Jamaican Rum Distillery Cheat Sheet

People are always asking me what my favorite bottle of rum is. I always tell that it’s like picking your favorite child. I can’t do it. But I do volunteer that funky, fruity, high-hogo Jamaican rums are what I gravitate towards most. Smith & Cross, Appleton 21, Wray & Nephew Overproof, Rum Fire. I love them all!

Sadly, as I write this, I’ve never been to a Jamaican rum distillery. That’s about to change soon though. Thanks to the Authentic Caribbean Rum program (part of WIRSPA), I’m headed to Jamaica to tour just about every operating rum distillery on the island. A true dream trip for a rum nerd like me.

I always do my homework when opportunities like this arise. I’d read about many different Jamaican distilleries, but keeping them all straight can be a challenge. Who’s still operating? Who owns them? What brands are made in each of them? To help me keep things straight, I wonked out, chasing down as many details as I could find, and compiled the results in the cheat sheet below. It’s not intended as a comprehensive history of Jamaican distilleries, nor does it cover every single associated brand. Instead, it’s about who’s currently producing rum in Jamaica, what are their most well-known brands, and a bit of relevant recent history where needed.

I’ve cited as many sources as I can via links, but it’s entirely possible some sources are out of date. If you see something egregiously wrong, don’t hesitate to drop me an email or comment. I’ll correct ASAP!

Update (4/8/2016): My post for each distillery we visited are here:

Continue reading “Jamaican Rum Distillery Cheat Sheet”

The most important rum company you’ve never heard of: E&A Scheer – Rum Merchants to the World

Walking through the canal district of central Amsterdam can be disorienting to all your senses. The cobbled streets and sidewalks are narrow and filled with what seems an endless stream of bicycles, mobile and stationary. The 17th century-era row houses lining the canals are all similar in style and color — three stories tall and nestled tightly together as far as the eye can see. Every block looks similar to the prior block, austere but beautiful. It’s only thanks to Google Maps that we’ve located a particularly important address, a major epicenter of the rum world. From the street, though, it appears like any other nicely appointed Dutch residence; it’s only sign of what’s inside is a small polished brass plate under the doorbell Mrs. Wonk and I have found our way here on this February morning to visit the inner sanctum of E&A Scheer—a serious heavy hitter in the worldwide rum business, but one you’ve likely never heard of.

Continue reading “The most important rum company you’ve never heard of: E&A Scheer – Rum Merchants to the World”

Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

It’s Saturday night in Tacoma, WA and I’m perched in my usual spot at the bar at Tacoma Cabana. Tiki master Jason Alexander is showing me his latest well lineup. Strangely, there’s no Plantation rums, typically the core of his lineup. I ask about their omission. “Can’t get ‘em anymore” he says. How can this be?

Plantation parent company, Maison Ferrand has been a darling of bartenders and spirits aficionados for years, selling well-regarded brands like Plantation, Citadelle Gin, Cognac Ferrand, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and many others. You’ll find their brands on craft cocktail menus all over the U.S. However, here in Washington State, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of Pierre Ferrand products on a bar menu or liquor store shelf in recent days. But only six months ago, the situation was very different–Ferrand’s products were readily available and pouring into cocktails in bars everywhere. So what gives? The answer is a microcosm of what’s wrong with how liquor is sold in the United States.

Up till recently, Washington stores and bars would order their Ferrand products from American Northwest, a regional wine and spirits distributor. Until one day a new distributor, Crush & Cooper of Washington LLC, announced they were the new Washington distributor for Pierre Ferrand. Hmmmm…. Order fulfillment shifted to Crush & Cooper, and things were running smoothly for months, till one day when the flow simply dried up. American Northwest had filed a lawsuit to prevent Crush & Cooper of Washington from selling a number of products previously distributed by American Northwest, including Ferrand’s. The end result for Washington State consumers (at least in the short term) is that a large number of spirits are suddenly unavailable in bars or on store shelves.

How is this possible? Why does who distributes a product matter? And why can only one distributor sell a product in a given market? If the answers to these questions are a mystery, you’re likely not yet familiar with the byzantine disaster known as the Three-Tier Distribution system. If you set out to design an efficient system for getting a wide variety of goods from producers to consumers, a la Amazon.com, it would look completely unlike today’s existing Three-Tier system. The number of players and regulations involved makes it a minor miracle that anybody in the U.S. has access to more than five brands. Let’s take a look at the Three-Tier, and see how it impacts what liquor you drink.

Continue reading “Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want”

Cocktail Obsession: Pizzicato Passage

Seattle winters are more cool gray drizzle than snow, and our rainy Decembers are mostly indistinguishable from our Novembers and Januarys. But for people of the spirited persuasion, December in Seattle means one thing: Rob Roy’s Advent Calendar cocktail menu. Twenty five different drinks, holiday themed (or at least wintery), and many only available on their designated days as they require special ingredients and preparation. Leaving the best for last, December 24th is commemorated with the Chartreuse Blazer –a sibling of the infamous Blue Blazer, involving flaming streams of chartreuse poured long distances between metal mugs.

This year though, an earlier recipe in the calendar caught my attention. I’m always on the lookout for oddball combinations of ingredients, and my eyes popped when I saw sherry, Meletti, gin, and Ancho Reyes all in the same drink! Dubbed the Pizzicato Passage, the recipe is the brainchild of Rob Roy owner and all around mixology badass Anu Elford. In case you’re wondering, pizzicato is the Italian term for “plucked string,” a stringed instrument playing technique.

Continue reading “Cocktail Obsession: Pizzicato Passage”

Checking out Mavenhal’s Bar Back bag

One result of my Instagram photos featuring my latest cocktail shenanigans is that when Mrs. Wonk and I are invited to social gatherings, I often get tasked with bringing cocktails, rather than the traditional, say, bottle of wine or dessert. And I’m certainly not one to slack off with something simple like a Dark & Stormy – the Cocktail Wonk must represent! Sometimes a punch I’ve make in advance is the ticket. But I also enjoy rising to the challenge and making the same cocktails I’d make at home, but on the road. A batch of 1944 Mai Tais for eight? No problem!

As you might imagine, bartending away from your home set-up requires a bit of pre-planning and toting lots of equipment with me. For the aforementioned Mai Tais, for example, I’d need the following:

  • Two bottles of rum
  • Bottle of dry curacao
  • Bottle of orgeat
  • Bottle of simple syrup
  • Shaker
  • Limes
  • Knife to cut the limes
  • Handheld lime squeezer
  • Lewis bag and mallet for crushed ice
  • Straws

And depending on the location, perhaps even bags of ice from ice maker or cocktail glasses. That’s a lot of equipment to bring! Suddenly a pie seems a lot easier.

My trusty workhorse for hauling bottles and tools around has been the crafty use of a soft-sided picnic cooler with a shoulder strap. With strategic packing I can wedge in the bottles so that they don’t jostle around too much, but for taller bottles this means laying them on their side, leading to potential spillage. My shaker doubles as a hard-sided container for smaller items like straws, knives, bitters bottles, etc. By the time it’s fully loaded, the cooler is heavy and uncomfortable to lug around by the shoulder strap. I often thought there had to be a better way to do this, but my trusty cooler was free so I didn’t pay much attention to improving my situation.

A little over a year ago I saw a Kickstarter effort for a new a new bartender’s bag from Seattle-based Mavenhal (they launched under the name Barkeeper & Co.).  Their waxed canvas bags in the form factor of a duffle bag are designed for bartenders by a professional bartender. Looking at the photos online, I was impressed by the features and attention to detail. All that said, the Kickstarter was a bit more money than I wanted to drop at that particular time. If I worked as a bartender or brand ambassador, I wouldn’t have blinked, however– a well-designed, task-specific bag that you use every day is worth its weight in gold. The Kickstarter was successful, and soon I saw customized Mavenhal bags pop up in the social media feeds of various bar industry luminaries.

Continue reading “Checking out Mavenhal’s Bar Back bag”

Stalking the TTB:  Upcoming U.S. rum releases from El Dorado, Rhum JM, Skotlander and more – Nov-Dec 2015

Another post for the rum wonks out there…

Following an earlier blog entry about rums approved for U.S. sale in late 2015, here are my top picks for new rums that should be appearing on store shelves and back bars in early 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent TTB label approvals, and that’s a good starting point if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or label approval.

To construct the list below, I ran a query against the TTB database, constrained to the past two months, and cherry-picked the label approvals of broadest interest to the rum community. There are certainly more rum approvals than listed here. While many small U.S. distilleries make rum, their scale and distribution is limited, so I’ve omitted them. Also, be aware that there is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing on the shelf.

One challenge of looking at TTB label approvals is that there’s no clear way to determine if it’s a new product or simply a small change to an existing product’s label. I made a best effort to filter out existing products with tiny label changes, but I may have overlooked something. Feel free to let me know if an offering here is already available.

The big news in the list below is the El Dorado “cask finishes.” Starting with the beloved El Dorado 12 year from Guyana as a base, the folks at Demerara Distillers Limited then additionally age the rum in one of four additional casks – red wine, ruby port, white port, or Sauternes (a sweet French wine). Images of these El Dorado cask finish labels have been floating around on Instagram for months, and I’m quite excited to see them making their way here to the U.S.

Continue reading “Stalking the TTB:  Upcoming U.S. rum releases from El Dorado, Rhum JM, Skotlander and more – Nov-Dec 2015”

Turn Your Daiquiri Up to 11

Rum. Lime. Sugar. The Holy Trinity of tropical drinks. Nearly all Tiki or tropical recipes are some spin on these three ingredients. The daiquiri is the category’s foundational cocktail, consisting of — you guessed it — rum, lime, and sugar. A classic, simple daiquiri is widely considered one of the best ways to evaluate a rum.

Recipes for a classic daiquiri are all over the map, ratio-wise. Many go too heavy on the lime and sugar, relegating the rum to a background role. The sourness of the lime and the sweetness of the sugar should always be balanced. When Mrs. Wonk wants something not too fussy after a long day, I use this template:

Continue reading “Turn Your Daiquiri Up to 11”

Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun?

In my all-too-infrequent visits to Seattle’s Rumba, I never fail to encounter this passage from Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum:

“Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of ‘America’s spirit,’ drink one of the most regulated spirits known. To be labeled bourbon, it has to be made with a certain percentage of corn and aged in a certain kind of barrel.  But excessive regulation is not the spirit of America. Unrestricted experimentation is. Rum embodies America’s laissez-faire attitude: It is whatever it wants to be. There’s no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites. Rum is the melting pot of spirits – the only liquor available in clear, amber, or black variations.”

I know the passage well — it hangs in a certain, shall we say, hard-to-miss location in the men’s restroom. I particularly like it because the passage succinctly outlines the opportunities and challenges the rum industry faces.

There’s no shortage of coverage in the spirits press lately about how rum is in resurgence, how rum is the next big thing, and how brown spirits drinkers are turning to aged rums as the bourbon craze (Pappy Van Winkle, anyone?) plays itself out.

Continue reading “Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun?”

The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!

Checking out Demetrio Tequila

Tequila is big business these days. Consumers have been bitten by the agave bug, eagerly snapping up spendy bottles that fifty years ago would have been labeled “Mexican brandy.” While there are plenty of big brands (Jose Cuervo, Patrón, Sauza) and celebrity-backed brands (Carlos Santana and Casa Noble, Justin Timberlake and Sauza 901) clamoring for attention, there are also dozens of decades-old Mexican distilleries quietly (relatively speaking) producing top notch tequilas. One such brand that’s somewhat new to the U.S. market is Demetrio.

While tequila has a reputation with some as Mexican firewater that requires lime and salt to choke down, it may surprise you that Mexico has extensive and comprehensive regulations regarding tequila and its parent category, mezcal. These regulations are known as NOMs (Norma Oficial Mexicana), and included among the regulations is that each licensed distillery receives a government assigned NOM number, present on any bottle produced. Multiple online NOM databases can help you dig deeper into your bottle’s background. It’s not at all uncommon for a distillery to produce multiple brands of tequila, which a NOM database search will clearly show, as you’ll soon see.

Continue reading “Checking out Demetrio Tequila”