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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Banana. Chocolate. Rich aged rum. Gentian root. Peppery spice. Intrigued? These are just some of the flavors dancing together in Seattle bartender Cameron George’s Havana Hustle, a semifinal-winning entry in the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail competition. In a few weeks, he’ll be taking his entry to the U.S. Finals in Miami, and if he dominates there, on to Berlin for the Global finals in the spring.
For spirits wonks, one of the great joys of travel is seeking out new and exotic bottled treasures and returning home with them in tow. It’s the thrill of the hunt – what will you find? Maybe it’s a bottle you never knew existed, or perhaps it’s one you’ve been stalking for years. Here in the U.S., the three-tier system makes it royal pain sometimes to find what you’d like at your local stores. So hunting for liquor while you travel, both domestically and internationally, can be highly rewarding.
When it comes to bringing liquor back into the U.S. from international travel, the biggest source of fear and confusion is “duty,” aka the duty free exemption. Generally speaking, U.S. residents can return to the U.S. with one liter of spirits, duty free. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) site says this: