At this point, a few years into my journey of discovering rum from pretty much every rum-making region on Earth, I’ve become more than a little familiar with the beloved sugar cane spirit. I’ve tasted my way through a fair share of rums from usual suspect locations—Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Martinique—while also sampling more exotic rums produced in places such as Fiji, Japan and our own U.S.A. But there is still occasionally a new leaf to turn over in the quest to immerse myself entirely in rum culture. African rum? This is a first for me.
Well, it’s actually South African rum, to be specific. The latest release from upscale, boutique rum sourcer/bottler Holmes Cay hails from South Africa’s Mhoba Distillery, a genuinely unique operation that is effectively making their own, African spin on a spirit very much like French-inspired Caribbean rhum agricole. This was ultimately one of the most pleasurably novel (and purely delicious) bottles I’ve sampled in recent memory.
First, a little background. The Mhoba Distillery makes a variety of rums, although like the rum-makers of Martinique or Guadeloupe they do so via fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, rather than molasses. These rums, once fermented with native African yeast, are aged in a variety of different casks, which can include the typical used American oak, as well as French oak and casks previously used to mature South African whisky.
This particular Holmes Cay batch, labeled Mhoba 2017, is the first South African rum to be sold in the U.S., and the first time Mhoba Distillery has landed stateside. A total of four casks were produced, for roughly 1,026 bottles, which is pretty standard for the small scale in which Holmes Cay works. This is 100% pot still rum, from Mhoba’s own sugar cane estate in South Africa, which was aged for 4 years in South African whisky casks. The sub-tropical climate presumably means those 4 years have a significantly greater affect on maturation than in cooler climes, similar to how Caribbean maturation works much faster than European maturation. Mhoba 2017 was bottled at casks strength, which worked out to 59% ABV (118 proof). It carries an MSRP of $109, which is certainly high for a rum without a flashy age statement, but in line with what Holmes Cay typically charges. In this case, you’re paying for the unique nature of this product.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting what turned out to be some really phenomenal rum.
On the nose, the Mhoba 2017 immediately strikes me as both familiar in a general sense, but undeniably exotic at the same time. It’s a little bit earthy and wild, with flourishes of candied pineapple and a surprising amount of dark chocolate, to go with brown butter biscuits. There are elements of fresh grassiness and earthy, forest floor notes—mushrooms come to mind—but also lots of sweet orange citrus. It does smell like it’s a bit on the sweeter side, all in all, but that might be the fruity elements projecting that tone. I do feel confident in saying that if you gave this to most rum geeks blind, they would probably identify it as an aged agricole.
On the palate, I’m getting an immediately enticing combination of pineapple, chocolate and roasty, espresso-like sweetness. It enters the palate quite gently, with moderate sweetness but a lack of ethanol presence, which only really blooms in the chest a few moments after the swallow. The flavors project substantially more maturity than one would expect from a typical four-year age statement, with significant roastiness (without astringency) and a touch of smoke. These notes combine with tropical fruit, gingerbread and lighter, brighter notes of grass and orange citrus. Ultimately, it drinks quite easily for the proof and is a joy to sample neat.
On finishing my tasting glass of this, I couldn’t help but ask: Is this the best 4-year-old rum I’ve ever had? And honestly, I can’t think of another that would top it, not that “4-year-old rum” is a particularly robust or meaningful category. Still, the point is that these are exciting flavors, and very much in my personal wheelhouse. Cask strength, aged agricole is not an easy thing to come by, but this certainly makes me want more of it. One can wish that the price was a bit more accessible, but I can’t deny that Holmes Cay continues to find really great and unique barrels, which is the most important thing. If you’re a lover of aged agricole in particular, this is one to keep an eye out for.
Distillery: Holmes Cay (Mhoba Distillery)
City: Malelane, South Africa
Style: Pure single rum
ABV: 59% (118 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $109 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.