House Spirits of Portland, Oregon is dipping their toes into the rum pool with their new Bridgetown rum, part of their limited release, small batch series. House Spirits has made a name for themselves with their Aviation Gin, Westward malt whiskey, and other releases. To help define the character of the rum they partnered with Erik Carlson, the bar manager at Stoneburner and Bastille, and one of Seattle’s better known craft bartenders. Having studied Erik’s cocktail list at Stoneburner, I can tell he’s passionate about tropical style drinks, although certainly not limited to them. Thus he was a natural choice to work with House Spirits team, which he did over a number of sampling sessions.
Having attended the Bridgetown Rum launch party at Bastille, I was sufficiently intrigued to acquire a bottle and chat with Erik during a visit to the bar at Stoneburner. The Bridgetown name is a nod to the capital of Barbados, considered the birthplace of rum and home to Mount Gay, Foursquare, Cockspur and St. Nicholas Abbey rums. Bridgetown also alludes to the bridges between Ballard (a Seattle neighborhood) where Erik lives and Portland, about 170 miles south, where House Spirits is located.
Erik described to me the details of Bridgetown rum making process. It starts with “Barbados style” molasses, which is unsulphered, baking grade molasses and is fermented with Guadeloupe yeast strains. After double distillation in copper pot stills, 80% of the distillate is aged for six months in used House Spirits Westward whiskey barrels. The other 20% is aged for 3 months in New #2 char American Oak barrels before the two parts are brought back together. For the flavor profile, Erik targeted a mixing rum that merged his three favorite styles:
Agricole – Straw, grass and sugar cane
Jamaican – Funk, molasses, baking spices
Barbados – Ripe fruit, vanilla, butterscotch
In its substantial, individually numbered bottle, the Bridgetown’s color is a light-to-medium gold. Although intended as a mixing rum I first nosed and sipped it neat. There’s an initial enticing hint of Smith & Cross style Jamaican funk. This quickly turns to a bit of moderate burn and tails off to a woody finish. Yes, the Bridgetown is not a sipper. Instead, its flavor profile is more attuned to cocktails where the blend of rum styles is an asset. To me, the agricole and Jamaican notes are equally present, with the Barbados a bit less evident.
The obvious choice for testing out a rum like this is the Daiquiri. However, to mix it up a bit I went with a variation of the Daiquiri’s slightly more sophisticated cousin, the Royal Bermuda Yacht club:
Royal Bridgetown Yacht Club
2 oz House Spirits Bridgetown Rum
½ oz lime juice
¼ oz Dry Curacao
¼ oz Falernum
¼ oz simple syrup
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe.
In cocktails the Bridgetown holds its own but plays well with others like a good mixing rum should. It’s nice to see that the Bridgetown rum is further expanding flavor dimensions of rums from craft distilleries along the West Coast of the US.
I’ve realized recently that within the mixology world there are two tribes: The professionals who work at a bar and passionate amateurs, the “home bartenders”. Most experience with spirits and technique are shared by both tribes. I’m firmly on the home bartender side but I can converse with expert bartenders about many topics. When it comes to creating drinks at scale however, thinks are very different. A professional bartender needs to quickly make many drinks quickly, so the bar is set up for that. Ice is an arm’s length away, ingredients such as fresh lime juice are prepped beforehand and in easy-pour bottles, and dedicated rinsing devices speed up the turnaround time on each cocktail.
When I watch my professional friends behind the bar I wish I had those sort of conveniences. However, without dedicating a fairly large amount of space and money, I know it’s not feasible in my home bar. The space I have is roughly six feet by five feet, but I’ve packed in a few essential “power tools” which raise my cocktail making ability several notches above the guy with an ice cube tray, a lime and a couple of tumblers.
Having recently gotten my hands on the Polynesian Inspired rum from Lost Spirits Distillery, I’ve been test driving it and comparing it to their first rum, Navy Style. I’ve written about Lost Spirits quite a bit already, and have chatted with Bryan quite a bit about his process, including him giving me a custom presentation of his talk from the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance. With the context of my previous post (highly suggested background reading) I can better describe the differences between the two rums. I’ll end with a few other interesting anecdotes about Lost Spirits Distillery that Bryan shared.
Polynesian Inspired Rum
Coming in at 132 proof, the Polynesian Inspired rum is a take-no-prisoners powerhouse of a rum. Starting with the label, there are obvious stylistic similarities between the Polynesian and the Navy rums. The Polynesian label is essentially the Navy label’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ships and skulls replaced with Maori and Easter Island elements, and a color change. The fonts and other decorative details remain essentially the same.
The rum’s hue is a solid medium-to-dark gold, but compared to its Navy Style stable mate is noticeably lighter in color. On the nose both rums start with a similar strong, pleasing molasses element but eventually go in different directions, the Polynesian finishing a bit lighter and fruitier. This isn’t an accident. When deciding what the Polynesian should be, Bryan accented the pineapple aspect since it’s an essential Polynesian flavor.
In my prior post about Lost Spirits, I covered the seven ways that flavor can be controlled via science. The sixth step I mentioned is barrel aging, which is where the simpler fruit and spicy smelling esters get merged into the longer chained honey esters. In that post, I described how the ester Ethyl Butyrate has a strong pineapple smell. Given that you want a rum with a strong pineapple element it’s reasonable that you’d want to minimize the transformation of this ester into other esters. Bryan accomplishes this by using a different barrel preparation that minimizes the amount of phenols that convert the short chain esters (fruity) into long chain esters (honey). In addition, the amount of rancio, the nutty smell described in step 7 of my earlier post is dialed down considerably. Up to the barrel aging step though, the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired rums are essentially the same.
On the palate, assuming you’re up to sipping 132 proof rum, the Polynesian is much like you’d expect given the nose – A strong molasses flavor that turns to pineapple and butterscotch. Bryan says with a few drops of water it turns into a “pineapple bomb” and I can attest to that.
A few days after my bottle arrived, Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana and I sat together and tasted the Polynesian together. Jason, with his encyclopedic Tiki knowledge immediately thought it would work well in a Polynesian Paralysis variation. A few days later he sent me his recipe:
Polynesian Paralysis – Jason Alexander Variation • 3/4oz pineapple • 3/4oz lemon • 3/4oz Lilikoi juice (sub passion fruit syrup) • 1/2oz orgeat • 1/2oz falernum • 1/2oz Okolehao (A Hawaiian spirit, sub bourbon if not available.) • 2oz Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum
Flash blend with about a cup of ice
Lost Spirits – Diving Deeper
Beyond just getting a custom presentation of the Bryan’s Rum Renaissance presentation, I interjected a number of questions that veered off into other interesting topics. First and foremost, I was surprised to learn that Lost Spirits has a number of patents filed on his processes, and that Bryan licenses technology and consults for major distillers. In a sense Lost Spirits Distillery is his laboratory where he gets to do all sorts of fun experiments without needing the distillery to make a certain amount of money to stay afloat.
Lost Spirits first came out with a series of whiskeys including three different Leviathan releases and an Umami release. The distillery continues to age more whiskey stock and they have plenty of back orders, so naturally the question is “Why make a rum?” The initial reason Bryan and Joanne Haruta, his business partner started making rum was to season their whiskey barrels. Over time they found themselves enjoying the rum quite a bit and they decided to sell it. These days they find themselves focusing more and more on the rum side of things. Bryan says one reason for focusing on rum is that high end whiskey buyers typically buy just a bottle or two and add it to their 600 bottle collection whereas serious rum lovers will buy and consume multiple bottles over time.
As we now know, Cuban is the next rum style coming from Lost Spirits. However Bryan also mentioned an interest in doing a “Jamaican ester bomb” which I immediately endorsed with all available enthusiasm. But don’t expect a clone of Jamaican dunder rum, as one of the central elements of Jamaican dunder is clostridium saccharobutyricum which grows optimally in the soil surrounding the dunder pit. Bryan grows his “dunder” in five gallon plastic buckets that are controlled with lab grown bacterias, and thus he has the freedom to control the bacteria, tailoring it to the flavor profile he wants. In Jamaica, dunder pits aren’t such a big deal at the distilleries. In Monterey County, CA a bacteria pit is out of the question as it might create some serious problems with the health inspector.
When deciding what style of rum to make, here’s the Lost Spirits process: • Design a really cool label • Based on the label, envision what the rum tastes like • Do the science to produce a rum with that flavor profile.
In my post on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, I said “You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.” Thus, it delighted me then when Bryan recounted that they watched Pirates of the Caribbean approximately 40 times when deciding what the Navy Style should taste like.
For the Polynesian, Bryan set out to make a rum that’s perfect for all sorts of Tiki drinks. Another reason for doing the Polynesian rum is to show that the notion of molasses “terroir” isn’t nearly as important as some believe. Starting with the same ingredients and by tweaking just a few processes, Lost Spirits Distillery has created two largely different rums, and a third rum, the soon to be available Cuban style, should further prove this point.
Recently I had the good fortune to be at Rob Roy in Seattle on a night that Brady Sprouse was tending bar. I’ve enjoyed Brady’s previous work at Smith and have wonked out on a few occasions with him about craft cocktail ingredients and such. After the abnormally busy Thursday night crowd died down I asked Brady to make me something off-menu and of his choosing. What he delivered to me was a mezcal-based Old Fashioned variation that included Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.
Ancho Reyes is a relatively new spirit from Mexico, flavored primarily by the ancho chile. Up till this point I’d never tried it so Brady offered me a small sample of it, neat. I anticipated that it was going to be fairly spicy but I was pleasantly surprised when it had a mild to medium heat and enough sweet and other spice elements to make it easily sippable.
As I nursed my drink, the thought “Hey, this might be interesting in Tiki!” popped into my head. I mentioned this off-handedly to Brady and he immediately replied “I’ve got an interesting idea along those lines if you’re willing to try it.” Never one to forego mixological experimentation I said “Sure!”
Brady went to work with his magical bottles, and other then a quick dash of Smith and Cross at the end, I saw no rum appear. What he eventually set in front of me had the full on Tiki mug treatment, so that was encouraging. I naturally asked about the ingredients and was most surprised that he used the Ancho Reyes as a base spirit. Turning back to the Ancho bottle in front of me, I saw it was indeed 80 proof, and subsequent research shows that the primary ingredient is “neutral cane spirits”, which I’m going to call close enough to rum for this discussion.
Finally taking a sip, a smile crossed my face. The chile spice is definitely present but doesn’t dominate and it’s unquestionably a tiki-style drink. Brady was nice enough to jot down the recipe, which he quickly dubbed the “Aztec Warrior.” If you’re a tiki-wonk you’ll notice a certainly similarity to the Jet Pilot, one of the house specialties at Casa CocktailWonk. The primary difference between the Aztec Warrior and the Jet Pilot are that the rums are swapped out for Ancho Reyes and Batavia Arrack.
Aztec Warrior (Brady Sprouse)
1.5 oz Ancho Reyes Chile Licor
.5 oz Batavia Arrack
.5 oz rich cinnamon syrup
.5 oz Falernum (Use alcohol-based, house made, rather than Velvet Falernum)
.75 oz grapefruit
.75 oz lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
.25 oz Smith and Cross (for the float)
Combine everything except the Smith & Cross. Shake, pour over crushed ice. Float the Smith & Cross, then garnish with a dash of Angostura Bitters and whatever Tiki-like garnish you like.
Recently Bryan Davis, organic chemistry “hacker” and co-owner of Lost Spirits Distillery walked me through his presentation on creating highly flavorful rum that he gave at the Miami Rum Renaissance in April 2014. In this post I’ll present a summarized version, yet still filled with details you don’t normally hear about in distiller descriptions. While I’m focused mostly on rum, Lost Spirits Distillery also makes other spirits including some award winning Whiskeys. Almost all of the “science” below applies equally to rum, whiskey and their other spirits.
At the 30,000 foot level, the flavoring of a spirit involves a series of steps in a pipeline. At each point, biological and chemical reactions occur that add, modify or remove the organic compounds that are ultimately what we perceive as flavor. The basic steps of rum production: creating a mash (molasses in the case of rum), fermenting it, distilling it, then barrel aging it are essentially the same from producer to producer. What Bryan Davis does particularly well is understand exactly the chemical reactions taking place at each stage, was well as knowing how to impact the steps so that the desired flavor compounds come through and the unpleasant compounds are minimized.
When you read tasting reviews of a spirit, you’ll hear terms like “fruity”, “pineapple”, “cloves”, and “smokey”, used to describe the taste. Those flavors come from esters which are organic compounds. Each ester has its own particular smell and we humans sense some esters at very low concentrations while others require a much higher concentration before we notice them.
What I find particularly fascinating after talking with Bryan is that all the esters in the final rum aren’t necessarily there in the beginning phases. In fact there are points along the way where downright awful smelling acids undergo chemical bonding to alcohols (becoming esters) and come out smelling like wholesome fruity goodness.
Let’s look at a few examples – Don’t worry, I won’t go total biochemist on you, and don’t need to know what Phenylethyl Acetate is. Bryan says that to understand the flavor of rum, you need to understand pineapple, honey, and chocolate. Easy enough, right? Not so fast! Consider this set of organic compounds:
Hopefully you’ll never encounter all that, right? As it turns out, this is the set of esters found in pineapple. While all are present, it’s the ethyl butyrate (ninth down on the left) and ethyl octanoate (top right corner), that are the core flavor of pineapple – By themselves you’d smell the essence of pineapple but not the full spectrum present with an actual pineapple in front of you. Now, if you took this mix of esters, lowered the amount of ethyl butyrate and increased the amount of octyl acetate (third down on the right), you’d get the smell of oranges. Doing the same with decyl acetate (bottom, right) would give you a pear smell. The science of rum that Bryan Davis practices is knowing which esters he wants, which he doesn’t and creating the right conditions so that the desired esters dominate.
So how does this relate to pineapple, honey and chocolate? To get to the desired esters, sometimes you start with something very unpleasant, then make it undergo a chemical process with other compounds to produce a desired ester. Some examples:
Ethanol (the alcohol produced via fermentation)
Butyric Acid (Smells like vomit)
Ethyl Butyrate (The smell of Pineapple)
Now, let’s be very clear – This isn’t simply mixing the two together that produces the desired result. It must be actual chemical bonding.
What about spice? Let’s take cinnamon for an example:
Cinnamic acid (Oak barrels are a good source)
Ethyl Cinnamate (The smell of cinnamon)
Ethyl Cinnamate and related compounds are a subcategory of esters called phenols. Phenols are the spicier, woody part of the smell spectrum.
What would happen if you chemically bonded a fruity ester with a spicy phenol? This is where the honey comes into play:
Ethyl Butyrate (Pineapple smell)
Phenol Ethyl Butyrate (A honey, floral smell)
This last ester above is a “long chain” ester composed of simpler esters. Bryan points out that these types of esters are solely the result of the barrel aging part of the process.
What we’ve just walked through is a very small set of esters. In reality, there are hundreds of esters in play in a rum, typically around 300, as opposed to 80 in a fruit. The entire rum making process is about coaxing all these good and bad esters into a desirable combination.
Seven ways to supercharge flavors
Step 1 – Material selection – What to ferment?
Lost Spirits uses baking grade molasses as their starting point for rums, whereas other distillers will often use lesser quality molasses. This isn’t just a nicety. Sulfur is often used to aid the extraction of sucrose from the pressed sugar juice, and if they used a lesser grade of molasses, the sulfur would need to be removed during the distillation process via higher distillation. While you could do that, you’d also extract out more of the good flavors you’d worked hard to introduce.
A fun side note here – In his presentation, Bryan talks about lignins, which are the complex polymers that give sugar cane stalks their structure. When they stalks are crushed to extract the juice, some amount of lignin remains in the juice. When the juice is later boiled, the lignins undergo thermal decomposition into simpler phenolic acids that we perceive as the smoky flavor from molasses.
Step 2 – Dunder – A bacteria farm
The topic of dunder a “rum story” favorite of mine and amusing to watch people’s reaction when you tell it. During the fermentation process you need a good, plentiful source of bacteria. The dunder “pit” is where you “grow your pet bacteria” as Bryan puts it. It doesn’t really matter what organic materials you put in your dunder pit as long as it helps your target bacteria grow. In old-school rum production the spent mash after distillation was thrown into a pit in the ground to replenish the dunder. Over time all sorts of interesting bacteria fester and multiply in the pit. It’s said that some distilleries even added bat carcasses into dunder pits along with who knows what else. Dunder pits are just a really awful, vile cesspool of bacteria. The bacteria in the dunder form carboxylic acids which have a rotting smell but will eventually be converted into something much better.
While Lost Spirits is all for authenticity, there are numerous reasons why a dunder pit in the middle of Monterey County, CA farmland would be problematic, not the least being the health inspector. Instead, Bryan uses five gallon plastic buckets and things like overripe bananas for his dunder pit. It took him many iterations to find the right set of ingredients to make a good dunder. By starting with an optimal dunder, Bryan is able to obtain many desired esters during the fermentation process, rather than waiting years for them slowly to form in a barrel.
Step 3 – Creating carboxylic acids from yeast
At this point in the process, you have a pool of bacteria. This is combined with yeast and the molasses to start the fermentation processes which produces a number of compounds including various alcohols such as ethanol, and esters. You’ve got fuel (the molasses), and two living organisms, bacteria and yeast fighting for resources to grow and multiply. Ordinarily, the bacteria would always win as they multiply faster than yeast does. However, yeast knows how to cheat – It creates carboxylic acids which slow the growth of the bacteria and when combined with alcohol become esters which as we now know are generally desirable, flavor-wise. Different strains of yeast produce different carboxylic acids so knowing the types of bacteria you have in your dunder, you can select yeast strains that result in desirable tasting esters.
Step 4 – Stressing the yeast
When yeast is under stress, i.e. less than optimal conditions it will combine alcohols with carboxylic acids to create esters. There are apparently many ways of stressing the yeast. Bryan uses nitrogen deprivation to weaken the cell walls. It’s during this phase many of the nasty smelling components mentioned earlier get turned into better tasting compounds.
Step 5 – Distillation
Distillation uses the fact that different types of liquid, e.g. ethanol, methanol, water, etc… boil at different temperatures. By heating the fermented mash and selectively capturing the vapor at the right intervals you can concentrate the desired parts and reduce the undesired components such as methanol.
Some distillers, especially vodka producers go to great lengths to distill their product multiple times to make it as pure and as possible. However, as you’ve seen already the Lost Spirits process focuses on creating the best possible “input” as possible – More of the desirable elements and less of the bad elements that need to be filtered out. With such an optimal input heavy distillation would only serve to remove many desired flavor elements. Thus, Bryan built a pot still that does less separation than a still used for something like Irish whiskey or vodka. For the still-wonks out there, his still has a relatively short neck.
Step 6 – Barrel Aging
For barrel aging the Navy Style and Polynesian Rums, Bryan uses heavily charred new American oak barrels seasoned with Oloroso sherry. While no sugar is directly added to the rum post-distillation, the sherry does impart a very small sugar content which adds to the flavor profile.
Regarding the effect of barrel aging, Bryan mentions that the oak trees rigidity comes from lignin, the same thing I mentioned earlier when talking about sugar cane and molasses. The charring of the barrels acts as a “knife” to break up the lignins into phenolics, which you may recall are the “smoke” aromas, and will go on to form the spice flavored esters. American oak barrels were chosen because the phenols resulting from it are disproportionately high in phenolic precursors to vanillin and other vanilla smelling chemicals. It’s during the barrel aging process that the simpler fruity and spicy esters are converted into the more complex honey-like esters.
Step 7 – The Holy Grail of Rancio
Rancio, or Benzaldehyde & related compounds to be formal, is the “nutty” flavor you find in spirits that have aged for a relatively long time. Sherry is the most familiar example of rancio. Bryan points out that Rancio formation is a separate process from “regular” barrel aging described above and that rancio is a chemical decomposition by-product of the wood lignins after very long exposure to a solvent (water and alcohol).
In the case of sherry and some rums, the rancio comes from the solera method, wherein the spirit spends time in a series of barrels. The first barrel only holds new make spirit, the second barrel only holds spirit drawn from the first barrel, the third barrel only holds spirit drawn from the second barrel, and so on. Eventually, the spirit is removed from the oldest barrel for bottling. It should be obvious that the oldest barrel(s) have had spirits in them for a very long time, and as such are imparting the most rancio.
While there’s a lot of tradition with Rancio, it can take a very long time before you have barrels that are capable of adding rancio. Bryan’s innovation was in figuring out how to treat his barrels so that the lignins have started to decompose by the time of their first use. Simply put, he’s supercharged the rancio process and put it under his control.
During our conversation, Bryan mentioned that his first rum (Navy Style) was created to show off all aspects of his technical innovations in the spirit making process. Subsequent rums may not use all these tricks, or may add others. In my next post I’ll talk about the Polynesian Inspired rum and how it differs from the Navy Style. Finally, a big thanks to Bryan for reviewing this post for technical accuracy.
As followers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of Lost Spirits Distillery and their very scientific approach to understanding and then optimizing each phase of rum making to make exactly the flavor profile they’re targeting. While already receiving rave reviews and awards for the first rum iteration, Navy Style, they’ve recently released a second iteration, Polynesian Inspired rum. For those of us who don’t live in California it’s been might tough to get our hands on the Polynesian, as the only distributor who had it initially doesn’t ship anywhere, including Washington State where I live.
A few days ago I finally got my hands on three bottles of the Polynesian Inspired Rum. After trying it out I hit up Bryan Davis, co-owner and mastermind of Lost Spirits Distillery, for details about how he makes the Polynesian style different than the Navy Style. What started as a simple question ended up being a 90+ minute Skype call where he walked me through his presentation at the Miami Rum Renaissance, as well as answering a whole bunch of other questions I had about his process and the distillery itself. Coming off the call I knew there was way too good information to cram into just one very long, rambling post so I’m breaking what I learned into several posts.
For this post, the big news Bryan gave me the OK to share is that Lost Spirits Distillery will be releasing a third style of rum within the next month or so, a Cuban Style that will be drier than the Navy and Polynesian. Bryan says the wood does more of the talking in this rum while the fermentation components do less. I’m sure the Cuban will be a Tour de Force of flavor much like the first two, and my next quest is to get ahold of a bottle of it. Bryan anticipates that the Cuban style may even supplant the Navy Style in popularity. Bonus tip: If you run into someone wearing a Lost Spirits shirt at Tales of the Cocktail 2014 in New Orleans next month, flag them down and you may be able to score a sample!