Lost Spirits Distillery’s new Polynesian Inspired Rum, and a Polynesian Paralysis variation

Lost Spirits Polynesian Inspired Rum
Polynesian Paralysis, Jason Alexander variation

Having recently gotten my hands on the Polynesian Inspired rum from Lost Spirits Distillery, I’ve been test driving it and comparing it to their first rum, Navy Style. I’ve written about Lost Spirits quite a bit already, and have chatted with Bryan quite a bit about his process, including him giving me a custom presentation of his talk from the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance. With the context of my previous post (highly suggested background reading) I can better describe the differences between the two rums. I’ll end with a few other interesting anecdotes about Lost Spirits Distillery that Bryan shared.

Polynesian Inspired Rum

Coming in at 132 proof, the Polynesian Inspired rum is a take-no-prisoners powerhouse of a rum. Starting with the label, there are obvious stylistic similarities between the Polynesian and the Navy rums. The Polynesian label is essentially the Navy label’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ships and skulls replaced with Maori and Easter Island elements, and a color change. The fonts and other decorative details remain essentially the same.

The rum’s hue is a solid medium-to-dark gold, but compared to its Navy Style stable mate is noticeably lighter in color. On the nose both rums start with a similar strong, pleasing molasses element but eventually go in different directions, the Polynesian finishing a bit lighter and fruitier. This isn’t an accident. When deciding what the Polynesian should be, Bryan accented the pineapple aspect since it’s an essential Polynesian flavor.

In my prior post about Lost Spirits, I covered the seven ways that flavor can be controlled via science. The sixth step I mentioned is barrel aging, which is where the simpler fruit and spicy smelling esters get merged into the longer chained honey esters. In that post, I described how the ester Ethyl Butyrate has a strong pineapple smell. Given that you want a rum with a strong pineapple element it’s reasonable that you’d want to minimize the transformation of this ester into other esters. Bryan accomplishes this by using a different barrel preparation that minimizes the amount of phenols that convert the short chain esters (fruity) into long chain esters (honey). In addition, the amount of rancio, the nutty smell described in step 7 of my earlier post is dialed down considerably. Up to the barrel aging step though, the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired rums are essentially the same.

On the palate, assuming you’re up to sipping 132 proof rum, the Polynesian is much like you’d expect given the nose – A strong molasses flavor that turns to pineapple and butterscotch. Bryan says with a few drops of water it turns into a “pineapple bomb” and I can attest to that.

A few days after my bottle arrived, Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana and I sat together and tasted the Polynesian together. Jason, with his encyclopedic Tiki knowledge immediately thought it would work well in a Polynesian Paralysis variation. A few days later he sent me his recipe:

Polynesian Paralysis – Jason Alexander Variation
• 3/4oz pineapple
• 3/4oz lemon
• 3/4oz Lilikoi juice (sub passion fruit syrup)
• 1/2oz orgeat
• 1/2oz falernum
• 1/2oz Okolehao (A Hawaiian spirit, sub bourbon if not available.)
• 2oz Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum

Flash blend with about a cup of ice

Lost Spirits – Diving Deeper

Beyond just getting a custom presentation of the Bryan’s Rum Renaissance presentation, I interjected a number of questions that veered off into other interesting topics. First and foremost, I was surprised to learn that Lost Spirits has a number of patents filed on his processes, and that Bryan licenses technology and consults for major distillers. In a sense Lost Spirits Distillery is his laboratory where he gets to do all sorts of fun experiments without needing the distillery to make a certain amount of money to stay afloat.

Lost Spirits first came out with a series of whiskeys including three different Leviathan releases and an Umami release. The distillery continues to age more whiskey stock and they have plenty of back orders, so naturally the question is “Why make a rum?” The initial reason Bryan and Joanne Haruta, his business partner started making rum was to season their whiskey barrels. Over time they found themselves enjoying the rum quite a bit and they decided to sell it. These days they find themselves focusing more and more on the rum side of things. Bryan says one reason for focusing on rum is that high end whiskey buyers typically buy just a bottle or two and add it to their 600 bottle collection whereas serious rum lovers will buy and consume multiple bottles over time.

As we now know, Cuban is the next rum style coming from Lost Spirits. However Bryan also mentioned an interest in doing a “Jamaican ester bomb” which I immediately endorsed with all available enthusiasm. But don’t expect a clone of Jamaican dunder rum, as one of the central elements of Jamaican dunder is clostridium saccharobutyricum which grows optimally in the soil surrounding the dunder pit. Bryan grows his “dunder” in five gallon plastic buckets that are controlled with lab grown bacterias, and thus he has the freedom to control the bacteria, tailoring it to the flavor profile he wants. In Jamaica, dunder pits aren’t such a big deal at the distilleries. In Monterey County, CA a bacteria pit is out of the question as it might create some serious problems with the health inspector.

When deciding what style of rum to make, here’s the Lost Spirits process:
• Design a really cool label
• Based on the label, envision what the rum tastes like
• Do the science to produce a rum with that flavor profile.

In my post on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, I said “You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.” Thus, it delighted me then when Bryan recounted that they watched Pirates of the Caribbean approximately 40 times when deciding what the Navy Style should taste like.

For the Polynesian, Bryan set out to make a rum that’s perfect for all sorts of Tiki drinks. Another reason for doing the Polynesian rum is to show that the notion of molasses “terroir” isn’t nearly as important as some believe. Starting with the same ingredients and by tweaking just a few processes, Lost Spirits Distillery has created two largely different rums, and a third rum, the soon to be available Cuban style, should further prove this point.

The inside story of how Lost Spirits Distillery uses science to supercharge rum flavor

Recently Bryan Davis, organic chemistry “hacker” and co-owner of Lost Spirits Distillery walked me through his presentation on creating highly flavorful rum that he gave at the Miami Rum Renaissance in April 2014. In this post I’ll present a summarized version, yet still filled with details you don’t normally hear about in distiller descriptions. While I’m focused mostly on rum, Lost Spirits Distillery also makes other spirits including some award winning Whiskeys. Almost all of the “science” below applies equally to rum, whiskey and their other spirits.

At the 30,000 foot level, the flavoring of a spirit involves a series of steps in a pipeline. At each point, biological and chemical reactions occur that add, modify or remove the organic compounds that are ultimately what we perceive as flavor. The basic steps of rum production: creating a mash (molasses in the case of rum), fermenting it, distilling it, then barrel aging it are essentially the same from producer to producer. What Bryan Davis does particularly well is understand exactly the chemical reactions taking place at each stage, was well as knowing how to impact the steps so that the desired flavor compounds come through and the unpleasant compounds are minimized.

When you read tasting reviews of a spirit, you’ll hear terms like “fruity”, “pineapple”, “cloves”, and “smokey”, used to describe the taste. Those flavors come from esters which are organic compounds. Each ester has its own particular smell and we humans sense some esters at very low concentrations while others require a much higher concentration before we notice them.

What I find particularly fascinating after talking with Bryan is that all the esters in the final rum aren’t necessarily there in the beginning phases. In fact there are points along the way where downright awful smelling acids undergo chemical bonding to alcohols (becoming esters) and come out smelling like wholesome fruity goodness.

Let’s look at a few examples – Don’t worry, I won’t go total biochemist on you, and don’t need to know what Phenylethyl Acetate is. Bryan says that to understand the flavor of rum, you need to understand pineapple, honey, and chocolate. Easy enough, right? Not so fast! Consider this set of organic compounds:
Hopefully you’ll never encounter all that, right? As it turns out, this is the set of esters found in pineapple. While all are present, it’s the ethyl butyrate (ninth down on the left) and ethyl octanoate (top right corner), that are the core flavor of pineapple – By themselves you’d smell the essence of pineapple but not the full spectrum present with an actual pineapple in front of you. Now, if you took this mix of esters, lowered the amount of ethyl butyrate and increased the amount of octyl acetate (third down on the right), you’d get the smell of oranges. Doing the same with decyl acetate (bottom, right) would give you a pear smell. The science of rum that Bryan Davis practices is knowing which esters he wants, which he doesn’t and creating the right conditions so that the desired esters dominate.

So how does this relate to pineapple, honey and chocolate? To get to the desired esters, sometimes you start with something very unpleasant, then make it undergo a chemical process with other compounds to produce a desired ester. Some examples:

Ethanol (the alcohol produced via fermentation)
Butyric Acid (Smells like vomit)
Ethyl Butyrate (The smell of Pineapple)

Now, let’s be very clear – This isn’t simply mixing the two together that produces the desired result. It must be actual chemical bonding.
What about spice? Let’s take cinnamon for an example:

Cinnamic acid (Oak barrels are a good source)
Ethyl Cinnamate (The smell of cinnamon)

Ethyl Cinnamate and related compounds are a subcategory of esters called phenols. Phenols are the spicier, woody part of the smell spectrum.

What would happen if you chemically bonded a fruity ester with a spicy phenol? This is where the honey comes into play:

Ethyl Butyrate (Pineapple smell)
Ethyl Cinnamate
Phenol Ethyl Butyrate (A honey, floral smell)

This last ester above is a “long chain” ester composed of simpler esters. Bryan points out that these types of esters are solely the result of the barrel aging part of the process.

What we’ve just walked through is a very small set of esters. In reality, there are hundreds of esters in play in a rum, typically around 300, as opposed to 80 in a fruit. The entire rum making process is about coaxing all these good and bad esters into a desirable combination.

Seven ways to supercharge flavors

Step 1 – Material selection – What to ferment?

Lost Spirits uses baking grade molasses as their starting point for rums, whereas other distillers will often use lesser quality molasses. This isn’t just a nicety. Sulfur is often used to aid the extraction of sucrose from the pressed sugar juice, and if they used a lesser grade of molasses, the sulfur would need to be removed during the distillation process via higher distillation. While you could do that, you’d also extract out more of the good flavors you’d worked hard to introduce.

A fun side note here – In his presentation, Bryan talks about lignins, which are the complex polymers that give sugar cane stalks their structure. When they stalks are crushed to extract the juice, some amount of lignin remains in the juice. When the juice is later boiled, the lignins undergo thermal decomposition into simpler phenolic acids that we perceive as the smoky flavor from molasses.

Step 2 – Dunder – A bacteria farm

The topic of dunder a “rum story” favorite of mine and amusing to watch people’s reaction when you tell it. During the fermentation process you need a good, plentiful source of bacteria. The dunder “pit” is where you “grow your pet bacteria” as Bryan puts it. It doesn’t really matter what organic materials you put in your dunder pit as long as it helps your target bacteria grow. In old-school rum production the spent mash after distillation was thrown into a pit in the ground to replenish the dunder. Over time all sorts of interesting bacteria fester and multiply in the pit. It’s said that some distilleries even added bat carcasses into dunder pits along with who knows what else. Dunder pits are just a really awful, vile cesspool of bacteria. The bacteria in the dunder form carboxylic acids which have a rotting smell but will eventually be converted into something much better.

While Lost Spirits is all for authenticity, there are numerous reasons why a dunder pit in the middle of Monterey County, CA farmland would be problematic, not the least being the health inspector. Instead, Bryan uses five gallon plastic buckets and things like overripe bananas for his dunder pit. It took him many iterations to find the right set of ingredients to make a good dunder. By starting with an optimal dunder, Bryan is able to obtain many desired esters during the fermentation process, rather than waiting years for them slowly to form in a barrel.

Step 3 – Creating carboxylic acids from yeast

At this point in the process, you have a pool of bacteria. This is combined with yeast and the molasses to start the fermentation processes which produces a number of compounds including various alcohols such as ethanol, and esters. You’ve got fuel (the molasses), and two living organisms, bacteria and yeast fighting for resources to grow and multiply. Ordinarily, the bacteria would always win as they multiply faster than yeast does. However, yeast knows how to cheat – It creates carboxylic acids which slow the growth of the bacteria and when combined with alcohol become esters which as we now know are generally desirable, flavor-wise. Different strains of yeast produce different carboxylic acids so knowing the types of bacteria you have in your dunder, you can select yeast strains that result in desirable tasting esters.

Step 4 – Stressing the yeast

When yeast is under stress, i.e. less than optimal conditions it will combine alcohols with carboxylic acids to create esters. There are apparently many ways of stressing the yeast. Bryan uses nitrogen deprivation to weaken the cell walls. It’s during this phase many of the nasty smelling components mentioned earlier get turned into better tasting compounds.

Step 5 – Distillation

Distillation uses the fact that different types of liquid, e.g. ethanol, methanol, water, etc… boil at different temperatures. By heating the fermented mash and selectively capturing the vapor at the right intervals you can concentrate the desired parts and reduce the undesired components such as methanol.

Some distillers, especially vodka producers go to great lengths to distill their product multiple times to make it as pure and as possible. However, as you’ve seen already the Lost Spirits process focuses on creating the best possible “input” as possible – More of the desirable elements and less of the bad elements that need to be filtered out. With such an optimal input heavy distillation would only serve to remove many desired flavor elements. Thus, Bryan built a pot still that does less separation than a still used for something like Irish whiskey or vodka. For the still-wonks out there, his still has a relatively short neck.

Step 6 – Barrel Aging

For barrel aging the Navy Style and Polynesian Rums, Bryan uses heavily charred new American oak barrels seasoned with Oloroso sherry. While no sugar is directly added to the rum post-distillation, the sherry does impart a very small sugar content which adds to the flavor profile.

Regarding the effect of barrel aging, Bryan mentions that the oak trees rigidity comes from lignin, the same thing I mentioned earlier when talking about sugar cane and molasses. The charring of the barrels acts as a “knife” to break up the lignins into phenolics, which you may recall are the “smoke” aromas, and will go on to form the spice flavored esters. American oak barrels were chosen because the phenols resulting from it are disproportionately high in phenolic precursors to vanillin and other vanilla smelling chemicals. It’s during the barrel aging process that the simpler fruity and spicy esters are converted into the more complex honey-like esters.

Step 7 – The Holy Grail of Rancio

Rancio, or Benzaldehyde & related compounds to be formal, is the “nutty” flavor you find in spirits that have aged for a relatively long time. Sherry is the most familiar example of rancio. Bryan points out that Rancio formation is a separate process from “regular” barrel aging described above and that rancio is a chemical decomposition by-product of the wood lignins after very long exposure to a solvent (water and alcohol).

In the case of sherry and some rums, the rancio comes from the solera method, wherein the spirit spends time in a series of barrels. The first barrel only holds new make spirit, the second barrel only holds spirit drawn from the first barrel, the third barrel only holds spirit drawn from the second barrel, and so on. Eventually, the spirit is removed from the oldest barrel for bottling. It should be obvious that the oldest barrel(s) have had spirits in them for a very long time, and as such are imparting the most rancio.

While there’s a lot of tradition with Rancio, it can take a very long time before you have barrels that are capable of adding rancio. Bryan’s innovation was in figuring out how to treat his barrels so that the lignins have started to decompose by the time of their first use. Simply put, he’s supercharged the rancio process and put it under his control.

Final Notes

If all this merely wets your appetite for more detail, be sure to read Bryan’s Rum Super Geekdom page over at http://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/
During our conversation, Bryan mentioned that his first rum (Navy Style) was created to show off all aspects of his technical innovations in the spirit making process. Subsequent rums may not use all these tricks, or may add others. In my next post I’ll talk about the Polynesian Inspired rum and how it differs from the Navy Style. Finally, a big thanks to Bryan for reviewing this post for technical accuracy. 

Lost Spirits to release a third rum – Cuban Style

As followers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of Lost Spirits Distillery and their very scientific approach to understanding and then optimizing each phase of rum making to make exactly the flavor profile they’re targeting. While already receiving rave reviews and awards for the first rum iteration, Navy Style, they’ve recently released a second iteration, Polynesian Inspired rum. For those of us who don’t live in California it’s been might tough to get our hands on the  Polynesian, as the only distributor who had it initially doesn’t ship anywhere, including Washington State where I live.

A few days ago I finally got my hands on three bottles of the Polynesian Inspired Rum. After trying it out I hit up Bryan Davis, co-owner and mastermind of Lost Spirits Distillery, for details about how he makes the Polynesian style different than the Navy Style. What started as a simple question ended up being a 90+ minute Skype call where he walked me through his presentation at the Miami Rum Renaissance, as well as answering a whole bunch of other questions I had about his process and the distillery itself. Coming off the call I knew there was way too good information to cram into just one very long, rambling post so I’m breaking what I learned into several posts.

For this post, the big news Bryan gave me the OK to share is that Lost Spirits Distillery will be releasing a third style of rum within the next month or so, a Cuban Style that will be drier than the Navy and Polynesian. Bryan says the wood does more of the talking in this rum while the fermentation components do less. I’m sure the Cuban will be a Tour de Force of flavor much like the first two, and my next quest is to get ahold of a bottle of it. Bryan anticipates that the Cuban style may even supplant the Navy Style in popularity. Bonus tip: If you run into someone wearing a Lost Spirits shirt at Tales of the Cocktail 2014 in New Orleans next month, flag them down and you may be able to score a sample!

Going Dutch (Rum-Crazy) – Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, Zuidam Flying Dutchman, and Tres Hombres Republica Dominicana

Three Dutch Rums… Three Dutch Rums…

I started this past week with no Dutch rum in my collection and ended it proudly possessing three very different bottles from the Netherlands, each with a great story to tell. Wait – rum from the Netherlands you may be thinking? It’s not a big stretch to associate the Dutch with rum given that they had a long history of colonization in the Caribbean during the 1600s right alongside the English.

When Mrs. CocktailWonk told me she was headed to Germany and Amsterdam for a work trip I immediately started researching what sort of goodies she could bring back that I can’t easily get here in the United States. I got some great advice from the fellow members of the Ministry of Rum Facebook page and assembled a “Things to look for” guide for her. After getting a pointer from the bartender at Door 74 in Amsterdam, she went to Le Cellier in Amsterdam where she was able to reach me by phone – She read bottle labels to me while I rapidly researched what she was finding. Among the finds were two unique rums.

First up is the Zuidam Flying Dutchman Dark Rum No. 3. Zuidam is an artisanal distillery in the Netherlands that produces a prodigious number of different spirits, including genever, whiskey, rum, and liqueurs. Seriously, check out their product line on the website – They make every other distillery look like slackers. There are two Flying Dutchman rums – No. 1 is a white rum while No. 3 has been aged for a minimum of 3 years. I can’t rave enough about the Flying Dutchman. The bottle is absolutely stunning – I can’t stop picking it up and admiring it. As for the rum, it’s tripled distilled, then aged for a minimum of three year in (quoting the label): “Olorosso Sherry, PX casks, and new American oak.” An interesting choice to go with New American Oak. The taste is sublime – It reminds me strongly of cognac. Not overly sweet, this is a fantastic sipper for rum wonks who are past their Zaya phase. At about 25 Euros, this rum is a total steal. Buy as much as you can when you see it.

Next is the Tres Hombres XV Anos, Republica Dominicana ed 05 2013. The Tres Hombres story is that of three men who make yearly visits to the Caribbean on their boat, seek out interesting rums, and then bring the rum back to the Netherlands on a long sea voyage. The ship is an old German wooden fishing ship that the three Tres Hombres converted into a square-rigged sailing cargo vessel with no engine. Without and engine the journey of the rum from the Dominican Republic to the Netherlands took five months. Part of the claim is that the months at sea, with the rum sloshing around in the barrels, adds to its character. I’m still trying to figure out if what happens to the rum once it reaches the Netherlands – Is it simply bottled or does more happen?

Each year Tres Hombres puts out a different rum. For my bottle, edition 5, the rum originated in the Dominican Republic from Oliver and Oliver Internancional, a distillery who’s products aren’t readily available directly in the US. However, Oliver and Oliver also sell rum to other companies that rum wonks have likely heard of including Atlantico and Vizcaya. The rum has been aged for 15 year using the solera method. While not quite as sweet as Vizcaya or Ron Zacapa, the XV Anos has a dark, mellow character that reminds me of them. At 65 Euros the XV Anos a bit expensive but still a fairly good value given the character of the rum and the story behind it. If you’re a rum collector and you see this bottle, grab it.

My final Dutch rum arrived via FedEx rather than thanks to Mrs. CocktailWonk. Denizen is a Dutch rum blender that up till now has been known for their white rum, a blend of rums from Jamaica and Trinidad, both well-known rum origination points. More recently, Denizen has released their “Merchant’s Reserve” rum, which has caused quite a stir among tiki-aficionados. The Merchant’s reserve is a mixture of Jamaican and Martinique rums, aged for eight years.  The Jamaican portion is a blend of Plummer pot stilled rum from “Worthy Park, Hampden, New Yarmouth, and Clarendon”. This may mean nothing to most folks, but as someone who worships at the altar of Jamaican Funk and Smith & Cross rum, I couldn’t be happier to read those words. The martinique rum component is unusual in that it’s not an agricole style, which is usually what people think of when they think of Martinique rums.

The reason Denizen Merchant’s Reserve has attracted tiki-wonk attention is that beyond just the funk, it’s said that the Jamaican and Martinique rum blend was picked to replicate the holy grail of Tiki rums, Wray & Nephew 17, which the Trader Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai calls for and which hasn’t been available for decades. Once my Merchant’s Reserve arrived I immediately set out to create the 1944 Mai Tai as faithfully as I could.

Pretty close to an original 1944 Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

CocktailWonk’s Pretty Darn Close 1944 Mai Tai
1 oz Denizen Merchant’s Reserve
1 oz Clement VSOP Agricole
.5 oz Clement Creole Shrubb
.5 oz Small Hand Foods Orgeat
1 oz Lime juice

From what I’ve read, the Jamaican funk esters don’t stand up terribly well to long aging – Smith & Cross is a fairly young rum. The Merchant’s Reserve at 8 years has definite funkiness similarities to the Smith & Cross but it’s more subtle. On the other hand, with the additional aging the Denizen is smoother. I can happily sip or mix this rum. It’s not what I’d serve to somebody as their introduction to rum and it’s not particularly sweet, but if you enjoy the many different incarnations of rum, or if Tiki authenticity is important to you (and it should be) grab a bottle or two of the Denizen Merchant’s Reserve. It’s starting to roll out in the US, and at $30 it’s a solid addition to your rum collection. The blog “A Mountain of Crushed Ice” has a nice review with even more background on it.

Was the English Civil war responsible for the birth of rum?

I’ve always been curious about what thought processes lead to the invention of things. On the topic of rum, I’d long wondered who made the first rum and what gave them the idea? The book “Rum, A Social and SociableHistory” by Ian Williams provides a very plausible theory that I frequently recount to friends who are inquisitive about the history of rum.

St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados
It’s generally accepted that rum as we know it was first distilled on Barbados in the mid 1600s. Barbados had been visited by Spanish and Portuguese forces prior to the English arrival, but it was the English that decided that it was a good spot to grow sugar cane and set up a permanent settlement in the 1620s. At the time, sugar was scarce and very highly desired in Europe. Soon, nearly the entire island was dedicated to growing sugar cane, so much that food needed to be imported because Barbados land was more valuable for sugar production than for more readily usable food crops.
In the sugar making process, the cut cane is crushed and the resulting juices collected. Those juices are then boiled, causing the sucrose (what we think of as table sugar) to crystallize out. This process may be repeated to extract yet more sucrose. What’s left behind? Molasses. The various grades of molasses available are really a function of how much sucrose has been extracted.
In Barbados during the mid-1600s, molasses was an industrial waste product with very little value. It was used in mortar, fed to slaves, mixed with hay and feed to farm animals, or dumped in the ocean. So the natural question is “So who decided to ferment molasses and distill the result?” Ian William’s book suggest that Scottish/Irish whiskey making tradition may have birthed rum.
Going back in your world history, the English Civil war (1642-1653) was between various forces in England, Ireland and Scotland. Long story short, a collection of Irish and Scotsmen on the losing side ended up on Barbados either voluntarily (perhaps fleeing from home), or involuntarily as indentured servants. Ian’s book pick up the story here (quoting):
“Without being too stereotypical, we can hypothesize that some thirsty and inventive Scot or Irishman landed, voluntarily or involuntarily, in Barbados in its early days. Any exiled Celt who had dealt with malt to make a mash for a still would not need to be an Einstein to make the connection with molasses, not least on an island like Barbados, where traditional cereal production was insufficient for food, let alone brewing. So the odds are high that it may well have been an aesthete Celt, desperate for decent drink, who decided that all those spirits needed releasing from their distasteful, wet and murky brown shroud.”
Of course, this is conjecture and we likely never will know exactly what happened. However, if true it does provide the critical link between whiskey in the British Isles and rum in the New World. Folks who knew how to make whiskey simply adapted to a new source of fermentable mash. This narrative repeated itself later in America. For a while, rum was the dominant spirit in America, however its production requires molasses, which was economically prohibitive to transport to the western frontier. During the westward expansion corn and other grains were locally available, which led to the rise of American whiskeys such as Bourbon.

Going back to the origins of rum at St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados

Approaching the St. Nicholas Abbey mansion.

In April 2103 my wife Carrie and I visited Barbados for the first time. A few months earlier we’d won the bidding for a week’s stay at a home in Barbados after remembering that Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum. It went without saying that we planned to visit every distillery on the island, but the story of St. Nicholas Abbey made it the obvious first stop.

The Abbey has a long and storied history going back to 1658, which I won’t attempt to replicate here as it’s well documented elsewhere. What you need to know is that the Abbey was a fully functioning plantation and distillery, growing its own sugar and doing nearly everything else in-house. The owner’s mansion on the property is enormous, beautifully maintained, and would be worth a visit even if there wasn’t rum involved. At some point in the late 1900s you could visit the house as a heritage attraction, but the Abbey was no longer a functioning plantation after 1947.
Things changed in 2006 when Larry Warren, a Barbados native and well-known architect specializing in historical preservation purchased St. Nicholas Abbey. In addition to setting out to carefully restore the buildings, he also set forth an ambitious project to make Abbey a fully functioning plantation and distillery like it had been hundreds of years earlier.
Making rum is a time intensive process, primarily due to the length of time needed to age the rum in barrels. A three year aged is pretty much the minimum you’d want to do, and to compete with fine rums you’re talking 10+ years from harvesting the sugarcane to bottling the rum. Obviously this ties up a lot of capital for a number of years before you start earning back your investment. As such, Larry Warren did what lots of distillers do – He jump-started the process by purchasing existing stock from another distillery and continued aging it in barrels at the Abbey. This lets the distillery blender start working with the barrels earlier, as well as provides an income stream once the rum is deemed ready to sell.

In the case of St. Nicholas Abbey, Larry was lucky in that he purchased his starter rum from Richard Seale, owner of the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. The Foursquare distillery produces a number of highly regarded rums, including Doorly’s and more recently, the Real McCoy rum. Richard Seale is highly active in promoting quality rum, sharing his detailed expertise about the rum making process, and exposing companies that play games with their rums.

Barrels purchased from Foursquare Distillery to help get St. Nicholas Abbey launched.

Starting with the Foursquare originated rum while simultaneously starting their own sugar cane/distillation pipeline, the Abbey started selling aged rums around 2009. To date, they’ve sold Foursquare based rums at ages of 8, 10, 12 and 15 years. When we visited in 2013, they had stopped selling the 12 year, but had the 10 and 15 year available. In addition, they had an entirely in-house produced “white” rum aged for 3 years if I remember correctly.

In addition to Larry, his sons Simon and Shae are also involved in running the business. Since Larry is still busy as an architect, Simon handles much of the day-to-day business, down to pouring rums in the tasting room. Simon was there they day of our visit and we had a lovely half-hour-plus chat with him. Simon and I went in to full rum-wonk mode, such that Carrie had to bail out and browse the gift shop. Chatting with Simon about rum making and the distillery history was one of the trip’s highlights.
Simon Warren (L), and Cocktail Wonk (R) in the tasting room.
Upon entering the St. Nicholas Abbey grounds, your first stop is the mansion. You can choose to take a guided tour if you’d like.

Among the many curiosities in the mansion.

Behind the mansion is a small cafe/garden. From there you hook a right and after a short walk find yourself at the small bottling house, which you’re allowed to enter and look around as the worker process bottles. It was still a very small operation, done mostly by hand.

Bottling by hand!

Punch for making the leather stopper insets.

Continuing past the bottle house you’ll come to a barn-like structure that houses the Annabelle the copper hybrid pot/column still, aging barrels, and the sugar cane crusher.

Sugar cane crusher.
Aging barrels.
Aging barrels and tanks.

Annabelle, the hybrid pot/column still.

After wandering through the barn and marveling at its contents you head out back to the remains of a stone windmill. Past the windmill are lovely fields of sugar cane.

The windmill and barn housing the crusher, still, and aging barrels.

Remains of the original windmill.

Cocktail Wonk was very exited to be among his new cane friends.
Another view of the barn and smokestack.
You can wander around the rest of the beautiful Abbey grounds, lush with plant life and strewn with interesting artifacts.
All sort of interesting sites on the Abbey grounds.
As for the rum itself, I find the 10 and 15 very consistent with the other aged Foursquare rums, i.e. the classic Bajan style. The nose is fairly intense, in what I can only describe as “high octane” in a very nice way, and very different from Jamaican rums.  The taste is dry, as it has no added sugar, but very smooth and little burn. It’s a very different experience than something like Zacapa XO or El Dorado 15. Once you start sipping the St. Nicholas Abbey you’ll find it hard to stop.
The St. Nicholas Abbey bottles for their aged rums are works of art. Each is etched with a picture of the mansion, and you can have it personally engraved if you wish. The bottle stoppers are made from mahogany wood grown on the plantation, and have a circular inset of embossed leather.

Aged rum bottles showing the etched image of the mansion.
The cost for the Abbey’s rums is a bit expensive with the 15 year costing US $130 and the 10 year costing US $80.  However, having seen the history, attention to detail, and realizing all the labor involved, we happily snapped up four bottles – two for my collection, and two more for friends back home who had put in requests. We’d have bought more, but needed to save room in our suitcase for other Barbados rum treasures. As a bonus for being a repeat customer, if you bring your original bottle back, they’ll refill it for half price, something I aspire to do some day.