Apr 262021
 

Isla del Ron is one of the smaller independent rum labels out of Europe, such as have sprung up with greater frequency over the last decade. It’s a division of its parent company Unique Liquids, founded around 2009, and located in north central Germany, between Dortmund and Hanover. To add to the complexity, it owns the related company Malts of Scotland – not entirely a surprise, since Thomas Ewers, the founder, likes his whisky perhaps more than rum. Since 2012, the company has produced about 22 various single barrel rums from all the usual suspects around the Caribbean and Central America.

The rhum we’re looking at today is a peculiar specimen: a single cask release of 169 bottles at 52.6%….but where from? Consider the label, which says “South Pacific”. Can you honestly make sense of that, given that even the geographically challenged are aware (we can hope) that Guadeloupe isn’t an island in the Pacific? Alex over at Master Quill explains what’s happening here: Ewers bought a cask marked “South Pacific”, but which had been mislabelled, and was actually from Bellevue…though it’s unclear how he came to that conclusion. Assuming he’s right, that sounds simple enough except…which one?  Because there are two Bellevues, one on the small island of Marie-Galante, the other on Guadeloupe (Grand Terre) itself, Damoiseau’s Bellevue at le Moule (That Boutique-y Rum Company made a similar mistake on the label of its Bellevue rhum a couple of years ago).

But it seems to be an unknown: Thomas felt it was from Marie-Galante, and Alex wasn’t so sure, given the variety of 1998 distillate marked Guadeloupe that other indies have released in the past, but which was from Damoiseau’s Bellevue on G-T, not Bellevue on M-G. What this means is that we don’t actually know whether it’s a cane juice rhum or a molasses rum (Damoiseau has a long history of working with both), or for sure which distillery produced it.

But let’s see if the tasting helps us figure things out, because the fact is that the Isla del Ron Guadeloupe is actually a quiet kind of delicious (with certain caveats, which I’ll get to later). The nose, for example, is a warm and soft caramel ice cream pillow with a bunch of contrasting fruity notes (grapes, pomegranates, kiwi fruit) lending it some edge.  Bags of toffee, bonbons, flowers and a flirt of licorice waft around the glass, set off with oversweet strawberry bubble gum and (peculiarly) some a creamy feta cheese minus the salt. Throughout it remains a pleasant sniff, with some citrus and tannic notes bringing up the rear.

The nose doesn’t help narrow down the origin (though I have my suspicions), and the palate doesn’t either – but it is nice. It remains light, slightly briny, and just tart enough to be crisp. It has moments of sprightliness and sparkling freshness, tasting of red grapefruit, grapes, sprite, orange zest and herbs (rosemary and dill) – but also presents a contrasting whiff of sharper and slightly bitter oaky aspects, cinnamon, licorice, molasses, with back-end nougat and coconut shavings allowing it to smoothen out somewhat…if not completely successfully, in my view. I do like the finish, which is medium long, medium warm, and quite tasty: closing notes of citrus peel, caramel, pencil shavings and some raisins, plus a few delicate flowers.

Personally, my opinion on its source tends more towards Damoiseau, what with that distillery releasing rather more bulk rum to brokers than Bellevue, which is smaller and has more of a local market; and the molasses and vanilla and caramel notes point in that direction also. To be honest, though, I thought that the rum’s overall profile fell somewhere in between the crispness of the Bielle 2001 14 YO and a Cuban like Cadenhead’s ADC Spiritu Sancti 1998 14 YO. That’s not a major issue though, because as with most such situations, it’s all about whether it works as a rum or not, and if so, how good it is.  

On that basis, I’d say that yes, overall it’s a solid Guadeloupe rhum…just one without real originality. It lacks distinctiveness, and carves out no new territory of its own.  It’s a lovely tasting rhum, yes, but unfortunately, also not one you’d be able to remember clearly next week. In that sense, it’s like many bally-hooed and overhyped rums we keep hearing about every day on social media, but which then drop out of sight forever without ever having stirred the emotions of us drinkers in any serious way. And that’s a bit of a shame, really, for a rum that is otherwise quite good.

(#815)(86/100)

Jan 202020
 

In spite of being “just” a consultant, Pete Holland of The Floating Rum Shack is so completely identified with the rums of the cheekily named That Boutique-y Rum Company, that we sometimes overlook the fact the outfit is actually part of Atom Brands which runs the Masters of Malt online spirits establishment. The curious matter of his being seen as the face of the brand can be directly traced to two things – his consistent promotional work for TBRC online and off, and the irreverent paintings by Jim’ll Paint It that adorn the labels of the bottles, many of which feature Peter himself.

In a field ever more crowded with new bottlers, new distilleries and new (supposedly improved, but not always) offerings from the old houses, all vying for our limited attentions spans and slim, wife-approved budgets, one can hardly fault such an in-your-face marketing strategy, you can only admire how well it’s done. It helps, of course, that Peter really is a fun guy to hang out with, drink with and make jokes with (or at) – and that the rums the company has released so far have been pretty damned good.

Take this one, which proves that TBRC has a knack for ferreting out good barrels. It’s not often you find a rum that is from the French West Indies aged beyond ten years — Neisson’s been making a splash recently with its 18 YO, you might recall, for that precise reason.  To find one that’s a year older from Guadeloupe in the same year is quite a prize and I’ll just mention it’s 54.2%, aged seven years in Guadeloupe and a further twelve in the UK, and outturn is 413 bottles. On stats alone it’s the sort of thing that makes my glass twitch.

Still, with the facts out of the way, what’s it like?

Very nice…if a little off the beaten track. Now here is a rum based on a batch of molasses (so it’s not a true cane juice agricole), and it starts off not with grassy and herbal and citrus aromas, but with crackers, caramel, and breakfast cereal (Fruit Loops, I say, from the experience of buying tons of the stuff for the Baby Caner back in the day).  Which I like, don’t get me wrong…once I adjust my mental compass away from agricole territory. The nose also displays toffee, nougat, nuts, almonds and mixes that up with a softly emergent slightly sharp and piquant fruity bouquet that’s quite simply delectable. The balance among all these elements is really good, negotiating that fine and tricky line between muskiness, sweetness, crispness and sharpness in a way we don’t often see.

The palate confirms that we’re not dealing with a cane juice rum in any way – the wood is more evident here, there’s some resin-like backtaste, smoke, vanilla, molasses and brine, offset by light flowers, and a sort of subtle fruity sweetness. The fruits are kinda tough to pick apart – some red grapes, I suppose, pears, papaya – it’s all very light and just a tad acidic, so that the combined profile is one of a seriously good rum, concluding with a reasonably long finish that is sweet, salt, wine-y, and crisp, just the slightest bit sour, and overall a really welcome dram to be sipping after a tough day at the rumfest.  

Guadeloupe rums in general lack something of the fierce and stern AOC specificity that so distinguishes Martinique, but they’re close in quality in their own way, they’re always good, and frankly, there’s something about the relative voluptuousness of a Guadeloupe rhum that I’ve always liked. Peter sold me on the quality of the O Reizinho Madeiran a while back, but have my suspicions that he has a soft spot for this one as well.  Myself, I liked it a mite better, perhaps because there was just a bit more going on in the background and overall it had a shade more complexity which I appreciated. It’s a really delectable dram, well aged, damned tasty and one to share with all your friends.

(#694)(87/100)


Other Notes

Peter told me that the label was a little misleading. The initial image on the bottle I tried makes a visual reference to the (Gardel) distillery on Marie Galante, but it was actually distilled at Damoiseau’s Le Moule facility, from a batch of molasses rum produced on their creole column. The label has been redrawn and there’s a movement afoot to re-label future iterations — Rev 2.0 adds Peter to the artwork and pokes a little fun at the mistake.

Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are almost alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

Mar 252018
 

#500

In one of those odd coincidences that crop up from time to time, I was polishing up my essay for one of Damoiseau’s ultra-premium halo rums – a 31-year-old inky bad boy from 1953 which is usually too rare or too pricey for most to bother with – when Single Cask posted his own in-depth evaluation.  We had a good laugh over that one, but in a way it’s good too, because while one person’s review of a single rum is fine, a better opinion can be formed with several people putting their snoots and their pens in.

Age-wise, the 1953 from Guadeloupe does not class with the ur-rum of the Aged Canon, the Longpond 1941 58 year old from Jamaica. Yet it is nearly as old as the 1972 37 year old Courcelles which was the first to truly switch me on to French Island rhums, and which is the oldest such aged product I’ve yet found – others, such as the Bally 1929 and Clement 1952 and the St James 1885 were made before 1953, but are younger. Whatever the case, it is a blast from the past, something we should try if we can just to get a sense of the evolution of rum and rhum and ron over the decades. And yes, also because it’s so damn cool to have something from the fifties.

So what was happening in 1953? The Cold War was in full swing, of course, Eisenhower was inaugurated as #34, Mossadegh was overthrown, Stalin died, Kruschev lived. The Kenyan Mau Mau uprising was going on while the Korean conflict “ended.” Everest was conquered.  Watson and Crick announced DNA, Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, the first Playboy came out, and Jacques Tati released the whimsical classic M. Hulot’s Holiday (a favourite of mine, along with Playtime). The rationing of cane sugar in the UK came to an end. The Brits suspended the British Guiana constitution and occupied the country militarily so as to make it safe for democracy.  And this rum came off the still in Damoiseau’s facilities.

I have no idea whether it was pure cane juice distillate or molasses – Guadeloupe has a history of mixing things up, which is part of their attraction for me – but just based on the way it nosed and tasted when run past other aged dinosaurs (the Courcelles, Damoiseau’s own 1980, the Cadenhead Green Label 1975 among others) I’m going to say it had at least some molasses-based spirit in the bag. It was a sort of mud brown opaque liquid that immediately made me remember the St James 1885, and poured thickly into a glass, even at its relatively low ABV of 42%.

But it smelled very nice for all that low power. Really. It had deep fruity flavours of blackberries and prunes, plus a lighter note of strawberries and orange peel, flambeed bananas, and it reminded me somewhat of a Bajan Black Rock rum, what with that underlying series of crisper smells.  Candied oranges, a flirt of caramel, some faint licorice, very ripe cherries added to the fun. However it was deeper than any of those, richer, smokier, and developed over time into a plump and rotund nose that steered you between the darkness of a crazy old fellow like the 1885, and the clarity of Damoiseau’s 1989 20 year old.  Which perhaps says something for bottles that have sat waiting their turn for many many decades.

The palate is perhaps where people will pause and look at the glass a second time.  That it was pungent and warm was beyond question: even at the rather anemic strength, one could easily appreciate the relative smooth profile, pick out some weak brine, prunes, chocolate covered dates, banana cake, strawberries and honey; and to that, over time, was added a few lighter balancing elements of unripe strawberries, maybe a stalk of lemongrass. Overall, what fruitiness there was, was dialled way back and became almost imperceptible, to be overtaken by something more like a mix between tannins and some much-too-strong unsweetened black tea, both a good and a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint.  As for the finish, not much could be said – warm, short and unfortunately weak. That said, here perhaps more could be discerned which were missing from the palate – black tea, honey, raisins, faint chocolate, plenty of crushed walnuts, if too little of the fruitiness I was looking for.

Taking all these aspects together, one must concede that it started well, it’s just that as it opened up, there emerged a sort of woody, smoky, nutty background: this gradually overwhelmed the delicate balance with the fruit which the rhum needed (my opinion), and that to some extent derailed the experience. Too, the flavours melded into each other in a way that a stronger strength might have separated, creating a somewhat indeterminate melange that was tasty, yes, just…indistinct. And not entirely successful.

After the fact, looking at the rhum coldly and practically and assessing it on price alone, I can’t tell you this is a must-have.  It’s the kind that relies on the numbers “5”, “3” and “1” to be taken seriously, but when it comes down to a tasting, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the halo…and the numbers become just that, numbers.  As with rums like the Black Tot (or even the St James, Clement or Bally rhums mentioned above), we’re buying to touch the past and reconnect with a sense of real heritage, back when the Cuban style of rum dominated the market, to see how what we drink now came from what was made then. It absolutely is a major product in that sense — just not exceptional, compared to what it costs, compared to what we might expect.

So, the Damoiseau 1953 nails the historical value and cool presentation ethos just fine, and it is different, fascinating, old, pretty good, and if that’s what you want, you’re good to go. You’ll be the belle of the ball showing it off, and all the stares and envious plaudits will surely be yours for the taking (unless someone trots out a Bally). The best thing to do — when you’re in the store looking at it, with your bonus cheque twitching in your pocket — is to ask yourself some very honest questions as to why you want to buy it and then proceed purely on that basis.  I ignored that advice myself, and that’s why you’re reading this review.

(85/100)


Other notes

The Single Cask review is really worth a read.  Also, he noted that it came from some “lost casks” but Herve Damoiseau, when confirming the age as 31 years for me (the rhum was bottled in 1984), didn’t know anything about that.

Oct 202017
 

#395

Velier’s star shone brightly in 2017, so much so that if you were following the October 2017 UK rumfest on Facebook, it almost seemed like they took over the joint and nothing else really mattered.  Luca’s collaboration with Richard Seale of Foursquare over the last few years resulted the vigorous promotion of a new rum classification system, as well as the spectacular 2006 ten year old and the Triptych (with more to come); and for Velier’s 70th Anniversary – marked by events throughout the year – a whole raft of rums got issued from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Mauritius, Japan….So much happened and so much got done that I had to re-issue an updated company biography, and that’s definitely a first. The Age of Velier’s Demeraras might be over and the Caronis might be on a decline as the stocks evaporate…but company is in no danger of becoming an also-ran anytime soon.

Still, all these great rums aside, let us not forget some of the older, lesser known, more individual rums they put out the door, such as the Damoiseau 1980 and the Basseterre 1995 and 1997, some of the Papalins and Liberation series, the older Guyanese rums distributed at lesser proofs by Breitenstock…and this one which is on nobody’s must-have list except mine.  It holds a special place in my heart – not just because it was issued by Velier (thought this surely is part of it), but because the original Courcelles 1972 is the very rum that started my love affair with French island rhums and agricoles…so for sure this one had some pretty big shoes to try and fill.

It filled them and then some. Reddish gold and at a robust 54% ABV (there’s another 42% version floating around) it started off with a beeswax, honey and smoke aroma, heavy and distinct, and segued into treacle, nougat, white chocolate and nuts.  Not much of an agricole profile permeated its nose, and since it’s been observed before that since Guadeloupe – from which this hails – is not AOC controlled and uses molasses as often as juice for its rhums, the Courcelles could be either one. No matter: I loved it. Even after an hour or two, more scents kept emerging from the glass – caramel and a faint saltiness, aromatic flower-based hot tea, and just to add some edge, a fine line of mild orange zest ran through it all, well balanced and adding to the overall lusciousness of the product.

The palate, which is where I spent most of my time, was excellent, though perhaps a little more restrained…some attention had to be paid here. The brutal aggro of a rum bottled at 60%-plus had been dialled back, pruned like a bonsai, and left a poem of artistry and taste behind: more honey, nougat, nutmeg, brown sugar water, and calming waves of shaved coconut and the warmth of well-polished old leather, cumin, and anise, with that same light vein of orange peel still making itself unobtrusively felt without destabilizing the experience.  At the close, long and aromatic aromas simply continued the aforementioned and quietly wrapped up the show with final suggestions of rose tea, almonds, coconut and light fruit in a long, sweet and dry finish.  Frankly, it was hard to see it being the same vintage as the Velier Courcelles 42% which was tried alongside it, and was better in every way – the 54% was an excellent strength for what was on display and I enjoyed every minute of it.

There’s a streak of contrariness in my nature that seeks to resist flavour-of-the month rums that ascend to the heights of public opinion to the point where their makers can do no wrong and every issuance of a new expression is met with chirps of delight, holy cows and a rush to buy them all. But even with that in mind, quality is quality and skill is skill and when a rum is this good it cannot be ignored or snootily dismissed in an effort to provide “balance” in some kind of perverse reflex action good only for the personal ego.  Velier, even when nobody knew of them, showed great market sense, great powers of selection and issued great rums, which is why they’re just about all collector’s items now.  The Demeraras and Caronis and collaborations with other makers showed vision and gave us all fantastic rums to treasure…but here, from the dawn of Luca’s meteoric career, came a now-almost-forgotten and generally-overlooked rum that came close to breaking the scale altogether.  It is one of the best rums from the French islands ever issued by an independent, a cornerstone of my experience with older rums from around the world…and hopefully, if you are fortunate enough to ever try it, yours.

(91/100)


  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles was made – I’ve never been able to find one made more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003 when it was decanted into “dead” vats, and then bottled in 2005.  I chose to call it a 31 year old, not a 33.
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it may derive from molasses…or not.  If anyone has definitive information or a link to settle the issue, please let me know.