Unaged blanc agricoles are the best expressions to try in order to experience the terroir of the sugar cane in rhum. Now how about comparing two different vintages from the same year and distillery? I have to say I’m intrigued and excited to get into these, but first some brief history about HSE.
The story of HSE started in Gros Morne, Martinique at the beginning of the 19th century when the Domaine de La Maugee was built – it was renamed Habitation Saint Etienne later in 1863. The sugar house was bought by Amedee Aubery in 1882 who built a distillery on site and started producing the Saint-Etienne brand.
The distillery was owned by a few families before it was finally taken over by Yves and Jose Hayot in 1994. The original distilery closed in 1984 and its production was moved to La Favourite until Yves and Jose moved it again at the Simon Distillery. They also began restoring and enhancing the original estate’s cultural heritage. According to the HSE website “the distillery, henceforth registered in the Additional Inventory of French Historic Monuments, is one of the only-remaining and most precious references of the craftsmanship and aesthetic appeal of industrial architecture of the end of the 19th century in Martinique. Its renovation is nearing completion.”
Nowadays the HSE brand (name taken in 2008) is still made at the Simon Distillery using their original column still, but the blending, ageing and bottling all happen on the original site in Gros Morne. I’m curious if Saint-Etienne will make rhum again after its renovation is done.
60-70% of the cane used to make HSE is cultivated from family owned agricultural companies in Martinique and the rest comes from small plantations that have a historical connection to HSE. They distill using their creole still up to 73% ABV while following Martinique’s Appelation D’Origine Controlee.
What’s interesting about these vintages is that they don’t get bottled straight away, instead, they are rested for over 2 years in inert tanks beforehand. Let’s get to the tasting now!
HSE Cuvee De L’An 2016
This is one of their small batch released vintages – in 2016 HSE selected less than 1% of their annual production in order to make this expression. It has been rested for over 2 years while being reduced to its current ABV.
Cane juice based, column still distilled, rested for over 2 years and bottled at 50% ABV without any additions.
On the nose feels herbal and milky. Cottage chese, Philadelphia Garlic & Herbs, cane juice, olive brine and a touch of mustard. Oxidised white wine, pickled cabbage and saffron. It smells sharp with a minerality to it. Unripe pears, dates, dried figs and some violet liqueur.
On the palate the minerality is back. Dried figs, dry sherry, mango and some nutty layers. White pepper, green olive brine and black tea. It also has some earthy notes, reminiscent of angelica root – quite chewy as well. Some sweet corn and iron (like blood iron). The finish is long with some melon and that minerality I kept mentioning.
Very interesting, although this wasn’t technically aged, the resting period gave it some sort of sherry-ish vibe which dampens the more pungent profile of the cane juice. It’s still unmistakably a blanc agricole, just more balanced and, dare I say, sippable. It can be found at around £47 which is a good price in my opinion and the rhum is definitely worth trying if you’re a fan of cane juice distillates.
HSE Parcellaire #1 2016
This is the first vintage from the “Parcellaire” range – it’s made with cane cultivated from Saint Etienne’s plots, namely Verger and Coulon. The cane itself is the R570 variety, also known as “golden cane” or “straw blond cane”. This has also been rested for over 2 years in steel tanks.
Cane juice based, column still distilled, rested for over 2 years and bottled at 55% ABV without any additions.
On the nose it’s more “sour” than the previous one. Green olives, gerkins, pickled red peppers and white pepper. Balsamic vinegar, lime superjuice and some floral honey. Has a lot of pickle juice going on and it’s making my mouth water. There’s some lovely cane juice and violet liqueur too. Unripe stone fruits, mango, ginger and a hint of blue cheese.
On the palate it becomes more tropical. Pineapple, passion fruit and some mango. Green olives, agave syrup and grapefruit zest. It has a thick mouthfeel and sweeter flavours than the previous 2016. Sea salt, ripe pears, unripe apricots and melon. Basil, green chillies and yellow apples. The finish is long with tropical fruits bundle and earthy spices.
Not sure if I mentioned, but this is very tropical in flavour with some layers of spices and cane flavours, almost like a subtle arrange rhum – and I love it! I would definitely put this in any cocktail with some passion fruit. This is also priced at around £47 (The Whisky Exchange) which I find it even better value than the Cuvee De L’An 2016, especially for the extra ABV and flavour profile.
I find the HSE Cuvee De L’An 2016 the odd, interesting one, that has sort of an aged rhum profile with some particular mineral and oxidised wine notes whereas the HSE Parcellaire #1 2016 is definitely more fruity with background spicy layers. They’re both great examples of what can be achieved in agricole with choosing and distilling sugar cane from a particular year, but I very much prefer the Parcellaire for its more sweetish, sunshine-like notes.
HSE Cuvee De L’An 2016 score:
Value for money: 14/15
HSE Parcellaire #1 2016 score:
Value for money: 15/15