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 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.
When I first fell down the Tiki rabbit hole, working my way through Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, I realized how little I knew about rums. Demerara, Jamaican, Lemon Hart, Virgin Island, Trinidad, Wray and Nephew… So many names and styles to keep track of and start acquiring! Since then my rum collection’s grown far beyond the space I set aside when designing my home bar.
By this point I’ve made enough Tiki recipes to have a good sense of what I keep coming back to over and over in my Tiki drinks. These are the bottles that I always have a backup bottle or two in reserve. Most of these rums aren’t traditionally considered “sipping” rums, so just because a superb rum like Mount Gay X0 isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I don’t consider enjoy it.
This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive and cover every rum style used in Tiki. The list is also constrained by brands available to me in the United States, which is often much different than what’s available elsewhere, especially with the more boutique brands.
“I”m sorry too report that Mosaiq, the Lemon Hart brand owner, has decided not to bottle any more Lemon Hart 151 until at least the middle of 2015. I wish I had the opportunity to buy more and offered to buy 5,000 cases but was turned down. Planning is everything. I’m working on obtaining another overproof rum that will work in many of the cocktails you love.”
A dark, Demerara style rum from Guyana, Lemon Hart 151 is one of canonical Tiki drink ingredients, used in drinks like the Zombie. I’ve not been able to find any details beyond this, but if you’re running low, now might be a good time to stock up.
I do recall that the Peace Arch US/Canada border crossing had Lemon Hart, so if you’re coming back into the US from Canada soon, there may be opportunities there.
The Hampden Negroni (yeah yeah, I did this one over ice)
Next week (June 2-8, 2014) is National Negroni Week, but being impatient, I’m sharing my favorite Negroni variation now. The Negroni is a very common and simple cocktail pattern, but one that offers a near infinite variety of combinations of ingredients that sing together. To quickly recap:
The Seattle area hasn’t had a true authentic full-time Tiki bar for several years, despite being the location of the first franchised Trader Vics in the 1940s. There was a Trader Vic’s in Bellevue a few years back but they shuttered after a few years. Hula Hula positions themselves as Polynesian, but they’re far from well-crafted Tiki. Rumba specializes in all sorts of rum drinks and does Tiki well, but Tiki isn’t their focus. Portland is known for its Tiki Kon gathering and the Hale Pele bar is well respected in the Tiki world. But if you’re looking for full time, petal-to-the-metal Tiki in the Pacific Northwest, the Tacoma Cabana is your destination.
I recently attended a lunch at La Isla restaurant in Seattle hosted by Diplomatico Rum, celebrating the return of Diplomatico’s line of rums to Washington State stores after an absence of several years. Alex Mejido of Domaine Select Wine Estates, a wine and spirit importer led us through tastings of the Anejo, Reserva, and Reserva Exclusiva expressions. Alas, there was no Ambassador to be had that day, but everybody seemed happy with the three we tasted.
Alex started by telling us some backstory on the Diplomatico company. Although I’ve loved the Reserva Exclusiva for years, having been introduced to it by Murray Stenson during his time at Canon, I wasn’t aware that the origin of Diplomatico rum starts with the Seagrams company back in the 1950s. It seems that Seagrams oversaw the creation and owned 51% of what’s now the DUSA distillery in Venezuela to produce a number of spirits, including rum. In the 1990s Seagrams was bought by Diageo and Pernod Ricard, which jointly held the distillery until 2002, when José R. Ballesteros Melendez took control of the distillery. Today, the distillery produces Diplomatico rum, as well as Cacique rum. In addition, it supplies heavy pot still rums for use in the Pampero brand of rum. Alex also mentioned that in addition to molasses, Diplomatico rum also includes what they call “sugar cane honey”. A more accurate term would be concentrated cane juice, i.e. sugar cane juice with all the original sugars intact, but with some of the water removed.
For the Diplomatico brand, the DUSA distillery uses a combination of column and pot still rums. We started with the Anejo which is a blend of pot and column still distillates, aged for four years. Next up was the Reserva with a bit higher percentage of the pot still, and aged for 8 years. Last was the Reserva Exclusiva, which is renowned in rum circles for being very delicious, sippable and sweet, and aged for up to 12 years.
Beyond tasting the rums, I also enjoyed great conversations with people seated next to me. My friend Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana was on my left as we continued our ever-present tiki discussion. On my right was Colin Kimball of Small Screen Network, producers of many great cocktail videos by Robert Hess, Jamie Boudreau, and others. Also on my right was Jeff Shilling, Party Chairman of The Cocktail Party, and social media lead at Total Wine. A great lunch, good rum and good conversation. You can’t beat that!