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.
The educational sessions were roughly thirty minutes in length and typically included spirit or cocktail tastings. The speaker lineup was quite impressive for a relatively new festival, featuring:
- Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, Whitechapel, Tiki book author)
- Richard Seale (Distiller at Foursquare Rum distillery, Barbados)
- Ed Hamilton (Ministry of Rum founder, importer)
- Jim Meehan (PDT, New York, author)
- Forrest Cokely (Spirits expert)
- Matt Pietrek (That’s me!)
My session–titled Effective Social Media in the Spirits industry– covered what I’ve learned in building a substantial following on social media, especially on Instagram. I plan to expand the notes section of my slides subsequently post the contents here on the blog.
When not on the show floor talking with the brand representatives, I checked out both Martin’s and Richard’s talks. Martin covered “Using Rums in Vintage Exotic Cocktails,” starting with a brief run-through of Tiki history and early deities Don Beach and Victor Bergeron. A particular interesting interval was spent on the canonical 1944 Mai Tai and the rums used in it throughout the years, starting with Wray & Nephew 17. (See video, below). In later years, the rum switched to a mix of Jamaican and Martinique rums. Many people assume this means Rhum Agricole–however Martin makes a strong claim that the Martinique rum is actually molasses-based and quite different from agricole. (Martin tells the same story in his recent book, which I previously reviewed.)
As for the best rum for a 1944 Mai Tai today, Martin suggested Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, having consulted with them during its creation to create a blend approximating what Trader Vic used. In addition to Jamaican rum, Merchant’s Reserve contains Martinique molasses-based “Grand Arome” rum, which is challenging to find these days. If you’re curious about the Merchant’s Reserve, be sure to read my in-depth write-up.
A special treat for attendees of Martin’s session was a surprise tasting of the recently announced Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof from Plantation, along with a detailed recounting of how it came together. O.F.T.D. bottles are extremely scarce at this time, but I luckily encountered it a few times at Tales of the Cocktail earlier this year.
Richard Seale’s session focused on understanding rum in a historical context and the challenges rum faces as vendors try (once again) to establish it as premium spirit in the minds of consumers. Richard began with interesting historical context about rum’s importance and stature in the 17th and 18th centuries, then shifting to the distinction between truly artisanal rum production and the lackluster “rum” made in ethanol factories, with some particularly pointed digs at vodka. This segued into talking about Luca Gargano’s classification system for rums, which is has parallels to how Scottish whisky is categorized (e.g. single malt vs. blended vs. grain whisky).
Back on the show floor, the brands at the festival comprised a very solid lineup of well-known producers, including:
- Rhum Clement / Rhum J.M.
- Flor de Cana
- Ron Abuelo
It was also great to see some of my favorite smaller or emerging brands, including:
- Rational Spirits
- Real McCoy
- Ron Cartavio
- Hamilton (Ministry of Rum)
- Rum Society
- Rhum Neisson
(Check out the festival site for the full list.)
While rum vendors took up the majority of the show floor, there were other booths as well. One booth had great vintage Tiki apparel — I picked up two shirts, because you can never have too many! Martin and Rebecca (who’s aforementioned book just came out, were also at a table signing copies of the book and posing for innumerable photos like this:
In addition to all the rumtastic happenings at the festival, I took maximum advantage of our time in San Francisco for even more rummy goodness. I made my requisite spiritual (ha!) pilgrimage to K&L wines, which stocks hard-to-get rums. Since they don’t ship to Wshington State, I use every California visit to pick up the latest rarities. This time around it was the Rum Society “62” and “65” bottlings (more on these another time) and the K&L Faultline Caribbean 17 Year –the bottle doesn’t say exactly where it’s from, but K&L’s site gives a nudge: We can’t say where it’s from exactly, just that it’s from somewhere in the CUribBeAN region.
Last, not certainly not least, Tiki bars! No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Smuggler’s Cove–my streak of hitting Smuggler’s at least once each visit to the city remains intact! In a similar vein, a trek to Pagan Idol has become a very happy necessity. If I hadn’t been speaking the next day, we’d still probably be there. And in true Cocktail Wonk fashion, we were at Forbidden Island for the California Rum Fest wrap party on Sunday, right up to the last possible minute before catching our flight home. An altogether great weekend and another successful California Rum Festival in the books!