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Sampan Rhum: How A Hoi An Seaside Inn Created The Rum Community's Newest Fascination

  

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. What can we say? Vietnam's got range. There's multitudes to the haven.

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.

 

Local farmers harvesting Sampan's organic cane. (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.

 

This seaside inn hides a secret - a rum secret! 

 

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!

  

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

  

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot