Chasing the Bat: Four Days Embedded In the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition Finals

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.

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The Judges Chamber – Behind the Scenes at Miami Rum Renaissance

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?

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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.

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Cocktail Obsession – Banana Stand, From Seattle’s Rob Roy

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!

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Worthy Park: A Jamaican Rum Distillery for the 21st Century

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.

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An exclusive visit to Jamaica’s historic Long Pond Rum Distillery

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, Long Pond.

Ruel, our intrepid bus driver, has been through a lot. On a normal day, he ferries busloads of people to hotels, resorts, and tourist sites. However, our five-day visit to Jamaican distilleries has been–quite literally –off the beaten path for him. He’s handled an ever-increasing set of oddball circumstances so far, not the least of which was locating a building with no apparent address in the middle of a sugar cane field. But today goes beyond even that. We are idling at the entrance of what may be the Holy Grail of Jamaican distillery visits.  The mood on the bus is tense as Ruel negotiates with a gate guard. Beyond the chain link fence is what looks to be an abandoned factory, surrounded by sugar cane fields. The guard is completely flummoxed–she’s heard nothing about letting in a busload full of tropical shirt wearing rum junkies.

A garbage truck rumbles up to next us. We on the bus take note of the (non-driving) garbage workers taking swigs from bottles of overproof Jamaican rum. They’re let through the gate. More time passes. Ruel makes a phone call. The guard makes a phone call. Neil Morris, our ACR ambassador, makes a phone call. More waiting. We’re tantalizingly close to the Long Pond distillery, which wasn’t on our scheduled list of distillery visits. However, thanks to yesterday’s successful visit to Clarendon, Long Pond’s sister facility, Neil had managed to pull strings and get permission to poke our nose through Long Pond’s door and peek at the stills. After what seems like an eternity, the guard opens the gate. Victory! We’re in—and have literally no idea what to expect. After all, it really does appear deserted.

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Ground Zero of Jamaican Funk: Going Deep at Hampden Estate

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a group 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, Hampden Estate.

Terroir. When we hear it used, we picture the soil of a vineyard in France, the salty sea air of Islay where whisky barrels mature, or locally foraged gin botanicals in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the unique air, water, soil, and scents of a region that make a spirit special – something nearly impossible to replicate somewhere else. Terroir evokes the romance of a particular place and is frequently used by marketers to tell a tale about why their spirit couldn’t be made anywhere else. However the most unmistakably vivid example of terroir influencing a spirit’s character that I’ve yet to witness is at Hampden Estate in Jamaica–and I guarantee you’ll never find it cited in any marketing copy.

Hampden is an old-line Jamaican rum distillery, and by far the most unchanged from how it looked and operated hundreds of years ago. It produces the funkiest, highest ester rum of any Jamaican distillery, the direct result of a fermentation process that can only be described as downright frightening – a dim, hot, damp building where dirt, fungus, cobwebs and who knows what else covers every square inch of stone walls, wooden beams, and old plank floors. Brick-lined pits set into the ground swirl with opaque brown mystery fluid. Nearby, wooden vats hold thousands of gallons of spent rum wash, covered with a thick layer of organic scum. The concentration of fungal spores in the air is off the charts. During Hampden’s several-weeks long, natural fermentation process, it’s exactly these conditions that ultimately result in their instantly identifiable fruity, funky, high-hogo Jamaican rum. This is terroir in the extreme– the ambient conditions contributing to one of the most beloved and unique combination of flavors in the world of spirits. Lest you be seriously worried at this point, the distillation process does an amazing job of separating the good from the bad, leaving you with only tasty, perfectly safe Jamaican rum.

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Inside Jamaica’s Clarendon Distillery: Home to Monymusk Rum and a Certain Captain

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, Clarendon, part of National Rums of Jamaica.

Rum isn’t always pretty. Awash with images of tropical islands, sugar cane glistening in the morning sun, majestic pot stills, and silent warehouses full of angels taking their share, most people rarely encounter the mass scale and industrial process side of things: Stainless steel fermentation tanks holding 50,000 gallons of molasses. House-sized heat exchanger units. Towering multi-story column stills that look they wandered off from an oil refinery.

Much as we might imagine that all rums are made in picturesque distilleries like St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados, with barrels resting a few yards away, the reality is that the vast majority of rums–even highly regarded ones–are produced in almost unimaginable bulk and shipped around in tanker trucks. Nary an aging warehouse in sight.  This is the side of the rum world we got to see at Clarendon Distillers Limited (CDL) in Jamaica.

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Innswood: The Jamaican Rum Distillery that Time Forgot

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, Innswood, part of National Rums of Jamaica.

Ruel is very lost. He’s driven back and forth on a flat stretch of highway flanked by sugarcane fields, looking fruitlessly for our destination. The only two signs in this four-mile stretch appear to have been created during the Kennedy administration and aren’t much help. In the back of his mini-bus are ten rum-obsessed explorers anxiously checking Google maps and scanning the horizon for anything resembling a rum distillery. Ruel makes a phone call. He drives a bit further, stops, pulls over, and makes another phone call. Mind you, this isn’t his fault. He’s already proven himself a highly competent driver: The previous day he bombed through the narrow, twisty roads of Cockpit Country to deliver us to Appleton Estate with nary a missed turn. But today he has the Herculean task of finding Innswood Distillery, which clearly wants to remain undiscovered.

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Behind the Scenes at Appleton Estate with Master Blender Joy Spence

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, Appleton Estate.

The water source. At distilleries around the world, the first thing you invariably hear about their magical water source. You may be pointed towards a creek, flowing down from the Sottish highlands, as I saw at the Glenrothes, or peer down into deep, black pool emerging from a cave, like I found at the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee. But hands down, the most breathtaking water source that I’ve yet seen is at Jamaica’s Appleton Estate. After driving several miles on a bumpy, rutted path through cane fields, we emerge into a clearing with an oblong pond and a small pump house to the side.  A grove of trees shields the far side of the pond, and one end narrows into a stream that wanders through a grassy field, a few cows lazing about in the sun. Surely the dark, aquamarine hue of the water is a trick of the light — perhaps a reflection from the sky. But as I left the car and approached the pond’s edge, my brain slowly accepted that the water really is an almost unnatural shade of translucent blue-green.

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The water source at Appleton Estate
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Water source at Appleton Estate

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Days of Dunder: Setting the Record Straight on Jamaican Rum’s Mystery Ingredient

Hogo. Funk. The smell of overripe banana. Jamaican rum is uniquely beloved in the spirits world for its powerful, easily identifiable pungent fruitiness. Connoisseurs of Jamaican funk utter phrases like “high ester count” and “long fermentation.” But nothing gets the rum nerd more enthused than talk of “dunder,” the mysterious ingredient that allegedly makes Jamaican rum extra funky.

Exactly what comprises dunder is shrouded in mystery, but dig around a bit and you’ll find references to goat heads, dead bats, and worse, churning in a lethal, volatile mass of evil death stored in an earthen pit, presumably somewhere near the distillery for easy access. Heck, even I’m guilty of spreading these tales. Throw a few scoops of this black death into the molasses wash, and voila! Instant hogo. Or so many people think. The reality is far less simple—and way more interesting.

As part of an ACR tour of Rum Industry influencers, including Martin Cate, Camper English, Peter Holland, and Wayne Curtis, I received an intense, behind the scenes look at Hampden Estate, ground zero of high-hogo rums. Standing in the hot, dimly lit fermentation area with distillery manager Vivian Wisdom, we grilled him for nearly an hour on every aspect of how the wash that goes into Hampden’s stills is created. No detail was spared: Fermentation times, pH levels, quantities, we wanted to know all.

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