May 062021
 

The rums of the Reunion Island company Savanna span a wide stylistic gamut, depending on the source material (juice or molasses, for they utilize both), which still made them, and how many esters stuck around for the party (this is particularly the case with the high ester still Savanna casually uses to smack the unsuspecting and unwary into next week).  

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Velier’s book, they also release a whole raft of “sets” or types – for example, the Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days), Creol (aged and unaged agricoles), Intense (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), or Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums).  And that’s not even counting the cool-named varieties within those sets, like “Thunderstruck,” “Chai Humide,” “Wild Island,” or the utterly prosaic put-me-to-sleep-please “Belgium.” They seem to have no particular interest in releasing things at a consistent strength and you’ll find rums at standard strength right up to 67% (a 2019 creol I still get delicious nightmares about).

Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous variation of tastes in these rums – perhaps only the Guadeloupe boys can boast anything that jumps around the flavour wheel as much. You cannot make any predeterminations on “what I expect” with this distillery, and it would be foolhardy to try.  I’ve tasted those that are heavy on fruits, others that are more creamy or yeasty or flowery or creamy or are dark, light, heavy, solid, flaky….well, you get my drift.

Still, this 57% ABV grand arôme, which was released in 2016 for La Maison Du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary (they went into partnership with Velier the following year and formed LM&V), seemed at pains to make the point yet again.  In this case, it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical; herbs, wet grass, sweet pickles, hot dog relish (I know what this sounds like!); sugar water; iodine, papaya, strawberries; wax, brine and cucumbers in a light pimento-soaked vinegar.  I mean, seriously, does that remind you of any rum you’ve ever tried? I both liked it and wondered where the rum was hiding.

In fairness, the taste was pretty good and conformed more to the ideals. 57% was a good strength for it, and even with the slight roughness of it being unaged, it wasn’t savage, just warm and firm. It tasted initially of brine and olives and then did a switcheroo to light anise and sugar water, fresh sugar cane sap bleeding off the stalk, combined with the tartness of unripe white fruit (guavas, soursop, pears), orange peel and some delicate flowers.  A touch of caramel, toffee, breakfast spices, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon, maybe. It fell apart on the finish, alas – that was short, watery, thin, somewhat sweet and lacking any of the complexity with just some herbs, mint, dill, anise and swank drifting away into nothingness. 

In other words, the rum started out strong – and startling…that nose really was something – and then each successive stage was weaker than the one before it.  That it had more complexity and style than most whites is undeniable, it just wasn’t assembled that well (which is a purely personal opinion, of course).  Why LMDW would release an unaged Savanna rum for a major anniversary at a time when Reunion wasn’t much appreciated and super-aged rums were much more likely to attract attention and money, is anyone’s guess. It’s also a peculiarity of the rum that it comes from molasses but through some weird alchemy of the process, actually tastes more like an agricole, which I’m sure you’ll admit is quite a neat trick.

The Fat Rum Pirate in his four-star 2017 review of this rum, remarked “This won’t be for everyone but [..] but whilst similar to other high ABV whites, it has enough going on to be different.” That encapsulates my own feelings as well: while I enjoy (and sometimes fear) the untamed ferocity of the clairins, the Guyanese and Jamaican unaged crazies, or the more refined French island blancs, I also appreciate something original which has the courage to go off on a tangent, before somehow coming together as a recognizably good rum.  This one shows that happening in fine style and I’m happy to have had the chance to try it.

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The LMDW 60th Anniversary release has a 1,000-bottle outturn.  Bottle number noted on the label
  • As before, thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample. His unscored tasting notes can be found here.

Opinion

I’ve heard it bruited about from time to time (by the social media commentariat and never-silent chatterati) that rums which sport labels with [a number plus the word “Anniversary”] are presenting a deliberately misleading faux-age-statement.  I completely understand how any minor confusion could arise – when a rum says “50 Years” in large attention-grabbing typeface and then the Lilliputian word “Anniversary” barely visible below that, then the case is easy to make (looking at you, El Dorado, ignoring you, Plantation).

In the main, however, I disagree with the premise. It presupposes an erroneous and all-encompassing assumption of blinkered stupidity by rum drinkers who can’t differentiate the word “anniversary” from the term “years old” when buying something upscale.  Sometimes, such commentators really should extend consumers the courtesy of not thinking they (the consumers) automatically morons just because they (the talkers) know a smidgen more. Though to be fair, consumers really do owe it to themselves as well to pay close attention to what they’re buying.

Sep 142020
 

It’s perhaps unfair that only with the emergence of the 2016 HERR 10 YO and the LMDW 60th Anniversary white in the same year, that the distillery of Savanna on Reunion began to pick up some serious street cred. I think it’s one of those under-the-radar distilleries that produces some of the best rums in the world, but it always and only seems to be some special limited edition like the Cuvee Maison Blanche, or a “serious” third party bottling (e.g. from Habitation Velier, Rum Nation or Wild Parrot) that gets people’s ears to prick up.  And it’s then that you hear the stealthy movement of wallets in pockets as people slink into a shop, furtively fork over their cash, and never speak of their purchase for fear the prices might go ape before they get a chance to buy everything in sight.

Such focus on seemingly special bottlings ignores a lot of what Savanna actually produces. Starting around 2013 or so, in line with the emerging trend of own-distillery bottlings (as opposed to bulk sales abroad) done by well-known Caribbean island distilleries, they took the unheralded and almost unacknowledged lead in constantly producing all sorts of small not-quite-limited batches, for years and years (the 5 year old and 7 year old “Intense” rums were examples of that). And, as I’ve observed before, it’s good to remember that Savanna’s rums span an enormous stylistic range of both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proof, and underneath all of those are rums like the seemingly basic Lontan White 40% rum we’re looking at today.

The word “Lontan” is difficult to pin down – in Haitian Creole, it means “long” and “long ago” while in old French it was “lointain” and meant “distant” and “far off”, and neither explains why Savanna picked it (though many establishments around the island use it in their names as well, so perhaps it’s an analogue to the english “Ye Olde…”).  Anyway, aside from the traditional, creol, Intense and Metis ranges of rums (to which have now been added several others) there is this Lontan series – these are all variations of Grand Arôme rums, finished or not, aged or not, full-proof or not, which are distinguished by a longer fermentation period and a higher ester count than usual, making them enormously flavourful.

Does that work, here? Not as much as I’d like – the strength is partly responsible for that, making it seem somewhat one-dimensional.  The nose gentle and clean, some brine and olives, pineapple, watermelon, green apples and a touch of herbs, yet overall the smell of it lacks something of an agricole rhum’s crispness, or an unaged molasses rum’s complexity, and if there are more esters than normal here, they’re doing a good job of remaining undercover. It actually reminds me more of a slightly aged cachaca than anything else.

It’s an easy rum to drink neat, by the way, because the 40% does not savage your tonsils the way a full proof would.  On that level, it works quite nicely.  But that same weakness makes flavours faint and hard to come to grips with. So while there are some subtle notes of sugar water, anise, vanilla, mint, coffee (a dulce de leche, if you will) and cumin, they lack spark and verve, and you have to strain hard to pick them up….hardly the point of a drink like this. Since the finish just follows on from there – faint, breathy and <poof> it’s gone – about the best one can say is that at least it’s not a bland nothing.  You retain the soft memory of fruits, pineapple, cumin, vanilla, and then the whole thing is done.

Ultimately then, this is almost a starter or (at best) a mid-tier rum, clocking in at €35 or so in Europe. I have often bugled my liking for brutish whites that channel the primitive licks of full strength rums made in the old style for generations without caring about modern technology, but this isn’t one of them. That said, it has more in its jock than the bland anonymous filtered whites that are the staple of bars the world over, however…so if you eschew full-proof ester-squirting whites and prefer something a bit more toned down and easy on both the palate and the wallet, then this one is definitely one you could – and probably should – take a longer look at than I did.

(#760)(77/100)


Other Notes

  • Column still rum, deriving from molasses (hence the “Traditonnel” on the label)
  • For a more in depth discussion of “Grand Arôme” see the Wonk’s article.
  • As before, many thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample
Jun 282017
 

#376

With the advent of the Hampden and Worthy Park rums which pride themselves on high ester counts, it seems that one of the emerging trends in the rumworld may well be such tasty, clear, bags-of-fruit rums with not just a single sapling populating the salad bowl, but an entire damned orchard. Yet on the other side of the world, Savanna has been doing this for some years now with their “Intense” and “Grand Arôme” lines, of which the reigning porn queen might well be the HERR 10 year old that so impressed me.  That rum was startling and original, seemingly cut from wholly new cloth, bottled at a massive 63.8% and aged in cognac casks and my drool dripped into the glass almost continuously as I tried it (well…I exaggerate for effect….but not by much).  And yet, Savanna made one even better than that one – it’s this rum, a Grand Arôme, a rock solid full-proof 64.2% rumzilla that encapsulated all the amazing potential Reunion had to offer, and came in ahead of its own siblings by a country mile.  I’ve now tried about ten rums from Savanna, and it’s my firm belief that this is the best of them all (until I find the next one).

Speaking of Savanna and the stats.  I’ve written a small bio of the company, so won’t bore you with that again, so let’s just reel off the usual details so you know what you’re drinking if you ever try it. It was distilled in 2004 and bottled in 2016, with a strength as noted above, just north of 64%.  It was made on Savanna’s traditional column still (not the discontinuous one of the HERR), and Cyril, in his own excellent 2016 review, writes that it is made from the fermentation of vinasse and molasses, and for a longer period than usual – 5-10 days.  As before it was fully aged in ex-cognac casks.  

Photo stealthily purloined from DuRhum.com

Pause for a second and just look at all those production notes: they make no mention of additives, but for my money they didn’t add anything, and come on, why would they need to? It’s like they pulled out all the stops to make this thing a flavour bomb of epic proportions. Fermentation, distillation, ageing, the works, all that was missing was some pineapples dunked directly into the vat.  And when I tried it, the results spoke for themselves.

The hot, fragrant nose began with dusty cardboard, the nostalgic feel of old boxes in an attic, of a second hand bookshop crammed to the rafters with dry books of ages past nobody now reads.  Ahh, but then it changed – acetone and nail polish mixed with lots of honey and rich (but not tart) flavours of bubble gum peaches, prunes, vanilla, cinnamon and a light trace of brine and avocados drizzled with lemon juice.  Cocoa and some coffee, reminds me some of the Varangue Grand Arôme 40% white, but better behaved and much better constructed. My God this was rich — I spent perhaps half an hour just nosing the thing, and even called over my mother (who was annoyed I wouldn’t let her near my samples that day and was sitting in a huff in the kitchen) to give it a sniff.  Her reaction was so positive I feared for her health and the safety of my table, but never mind – the important thing to note is that even a rum novice loved it, even at that strength.

The real treasures came on the palate, which was firm, strong and intense, as befitted a rum brewed to a ripsnorting 64.2%.  Here the fruits – those amazing, full bodied fruits – blasted out front and center.  The intensity and variety were amazing, yet they lacked something of the single minded purity of the HERR, and somehow manage to create a melange without a mess, each note melding perfectly, combining the ongoing cereals and dusty book aromas with the sweet richness of the orchard without losing the best parts of either.  Some rubber and sweet caramel and honey, warm papaya, and then the fruits themselves – ripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, cherries, cinnamon, cloves, almonds and that yummy Pakistani rice pudding called kheer. There was aromatic tobacco, a faint citrus tang (candied oranges perhaps) and it all led up to a clean, biting finish, gradually winding down to close with green grapes, hard yellow mangoes, lemongrass, caramel and breakfast spices.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves something amazing here.

When The Wonk and I were discussing this rum, he remarked (rather disbelievingly) that it had to be quite a product to compare with the 89 points I gave to Velier’s 32 year old PM 1975 a few days ago.   It certainly is that, but really, the two aren’t strictly comparable, as they are quite different branches of the great tree of rum.  The Lontan lacks the dark heaviness of Demeraras generally and the Port Mourant specifically, doesn’t have that wooden still licorice background or its overall depth.  In point of fact The Lontan 12 has more in common with the Jamaicans and perhaps even agricoles, while being distinct from either one. In that observation lies the key to why it’s special.

I noted the other day that one of the unsung heroes of the subculture is likely the below-the-radar rums of St Lucia.  Here’s another company not many have heard of that’s making some pretty big footprints we should be tracking.  Because in summing up Savanna’s remarkable rum it’s clear that it’s a shimmering smorgasbord of extravagant and energetic and well-controlled tastes, melding a nose that won’t quit with a body that could make a metaphorical nuncio review his vows of celibacy.  It mixes a glittering clarity with excellent balance, strength with softness, is crisp and complex to a fault and what we’re left with after the fact is the memory of an enormous achievement. To say the rum is “not bad” is to undersell it.  To say it’s good doesn’t cut it. What we need to do is to admit it’s just about great, and oddly, part of that admission is also that it’s made by a relative unknown, without any of that emotional baggage we would bring to, say, a Velier or a Samaroli, a Rum Nation or a product from the Compagnie. I enjoyed it thoroughly.  I think it’s wonderful. It’s a gift to true rum lovers who want to try something they haven’t experienced before, in their ongoing (often lonely, sometimes thankless) search for the next new rum to treasure.


(90/100)


Other notes

  • Samples provided by two generous and great rum people, Nico Rumlover and Etienne S. who asked for nothing in exchange, but got something anyway.  Thanks guys. Wouldn’t have found this rum without you.