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 countries – Guyana, 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 bottles – I 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 Company – a division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt website – is 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 new – consider 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 white — of 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.
- 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 Norte – however 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 branco – white 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.