Saint-Barthélemy, or St Barths as it is more commonly known in English is around 22 miles southeast of St Martin and north of St Kitts. For many years St Barths was a French commune forming a part of Guadeloupe. In 2003 St Barths voted in favour of secession from Guadeloupe so as to form a separate overseas collectivity of France. This makes it one of the four territories amongst the Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean that comprise the French West Indies. The other three are Saint Martin, Martinique and Guadeloupe.
With St Barths not really being really suitable for the growth of sugarcane, accompanied by the fact that there are no distilleries on the Island, Rhum St Barth turns to Guadeloupe for assistance in the realisation of its St Barths inspired dream. On Guadeloupe the sugarcane season runs from February to July with the cane being at its richest and finest between the months of March and April….this is when the cane is harvested as it is at its most mature just before flowering. This procedure is mostly a manual one and once cut the cane is transported in preparation for the first part of the process….crushing. This crushing is the vital first stage in the process as it breaks open the cane fibres to aid juice extraction. The second stage is pressing. This releases the juice or ‘vesou’ which is then filtered before being placed into open fermentation vats.
Fermentation is an open air process and it begins within 60 minutes of the cane being pressed. The open air environment encourages the natural yeasts already present to begin the conversion of the sugars into alcohol. The fermentation period last for around 24-48 hours dependent upon the temperature. Following fermentation the wine which is around 4 to 6% abv is column distilled. Around 10 litres of wine are required to produce 1 litre of rhum. The Rhum is taken off the still at an abv of between 60 to 70%.
Rhum St Barth Cool – 50% abv
This Rhum is immediately transferred into stainless steel vats post distillation. Its abv is gradually reduced to 50% with the addition of water over a 12 month period. Around 23,000 bottles of this Rhum are produced per year.
In the glass: The first thing that grabs you are the oily citrus peel aromas that leap out of the glass. There is also a creamy, vegetal aroma. Fresh sugarcane is also present and the one thing that astonishes is the lack of any real sting from the alcohol. It’s all very calm. Maybe that’s the resting time, I’m not sure. There is no doubt that it is a bit of a heavy hitter in the punchy aroma department but it also displays pleasant floral notes, a little olive brine and right at the end, a little plasticine aroma. Pungent is a word that I’d definitely use. So far so good.
In the mouth: Right away there is a little peppery bite though I had braced myself for a smack in the face that never materialised. There is the slightest touch of sweetness coming from the citrus peel hints and the mouthfeel is very creamy. Next to show up to the party in my mouth is the olive brine along with a strange flavour, one that I sat and contemplated for a while and one that may sound silly….but on our recent trip to Paris we brought back some white asparagus…..I’m getting hints of that in this Rhum! The finish on this one is very fresh and green, is on the shortish side but is resplendent with notes of liquorice and celery.
Clearly a ‘Ti Punch (or several) was (were) made…in fact on the morning of compiling this article I enjoyed a slightly belated ‘take off’. The lack of real sweetness in the Rhum allows it to take a little more sugar but the citrus peel really encourages the best from the added lime. I always (though it may be frowned upon) drop an ice-cube into the drink to help chill and dilute if the abv is 50% or above. It makes a splendid drink. I’ve also tried it in a daiquiri and its punch works well. Orange bitters also add a another dimension to a Cool Daiquiri.
Rhum St Barth Chic – 40% abv
Following on from the same process as the Cool, this Rhum is aged for a period of four years in small (200-600 litre) re-charred ex-bourbon barrels prior to reduction to its bottling strength of 40% abv. The production of this Rhum is limited to 5000 bottles per year.
In the glass: The Rhum is a beautiful dark copper and its sugarcane aroma is immediately detectable but it dulled somewhat by vanilla. There is also a little astringency up front on the nose that is a little sherry or wine like. Oak is apparent and it represents a calmer proposition than its unaged relative. Whilst I think that there is less going on in the glass as far as aromas are concerned there is a little cocoa powder and also strangely something that resembles Cola Cube sweets. It bodes well for tasting.
In the mouth: There is no real sweetness to speak of on entry but it displays that warming agricole character, albeit wrapped up in oak and vanilla. There is a cheek tingling fruit reminiscent of plums and raisins, so much so that it feels like I wouldn’t be surprised if it had received a different cask finish at some point. It gradually turns into something very bourbon like with cherry and vanilla beginning to come to the fore as you take further sips. The finish is of a medium length and is full of cherry like bourbon notes, drying oak and liquorice torpedo sweets. Impressive stuff.
I have to say that besides an Old Fashioned, my preference for this expression is neat. I dares bet that in the right hands, this would be a killer addition to a cocktail.
It is clear that presentation plays a big part in Rhum St Barths existence. The cork (synthetic in the Cool) is wax dipped and a wax seal is applied to the front of the bottle displaying the logo and the word Gustavia which is the capital of St Barths. Talking of the bottle, the Cool is presented in a short and beautiful frosted glass number with metallic gold wax dipped cork and seal. The Chic is presented in the same bottle but in this instance the glass is clear and the wax dipped cork and seal are burgundy…very classy. Pricing in the past has maybe been problematic as it did exist a long way out of my price bracket for unaged and four-year old products. I was fortunate enough that a mistake on an online site enabled me to pick up my first bottle of Chic for £37 which was a steal. Currently the price sits at around £47 for the Cool and £66 for the Chic due to their limited quantity runs which is still quite a hefty outlay though I have seen both expressions cheaper in the past. Personally I feel that the Cool represents the more interesting expression of the two tried thus far and its character really shines through. It is a hell of a price tag for an unaged product and an agricole hater will not find anything here to change their minds but it is a really well balance expression that is perfectly happy neat and mixed and really does seem to carry with it the essence of its origins. I don’t know of your individual financial situations and only you will be able to know whether a bottle of one or of each sits well with your perception of value.
I wanted to leave this element to the end as I feel that the product shouldn’t be judged on this aspect as it is more than capable of standing up on its own, and there will be a lot of people who wouldn’t have made it this far if I’d led with this. Rhum St Barth is a luxury brand aiming at a luxury side of the market and its founder is the ex-footballer Mikael Silvestre. He wanted to release a product that reflects the richness, diversity and opulence of the French Caribbean. A product that reminds him of childhood memories of Caribbean holidays. Following his retirement he spent a decade on St Barths with his family and he feels that the Rhum St Barth range is a perfect representation of both of these differing periods of his life. I genuinely feel that his intentions are good and that he has a quality product with excellent presentation…..the Rhum drinker in me loves the product and presentation…..I only wish that the pricing could make it more accessible……but then is that not the point of luxury?
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