Mar 122021
 

Let’s quickly run down the tasting notes for the Chamarel youthful aged expression, the VS.  This is the most junior of the company’s aged pantheon – named, one would presume, after the brandy designators of VS, VSOP, XO and so on. The VS supposedly stands for “Very Superior”, but that just goes to show the French had marketing departments in their old maisons for centuries before Madison Avenue was invented, because overall, the rum didn’t exactly wow my socks off.

It smells, right off the bat, of toast — literally.  Lots of toast. Also coconut shavings, vanilla, and cereals that have all at some point in their life been burnt, which I grant is amusing (and unusual) but hardly earth shattering. Anyway, this all passes, and then one can smell aromas of honey, flambeed bananas, salt caramel ice cream, nougat, toffee, white chocolate, and crushed almonds.  What it’s missing is the tart and clear acidity of lighter elements and fruits, which remain very much in the background on the nose.

Palate is somewhat better, and more integrated, though quite light and there remains a sort of spicy spitefulness about the whole thing. There are tastes of nuts, wine, grapes, and cereals again.  The balance is much improved, and the fruit is more forward…I keep getting this idea that there’s a splash of red wine in here too. With resting, there are additional notes of coconut shavings, bananas, more unidentifiable soft and squishy fruit: say ripe mangoes, papayas, cherries, strawberries, that kind of thing.  Oh, and welcome spicy notes of cloves and cumin.  All this leads to a curiously disappointing finish – it’s dusty and short, with hints of cheerios, caramel and crushed walnuts…but the fruits have once again disappeared to wherever they hid while I was smelling it.

The rum as tasted was released at 42%: currently it’s gone back to a more easy sipping 40% (as advertised on its website).  I think the strength is decent for what it is, because the rough edges of its youth have not been quite sanded clean yet, and it showcases a sort of jagged edge that a stronger proof might have made worse, rather than better. From what I was told at the booth where I tried it, it was based on sugar cane juice, and run through a column still (twice, hence the “double distilled” on the label), then aged for 3 years in charred American oak; this would account for the rather strong vanilla and smoky profile that characterizes the rum, but oddly for a cane juice product, rather less of the vegetal and fruity notes which one would expect from the source.

Chamarel on Mauritius has been around for a long time, and I’ve written about it in both the Premium Classic White, the double distilled white and Velier’s Indian Ocean Sills selection reviews, so if this piques your interest and you want to know more about them, check out those reviews or their own website. I’ve not tried very many of their aged rums – because there really aren’t that may: remember, rum making was legalized on Mauritius relatively recently so it’s not as if a whole bunch of aged stocks exist on the island.  So, I started with this one, the youngest, which I didn’t think was all that hot. It was a competent product, but I’m left somewhat confused what it’s meant for – it’s not good enough to sip, while lacking any serious punch over and above the vanilla, coconut and caramel, which would wake up a cocktail. Unless such a placid profile is your thing, you may want to see if you can lay hands on their older expressions, a millesime or anything they issue at a greater strength. Otherwise, be prepared by a restless sense of unfulfilled potential with this one.

(#808)(78/100)


Other

  • The rum isn’t bad, just feels unfinished.  As proof of its potential, note that it won a gold medal in its category at the 2018 German Rum Fest in Berlin, with other honours in the Agricole Gold class going to Clement Rhum Vieux Select Barrel (Martinique, 40%) and Saint James Ambre (Martinique, 40%)
Mar 082021
 

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, that Mauritius outfit we last saw when I reviewed their 44% pot-still white, doesn’t sit on its laurels with a self satisfied smirk and think it has achieved something.  Not at all.  In point of fact it has a couple more whites, both cane juice derived and distilled on their Barbet columnar still: one at 42º (the “Classic 42”) for cocktails like a mojito, and the other delivering a sharper 52º and clearly meant for the islanders’ own beloved Ti-punch.

Chamarel distillery is situated in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, cultivates its own sugarcane, and has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and a very long history of distilling its own back-country hooch for local consumption, much like the grogues of Cape Verde or the clairins of Haiti..

After 2006, when rum production was finally legalized (previously all cane had to be made into sugar by law), it began to emerge from the shadows, to become something the world started paying attention to. It’s no coincidence that it was in 2008, at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies and a time of renewed interest in rum, that the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created their new distillery on a 400-hectare estate.

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper pot still (for one of their white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other white rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months (or more) before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations. In this case the classic is slowly reduced to 52% ABV over six months.

What comes out the other end and is released in a bottle smart enough to sport a doctorate from Cambridge, is a sleek stunner of a rum with a cosh in its back pocket. It’s an intense and crisply fiery taste bomb, and my Lord, was there a lot going on under its crinoline – a hot combo of wax, olives, brine and sugar water, acetone and paint thinner, which vied with a veritable smorgasbord of light and watery fruit for the dominance of the nose: guavas, pears, Thai mangoes, watermelon and guavas with a touch of pineapple and strawberry infused water. Slightly sweet, salty and sour, a really distinctive, slightly-addled nose. It’s sharp to smell, yet it’s the sharpness of clear and crisp aromas rather than any deficiency of youth and poor cuts such as too often mars young rums subsequently marketed as cocktail fodder: this thing, on the contrary, smells like you could take it to dinner at the Ritz.

Having already tried – and felt somewhat let down by – the restrained, near-lethargic nature of the Chamarel pot still white, I wasn’t looking for anything particularly “serious” when it came to how it tasted, aside from, perhaps, a bit of extra jolt from the higher proof point. I was happy to be disappointed: it was a firm and solid rhum on all fronts, both deep and sharp at the same time, laden with vegetals, wet grass, green apples, grapes, citrus, vanilla, pineapple and a mischievous hint of cider to shake things up.  Waiting a bit and then coming back to it, I noted a crisp melange of lemon, thyme, biryani spices, marzipan, more light and tart fruits, some unsweetened yoghurt and even the creamy back end of white chocolate and almonds.  It ended up closing the show with a last joyous and furiously spinning sense of fruit, citrus, pepper and a very hot green tea gurgling its way down.

Personally I have a thing for pot still hooch – they tend to have more oomph, more get-up-and-go, more pizzazz, better tastes.  There’s more character in them, and they cheerfully exude a kind of muscular, addled taste-set that is usually entertaining and often off the scale.  The Jamaicans and Guyanese have shown what can be done when you take that to the extreme.  But on the other side of the world there’s this little number coming off a small column, and I have to say, I liked it even more than its pot still sibling, which may be the extra proof or the still itself, who knows. 

The Premium Classic was simply a rhum that invigorated, and was hugely fun to try without any attempt to be “serious” or “important”.  And that’s a good thing here, I think, because it allows us to relax and just go with it.  Now, a lot of us drink rums just to get hammered, start a convo, have a good time – and if we don’t like it we chuck it away, or into a mix and any weakness is shrugged off by saying “others will like it” or “it’s not meant for sipping.” Meh. For me, either it works or it doesn’t and this one – frenetic, alcoholic and cheerfully unapologetic – does its thing so well, that the day I tried it I looked at the guy at the booth doing the talk and the pour and laughed in sheer delight, didn’t say a word and just held out my glass for more.  I haven’t heard much about this company or this rum since then, but I sure hope that gent remembers how much I liked his company’s product. 

(#807)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Although this is a rum (or rhum) deriving from cane juice, Mauritius does not have the right to call its products agricoles, and I follow the practise in my naming and description..
Aug 202020
 

Last time, I was looking at the really quite excellent St. Aubin 10 year old from Mauritius, which was a cane juice, pot-still, decade-old rhum, a type we don’t see very much of – to my memory only the Saint James Coeur de Chauffe comes close, and that wasn’t even aged. St. Aubin certainly seems to like making rums their own way, while New Grove, also from that Indian Ocean island, provides us with rums that seem somewhat more familiar – they flit in profile between El Dorados and Barbadians, I think, with an occasional dash of Worthy Park thrown in to mix things up.

One of the rums I used as a control that day was the New Grove Single Barrel rum from 2004, which in every way tried to maximize its hit points in a way St. Aubin did not, by specifically nodding to the indie scene to establish its chops — relatively high proof (49.9%, a whisker shy of fifty), a millesime from 2004, nine years old, 297 (individually numbered) bottles from a single barrel #151, columnar creole still, aged nine years in Limousin oak…well, you get the point. 

Although cold stats alone don’t tell the tale, I must confess to being intrigued, since a primary producer’s limited single-barrel expressions tend to be somewhat special, something they picked out for good reason. That felt like the case here – the initial smell was delicious, of burnt oranges and whipped cream (!!), a sort of liquid meringue pie if you will. It negotiated the twists and turns of tart and mellower aromas really well: honey, fruits, raisins, green apples, grapes,and ripe peaches. There was never too much of one or the other, and it was all quite civilized, soft and even warm

Alas, the nose was the best part – the palate strained, it tried, but just couldn’t keep up. Certainly it was workmanlike and tasted well, firm, solid, warm; it showcased some citrus, salted caramel, vanilla and cumin, plus peaches and apricots and faint molasses, just lacking somer of that exuberance and verve the nose had primed me for. The fade was about on that level too – aromatic, a little tangy, some vanilla, bon bons, spices, and again that chocolate-orange vibe I enjoyed quite a bit. I don’t know if that’s a Mauritius thing, just that it was a tasty end to the drink.

Back when I tried New Grove’s 8 YO in 2014, I commented rather dismissively on the strength and hinted at its middle-of-the-road taste which seemed geared to please rather than excite. By the time Lazy Dodo came out a few years later (a very nice blend) I was more in tune with what New Grove was doing. No further issues of anonymity or strength afflicted the 2004 which is a ways better than either of the other two…although it still had its weaknesses, however minor.

I mean, the rum is, overall, quite a good one.  The tastes were strong and crisp and well defined, and it could be sipped easily and enjoyed at any time.  Yet somehow it lacked a pinch of that excellence and uniqueness which would have staked out its own claim to excellence, the sort of thing that made the St. Aubin so good – though by no means should this be regarded as either a criticism, or a failure on their part, for the rum was perfectly delectable in its own way. 

Scores aside, what this pair of rums clearly demonstrates is that the Caribbean doesn’t hog all the glory or possess all the cool kids’ rums – it just seems that way because they get more press.  But if you were to ever start looking elsewhere, beyond the regular and the comfortingly familiar, then take a chance and go further afield. Mauritius in general is a good place to look and New Grove specifically wouldn’t be the worst place to land.

(#754)(85/100)


Background history

Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar, has been at varying times composed of more islands and fewer, and either Dutch, English or French…though Arabs and Portuguese both made landfall there before. Its strategic position in the Indian Ocean made both French and British fight for it during the Age of Empires, and both remain represented on the island to this day, melding with the Indian and Asian cultures that also form a sizeable bulk of the population. Sugar has been a mainstay of the local economy for centuries, and there were thirty seven distilleries operational by 1878 — the first sugar mill dates back to 1740 in Domain de la Veillebague, in the village of Pampelmousses, with the first distillery starting up two years later: they sold their product mainly to Africa and Madagascar.

New Grove, a rum making concern founded by a Dr. Harel, dates back to 1852 and is intimately connected with another major Mauritius family, the Grays. The Harel family have moved into other concerns (like the Harel-Mallac group, not at all into agriculture), but other descendants formed and work for Grays – one of them sent me the company bio, for example, and three more sit on the board of directors.

Grays itself was formed in 1935 (the holding company Terra Brands, was established in 1931 by the Harels and the first still brought into operation in 1932) and are a vertically integrated spirits producer and importer.  They own all stages of local production, from cane to cork, so to speak, and make cane spirit, white rum, a solera and aged rums, for the Old Mill and New Grove brands which were established in 2003 for the export market. This explains why the SBS Mauritius 2008 rum, for example, noted on its label that it came from the Grays’ distillery.

Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.