Iejima is an island of a mere 23 square kilometers, a half hour ferry ride from the port of Motobu, Okinawa. Most folks go there for its crystal clear waters, the multifarious marine life, the rich history, to admire the chrysanthemums and lilies that flourish on the island or to climb the island's central peak; Gusuku-yama. Not this little black duck. I was there following up on intel gained from a local the day before.
I will digress briefly at this point to say that the Okinawan people are among the most friendly, helpful and engaging souls one could ever hope to meet. One of those helpful souls recommended a visit to the Iejima (jima = island) Distillery. Good advice indeed.
Ie Island Distillery offer a tour of the facility and if you have any interest in distillation I suggest you take them up on it. Don't expect English to be spoken but with or without Japanese language skills it's an interesting experience. From 2006-2009 the distillery (owned by the Asahi beer company) was used for the production of ethanol using sugar cane grown on the island. Fortunately for us all, the distillery was then refitted to produce a product designed to enhance our existence rather than destroy our fuel systems.
That product is marketed as Santa Maria Rum. The distillery produces three core products under the Santa Maria moniker; a white rum they call Crystal, a Scotch Whisky barrel matured Agricole Rum they call Gold and a cane syrup used as a flavourful sugar alternative and colourant.
The casks fall into two groups; those that are topped up with water every six months (this is a tropical island and heat means the angels get their share) and those which remain unsullied to be bottled at cask strength. Alas, the cask strength version sold out shortly after it went on sale. I know this because I offered to buy whatever they had after a sip of the Gold. The next cask strength release is due in November 2016.
After a brief period of mourning for the T9 cask strength, I accepted my lot would consist only of the 37%ABV Gold, and forked out a few thousand Yen for a bottle of mostly water. Sigh.
Santa Maria Gold Rum NAS 37%ABV 2016
Colour: White wine; a refreshing lack of artificial pigment.
Nose: Lime cordial, grapefruit and kiwifruit, young spirit, bread and butter pudding and vanilla. Young, fresh, complex and delicate.
Palate: A complex, exotic, tropical fruit basket. Peaches and vanilla ice cream. Surprisingly mouth filling given its low ABV. Finishes with a hint of passionfruit and lingering vanilla; lovely. A lively, engaging tropical treat that combines youthful exuberance with a complex web of fresh fruit. With time a deeper layer emerges; those whisky casks don't overtly assert themselves but subtly bind the whole fruit shop together. Once recognised though, the Scottish influence on this fine spirit is always apparent.
That Ie Island Distillery has extracted this much flavour from only 37% ABV is both amazing and tragic (I can't wait to try the cask strength version). It exemplifies the terroir of its idyllic home, it's flavours concordant with the floral paradise in which it was created. The Scotch Whisky barrel influence entwines seamlessly with this tropical freshness to produce a spirit unlike any other. And it's right at home on Iejima.
Should you be fortunate enough to visit Okinawa, the ferry ride to Iejima and it's distillery will be well worthwhile. You should at least pick up a bottle of Santa Maria Gold for those steamy evenings on Okinawa; it's a great tropical apéritif.
So, what is the point of reviewing a rum that isn't available locally on a blog about whisky? The point is, comrades, that experiment leads to discovery. A whisky drinker not bothering to visit this distillery because it only produces rum would have missed a great experience. A whisky drinker who doesn't experiment with other spirits will not only miss out on some amazing malt alternatives but will never fully appreciate the magnificence of Scotch Whisky. Ie Island distillery has plans to export worldwide. Should you see a bottle, it will be worth your consideration.