There’s no denying that we’re currently living in a golden age for alcoholic drinks. I’m not going to pretend that I know every new brand that’s popping up. In fact, unless you’re sitting on the Mobius Chair, it’s pretty damn impossible. But I know enough to be aware there’s almost always a new brand bursting into the scene.
One of the best things about being mostly aware of a brand that is new to a category is seeing how it grows. A brand that I’ve seen grow since its early days is Mhoba. They’ve been covered a few times already on Malt. However, we’ve never really addressed how they started. Luckily, Ivar of Rum Revelations interviewed Mhoba’s owner, Robert Greaves, when most of the world was still shut down. It’s thanks to this that I learned more about how they started.
Mining is Robert’s family business. He mentioned that his father and grandfather were into it. But the industry hasn’t been doing so well in South Africa. This made Robert consider making alcohol out of sugarcane. People grew their own sugarcane, but farmers didn’t really think of making rum out of them since most of the cane in his area gets sold to massive sugar mills. I assume these are turned into sugar and/or alcohol.
Despite growing his own sugarcane, Robert knew almost nothing about rum. He mentions that after doing some online research, he initially thought he was going to make Cachaça. It was a fortuitous trip to a bar in Mauritius that opened his eyes. There, he was able to taste rum from all over. He initially thought tasteless and smooth spirits, like vodka, were the way to go. To distill his experience, the most memorable thing for him was when the bartender said “where there is sugarcane, there is rum”. He also met Ian Burrel in Mauritius later on. It’s a good thing he shifted toward what Mhoba tastes like now.
Aside from having to learn about rum, another hurdle he had to get over was how ferment and distill. Amazingly, and prior to his Mauritius trip, he learned it all by himself through the internet and trial and error. Having enjoyed tinkering since his youth, he built his own still and a small-scale cane crusher. He chose to build a pot still because it was easier to make than a column still. Also, pot stills are more suitable for smaller operations.
Mhoba got some attention when a friend of Robert’s took his rum to a Miami rum festival (I’m not sure which) in 2016. His friend returned with good feedback. In 2017, he attended a small rum festival in Mauritius where Ian Burrell, the global rum ambassador, loved his rum. Later on, he went to London to meet Luca Gargano of Velier and Richard Seale of Foursquare. Robert mentions Richard gave him some tips to improve his rum.
To get more technical: Mhoba’s regular fermentation lasts from 6 to 7 days, while their high ester rum ferments for 3 to 4 weeks. The time of the year also affects fermentation; winter makes for longer fermentation while the warmer months (around 30° C) make fermentation shorter. Robert also guesses there’s more flora and fauna going about.
The idea for Mhoba Bushfire came from Braaivleis or Braai. It’s a South African BBQ which is entrenched in their society. Robert guesses the sunny climate, outdoor lifestyle and availability of affordable meat has made Braai popular there. Everybody loves it, including him. He enjoys and finds the process of finding the wood to burn it down to coal to cook on to be relaxing.
Sicklebush is one of the most common local woods in their area, so it’s what he often uses to braai with. Since he associates this with good times, he wanted to capture the aroma that’s special to him, and one which many people associate with Africa as a whole. He already does an alternative maturation process by putting oak staves in a demijohn. This made him think he could do the same with Sicklebush staves.
So he split some Sicklebush logs and burnt them to the point where the magic perfumed smoke started to appear. He then smothered them in a sealed stainless steel container to stop the burning. His initial attempt was one 25L demijohn, but he was unsure of it. After several months, he took some bottles with him to Whisky Live Paris. It ended up being very popular. Right now, the rum is aged for around 12 months. (Thanks to Ivar of Rum Revelations for these notes.)
Mhoba Bushfire – Review
Color: Cinnamon syrup.
On the nose: Hot. Behind it are also pronounced but incohesive aromas of Mhoba DNA. I get whispers of crushed cane, kombucha, caramel, fermenting cherries, and bananas.
In the mouth: Not as hot here. The tastes are slightly more discernible. I get bananas drizzled with honey, fermenting bananas, vinegar, and caramel. There’s a slightly burnt but funky note in there that makes me think of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Based on what I’ve read and heard from the Mhoba fans, this is the most divisive release from them yet. One either loves this or doesn’t feel it. I belong to the camp that doesn’t feel this. I think this is due to either my being unfamiliar with this kind of wood flavor, or they over aged it.
Despite the unflattering review, I’d like to point out that brands like Mhoba are very interesting and inspiring. For one: how often do you hear of someone who has no background in the industry doing everything himself? Not only did Robert make his own stills and cane crusher, he also started using a local wood for his rum. To me, this is grass to glass on a different level.
Because of the funk, I wouldn’t recommend this to newbies. The flavors and ABV will most likely be too intense for them. Still, this is a brand I’m very happy to have learned about early on. I look forward to seeing how they progress.