Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write abouteven if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it).

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decidedwithout a lick of experience or any concept of the difficultiesto start a small distillery and make some juice. Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampanwho can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016).

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time. As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festivalbut for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this timeas I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway. It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brineeven some very faint hints of vegetable soup. Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence. You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Mehit’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yetit’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one. But that whiteit was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sureit lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of. Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess. And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder.
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau. I quite like it.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the Frenchthey’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits calledrượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversightmany are simple moonshineries. But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt witheralready they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery. There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the stillwhat comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made.

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me abackthere was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuffgrass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it. The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavourssweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink. After about half an hourlonger than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glassesfaint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhatbut also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the worldwell, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company. Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
May 262019
 

The Sampan Vietnamese Rhum is made by the Distillerie d’Indochine: and Antoine Pourcuitte, a long haired Frenchman who seems to be channelling Fabio and who lives in Vietnam, is the man who bootstrapped his desire to make good rums into a business that combines a small hotel and bar close to the beach with a distillery he pretty much built himself (officially it opened for business in late 2018). This newly constructed establishment, which produces one of those excellent white rhums which must be causing the French islands conniption fits, is his brainchildand it can take its place proudly in the league of small and new fast moving ops who are taking a pure rhum approach to distillation in Asia.

Vietnam’s common tipple of choice is rượu (ruou), a local artisanal spirit somewhat akin to arrack of Indonesia, made from fermented rice or molasses or cane juice and run through backroad, backwoods or back-alley alembics and home-made stills that puff and fart and produce some low grade (but very palatable) moonshine. Like in other rural regions of the world which have a long history of indigenous small-scale spirits manufactureAfrica, Haiti and Mexico come to mindthese are largely individual enterprises not regulated or even acknowledged by any authority.

Mr. Poircuitte, who came to rum via wine and not whisky (something like Florent of the Compagnie) put a bit more professionalism into his company, and production cycle is not too different from the Caribbean islands, all in all. The cane is all organic, pesticide free, grown in the area around Hội An, in the Qu lang Nam province, harvested by hand and then transported within 24 hours to the distillery, which is 40km away from the fields, for crushing. The resultant juice is fermented for 3 to 4 days, resulting in an initial wash of about 11% ABV, which is then run through their 11-plate single-column copper still that torques things up to around 70% ABV. Three varieties of this rhum are produced, at various strengths: 45% standard, 54% overproof and the 65% full proof.

What’s interesting here is that Sampan does not bottle it straight off the still, but lets it rest for something under one year in inert inox tanks, and this gives the resultant rumwhich is not filtered except for sedimentsa taste of serious fresh-off-the-still juice.

Consider first the nose of this blanc, which is stuffed into the bottle at a beefy 54% ABV. It’s musty, redolent of freshly turned sod and grass. I could say it smells dirty and not mean it in a bad way, and that is not all: it also smells briny, olive-y, balanced off with clear, fresh, 7-Up and lemon juice and sugar cane sap, plus a smorgasbord of light fruits like pears, ripe apples, and white guavas, a little vanilla and cookies. The strength doesn’t hurt it at all, it’s strong and firm without every being too sharp to enjoy as it is.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sink on the taste, but follows smoothly on from what had been discerned on the nose. Here, we didn’t just have a few olives, but what seemed like a whole grove of them. Again it tasted dirty, loamy, and also pungent, with initially clear notes of sweet sugar cane juice and sweet yellow corn, to which are added some lemon sherbet, vanilla and aromatic light fruits (pears, watermelon, strawberries) plus herbsdill and basil. Soft and lightly sweet, and there’s a background hint of anise as well, or licorice, really nice. Throughout the tasting it stays firm and assertive on the tongue, with a near silky mouthfeel leading to an exit that is pleasantly long lasting and with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, coconut water, and breakfast spices.

This is a really nice white rhumit married the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux and the balance between the various elements was very nicely handled. That pungent opening clearly makes the case that even with the resting period, it was an unaged rhum, something like the Sajous, the Paranubes, A1710, Toucan, Barbosa Grogue, HSE Parcellaire or others of that kindI liked it a lot, and if it didn’t win any medals, I firmly believe it should at least win a few wallets.

Many of the older Asian rhums which have sold gangbusters in their countries of origin for decades, catered to indigenous tastes, and cared little for western styles of rum. They were (and are) sometimes made in different ways, using different materials in the process, are sometimes spiced up and almost always light column-still blends issued at standard strength. We are seeing a gradual change here, as a wave of small distilleries are setting up shop in Asia and producing small quantities of some really interesting juice. This one from Vietnam is now on my radar, and I look forward to seeing not only what they come up with in the future, but what that Overproof 65% of theirs tastes likeand if it blows my hair back and my socks off, well, then I’ll consider it money well spentas I did with this one.

(#627)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The company is named after the slow moving boats similar to Chinese junks, which ply the Mekhong River and the coastal areas around South East Asia.
  • My intial review noted that it was aged for 8 months in ex-French-oak casks, based on my conversation and scribbled notes at the Paris rhumfest (not with Mr. Poircuitte but with his pretty assistant, in the maelstrom of the first day’s crowds) – I was later contacted directly to be advised this was a miscommunication, that the rum rested for 8 months in steel tanks, and so I have amended the post for the correction.
May 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oakso it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nosewell, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses. It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish. It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properlyat least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruitsprunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance. “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamonall the expected hits, I guess you could say. But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something. It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have, said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different techniqueit dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit. By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at allit is infused. Moreover, the processboth distillation and infusionmeans that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing. It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work? I’d say yes it doesI mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting. I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be. The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used.

May 202019
 

The word agricole is nowadays used indiscriminately to refer to any cane juice distillate, no matter where it is made, and by consumer and producers both. Discussions have recently popped up on FB arguing that appropriating the term under such circumstances was (and is) theft of reputation and quality, which the French Island rum makers had garnered for themselves over long decades (if not centuries) of quality rhum-making, and was therefore being ripped off by any producer not from those islands who used the term. And here comes a rum company from the Far East, Laodi, seeming to have found an admirable way of getting around that issue, by referring to their hooch as “Pure Sugar Cane Rhum,” which I think is just missing the word “juice” to be completely accurate.

Laodi, whose parent company is Lao Agro Organic Industries, was formed in 2006 by Ikuzo Inoue, a then-52 year-old Japanese engineer, who, with a local Lao partner, acquired a distillery located in the village of Naxone in Laos, just north of the Thailand borderit’s actually just a short drive away from the Issan Distillery (which is south of the border). The distillery previously made local spirits like lao-lao (based on fermented rice) but the new owner decided to switch to rum, utilizing sugar cane from one of two 10 hectare plots of land (one always remains fallow and they are rotated), and going determinedly with juice rather than molasses.

The cane is cut and transported to the factory where it is crushed (1 tonne cane = ~400 liters juice) and set to ferment in steel vats using dehydrated wine yeast, for between 3-4 days. The resultant wine is about 9% ABV and is then run through a vacuum distillation machineusing this apparatus reduces the boiling point of the liquid by lowering the pressure within the apparatus, supposedly leading to less degradation of the wine in a shorter timeframe; the separation of heads and tails and extraction of the heart remains the same as for traditional methods.

Initially the resultant spirit came out the other end at 47% and early versions of the Laodi / Vientiane rums were bottled at 42% – the white rum was rested for two years in stainless steel tanks and slowly reduced to that strengthclearly they’ve done some upgrading since then, as by the time one of them walked through my door and into my glass, they already were beefing it up. That rum (or rhum if you like), was the 56% Vientiane Agricole rhum I looked at two years ago, which seems to be discontinued now (or replaced by this onenote the strength which is the same, and the loss of the word “agricole”somebody is clearly paying attention).

How does this iteration smell? Very pungent and very powerfulit’s unclear whether their vacuum distillation method is bolted on to a pot or column still, but for my money, based on the profile, it’s column (query to the company is pending). It smells simply massivesalty, dusty and lemon-grassy all at once, quite herbal and earthy, of musty loam, rain on hot clay bricks. This was just the opening salvo, and it was followed swiftly by other notes of acetones, polish, cinnamon, anise, sugar water, cucumber and some watermelons, papayas and white guavas. I thought I sensed some vanilla in there somewhere, but could have been wrongoverall, for that strength, it behaved remarkably well.

The taste was excellent too: it glided across the tongue with controlled force and without trying to scrape it raw. It tasted initially dry and pungent, of glue and furniture polish, linseed oil (the sort I used to oil my cricket bat with, back in the days when I dared to lift one), and also of brine and olives and coconut water, cider and vinegar, cucumbers in a mild pimento sauce, and behind it, the citrus zest. And on top of all that, there was a peculiar creaminess to the experience, like a snow cone with syrup and condensed milk drizzled over the shaved ice. This all led up to a very pleasant finish, crisp and citrus-like, redolent of more brine, cider, guavas, mangoes, nicely spicy, nicely tasty and an all round excellent close, which stuck around as long as regular guests at a Caner Afterparty.

Dredging back through my memories of the original Laodi Vientiane and what I thought of it back then, I think that even though the strength was the same, this was and is a different rhum, an evolution in the quest to raise the bar, up the game. It controls its strength well, yet loses none of the force of its ABV, and isn’t trying to be bitchy or sharp or uncomfortable. We may not call it an agricole, yet its antecedents are clearit’s a cane juice rhum, strong, well made, properly delicious, with just enough edge to keep you hopping. And made in a part of the world we should seriously start to look at, in the constant search for quality artisanal rums that fly under our western radar..

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Laodi comes from the two words“Lao” for the country and “Di” meaning “good”
  • The company also makes a lightly-aged brown-coloured rum (with an interesting variation on the ageing process), as well as a set of “married” rums which are infused or spiced and released at lower proof.
  • Rumporter magazine has an excellent 2017 article by Damien Sagnier on the company and its production techniques, which I drew on for the more technical aspectsthe assumption is that these have not changed since then, of course.
  • The label is a masterpiece of minimalism, but the counterpoint to that is that it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of informationmost of what I’m telling you comes from brochures, webpages and a meandering conversation at the booth at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest where I filched a hefty sample.
Jan 112017
 

A white rhum from Laos, which comes out punching at 56%

#334

The rums we see and drink share a certain geographic commonality. On the shelves are rums from the various Caribbean islands, those old British, Spanish and French (and Dutch, and yes, Danish) colonial possessions. Next to them are South and Central Americans tipples which are the inheritors of the Spanish traditions brought over centuries agono shortage of their products either. Then there are those from micro-ops from Canada and the USA, few of which make any sort of big splash but which gain an audience from the communications infrastructure of those developed nations. And of course there are independent bottlers in Europe who take 90% or more of their stock from the Caribbean and further south. We hear about these all the time. But it’s possible that the future undiscovered variations of the rum world lie not west of Greenwich, or close bybut east.

Bar the odd exception like the Fijians, Old Monk, Bundaberg and Nine Leaves (or CDI’s Indonesians), how often do we hear about other rums from Australia, from India, from Africa, from the Far East? I’m not saying they make ninety-point masterpieces of rum which would make a pilgrimmage necessary, but if we consider ourselves Evangelists of the Cane, perhaps some attention should be paid to the outliers as much as the more familiar and popular mastodons of our world.

The problem lies in getting one’s paws on any. The rum makers of the east (or south) usually lack good distribution networks or agents to bring their products to the western markets, which is why Cabo Verde off Senegal makes grogues like the clairins but nobody ever heard of them, or why Ogasawara and Ryomi are relatively unknown outside Japan. In other situations, the domestic market is large enough to swallow all the output, so again, unless you’re there it’s not likely you’ll hear much about, for example, Ord River, Substation No. 41 or Beenleigh’s 5 year old, all of which are made in Oz. Old Monk and Amrut are ginormous sellers in India but not always that easy to find one in your local hoochery, and then there are the Asian nations which make ersatz rum their own way, like Tanduay, Chalong Bay, Mekhongor this Laotian one, which we’ll poke our snoots into today.

Information on the rhum is as maddeningly hard to find as the product itself. What little I’ve been able to cobble together from mon ami L’homme à la Pousette (the source of the sample, big thanks to the man) and some diligent googling, is that it derives from Vientiane, Laos, and is an organically made agricole bottled at a hefty 56%. The company that makes itLao-Agro Organic and Distillery Inchas a brand called Laodi which is primarily liqueurs, and they also produce a lower proofed white variation of this rhum, and a slightly aged one. I gather that it is mostly for local consumption, not export (which may be why few of us ever heard of it before). But in terms of the production methods, source of cane, filtration etc, there’s not much to go on, sorry. We have to take it on its merits alone.

All that aside, this was quite some rhumit reminded me of the clairins, the Rum Nation Pot Still Jamaican, the DDL High Wine (sadly discontinued), oomphed-up French Island unaged blancs, or, for that matter, even some of those new whites Velier put out last year. The elements of a raw pot still style 1 was right there up front when one sniffed itsalty, vinegary notes, crisp cool cucumbers, rubber and acetone and nail polish and freshly varnished furniture. Yeah, it was sharp, and quite stabbing, and there was an odd developing odour of commingled fish sauce, citrus juice, and coconut water nosing around the back endfortunately, that was controlled and not excessive, and the whole aroma was underlain by that herbal swank and sugar water that so characterizes agricoles. In that sense it was both similar to and different from, “regular” agricoles with which most of us are more familiar.

Palate wise, the agricole origin was much more evident. Tons of sweet sugar water and juicy pears, white guavas, grass, lemon juice and alsosomewhat to its detriment, because these did not enhance the balance or integrate properlysome wax, brine and red olives. To the end, it remained harsh and sharp, quite raw, nowhere near as cultured as, say, the Nine Leaves Clear or even the Appleton (Wray) overproof, which was stronger. Still, say what you willit was unique, with an enormously long, hot finish, redolent of wax paper and olive oil, more brine, more herbals and grass, and yes, more swank.

On balance this is a cocktail maker’s dream, I think, and would make a mix that would blow your hair off, but as a sipper it fails, which is no real surprisemuch as I like agricoles, white rums and unaged rhums for their sheer machismo and balls-to-the-wall aggro, this one isn’t up in my wheelhouse. That’s because the way the flavours intermingle isn’t quite right, and the sandpaper rawness of the experience is off-putting. However, I have to concede that I’m somewhat partial to rhums that swing wildly for the boundary, go for a six instead of a safe one, and miss with grandeur, rather than never bothering to come up to the batting crease at all. Is this Laotian rhum a success? No, not really (or not yet) – but it’s never somnolent, never moribundnever boring. It runs smack into the wall at full speed, and fails with authority, know what I mean? And that, to me, is something that matters.

(75/100)


Other Notes

  • Two years after this review was posted, Lao-Agro displayed the Laodi series of rums in Paris, and those were damned fine. The review of the white has details on the production process not available at the time I wrote this one.