Updated: Sep 22, 2022
My last article covered the great Velier small bottle initiative. That time it was about Caroni expressions. The next release in the series is a 10 bottle collection of Saint James rhums. TEN! Ages ranging from 1998 to 2015. If that doesn’t make your heart beat faster then it might be time to look for a different hobby. :)
The history of Saint James starts in Martinique in 1765 at Habitation Trou Vaillant, where rum was produced and exported to North America under the Saint James name. The story behind the name is that “Trou Vaillant” was difficult to pronounce in English. Since they were exporting to the English colonies in North America, they felt a name change was necessary. Another Habitation close to Trou Vaillant was called “Saint Jacques”. Jacques translates as James in English…..so the name Saint James was born.
In 1882 a gentleman called Paulin Lambert purchased Trou Vaillant and registered the Saint James brand. He also picked the famous square bottle that is still being used today. He apparently chose this as they were more efficient to ship and had less breakage. How practical, the man could have been Dutch!
In 1902, Mount Pelée erupted and destroyed the town of Saint Pierre. 30000 people sadly died. Surprisingly, the Saint James distillery was not damaged very much and resumed production shortly after.
In 1973 the company was bought by Cointreau, who sold it to La Martiniquaise in 2003. This is the 2nd largest French spirits group after Pernod Ricard. Before that, in 1996, the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) was established. This links the rum to its geographical origin in Martinique. It’s a protective measure. It contains a lot of details in regards to the equipment that has to be used, production methods etc. It’s similar to the GI initiative in Barbados, but more restrictive. Click here for a good website with loads of info on rhum agricole (although it's slightly dated).
Going back to current time, 2022, Luca Gargano, owner of Velier, said the following on the Velier website:” Then, in 2021 two coincidences came together in my head: on the one hand, I came up with the idea of paying homage to Jean-Claude Benoit's career and philosophy, and on the other hand, I realized that 2021 marked the 25th anniversary of the AOC. And so I threw the idea out there – an edition of the ten most representative vintages from the 25-year history of the AOC, selected by Jean-Claude Benoit (General Manager) and Marc Sassier (Production Manager and President of the rhum agricole AOC Martinique) and presented as a co-bottling with a package that we would design together, just as I had with all other distillers.”
In Canada, where I’m located, rhum agricole seems to not exist. Saint James Amber is quite common and sadly not very good. That's about it, apart from some irregular listings here and there. The main reason for the lack of availability is the government’s rule in regards to ethyl carbamate levels. EC is a compound found in fermented food and spirits. It's known to cause cancer in mice. Unfortunately, or fortunately, no studies have been done on humans, so it isn't clear what the implications for humans are when consuming large quantities of this compound. In Canada, EC levels have to be very low, otherwise the government deems it unhealthy for Canadian consumption. This is of course somewhat bizarre, as rhum agricole is consumed all over the world. Is the Canadian weather making its people more sensitive to ethyl carbamate perhaps? Is the government being overly careful? Hard to judge when there are no facts related to humans and EC. Click here for a detailed article about ethyl carbamate.
It gets even more silly when you see the government has set different acceptable levels of ethyl carbamate in various alcohol categories. In rum/rhum the limit is much lower than some others. I don’t know why the government decided this, it’s a very old rule. Maybe a protectionism goal of some sorts? Rhum agricole tends to have a higher level of ethyl carbamate than molasses rums. Hence why almost none make it through laboratory tests and onto Canadian liquor store shelves. Molasses rums can stumble into the same issue, but typically only when they have been aged very long and are high abv. We are living in medieval times when it comes to alcohol in Canada, especially in the government controlled states like Ontario (LCBO).
Lucky for me, family is visiting from Holland and brought me some rum from my stash there. I couldn’t ask for all 10 Saint James bottles, as the Canadian border agents would have had a field day. So I decided to take the oldest (1998, 20 years, 47%), the youngest (2015, 6 years, 47%) and one in between (2006, 15 years, 47%). I figured that would give me a decent impression of what to expect from the rest of the series, whenever I get to taste it.
I tasted them semi blind, I know which rums but not in what order.
Mineral stones, cinnamon, oak, cigar box, raspberry, light menthol, mint, vanilla, light red wine. Wonderful delicate nose with sufficient complexity. Fantastic.
Licorice, very fruity, sweet red fruits, very oaky, moss, sand, flowery, crayon. It’s more intense than 1 and the most fruity of the 3.
Light paint, pepper, raspberry, menthol, light crayon/wax, oak, light cardboard. Not as fruity as the other two.
I prefer rum 1 on the nose, but all three are close in enjoyment levels.
Quite grassy, more wood spice than I was expecting. It’s a bit dominating and results in some bitterness. At this point I’m thinking it’s the 1998. Cinnamon, mint is strong, nutmeg. Finish is a good length with lots of wood, mint, grass and light caramel. The overwhelming wood makes sure it’s not as good as the nose suggested. Damn.
Grassy, good spicy, pepper, nutmeg, nice amount of oak, licorice. The oak is still pretty strong but not as dominating as with rum 1. Lots of menthol on the mid palate. Solid peppery and oaky finish. The flavours stick around for a long time. Nice one.
Blast of cinnamon. Nice oak and vanilla, tobacco, cigar box, wonderful wood spice, menthol, very light paint. Flowery and grassy notes come through after a while. Finish seems endless an keeps providing flavours. As good as no bitterness. This is a real winner. It contains a lot of “freshness” compared to the other two, if you know what I mean. Makes me think this is 2015.
Rum 1: Velier Saint James 1998
Rum 2: Velier Saint James 2006
Rum 3: Velier Saint James 2015
For once I guessed all three correctly. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve slightly embarrassed myself by guessing them all wrong.
All three rums have been distilled using a Creole column still. The column still has a bit of a bad reputation for producing flavourless light rums. This reputation is well deserved in certain parts of the world, but certainly not in the realm of agricole rhum. So many flavours to enjoy in these expressions. The source material and fermentation have a lot to do with this, but you can't generalize column stills in stating they always make uninspiring rum.
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a rampage when it comes to very old rums and some of their overwhelming wood flavours. The Saint James 1998 fits well into that category. The nose is great, but the palate is dominated by wood, which is a real shame, albeit not surprising.
The 2015 on the other hand is fantastic! So fresh, expressive and powerful, even at the somewhat low 47% abv. I’d buy a full size bottle of it. I love the fresh cane flavours and aromas that agricole rhum can deliver. Oak ageing can sometimes push these to the background too much for me. I have similar feelings in regards to aged Clairin. Ageing, and certainly long ageing, isn't guaranteed to improve the flavour profile of a rum. It might be why I prefer this most youthful one of the three.
The 2006 falls somewhat in the middle of both. It’s a great rhum with a good level of complexity and intensity. Again, slightly too much oak for me, although not nearly as much as 1998. I'd be very happy drinking this an entire evening, but if I could choose, I'd rather have the wonderful 2015.
Velier Saint James 1998 – 71
Velier Saint James 2006 – 84
Velier Saint James 2015 – 90
Click here for info on the scoring method.
Click here for the complete list of reviews & scores