Origin: Mhoba, Malelane, South Africa
Finish: Neutral vessel
It's hard to believe that this is my first review of a self-released Mhoba rum, but it is! For review #070, we are going to take a dive into a special expression from the South African distillery, that derives its character from a unique source.
Mhoba Rum was founded by Robert Greaves, a mechanical engineer whose family has been farming sugarcane near the Makhonwja Mountains since the 1980s. After returning to the family farm after the 2008 financial crisis, Greaves wanted to find a new business venture; this ended up requiring both his skills as an engineer and his family's crops. In 2013, the first rum was produced using Greaves' fully self-built still, and in 2015 he started commercial production.
Mhoba's entire operation is farm-to-glass, with all aspects of rum production from farming the cane, to pressing it into juice, to fermentation, distillation, aging, and finally bottling, all happening on-premises at their facility near Malalane. One of the unique aspects of Mhoba's aging process is the vessels used to age the rum: instead of traditional ex-bourbon casks primarily used by most rum producers, Mhoba initially matures much of its rum in glass demijohns using wood staves.
These staves may be made of common aging woods such as American oak or French oak, but in the case of the sample we have today, a wood native to the area around Malalane may be used. The provocatively-named Bushfire expression from Mhoba features staves cut from the sickle bush, which are then charred as if they were used in a braai, or a type of South African barbecue that features meat cooked over the coals of local wood; sickle bush is a common wood to use in a braai.
Bushfire was distilled using Mhoba's pot still from a sugarcane juice source, and later matured for an undetermined amount of time in a glass demijohn vessel containing charred sickle bush staves, before being bottled on-site at a strength of 55% ABV.
As a fan of barbecue and living in perhaps the greatest barbecue city, I'm really excited to try this love letter to South African barbecues. Thanks to Andrew Hinton for providing me with this sample!
Dark brown with orange hue, medium clarity, medium viscosity
Campfire smoke, pine, burnt sugarcane, buttered popcorn, rotting pineapple
Peat smoke, burnt sugarcane, grilled pineapple, salted caramel
Medium-short, smokey, slightly dry; campfire smoke, oak, touch of burnt sugar
This is one of the more interesting rums I've had recently, and an absolutely wonderful profile! I love the smokey elemenets that are present, although I get far less of the Mhoba signature in this than other expressions I've tried, like the Homes Cay South Africa or one of the Bira! bottlings. Still, this is really fun, but I can see it being a bit divisive.
The rum is a dark brown color, but has an orange hue to it; it has medium clarity and viscosity.
On the nose, Bushfire presents the unmistakeable aroma of campfire smoke to start out, which is unmistakeable and offers a savory element right off the bat. A hint of pine appears, followed by burnt sugarcane that is common (to me) in aged sugarcane juice-based rum, especially rhum agricole vieux. Buttered popcorn also comes through, as does an note of rotting pineapple, not unlike a funky Jamaican marque. A wonderful nose that promises a lot.
The palate is fairly straightforward, but that isn't to say boring. A peat-like smoke envelopes the tastebuds, although with it's similarity to campfire smoke and slightly grassy qualities, I could rename this "sicklebush smoke" after the staves used in the production. It does have some similar qualities to peat, so I'll leave that in for now. Burnt sugarcane comes next, as does a grilled pineapple flavor, followed by a hint of salted caramel. This is very unique, and the staves really do come through in this expression. While some of the Mhoba signature does get lost a bit, it still pokes through at various points.
The finish is medium-short in length, smokey, and slightly dry. Campfire smoke is the most recognizable note, as the sensation of the lingering rum feels like inhaling a whisp of smoke, with its drying yet flavorful qualities. Oak comes through, and a touch of burnt sugar is notable as the finish ends fairly quickly.
While you could present this as a peated scotch to some degree of success (depending on the drinker's level of experience with scotch), this is still recognizable as a rum, and is plenty unique among its category in its own right. Other "smokey" rums– such as those finished in peated whisky casks like Grander's Islay expressions– can be a bit too much for my taste, and depending on the strength of character of the base rum, may be too overpowering. Mhoba Bushfire walks that line fairly well, and though similar in profile to peat smoke, the sicklebush staves offer something new that the rum category has not seen yet. Well done!