The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2017

As 2017 draws nigh, it’s time for the traditional year end wrap-up, summarizing the highlights of what appeared here over the last 12 months. Some of what follows could be called self-indulgent navel-gazing; reflections on how my writing has evolved. But I contend there’s also value to you, the reader – it provides a broader context for what the site has become. And who knows, you might have missed a relevant post as the world speeds by.

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Cocktail Wonk Turns 200 – A Spirited Retrospective

As I write this, I’m lingering over the last few vapors from a very wee dram of Gordon & MacPhail Long Pond rum, distilled in Jamaica in 1941 and aged for 58 years. It’s a glorious example of the Jamaican rum flavor-bombs I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with. My good fortune in acquiring this Holy Grail of rum, brought into existence before the atom bomb and the moon landing, is entirely attributable to this site. Fellow writer Lance Surujbally, aka The Lone Caner, saw my post about the historic Long Pond distillery and graciously arranged for a sample to be sent from Germany. The story of this dram arriving in my glass is a perfect synopsis of how life has changed since starting this little writing adventure. So, on the occasion of my 200th posting, I’ll indulge in a bit of navel gazing, historical retrospective, and wrap up with what’s to come.

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Plantation Launches New Blend – O.F.T.D. Overproof (Old Fashioned Traditional Dark)

In the lead up to (a particularly rum focused) Tales of the Cocktail 2016, after many months of speculation, French producer Plantation Rum today announced their newest mainstream blended rum: O.F.T.D. The new offering is a blend of rums. The label says Jamaica, Guyana, and Barbados, coming in at a high octane 69 percent ABV (138 proof). Its predecessor, Original Dark Overproof, is composed of entirely Trinidad rums at 73 percent ABV, or 146 proof. Although the main label doesn’t explicitly say “Old Fashioned Traditional Dark,” a sticker on the label says “Old Fashioned Traditional Dark”. However, there’s an alternative meaning. Use your imagination! Or just check out my photos from the launch party

The eye-catching label tells the story of a rogue’s gallery of well-known rum and Tiki celebrities who came together to influence its taste and character. From the bar world:

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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!

Down the Drain: Rum community in turmoil as thousands of deaths linked to sugar cane production

The images on social media grab your attention –empty bottles, neck down in a sink. The contents? Flor de Caña rum. A recent article in Vice magazine details the fates of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters, who are dying at an alarming rate from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Influential bar owners and rum experts, such as Martin Cate, Ed Hamilton, Bobby Heugel, Andrew Friedman, Nicholas Feris, and Jim Romdall have posted their own empty-bottle photos or links to the Vice article (as well as a previous link in The Guardian that tread similar territory, without the groundswell) on Facebook and Instagram with thoughtful commentary. If you have access to those posts, I urge you to read them.

The crux of the Vice investigation is that in the Chichigalpa region of Nicaragua, in the years between 2002 and 2012, a syndrome called Mesoamerican nephropathy caused 75 percent of the deaths of men aged 35 to 55, numbering in the thousands. The primary employer in Chichigalpa region is Ingenio San Antonio, which harvests the sugar cane used to distill Flor de Caña rum. Sugar cane workers are paid by the harvested ton, rather than an hourly wage, thus many work extremely long days to make enough money to survive. The common term for Mesoamerican nephropathy is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD); symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, and associated problems, leading to kidney failure. The Vice article suggests two primary causes of CKD: First, insufficient hydration and rest for sugar cane harvesters, who often work in extreme heat in a subtropical climate, leading to kidneys being overloaded. Second, pesticides used for the cane harvest may also contribute to the condition.

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Lost Spirits Distillery to tweak their Navy Style rum, release at least two Cuban style rums


The second Lost Spirits Cuban Style label, showing 47% ABV, being sampled at Tales of the Cocktail

The folks at Lost Spirits Distillery let loose a surprise for their fans at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans this week. About a month ago they teased their upcoming Cuban Style Rum by posting a picture of the label on their Facebook feed, the label stating the rum as 151 proof. Much more recently, their Facebook feed mentioned they weren’t able to take the 151 proof rum on the plane to New Orleans for Tales. However, the accompanying photo showed a very similar label, but this label stating 47% ABV (94 proof) with the additional words “Anejo Blanco”, which I take to mean aged, then filtered to remove the color. Subsequent photos on Facebook show those 47% bottles in New Orleans, where the Lost Spirits folks are giving them away bottles to some lucky folks. What I’m hearing is that Lost Spirits will release both Cuban versions, albeit with the Anejo Blanco version coming in at 45% ABV on the shelf.

In discussing the Cuban style with Bryan, he’s shared a few more details about its making. To summarize:

  • Different distillation practices, which I take to mean adjusting the heads/tails cut.
  • Neutral fermentation environment, which I interpret to mean not nitrogen depriving the yeast.
  • The wood aging plays a stronger part of the flavor, relative to the prior rums.
  • They put a lot of effort into preparing the barrels prior to let “…as many different parts of the oak to sing as possible.”

(I will update this as I learn more and get a bottle of the Cuban to try out.)

In other news, one of my earlier posts on the Navy Style rum failed to mention an interesting side-note from my conversation with Bryan. Currently the Navy Style is available in two strengths: 68% and 55%. Bryan said the 55% was a concession to make a version easier sell to bars, where higher proof rums are often considered too expensive to use in mainstream cocktails.

The Lost Spirits 55% version is a bit of an oddball – while it’s called Navy “style,” it’s not technically navy proof. To be navy proof, a spirit has to be 114 proof (57% ABV). The reason for this is that if a navy proof spirit leaks in into the gunpowder stores, it won’t prevent the gunpowder from igniting. The 55% ABV version is just 2% short of being navy proof, and Bryan’s indicated that future releases will be at 57% so that it can be deemed navy proof.