos do Norte, and these three rub shoulders with yet others like Abel Fernandes, Vinha Alta and Engenhos da Calheta. Not surprisingly, there are occasional independent releases as well, such as those from Rum Nation and That Boutique-y Rum Co.

One of the reasons Madeira excites interest at all is because they are one of the few countries covered by the its own GI (GI Rum Agricola da Madeira), and so can legally and properlyat least within the EUuse the term agricole when referring to their cane juice rums (they make mostly rums from juice). Yet, paradoxically, they remain relatively niche products which have only recentlywhich is to say, within the last decade or sostarted to make bigger waves in the rum world, and few writers have spent much time on their products: WhiskyFun has done the most, with eight and there’s a scattering of others from Single Cask Rum, Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate and myself.

Today we’ll begin a few Madeiran reviews to raise that visibility a bit more, with some rums from what is perhaps the largest of the distilleries, Engenhos do Norte: although google translate will tell you that the Portuguese word engenho means “ingenuity” it really translates into “sugar mill”, which is what most of these companies started out as. Engenhos do Norte was formed by a merger of some fifty mills in either 1927 or 1928, depending on the sourcethey were forced to come together to remain economically viable (see “Other notes”, below). Their best known brands are the 970 series (introduced in 1970, not sure if that’s a coincidence), Branca and Larano, though of late they’ve added more.

One of the more recent additions is the Rum Agrícola Beneficiado 980 — that “980” is an odd shorthand for the year it was introduced, which is to say, 1980 — which is a fresh cane juice rum, 40.5% ABV, column-still made and left to sleep: the final blended rum is from rums aged 3, 6 and 21 years, and although it is not mentioned what kind of barrels are used, I have one reference that it is French Oak and have sent an inquiry down to Engenhos to ask for more details. The proportions of the aged components are unstated, but attention should be paid to the word “beneficiado” (beneficiary) – what this means is that a little cane honey has been added round out the profile, which may be why a hydrometer test, or even straight tastings, tend to comment on a slight sweetness to the profile (it is this which the words on the back label “+ mel de cana e caramelo” mean).

This sweetness is not, however, immediately noticeable when nosing the rum; initially the scent is one of cardboard, brine, light olives and dates, combined with damp tea leaves and aromatic tobacco. Pralines and a caramel macchiato, cloves and milkwhat an odd nose, the more so because it presents very little more commonly accepted agricole elements. There’s a bit of yoghurt mixed up with Dr. Pepper, ginger ale, a kind of sharp and bubbly soda pop, and behind it all, that sense of an overripe orange beginning to go off.

Similarly disconcerting notes appear when tasting it: it’s a bit rough, a bit dry, with rubber, acetones, and brine combining uneasily with honey, vanilla, caramel, toffee and badly made fudge. You can probably pick out additional hints of sweet vanilla ice cream, some tartness of guavas, a touch of citrusnot much more. The finish completes the tasting by being short, mild and inoffensive, presenting a few last caramel and molasses notes set off with Dr. Pepper, licorice, raisins and some oranges. It’s okay, but very different from any agricole you’ve likely tried before, which is both good and bad, depending on your preferences.

Overall, I think the Beneficiado’s weakness is that the freshness of a good grassy, herbal, fruity offset just isn’t there…and if it is, it’s too mild to make a dent. It’s like tasting flavoured fine sandpaper, really, and at just a hair over forty percent strength, it’s too thin to present with any serious assertiveness. Does it work on its own level, with what it actually is (as opposed to what I was expecting, or wished for)? To some extent, yesit just doesn’t go far enough to capitalise on its few strengths, and therefore what we get is a stolid, rather dour rum, one that lacks those sparkling, light aspects that would balance it better, and make it an agricole worth seeking out.

(#955)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Historical Notes

  • It’s long been known that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and was being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century. From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a profitable cash crop in Madeira (the main island, which gave its name to the group) and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years.
  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchas, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there.
  • That said, for all its profitability and importance, the sugar industry has been on the edge of a crisis for most of its history: competition from Brazil in the 16th century, sugar cane disease in the 17th, leading to alternative (and competitor) crops like grapes (which led to a much more profitable wine industry) in the 17th and 18th centuries, a resurgence of fungal disease in the late 19th century; the restriction of available land for cane farming in the 20th century (especially in the 1920s and 1930s) … all these made it difficult to have a commercial sugar industry thereno wonder the mills tried to band together. By the 1980s sugar cane farming was almost eliminated as a commercial cash crop, yet even though sugar continued to decline in prices on the world marketsdue to cheaper sources of supply in India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growing health consciousness of first world consumersit stubbornly refused to die. It was kept alive on Madeira partially due to the ongoing production of rum, which in the 21st century started to become a much more important revenue generator than sugar had been, and led to the resurgence of the island as a quality rum producer in its own right.
  • In the early 2010s, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira. Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market made them sell occasional barrels, or bottle for third parties. That’s how, for example, we got the Boutique-y Madeira rum from 2019.
  • The distillery is located in the north of Madeira in the small town of Porto da Cruz, and considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa).
  • The rum is derived from juice deriving from fresh cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine, fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.
Apr 112021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira. Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Nortehowever the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro brancowhite gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Oct 252018
 

No, that’s not another typo in the title, it’s just the way the bottle spelled “rum” so I followed along even if it is an agricole-style product and by convention it might have been better termed “rhum” (though the words mean the same thingit’s purely a matter of perception). Since looking at the Engenho Novo aged rum last time, I thought it would be fitting to stick with the island of Madeira and see what one of their whites would be like, especially since I had been so impressed with the RN Jamaican Pot Still 57% some years ago….would this one live up to to the rep the Caribbean one garnered for itself?

Curiously, there isn’t much to go on as regards the background aside from the obvious: we know it is 50% ABV and made from cane juice in a column column stillbut it come not from Engenho Novo (which is to say, the reconstituted William Hinton, and the source of the rum for Rum Nation’s Rares), but from Engenhos do Norte in Porto da CruzFabio remarked in an email tome that he liked it better for this purpose than the Novo). It’s unclear whether it’s unaged and unfiltered, or lightly aged and then filtered to clarityand if the latter case is what happened, then what kind of casks. We’re not sure what theLimited editionon the label actually means. And, as always with RN, there’s also the question of any additions. We can however infer that based on the chubby, stubby bottle and label style, that the rum is part of their standard lineup and not the higher-proofed, higher-quality, higher-priced Rares (as an aside, I hope they never lose the old postage stamps incorporated into the design), and possibly from the word “crystal” used in their website materials, that it has been filtered. But I’ll amend the post if I hear back from them.

Anyway, here’s what it was like. The nose of the Ilha da Madeira fell somewhere in the middle of the line separating a bored “meh” from a more disbelieving “holy-crap!. It was a light melange of a playful sprite-like aroma mixed in with more serious brine and olives, a little sweet, and delicateflowers, sugar water, grass, pears, guavas, mint, some marzipan. You could sense something darker underneathcigarette tar, acetonesbut these never came forward, and were content to be hinted at, not driven home with a sledge. Not really a brother to that fierce Jamaican brawler, more like a cousin, a closer relative to the Mauritius St. Aubin blanc (for example). What it lacked in pungency it made up for in both subtlety and harmony, even at 50%.

It was also surprisingly sippable for what it was, very approachable, and here again I’ll comment on what a good strength 48-52% ABV is for such white rums. It presented as sweet and light, perfumed with flowers, pears, green grapes and apple juice, then adding some sour cream, brine, olives and citrus for edge. There were some reticent background notes as well, cinnamon mostly, and an almost delicate vein of citrus and ginger and anise. It tasted both warm and clean and was well balanced, and the finish delivered nicely, redolent of thyme, sweet vinegar dressing on a fresh salad, and green grapes with just a touch of salt.

Average to low end white mixersstill occasionally called silvers or platinums, as if this made any differenceare defined by their soft, unaggressive blandness: their purpose is to add alcohol and sink out of sight so the cocktail ingredients take over. In contrast, a really good white rum, which can be used either for a mixed drink or to have by itself if one is feeling a little macho that day, always has one or more points of distinction that sets it apart, whether it’s massive strength, savagery, rawness, pungency, smooth integration of amazing tastes, funk, clarity of flavour or whatever.

Honestly, I expected more of the latter, going in: something fiercer and more elementalbut I can’t say what was on display here was disappointing. In October 2018, when I asked him what rums he had that was of interest, Fabio actually tried to steer me away from this one (“It’s good, but not so interesting,” he laughed as he pulled down a Rare Caroni). But I disagreed, and think that what it really comes down to is that it’s a solid addition to the white portion of the rum spectrum and certainly a step above “standard”. It’s tasty and warm, and manages the cute trick of being dialled down to something really approachable, while still not forgetting its more uncouth antecedents. And if it is not of the pungent power that can defoliate a small patch of jungle, well, it may at least blanch a leaf or two, and is worth taking a second look at, if it crosses your path.

(#560)(83/100)


Other Notes

From the 2017 release season