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.
A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”
While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y. Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.
With three 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 in the next few months. 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.
If there’s one story that’s consistently provided fodder for my ramblings here, it would be Lost Spirits. Their primary claim to fame is a hyper-speed distilled-spirit aging process, the brainchild of mad scientist Bryan Davis. A quick check shows that I’ve done two dozen posts here about Lost Spirits, reaching back to some of my earliest writing. I was thrilled to be the first source to write about the THEA One aging reactor, which has received the attention of the biggest spirits industry players and been covered by Wired, CBS, and other mainstream outlets.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from following Bryan’s story is to expect the unexpected, with frequent twists in the narrative. First, the release of three high-octane rums — Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, and Cuban Inspired–which grabbed the rum enthusiast market’s attention due to their high powered, intense flavors. Next was the company’s announcement that they would begin licensing their aging process to other distilleries. The technology is embodied in a “reactor” that takes in freshly made spirit and wood and exposes them to heat and intense light; it’s a patented process that results in the claimed net effect of twenty years of barrel aging within a week’s time. Naturally, this put Lost Spirits in the crosshairs of the big, multinational spirits producers as well as upstart distilleries looking for an edge.
A welcome outcome from the now decade-long focus on authentic craft cocktails is that many obscure ingredients from dusty cocktail books are now available on store shelves and backbars. American spirits importer Haus Alpenz has been particularly instrumental in reviving obscure ingredients, including Batavia Arrack Van Oosten, an older sibling to Caribbean rum. However, in the decade since its release, the Van Oosten’s unusual, raw funkiness hasn’t led to its widespread adoption. Thus, I was recently surprised to see another importer bring a second Batavia Arrack into the U.S. Having tasted and used this new expression from By the Dutch, it’s a very different animal and worth a fresh look. Before jumping to tasting notes and recipes, let’s dig in to a bit of Batavia Arrack history to set the stage.
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.