Meeting between Cyrille Lawson, one of HSE Rum’s figureheads and Cyrille Mald, for a frank exchange on the production secrets that lie behind HSE’s treasures.
We may as well be totally complicit in addressing all these little mysteries, possibly as never before, and reveal the secrets behind the production of HSE Rums. What are the differences between the two versions of Marquis de Terme? Is the aging process of the French and American Cask Strength barrels the same? Do the Canne d’Or plot-specific cuvées and the 2006 vintage benefit from the same circulation techniques? We will freely address selection techniques, extraction curves during finishing, slow distillation techniques – everything you always wanted to know about HSE… yet never dared to ask!
Fasten your seatbelts – target: the fount of all understanding and especially your enjoyment!
HSE Marquis de Terme Batch 1 versus HSE Marquis de Terme Batch 2
Cyrille Mald: I’d like to know is what is the focus of Marquis de Terme Batch 1 in comparison to the Marquis de Terme Batch 2?
Cyrille Lawson: Technically, as far as the first batch is concerned, the finish took up to 18 months, which had never been done before. We noticed during tasting, that there was a kind of parabolic curve in terms of extraction of the finish, where there was a lot of extract and the vinous notes were very present.
Cyrille Mald: From which month?
Cyrille Lawson: From six months or even four months, the extract was really strong.
Cyrille Mald: Not woody, just vinous?
Cyrille Lawson: Yes, just vinous. It got to the point that it was almost intrusive. That is, the juice itself was magnificent but we were on to something else. It didn’t really like taste like rum and we were a little outside of the criteria we had set ourselves, that is, the finish should bring a touch, a twist, an aromatic tint, but it mustn’t overwhelm the AOC Martinique. This is absolutely essential in our approach.
To be honest, this first batch, we tasted it at six months and said: “Woah, it’s gone too far, maybe we should have stopped the finish earlier.” We assumed that it wasn’t yet ready and that perhaps we had messed up because you can’t get it right every time. We had four drums, and all four were dancing to the same tune.
In all honesty, we said to ourselves, “We messed up, but let’s follow it up anyway.” And we realised that with this kind of parabolic curve, at the pinnacle of the extraction, we’re at around 12, 13 or 14 months. It was as if there was a first phase, during which the wood “spits out” its contents derived from the wine, and that then afterwards, there was like a reabsorption, a rebalancing, and a patina that comes back to the wood. That is, there was a reabsorption; the vinous notes became less present, and we harnessed the full benefit of the Marquis de Termes barrels, which are exceptional, to enter into depths of greater complexity.
It was after this tasting, after 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 then 18 months that we found it to be absolutely magnificent.
Cyrille Mald: So you stopped at 18 months?
Cyrille Lawson: Yes, that’s when we stopped the first batch. We had both the colour of the vinous elements, this cocktail cherry tint, etc., which is characteristic of the Marquis de Termes, but also a kind of concentration and a rather special finish, which is quite astringent, which isn’t down to the wine but to the French oak barrels, which give this particular patina.
Tasting notes HSE Marquis de Terme Batch 1:
Nose: 18 months of finishing in Margaux Grand Cru barrels give this rum strong fruit notes, where aromas of red and black fruits interlace: raspberry, redcurrant, blackberry, blackcurrant, mellowed by élevage, but also a light vegetal tone (ivy) that disappears after aeration. Hints of spice complement the whole.
Palate: The wood is more present and this rum needs to be opened for some time for it to fully encompass the aromatic palette. Aromas of sour cherry mix with sweet liquorice, leaving a little oil on the palate (mahogany) which adds to the depth of the macerated fruit (blackberry, blackcurrant). The whole is finally covered by aromas of violet. The mouth leaves one speechless, recalling the vegetal glaze of an old Glenfarclas from Speyside.
Finish: Precious wood, supplemented by notes of Amarena cherries in syrup and Oolong tea. The whole is gently broken down. A hint of balsamic vinegar perfects this haute couture finish. If you have a friend who is a connoisseur of cigars, they should thank you for the rest of their days. To be listed as an item of historical interest – with the Single Cask 2003!
Cyrille Mald: To wrap up the first batch, how long had it been aging beforehand? What in? What was the process?
Cyrille Lawson: It used to follow our classical aging process. Which is in new, American oak barrels. We are the only company to now work entirely with new barrels. We haven’t bought any used bourbon barrels from the United States in over a decade. We take this additional cost on board.
The advantage of this method is that it allows us to maintain a certain consistency in the profiles of VSOP and XO, without having variations induced by the first maturation, which results in a variability which can be assumed, but that’s the strategic decision that we have taken. So the rums age from 0 to 4-6 years for VSOPs in these 100% new oak barrels, which can have one or two maturations. Because when you use new barrels, there is a hyper-extraction and the wood can be a little bothersome and overwhelm the complexity. The entrants are new, which allows us to completely master our profiles, it’s very important. We take the cost on board, but the advantage is that we can control our profiles.
The aromatic framework of the rum is built on this basis. When we move on to age counts above VSOP, if we left the rum to age in American oak barrels — which is the expertise that we had — the wooded notes would totally overpower the complexity, so at that point, we change and use French oak barrels.
Cyrille Mald: Which aren’t new?
Cyrille Lawson: They are new but have been used for maturation once or twice. We use new barrels. That decision has been taken. It costs more, for sure, but it allows us to produce extremely extracted and complex profiles.
Cyrille Mald: So, if there is a first or a second maturation, the rum undergoing a first maturation will be more impacted than a rum following afterwards?
Cyrille Lawson: Yes, but we play on those factors. At that point, we play on the time factor and we are able to uncask and recask for a second maturation. We follow the first maturations very closely, so that they aren’t too impacted and so that we have a fusion of aromas. We start with a first maturation, we say “it’s had a good impact” and we go on to the second maturation.
So we work on that basis for anything older than a VSOP, in French oak barrels. And sometimes in complex American oak barrels, and when I say “complex,” I mean that we work on this fringe of VOSP to XO, in matured American oak barrels. They really play a part in their production. The prime example is the plain American oak barrel, with a 36-month maturation. We’re working more and more with matured American oak barrels because they really bring something.
We have found our balance moving from VOSP to XO in mostly complex French oak barrels, with a short time in matured American oak.
Cyrille Mald: So, normally, that’s between 0 and 4–6 years, for VOSP, in American oak barrels. Followed by 4-6, even up to 10 years in French oak barrels.
Cyrille Lawson: Correct. And after that, it’s the finish. The choice of juice is very important. We can compare the Marquis de Terme cuvées since our selection is based on the same typology, that is, fine, complex rums, a little like our XO, and which are of a nature to integrate the finish to bring complexity, but still within this notion of finesse. If we had a rum that was too heavily loaded to start with, the finish would come second. There’s a balance to be had.
Cyrille Mald: So you have selected these four barrels for their characteristics, their initial finesse. For you, they are already very elegant rums.
Cyrille Lawson: Exactly, they are very elegant.
Cyrille Mald: Maybe more elegant than other barrels that have been selected?
Cyrille Lawson: That’s right, more elegant than our standard barrels, but also quite taut, it’s important.
Cyrille Mald: And what do you mean by quite taut?
Cyrille Lawson: I mean a rum with an expression profile which is quite taut at the beginning and then explodes and fans out into complexity and finesse. A little like our XO, but we really select from our XO batches those which for us best characterize the rums that will integrate the finishes.
There is a dichotomy at that moment, these particular barrels are selected for finishes. And in this selection, there is still an over-selection of Marquis de Terme, for its expression.
The basic juice is comparable. Our focus wasn’t to play on this variance, but to play on the second batch, on what we “think” because everything I’m telling you is empirical.