Updated: Feb 3
Mhoba rum is made in South Africa. They own their own sugar estate, build their own pot still and cane press, use a long fermentation of sugar cane juice and do everything in house. That sounds pretty intriguing! I had never heard of Mhoba until I went to UK Rumfest in 2018. The first day I was in London I got invited to a rum tasting that was organized by the good guys from RumCask. Mhoba was present and impressive.
They had a beautiful display with all their different rums on it. Staff was super nice and they let me try all their expressions. I started with a couple of white rums, including the red label with an abv in the high 70’s. I couldn’t believe the combination of earthy, grassy notes with a boatload of funk. It’s like a gentleman from Martinique meeting a gorgeous Jamaican lady who then decide to have a baby together!
The last rum I tasted was the “French Cask”. Bingo! Beautiful combo of funk and wood. I spoke to its creator, Mhoba owner and distiller Robert Greaves, right after. I mentioned liking the white rums very much but that I loved the “French Cask”. His response: ”The French Cask is my baby”. Lucky me, I didn’t insult his baby!
We’ve stayed in touch since and Robert was kind enough to provide more info on how he started making rum and how the French Cask was developed.
Where did the rum journey start for you?
I started distilling spirits from sugarcane on a minute scale about 5 years ago. I built my first still from an old stainless steel vessel which I think was once a milk urn. I initially juiced the cane from our farm in a large workbench vice which I cleaned thoroughly and painstakingly juiced each stick of cane piece by piece. It took several hours to make a 20 liter batch of juice which I fermented in a bucket. I started making revolting distillates in my first small stills but I luckily persisted and in the next year or so I kept trying and built several revisions of stills and a cane press to get the juice out of the sugarcane.
My initial distillation batches were only a liter or two per batch and from information online I started experimenting with alternative ageing as the casks I could source (ex Cape wine industry) were all a minimum of 200 l and this volume of rum was just too much for me to make in a reasonable time. I purchased a few old Cape wine barrels (French Oak) which I could not get to seal with water so I decided to strip them and use the staves from the barrels to make wood chips and smaller strips of wood which I toasted and used to “age” my distillates in glass jars, several liters at a time. I was then able to source American oak timber which I also used to make wood chips and small staves, which we toasted and also used in jars. I soon got to the point where the distillates were much more palatable and this combined with several months in glass with some toasted oak started making a dark rum my friends and I liked to drink with coke.
Things kept progressing and I found the stave aged rums (with less oak and more time) were giving superior results to the wood chip ageing and we started cutting bigger staves and ageing in bigger glass vessels (carboys or demijohns).
Once I had built my 200 liter stills I decided to have another look at traditional cask ageing as I felt I now had the distillation capacity to try this again. I again sourced a few used Cape wine barrels and managed to seal one of them before filling it with about a month’s worth of distillation batches. This did not go well! The rum I was distilling at this stage was very light, high ABV spirit (this was what I was striving for in my initial year or so, as at that stage what I believed was “good” rum was smooth and light in flavour). This light rum which was pot distilled multiple times was almost vodka like and had very little character of its own and was totally overwhelmed by the tannins and vinegar type flavours from the old red wine, which remained in the staves of the barrel. After a few weeks of resting in the ex-wine barrel, my precious “super smooth” multiple distilled rum was ruined!
I was disgusted and decided I HATED barrels! I became a stave ageing fundamentalist and decided I was going to show the world that stave-ageing could produce a spirit just as good as anything aged in a cask.
Luckily I did manage to make stave aged rums that continued to improve and impressed enough people to keep me motivated to keep making rum and build bigger stills.
When did you change your mind and go back to cask ageing?
Once I had built and commissioned my current 500L twin stripping stills I was producing more rum than I could sell and my temper tantrum with the barrel had subsided enough for me to decide in mid 2017 to give casks a try again. I purchased 8 ex Cape red wine casks (2 x 200 L barrels and 6 x 300 L Hogsheads, all French oak).
The memory of my super refined light rum being turned to a sulphurous, tannic, vinegar flavoured disaster on my last attempt made me decide to completely disassemble all the casks and remove as much of the wine impregnated interior of each individual stave as possible.
I personally stripped each cask one at a time and I ground between 6 and 10 mm away from the inside surface of each stave which removed most of the red stained oak from the interior of the casks. There were small areas where I felt I could not remove enough material to remove the red stains without compromising the integrity of the stave and I was left with the odd red blemish on otherwise virgin looking staves. I then partially reassembled the cask leaving only one head out of the cask before re-toasting or re-charring them either with an LPG torch or with red hot coals from burning local South African hardwood. Once the cask was re-toasted or charred, the head which had been left off was also toasted or charred and then re installed to complete the cask. The complete cask was then soaked with water inside and out for 1 to 3 days before it sealed and held water without leaking. Once the cask was sealed it was filled with rum.
What was your next step?
By mid 2017, my palate had luckily evolved somewhat and I was taking broader cuts making heavier more interesting distillates and I began experimenting with blends of single and double pot distillates. I distinctly remember reading an article with Richard Seale in which he mentioned that in general he liked Single Blended Rums. Not having a column still, I had the idea of making heavy single pot distillates and then blending them with lighter rums which were pot distilled twice to higher ABV’s as a type of entirely pot stilled approximation of a blend of pot and column distillates.
Having read a fair amount about the ageing process in casks (which I hated) I decided I would need to age these cask aged rums longer than the stave aged rums and I’d put heavier rums in the casks I had refurbished, which meant a greater proportion of single distillates and a lower proportion of double distillates.
How did this develop into creating the French Cask?
Each of the eight original French Cask casks were refurbished by me and I would dismantle, grind, reassemble, toast and seal each cask before filling that cask myself over a period of a day or two. I would half fill the cask with single distillate and then taste the blend in the cask and decide what to add next.
While filling each cask, I fill approximately half the cask with an even spread (even amount of bottles 1, 2, 3 and 4) of good single distillate rum. Once I have approximately half filled the cask with what I feel is a good balanced single distillate, I start to add some second distillate spirits from various bottles and of course some water to get to an ABV between 65 and 70%.
I keep adding various bottles of first distillate and second distillate before re-tasting and repeating until it’s full and I’m happy with the taste and aroma before sealing the barrel.
Now that I’m writing it down I realize that the filling of each barrel of the first 8 French Casks was a very personal experience and until now, something I have never tried to explain to someone else and was just something I did by gut feel. I very much just followed what my palate told me to do on the day of filling each cask.
The original 8 French Casks are almost two years old now and each of the 8 are quite different. The French Cask Rum which was released at the UK RumFest 2018 was an equal blend of the 6 best casks at just over one year old. 330 bottles of the same blend, but aged about 6 months longer than the London blend, were released to La Maison du Whisky in April this year.
The first batch of French Cask rum was pretty special as it was my first serious attempt at conventional cask ageing my rum and it was a breakthrough for me in terms of overcoming my distrust of casks!
I’m very glad it went so well as I am now in love with casks and all the exciting possibilities and results they offer in terms of making other aged rums.
How about future cask aged releases?
Two of the 8 casks which were not included in the initial blend have not yet been released in any form. These two casks were significantly lighter in colour and are also considerably heavier rums which are rougher on the palate and a lot more funky on the nose which is why they have been left to mature further.
We have continued with the method used to age the French Cask Rum and we have also imported and filled an initial 20 Bourbon Casks from the US and these are now 4 to 6 months old. I am very excited to see what response we get from of our first Bourbon Cask release, whenever that may be.
Just after filling the original 8 French Casks, I attended my first UK RumFest (2017) and was lucky enough to meet, among others, Richard Seale who tasted all my rums and very kindly gave me some suggestions in terms of getting greater depth of flavour in my white rums.
On returning to my distillery from RumFest 2017, I immediately made some slight changes to my stills and recycling of my tails from previous batches and I feel we are making even better rum than what was used to fill the first 8 French Casks.
Distillery: Mhoba, Malalane, South Africa
Age: 1 year
Source material: Sugar cane juice
The first things I recognize are Jamaican funk, wood and grass. Next up are some sweeter elements like raisins, pineapple, red apple, toffee, and one of my favourites…..wet cardboard. It’s a sweet, funky and woody nose. Quite unique in its kind.
Luckily there is the return of wood and cardboard. Funky fruit mixed with chocolate, vanilla, coffee and mint. It’s mildly grassy and earthy. You have to like a woody spirit as the oak is quite dominant.
To me, drinking this rum is a bit of a unique experience, which is to be expected somewhat after reading the story on how this was created. Long fermentation, cane juice and pot stills is quite the odd combination. I think it works well. It’s slightly heavy on the oak, but I don’t mind that. I enjoy drinking this very much.
It’s not easy to create something that has this level of uniqueness, without using any cheap marketing tricks. They are very transparent about what they do and seem to have an incredible passion to continuously improve their product. They deserve respect. I hope their sales will go through the roof so that their products will start being available all over the globe.
By the way, their white rums are delicious funk bombs. I enjoyed sampling them neat, but I can’t wait to get my hands on a bottle so I can use it to make a daiquiri. That’s got to be good.
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