Deep insights into rum, whisk(e)y, brandy, tiki and bars
California Rum Fest 2015 and Rational Spirits Santeria Pre-Launch
It’s 10 PM on Saturday night and I’m standing in the dark by the side of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Bryan Davis, master distiller of Lost Spirits holds his iPhone aloft, flashlight lit, to help our friend Anders snap a rum bottle photo. A few feet away, a twelve-person party bus sits motionless with its doors open, exposing a veritable dance club’s worth of lighting. An epic Tiki party is awaiting us less than five miles away, if only we could get there. How is this my life? Let’s take it from the beginning – a photo tour of my crazy, rum-packed weekend.
Just twelve hours earlier I’d boarded a flight from Seattle; destination, San Francisco, for the inaugural California Rum Fest. My friend Federico Hernandez did a bang-up job rounding up an impressive list of rum exhibitors and speakers for the event, held at the Terra Gallery in SOMA.
One of my Rum Fest highlights was spying Richard Seale with his handheld density meter—which looks a bit like a hotel room iron, if you’re not sure what you’re looking at. Richard uses it to assess how much sugar (or other additives) has been added to rums. By comparing the measured Alcohol byVolume (ABV) to the labeled ABV, the density meter can help obtain a fairly accurate estimate of how many grams of sugar have been added per liter of rum; an additive-free rum will measure the same ABV as the label states. Richard enlists willing participants to collect samples from a few exhibitors. The results are a bit depressing for fans of unadulterated rums.
As the Rum Fest was winding down, the aforementioned disco party bus arrived, holding Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits, along with Alexander Burns, the man behind Rational Spirits and the first recipient of a Lost Spirits THEA One rapid-aging reactor. The plan: Pick up a group of Rum Fest attendees and head to rum aficionado Mark Holt’s hillside retreat for his annual—and infamous–Tiki party. Mark is the founder of the US Bartenders Guild Silicon Valley chapter and a voracious collector of rum and Tiki paraphernalia going back well over a decade.
As we board the bus, Bryan announces that he has the first bottles of Santeria rum on hand. Although Rational Spirits will eventually produce Santeria at its under-construction distillery in South Carolina, Lost Spirits has helped them out by creating the initial batch, as well as consulting on the recipe for a high-ester rum using a big slug of dunder, similar to what Jamaican distilleries use. Earlier that day, Bryan, Joanne, and Alex hand bottled the first case of Santeria, one of those being the bottle that accompanied us to the party.
Hurtling down the highway, music blaring, the bus suddenly slows down and soon creeps to a halt. There’s an accident ahead of us, and the freeway has shut down. After half an hour, with no movement in sight, we decide to hop out of the van, catch some fresh air, and oh… snap a few more photos of the first Santeria bottle.
Eventually the accident clears, and we wind up the seemingly interminable mountain road to Mark’s house. Mark’s parties have become the stuff of legend –hundreds of people and multiple bands playing around his hillside pool and separate Tiki bar/cabana. World-class professional bartenders from Bay Area bars crank out amazing Tiki drinks for hours on end. This year’s bartender was Syrus from Paper Plane in San Jose, who’s created a special menu of drinks, including two featuring the Santeria. By the end of the night, all the Santeria was gone – no surprise there!
Leaving the party around 3 AM, we bussed to the Lost Spirits lab in Morgan Hill. Bryan and Joanne have generously let me crash in a guest room. The next day, with way too little sleep, I mainline a bit of coffee before Alex arrives. He’s in town for a few days to talk with folks about Rational Spirits, as well as give away a few bottles of Santeria to key people in the Bay Area. First though, more rum needs to be labeled!
While I sat at the kitchen counter, furiously documenting the activity, Joanne cuts out the labels by hand, Alex signs and applies the labels and adds a wax stamp, and Bryan shrink-seals the corks. Another case is ready to go!
With new batch in hand, we all set out in the Lost Spirits convertible to downtown San Jose to meet Mark Holt and his partner, Wendy, migrating soon enough to Paper Plane, San Jose’s best known craft-cocktail destination bar. Sure enough Cyrus from last night’s party is behind the bar—no rest for the weary. Alex hands over a couple of bottles to add to the bar’s rum collection, and soon enough, a gorgeous cocktail with Santeria unexpectedly arrives!
Upon arriving back at the Lost Spirits lab, Bryan disappears upstairs, then reappears with three two-quart mason jars holding dark liquid. It turns out that a number of distilleries interested in the THEA reactor have sent Bryan samples of their unaged spirits for him to reactor-age. These three bottles were clear, white-dog rye a week or two earlier. After a few initial sips, we decided that cask-strength tasting in the 130 proof-plus range is somewhat counterproductive. Solution: Dilute them to a more reasonable 100 proof. But how much water to add? Being geeky, we could have mathematically calculated how much water to add, but Bryan took it a step further. He also has a density meter similar to Richard’s, enabling us to measure the exact proof after adding a bit of water. Nothing like a $1,600 whiskey accessory, eh? One of the ryes (and I can’t say whose) turned out to be a dead ringer for a quality, 10 year-plus aged rye.
The next morning I hopped on a plane back to Seattle and returned to my (mostly) normal life. But for one glorious 48-hour period, I lived a glorious, rummy, wonky life!