Oct 052022
 

Even after the decade I’ve spent writing about Velier’s rums, the company still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat and surprise me when I least expect it, and the new Habitation Velier Amrut rum from India is this year’s contender for the rum I most wanted to try, the moment I saw Steve Magarry’s post about it on FB in September of 2022 (it popped up at Paris’s WhiskyLive a week later). Because, consider what a singular rum this is, and how many fascinating strands of the rum world it pulls together:  

It’s a pot still rum, from the HV line (which as you know, I consider a hugely important one) and an intersection with La Maison du Whisky’s “Antipodes” line of spirits – and therefore suggests, as the Indian Ocean series also did, that there is a move by independent bottlers to go further afield to new and unexplored territory in sourcing their barrels1.

In that vein, then, it’s also the only independent bottling of a rum from India itself that has crossed my path since Alt-Enderle’s “India” rum from Germany, back in 2014 (and that one was questionable). And it’s also not made by some no-name, just-opened small distillery with a single small pot still run by a pair of young enthusiastic backpacking European exiles, but a major whisky making house (one that my buddy in Calgary, Curt Robinson, just loves) which makes a popular rum line of its own. 

Thirdly, and perhaps as important, it highlights an emergent (and still relatively small) trend towards using other sources of sugar cane and its derivatives to make rum – in this case it’s not juice, not molasses, not vesou or ‘honey’, but the unrefined, nutrient-rich sugar known as jaggery.  We have met it before from India and always from the same company that makes this rum: Amrut (though I sometimes suspect Old Monk from Mohan Meakin may also use it). And yet even to say jaggery is only used (or made) in India is incorrect, because unrefined sugar of this kind is made around the world. In the Philippine Cordilleras it is inti, in Malaysia it is known as gula melaka and Thailand as namtan tanode; it’s used in making kokuto shochu in Japan and charandas in Mexico (where it called panela), and in both these latter cases the resultant is, while recognizably a rum, also different and completely fascinating. 

Years ago I heard stories about Luca wandering around India when the Indian Ocean series was being assembled in 2018, and there were always rumours that the series was never meant to be just two bottlings: but he never found the proper rums from major distilleries in India that he felt warranted inclusion – they were not pot still, not interesting enough, had additions, were too young, or whatever.  Yet clearly he had identified something at that stage and it was simply not ready then, because the Bangalore-based distillery of Amrut gave him a single barrel of pure jaggery-based rum to bottle in 2022, and this is it. Pot still, 62.8%, 7 years old, ex-bourbon barrel aged, aged in India. And it’s really quite something.

If aroma had a colour, I’d call this “gold”. It smells like a warm tropical evening with the dappled and fading light breaking through the trees in orange and yellow-brown. It’s a high ABV rum, sure, yet all one gets on that nose is ease and relaxation, molasses, vanilla, coconut shavings, coffee grounds, some freshly sawn wood and the firmness of an anvil wrapped in a feather blanket. There are also some fruits hovering around the edges of awareness – a mix of oranges, sugar cane, fleshy stoned fruit (very ripe) and spices like cumin, cinnamon and thyme held way way back, with just enough making it through to tease. It’s one of those rums that invites sustained nosing.

The taste presents more crisply, with somewhat more force, which I argue is exactly the way it should be. Like other Indian rums I recall, it shows off honey, maple syrup, licorice for the sweet stuff, then balances that with the freshness and tartness of pineapple, strawberries, ripe peaches and apricots a fat ripe yellow mango bursting with juice, and an intriguing line of spices (cumin and cinnamon), minerals and light ashiness that together are just different enough to excite, while not so strong as to derail the experience. Attention should also be drawn to a really nice and long finish, which has the sweet and salt of a caramel-laden latte, but is mostly musky and fruity, with some cinnamon, brine, light florals and brown sugar. 

LMDW Catalogue Entry (c) LMDW (click to expand)

A rum like this has to navigate a fine line, since it is not made for indigenous consumers or drinkers from the diaspora — like Amrut’s Two Indies or Old Port Deluxe (or the Old Monk itself, for that matter) — in a region where additives and spicing up do not attract quite the same opprobrium as they do elsewhere. It’s aimed at a western audience which is likely to be unfamiliar with such products and has its own criteria, and so an unadded-to spirit which is clearly a rum is a must…yet at the same time it must also present its own artisanal nature and country’s distilling ethos to show its differences from western-hemisphere rums. It can’t be just another Caribbean rum-wannabe, but its own product, made its own way, hewing to its makers’ ideals and own local tastes.

By that standard, all I can say is it succeeded swimmingly.  I thought it was an amazing, new, fresh and all-round tasty rum, one that was familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthral, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they were all quite top notch. It was a rum I wish I could have had more of right there. Habitation Velier’s Amrut may not point the way to a third major source of rum raw materials, and never be more than a niche market product as it is – rum folks are as clannish as the Scots when clinging to their favourites – yet I think we may be witnessing another front being opened in the ever widening battle to make rums more interesting, more global, more unique — and, at end, perhaps even more respected. At the very least, even if none of those things appeal or interest you, try the rum itself, just for itself, as it is.  It’s really damned fine.

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn.  This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Jul 132020
 

The Old Monk series of rums, perhaps among the best known to the Western world of those hailing from India, excites a raft of passionate posts whenever it comes up for mention, ranging from enthusiastic fanboy positivity, to disdain spread equally between its lack of disclosure about provenance and make, and the rather unique taste. Neither really holds water, but it is emblematic of both the unstinting praise of adherents who “just like rum” without thinking further, and those who take no cognizance of cultures other than their own and the different tastes that attend to them.

That’s unfortunate — because we should pay attention to other countries’ rums.  As I remarked in a rambling interview in early July 2020, concentration on the “Caribbean 5” makes one ignore other parts of the world far too often, and make no mistake, rum really is a global spirit, often indigenously so, in a way whisky or gin or vodka are not.  One of the things I really enjoy about it is its immense variety, which the Old Monk, Dzama, Batavia Arrack, Bundaberg , Mhoba, Cor Cor, Juan Santos and Bacardi (to list just a few examples from around the world) showcase every bit as well as the latest drooled-over Hampden or Foursquare.

Which is not to say, I’m afraid, that this rum from India deserves unstinting and uncritical accolades as some sort of natural backcountry traditional spirit made in The Old Way for generations. To begin with, far too little is known about it.  Leaving aside the very interesting history of the Indian company Mohan Meakin, official blurbs talk about it being made in the “traditional manner” and then never say what that actually is. No production details are provided, either on the bottle or the company website –  but given its wild popularity in India and the diaspora, and its massive sales numbers even in a time of demise (2016 – ~4 million cases) it suggests something made on a large scale, with an ageing process in place. Is it truly a blend of various 12 year old rums, as some sources suggest? No way of knowing, but at the price point it sells for, it strikes me as unlikely. Beyond that and the strength (42.8% ABV), we have nothing.

That means we take the rum as it is almost without preconceptions, and indeed, the initial notes of the smell are promising: it’s thick and solid, redolent of boiled sweets, caramel bon bons, crushed walnuts, bitter cocoa, coffee grounds, ashes, molasses, brine, even some olives.  But it’s too much of the sweet, and it smells – I’m choosing this word carefully – cloying.  There is just too much thickness here, it’s a morass of bad bananas, sweet molasses and brown sugar rotting in the sun, and reminds me of nothing so much as jaggery, such as that which I recall with similar lack of fondness from the Amrut Two Indies.  But as a concession there was a bit of brine and clear cane juice, just insufficient to enthuse.

The sensation of thickness and dampening was much more pronounced on the palate, and I think this is where people’s opinions start to diverge.  There’s a heavy and furry softness of texture on the mouthfeel, tastes of molasses, coffee, cocoa, with too much brown sugar and wet jaggery; it reminds me of a hot toddy, and I don’t say that with enthusiasm.  It’s a cocktail ready-made and ready to drink, good for a cold day and even a citrus hint  (which rescues it from being a completely cloying mess) doesn’t do enough to rescue it from the bottom of the glass. And the finish, well, noting to be surprised at – it’s short, it’s sweet, it’s thick, and it’s thankfully over very quickly.

I can’t rid myself of the feeling something has been added here.  Sugar, caramel, spices, I don’t know. Wes at the FRP did the hydrometer test on it and it came up clean, yet you can’t taste this thing and tell me it’s as pure as Caesar’s Jamaican wife, not even close. In point of fact, though, what this rum reminds me of is its cousin the Amrut Two Indies, the Nepalese Kukhri (though not as sweet), a low-end Jamaican Rum (Myer’s, Appleton V/X maybe, or even a less interesting el Dorado 12 Year Old.  Because of the profile I describe, it can certainly be had by itself or mixed into a sugar-free cola very nicely and therein lies, I suspect, much of its appeal as a spirit in Asia.

In Asia maybe – but not in Europe. The bartender at the Immertreu Bar in Berlin showed some surprise when I selected it from his back shelf, and shook his head with evident disappointment. “For this, you don’t need a tasting glass” he sniffed, not even bothering to hide his disdain.  And after I had smelled, tasted and tried it, then looked askance at the glass, he shrugged…”I told you so.” He didn’t understand that had to try the rum whether or not I believed him, but to be honest, this was one of those occasions where I wish I had listened harder.  Back in the 1970s and 1980s Old Monk may have outsold all other brands in India, and ten years later could even price itself higher than Bacardi in Germany, and outsell it….but those glory days, I’m afraid, are gone. The world has moved on. Old Monk hasn’t, and that’s both its attraction and its downfall to those who try it for the first time, and go on to either love it or hate it. Few of these, however, will remain completely indifferent.

(#745)(79/100)


Other Notes

  • I am assuming a column still product derived from molasses or jaggery.  Online background suggests it is a blend of 12 year old rums, but the official website makes no such claim and neither does the label, so I’ll leave it as a blended aged rum without further elaboration. 
  • Whether it was distilled past 90% or taken off the still before that is equally unknown. The cynic in me suggests it might be flavoured ethanol, not just because of the taste, but also since the company never actually says anything about the production process and this invites both suspicion and censure in this day and age.
  • The bottle shape is not all glass – from the shoulders up it is plastic.
  • Who the figure of the monk represents is unclear. One possibly apocryphal story suggests there was a British monk who used to hang around the factory where Mohan Meakin’s rums were made and aged, shadowing the master blender – his advice was so good that when Old Monk was first launched the name and bottle were based on him. Another story goes it was the idea of one of the founders, Ved Mohan, who was inspired by the life of Benedictine monks. And a third variation is that it’s actually H.G. Meakin who took over the Dyer Brewery and distillery in 1887 and formed Dyer-Meakin.
  • Wikipedia, the Times of India, Business Today and Mid-Day.com (an Indian online paper) say the brand was launched in 1954, and some European marketing material says 1935.  I think 1954 is likely correct.
  • The XXX in the title refers to “Very-Extra-Good-Something” and is not meant to be salacious.
  • The bottle shape was unique enough for me to give it a mention in the disposable clickbait list of 12 Interesting Bottle Designs.
  • A detailed biography of Mohan Meakin is available here.