In any city worth its cocktails, there’s at least one or more person who cuts a wide swath of influence across the local bar scene and rises to national prominence – a person whose name becomes linked with the city and its drinking culture. Seattle has many, including Andrew Friedman, Jamie Boudreau, and Anu Apte. In Portland, Jeffrey Morgenthaler fills that role, while Huston has Bobby Heugel. In Indianapolis, Crossroads of America, Ed Rudisell is on track to join that club.
While Indy is famous for its annual race, and as the birthplace of Kurt Vonnegut and David Letterman, its high-end cocktail scene isn’t likely yet on most people’s radar. Their loss. In a three-day dash across the vast stretch of Indianapolis, Ed Rudisell showed us why ignoring Indy as a cocktail destination is done at your own peril.
At the recent California Rum Festival, I presented a session about my experiences in building a large social media following for the Cocktail Wonk brand, plus observations on what works and doesn’t work for other social media feeds.
The presentation, available as PDF, includes my slides and my accompanying notes can be found here:
With two more months in the rearview mirror, it’s time for another methodic scan of the TTB site for new rum releases–or more accurately, TTB approvals for new releases. The list at the end of this post contains my curated picks for new rums with a good chance of appearing on U.S. shelves and in your local watering holes later in 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent label approvals; if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or the approval process, that post is a good place to start before diving in here.
To construct the list below, I query the TTB database, constraining the results to the past two months. I then exercise editorial prerogative to cherry-pick label approvals likely most interesting (in my opinion) to the rum community. The original list I harvested from the TTB for July and August was substantial – well over a hundred approvals–and I’ve made sweeping cuts to bring the list down to the fifty or so here. Unfortunately, this meant eliminating all but one domestically produced rum. Not that there aren’t great rums made here in the good old U. S. of A., but finding the worthwhile rums out of a ton of “me too!” releases can be a needle in the haystack situation. (Also, smaller distilleries put out lots of rum with very limited distribution.) I also eliminated a few imported rums of dubious heritage and interest–typically silver or gold rums at 40 percent ABV from no-name brands, with no source given other than “West Indies” and without meaningful age statements.
To the uninitiated, a spirits festival, especially one focused on rum, might seem like an exercise in debauchery with faux pirates swinging from the chandeliers. As appealing as that may sound to some, a well-run rum event like California Rum Festival dispenses with the antics and serve two important purposes. First are the stated goals of educating consumers, those within the bar industry as well as enthusiasts. Educational seminars provide in-depth information on rum-related topics, and brands pour their products for attendees to taste a wide variety of rums. The second, unstated purpose of rum festivals is a rum family reunion. Thanks to the Internet and social communities on Facebook, producers, influencers, and enthusiasts from all over the globe have the chance to talk rum nearly 24/7. But rum festivals are where large groups of the family get together for a few days to really wonk out.
The California Rum Festival is produced by my friend Federico Hernandez under the auspices of The Rum Lab. This year was its second incarnation. Held on August 26-27th in San Francisco, the festival expanded its scope from the prior year, including brands and speakers from last year as well as new faces. The main festival day on Friday featured exhibits from all the brands and the majority of the educational sessions. On Saturday, the space turned into a rum bazaar, with arts and crafts by local artists, cocktails by local bars, and live music.
A recent article in Harper’s, The Rise of Rum Part 2: Reaching new sugar highs, has been making the rounds in the rum community, and not in a favorable way. While purporting to educate, promote and document rum’s recent rise in popularity, it actually does quite the opposite, with inane, and misleading passages like this:
Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer. It’s suited to late night bars and rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris….
Rum has a broad appeal because its ingredients are sugar cane and molasses,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation like a lot of sweetness in their drinks”
It’s not stuffy like cognac, overly traditional like whisky, depressing like gin, or superficial like vodka. It’s made of sunshine.
No, to be quite honest, rum is made from fermented sugar, and so is every other distilled spirit. Surprised? Read on.
Whisk(e)y begins with grain – barley, wheat, corn, … When the barley is cooked, the starches convert to sugars via enzymes. The resulting liquid wort is high in sugars. The wort then ferments with yeast to turn the sugars into alcohol. The distillation process then concentrates the alcohol.
You know you’ve got a good seminar on your hands when David Wondrich drops by and decides he wants to sit in on the panel–and first thing on a New Orleans Saturday morning at that. Such was the (wonderous) state of affairs at Cognac Ferrand’s Tales session, An Exclusive Tasting of Rare Pierre Ferrand Cognacs. Of all the offerings at Tales this year, Ferrand’s was the only one I purchased a ticket for in advance, rather than depending on my trusty media credentials and the standby line. Surprised? Read on.
In the world of distilled spirits, Cognac falls into the brandy category–that is, distilled spirits made from fruit. To be called Cognac, it must be the following: made from a specific types of grapes, grown in a specific region of France, and distilled in pot stills. It also must be aged for a minimum amount of time in in French oak barrels from the Limousin or Tronçais regions. These regulations are stylistically similar to regulations for bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky, creating a minimum-quality bar and preventing just any old grape-based spirit from being labeled Cognac and passed on to the unsuspecting consumer.
The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.
Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?
“Are you going to Tales this year?” If you’re connected with the spirits and cocktail industry, it’s a question you’ll hear more than once in the months preceding Tales of the Cocktail, held mid-July every year in New Orleans. For veterans of Tales, there’s an unspoken understanding that this isn’t just a few days having fun in New Orleans, popping into a few bars with friends and enjoying the occasional free cocktail, courtesy of the hundreds of brand sponsors. No, going to Tales is a commitment. You will push your body to its limit. You will race from event to event in the sweltering New Orleans heat, knowing that for every tasting room, pool party, or French Quarter bar reception you arrive at, there will three other concurrent events that you’ll miss. The FOMO (Fear or Missing Out) can loom large at Tales.
It’s Wednesday, July 20th, the first full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2016. The line outside of the Orleans room at the Hotel Monteleone had started queuing at least thirty minutes earlier, for a highly anticipated event that was scheduled to start soon: The official public unveiling of Plantation’s new O.F.T.D. Overproof rum.
Arriving early, I secure a spot not far from the head of the line. Shortly, Guillaume Lamy, Vice President of Cognac Ferrand and Plantation Rum, pops out of the room where preparations are still underway. We chat briefly and he mentions that just five days earlier, the half-pallet of O.F.T.D. now on-site in New Orleans was sitting in a warehouse on the East Coast, awaiting the U.S. government’s approval for importing–always an uncertain process. Talk about cutting it close!
The powers that be (whoever they are—curiously, no one ever seems to know) have decreed that July 19th of each year is National Daiquiri Day. Of course, in my book, every day is Daiquiri Day. I’d live life in a perpetual state of #DTO if I could get away with it.
Their name practically synonymous with daiquiris, Bacardi flew in top bartenders from around the country to make distinctive daiquiris at five bars around New Orleans for National Daiquiri Day, which conveniently enough landed during Tales of the Cocktail 2016. I personally am partial to a dry, expertly crafted Hemingway daiquiri (also a Mrs. Wonk go-to, over pebble ice if you’ve got it), but I also enjoy seeing what creative bartenders can do, starting from the classic daiquiri’s basic trio of rum, lime, and sugar.