Finding Ron – A Guide to Spain’s Rum Haunts

Spain: land of history, culture, majestic architecture. Complemented by a gastronomic feast — tapas, olives, sherry, and vermouth — best consumed over ice with an orange twist, in the shadow of a cathedral. During our two week trip through Andalucia and parts beyond, from Madrid to Seville to Jerez to Granada to Cordoba to Barcelona and back to Madrid, Mrs. Wonk and I reveled in the best Spain has to offer, including copious amounts of sherry, the genesis of our odyssey. Yet accompanying us at every step along the way was our good friend, Ron.

Ron, in case you hadn’t heard, is the Spanish term for rum. You might ask “What on earth does Spain have to do with rum?” The answer is, “More than you possibly know!” It was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, who brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from Spain’s Canary Islands. A few short decades ago, sugar cane still grew and rum was still being produced in the south of Spain, as we learned firsthand at our visit to a Madrid Tiki bar. Even today, the Arehucas distillery in the Canary Islands distills rum.

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Birth of a Sherry Cask

The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.

Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.

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In Search of Tio Pepe and Tipsy Mice at González Byass

The streets of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest of Spain are just coming to life as we emerge from the small train station on a late February morning. The weather is surprisingly temperate and families enjoy breakfast outside at the small cafes in the plazas. Train schedules being what they are, we’ve arrived a bit early for our appointment, so we have time to kill. All my previous experiences with vast quantities of wine have been in locations like California’s rural wine country, so it’s hard to imagine that vast quantities of sherry lie beyond the walls of these low-slung buildings in the heart of town.

The bell tower of the Jerez de la Frontera cathedral looms in the distance, rising above the two- and three-story buildings around it. Instinctively I walk that direction — gawking at cathedrals is a non-negotiable when traveling with me (as Mrs. Wonk knows too well). There’s only time for a quick few photos on the cathedral steps before our appointment. We only go a few steps, noses pressed to Google Maps, before Mrs. Wonk exclaims, “Look! Here it is!” Literally across the street from the cathedral is a white- and yellow-trimmed building with an unmissably large “González Byass” logo painted on the side. A statue of a man in 1800s garb standing next to a large wine cask labeled “Tio Pepe” confirms that we’re in the right spot.

González Byass
González Byass

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Ron Dos Maderas – Behind the Scenes and Straight from the Cask

Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.

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The Lustau Bodega Experience – A Cocktail Wonk Immersion

The narrow, maze-like one-way streets of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are mere crevices between the mix of two story buildings. Are they houses? Shops? It’s hard to tell exactly what lies beyond the doorways. Most are stucco and painted white to reflect the intense, Spanish sun that bears down on this seaside town where the Guadalquivir River exits into the Atlantic. A GPS will hopelessly confuse things here – the streets are so close together, you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Luckily, Federico Sánchez-Pece Salmeron, Director of Communications for Lustau, knows exactly where we’re heading.

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Vodka Brand Mad Lib

I would like to introduce you to __BRAND_NAME__, a high-quality, organic vodka produced and distilled in the __REGION_NAME__ region of __COUNTRY__. Crafted from native __COUNTRY__ __PLANT__, this vodka is distilled by the __MADE_UP_FAMILY_NAME__, who have been distilling alcohol in __COUNTRY__ since __RANDOM_YEAR__. This _NUMBER__-generation family-owned distillery strives to produce a clean and distinctive product, representative of the terroir.

__BRAND_NAME__ is composed of 100% organic __PLANT__ and pristine water from __BODY_OF_WATER__, creating a superb product. It’s then distilled __LARGE_NUMBER__ times and filtered through __EXPENSIVE_MATERIAL__, giving it an incomparable and smooth taste.

The result is an incomparable and smooth vodka with aromas of __PANTRY_ITEM__, __ANOTHER_PANTRY_ITEM__, and a velvety sweetness on the palate with notes of __FRUIT__ and __NUT__ with an elegant, light body, and a long finish.

Please let me know if you would like know more about __BRAND_NAME__, and I would be happy to provide you a sample with background information and tech sheet.

The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Sherry — Spain’s Magical Mystery Wine

The cool air is heavy with the smell of wine as our guide beckons us toward a wooden cask perched at eye level on a stand. We’re in an immense, high ceilinged stone warehouse in the southwest of Spain, beams of sunlight streaming in from windows high above us. Reaching behind the cask, he flips a switch and we realize the circular top and bottom barrel ends are made of clear plastic. The cask is mostly full of pale liquid, but floating on top is a quarter-inch thick layer of what appears to be mold.

Flor on a Fino sherry
Flor on a Fino sherry

Wait? Is this normal? Is it safe to drink? Odd as it may seem, the thick layer of yeast cells protect the wine from oxygen and creates an aging environment practically unique within the wine and spirits world. But this unusual yeast layer, known as “flor,” is just one of many dimensions that gives sherry it’s most unusual flavor–and makes it much more than just another wine.

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Black Rum: Setting the Record Straight

A recent online piece from Bon Appetit, Why We’re Drinking Black Rum, a Caribbean Spirit Even Whiskey-Drinkers Can Love, really got my dander up. Not that Bon Appetit is on my regular reading list, but when the linked passed by in my Google News alert for rum, I naturally had to see what a “mainstream” and respected food and drink magazine had to say about rum. As it turns out, the same-old blatantly incorrect “conventional wisdom.”

Quoting the article:  “So, what separates black rum from its lighter counterparts? For one, it’s aged for much longer than white rums. The aging process takes place inside a well-charred barrel, where the molasses-based spirit takes on the smoky characteristics of its environment. The result is that black rum shares taste characteristics with your favorite whiskeys, but with a touch more sweetness.”

Say it with me:  No, no, no, no, NO!

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Tonga Thunder! A New Adventure in Tiki

If you’ve been around these parts or the Cocktail Wonk Instagram feed for any length of time, you know Tiki drinks play a big role in the Wonky lifestyle. I revere the classics like the 1944 Mai Tai and the Jet Pilot, while celebrating modern recipes from my Tiki Monster friends like Jason Alexander, Martin Cate, Justin Wojslaw, and Zac Overman. Every so often I dip my toes into crafting my own concoctions using elements of the Tiki pattern and Minimalist Tiki principles. So hereby I present an original Tiki recipe that we’ve been enjoying the hell out of lately: The Tonga Thunder.

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Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles Location

In his 1895 book, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells posits a tabletop device that takes people backward and forward in time. Even if you can’t literally travel through time (yet), the ability to compress it has nearly limitless appeal. With his disruptive, rapid aging technology for spirits, Bryan Davis is doing just that: A way of forcing the chemical reactions that occur during barrel aging to happen orders of magnitude faster than Mother Nature would allow in her own sweet time.

It’s no surprise that Davis has latched on to a time machine metaphor for his rapid-aging spirit reactor (“a time machine for booze”), even using it as the title of his TEDx presentation about it.  Now, I realize this may be old news to many of you, as the story of Lost Spirits and Bryan has spread far and wide.  Stories in Wired, the Huffington Post, and numerous other spirits publications (including yours truly) have told the story many times over.

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