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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.