The Tiki revival movement is clearly having its moment these days, having been heralded in dozens of articles to that effect. Even an old standby like TheWashington Post has gotten into the act, running stories about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and how to make your own orgeat. This is indisputably a good thing for people like yours truly who enjoy a balanced, expertly crafted tropical libation rather than a quart of fruit punch with cheap white rum thrown in. The elaborately constructed rum rhapsodies of the 1940 and 1950s took a serious dive downward for the following fifty years, picking up bad habits like flavored vodka and powdered drink mixes. By the start of the 21st century, Tiki was just about left for dead, consumed ironically if at all. Fortunately, the rise of the craft cocktail movement swept Tiki into its whirlwind of vintage recipes and ingredients. A decade or so later, dedicated Tiki-centric bars are popping up all over the world and modern Tiki recipes are just as easy to find as the classic Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and Steve Crane recipes from the 1930s through1950s.
Inevitably, tons of “Best Tiki Bars” lists have popped up online. Of the current “modern era” Tiki bars, these lists inevitably cite Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele, Latitude 29, Three Dots and a Dash, and Lost Lake, among others—all worthy of your drinking time. At the same time, a set of celebrity Tiki bartenders has become the face of the Tiki revival – people like Jeff Berry, Martin Cate, Blair Reynolds, and Paul McGee. You’ll find quotes from these fine folks all over the coverage of Tiki these days. They’ve all contributed significantly to Tiki’s new modern era, embracing the classics but not being bound by them either. A lot of attention is lavished on these revivalists, and deservedly so.
On the heels of my earlier posts (here and here), the list below contains my curated picks for new rums which should be appearing on U.S. shelves and your local watering holes in 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent label approvals. If you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or the label approval process, those posts a good place to start before diving in here.
To construct the list below, I queried the TTB database, constraining the results to the past four months. I then exercised editorial prerogative to cherry-pick the label approvals likely most interesting (in my opinion) to the rum community. The original list I harvested from the TTB was huge – several hundred entries–so I made sweeping cuts to bring the list down to a manageable size. Unfortunately, this time around that meant eliminating domestically produced rums. Not that there aren’t some good ones made here in the good old U. S. of A., but finding the worthwhile rums can be a needle in the haystack situation. Also, smaller distilleries may put out lots of rum, but they often have limited distribution.
In its highest form, bartending is an intimate, one-to-one experience. A bartender reads your preferences and desires, and with deft dexterity pulls from a full range of ingredients behind the bar to craft something that speaks to your tastes. It’s a casual, two-way conversation. Gone for the most part are the days of uniformed bartenders speaking in hushed tones, moving into the background once the drink is made. These days, we expect the best bartenders to be accessible – our friend who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and cocktails, while retaining a certain edginess and maybe a few tattoos hinting at interesting stories.
In this light, it’s a bit surreal to be sitting among several dozen of the most innovative bartenders from around the world–not across the bar at their home bases in London, Amsterdam, New York, or Bangkok, but rather, in a former U.S. Federal Reserve building in San Francisco. All are impeccably dressed in suits. One by one, eight of them climb onto stage, a backdrop of mirrors and dozens of Bacardi rum bottles arranged in rows for maximum visual wow factor. After carefully arranging the proper ingredients necessary to make exactly two cocktails, they spend a precise seven minutes presenting their story while crafting two identical cocktails. In front of them, seated in giant overstuffed leather chairs, are four of the most famous people in the spirits and bartending world, judging their every move and utterance. It’s a far cry from sitting with these talented competitors at their own bars. Nonetheless, their presentation, storytelling, and cocktail may well turn one of them and their carefully honed recipe into a household name in the global cocktail community. Their winning cocktail–featuring Bacardi rum, of course–will become a cornerstone of their legacy, hence the competition’s name: the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition.
The stemmed crystal glass in front of me holds translucent blue liquid. Surrounding it are several dozen similar glasses, all containing clear liquid, which makes the blue liquid really stand out in the lineup. A few feet away sit fourteen other people, including a high-ranking U.S. Federal Reserve executive, a retired NASCAR engineer, and the most well-known living Tiki bartender in the world. We each have identical sets of glasses before us, and we’re told that all the glasses contain white rum. The task is to evaluate the color and clarity of each rum on a scale from one to ten. Even the blue rum, which is rather fetching, in a Windex sort of way. The clarity isn’t an issue – it’s free of any particular matter, but what about the color? It obviously intentional, and not unpleasant to look at, but how to score it amongst a field of non-blue rums?
Every year in April, hundreds of rum experts descend on Miami for Miami Rum Renaissance, which is held over three days. Rum companies and related vendors have booths where attendees talk to brand representatives and sample dozens of rums. One of the festival’s highlights is the Rum XP awards. A panel of judges evaluate the rums exhibited in the show, and pick the best examples in eighteen different classes. Within each class, there’s an overall winner (“Best in Class”), and up to five Gold medal winners.
As someone who spends, shall we say, significant time in bars, fatigue from parsing ingredient lists on cocktail menus is an occupational hazard. So many Old Fashioned variations, so many twists on a daiquiri. No slight to the actual drinks, but a recipe that’s completely from out of left field is a rarity – that’s something I gotta have! The Banana Stand at Seattle’s Rob Roy absolutely falls into that category.
The Banana Stand is the brainchild of Zac Overman, a Tiki savant and recent transplant to Seattle — score one for us! Monday nights at Rob Roy are known as Tangaroa Roy–a celebration of Tiki, with anything but traditional Tiki classics. The Banana Stand made its first appearance at a Tangaroa Roy that happened to coincide with Seattle’s Women Who Love Whiskey anniversary party. Zac created a custom menu heavy on the whiskey, and The Banana Stand practically leapt off the page at me. Laphroaig? Crème de Banane? An automatic yes!
In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Worthy Park.
Martin Cate is about to be crushed by sugar cane. For someone so passionate about rum, it would be an entirely fitting way to check out. Luckily, Gordon Clarke, Worthy Park’s Co-Managing Director, is watching out for our group, obliviously snapping photos, and yells for us to move out of the way. Loosely held by a giant claw, SUV-sized clumps of cane stalks are traveling rapidly overhead, the occasional stalk tumbling to the ground below.
We’re witnessing firsthand what cane-to-glass really means here at Worthy Park. It’s the fourth and final day of our ACR group’s jaunt over the hilly Jamaican countryside, visiting six distillery sites all told. Each one vividly presents a different angle on the complex, 275-year history of the Jamaican rum industry. Some, like Appleton, have operated continuously from their inception have and become international marquee brands. Others, like Innswood, couldn’t compete as viable distilleries, so live on as mere husks of their former selves.