The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!

Suitcase Rum: Elements Eight Gold Rum

As a US-based rum wonk. I’m constantly pining over all the interesting rum lines coming out of Europe, and especially England – a hotbed of rum going back to the 1600s. One brand I’d heard of numerous times was Elements Eight, primarily in reference to their spiced rum. So on a cold December day in late 2014 at The Vintage House in London, I found myself staring down a treasure trove of rums I couldn’t ordinarily get, and the Elements Eight Gold was one rum that went on my short list straightaway.

The Element Eights Rum Company is London-based, formed in 2005. It’s run by two spirit industry vets, Carl Stephenson and Andreas Redlefsen, both previously at J. Wray & Nephew, the company behind the well-known Appleton brand. Element’s primary market is the UK, although distribution to other counties (such as Spain, Germany and Canada) is growing, although sadly, they’re not in the US yet. Continue reading “Suitcase Rum: Elements Eight Gold Rum”

Suitcase Rum: Coruba “Cigar” 12 year

“Suitcase” posts here on CocktailWonk cover spirits that aren’t readily available in the United States– they’re spirits I’ve discovered while traveling and brought home in my suitcase, warranting an in-depth look.

Within the rum world, the Coruba brand is reasonably well known, but almost entirely for budget priced “mixing” rums such as the Coruba Dark and more recently, a set of flavored rums – spiced, mango, coconut, and pineapple. Being from the United States, these bottlings were my only exposure to the Coruba brand, so I was shocked and possibly a bit too excited to find this 12-year aged Coruba rum at the Vintage House in London, alongside its older 18- and 25-year aged siblings. Being a nut for Jamaican rums, I knew at least one of those bottles would accompany me home. After consulting with Jamie Kimber at Trailer Happiness, I picked the 12-year. My wallet emitted a small sigh of relief, as the 25-year was well in excess of $100.

Piecing together the history of this particular Jamaican rum has been a challenge. The backstory of the Coruba brand is a particularly convoluted series of companies. Trying to make sense of the history and where these high end Coruba editions (the 12, 18, and 25) fit in wasn’t easy, but here are the basics: The Coruba name is a contraction of “Compagnie Rhumière Bale,” a Basel, Switzerland-based company, that in 1929 formed “The Rum Company Ltd.” in Jamaica. In 1965. The Rum Company Ltd. was purchased by the J. Wray & Nephew Group, another Jamaican rum producer. Diehard rummies know that J. Wray & Nephew is the parent company of Appleton rum, so my Coruba 12-year and Appleton 12-year are, in theory, stablemates. This of course begs for a tasting comparison – which we’ll get to after I drop some more twists to the story.

The Coruba brand has a confusing corporate parentage. In 2012, Gruppo Campari bought the parent company of J. Wray & Nephew. Here in the US, Coruba, Appleton, and Wray & Nephew rums are imported by the Campari group and are listed as being a product of Jamaica. The only Coruba bottlings we have in the US are the value-based Coruba Dark and the flavored rums.

On the back of my Coruba 12, there’s no mention of Campari or J. Wray & Nephew, however. Rather, the listed producer is “Haecky Drink and Wine AG.” A little time with Google turns up that Haecky is a Swiss company, based in Basel. Their web site says about Coruba: “Even today it is still blended and filled for the whole of Europe at Haecky in Reinach BL.” In addition, the Haecky web site has a link to rumcoruba.com, a Flash-based monstrosity pushing the sunny island lifestyle and, by extension, Coruba Dark. (The site seriously needs to ditch the music and chatty Jamaican beachbum character.) With enough patience on rumcoruba.com you can find the “Prestige” section that says this (quoting verbatim): “The three exclusive Rum Coruba Cigar 12 years, Rum Coruba 18 years and Rum Coruba 25 years are the noble flagships of the Rum Company Ltd. The tropical climate, the many years maturing in selected oak barrels and the careful processing lend the three noble” (sic)

At this point, I was thoroughly confused and dug in deeper, trying to piece together how both Campari and Haecky produce Coruba branded rum. Eventually I found a PDF file in German that says J. Wray & Nephew sold the majority of the Rum Company Ltd. shares to Haecky in 1993. My speculation is that when J. Wray & Nephew sold to Haecky, it retained distribution rights for the Coruba brand to certain regions, while Haecky does its own blending/bottling for European Coruba. Fun fact I learned along the way: Coruba has been the bestselling brand of rum in New Zealand since the 1970s. While the Campari sourced Coruba focuses on the budget-friendly, fun time beach party Coruba, the Corubas from Haecky straddles the fence, pushing both the fun time sunshine as well as the prestige “aged rum” category.

As best I can identify, all Coruba branded rum originates from a J. Wray & Nephew-owned distillery, of which there are several in Jamaica.  However, the exact distillery (or distilleries) that the 12-year Cigar originates from remains a mystery. The bottle label only says: “Produced in Jamaica by the Rum Company Ltd., Kingston.” I’ve seen reference in some pages translated from German that it’s a blend of a dozen or so different rums. It’s unclear if all of the aging occurs in Jamaica, or if additional aging is done in Switzerland by Haecky.

The Coruba 12 bottle is old-school handsome, topped by a wood-capped stopper. It’s bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume and the color is a medium gold, and noticeably lighter than Appleton 12. The Coruba’s nose is less fruity and more subtle than the Appleton. The initial entry of the Coruba has a slight bit more burn than I’d expect for a rum of this age and cost. The usual Jamaican funky esters are dialed way back, even next to the Appleton 12, which I don’t consider particularly funky relative to other Jamaicans in my collection. I also get a small taste of wet cardboard on occasion in the finish. To be honest, in a blind test I wouldn’t have identified the Coruba 12-year as Jamaican. It’s certainly not an unpleasant rum for sipping, or presumably for smoking a cigar with, but at a price of US $75 I won’t be rushing to replace the bottle when it’s gone.

For another in-depth discussion of this particular rum, check out the Lone Caner’s review. And if you have additional insights about the Coruba history, drop me a note in the comments.
Appleton 12 (left), Coruba 12 (right)

Suitcase Booze: The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Buying Liquor on the Road

One of the occupational hazards of Cocktail Wonkdom is an insatiable desire to find the next great bottle, the big score, the one you’ve only heard rumors of. After tapping out your local liquor stores and become bored (or frustrated) by ordering online, how do you feed the desire? The simple answer: Travel. The moment Mrs. Wonk purchases our tickets for our next great destination, domestic or international, I’ve already started plotting a strategy to maximize the goodies we’ll bring home in overstuffed (but under 50lbs/23kg) suitcases. I’ve learned a lot and am here to share some hard-won wisdom.

Continue reading “Suitcase Booze: The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Buying Liquor on the Road”

Suitcase Rum: Bristol Black Spiced Rum (Bristol Classic Rums)

“Suitcase” posts here on CocktailWonk cover spirits that aren’t readily available in the United States– they’re spirits I’ve discovered while traveling and brought home in my suitcase, warranting an in-depth look.
The Bristol Black spiced rum is among the most interesting of my finds during our recent trip to London. I don’t normally gravitate towards spiced rums – Captain Morgan, begone! Away with you, Kraken! Too often they are vanilla/sugar bombs. However I have a soft spot for Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum from St. Lucia Distillers, and I will confess to using and abusing Sailor Jerry’s in my early proto-mixology days.

The Bristol Black is my third rum from Bristol Classic Rums, along with the previously covered Royal Vale Wedderburn and the 1999 Port Morant Demerara from Guyana, which I found in Glasgow on the last day of our previous European excursion. I fully expect my Bristol Classic Rum collection will grow at the next available opportunity. As the store clerk pulled the Bristol Black from the case at The Vintage House in London, it pained me that I had to forego its Cuban stablemate sitting next to it. Even though the change to US-Cuban relations had been announced just days before, the U.S. import laws on Cuban rum acquired somewhere other than Cuba were still cloudy enough to not risk it.
The Bristol Black’s color is, well, darn-near black. Holding the clear glass bottle up to bright light, it has the hue and opacity of a deep red wine. It comes in at 42% ABV (84 proof), a tad lighter than I’d prefer. I paid U.S. $62 for it in London, and it’s still available online at a few UK sites.
The components of the Bristol Black are a blend of 6-year aged from the Caroni distillery in Trinidad, and 3-year aged white rum from Mauritius. Mauritius, if you’re not familiar, is an island country to the east of Africa and Madagascar, with six active rum distilleries. Unfortunately, I can’t dig up exactly which distillery produces the Mauritian component. However, Bristol Classic Rum has another bottling of Mauritian rum that appears to be from the Rhumerie de Mascareignes, which produces Rhum Agricole style rum. If I had to bet, I’d put money on the two bottlings being from the same distillery.
Taste wise, the Bristol Black is a head-turner, unlike any other spiced rum I’ve encountered. There’s no vanilla, and it’s not syrupy sweet. Instead, it’s fruitcake, tea, tobacco, and mince. The exact flavorings aren’t listed anywhere on the bottle or Bristol’s site, but one source says they include blackstrap molasses, salt liquorice, and orange zest.
How to use the Bristol Black? The bottle suggests “over ice with your favorite mixer.” Not particularly helpful. With its mince, orange, and tobacco overtones, I can picture it being nice with a bit of sweet vermouth, a kind of Holiday Rum Manhattan, if you will. However, I’m perfectly content to sip it neat, ideally by a nice fire on a cold winter night.

Suitcase Rum: 2002 Vale Royal Wedderburn (Jamaica)

“Suitcase” posts here on CocktailWonk.com cover spirits that aren’t readily available in the United States, and possibly other locales – they’re spirits I’ve found while traveling and brought home in my suitcase and warrant an in-depth look.

The Vale Royal Wedderburn 2002 is a Jamaican rum, distilled at the Long Pond distillery in 2002 and bottled in 2011 at 40% (80 proof.) It comes from Bristol Classic Rum, a label of Bristol Spirits Limited, an independent bottler based in Bristol, England.

Of all the many types of rum, the one I consistently acquire almost anything I can get my hands on is Jamaican. Good Jamaican rums are high in fruity esters, which most people describe as “funk” or “hogo”, rarely seen at similar levels in rums elsewhere. The funk is the result of the Jamaican tradition of using “dunder”, a nasty cocktail of bacteria that (while toxic by itself), supercharges the production of fruity esters by the yeast and sugar during the fermentation process.

Continue reading “Suitcase Rum: 2002 Vale Royal Wedderburn (Jamaica)”