In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. In this and other posts I describe a distillery we visited. If you’re not familiar with rhum agricole production, it’s highly suggested you start with this overview.
It’s a warm, sunny morning on the northern slopes of Martinique’s Mount Pelée. In the distance, over a field of vividly green sugar cane stalks, lies the island of Dominica, floating in the calm, azure ocean. In the opposite direction, Pelée’s peak mingles with the clouds. By all accounts it would seem like a supremely calm, meditative moment. Except that I’m in the cab of an industrial combine, mowing down rows of sugar cane at a frightening pace. This is the first stop of our visit to Rhum J.M, and we’re experiencing exactly why J.M makes such a big deal about their unique terroir.
In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’sBenjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. As a prelude to my individual distillery write-ups, this post introduces the key concepts of French agricole rhum. I’ll build from these topics in the individual distillery articles.
Within the rum world, once you move past Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan, the brands drawing most of the attention hail from the former colonies of England and Spain – think Havana Club, Mount Gay, Appleton, El Dorado, or Brugal. Somewhere in the distance behind them (with regard to general awareness) are the offerings from the French outposts in the Caribbean. The cane spirits of the French West Indies struggle to crack the consciousness of the casual rum consumer, who’d be hard pressed to name a single brand from Martinique or Guadeloupe. And that’s unfortunate, as the French islands in the Caribbean offer some of the most flavorful and authentic close-to-the-soil distilled spirits available anywhere.
Spain: land of history, culture, majestic architecture. Complemented by a gastronomic feast — tapas, olives, sherry, and vermouth — best consumed over ice with an orange twist, in the shadow of a cathedral. During our two week trip through Andalucia and parts beyond, from Madrid to Seville to Jerez to Granada to Cordoba to Barcelona and back to Madrid, Mrs. Wonk and I reveled in the best Spain has to offer, including copious amounts of sherry, the genesis of our odyssey. Yet accompanying us at every step along the way was our good friend, Ron.
Ron, in case you hadn’t heard, is the Spanish term for rum. You might ask “What on earth does Spain have to do with rum?” The answer is, “More than you possibly know!” It was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, who brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from Spain’s Canary Islands. A few short decades ago, sugar cane still grew and rum was still being produced in the south of Spain, as we learned firsthand at our visit to a Madrid Tiki bar. Even today, the Arehucas distillery in the Canary Islands distills rum.
Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.
A recent online piece from Bon Appetit, Why We’re Drinking Black Rum, a Caribbean Spirit Even Whiskey-Drinkers Can Love, really got my dander up. Not that Bon Appetit is on my regular reading list, but when the linked passed by in my Google News alert for rum, I naturally had to see what a “mainstream” and respected food and drink magazine had to say about rum. As it turns out, the same-old blatantly incorrect “conventional wisdom.”
Quoting the article: “So, what separates black rum from its lighter counterparts? For one, it’s aged for much longer than white rums. The aging process takes place inside a well-charred barrel, where the molasses-based spirit takes on the smoky characteristics of its environment. The result is that black rum shares taste characteristics with your favorite whiskeys, but with a touch more sweetness.”
If you’ve been around these parts or the Cocktail Wonk Instagram feed for any length of time, you know Tiki drinks play a big role in the Wonky lifestyle. I revere the classics like the 1944 Mai Tai and the Jet Pilot, while celebrating modern recipes from my Tiki Monster friends like Jason Alexander, Martin Cate, Justin Wojslaw, and Zac Overman. Every so often I dip my toes into crafting my own concoctions using elements of the Tiki pattern and Minimalist Tiki principles. So hereby I present an original Tiki recipe that we’ve been enjoying the hell out of lately: The Tonga Thunder.
In his 1895 book, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells posits a tabletop device that takes people backward and forward in time. Even if you can’t literally travel through time (yet), the ability to compress it has nearly limitless appeal. With his disruptive, rapid aging technology for spirits, Bryan Davis is doing just that: A way of forcing the chemical reactions that occur during barrel aging to happen orders of magnitude faster than Mother Nature would allow in her own sweet time.
It’s no surprise that Davis has latched on to a time machine metaphor for his rapid-aging spirit reactor (“a time machine for booze”), even using it as the title of his TEDx presentation about it. Now, I realize this may be old news to many of you, as the story of Lost Spirits and Bryan has spread far and wide. Stories in Wired, the Huffington Post, and numerous other spirits publications (including yours truly) have told the story many times over.
Banana. Chocolate. Rich aged rum. Gentian root. Peppery spice. Intrigued? These are just some of the flavors dancing together in Seattle bartender Cameron George’s Havana Hustle, a semifinal-winning entry in the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail competition. In a few weeks, he’ll be taking his entry to the U.S. Finals in Miami, and if he dominates there, on to Berlin for the Global finals in the spring.
If you’ve paid any attention to the high-end rum world as of late, you’ve no doubt noticed a large upswing in the number of special, limited-edition releases by the major players. Guyana’s El Dorado has a healthy handful of special “finishes” (red wine, white port, Madeira, Sauternes) for their twelve- and fifteen-year mainstays. Mount Gay has its Origins series (pot vs. column, virgin cask vs. charred cask), and a pricey, limited edition XO cask strength. Ron Zacapa’s Reserva Limitada 2014 claims to have spent two additional (?) years aging “…in a herb garden created high above the clouds…”
On one hand, special releases are a good thing for the rum category, providing enthusiasts like yours truly with more collectibles for their shelves. Equally important, they provide strong evidence outside of the rum world that there’s more to the category than millions of liters of Bacardi silver and Captain Morgan. On the other, some of these releases feel like gratuitous money grabs. Sure, they may be limited release, but do they really warrant the 2x or 3x premium for similar products from the same producer? Into this maelstrom of special, limited release products steps The Real McCoy, a relative newcomer to the rum world, that recently released a limited-edition twelve year rum. Let’s put it up on the rack and take a look.
While 2016 was a year many would have gladly skipped, here in the Cocktail Wonk corner of the boozy blogosphere, it’s been gangbusters for great experiences and stories. As I wrote my 2015 roundup post a year ago, I wasn’t altogether convinced that 2016 would be able to top it. Boy, was I wrong!
Over the past twelve months, I’ve written fewer straight-up spirit reviews and cocktail recipes and more long form essays. It’s taken a while to get to that level. The opportunities for unknown stories and fresh takes on topics are there to be found, but it requires waiting for the right contacts and opportunities to fall into place, as they did this year.
What follows is my take on the most important topics I covered this year. It’s an entirely subjective ranking on my part, without regard to actual page visit statistics. Some entries represent a single post that particularly resonated with readers, while others are a collection of posts. Hyperlinks to the original posts are interspersed in the descriptions below.