Updated: Oct 1, 2021
I'm a huge fan of unaged cane juice rum, but my early forays into aged French style/cane juice rum were not great - the flavour profiles just didn't work for me. Cane juice rums, generally referred to as 'rhum agricole', are made from fresh pressed cane juice that must be using within days of extracting, rather than the more common English style rums made from Molasses (a by-product of refined sugar production).
The beautiful fresh grassy pungent flavours of the unaged variety were lost and developed a whisky edge that was unappealing to me after a period in oak barrels. I had all but given up on this whole category when a friend gave me a sample of 'Rhum Rhum Intergale' from Bielle distillery in Marie-Galante. This aged agricole rum is absolutely beautiful. My eyes were well and truly opened and I disappeared into the rabbit hole trying to find more like it. Since then I've found a small number of aged cane juice rums that work for me, and when they are good - oh boy, they are amazing!
Today, I'm paying a virtual visit to an incredible microdistillery on the outskirts of the small town of Malalane in the heart of the cane-growing area in the Crocodile River Valley of Mpumalanga, South Africa. What immediately sets Mhoba distillery apart is the fact that they grow their ( local Nkomazi) sugarcane on the farm surrounding them. They are one of only a small handful of distilleries around the world offering estate aged rums with a true cane to glass experience.
Traditional hand cut cane - photo from Mhoba.com
Robert Graves has only been making rum at Mhoba for 5 or 6 years, on tiny home built stills, using truly artisan skills and ingredients. In that short time he has quickly gained the respect of the rum industry and and has firmly put both Mhoba and South Africa on the rum map.
Today I will be reviewing five aged Mhoba rums. Four estate bottlings and a recent barrel pick released by Habitation Velier - also aged at the distillery. These are all from samples that I have acquired over the last year - a great approach to trying a range of rums without making significant investment in multiple full bottles.
Mhoba Bushfire 55% £50
An experimental rum made by aging with heavily charred stickbush staves for 12 months to give a smoky 'brae' flavour. I'll be honest and say, from the 'smoked barbeque' description, I'm not sure whether I'm excited or slightly nervous!
Nose - Wow, I like it. There's smoke and bbq, but not overpowering. Initial nose is really interesting and balanced, The meaty bbq is complemented with some gluey esters and floor wax. Surprising, but in a positive way. After 15 mins the smoked bbq is beginning to dominate. The glue & bonfire now overpower everything else.
Taste - Smoke & bbq. Then ripe lush fruit. Then back to the smoke. Smoked meat & chorizo, And burnt wood. A good mouth feel. And a bit spicy. They certainly achieved what they set out to do. It does taste like drinking a brae. If anything the fruit layer saves it.
A rum I was very glad to try, I've definitely never tasted anything like it. Really interesting and innovative, I actually enjoyed my 15ml dram but the smoke is too much for me to want much more. 72pts
Mhoba Strand 101 58% £60
An unusual blend of unaged, very funky high ester rum and dark heavily oaked rum.
Named after rum legend Knud Strand who suggested the idea of this blend to Robert.
Nose: Ripe. Seriously this one is super ripe - over ripe. It's got a super fresh zesty nose. Some rotting meat too. A little oak & roasted coconut, lots of estery pineapple. Fresh and funky. After 15 mins it's lost some complexity and the acetone is beginning to dominate, with a little smoke.
Taste: A bit thin. There's a few gaps in the taste that let it down. Overall it's very enjoyable - weirdly much less punchy in the mouth than the nose suggests. The strong funky freshness is there and tamed. Overripe pineapple. Varnish. A long, pleasant finish. Good, but not great. 82pts
Mhoba Glass Cask 60% £80
Glass Cask rum is aged for more than 2 years in large glass demijohns with virgin American white oak staves which are cut and charred on wood fire coals at the distillery. Only a few hundred bottles made.
Nose: Classy. clean with a heft of balanced esters. Some lovely pear drops and a side order of lychee. Leather - like a freshly upholstered car interior. And wood varnish.
After 15 mins it's even better. Liquorice, pineapple and sawdust, Very good
Taste: This is excellent. Big oily mouth feel. Rich, treacly layers of tropical fruit. Tonnes of big funky esters, but balanced and complex. A slight sharpness associated with it's youth. A young, fresh and exciting rum - well made and with a decent oaked backbone.
The taste ends with a long fruity grassy estery finish. As others have said - a lovechild of big Jamaican funk and Martinique freshness. Very good 88pts
Habitation Velier 2017 - 4yr, 64.6% £75
Aged for 4 years in ex-bourbon casks at the distillery.
Robert's bespoke still produces a particularly heavy style of rum with high ester content.
A very limited release. I'm hoping some bottles will pop up for sale in the uk...
Nose: Wowzer, This is the winning nose for me. Superbly balanced esters & oak. Reminiscent of a Worthy Park or maybe a good Fijian rum. Glue. Nail varnish. Beautiful tropical fruit salad and the whole inside of an old fashioned sweet shop. Amazing.
After 15 mins I'm still getting candy shop but there's now a huge splash of cream soda.
Taste: Glass cask and more. This is a very tasty drop, It's clearly young, but it's big, exciting and complete. A huge dose of tropical fruit sweets kept in focus with the acidic funky esters and rounded vanilla from the bourbon barrels. Long finish. Lovely rich mouth feel. No let down after that amazing nose. I want a bottle of this. As has been said before, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a Hampden, but the grassy fresh edge is a giveaway - the result is a super interesting and delicious rum 89pts
Mhoba French cask 65% £80
Only aged for a year - in re-charred ex red wine casks.
Nose: A massive rums at 65%, Yet the nose is surprisingly delicate and refined. Smells of summer fruits, cane juice and honey.
After 15 mins in the glass, it's come more alive. The cane juice and oak are very inviting. Time for a taste...
Taste: This is beautiful. The cask has had a huge influence in just a year, softening the rum and adding a bucket of summer fruits. Rich, creamy and delicious. Hard to find as only a few hundred bottles were made, and understandably quite expensive for a one year old rum - it's really outstanding 88 pts
Mhoba are a very special distillery - growing, distilling and aging their rums on location, in a pure honest way. No flavours, colours or other rubbish in here, just the result of care, passion and superb quality cane. A distillery making their own unique style, with some outstanding results. Definitely worth seeking out!