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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Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home

Recently, a torrent of articles in the mainstream press has heralded the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail title, and highlighted top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales of these destination-worthy bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’m completely on board with this surge in interest, and I regularly go overboard in my home bar, making libations with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.

However, it recently occurred to me that exotic Tiki recipes specifying esoteric ingredients and very specific rums can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe with what’s already in your home bar.

With this in mind, I set out on a research project: Finding the minimum set of ingredients needed to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I created a minimal working set of ingredients, enabling you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space.  It’s too late for me — the home bar spans several rooms — but with what follows, you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.

My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails I consider the essential classics; as with all “best of” lists, it’s completely subjective. However, I’ve conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:

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Checking out Copacabana 1940 Rum

One of the best things about Instagram, assuming you follow the right folks, is see a ton of interesting things you wouldn’t see otherwise know about. Recently on my feed I came across Copacabana Rums. Intrigued, I dug a little and learned they have a single rum at the moment, Copacabana 1940, distributed by Barrio Spirits. While there are tons of me-too white rums out there with little or no barrel aging, the Copacabana 1940–with its seven-year age claim and origins in Panama–made my ears perk up.

Let’s address the obvious up front: Copacabana 1940 refers to the iconic New York City nightclub, opened in 1940, which hosted a number of musical legends over the years (Dean Martin, Marin Gaye, etc…), and which you almost assuredly first heard about from Barry Manilow in your formative years.
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Checking out Mezan Jamaican XO Rum

Having recently inventoried and loosely categorized my ever-growing rum collection in a spreadsheet (because that’s what wonks do), it’s no surprise that Jamaican rums are among the best represented on my shelves. Why the love affair with Jamaican rum? Distilleries in Jamaica use “muck”–a big slug of bacteria grown in pits in the ground (stay with me here), that when added to the fermenting molasses creates tons of chemical compounds known as esters, rendering the rum full of fruity, banana funk, also known as “hogo.”  You may have heard muck referred to as “dunder” — they’re related but not exactly the same thing. No other style of rum comes close to this particular character, and I can’t get enough Jamaican rum in my life.

Beyond the household name Jamaican brands (Appleton and Myers), it takes a bit more work to hunt down lesser known brands like Smith & Cross, Coruba, and Wray & Nephew – they’re available, just maybe not at your corner liquor store. Once those are in your possession, however, it gets exponentially harder to add to your Jamaican collection, often requiring international trips or friends shipping you limited releases. Thus, I’m excited that the Mezan line of rums, including two Jamaicans, is finally available here in the U.S., brought to us by Niche Import Co. Here I’ll take a wonky look at the Mezan Jamaica XO, batch 8146, provided to me for review.

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Checking out Afrohead XO Rum

Unless you’re a spirits aficionado, you might not know about blending and the role of the “master blender.” And it might be a surprise to you that, say, a seven year bourbon isn’t simply liquor that sat in a barrel for seven years before it was bottled, straight from the barrel. It’s also not generally known that the identical spirit, when placed in different barrels and stored in different locations, may end up tasting radically different. The role of the master blender is twofold:  To either create a new flavor profile, or work to create a consistent taste, year after year. In the second case, a master blender must be so familiar with an existing product that, working from the available barrels that a distillery has at hand, he or she can determine the precise amounts and ratios of spirit from various barrels to create the flavors that a brand’s supporters have come to know and love. Very few people–with exceptional palates–can do this exacting work. Toby Tyler of Afrohead Rums is one such practitioner.
A few months back I received a bottle of the new Afrohead Premium Aged Dark Rum (“seven-year”) for review. I put it through its paces, wrote my review, and figured that was the end of the story – on to the next rum. In my review of the Afrohead seven-year, I compared it to Angostura’s seven-year rum and found them very similar in flavor profile. After posting my review, the Afrohead PR firm asked if I was interested in trying out the fifteen-year X0. But of course! As luck had it, Miami Rum Renaissance was coming up very soon, and Afrohead was exhibiting. Perfect timing for me to dig in and learn more.

Afrohead booth at Rum Renaissance 2015 in Miami
I won’t repeat the entire Afrohead backstory from my previous review, but here are the essentials: A few years back, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler, co-owners of The Landing, a hotel on Harbor Island, Bahamas, created a house-rum blend using rum from Angostura Distillers in Trinidad. More recently, an investment group set up the Harbour Island Rum Company in Nokomis, Florida, to import the rum into the US. Currently Afrohead offers two rums: The seven-year and the XO, aged for fifteen years.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015
Immediately upon entering the Rum Renaissance show the first day, the large Afrohead booth jumped out and demanded attention. I immediately spotted Joe and Toby (I’d seen photos) and headed over for what would be a lengthy conversation, where I got answers to all sorts of questions I’d had after my review of the seven-year, as well as learning more in advance of this review of the XO.
Toby Tyler at Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Blending room at the Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
First and foremost on my mind was the similarity between the Afrohead seven and Angostura seven. Toby (Afrohead’s master blender) told me of his experiences at the Angostura blending laboratory where he worked side-by-side with Angostura’s master blender to create both the seven-year and the X0 blend. At one point he grabbed his iPhone to show me pictures of his more recent trip (a few of which he has generously supplied for inclusion in this post); Toby was at Angostura last July and will go back again soon. Once he develops his exact flavor profile, the blenders at Angostura will replicate it, but Toby still visits the blending house to confirm that each batch is consistent with what he believes the Afrohead expressions should taste like. One thing Toby emphasized several times during our meeting is that the Afrohead rums have a very “clean” finish, with no added sugar and very little palate fatigue after repeated tastings. I have to agree with Toby in that regard – the finish is very clean.
Sample bottle at the Angostura Distiller (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Another thing I learned in my meeting with Toby and Joe Farrell is that the Afrohead line is well-funded and positioned for growth. Joe told me that many beverage executives visit The Landing and have wanted to take the Afrohead rum to the US market in the past. Eventually, a deal was struck with a group of investors with extensive beverage industry experience. A little internet searching turns up that two of the three Harbour Island Rum Company executives have worked as high-level executives for Bacardi and are now working with “beverage alcohol startups” like Afrohead. One of the investors in the Harbour Island had previously invested in the company behind Angel’s Envy whiskey, which was recently acquired by Bacardi. It was quite evident from the Afrohead booth events at Rum Renaissance that Harbour Island Rum Company has the backing to spend a significant amount of money to make a splash in the US market.
Afrohead seven-year and Afrohead XO
With the company preliminaries behind, let’s take a look at the Afrohead XO, with callouts to the differences between it and the seven-year.
The XO bottle’s glass is identical to the seven-year. However, while the seven-year bottle is clear, showcasing the contents, the X0 bottle is opaque from a matte black paint (or similar) covering. The stopper fits the bottle, creating somewhat of a challenge to remove – I noticed this with the seven-year as well. The striking Afrohead logo (a woman with a very large head of air intermeshed with visual symbols) is, at a distance, visually the same on both the seven-year and XO, but up close the XO’s label is a nicer, heavily embossed foil. Whereas the seven-year bottle’s front label has latitude/longitude coordinates for The Landing on Harbour Island, on the XO bottles is an “X” overlaid with a “’15.” The backs of both bottles show the identical “Universally inspired, authentically crafted” Afrohead origin story.
The X0 weighs in at 43 percent ABV (86 proof), a tad higher than the seven-year’s 40 percent ABV. Pouring a bit into a glass, I noted that the color is very similar to the seven-year: medium to dark copper. The nose is inviting – it smells of “serious rum” with woody tones. The taste immediately brings to mind many years in heavily charred barrels, caramel, and a slight hint of smoke. Tasting the seven-year and XO side by side, the seven-year starts out lighter, fruitier, and slightly ephemeral, while the X0 dives down to darker wood and caramel tones. After the X0 fades away, my tongue still feels fresh, ready to go again immediately. The viscosity of the XO doesn’t suggest to me that sugar was added, as some rums do.
The Afrohead seven-year and X0 are obviously cut from similar cloth, but there are clear differences. As a sipper, the X0 is much more interesting. At about $60 retail, this is a bit on the more expensive side (there are plenty of good sipping rums in the $40-$60 range). In fairness, the closest obvious comparison to the Afrohead XO is Angostura 1824, a 12-year from the same distillery that retails for around $80, so suddenly the 15-year Afrohead seems reasonably priced. If you’re a fan of Trinidad style of rum with a lot of aging, and that doesn’t break the bank, the Afrohead XO is a solid choice.

Now Boarding TikiKon Air: Iron TikiTender 2015 Recipes from Seattle Bartenders

A highlight of the CocktailWonk blog last year was attending TikiKon 2014 in  the Portland/Vancouver vortex. In addition to classes and parties, my personal highlight was the Iron TikiTender competition, which my good friend Jason Alexander, owner of the Tacoma Cabana, won in his first time as a competitor. The contest pits three bartenders against each other in a series of challenges, such as “Most Mai Tais in 10 minutes” and “Best drink with a mystery ingredient,” with judging by rum celebrities like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. Sadly, I’ll be missing the 2015 TikiKon as Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to New Orleans a few days in advance of Tales of the Cocktail. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear that some of my local, Seattle-based bartenders are applying to compete at Iron TikiTender 2015.

Iron TikiTender 2014 – Felix Fernandez, Marie King, Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander

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