Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rhum Agricole Review: Saint James Hors d'Âge

This is the second in my set of reviews looking at rhums from the Saint James distillery on Martinique.

Saint James is the oldest distillery on the island in continuous operation. While rhum production goes back even further, the brand came out of a decision by Louis XV in 1763 to allow rhum from the island to be exported. The Saint James brand was established in 1765 near the town of Saint Pierre, with the name designed to appeal to English-speaking colonists in New England. Saint James is also distinguished by having put out the first vintage rhum on the island in 1885, which has continued ever since. Disaster struck in 1902 when Mount Pelée erupted, destroying Saint Pierre and most of the distillery's building. However, the main house largely survived. The distillery was consolidated on the other side of the island in the town of Saint Marie in 1974, where production has been located ever since.

 The sugar cane harvest for Saint James begins in February and extends into summer. The cut cane is transported to the distillery as quickly as possible, where it is pressed in mills to extract the juice. The juice, or 'vessou', ferments naturally due to the yeast present in the cane. Fermentation is kept between 25-30º C and is fairly quick, taking only a day or two. The mash is at 4-5% alcohol when it is added to the column stills, which give a raw spirit of 65-74% alcohol. The fresh rhum is then either rested in steel vats for a few months to produce blanc rhum or aged in oak barrels to produce everything from their paille rhum to rhum vieux. Saint James has a fairly high angels share of 8% a year, which goes a long way towards explaining their prices.

Saint James Hors d'Âge

Nose: bittersweet oak, subdued berries and wine, balsamic vinegar or raspberries, mesquite honey, a hint of woodsmoke, creamy beeswax, salted caramels, dry cane, becoming more floral/berry-oriented with time. After adding a few drops of water, the oak and wine flavors become more integrated, the berry notes seem fresher, and some brown sugar bacon notes emerge.

Taste: oak throughout, cane and wood sugar up front with wine and berries, caramel/burned sugar mid-palate along with light orange peel and vanilla, a big blast of pepper, which becomes creamier with brandy near the back. After dilution, the flavors are thinner but creamier, with the pepper becoming more assertive and the addition of some mocha near the back.

Finish: brandy, cane, bitter oak, floral, wood smoke

The Hors d'Âge expression is one of the older rhums that Saint James puts out. The rhum is aged for six to ten years in 180-liter casks, then bottled at 43% alcohol. Unsurprisingly, this means that the wood influence is much more obvious in this rhum compared to the Royal Ambré. While this does round off some of the rougher edges found in Royal Ambré, the wood can seem rather heavy on the nose at first, taking some time in the glass to find a proper balance. I feel like this rhum occupies a middle ground between the berry emphasis of Neisson Réserve Spéciale and the woodier bacon notes of La Favorite Vieux. I was slightly disappointed by how much it lost on the nose with even a few drops of water, but the palate was more robust.

Sadly this rhum is getting harder to find. I've heard rumors that Saint James was pulling out of U.S. distribution, but it can still be found with a bit of work (Hi-Time Wine has the full spread available in the U.S.). MSRP is around $50, which is a rather reasonable price for the quality of this spirit. This offers just as much complexity and depth as similarly priced single malts, so I would recommend Hors d'Âge without reservation.

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