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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California Rum Fest 2015 and Rational Spirits Santeria Pre-Launch

It’s 10 PM on Saturday night and I’m standing in the dark by the side of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Bryan Davis, master distiller of Lost Spirits holds his iPhone aloft, flashlight lit, to help our friend Anders snap a rum bottle photo. A few feet away, a twelve-person party bus sits motionless with its doors open, exposing a veritable dance club’s worth of lighting. An epic Tiki party is awaiting us less than five miles away, if only we could get there. How is this my life? Let’s take it from the beginning – a photo tour of my crazy, rum-packed weekend.

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Plantation Rums Brings Out the Rarities at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

The agony and ecstasy of Plantation Rums is a direct result of their many, many releases of rums purchased from distilleries around the world and finished in France. Once you’re hooked on their sublime expressions and start collecting their numerous bottlings, you realize it’s a herculean task; there’s always some obscure release you didn’t know about that needs a home on your bar shelf. Sure, Plantation has staples like the Barbados Grand Reserve five-year, the Original Dark, and the 3 Star Blend, but once you start collecting single vintages, say Panama 2000, or the even more exotic Black Label series, it’s like Pokémon card collecting. You can’t have just one.

Plantation often makes small releases for a single country, or custom bottlings of just a few barrels for a retailer, so it’s anybody’s guess how many different offerings are out there. If you’re not familiar with Plantation, you should read this post before continuing. Continue reading “Plantation Rums Brings Out the Rarities at Tales of the Cocktail 2015”

Grape Escape: Peru’s Pisco Varietals at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

Pisco is a spirit that’s taken me a while to wrap my head around. A clear, grape-based spirt from South America, I’ve been enchanted by it since my first sip, and later making my first pisco punch at home. But once you seek to move beyond the Pisco Sour, its many styles and terminology are daunting. In exchange for gaining this awareness, you’ll discover a world-class spirit that’s a joy both neat and in cocktails, and yet is a bargain when compared to tequila, cachaça, brandy, and so on.

Much like bourbon has specific rules (at least 51% corn, aged in new American oak barrels, etc.), the production of Peruvian Pisco also has very specific regulations, which make it equally worthy of attention as French Cognac (also a grape-based brandy) or single-malt Scotch. I have explicitly specified “Peruvian” pisco here because both Chile and Peru claim it as their own and have intense national rivalries about who makes the “real” Pisco. From an outsider’s perspective, the Peruvian regulations are more stringent and, based on price, are more highly valued. For our purposes here, “pisco” means Peruvian Pisco.

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Rumtastic Happenings at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

It’s 8:45 AM on the second full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2015, and I’m in bed, dreading the imminent alarm clock. Only a few hours earlier I’d been drinking 140 proof Jamaican Rum and cask-strength rye at an impromptu hotel room get-together, followed by a nightcap at the Monteleone’s Carousel bar, before finally falling into bed at 2:30 AM. What I really need is more sleep, but I’m scheduled to drink more rum in an hour. Ordinarily I’d miss the rum and opt for more shut-eye but this is no ordinary tasting. No sir! Plantation Rums had reached deep into their rum reserves, picked of their best casks from all over the Caribbean, and bottled just enough for two dozen people to enjoy at Tales. At 10 AM. The things I do for rum….

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A Wonk’s First Trip to Tales of the Cocktail

It’s 11 PM, and after a long day, Mrs. Wonk and I are bone-tired. Yet we’re standing in a large courtyard in New Orleans where despite the late time, it’s still approximately 1000 degrees. On a raised platform some twenty feet above us, a Star Wars storm trooper DJs away. Behind him is an actual, honest-to-goodness World War II-era bomber, suspended in mid-air. Nearby a dystopian Thunderdome scene plays out as sporadic giant belches of flames erupt into the (already way too hot) night. Yet a few hours earlier, I was sipping a magnificent selection of Guyanese rums, pulled straight from the cask, not available anywhere else.  At Tales of the Cocktail, this is just another day as usual.
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Meet Dozens of Pacific Northwest Distillers at Proof Washington – July 11th, 2015

While visiting distilleries is always the best way to meet the folks who craft your spirits, the Proof Washington Distillers Festival is the next best option for sampling spirits from dozens of distillers based in Washington and nearby states. Washington State has the most craft distilleries of any state in the U.S., and the Proof festival is the official event of the Washington Distillers Guild.
The event, now in its third year, is one night only–July 11that Fremont Studios (155 N. 35th Street in Seattle). Roughly three dozen distilleries have tables where you can sample their products and chat with representatives who are frequently the owners and distillers. Among the well-known distilleries attending are Westland, Captive Spirits, Sun Liquor, and Sound Spirits. But wait! There’s more: Over a dozen local restaurants–including 8oz. Burger & Co., Bluebird Ice Cream, Moshi Moshi, and Urbane, among others–will have food booths with small bites. If you’re looking for a little education, local cocktail celebrities Paul Clarke (Imbibemagazine), Amanda Reed (Tavern Law), and Andrew Friedman (Liberty) are presenting 45-minute classes during the event.
Last, and certainly not least, spirits from participating distillers will be for sale at the event. This is a pretty big deal as finding spirits from smaller distilleries at local stores can be a challenge, even in Washington State. And in contrast to prior years, you can now buy directly at the distiller’s booth, rather than waiting in line at a “store” area.

Tickets are $40 for general admission and $60 for VIP, which gets you in an hour earlier and includes additional drink tokens. I recommend the VIP pass and going early–it’s a bit less noisy during the VIP time, which makes it easier to have a relaxed conversation with your new distiller friends.

Check out Pacific Northwest distilleries and watch me judge a cocktail competion

This Friday, 5/15, is the Seattle Uncorked “Meet Your Makers” event. A number of local and nearby distilleries (including 3 Howls, Captive Spirits, Oregon Spirits Distillers, Westland, and Oola) will be there.

Part of the event is a cocktail competition featuring local bartenders creating original drinks while utilizing “The Barbarian” from Barbarian Bar Tools, a multi-function bar tool which I’ve written about recently. I’ll be a judge along with Natalie Migliarini from Beautiful Booze. It should be a ton of fun and I wouldn’t miss it even if I weren’t judging!

Rummy Fun at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015

The annual Miami Rum Renaissance show is equal parts rum evangelism to the curious and family reunion for the hard-core rum crowd. Having inexplicably missed Rum Renaissance last year, it was at the top of my 2015 list of non-negotiable trips, along with the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail in July.
 
Show organizer Robert Burr and RumXP judges announcing winners
The core of Rum Renaissance is a three-day exhibition, held at the Miami Airport Convention Center, wherein rum producers host booths for sampling rum and related goodies – rum cake, anyone? Some companies go all out in a large booth with tons of ornamentation, while others are more spartan, choosing to let the rums speak for themselves. A few days prior to the event an assembled panel of rum experts (RumXPs) judge dozens of rums in various classes, electing a “Best in Class” and three gold medals per class. The results are announced the evening of the first day, and medals are handed out for prominent display by the winning vendors over the following two days.
Rums of Puerto Rico booth with RumXP medals
Plantation Rum shows off their RumXP medals
Lost Spirits, which I’ve coveredextensively, has been in the news of late about their plan for a spirits aging “reactor” that claims to provide the equivalent of twenty years of aging in six days. Leading up to Rum Renaissance, master distiller Bryan Davis had announced a new rum called Prometheus, modeled after the 33-year aged Port Mourant from Guyana, to debut at Rum Renaissance. To say the Prometheus was highly anticipated by the rum cognoscenti is an understatement. Although finished bottles of Prometheus were not on hand for sale, Bryan brought a sample bottle that he shared with a few lucky folks, myself included. I look forward to reviewing it once available.
 
Lost Spirits Prometheus sample
 
Richard Seale (Foursquare) and Bryan Davis, Lost Spirits booth
The Floating Rum Shack visits the Lost Spirits booth
Toward the end of the first day, I was watching Bryan explain the Lost Spirits story to someone. Standing next to me was an older gentleman, whom I soon realized hadn’t heard the whole Lost Spirits pitch, so I began explaining it to him. We soon exchanged names and only then did I realize it was Phil Prichard, of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tennessee. Talk about an honor!  Like Bryan, Phil is a maverick in the spirits industry, bucking the conventional wisdom and competing with the big guys. Mrs. Wonk and I had visited the distillery a few months back but hadn’t met Phil then, so meeting him at Rum Renaissance was an unexpected surprise. As Phil, Bryan, and I chatted, I realized that highly anticipated seminar by Richard Seale on rum categorization was starting momentarily, so the three of us hastily left to get seats.
Cocktail Wonk & Phil Prichard

Richard Seale at his presentation
Slide from the Richard Seale presentation
Like Bryan and Phil, Richard Seale of Foursquare Distilleryin Barbados has acquired a reputation as an iconoclast, a teller of hard truths about the rum industry. He’s best known for forcing the rum community to talk about the practice of adding sugar and other additives to rum without being labeled as such. Richard contends (and I agree) that there are artisanal rums being produced that are on equal footing with premium spirits like single malt scotch, but that rum as a category is held back by useless categorizations (e.g. “white”, “gold” and “dark,”) as well as shenanigans by the big players, including unlabeled additives. At the start of Richard’s session, each attendee was given four unlabeled rum samples with obviously different coloring.  Our task was to identify each sample – they all tasted nice enough, but were quite different from each other. The trick was on us however, as Richard revealed they were all the same rum, but with different flavorings added. Even the experts are fooled by this sort of chicanery. Among the key points Richard made is that the type of distillation matters, i.e. pot still, column still, and blends. The session wrapped up with a call to action: Rum producers need to decide whether to go the premium, regulated route like Scotch and Cognac, or whether (like vodka) rum’s value comes solely from marketing and packaging.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at the Afrohead booth


Having reviewedthe Afrohead Seven-year rum recently, I was happy to have a long conversation with Afrohead’s founders, Toby Tyler and Joe Farrell from Harbor Island in the Bahamas. It’s clear that Afrohead is spending some serious marketing money to make an entrance into the rum category, including hosting a breakfast for the RumXP judges. Their booth included large images of the distinctive Afrohead logo, each highlighting a hidden symbol within the design. Among the fun moments of our conversation was when Toby showed me photos on his phone from his trip to the Angostura distillery blending room, where he works on Afrohead’s blends. We talked primarily about the 15 year which I hope to review here soon.

Mezan booth

Heaven Hill booth
This year, Rum Renaissance benefited from the addition of a “Trade Expo” portion only accessible to the media and trade, featuring a variety of interesting rums, most currently without US distribution. A special deal allowed these rums to be imported for sampling and allowed generous amounts of time for serious conversations with the producers without being swarmed by folks looking for yet another glass of rum punch or a free T-shirt.
 
John Barrett, Bristol Classic Rums
Just after entering the Trade Expo section, I spotted Bristol Classic Rums founder John Barrett at a table with a few of their rums. I bee-lined over for some quality time with John, primarily talking about the Bristol story. I already own two of the five Bristol Classic rums he had on display, including the Black Spiced which I reviewedearlier. The new (to me) Bristol expressions were a 1996 Caroni, a 2004 Barbados, and a 2004 Haitian, the latter of which was considered a thing of beauty by myself and several others.
 
Master blender “Don Pancho” Fernandez with family, Ron Duran booth
Authentic Caribbean Rum booth

Nearby was the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) table. ACR is an alliance of rum producers who have strict standards about the quality of their rums. The table was lined with many top-notch rums I recognized–some by personal experience, other by extensive reading of rum blogs. Among the ACR table highlights for me was the St. Nicholas Abbey 5-year, the first aged expression created entirely at the distillery in Barbados. I own the St. Nicholas Abbey 10 and 15 as a result of visiting the distilleryin 2013; the 10- and 15-year were distilled by Foursquare and then sold to St. Nicholas Abbey, where they underwent additional aging. I found the St. Nicholas Abbey Five to be very smooth, with fewer acetone notes than I get from the 10 and 15 year. Other ACR highlights included the Hampden Gold and Monymusk (love my Jamaican funk!) and the Foursquare port cask-finished.
 

Skotlander Rum booth
Nine Leaves Rum booth

The Trade Expo area also featured much newer rum producers. Skotlander rum from Denmark showed several of their offerings, including an unaged (“raw”) white, an aged (“cask”) rum, and a sea buckthorn-infused rum (a berry-like fruit); I came away with 50ml bottles of the raw and sea buckthorn rum to noodle on later. With its beautiful bottles, the Nine Leaves rum from Japan caught my eye. They have an unaged white rum, as well as a number of different lightly aged versions, one using a California wine cask. I wish I could tell you more about how the Nine Leaves tasted, but my palate was fried by this point in the day—more news to come on those tastings.

Tito Cordero, Master Blender for Diplomatico
Wandering around the show floor on the second day, I spotted Tito Cordero, master blender for Diplomatico standing alone by the Diplomatico booth. I quickly took advantage of the opportunity and quizzed him about upcoming Diplomatico single vintage releases — the current being the 1997 and 2000 vintage. If I understood him correctly, he said that a 2002 will be coming out later this year.
 

Amrut booth
Bayou booth
Brugal booth

Something that surprised me as I circulated through the booths was the absence of certain really big players. Bacardi was not in attendance, notwithstanding a small presence in the “Rums of Puerto Rico” booth. Also missing were big dogs Appleton and Captain Morgan. However, without giant players dominating attention, the lesser known brands could shine – there were big, splashy booths from Plantation, Bayou, Afrohead, Rums of Puerto Rico, and others.

Boy Drinks World Bitters booth
Plantation VP Guillaume Lamy at the Plantation booth
With all these rummy people present, you’d (correctly) surmise that the evening activities would focus heavily on bars. A series of events at different locales (proclaimed as “Miami Cocktail Week”) provided a starting point for each evening, but the Broken Shakerwas where most of the rum industry ended up night after night. The Rum Line in South Beach was a big hit with Mrs. Wonk, the Lost Spirits folks, and myself on Friday. And Saturday night? Well, that was the famed Mai-Kaievening – a huge pile of the rummy crowd piled into charter bus headed to the Mai-Kai for a mind-blowing Tiki experience. So much to tell about that visit that I’m saving it for another post!

A Peek at Upcoming Plantation Rums at Rum Renaissance 2015

Within the rum world, Plantation is a dichotomy: A well-regarded purveyor of rums from around the world, but which makes no rum itself. A company with solid, readily available expressions that also continuously dabbles in special releases. A subsidiary of a well-regarded French Cognac producer, with a larger than life (and often shirtless) brand ambassador from Seattle.

Plantation inspires fierce loyalty among the rum crowd, due in large part to frequent limited releases and a strong outreach to rum aficionados like myself. Most recently, Plantation hosted breakfast at Rum Renaissance in Miami, where they shared details about upcoming releases. Invitees included all the Rum Renaissance 2015 judging panel, as well as a few other folks with strong ties to the rum community. I scored an invite and was thrilled to find myself sitting poolside on a hot, sunny Miami morning among so many well regarded rum writers, including but not limited to Robert Burr, Peter Holland of The Floating Rum Shack, Matt Robold from RumDood, Paul E. Senft  of Rum Journey, Bob Leonard of Bahama Bob’s Rumstyles, as well Tiki luminaries including Marie King (Tonga Hut) and Suzanne Long (Longitude), and a whole slew of other rum luminaries.

 

The welcome drink of choice was simple–Plantation 3 stars over ice. As the catered breakfast started up, guests gravitated towards a pineapple smoothie station and, nearly to a person, “fortified” their smoothie with a healthy pour of Plantation 5 from Barbados. Once settled in, Plantation vice president Guillaume Lamy launched into his presentation, with this factoid: Plantation currently has 5,000 barrels of rum in their inventory, primarily from Barbados. (The Plantation 5 Grande Reserve, the workhorse of the Plantation lineup, is sourced from Barbados, so no surprise there.)

Guilllaume Lamy providing rare pre-release samples to a thirsty crowd.
With the preliminaries covered, Guillaume turned to recent Plantation activity. First up was an update on Stiggins Fancy, a pineapple-infused rum created as a one-time, limited release of a 600 bottles for the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Reaction to the Stiggins was immensely positive, and the very few bottles that made their way into private hands are highly coveted. Proceeds from this release were used to fund two bartender scholarships.

At the breakfast, we learned semi-officially (I’d heard prior rumors) that the Stiggins would become a regular part of the Plantation line.  Even more exciting, we breakfast folks got to experience Stiggins deconstructed, i.e. tasting the component elements prior to final blending, distillation, and aging. Starting with special Queen Victoria pineapples (flown in at great expense for freshness, rather than the more traditional shipping via slow boat), the rinds are separated from the flesh. The rinds are then macerated for eight weeks in 110 proof Plantation 3 Stars rum, which we sampled from a hand-labeled bottle. Although a bit more potent than the 3 Star I’m used to, it was a bit of an eye opener to see how much pineapple rinds can add to a rum.  The rind infusion, heavy with pineapple oils, is distilled again to create a pineapple “essence.”
Meanwhile, a batch of Plantation Original Dark rum from Trinidad  is infused with the pineapple flesh for three days; at this point, another hand-labeled bottle with the infused original dark appeared for our sampling pleasure. It was about what you’d expect a pineapple infusion of Original Dark to taste like, so no great surprise there.
After blending the rind essence and flesh infusions, the resulting mix is aged for two months in used cognac casks — medium toasted so as to minimize wood flavor extraction that wouldn’t mesh with the pineapple notes. Our third tasting was the final Stiggins product. Even though I’m sure everybody in attended had already at least sampled it several times, the pour of Stiggins was met with many smiles.
While enjoying our deconstructed samples, we learned that in February of this year, Plantation produced an additional 6,000 bottles of the Stiggins Fancy, which will be exclusive to the US market. Guillaume said that going forward, Plantation was planning to make 36,000 bottles twice a year, which should help the Stiggins shed its “unobtanium” nickname.
One of Plantation’s most rare, sought-after releases is the 1998 Guadeloupe, an agricole-style rhum that benefits nicely from its French vacation in used cognac barrels. Thus, when Guillaume brought out another hand-labeled bottle proclaiming Reunion Island (an agricole producing island), a ripple passed through the crowd. The bottle contained rhum aged for 12 years on Reunion Island, then shipped to the Plantation facility in Cognac for finishing in cognac and Madeira casks. And yes, it was delicious as expected, the grassy agricole funk elevated by the refined touch of sweetness from the Plantation finishing process. Guillaume said that a relatively small number of bottles had been made–with only 144 allocated to the North American market via SAQ in Canada.  A new unobtanium is born.
The next (rum-based) surprise was poured from another hand-labeled bottle indicating a blend of Jamaican and Guyanese rums – in and of themselves, a lovely pairing, but not particularly swoon-worthy, until Guillaume mentioned the blend had been finished in an Arran Whisky cask, giving it the smokey, peat character that you either love or hate (I love, thankfully).
Last, but certainly not least, we were treated to a special bottle, brought from Denmark by Johnny Drejer– A rare 1999 Plantation Jamaica port cask finish. The expected Jamaican funk was there, finishing with a typically sublime Plantation finish. As things were wrapping up after the final tasting, a bit of shirtless activity ensued…photos are withheld here to protect delicate eyes.
The three days prior to the breakfast, the RumXP judges underwent three days of rum tastings to select the top rums submitted in different categories. Although many of the judges were present at the breakfast, some of us didn’t yet know the results, so we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Plantation had earned four “Best in Class” honors and another four gold medals. With an ever-changing lineup of top quality, limited releases and their ongoing great engagement with the rum community, it’s easy to see how Plantation has become a big dog in the high-end rum category.