Rum and fire. They go together like peanut butter and chocolate, or burgers and fries. But I’m here to tell you to stop lighting your rum on fire. Sure, if it’s tasteless Puerto Rican 151 proof rum, go ahead. The less high proof vodka-in-disguise, the better. Just don’t expect setting your rum ablaze to make an awesome chalice of fire, practically a legal requirement for any volcano bowl at a decent Tiki bar.
Think for a moment about your vehicle. Or if you don’t drive, picture the nicest car you’ve ever been in. What would you answer to someone who asked what it kind of car it was? Odds are you wouldn’t answer “Red” or “Purple.” It’s also a safe bet you wouldn’t reply, “An aluminum frame, two door, four cylinder front-mounted-engine car.” And as oddly specific as that sounds, it still may not convey what it is – after all, you might be talking about a Mini Cooper or a compact pickup truck.
Even specifying a brand doesn’t help. Simply by naming Chevrolet or BMW, you could be referring to a super sporty race car like a Corvette, or a sport utility. We’re used to using all sorts of categories for vehicles (color, manufacturer, size, country of origin, intended use), and we instinctively use the right category to describe the situation at hand. When watching for our Uber to arrive, we care more about the color– not whether it was made in Japan versus Brazil. But when it’s time to register that vehicle, the make and model are paramount.
What does all this have to do with spirits? Well, the world of rum shares many close similarities to the vehicle classifications above: The community instinctively talks about “white,” “Jamaican,” “column stilled,” “English style,” and “overproof” rums. We instinctively understand and use many different rum classification systems, although we may not overtly think of them as such.
The problem with these long-standing rum designations is that we lump vastly different spirits into ill-defined and often flat out meaningless categories – they convey little or no useful information. That in turns leads to broad misunderstandings about rum, which holds it back from greater acceptance in the world of distilled spirits. Rum is a noble spirit, on par with the finest Scotch whisky, Cognac, or Bourbon. But pervasive talk about “silver rum,” for example, makes that acceptance by a wider audience much more difficult.
With two more months in the rearview mirror, it’s time for another methodic scan of the TTB site for new rum releases–or more accurately, TTB approvals for new releases. The list at the end of this post contains my curated picks for new rums with a good chance of appearing on U.S. shelves and in your local watering holes later in 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent label approvals; if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or the approval process, that post is a good place to start before diving in here.
To the uninitiated, a spirits festival, especially one focused on rum, might seem like an exercise in debauchery with faux pirates swinging from the chandeliers. As appealing as that may sound to some, a well-run rum event like California Rum Festival dispenses with the antics and serve two important purposes. First are the stated goals of educating consumers, those within the bar industry as well as enthusiasts. Educational seminars provide in-depth information on rum-related topics, and brands pour their products for attendees to taste a wide variety of rums. The second, unstated purpose of rum festivals is a rum family reunion. Thanks to the Internet and social communities on Facebook, producers, influencers, and enthusiasts from all over the globe have the chance to talk rum nearly 24/7. But rum festivals are where large groups of the family get together for a few days to really wonk out.
A recent article in Harper’s, The Rise of Rum Part 2: Reaching new sugar highs, has been making the rounds in the rum community, and not in a favorable way. While purporting to educate, promote and document rum’s recent rise in popularity, it actually does quite the opposite, with inane, and misleading passages like this:
Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer. It’s suited to late night bars and rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris….
Rum has a broad appeal because its ingredients are sugar cane and molasses,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation like a lot of sweetness in their drinks”
It’s not stuffy like cognac, overly traditional like whisky, depressing like gin, or superficial like vodka. It’s made of sunshine.
No, to be quite honest, rum is made from fermented sugar, and so is every other distilled spirit. Surprised? Read on.
It’s Wednesday, July 20th, the first full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2016. The line outside of the Orleans room at the Hotel Monteleone had started queuing at least thirty minutes earlier, for a highly anticipated event that was scheduled to start soon: The official public unveiling of Plantation’s new O.F.T.D. Overproof rum.
Arriving early, I secure a spot not far from the head of the line. Shortly, Guillaume Lamy, Vice President of Cognac Ferrand and Plantation Rum, pops out of the room where preparations are still underway. We chat briefly and he mentions that just five days earlier, the half-pallet of O.F.T.D. now on-site in New Orleans was sitting in a warehouse on the East Coast, awaiting the U.S. government’s approval for importing–always an uncertain process. Talk about cutting it close!
The powers that be (whoever they are—curiously, no one ever seems to know) have decreed that July 19th of each year is National Daiquiri Day. Of course, in my book, every day is Daiquiri Day. I’d live life in a perpetual state of #DTO if I could get away with it.
Their name practically synonymous with daiquiris, Bacardi flew in top bartenders from around the country to make distinctive daiquiris at five bars around New Orleans for National Daiquiri Day, which conveniently enough landed during Tales of the Cocktail 2016. I personally am partial to a dry, expertly crafted Hemingway daiquiri (also a Mrs. Wonk go-to, over pebble ice if you’ve got it), but I also enjoy seeing what creative bartenders can do, starting from the classic daiquiri’s basic trio of rum, lime, and sugar.
Mrs. Wonk, ever-perceptive as she is, spotted it first. We’d just taken our seats at the bar at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, and I was already engrossed in the cocktail list. Pointing to the backbar, she exclaims, “Isn’t that the new Plantation rum you’ve been talking about?” Indeed it was! The new Plantation O.F.T.D., which outside of a small handful of very select people had never been seen before. In the months leading up to the Tales of the Cocktail 2016, Plantation had been teasing a new, high-profile rum release to be unveiled at a special event. Yet here it was, on the Latitude 29 backbar, nestled inconspicuously amongst the other rums.
I asked the bartender if I could hold the bottle. While I’d known vague details about a replacement for Plantation’s Original Dark Overproof for several months, it was only a few weeks earlier that I’d spotted the TTB label approval, full of details about the forthcoming release. Knowing a big launch was planned, I opted to not include it in my most recent rum label approval roundup, but did give a few big hints and nudges, if you were paying attention.
In the lead up to (particularly rum focused) Tales of the Cocktail 2016 today, after many months of speculation, French producer Plantation Rum at last 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! Update: 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:
Continuing my episodic pillaging of the TTB site for new releases, the list at the end of this post contains my curated picks for new rums which should be appearing on U.S. shelves and in your local watering holes later in 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent label approvals; if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or the label approval process, that post is a good place to start before diving in here.
To construct the list below, I query the TTB database, constraining the results to the past two months. I then exercise editorial prerogative to cherry-pick label approvals likely most interesting (in my opinion) to the rum community. The original list I harvested from the TTB for May and June was huge – almost two hundred approvals– and I’ve made sweeping cuts to bring the list down to the fifty or so here. Unfortunately, this meant eliminating all but one domestically produced rum. Not that there aren’t some good ones made here in the good old U. S. of A., but finding the worthwhile rums can be a needle in the haystack situation. Also, smaller distilleries may put out lots of rum, but they often have limited distribution. If you’re after domestically produced rums, it’s easy enough to construct a search on the TTB site, as I demonstrated in the aforementioned post. I also eliminated a few imported rums of dubious heritage and interest – typically silver or gold rums at 40 percent ABV from no-name brands, with no source given other than “West Indies” and without meaningful age statements.
Before getting to the highlights of the new rums, here are the standard disclaimers for my TTB lists:
Reader beware: There’s no clear way to determine from a TTB label approval if it’s a new product or simply a small change to an existing product’s label. In some cases, producers submit labels for products that may not ever make it to the shelves for various reasons. In other cases, a release is very limited in nature, maybe only a few hundred bottles, and destined for a particular store or bar.
I make a best effort to filter out existing products with minor label changes, but I may miss a rum that’s already available. Please let me know if an offering on the list below is already on the shelves. Also, there is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing for sale. In short, just because you see it on the list below, it’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to purchase it.
New Rum Highlights
Plantation, the French producer, makes a splash on the vintage rum front with releases from Jamaica, Reunion Island, Belize, Guyana, Barbados, Panama, and Haiti. As usual, they’ve each spent the majority of their time aging in their source countries before being shipped to France for more aging in Cognac (and possibly other) casks. Of particular note is the Guyana (1999, fifteen years in bourbon, two years in “Ferrand” casks), that comes in at 56.3 percent, quite a bit higher in proof than most Plantation vintage releases.
Tiki fans will rejoice over a new addition to the Hamilton “Ministry of Rum” line: A 114 proof blend of Jamaican and demerara rum from Guyana, unsurprisingly dubbed “Navy Strength.” Will it be the house rum of Seattle’s forthcoming Navy Strength bar? One can only hope! Also new from Hamilton, although not included in the list below, is a Pimento Dram liqueur that will go head to head with St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.