The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!

Run for the (Four) Roses – A distillery visit

CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 ($5)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Four Roses distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is a town with much to tell about whiskey redemption and renewal. Situated a thirty-minute drive west of Lexington, the town is bordered by the Kentucky and Salt Rivers, both supplying precious water to two iconic American bourbon brands. Wild Turkey went through a few decades where its namesake bourbon was associated with rough living lowlifes and considered bottom shelf. But that story pales compared to the rise, fall, and rebirth of Four Roses.

Four Roses
Four Roses

Continue reading “Run for the (Four) Roses – A distillery visit”

Checking out Demetrio Tequila

Tequila is big business these days. Consumers have been bitten by the agave bug, eagerly snapping up spendy bottles that fifty years ago would have been labeled “Mexican brandy.” While there are plenty of big brands (Jose Cuervo, Patrón, Sauza) and celebrity-backed brands (Carlos Santana and Casa Noble, Justin Timberlake and Sauza 901) clamoring for attention, there are also dozens of decades-old Mexican distilleries quietly (relatively speaking) producing top notch tequilas. One such brand that’s somewhat new to the U.S. market is Demetrio.

While tequila has a reputation with some as Mexican firewater that requires lime and salt to choke down, it may surprise you that Mexico has extensive and comprehensive regulations regarding tequila and its parent category, mezcal. These regulations are known as NOMs (Norma Oficial Mexicana), and included among the regulations is that each licensed distillery receives a government assigned NOM number, present on any bottle produced. Multiple online NOM databases can help you dig deeper into your bottle’s background. It’s not at all uncommon for a distillery to produce multiple brands of tequila, which a NOM database search will clearly show, as you’ll soon see.

Continue reading “Checking out Demetrio Tequila”

Hunting American Whiskey Heritage at the Wild Turkey Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Wild Turkey distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

“Wild Turkey? Are we really going there?” Such was the response from Mrs. Wonk when I outlined this year’s march through Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. If you’re old enough, you may have an impression of Wild Turkey as being inexpensive, less-than-stellar bourbon consumed in mass quantity by hard living folks like Hunter S. Thompson. That said, when those impressions were forming, bourbon and rye were less exalted than they are now, in the midst of the current whiskey craze, where folks pay exorbitant premiums for bottles labeled as the current “hot ticket.”  The upside to the current enthusiasm is that Wild Turkey’s reputation, helped in part by the Russell’s Reserve lineup, has shot up again. Thus I was able to construct a convincing argument to Mrs. Wonk that a visit was essential.  (Not that there was much discussion, she notes.

Continue reading “Hunting American Whiskey Heritage at the Wild Turkey Distillery”

Down the Drain: Rum community in turmoil as thousands of deaths linked to sugar cane production

The images on social media grab your attention –empty bottles, neck down in a sink. The contents? Flor de Caña rum. A recent article in Vice magazine details the fates of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters, who are dying at an alarming rate from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Influential bar owners and rum experts, such as Martin Cate, Ed Hamilton, Bobby Heugel, Andrew Friedman, Nicholas Feris, and Jim Romdall have posted their own empty-bottle photos or links to the Vice article (as well as a previous link in The Guardian that tread similar territory, without the groundswell) on Facebook and Instagram with thoughtful commentary. If you have access to those posts, I urge you to read them.

The crux of the Vice investigation is that in the Chichigalpa region of Nicaragua, in the years between 2002 and 2012, a syndrome called Mesoamerican nephropathy caused 75 percent of the deaths of men aged 35 to 55, numbering in the thousands. The primary employer in Chichigalpa region is Ingenio San Antonio, which harvests the sugar cane used to distill Flor de Caña rum. Sugar cane workers are paid by the harvested ton, rather than an hourly wage, thus many work extremely long days to make enough money to survive. The common term for Mesoamerican nephropathy is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD); symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, and associated problems, leading to kidney failure. The Vice article suggests two primary causes of CKD: First, insufficient hydration and rest for sugar cane harvesters, who often work in extreme heat in a subtropical climate, leading to kidneys being overloaded. Second, pesticides used for the cane harvest may also contribute to the condition.

Continue reading “Down the Drain: Rum community in turmoil as thousands of deaths linked to sugar cane production”

Ron Cartavio – Peruvian Rums That Belong in Your Arsenal

Close your eyes, and image a dark, intense sipping rum, created in a distillery surrounded by vast sugarcane fields and then aged for a decade or longer. Odds are you’re picturing an idyllic Caribbean island like Jamaica or Martinique. You probably weren’t thinking of a coastal valley just fifteen minutes from the Pacific Ocean in South America. Sure, Peru is known for Machu Picchu, pisco, and wine, but rum? Believe it or not, rum from Peru makes sense – numerous South American countries support sugar industries and produce rum, including Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, and Argentina. Knowing that, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Peru might also play in the cane spirits world. Since the high-end Cartavio rums started appearing on shelves around 2008, they’ve won a bushel of awards at spirit tasting competitions. Let’s check it out.

Continue reading “Ron Cartavio – Peruvian Rums That Belong in Your Arsenal”