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Rum Reviews

4 Sips Through Vietnam's Sampan Rhum: White, Overproof, Cellar Series Bourbon & Cellar Series Cognac

 

Vietnam is beloved by folks all over the world for its cuisine, the freshness of its multitudes of fruits and herbs, a burgeoning craft beer scene, an intensely delicious creamy coffee, all set against a landscape that somehow finds a way to juggle both a sprawling industrialisation and urbanisation and at the same time a readily available natural expansiveness. You can find both an urban and a natural jungle all at once.

And so it seems painfully obvious that it would make total sense that an exciting, fast growing in distribution, Vietnamese rum was bound to have emerged - if anything, why not sooner? It's certainly caught the attention of many in the rum community who rave about its quality and purity. That rum in question is Sampan.

 

 

Party in the front, business in the back - depending on whether you're a rum person.

 

  

Named after traditional Asian junk boats that were the lifeblood of the region's commercial activities, Sampan comes from Distillerie d'Indochine, that's located some kilometers from the seaside town of Hoi An, in the Quang Nam area. Hoi An has always been a traveller's favourite spot to hit up for its picturesque and culturally rich quaint town vibes - it looks like something frozen in time and preserved since the 1950s. It feels very much like stepping back in time - the paper lanterns adorning the town's riverways and cobblestone streets certainly help provide that sepia tinted lens.

The distillery though looks nothing like any other rum distillery - it looks like a boutique seaside hotel. And that's because it is. The brainchild of one Antoine Pourcuitte, a Frenchman whose name was taken from the activity of distilling pear eau-de-vie and whose grandparents were farmers and distillers who made fruit spirits, had started off in the wine and spirits trade before arriving in Vietnam in 2008. He would move about Hong Kong and Shanghai over the next couple of years, but eventually returned to Vietnam to produce his own rum.

 

Antoine showing some visitors how to work the cane crushing machine.

 

"I wanted to get closer to the motherland of sugar cane, which comes from Papua New Guinea. And in Vietnam there are 300,000 hectares of cane fields with around sixty varieties and super quality. In 2017, I visited quite a few farms and analysed the soil and the sugar cane. The soil is very pure, these are old forests transformed into fields, with beautiful soil, no pesticides…" says Antoine in an interview with Rumporter.

 

After over a year of working with farmers to establish a cooperative project that allows Sampan to grow its 100% organic sugarcane without ploughing, added nutrients and so forth, as well as building out the distillery's equipment in Pourcuitte's hotel, Sampan was off to a start in late 2018.

Local farmers help to grow the cane during the rainy season and then harvest the cane during the dry season, with the cycle running from February to August. The cane that's naturally farmed is a varietal endemic to Vietnam and Southern China, making Sampan's rums single-varietal and each comes with a stated vintage. When the cane is harvested by hand (some 8 tonnes of cane harvested a day, 6 days a week), it is pressed within 24 hours of its harvesting to ensure freshness, and then brought 50 km away from the fields to the micro distillery where it is first fermented in temp-controlled open vats for 5 days, using molasses yeast.

 

(Image Source: Rumporter)

 

Thereafter, the agricultural rhum is distilled with an Armagnac copper column still (equipped with 11 extraction plates and 2 concentration plates) - up to 3,000 litres is produced a week at 70-72% ABV.

What's rather unusual is that Pourcuitte opts to rest the rum in inert metal vats for 3 weeks first, after which it undergoes drip reduction for another 6-8 months before the unaged white Sampan is bottled - that's a total of up to 9 months that the unaged cane spirit is left to rest and mellow out! During which nothing is added to the spirit. Thereafter, it is cut with water to achieve various bottling strengths for the classic White, Overproof and Full Proof expressions.

 

 

As for the aged expressions - well, for one it is worth noting the rum ages onsite by the Hoi An sealine - a range of ex-Cognac, ex-Bourbon, ex-Port, ex-Virgin Oak, and even some more exotic varieties including ex-Cherry liqueur casks are used. This forms Sampan's Cellar Series cask aged expressions.

With the rum is well underway being distributed across Vietnam and the rest of the world, Pourcuitte has already begun work on creating a new brand that will see the use of molasses to create rums instead of the sugarcane juice that is currently being use. The goal behind this is not only to showcase a different dimension of Vietnam's local natural terroir through Sampan's rums, but also to allow Pourcuitte to distill year round, beyond the sugarcane harvest cycle.

 

Sampan's Cellar Series. (Image Source: Les Rhums Del Homme a la Poussette)

 

Now that we're all acquainted with Sampan, it's time to try a range of Sampan's rums! We'll try both the standard and Overproof white, before trying two of the Cellar Series, an ex-Cognac and an ex-Bourbon Cerise aged expression.

Let's go!

Note: I use the terms "rum" and "rhum" fairly interchangeably here, even though technically Sampan focuses on agricultural sugarcane juice-based spirit, which should really be called "rhum" if we're being specific. However, as the distillery and brand remains rather young and new, and given that Antoine has signalled a desire to create molasses based rums as well - which would be quite a rarity in the world of rum producers (Reunion Island's Savanna comes to mind), I've thought it best to keep the language rather inclusive, general and broadly all encompassing. 

Sampan Rhum Vietnam White, 43% ABV - Review

 

Tasting Notes

Colour: Clear

Aroma: Thick, cakey fondant infused with cane syrup. It’s pretty mellow, with the cane notes being rather vegetal but not jarring. It’s not as high toned as you might expect. More on green banana peels, banana blossoms, black olives, some light brine. Really rich and thick.

Taste: More lively here, bright notes of banana blossoms, cane syrup, more fondant. It’s a nice creaminess that isn’t too heavy but has a sufficient richness. It’s quite whole with a good mix of top, mid and base notes that stack up really nicely.

Finish: Black olives, more savouriness here, brine, and then a sweeter vanilla confectionary note. Nice deep warmth, with a fragrant banana blossom aftertaste that’s quite aromatic and lightly salty. Pretty clean finish.

 

My Thoughts

Very nicely done! This probably stands out for being very mellow on the nose, having a really nice stacked up palate that is well balanced, rounded and cohesive, as well as a very aromatic and fragrant finish. This isn’t one of those tear your face off, super sharp or punchy, high toned white rums, it’s actually incredibly gentle and elegant with a good richness to it.

In terms of characterisation, it mostly tampers down the cane notes once you get past the first whiffs on the nose, it leans then onto lots of banana blossoms - lightly green but also rather floral. Definitely off to a very good start here!

Sampan Rhum Vietnam White Overproof, 54% ABV - Review

 

Tasting Notes

Colour: Clear

Aroma: Definitely more punchy. Here it feels tighter and more bounded. Fondant and cane syrup. More air time is probably good. Over time more on black olives, with that same banana blossom florals. It’s not hot per se, rather the fumes encase the otherwise mellow core.

Taste: Much more punchy here too - it leans alot more onto the black olives and savouriness. Much more briny too. Over time the cane syrup and vanilla fondant starts to show up. It’s still pretty rich and cohesive.

Finish: The banana blossoms show up in spades here, backed up the same black olives, brine, much more heat. There’s a big mineral and chalky hit at the finish too.

 

My Thoughts

Big punchiness here for sure - it’s the overproof after all. But what’s nice to see here is how it keeps its cohesiveness and identity for the most part. It’s still the same floral and mellow rum but encased in much more fumes. Here, nevertheless, expect it to be much more bounded and precise. I particularly liked how it kept that banana blossom note that I find very prominent and enjoyable about the Sampan White. An interesting differentiated take from the standard white, with pretty much the same flavours but expressed rather differently.

Sampan Cellar Series Ex-Bourbon Cerise Cask 2019, 3 Year Old, 45% ABV - Review

  

Tasting Notes

Colour: Amber

Aroma: Big notes of honey, maltose candy, herbal jelly, medicinal roots, grassiness, black pepper. It’s rich and incredibly aromatic with an elegance to it - not too dense but not light either. There’s still a distinct vegetal freshly cut sugarcane note underlying the aromatics, with some vanilla fondant, but far gentler here. Over time, more on peaches and apricots, plums, fresh and tinned. Also a light mustiness.

Taste: More on honey, herbal jelly, some earthiness too, barrel char. There’s the classic grassiness, black pepper, dried herbal roots giving a slight bitterness. It becomes more lifted giving brighter notes of the same herbal jelly and grassiness, with a airiness to it. Some liquorice here too, and also dried plums. It’s a little light on the body.

Finish: Alittle bit more dry with some of the tannins coming through, before slipping back into the herbal jelly, brown sugar soup, cooked plums, tobacco leaves, slightly savoury. Nice gentle comedown on the finish.

 

My Thoughts

This was alittle bit of a tale of two halves - on the nose was probably agricultural rum perfection for me, however on the palate it seemed lighter than I had hoped for with not as much richness. It’s aromas were everything I could ask for in an agricole rum - that grassy herbal jelly, super elegant and aromatic, and with time, something really special - those peaches, apricots and plums were just divine! 

When I got to the palate though, whilst I still did get the herbal jelly, honey, a very candied quality to it all, with a nice evolution in the middle where it became more lifted and even more aromatic, it did come off lighter than I had hoped. If this was that much richer and full bodied - it would have completely blown the roof off for me. The finish was a bit of a saving point for me, with a very nice lightly drying quality that gave it some tension and contrast to the otherwise brighter and lighter herbal jellies. It continued to develop into a nice earthy sweetness and fruitiness that was a great touch. It receded perfectly as well, leaving the same feelings I get when I enjoy Cheng Tng, a sweet and herbal Singaporean dessert.

I can definitely see the promise here - perhaps a higher ABV would give the body more richness and heft that would complement the aromas.

Sampan Cellar Series Cognac Cask 2019,  3 Year Old, 44.9% ABV - Review

  

Tasting Notes

Colour: Amber, Copper Tinge

Aroma: Mellow, rich and thick notes of grape gummies and yellow raisins - it’s incredibly grape-y and juicy, with some black grape skin tannins. Backed up by maltose candy and honey. Incredibly aromatic. More on apricots, black pepper, brown sugar.

Taste: Firm and medium-bodied, it’s rich and thicker. More of those grape gummies, raisins, maltose candy, brown sugar. There’s a light bit of herbal jelly at the back that tussles with the grape-y notes. Also a bit of sourness of sourdough dough. Rather punchy too.

Finish: The tannins tighten up more here. More of that sourness coming through, with a light sweetness of honey. Hit of black pepper.

 

My Thoughts

The grape-y notes here were obviously super alluring and stunning - super rich grape gummies on both the nose and palate, with such an intensity that you hardly ever find (I’ve only ever found it once else in what is my all time favourite Chichibu whisky). I really enjoyed this combination of yellow raisins, grape gummies and with that bit of grape skin tannins that gives it so much range and also complexity, going from juicy to a gentle grippy tightening sensation. This was backed up by darker notes of maltose candy and honey which gives it a very full aroma.

On the palate though, I was surprised to find a tussle between the grape notes and the herbal jelly that you get in most agricultural rums - they felt almost at odds with one another, jostling for the front seat, this ended up coming across somewhat discordant. There was also this sourness that didn’t harmonise as much with the otherwise sweeter notes too. But thankfully the grape notes were still there - I think if there was more cohesiveness here with a more dominating grape gummy note that ran the palate with its sweetness and richness, and then slowly transitioned to the herbal jelly, that would’ve nailed it for me.

The finish as well seemed to be a bag of loose ends. Nevertheless, you can definitely see the potential here, perhaps more age would do the trick here.

Closing Thoughts

 

I think the excitement around Sampan is completely warranted! For such a relatively young distillery, it's really done an outstanding job of punching above its weight - what strikes out to me most is how mellow its flavours are and how rich its body is, which is a great feat to have achieved consistently by this point. That said, while Sampan's rhums have done a solid job at this point, it is of course not without its imperfections - at times it tussles with striking a good balance between the competing flavours of the rhum itself and the cask, whilst other times it could use more depth.

Nevertheless, the potential and promise is clearly there, which is why the rum community has been on it - its a story that's fast developing and everyone wants to be the first to catch the ride - it seems only a matter of time before Sampan fully reaches its potential it feels. A couple more years of aging and perhaps a heftier proof and with all the right ingredients already in place - it's just a matter of time. 

 

Rumporter has a pretty informative interview with Antoine that is definitely worth checking out - here!

 

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot