The Rum Collective December 2014 Plantation Single Casks Tasting Event in Seattle

Last week, I attended a tasting event at Wine World and Spirits in Seattle, introducing two new special-edition Plantation rums to the local market. Nicholas Feris, founder of the Rum Collective (a Seattle-based rum society) hosted over forty people for the event. Nicholas is an internationally known rum expert, blogger, and advocate, as well as a founding member of the International Rum Council (IRC). There’s no way I’d miss this event as I’m a big fan and collector of Plantation rums as well as their parent company, Cognac Ferrand.

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Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery

This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.

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Plantation Rum Tasting with Alexandre Gabriel

The Elusive Plantation Rum Stiggins’s Fancy. Photo credit: Rumba.
World-wide rum sales are dominated by a handful of producers–the three goliaths of Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and McDowell’s, a rum made in India. The dominant thrust of Bacardi and Captain Morgan’s marketing is toward inexpensive rum with a fun, beach party atmosphere. For that reason, the rum-loving community (myself included) generally doesn’t focus on the big players. Instead, most of the attention goes to producers the average consumer hasn’t heard of, minuscule compared to the goliaths and perceived of higher quality and craft. Within the long tail of rum producers, one of the most respected is Plantation Rums. My personal collection contains more than a few of their offerings, so when Kate Perry of Seattle’s Rumba mentioned that Plantation Rum president and master distiller Alexandre Gabriel would be visiting Rumba to host a tasting, I practically lost my cookies, counting off the days till the event.
Within the spirits industry, there are two basic types of producers: those who distill and sell their product and those who buy distilled product from a distiller and then (hopefully) add their own stamp to the finished goods, typically via additional aging or blending. Plantation Rums is in the latter category, however don’t think that Plantation is merely reselling someone else’s rum.  – There’s a great story to tell about Plantation’s rums.
The Plantation rums are one of several product lines from Pierre Ferrand, a French company that got its start distilling cognac and today still creates some well-regarded cognac at very reasonable prices. Under the leadership of Alexandre Gabriel, Pierre Ferrand has expanded into several different spirits categories, including but not limited to cognac, rum, gin, and calvados. For the Plantation line, Alexandre purchases premium aged from established rum producers, mostly in the Caribbean, and then ships the rums to France where they undergo a second aging in used barrels sourced from the Cognac side of Ferrand’s operations. Some of the higher-end Plantation rums even go through a third aging (more on that in a bit). The less expensive Plantation rums are phenomenally priced and great for mixing. The more expensive, single vintage rums are outstanding sipping rums.
The primary person behind all this rummy goodness is Alexandre Gabriel, a Frenchman who initially was brought into assist the struggling Maison Ferrand Cognac with their sales, and today is the president, majority owner, and Master Blender. It was on a trip to the Caribbean that Alexandre sampled some rums and had the insight that finishing these rums in his previously used cognac casks could yield great results.  Plantation is now the realization of that vision. At this point the company has put out several dozen releases, and I’ve thought favorably of every one I’ve tried, so I was naturally very interested to meet Alexandre and hear him speak about rum.
Alexandre Gabriel being introduced at Rumba.
The tasting at Rumba was a mid-day event, attended primarily by Seattle area bartenders, but also by some of the local rum media, including Nicholas Ferris of The Rum Collective and yours truly. Short of Ferrand’s barrel house, you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more welcoming venue than Rumba, with its enormous rum collection extending all the way to the ceiling. Rumba GM Kate Perry and Bar Manager Jim Romdall co-hosted the event, including creating custom placemats for the tasting. In my case, the placemat became my de-facto notepad where I furiously scribbled notes:
Hastily scrawled notes.
After a brief introduction by Jim, Alexandre spoke for about ten minutes before getting to the five rums on the agenda for tasting:
  • Nicaragua 1998
  • Jamaica 2001
  • Panama 2000
  • Guadeloupe 1998
  • 20th Anniversary (Barbados)
The tasting lineup. Photo credit: Rumba.
On the placemat was a mysterious sixth spot without a tasting glass, with a lone pineapple image. Mid-way through the tasting, I saw Rocky Yeh, a very well-known portfolio ambassador and friend of Plantation Rum slip into a seat near the back with a single bottle. Could it be the very rare and coveted Stiggins’s Fancy? Yes! Suddenly the pineapple image made perfect sense. We were in for a bonus tasting of the Plantation pineapple rum that’s not for sale, and may never be for sale. More on this in a bit.

 

Alexandre Gabriel imparting the rum knowledge. Photo credit: Rumba.
Alexandre’s talk covered not only the rums we tasted, but also additional details about the Plantation aging and blending process, plus many more topics. It’s difficult to fit it all into a single-threaded narrative, so what follows below are the highlights I found interesting:
We must change to stay the same. While it’s fine to strive to recreate flavors from years past, it’s not as simple as slavishly using the same ingredients, because the ingredients themselves are changing.
Global warming affects how plants grow and how they taste. He gave the example of the taste of a particular grape, Folle Blanche, that has changed significantly over the past decades. As such, if we want to replicate old tastes, we must experiment with new techniques and starting materials.
Terroir means three things to Alexandre:  Two are well-accepted, the third may be debatable.
·       Soil and climate: This is well established and generally accepted.
·       Environment: For example, during aging in a wet cellar, the alcohol content will evaporate more quickly, whereas in a dry cellar, the water content evaporates faster, which obviously affects the resulting flavors. Another example he offered is that a freshly painted cellar room can affect the eventual flavor in a negative way.
·       Local know-how: The way people do things during the production process. Alexandre believes this is part of terroir, but accepts that some may disagree.
A new cognac barrel can cost in the $1,000 price range, whereas a used barrel may only fetch $30. This was one reason why Alexandre was looking for ways to reuse his own barrel stock. Plantation Rum is now a big consumer of its sibling’s cognac barrels, but used barrel supply still exceeds demand.
Cognac is like classical music. The score has already been written, i.e. there are all sorts of rules and regulations, so cognac is mostly about how the music is “played.” In contrast, rum is “anything goes.” The lack of rules allows for much more new techniques and experimentation.
American oak barrels provide the whiskey lactone, also known as the coconut/vanilla flavor you often get from spirits aged in it.
Most rum that Plantation buys from the Caribbean is aged five to ten years, and only 65 percent of it remains in the barrel due to the angel’s share (evaporation).
Adding water to a spirit can release smells and flavors. However, that reaction really only happens once, so it should happen immediately prior to serving. To minimize flavor release during dilution prior to bottling, Plantation takes special steps including introducing water very slowly, as well as letting the water first sit for a while in a cognac cask.
During distillation, the “tails,” which are the chemical compounds that boil at a higher temperature than ethanol and hence come later in the distillation, are what give a rum its particular character. As such, some amount of the tails is usually included in the finished product.
The rum producers of Barbados– Mount Gay, Foursquare, etc.–have perfected the blending of pot and column still rums, creating light rums that have lots of character.
Spanish rums came to the party relatively late, primarily because during rum’s formative years, Spanish parts of the Caribbean were still consuming spirits from Spain. By the time the Spanish-held territories started producing rum, the column still had been invented and was more efficient than pot stills. Thus, rums from Spanish territories are typically made in column stills, so are relatively light.
The Jamaican rum distilleries have perfected the high-ester rum. Distilleries do all sorts of crazy things in the fermentation process to introduce compounds that eventually become the characteristic funky esters. Alexandre said that one Jamaican distiller told him he’s added goat’s heads to the mash. (I’d already heard of bat carcasses being used.) For more on this particular topic, see this prior post of mine. (For the record, Mrs. Wonk prefers her rums without goat heads or bat carcasses.)
Plantation is currently experimenting with high ester rums from other regions beyond Jamaica. The esters in these rums have different flavor characteristics than the dominant Jamaican rum. I can’t wait for these to show up and experience the differences
The French Agricole style, which uses sugar cane juice rather than molasses as a starting point, came about because of war between England and France. In the early 1800s, England blockaded France’s trade routes with the Caribbean, leaving the French territories with no place to sell their sugar. As a result, they started distilling rum from the cane juice.  Voila!Rhum agricole.
Plantation has released an agricole-style rum (the Guadeloupe, which we sampled), but it can’t be labeled as such because it doesn’t meet the French AOC regulations. I found the Guadeloupe rum had the distinctive agricole flavor, but more refined and very “Plantation-like” in taste – Smooth and slightly sweet.
Plantation uses the elevageprocess for aging, which is much more labor intensive than simply putting the rum in a barrel and letting it rest for some number of years.  Plantation’s process includes sampling sixty to eighty barrels a day to frequently assess how they’re coming along and possibly making changes along the way. For instance, if a particular barrel begins to get a certain characteristic that’s impacted by wood, the barrel may be emptied, a single stave replaced, and the barrel refilled to continue aging. Another less drastic example would be moving the barrel from one warehouse to another to provide a different environment.
Some higher-end Plantation rums, typically the “black label” editions, are aged a third time in a different type of cask, frequently one having held Pineau des Charentes, a sweet liqueur made from blending aged cognac with fresh grape juice. I find the flavor added by Pineau cask aging to be among my favorite rum tastes.
Plantation Rums has put out many releases, only some of which are available in the U.S. Sometimes the issue is simply that relatively small amounts are made, but frequently the trouble lies with the U.S. TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), which imposes strict and often arbitrary restrictions that make some releases difficult to import into the U.S.

 

Portfolio Ambassador Rocky Yeh. Stiggins’s Fancy in background.
Near the end of the presentation, we finally got to the Stiggins’s Fancy rum. It’s a pineapple-infused rum that came about from a collaboration between Alexandre and David Wondrich, a true cocktail-world treasure and my favorite spirits writer. Only a relatively few bottles of Stiggins’s Fancy were produced, as it’s very expensive (tiny, very expensive Queen Victoria pineapples are used) and time consuming to make. The Stiggins’s was first seen at a Plantation-hosted event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, and the few bottles out in the wild now are highly treasured. So far, I’ve not been able to lay my hands on one. Thus, I was elated that Rocky Yeh was able to supply a bottle, which we all got to sample. Simply stated: It’s out-of-control amazing. Many folks are pushing Alexandre to formally release the Stiggins’s, but at the time of the Rumba event, Alexandre still hadn’t decided if it was economically viable to produce on a larger scale.
Rumba Bar Manager Jim Romdall introducing the rum map.
As part of the tasting, Rumba launched their rum map, wherein once you try a certain number of rums from various regions (sixty rums in total), you receive a DTO  or “Daiquiri Time Out” coin, which entitles you to a daiquiri upon future visits. For this event, attendees were able to use the rums we tasted to fill slots in our newly started rum maps. Very nice!
Cocktail Wonk and Alexandre Gabriel. Photo credit: Nicholas Ferris.
After the formal event wound down, I was able to speak with Alexandre individually for about twenty minutes, during which I peppered him with questions and clarifications. He seemed genuinely happy to answer and even told me a few things followed up by, “But don’t blog that,” a request I’ve tried hard to honor here. I left the event with my head spinning from all the things I learned, and even more excited than before to see what Plantation Rums does next.
Alexandre Gabriel, Jim Romdall and Kate Perry at Rumba. Photo credit: Rumba.

Imbibe Magazine / Aviation Gin Late Night Italian Supper at Trick Dog

Prepping the pre-dinner cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a tech conference, accompanied by Mrs. Wonk. San Francisco is a hotbed of well-regarded bars and at the forefront of a lot of today’s mixology, so when I saw an announcement that Imbibe magazine, Aviation Gin and locally renowned bar Trick Dog were presenting a cocktail dinner while we were in town, I was elated. Three of my favorite things! I even woke up Mrs. Wonk to tell her the good news.  (Good thing she was excited too.)

Aviation Gin is one of the better known products from Portland’s House Spirits, which I’ve written about previously in my Bridgetown Rum review. Both House Spirits and Imbibe magazine (which needs no introduction in cocktail circles) are from Portland, so I was surprised to see they chose San Francisco for the event. Within the city’s cocktail scene, Trick Dog is consistently ranked among the top bars. On our second visit to Trick Dog (as with my earlier visit), we came away impressed by the caliber of what they do there.

Although many San Francisco bars don’t serve food (and really, sometimes making a bowl of nuts available would go a long way), Trick Dog is complemented by a fully functional restaurant, with new chef Michael Logan manning the kitchen. The dinner’s theme was “North Beach Italian Supper,” celebrating San Francisco’s Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood. Each of the three courses were served with cocktail pairings featuring a liquor from the House Spirits lineup.

Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Trick Dog had closed early on this Sunday night to prepare for the 9 pm event. The restaurant was empty and quiet except for the bustle of service staff, busily preparing food and prepping cocktails. As the evening’s attendees filtered in, we were greeted by an off-menu but delicious opening cocktail (a sherry cobbler over crushed ice in a short metal tumbler—always a Wonk favorite) and prior to the formal start I had the opportunity to chat for a while with representatives of both Imbibe and Aviation Gin.

Welcome toast. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Eventually it came time to take our places for dinner. While most of the guests ascended the stairs to the upper dining room, perched above the kitchen and bar, about ten lucky folks, Mrs. Wonk and myself included, were seated at the bar. While we could hear a great time being had upstairs, we bar-sitters enjoyed our front-row seats and chatting with Trick Dog’s friendly staff as they worked through their cocktail preparation and food service. The other advantage of being at the bar was the more than occasional extra pour of leftover cocktails. The food was well executed and served family style, with plenty to go around – so much that I eventually cried uncle, but a satisfied cry at that.

Fritto misto. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The courses began with fritto misto and bagna cauda, essentially Italian tempura with an olive-oil dipping sauce, along with misticanza, a chopped salad of mixed Little Gem lettuce, salami, mozzarella, and olives, with a lemon-oregano vinaigrette. This starter set was paired with the Pizza Negroni, a twist on the traditional Negroni using mozzarella-washed Aviation gin, Campari, Martini & Rossi Gran Lusso, and tomato water. Mozzarella-washing, or more generally “fat washing,” is simply infusing a spirit with a flavorful fat, relying on the natural solvent properties of ethanol to extract flavors. (Typically a short time in a freezer is enough to solidify the fat for easy separation from the infused spirit.)

Here come the pizza negronis! Photo credit: Allison Webber.

I was honestly a little apprehensive about what the Pizza Negroni would taste like, but it pleasantly surprised me. It’s rare that a drink’s intensity increases with time, and the Pizza Negroni certainly did. At first the mozzarella influence was mild, but by the time I finished the pour it was mozzarella overload in the best possible way. I might not drink it every night, but it was certainly a fun and interesting taste experience that I’d absolutely recommend.

The second course was ricotta and eggplant cannelloni and chicken cacciatore over housemade pasta. It was paired with IGT Punch, made with Aviation gin, verjus (the pressed juice from unripe grapes—it has a subtle vinegar-like quality), Concord grape juice, House Spirits Coffee Liqueur, lemon thyme, and peppercorn. Grape was the primary character of the IGT Punch, but there was also something else I couldn’t identify. I mentioned to the bartender that it had a smoky element, almost mezcal-like, and she surprised me by admitting there was in fact a bit of “secret mezcal” in it. Win!

Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The final course was dessert: House-made Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, paired with a sweet cocktail made of grappa, Krogstad Aquavit (courtesy of House Spirits, naturally), peach, and amaro (though we were enjoying it too much to ask which one…). By this time I’d had more than my share of the IGT Punch, so my recollections on this drink are a bit hazy, though Mrs.  Wonk says it was her favorite drink of the night, a balanced, slightly savory counterpoint to the sweet dessert.

Dessert cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

As the event was winding down, Morgan Schick, the creative director of the Bon Vivants (the team behind Trick Dog), came over to chat. We talked for quite a while about international travel (including his recent trip to Bogota, Colombia—definitely on the Wonks’ top-ten travel list), spirits and bars, his recommendations for other food and drink stops in San Francisco (including Bar Tartine and State Bird Provisions—both of which were on the week’s itinerary, and well worth a visit when you hit the city), and a few stories behind the ever-creative Trick Dog menu designs—both current and past. A genuinely nice guy.

Trick Dog’s current “tourist map” menu.

If you find yourself in San Francisco and are adventurous cocktail-wise, please do yourself a favor and seek out Trick Dog. Cocktail Wonk’s orders! Grab a seat at the bar and take your time perusing their ever-changing, whimsical menus. I’ve personally experienced the “Pantone color fan” and current “tourist map” menus. Not only are they clever in and of themselves, but the cocktails are worthy of the effort put into the design.

We visited lots of bars in the San Francisco Bay Area – stay tuned for future posts reviewing these other cocktail dens. A big thanks to Imbibe Magazine for letting me use some of their photos taken by Allison Webber in this post. For more photos from this dinner, check out the full set on Facebook.

TikiKon 2014 Trip Report

 

Deadhead Rum at the Kickoff party bar.

TikiKon 2014, a celebration of all things Tiki, was held July 11-13 at the Red Lion Hotel in Vancouver WA, across the river from Portland OR where the precursor to TikiKon started over a decade ago. A previous post of mine covered the Iron TikiTender contest, while this post cover the classes and other activities that went on at TikiKon.

Burlesque at the Kickoff party

Since many people arrived during the day on Friday, the only planned activity was a Kickoff party at Portland’s Star Theater in the evening. The headliner was Satan’s Pilgrims, a Portland surf-music band that’s been around for a number of years. Opening acts included Lushy, a Seattle band, and a PG-rated burlesque show. Deadhead rum was the party sponsor, with drink specials featuring their rum, and super-sized representations of the distinctive Deadhead rum bottle on the bar. The Star Theater is a relatively tiny theater, but there was still plenty of room to move around, chat with other people, and get close to the stage if desired.

Lushy performs at the Kickoff party.

The crowd was mostly people in their 40s and 50s, nearly all wearing Tiki shirts, dresses, vintage hats from the 50s, and so forth. While Satan’s Pilgrim’s music got my approval during an investigation of their web site, we didn’t stick around as there was a nearby bar we needed to make a pilgrimage to. More on Portland bars in a subsequent post.

Saturday was the big day. Cocktail classes, pool parties, and the Iron TikiTender contest were the main events. The cocktail classes at TikiKon are purchased separately from the TikiKon passes. There were four classes, each costing $20 and an hour long:

  • International Tiki Takeover
  • Rum Beyond Tiki
  • Home Tiki Bar Basics
  • Regarding Rum

All the classes were moderated by Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR. Blair did a great job of jumping in to add additional context while giving the presenters plenty of time to talk. The classes were very informal – Held in the Red Lion hotel bar overlooking the Columbia River with the presenters speaking from behind the bar typically.

Blair Reynolds and Felix Fernandez at International Tiki Takeover.

 

Blair Reynolds and Jason Alexander at International Tiki Takeover.

 

Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander, Felix Fernandez and Marie King at International Tiki Takeover.

The International Tiki Takeover was primarily the three Iron TikiTender contestants (Felix Fernandez, Marie King and Jason Alexander) talking about how they got into Tiki, while shaking and pouring pre-batched versions of their winning Tiki recipes. Each attendee received a small sample of each drink while the TikiTenders talked. The attendees interacted frequently with questions, keeping the discussion lively throughout the whole hour. Marie King brought swag (coasters, swizzle sticks, etc…) from the Tonga Hut for everybody, a nice touch.

Michael Shea and Jim Romdall at Rum Beyond Tiki.

 

Jim Romdall and Michael Shea at Rum Beyond Tiki

Next up was the Rum Beyond Tiki class with Jim Romdall of Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Michael Shea of Rum Club in Portland, OR. The broad topic was how rum is used in other types of drinks besides Tiki. As with the prior class, both Jim and Michael shook sample of non-Tiki drink from their respective bars while describing them. I’m a regular at Rumba so I was surprised when Jim said that Rumba’s “Sexy Old Fashioned” was their most popular drink. A lot of time was spent talking about the need to introduce and educate customers about the many types and flavors of rum beyond Bacardi Silver that represents most people’s perception of rum. Towards the end of the session the discussion migrated to other underrated spirits that warrant more promotion. I was happy that pisco was one of the spirits mentioned, as I’m planning a future post on this topic.

I missed the Home Tiki Bar basics source because A) I didn’t have a ticket, and B) have been doing Tiki in my home bar for years. Thus, I can’t provide any insight into that particular class.

Martin Cate preaches the Gospel of Rum during Regarding Rum.

 

Esteban Ordonez holds forth at Regarding Rum.

The final class was Regarding Rum, with Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA, and Esteban Ordonez, Brand Ambassador for Don Q rum. Martin took the lead in using history as a narrative to work their way through a number of styles. They started with Wray and Nephew Overproof, a white rum and a very interesting choice as the starting point. Next up was the Don Q Cristal, Don Q Anejo, which Esteban took the lean in describing. Following that was Clement Select Barrel, used to cover the Agricole style of rums. As each rum was discussed small samples were passed out to the attendees. The final rums discussed were Appleton 12 and a special Smuggler’s Cove exclusive bottling, Plantation Royal Blend. Martin described the Royal Blend as rum from each of the former English colonies in the Caribbean, brought to France for further aging in Cognac and Maury (French dessert wine) barrels. I was highly anticipating this last tasting and it did not disappoint – Rum perfection!

Reading through the course descriptions after the fact, there were some differences from the descriptions and how the discussions actually played out. Nonetheless, all of the topics discussed were relevant and the attendees seemed happy with what they saw.

Island Marketplace
Island Marketplace

After the classes I wandered out to the pool party. A B-52s cover band was playing and a mermaid was posing for photos with attendees. Inside, where it was much cooler, the Island Marketplace filled a medium-sized room with vendors selling an assortment of Tiki paraphernalia. I grabbed a ceramic Deadhead Rum Tiki mug for $20.

Mermaid at the Rock Lobster pool party

 

Deadhead Rum’s cool trailer.

The big Sunday event was the home bar tour, wherein 150 attendees were shuttled around all day in buses to various home Tiki Bars in the Portland area. I unfortunately didn’t sign up in time to get one of the 150 tickets, but will be doing so next year for sure!

2014 Iron TikiTender competition!

Jason Alexander’s Most Garish Garnish

One of the big events at TikiKon 2014 (held July 11-13 in Vancouver, WA at the Red Lion) was the Iron TikiTender competition. In this event, the three finalist went head to head in a series of challenge testing their skill and knowledge of Tiki bar tending. Prior to this, numerous applicants had submitted entries including an original Tiki recipe, from which only three were selected.

It was a blazingly hot, sunny evening, a relatively rare occurrence in the Pacific Northwest, when the Iron TikiTender finalist took their positions behind their mobile bar carts, and in front of the Seattle-based band, The Ukadelics. On the left was Felix Fernandez from Siro Urban Italian Kitchen in Orlando, FL. In the middle was Marie King from the Tonga Huts in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, CA. On the right was Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana in Tacoma WA.

Iron TikiTender finalists setting up
Drink all the rum!

Full disclosure –  I’m friends with Jason and we talk Tiki on nearly a daily basis so I was rooting for him. Nonetheless, I was hoping for Tiki-awesomeness from all of the TikiTenders. Not only was it hot, but for much of the competition there was loud live music going on 15 feet behind them, so all the TikiTenders more than earned the Iron part of the title.

Blair Reynolds introducing Felix Fernandez, Marie King, and Jason Alexander.

To the immediate left of the stage, Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR handled the MC duties. On the far left was the judge’s table. The three announced judges were Michael Shea, owner of Rum Club in Portland, OR, Jim Romdall, bar manager at Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA. They were joined by Esteban Ordonez, National Brand Ambassador and Corporate Mixologist for Don Q Rum.

Judges Jim Romdall, Michael Shea, Martin Cate, and Esteban Ordonez.

The first event was the speed round. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to make as many Mai Tais as they could. To keep things honest, one each of the TikiTender’s Mai Tais was randomly selected and taken to the judge’s table. TikiTenders could use their own recipe within reason. Presumably some combination of the number of Mai Tais created, along with the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai determined who won the round. Marie King created the most Mai Tais, 36 out of 68 total. However, to my recollection the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai, and the overall round winner wasn’t announced. The completed Mai Tais were delivered to the VIP attendees which I unfortunately was not part of so I didn’t get to sample them.

Marie King speeding though the most Mai Tais.

Felix Fernandez is double pouring in the Most Mai Tai competition.

Jason Alexander (foreground) cranking through his Mai Tais.

Judging the Most Mai Tais quality.

The second event was the Most Garish Garnish. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to come up with the most outlandish Tiki Garnish. Each contestant got an enormous ceramic turtle bowl that they filled with ice to create their garnish with. A hub-bub quickly arose as Jason pulled out a hollowed out pineapple turned into a hibachi, with smaller auxiliary pineapples mounted on the side to be filled with flaming Tiki fire. Marie King appeared shocked by this as she had started from scratch and may not have been aware that parts of the garnish could be prepared ahead of time. Jason didn’t simply deposit his Tiki hibachi in the turtle bowl and call it done, however. He used the whole 10 minutes to festoon it with flowers, bacon-wrapped pineapple and wooden straws in addition to preparing the pineapple torches. Marie’s entry used what I believe were lychee fruit, oranges and other fruit to create underwater scene, in addition to 18 inch long sparklers. Felix’s entry used a series of stacked fruit including orange bowls which he filled with ever more alarming amounts of overproof rum. When it came time to judge, the TikiTenders lit their respective pyrotechnics. Despite a relatively calm breeze, in the bright sun the flames were unfortunately not as dramatic as they might have been indoors. While there was much discussion and inspection from the judges, I’m not sure the winner of this portion was announced.

Marie King lights her Most Garish Garnish entry

Felix Fernandez’s Most Garish Garnish

Jason Alexander (L) responds to Martin Cate’s questions.

Jason Alexander lights his Most Garish Garnish.

The third event was the trivia competition, wherein the TikiTenders were tested on their knowledge of Tiki trivia. Each contestant had their own big red buzzer to hit when they knew the answer. At least that was the theory. The buttons had a mind of their own, and eventually all the TikiTenders huddled around Felix’s bar cart, so it was more or less obvious who hit the button first, regardless of whether the button registered it. Questions included: “Name three Tiki bars that have been in operation for over 50 years”, and “What country still has an established rum distillery that uses two pot stills.” Out of roughly six questions, I was happy to see that I correctly answered two. Nobody walked away with this portion, but Marie had more points than Jason or Felix.

Tiki Trivia!

The fourth and final event was to create an original drink using a “mystery” ingredient, unknown to the TikiTenders till the clock started. They then had 10 minutes to create a drink to be judged. The mystery ingredient was revealed to be Don Q Anejo rum – Surprise! Although the winner of this portion wasn’t announced, Mrs. Cocktail Wonk was watching the judges closely and opined that Jason’s drink seemed to receive the most favorable reaction.

The mystery ingredient – Don Q Anejo!

Felix Fernandez working with the Don Q.

Marie King working with the Don Q.

The judges were looking thirsty for the final drink!

Jason Alexander explains his drink made with the Don Q Anejo.

At one point the band stopped playing to announce that their van was being towed, so they needed to take a break. This, the buzzer issues, and the desperate hunt to track down one of the TikiTenders so that the winner could be announced were just a few of the funny incidents which made the competition memorable.

Finally the TikiTenders gathered in front of the bar carts for the winner to be announced. At this point, without knowing some of the individual round winners, my money was on Marie to take it. When they announced that Jason was the winner it took a few seconds to fully register. As the winner, Jason received $1000, the largest of a set of Tiki statues created especially for the event, and a custom Tiki idol pendant. Felix and Marie shared 2nd place, each receiving $250 and a slightly smaller statue.

Jason Alexander is announced as the Iron TikiTender winner!
Esteban Ordonez doles out the celebratory Don Q shot to Jason Alexander.

Marie King gets the Don Q treatment.

Winner Jason Alexander at the VIP after-pary.

After the event the TikiTenders, judges and the crowd milled around as the festivities continued. At one point Esteban commenced pouring Don Q rum down the throats of the TikiTenders and other judges. Somehow even I got in on that action. There was an after-party in the VIP lounge which I snuck in to briefly to snap a few photos and then Ms. Cocktail Wonk and I headed out to partake of some new Portland bars. Stay tuned for my Portland Bar trip report coming soon!

Diplomatico Rum Lunch

 

Great food and rum at La Isla

I recently attended a lunch at La Isla restaurant in Seattle hosted by Diplomatico Rum, celebrating the return of Diplomatico’s line of rums to Washington State stores after an absence of several years. Alex Mejido of Domaine Select Wine Estates, a wine and spirit importer led us through tastings of the Anejo, Reserva, and Reserva Exclusiva expressions. Alas, there was no Ambassador to be had that day, but everybody seemed happy with the three we tasted.

Alex started by telling us some backstory on the Diplomatico company. Although I’ve loved the Reserva Exclusiva for years, having been introduced to it by Murray Stenson during his time at Canon, I wasn’t aware that the origin of Diplomatico rum starts with the Seagrams company back in the 1950s. It seems that Seagrams oversaw the creation and owned 51% of what’s now the DUSA distillery in Venezuela to produce a number of spirits, including rum. In the 1990s Seagrams was bought by Diageo and Pernod Ricard, which jointly held the distillery until 2002, when José R. Ballesteros Melendez took control of the distillery. Today, the distillery produces Diplomatico rum, as well as Cacique rum. In addition, it supplies heavy pot still rums for use in the Pampero brand of rum. Alex also mentioned that in addition to molasses, Diplomatico rum also includes what they call “sugar cane honey”. A more accurate term would be concentrated cane juice, i.e. sugar cane juice with all the original sugars intact, but with some of the water removed.

For the Diplomatico brand, the DUSA distillery uses a combination of column and pot still rums. We started with the Anejo which is a blend of pot and column still distillates, aged for four years. Next up was the Reserva with a bit higher percentage of the pot still, and aged for 8 years. Last was the Reserva Exclusiva, which is renowned in rum circles for being very delicious, sippable and sweet, and aged for up to 12 years.

Beyond tasting the rums, I also enjoyed great conversations with people seated next to me. My friend Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana was on my left as we continued our ever-present tiki discussion. On my right was Colin Kimball of Small Screen Network, producers of many great cocktail videos by Robert Hess, Jamie Boudreau, and others. Also on my right was Jeff Shilling, Party Chairman of The Cocktail Party, and social media lead at Total Wine.  A great lunch, good rum and good conversation. You can’t beat that!