Finding Ron – A Guide to Spain’s Rum Haunts

Spain: land of history, culture, majestic architecture. Complemented by a gastronomic feast — tapas, olives, sherry, and vermouth — best consumed over ice with an orange twist, in the shadow of a cathedral. During our two week trip through Andalucia and parts beyond, from Madrid to Seville to Jerez to Granada to Cordoba to Barcelona and back to Madrid, Mrs. Wonk and I reveled in the best Spain has to offer, including copious amounts of sherry, the genesis of our odyssey. Yet accompanying us at every step along the way was our good friend, Ron.

Ron, in case you hadn’t heard, is the Spanish term for rum. You might ask “What on earth does Spain have to do with rum?” The answer is, “More than you possibly know!” It was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, who brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from Spain’s Canary Islands. A few short decades ago, sugar cane still grew and rum was still being produced in the south of Spain, as we learned firsthand at our visit to a Madrid Tiki bar. Even today, the Arehucas distillery in the Canary Islands distills rum.

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Birth of a Sherry Cask

The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.

Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.

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In Search of Tio Pepe and Tipsy Mice at González Byass

The streets of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest of Spain are just coming to life as we emerge from the small train station on a late February morning. The weather is surprisingly temperate and families enjoy breakfast outside at the small cafes in the plazas. Train schedules being what they are, we’ve arrived a bit early for our appointment, so we have time to kill. All my previous experiences with vast quantities of wine have been in locations like California’s rural wine country, so it’s hard to imagine that vast quantities of sherry lie beyond the walls of these low-slung buildings in the heart of town.

The bell tower of the Jerez de la Frontera cathedral looms in the distance, rising above the two- and three-story buildings around it. Instinctively I walk that direction — gawking at cathedrals is a non-negotiable when traveling with me (as Mrs. Wonk knows too well). There’s only time for a quick few photos on the cathedral steps before our appointment. We only go a few steps, noses pressed to Google Maps, before Mrs. Wonk exclaims, “Look! Here it is!” Literally across the street from the cathedral is a white- and yellow-trimmed building with an unmissably large “González Byass” logo painted on the side. A statue of a man in 1800s garb standing next to a large wine cask labeled “Tio Pepe” confirms that we’re in the right spot.

González Byass
González Byass

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Ron Dos Maderas – Behind the Scenes and Straight from the Cask

Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.

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The Lustau Bodega Experience – A Cocktail Wonk Immersion

The narrow, maze-like one-way streets of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are mere crevices between the mix of two story buildings. Are they houses? Shops? It’s hard to tell exactly what lies beyond the doorways. Most are stucco and painted white to reflect the intense, Spanish sun that bears down on this seaside town where the Guadalquivir River exits into the Atlantic. A GPS will hopelessly confuse things here – the streets are so close together, you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Luckily, Federico Sánchez-Pece Salmeron, Director of Communications for Lustau, knows exactly where we’re heading.

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Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?

For spirits wonks, one of the great joys of travel is seeking out new and exotic bottled treasures and returning home with them in tow. It’s the thrill of the hunt – what will you find? Maybe it’s a bottle you never knew existed, or perhaps it’s one you’ve been stalking for years. Here in the U.S., the three-tier system makes it royal pain sometimes to find what you’d like at your local stores. So hunting for liquor while you travel, both domestically and internationally, can be highly rewarding.

When it comes to bringing liquor back into the U.S. from international travel, the biggest source of fear and confusion is “duty,” aka the duty free exemption. Generally speaking, U.S. residents can return to the U.S. with one liter of spirits, duty free. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) site says this:

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