Mar 172022
 

The world shut down for the better part of two years and it’s been almost three since I’ve seen a Nine Leaves rum, but the little one-man Japanese distillery I have written about with such affection since 2014 has continued chugging along, releasing its young rums every six months to a year and somehow managing to make rent.  Several festivals ago I remember Yoshiharu Takeuchi (the owner) telling me that because tax laws in Japan were so obscure, it was not worth his time to age for more than two years – and indeed, many of his initial releases were a mere six months old.  That they retained real quality and became popular and sought after is a testament to his skill as a distiller and as time went on he upped his ageing to two years, with occasional one-offs exported at slightly older.

Something clearly changed in the intervening years, though, because the latest in the premium line, the Encrypted IV, is a five year old rum, and it’s quite a nifty expression to try, if you can get some.  As before it’s a blend of several different bits and pieces aged in different ways but this time I could not get the details of the blend so it surely does deserve its title.  We know it’s a pot still product issued at 58%, released in 2021 and aged five years, that’s about all…yet within those brief statistics is a rum of real quality.

Let’s start with how it smells. It’s rich, nicely so, yet not too heavy – sweet plum wine, heavy and sulky, giving up its charm, with reluctance. Orange rind (I kept thinking of Cointreau or Pyrat’s), unsweetened high quality chocolate, caramel and molasses, balanced by fresh green tea, apples and green grapes. Some brine and olives, cereals and flowers, and it reminds me of a well done sherry-aged Glendronach at times.

Tasting it reveals a dry, pungently plush rum whose fruitiness bent towards dark: black grapes, plums, prunes, and a blue-and-blackberry slushie. It’s not overly sweet, which allows muskier notes of salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, and molasses to come forward. Plus, oh, some citrus, cloves, polished old leather satchels, a touch of brine.  These all help give it some oomph, but I tell you, this thing is as seriously astringent as my mother-in-law’s sense of humour. It closes with a really nice dark red wine filip – a Bordeaux, perhaps – and finishes dry, fruity, salty, with reminders of miso soup and a good quality sweet soya.  

The rum is really quite something: every time I go back to the glass I get a little more, something a little different. It starts off solid but ends up so clear and clean it could almost be an aged agricole. The darker molasses and caramel elements are held back, allowing other aspects of the construction to shine, and this bends the taste away from a mere copy of better-known Caribbean fare, and into its own unique ecosystem. The Encrypted IV never strays too far from real rum roots (I’ve commented before about the way aspects of shochu and awamori sometimes infuse other Japanese rums) yet carves out a niche all its own, and this is to its — and our — benefit.

Yoshi-san is a fun and quirky guy, with a great sense of humour. I’ve known him for many years, met him many times, and he is always looking for new and interesting ways to make his rums, never regressing or backsliding.  Either he stays at one level of quality, or he gets a little better, and loses no skill. Here he has made a rum that is so well assembled, goes down so easy, that we hardly realise how traditional it is underneath…maybe that’s why it’s only afterwards that we respond to it with familiarity. It’s an essay in contrasting yet complementary tastes, with that distinct structure which one always senses with Nine Leaves’ rums. It takes us for a ride and we never know how much we are getting, and in that way it’s like a small but powerful locomotive pulling a helluva long train.

(#891)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • If I get any feedback about the components of the blend, the post will be updated
  • The logo on the bottle is of nine bamboo leaves, which once formed the sigil of the samurai family from which Yoshi descends.
Feb 142022
 

Photo © NISHIHIRA-SYUZO Co., Ltd

It was to examine this almost-rum (and others like it that will inevitably come) that the detailed treatise on Japanese kokuto shochu had to be written, because without it the review would have lost much of its context and the shochu’s offbeat profile would not have been properly understood.

In brief, shochu is a type of Japanese distilled spirit made from various ingredients, where a two-phase fermentation process using a mold is de rigueur: one to convert starches to sugars and another to convert those sugars to low-proof alcohol, which is then distilled using pot stills. Kokuto shochu is one kind of several different popular varieties, distinguished by being made from unrefined brown sugar (as opposed to sweet potatoes, e.g.) and following the dual-fermentation process. To some this might disqualify it from being a true “rum” but I chose to say it’s one in all but name. It’s made from sugar cane, and in the house of the Father are many rooms, and that’s what counts.

Although we talk a lot about agricoles being grassy, herbal and vegetal, I don’t think I’ve ever had a rum (for that’s what this is, more or less) that took it to the extremes of actually channeling real vegetables — and some rotting ones — the way the Tomoet Moi did. I mean, this really was akin to an alcoholic veggie soup – complete with parsley, cilantro, carrots, balsamic vinegar, brine, olives and the weird aroma of damp decomposing cloth in an abandoned barn somewhere and only a casual nod to fruits or sweet of any kind. After it settles down, it reminds me of a cane vinegar, with that same slightly sweetly sour note to it that makes it so distinctive, poured over a bowl of sliced yellow mangoes spiced with sweet peppers and salt.  I know that sounds peculiar, but take it from me…it works. You just have to stick with it.

Still, even after opening up and after the initial assault on your schnozz has been beaten back, the residual notes of vegetables left to rot in a midden remain faintly there, lending a piquancy to all that you subsequently taste. And what a taste that is: vanilla, cane juice, sweet acetones, nail polish, sugar water and the pungency of diluted turpentine (usually that comes on the nose, but not with this drink). Fanta and Sprite, a touch of orange citrus, cloves passion fruit, cranberry juice and sweet peppers, and if the spoiled bananas and apricots at the back end don’t leave, well, they don’t upset the fruit cart either and for all this to be going on at 40% is no mean achievement. Finally, it kind of relaxes, gets easier and more watery-sweet and then concludes with a short, mild, fruity, floral, sweet and biting finish that is far from unpleasant.

That’s the one….

Clearly, the method of fermentation which kokuto shochu utilizes, combined with the pot still distillation, creates a profile that would give the incautious serious pause, and I now suspect there was probably something of a shochu element in the Seven Seas Japanese rum by which I was so nonplussed in 2018. It was different in the same way this is, with a strong element of rot and brine and seemingly off-putting elements to it, yet where Seven Seas failed (to me, at any rate) Tomoet Moi came together and really became something worth trying…several times. 

As John Go wrote in his own review of the spirit, it really needs time to open up and breathe.  Impatience and a fast guzzle have no place here, and in fact, it rewards keeping it in the glass for an extended period. The sweet, salt, sour and umami aspects of the profile come together in a fascinating synthesis, which, while unfamiliar and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, is sweetly pungent, original and distinctive and never overbearing — and those are the characteristics of any good spirit, I think. Admittedly I started out by being knocked back on my heels…but stuck around, started to enjoy it, and finally, at the finish, stayed to bemusedly and almost wonderingly applaud. 

(#884)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Thanks as always to John Go who spotted me the sample. He’s a treasure trove of juice from Asia.  I had no idea what it was and tasted it completely blind, because John steadfastly refuses to label the samples he sends me, and just numbers them.
  • The spirit is aged for two years in oak casks, filtered to white and bottled at 40%. 

Brief company background

For historical reasons (now backed up by GI protection) kokuto shochu is only — and can only be — made in the Amami Islands which are situated south of the Kyushu and north of Okinawa. There has been a long history of sugar cane cultivation and (sometimes illegal) distillation here, just as there was on Okinawa.

The firm that makes the Tomoet Moi is Nishihira Shuzo Ltd (shuzo is a Japanese word meaning an alcohol producing company), a family-owned and -run sake brewery and distillery that has been in business since 1875, when they were granted an awamori-making license for Shuri (in Okinawa) in that year. In 1927 a new distillery was established by Tomi Nishihara, the first head distiller (or toji) in the Amami island of Kikaijima, and has remained a small enterprise there ever since: the warehouse was destroyed by air raids at the end of the war, the distillery moved to Amami’s main island, and it is currently run by his great-granddaughter Serena.  The company employs seven people, which is six more than Nine Leaves has, if you recall. 

Just about all production is sold and consumed in Japan, which is hardly unusual. Their standard product is the Sango (an unaged, traditional shochu for the mainstream) and Kona (and oak-barrel slightly-aged shochu for the younger crowd). In 2019 Serena Nishihara created the Tomoet Moi as a more upscale aged offering, breaking with tradition by naming it, in a play on the words “Tomorrow”, “Tomi” and the French words “toi et moi”, which is as good an example of layered meanings in eastern culture as you could ask for.


 

Jan 182022
 

 

Shochu, along with awamori, is the oldest distilled spirit made in Japan, just about all of it in the south island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands, and so distinct that several varieties have their own geographical protections. It’s versatile, interesting, very drinkable, and is becoming even more popular than sake in the last years, especially in Japan, where most of it is consumed. And while the focus of my work is rum, and the point of this article is to highlight local spirits based on sugar cane, I must be clear that the cane spirit known as kokuto shochu is just one sub-type of the spirit.

1781 Map showing southern Kyushu and Ryukyu Islands (c) wikiwand.com

History

Scholars dispute whether the art of distillation came from Korea (due to similarities in distillation technology) or from Okinawa (liquor shipping records from the 1500s detailing cargoes from Okinawa to Japan date back at least that far), but in general it’s acknowledged that both routes are valid, and the only real unknown is which came first. Distillation technology appears to have been spread widely via the robust China sea trade in the late 1400s onward; and there was a brisk trade between Korea and Japan at that time that disseminated knowledge quickly.

Initially shochu appears to have been something of a rural spirit, made by fishermen at first, then moving inland to farmers and home brewers and this continued from its origin in the 1500s, through the duration of the Tokugawa shogunate. This is possibly one of the reasons why so many raw ingredients can be used and still be titled shochu, because until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 there was little or no regulation – the Restoration brought in formalization of rules, licenses and some measure of quality control (and of course taxation).

Most shochu was authentic or honkaku shochu – we might call it artisanal today – until the early 1900s when the adoption of industrial column stills led to the rise of a second style called korui.  This is essentially mass produced alcohol close to 96% ABV off the still, which is then diluted down to below 36% (around 20% or so seems to be common), and is sold as a catch-all alcoholic drink, like an ersatz vodka – it is this variation which is closest to the similarly mass-produced, cheap, diluted and near-ubiquitous Korean soju.

Honkaku shochu, for all its cachet as an artisanal spirit now, was for centuries considered a local drink not traded anywhere and only found in Japan; indeed, until the 1970s even within Japan it was considered something of a blue-collar worker’s tipple limited to, and almost all consumed in, the southern island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands. 

Benisango kokotu shochu. Photo (c) Whiskey Richard at Nomunication.jp

Basics

First of all, shochu is a distilled alcohol, not made like and completely distinct from nihonshu, or sake (which is brewed like beer is, though it is not a beer itself); it shares close kinship with another uniquely Japanese spirit from Okinawa called awamori, while having its own special rules that make it, again, distinct (shochu is very much defined by how it’s made, not from what); honkaku shochu has no real relationship with the Korean drink soju (unless it’s the barely known traditional Andong soju) and should never be confused with it; and like aguardientes of the Americas, many different raw materials can be used to make shochu (fifty-plus, by some estimates), including but not limited to barley, buckwheat, sake lees, rice, sweet potatoes, kelp, green tea, flowers, mushrooms…and sugar cane. Each has its own peculiarities and naming conventions, and because this is not a primer on shochu as a whole — there are other, better and more in-depth sources and wikipedia for the curious deep divers — I must keep things brief, refer you to the “sources”, below for further reading, and will concentrate most of this article on the one variation that is made from sugar cane: kokuto shochu.

Fermentation

The above points aside, several aspects of the drink are common to all varieties.  All shochus have a dual fermentation system (awamori only has one, which is one of the main dividers separating the two classes of drinks): one fermentation converts starches into sugars and the other converts these sugars into alcohol. These are really multiple parallel fermentations, and starch conversion and fermentation to alcohol occur simultaneously from start to finish.  Both use one of several kinds of a mold (fungus) called koji, which is also utilized in the making of soy sauce, miso, rice vinegars, sake and awamori, and the type of koji used has a discernible impact on the final flavour of the resultant shochu.

Kokuto means ‘brown,’ ‘black’ or ‘dark’ sugar (sources vary as to which is the true and exact meaning) and is akin to jaggery of India, or the panela of Latin America; now, since shochu deriving from sugar directly doesn’t require that first fermentation pass given that the base alcohol source (sugar) is already in existence, it would seem to be an irrelevant step — but in Japanese tax law, to be called kokuto shochu, the first fermentation must happen, and must happen with rice koji. Failing that, the product must be classified and taxed as some other distilled spirit, like rum. Indeed, leaving out the first step is what the Ogasawara Islands did in the pre-war years when they first experimented with brown sugar shochu using a single fermentation cycle — but the war shut down production and by the time they restarted, the tax law had come into effect and they simply resorted to calling it rum, one of which I’ve actually tried.

Photo from wikimedia commons

Distillation

Shochus can be distilled in either multiple passes or single ones, and the type of still is not a disqualifier (though it can be a restriction). Multiple distillations from high efficiency columnar stills result in a more odorless high-proof spirit and is classified as korui shochu, “Class A” but it’s important to understand that this class is about process, and unrelated to quality. Korui shochus are usually made from molasses, potatoes or corn, and are distilled to 95% or greater and then diluted down to below 36%, always in large capacity distilleries – in that it has similarities with cheap rums around the world.

The more interesting variations of the spirit — at least from my own perspective, given my interest in more artisanal cane spirits — are the Class B (Otsurui) shochus which are all the honkaku shochus.  As with Class A, the most common base ingredients are rice, cane, barely, sweet potatoes, etc. After fermentation they are – and must be, by law – distilled only once, and only in pot stills. In the old days, many of these stills, especially in the smaller distilleries, were actually made of wood, including cedar (take that, DDL), but this is rare nowadays. Given the single distillation methodology and the still itself, the flavours are bursting out, even at the low strength at which it comes off – 45% ABV or less (if it were more it would no longer be honkaku and the tax breaks would not be applicable). For the rum aficionado, the drink is, essentially, almost tailor-made for taking neat, though it should be stated clearly that in Japan it’s usually diluted or drunk on the rocks.

Ageing

As with rum, the ageing of shochu can be short, medium or long: however, in a divergence from artisanal white rums which have such a strong presence in the rum world, completely unaged shochu is rare. Shochu can be rested or aged in steel tanks, clay pots, wooden barrels or large wooden casks – once it was rare for ageing to exceed three years, because then, especially with wooden casks of any kind, the shochu would get too dark and thus be deemed a whisky, with its attendant and different tax regime. However, in the last two decades this limit has been far exceeded, because at the three year point the shochu could then be labelled as koshu or “old alcohol” and can be sold for a higher price.  There are now shochus as old as thirty years on the market (not necessarily aged in oak, mind you), almost all sold only in Japan.

As an interesting side note, ageing is not always or only done in warehouses or temperature-controlled buildings as is common elsewhere in the rum world, but occasionally in caves, tunnels and limestone caverns where variations in temperature and humidity are kept to a minimum. This is probably just a matter of available space, climate control and geographical convenience, rather than any kind of cultural tradition, but Stephen Lyman remarked to me that it is actually preferred by shochu makers, and some even excavate their own underground caverns to age their stocks.

Kokuto sugar (c) Chris Pellegrini, kanpai.us

Kokuto shochu specifically

Kokuto shochu therefore has all the above aspects in common with the other base-material varietals.  It is, however, indigenous to and identified completely and only with the Amami islands off the coast of Kagoshima (between Kyushu and Okinawa, in the south of Japan) where there has been a long history of producing it from locally grown cane. So much so, in fact, that it is the recipient of a Geographical Indicator of its own. Amami kokuto shochu is made in any of 28 distilleries there, spread out over five islands and cannot legally be made anywhere else.

Originally part of the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa, they were taken over by the more powerful southern Satsuma Domain in 1609, and turned the islands into one huge sugar cane plantation. For centuries they repressively discouraged the use of the valuable sugar being turned into alcohol (which could lead to – horrors! – losing revenue and distracting the workforce), but the privations of the post-war period when all rice was diverted from alcohol-making to a food source, brought kokuto sugar distillate out of the shadows and kokuto shochu gained some legitimacy at last.

For reasons to do with surplus stocks, politics and tax law in these post-WW2 years, special recognition was given to this type of shochu as ‘brown sugar shochu’ (so long as they used rice koji, and two fermentation passes) to develop the industry and the local region.  The spirit remains thus recognized to this day, and is generally bottled at around 25-30% ABV (tax laws change at 25% for most shochus so that has become a sort of unofficial standard elsewhere, but kokuto shochu received a tax break for stronger versions that lasted until 2008, so 30% is more common there).

Aside from the requisite two-pass fermentation and use of rice koji, kokuto shochu is also different from regular rum in one other respect – it can only be made from (a) kokuto sugar, which is unrefined sugar very high in mineral content (i.e., without any molasses removed or added back in as may be the case in the west), or (b) blocks of dried molasses deriving from that sugar, that are added to the rice-koji ferment for the second fermentation.  So, no cane juice, no gooey molasses, no rendered sugar cane “honey”.  If a Japanese distillery used any of these materials, a different tax law would govern production, and it would be classified as rum or a liqueur – and indeed, in the interests of expediency, those few rum makers as do exist in Japan, prefer to go this route and produce what we would see as “traditional” rum like Cor Cor, Ogasawara, Ryomi, Nine Leaves, etc..

Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sales

Kokuto shochu (as are all other kinds) is mostly drunk within Japan and is not widely known outside it. Some eastern- and western-seaboard US states carry it, and there is a store in Berlin called Ginza (closed currently due to COVID) that I was unable to buy from, or visit to taste what they had. I imagine there are more out there. However, for the moment, the good stuff, the best stuff, all remains in Japan and is mostly consumed there. 

Wrap up

Rum lovers are often fixated on just a few areas of the world: the Caribbean and South/Latin America; the new distilleries in Europe, the UK, and North America; and micro distilleries in Asia and the Pacific, plus the occasional nod to big ass industrial conglomerates like Tanduay and McDowell’s.  South Pacific Distillers and some of the Pacific Islands are getting some traction.  But underneath all these well known places and names coil smaller operations, artisanal ones that have a tradition far more interesting, and far older. They produce what is recognizably rum in a form that is distinct and interesting and broadens the understanding of the sugar cane spirit.  Shochu is one of these, and it worth seeking out.


Reviewed Kokuto Shochus

 


Other Notes

  • “Macrons” have been removed from transliterations of Japanese words used here, e.g. kokutō, kōji, and shōchū.
  • This article is meant as an introduction only, since the field of Japanese spirits – even if restricted to just cane-based ones – is huge (and fascinating). Sources, below, provide additional recommendations for reading.

Sources

Jul 092020
 

After having written on and off about Yoshiharu Takeuchi’s company Nine Leaves for many years, and watching his reputation and influence grow, it seems almost superfluous to go on about his background in any kind of detail. However, for those new to the company who want to know what the big deal is, it’s a one-man rum-making outfit located in Japan, and Yoshi-san remains its only employee (at least until July 2020, when he takes on an apprentice, so I am reliably informed).

Nine Leaves has been producing three kinds of pot-still rums for some time now: six month old rums aged in either French oak or ex-bourbon, and slightly more aged expressions up to two years old with which Yoshi messes around….sherry or other finishes, that kind of thing.  The decision to keep things young and not go to five, eight, ten years’ ageing, is not entirely one of preference, but because the tax laws of Japan make it advisable, and Yoshi-san has often told me he has no plans to go in the direction of double digit aged rums anytime soon…though I remain hopeful. I’ve never really kept up with all of his work – when there’s at least four rums a year coming out with just minor variations, it’s easy to lose focus – but neither have I left it behind.  His rums are too good for that. He’s a perennial stop for me in any rumfest where he and I intersect.

But now, here is the third in his series of Encrypted rums (Velier’s 70th Anniversary Edition from Nine Leaves was humorously referred to as “Encrypted 2½“) and is an interesting assembly: a blend six different Nine Leaves rums, the youngest of which is two years old. The construction is nowhere mentioned on the elegantly spare label (probably for lack of space) but it’s composed of rums aged or finished in in two different types of P/X barrels, in bourbon barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Chardonnay barrels….and one more, unmentioned, unstated. And in spite of insistent begging, occasional threats, offers of adoption, even promises to be his third employee, Yoshi-san would not budge, and secret that sixth rum remains.

Whatever the assembly, the results spoke for themselves – this thing was good.  Coming on the scene as the tide of the standard strength forty percenters was starting to ebb, Nine Leaves has consistently gone over 40% ABVm mostly ten points higher,  but this thing was 58% so the solidity of its aromas was serious.  It was amazingly rich and deep, and presented initially as briny, with olives, vegetable soup and avocados. The fruity stuff came right along behind that – plums, grapes, very ripe apples and dark cherries, and then dill, rye bread, and a fresh brie.  I also noticed some sweet stuff sweet like nougat and almonds, cinnamon, molasses, and a nice twitch of citrus for a touch of edge. To be honest, I was not a little dumbfounded, because it was outside my common experience to smell this much, stuffed into a rum so young.

The rum is coloured gold and is in its aggregate not very old, but it has an interesting depth of texture and layered taste that could surely not be bettered by rums many times its age. Initially very hot, once it dialled into its preferred coordinates, it tasted both fruity and salty at the same time, something like a Hawaiian pizza, though with restrained pineapples (which is a good thing, really). Initially there were tastes of plums and dark fruits like raisins and prunes and blackberries, mixed up with molasses and salted caramel ice cream. These gradually receded and ceded the floor to a sort of salty, minerally, tawny amalgam of a parsley-rich miso soup into which some sour cream has been dropped and delicate spices – vanilla, cinnamon, a dust of nutmeg and basil.  I particularly enjoyed the brown, musky sense of it all, which continued right into a long finish that not only had that same sweet-salt background, but managed to remind me of parched red earth long awaiting rain, and the scent of the first drops hissing and steaming off it.  

I have now tasted this rum three times, and my initially high opinion of it has been confirmed on each subsequent occasion. The “Encrypted” series just gets better every time, and the sheer complexity of what’s in there is stunning for a rum that young, making a strong case that blending can produce a product every bit as good as any pure single rum out there, and it’s not just Foursquare that can do it.  I think it handily eclipses anything else made in Japan right now, except perhaps the 21 year old “Teeda” from Helios which is both weaker and older. But the comparison  just highlights the achievement of this one, and it is my belief that even if I don’t know what the hell that sixth portion in the blend is, the final product stands as one of the best Nine Leaves has made to date, and a formidable addition to the cabinet of anyone who knows and loves really good rum.

(#743)(88/100)

Jun 132018
 

#520

Since we’re talking about Nine Leaves again, let me just issue this brief review of another of the 2016 editions, the American Oak 2 year old.  This was something of a departure for the company and its genially low-key one-man owner, master blender, accountant, chief salesman, procurement officer, distiller, bottler, secretary, and maybe even floor cleaner, and the departure is in that it’s aged for so long.  

Most of the time Yoshiharu Takeuchi (who holds all of the positions noted above plus maybe a few others) releases rums in a six month cycle for the Angel’s Half expressions, and annually for the unaged “Clear” ones. This one is, however, aged for two years – it was the first “real” aged edition he made, and it was put to rest almost at the same time Nine Leaves opened for business.  Why two years? Because it’s the maximum a rum can be aged in Japan, he told me, before heavier taxes start to kick in, noting also that this is why for the moment older rums will not be part of the Nine Leaves’ stable.

Be that as it may, the 50% 2YO pot still rum should be seen as a companion piece to the Encrypted, which came out in the same year, and was also two years old.  However, the Encrypted was a two year old finished blend (of four rums), and this rum was a straight two year old without any other barrels aside from the American oak. I tried it together with the that and the Angel’s Half 6-month from last week, at the same time… and somewhat to my surprise, I liked this one best.

The nose rather interestingly presented hints of a funky kind of fruitiness at the beginning (like a low rent Jamaican, perhaps), while the characteristic clarity and crisp individualism of the aromas such as the other Nine Leaves rums possessed, remained.  It was musky and sweet, had some zesty citrus notes, fresh apples, pears and overall had a pleasing clarity about it. Plus there were baking spices as well – nutmeg and cumin and those rounded out the profile quite well.

Palate, short version, yummy. Some sugar water, vanilla, cereals and those spices again, cider and apple juice.  No brine here, no olives, more like a kind of tartness, akin to unsweetened fresh yoghurt. And a minerally iodine peat-bog taste lurked in the background, which fortunately stayed there and wasn’t so aggressive as to derail the experience.  It was quite smooth, with some edge and rawness, but well controlled, closing things off with a finish that was quiet, clear and relatively easy, redolent mostly of acidic fruits, apples, cider, oranges and a bit of vanilla.  That’s a rather brief set of tasting notes, but I assure you, the experience was well worth it.

When I posted the Angel’s Half notes last week on reddit, one person asked me whether what I described was typical for Nine Leaves.  Based on these three Nine Leaves rums from 2016, I’d have to say yes – but even with rums so relatively similar and from the same tree, there were points of individuality that made them distinct in their own right.  Of the three, this one was my favourite – it provided reasonable complexity, clarity, enjoyment, retained its sprightly youth and vigour, while suggesting how the ageing sanded off the rough edges.  For a two year old rum made on the other side of the world, this thing is quite an achievement, and demonstrates yet again that a rum doesn’t have to be aged up to wazoo or come from a famed Caribbean estate to make a solid and favourable impression on anyone who tries it.

(86/100)


Other notes

The rum’s label could use some work.  It states it’s an Angel’s half but neither the year nor the ageing are clearly noted, which inevitably leads to some confusion.  Also, the only way to tell it’s different from the 6 month old is the yellow label for the 2YO, as opposed to the white one on the 6-month. I think Yoshi has corrected this in subsequent releases, though one remains perennially unsure what the release quantity is.

Jun 112018
 

Ever since Yoshiharu Takeuchi began his one-man Japanese rum-making outfit called Nine Leaves, I’ve kept a weather eye on his work, and think his two-year-old rums and the Encrypted – both the original and the one issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary in 2017 – have been remarkably good rums for juice under five (and in some cases under one) years old.

Arguably the aspects of Mr. Takeuchi’s work that have brought him to the attention of a greater audience in the Americas — though he’s been well known, and moving around, in the European festival circuit since 2014 — is the release of the Encrypted as noted above, and his current attendance at the Miami Rum Renaissance in 2018…from where Juan Marcos Chavez Paz, a correspondent of mine and a member of the Consumers Jury for the last couple of years, sent me a note yesterday expressing his amazed admiration for the quality of what Nine Leaves does with such short ageing periods.

Aside from the occasional two-year-old, Nine Leaves’ bread and butter is the regular outturns of rums which he puts to rest for a mere six months before bottling, in either American oak or Limousin casks. He calls them “Angel’s Half”, which I think is a understated and humorous play on the strength, the ageing and the pilferage of the angels. What this brief stint in the barrels accomplishes is to preserve much of the unaged fire of a white spirit, while also getting the benefit of what Martin Cate would call “light ageing.”  However, since these are coming out twice a year, it’s a tough task to try and get them all…the distillery opened in 2013 and while it may not seem to be a problem to get a “mere” twenty or so expressions, trust me, it is.

The rum under discussion today is the light yellow Nine Leaves ‘Angel’s Half’ (American oak aged) pot still rum issued in 2016 – not messed around with, bottled at a robust, throat-clearing 50% and as with all the rums from the company I’ve tried so far, it’s a solid, tasty piece of work for something aged less than a year.

And that’s the part at which I kind of marvel.  I honestly don’t know how he stuffs as much into these rums as he does.  The nose, for example, gave an initial sensation of a wet stone and minerals (!!), salt, sweet peas (I’m not making this up, honest), before relaxing with the weird stuff and presenting something a tad more traditional – sherry, brine, an olive or two, watermelon, pears and a light kind of sweetness that’s quite pleasing.  And quite assertive, but without actually crossing over into rough.

The palate was deceptive, because although the dominating flavour at first sip was swank and a freshly sliced watery pear, it evolved subtly over time, in spite of what appeared to be a certain light delicacy behind which reticent flavours hid and never wanted to emerge. Wait a while and take your time, as I did – since, once it opened up, crisp, solid tastes were to be found. Brine, olives, gherkins, cucumbers to start, mellowing out into light fruits, a bit of lemon zest, nutmeg (very faint), guavas and just a suggestion of creaminess I could not nail down more precisely.  Surprisingly, the finish was rather short for something bottled at 50%, and was quite dry, somewhat less than nose and palate suggested could be found. Some watery fruits, a bit of brine, the sweet line of citrus and spice, and that was that.

Thinking about the rum as I jotted down my notes, I think the key to the experience is in understanding its rather unstudied and deliberate eschewing of off-the-wall complexity.  That’s not its intention, because there’s not that much going on here, no kaleidoscopic taste-attack to the senses as defined by some of the unaged white rums I’ve written about; in a way it’s a tamed version of those, with more than enough subtlety imparted by the time spent in the barrel to elevate it (now that I consider the matter, in a way it reminded me of the unaged Kōloa Kaua’i Hawaiian Rum I tried back in 2012).  In other words, it’s two steps above merely “simple”; it’s clear and crisp and has the notes it plays, and plays those exceedingly well. I quite enjoyed it.

Conversations like the one I had with Juan makes me glad I invest the time into doing company biographies that provide background for the aficionados, because it’s clear that the interest is there and it’s really just the rums that aren’t always available.  Fortunately Yoshi-san is not slowing down and keeps the quality of his juice very high (Velier would hardly have asked him to contribute to the 70th Anniversary collection otherwise). The chance that one day boredom will set in and I stop trying Nine Leaves’ “sincerely made rums” is small indeed, especially when there’s a range of young stuff like this to be savoured. Here’s a company that will hopefully gain even greater recognition, acclaim and plaudits in the years to come than those they have already earned.

(#519)(83.5/100)


Other notes

  • Unsure whether this one is the Spring or Autumn release, since the label doesn’t mention it. Since I tried it in October, I’m going to suggest it’s Spring.
Jan 172017
 

A new direction for the Japanese rum-maker, which has some flaws but is an interesting rum nevertheless.

#336

When researching the background for the Encrypted, I came across the website RumRatings, which is a place where people rate and comment on rums they have tried without going through the effort of, say, creating a website or putting their thoughts on a more formal basis (the way one sees on the /r/rum forum on reddit, for example, a site where fans can be even more rabid than on Facebook but where the discussion tends to be both more civil and certainly more intelligent).

The comments were not inspiring. “Too young and harsh and chemical,” wrote one from Hungary whose tastes ran into the sweet of Dictador, Millonario and Zacapa; “This sh*t is a waste of time,” opined another from Romania, who headed his less than enthusiastic comment “Whisky Rum or something…” and who also (from the link to his “cabinet”) seemed to prefer softer soleras and sweeter rums and put the Jamaican RumFire and a Bristol Spirits 1996 Caroni close to the bottom.

Such criticisms serve a purpose in this instance, because there aren’t many reviewers who have yet taken to Nine Leaves, so even an opinion from the street is useful when we buy one…and just because I like ‘em personally doesn’t mean you will. So I don’t link to these negative remarks in an effort to diss the gentlemen in question or to sneer at their opinions, just to lay the groundwork for suggesting that if your tastes run into the more easy-going, softer Spanish style of rums – or those that are known by now to be softer, smoother and sweeter than the norm — then this Company’s rums might not be in your wheelhouse. Nine Leaves aren’t as individualized as, say, unaged cask-strength agricoles from a pot still, but their rums do take some getting used to.

Nine Leaves, that one-man outfit from Japan makes very young rums (most six months or so), and they are closer in profile to a mashup of whites and Jamaicans with the leavening influence of Barbados thrown in, plus maybe a clairin or two for some fangs. Yoshiharu Takeuchi makes no attempt to be particularly unique, which is perhaps why his rums actually are. And of all those Clear and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged six month old rums, I’d have to say he’s done something pretty interesting here, like nothing he’s attempted before. He’s thrown kaizen out the window and gone in a new direction.

Consider: normally Nine Leaves distills its rums, does the cuts, and then ages the result for six months, which is why there are a bewildering array of multi-years Almost Springs and Almost Autumns and Angel’s Half French and American Cask Aged rums in their portfolio; but with the Encrypted, he has gone in the “finishing” direction (much as English Harbour, DDL and Foursquare have done in the past year or two).  This is a blend of four rums, each two years old  – the four were aged in barrels of American oak, barrels that previously held oloroso, brandy…and one that remains unidentified, perhaps in an effort to tease Florent Bouchet of the Compagnie, who occasionally holds a distillery of origin to be “secret”, leading to tons of heated conjectures and endlessly entertaining commentary in the blogosphere.  The closest Nine Leaves has previously come to this concept is with their Sauvignon Blanc edition, but the ultimate intention is the same — to add to the flavour profile without actually adding anything, a tactic Zacapa, A. H. Riise and Don Papa could perhaps take note of.

Bottled at a firm 48% in 2016, the golden rum is certainly a step above their younger products.  All share a somewhat astringent, rather thin-but-intense nose (I’m trying hard not to think of my feared primary school teacher, the redoubtable Mrs. Jagan, with her sharp voice, pince-nez, bladed nose and ever-ready foot-long ruler but that’s almost impossible), and here that was only marginally ameliorated by the ageing period.  Sharp for sure, acerbic yes, intense without question – but the aromas weren’t half bad. Citrus, light florals, some earthiness and lavender doing an interesting tango, plus the vaguest hint of fruits and grassiness, all very crisp and distinct.  It presents far more like an agricole than a molasses based rum.

The two years of ageing was where to some extent the rum failed to deliver when tasted, however promising the nose had been. The crisp clarity was retained, yet it still presented as somewhat raw, a shade too uncouth, without any rounding that would have made the mouthfeel better.  Fortunately, that aside, the taste was excellent, and once I got used to it, I found myself appreciating its sprightliness and youth, and again I was left wondering how this was so much like an agricole.  Those same vegetal, grassy notes persisted, to which were added florals, red wine, orange zest, sultanas, and also a sort of cereal background that developed into the creaminess of cheese on black bread.  It was odd, but came together quite well, and I had no real complaints about the finish, which was somewhat spicy, but still exited with a cleanliness and clarity redolent of the spicier tartness of green apples and grapes.

Putting all these observations together, it was, in fine, a pretty decent two year old rum – the finishes certainly helped it attain a level that simple ageing never would have. When you consider Nine Leaves’s regular issuances of six month old rums, made pretty much the same way, aged in either in one barrel or another, it’s easy to grumble that they make the same rums on every go-around, so getting one is like getting them all.  By making the Encrypted, Nine Leaves has shown they are not bound to the way they have made rums before — and are quite willing to take their products into new and interesting directions that may not entirely work now, but hold great promise for their efforts in the future

(85/100)

Feb 132016
 

Nine Leaves American 2

Little Lord Fauntleroy in a bottle.

Back in 2014 I first encountered rums from the Japanese company Nine Leaves, and was impressed enough to not only write about the company in one of my Makers profiles, but resolved to not let Mr. Takeuchi’s work escape me a second year in a row.  So said, so done…I’ve tried four more of the company’s rums, and begin working through the resultant reviews with the American Oak version, bottled in Spring 2015.

As an aside, Mr. Takeuchi has certainly managed to elevate his company’s profile in 2014-2015.  Presenting in Rome, Berlin, UK and Miami (and I’m sure there are others), his rums have won prizes at various festivals, Europe remains an expanding market, and one can only wonder at what this company will be like in ten years. Production methods remain the same as before: Okinawan sugar cane, cane-juice basis, careful selection of cuts to bring out the best of the distillate, and six months ageing in either French oak or American oak.  There are stocks now laid down to age for longer periods, but it will be some years before we see these.  Let’s focus on what we have today.

The American Oak release was a light gold rum aged for the requisite six months. That its initial nasal profile resembles a pot still agricole came as no surprise, because, well, it was. In fact, it immediately reminded me of a gelded clairin — and I mean that as a sort of compliment, because the fierce and raging “yo’ mama!” attitude of the Haitian popskull was transmuted here into a more genteel “May I take your coat sir?” primness that somehow worked out okay. In other words, the 50% ABV didn’t smack me or try to stab me, but came across as warm-to-hot, waxy, briny and olive-y, quite dry, light, with none of the intense pungent oiliness that so mark unaged pot still whites. That six months ageing worked reasonably well, and it developed very nicely with additional scents of cucumbers, sugar water and light flowers that served to tame the background notes of turpentine and floor polish. It really was quite well done

Nine Leaves American 1

On the tongue, more spice could be noted. After trying it carefully for a few minutes, I was, to be honest, left scratching my head – there were salt, bitter, and sweet components in evidence, all at once; and that same light sweetness and almost-but-not-quite anorexia of the nose came through in the mouthfeel, somewhat to its detriment.  Flowers, swank, vanilla, oak, cucumbers in a green salad (sans dressing), and then an amusing fanta and orange peel tango started going on at the back end.  It was a young, light, frisky and well behaved rumlet, which faded gently into an easygoing, warm finish that was a little dry, but kept the party going with orange zest, delicate white flowers and a lack of aggro I found impressive for a rum this young, bottled at such a relatively high strength.

Civilized is a word I suppose can be used to describe it. It lacks real deep solidity and maturity I prefer in my rums (y’know, like Jamaicans or Demeraras which land on your palate like an anvil dropped from ten feet up), but its construction is almost playfully elegant.  Yes, there was a shade too little ageing, yes the French oak version is even lighter in texture, yes, perhaps it was too dialled down…but you know, I really don’t know that many producers who can take a rum this young and maintain a balance between the intensity of a full-out, pot-still, zero-year-old white, and something a little older…who can make something so interesting out of it.  Maybe it’s the double distillation, maybe it’s the pot still, the light ageing regime, the cuts, the casks or something, but I’m not complaining too loudly. This is a pretty damned good young rum, and I’m sure glad I tried it.

(#256 / 84/100)