Did you know that modern day Laos is defined as a result of its historical status as a French protectorate (roughly from 1890 to 1970, or the period of Indochina Wars) and that more than 70% of the country is made up of mountains? Well, I didn’t… When it comes to Thailand or Vietnam, I’m more or less familiar with those two countries. But Laos? Not so much. It doesn’t help that it’s not all that common to hear about it on TV or in newspapers. In fact, when it comes this country, that is roughly the size of the United Kingdom, besides being able to find it on a map or imagining the many rice fields, immense Buddhist temples or dreamlike landscapes that are a mix of jungle and wild waterfalls punctuated by small isolated villages, I didn’t really know much about it until just a few months ago with the return of a childhood friend who is an environmental engineer. Recently, he went on a road trip in the region and, as a result, was able to combine a change of scenery and deeper thoughts with a number of humanitarian missions, in particular those developing access to drinking water in this emerging country. In short, his story of adventure so intrigued and impressed me, that I took a closer look at the country. And, it was during this research that I found a rum connection! As you can imagine, in Laos, as in Southeast Asia, sugarcane is everywhere. And usually, when you start taking about sugarcane, you start talking about cane alcohol, and in so many cases that means rum. So, without further delay, your discovery of the day: Laodi, a Laotian monovarietal rhum agricole and so much more…
This adventure begins in 2006 when Ikuzo Inoue, a 52 year-old Japanese engineer, acquires a distillery located in Naxone (Ban Na Son in Lao), a small village in the Vientiane municipality crossed by the mythical RN 13 (This road is a bit like a Laotian version of US Route 66), about 40 minutes by car from Vientiane, the country’s capital. Laodi is also about an hour and ten minutes from David Giallorenzo and his Issan distillery, only separated by the natural border between the two countries, the Mekong! Sadly, the two experts were barely aware of it the proximity and never crossed the Mittaphap Bridge (Lao-Thai friendship bridge linking Nong Khai to Vientiane) to meet and taste their respective production. Crazy, no? This should be settled soon and the exchanges between enthusiasts can be only positive.
But back in the Muang (“district” in Lao) Pak Ngum, Ikuzo, in love with Laos and quality products, decides to name his distillery “Laodi” in a nod to both. “Lao” refers to Laos and “di” means “good” in Lao. The butterfly, a majestic insect numbering in the thousands in the Laos, serves as a logo. Knowing that sugarcane has been cultivated for over 4,000 years in Southeast Asia and its important place in the culture and folklore of many countries in this region, it didn’t take long for the idea of making rum to come to Ikuzo! In addition, with lao-lao (a distilled alcohol based on fermented rice) being the national drink, it was also an occasion for him to allow Laotians to (re)discover the rum and spread its gospel. “The question of pure cane or molasses cannot even be asked,” says Ikuzo, “the pure juice is much more noble, powerful and aromatic in my eyes. There is also a notion of terroir connected to the pure juice that molasses simply does not have, and that’s important” he continues. Those who know me, know well that I will agree whole-heartedly….
The domain is divided into two plots of 10 ha, only one of which is exploited at a time. While Parcel B is utilized (as is currently the case), Parcel A is fallow. The active plot is alternated each year. In this way, by alternating activity and nourishing the ground, Ikuzo takes good care of his land and preserves the soil’s fertility. “It must not be forgotten that it is living matter that demands as much attention as the crops that grow on it” he explains. On these plots grow UT-3 (UT for U Thong, a district of Suphanburi province in Thailand where the species originates. “Prince U Thong” is also the nickname of Ramathibodi I, a very important and influential Thai king from the 14th century), which is a widespread industrial variety in Thailand and Laos. The cultivation and maintenance of this cane is done without chemicals. However, before planting, the soil is enriched with a minimum of fertilizers and correctors. Because of this treatment, this cannot be called 100% organic agriculture. However, it is important to emphasize that it’s carried out with care and consideration and with the health of the crops and final product in mind. While, the average annual temperature may be 30°C, the country experiences a monsoon season and sugarcane harvesting takes place only once a year from November to February, during the dry season. Using a 10-person team, which increased to 40 people during high season – the canes are cut entirely by hand, daily, and according to need and production capacity. The canes are then sent to the mills to be cleaned and pressed in a single pass without the addition of water. As is done in most distilleries, the bagasse fuels the boiler. With 1 tonne of sugarcane, Ikuzo obtains on average 400 litres of pure juice. Once obtained and passed through a sieve to filter any cane residue, the resulting liquid is put directly into stainless steel vats to ferment with the aid of dehydrated wine yeast for between 72 and 96 hours at room temperature.
When the first fermentation is complete (the juice is no longer makes bubbles), the “cane wine” then measures around 9% ABV (against a maximum of 7.5% in the case of Martinique AOC rules) and it is ready to be distilled. It is on this point that, in my opinion, Laodi sets itself apart from other rums. Indeed, Ikuzo performs a vacuum distillation, also called distillation under reduced pressure. This technique is widely used in pharmaceutical or perfumery to extract essential oils from various plants. But to my knowledge, it is one of the only (if not the only!) in the world of rum! The basic goal of distillation is to separate the alcohol from the rest of the material. Here, in principle, it is the same thing. But more specifically, it is in lowering the atmospheric pressure, that the boiling point of the liquid to be distilled is also reduced, which means that the molecules of the plants are subjected to less intense heat and for a shorter time. The extraction of flavourings is therefore theoretically done with fewer degradations, or in any case with less risk of deterioration. The notion of pollution and elimination of burnt odours are also factors in this choice. This vacuum machine is entirely made of stainless steel and has a capacity of 1,500 litres. Beyond this particular system, it is then the traditional process namely: separation of heads and tails, treatment of the vinasse, and retention of the heart which measures 47% ABV. This is relatively low and recalls that of cachaça, which runs around 45% ABV.
For organoleptic reasons and in order to appeal to a wide range of palates, Ikuzo allows his rum to rest for 2 years – which is enormous – in stainless steel tanks with aeration ducts, carrying out a slow reduction of alcohol level to 42% with the use of holy water from the Bhikkhus (official name of the Buddhist monks) from a water table operated by a sacred temple located in a neighbouring village. Whether one is a believer or not and as mystical and spiritual as it may seem, I personally regard Buddhism as a philosophy and not as a religion. From this point of view, especially with its importance in Asia, I find that it engenders respect. Ikuzo proceeds in the same way for his aged rum with the difference that the rum ages this time between 3 and 4 years in vats along with French oak chips imported directly from France. “Aging in oak barrels requires means that we do not have. By playing with the amount of and the different char or toasting levels of the chips, we are equally able to develop fruity, spiced or roasted bodies as with actual barrels” explains Ikuzo. In my opinion, it is impossible to detect a difference – with either sensory or laboratory analysis – in the tannins between rum aged in barrels and rum aged with chips. Where the difference is going to become more evident, is in the aeration and oxygenation of the rum. The chemical reaction and exchanges that occur naturally between rum, wood and air, and which result in the notable angels’ share, are non-existent with this technique using wooden chips or sticks. It is, in fact, a well-known subject of discord in the wine world. In spirits production, the technique is still relatively discreet, at least officially. We are not immune to new scandals given the recent drift in various large distilleries, especially in the world of rum, which I find personally too permissive, mainly at the level of European regulation.
Beyond white and dark rums, the Laodi range also includes five 25% ABV liqueurs, infused naturally with fresh local products: coconut, passionfruit, sugarcane, coffee (Arabica and Robusta from the Bolovens plateau in the south of the country, organic and fair trade production) and plum (a species from Xiengkhuang Province, this variety of plum is referred to as “Prune d’Inde in France and is also called “prune café” in the French West Indies). The bottling, labelling and packing is done entirely by hand and the maximum production of Laodi is about 35,000 litres per year with a yield of about 50 tonnes per hectare. Only cane from the domain is used in production. By way of comparison, in Martinique, the average yield is about 75 tonnes per hectare (AOC rules set a maximum limit of 120 t/ha) and a small independent distillery such as Neisson produces about 400,000 litres with a little more than 20 hectares. Clearly, Laodi is but a tiny drop of rhum in the already very small market share representing rhum agricole, which only constitutes about 3% of the world market. Ikuzo hopes to double his production by making some adjustments. Besides regional and national name recognition, Laodi aims to proudly and prevalently fly the Laos flag all over the world by taking part in global competitions. Between, Spirits Selection by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, World Rum Awards, the International Spirits Challenge, the International Wine & Spirits Competition in England, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the famous RumXP of the Miami Rum Festival, there is no shortage of opportunities… Let’s cross our fingers and pray to Siddhārtha Gautama (the historical Buddha) that today’s caterpillar becomes tomorrow’s butterfly.
I guess, now, the question on everyone’s mind will be “Is it good?” Honestly, at the time of this writing, I don’t have that answer. Unfortunately, I have been unable to taste it because the French postal system strictly forbids the shipping of alcoholic beverages to or from this country, for reasons unknown to me. However, I would think that private companies like UPS, DHL or TNT can take charge of this kind of thing. So, for now, I stay in touch with Kulap (Ikuzo’s assistant) and we try to find a shipping solution. Ikuzo and Kulap asked that I stress the fact that their rhum agricole is different from the rhum agricole we are used to and can therefore be somewhat disconcerting. This is not surprising considering that the nature of the sun, the variety of cane and the method of distillation are different from that of our French isles. Other important factors are also, of course, the weather, the temperatures, hydrological cycle and humidity, all of which vary significantly. And let’s not forget that the French Antilles, being islands, are subject to a more or less a strong exposure to the sea breeze and trade winds, which for Laos and Laodi in particular, is not at all the case.
If the urge moves you to make the trip or you otherwise have the occasion to go there, the full range of Laodi is available in 5cl, 20cl and 70cl (only white and dark for the largest format). Prices may vary depending on the number of bottles purchased. In average format, 20cl, it goes from 70,000 Kip for liqueurs to 87,000 Kip for the white and 113,000 Kip for the dark per bottle or between €8 and €13 (currently €1 is roughly equivalent to 8,700 Kip, also called LAK in SI). The 70cl run for €22 for the white and €36 for the aged one. Locally, it is hardly affordable (the average salary in Laos is about €115 per month…) but for non-locals, it’s very affordable and particularly interesting! Keep in mind, however, that you have to include transport costs, VAT and possible customs fees. As a reminder, in the case of purchases by correspondence outside the EU, exemption from customs duties applies to consignments whose value excluding taxes does not exceed €150 and in the case of a beverage containing more than 22% ABV, which is the case here, the maximum quantity authorized is one single litre. If one of the two conditions is not respected, obligatory customs taxation will result … and a word to the wise: the VAT does not benefit from any deductible.
To wrap things up, I would like to warmly thank both Ikuzo Inoue and Kiyomi Inako aka Kulap, a young business student who recently joined the Laodi team to assist Mr Inoue as part of her studies, and who was invaluable in her interpretation services. Ikuzo is extremely passionate, professional and well-known and recognized by Japanese colleagues already active in the rum game. Kiyomi is incredibly kind and provided a lot of effort to be available, introduce and explain the brand. Do not hesitate to contact her in English, as she is quick to respond to all requests.
For more information:
Lao Agro Organic Industries Limited
47kms of the National Road No. 13
Naxone Village, Pak Ngum District, Vientiane Capital, Laos
Tel: +856 20 2829 8789 / +856 20 5233 9920
GPS: 18°04’28.8″N 102°58’01.0″E