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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Peeking Inside Scotch Whisky Stalwart Cragganmore

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Cragganmore distillery in Ballindalloch, Speyside.

Day five of our single malt distillery sprint dawns with a crisp, cold morning, the skies clearing after the prior evening’s rain. Most of the snow has melted and the roads are blessedly free of cars as we hurry along the two-lane A95 from Dufftown to Banffshire. It’s our first daytime experience in the rural parts of Speyside outside of Dufftown and Rothes, and the sights are everything we’d hoped for–lush green farmland rolling as far as the eye can see, bridges over sparkling streams, and rugged low mountains in the distance. Today is our “Diageo Day,” with visits to two of the Scotch whisky powerhouse’s lesser known distilleries in store. Our first stop: Cragganmore.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2016

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.

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Touring Speyside’s Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Speyside.

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Bruichladdich Distillery – Stepping Back in Time and Into the Future

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay.

While on Islay, you’d be hard-pressed to skip visiting or at least not drive through scenic Port Charlotte, home of one of the nicest hotels on the island. Heading southwest on the A847 toward town, you have to work to keep your eyes on the road rather than gawk at the roving bands of sheep and splendorous views over Loch Indall to your left, just a few dozen yards away. Passing a cluster of white painted houses perched on the right side of the road, you might think you’re on the outskirts of Port Charlotte. Except that, blink once, you’ve passed by a white, two-story stone-walled compound. This is your first encounter with Bruichladdich– an Islay distillery vastly different than Laphroaig and Lagavulin, who get the lion’s share of this small island’s attention.

Sheep near Bruichladdich
Sheep near Bruichladdich

Our arrival at Bruichladdich coincides with a slight break in Storm Gertrude, which hammered Scotland with high winds exceeding 100 miles perhour at times—thankfully not while we were crossing open water in our car ferry two evenings before. During a short lunch break between our morning Bowmore tour and Bruichladdich, we stopped at infamous Bowmore round church for a quick peek at the grounds and found ourselves—hardly wee people, we sturdy Americans–barely able to stay upright as wind gusts hurled us around. So it was with great relief that we pulled into the protected courtyard of Bruichladdich, sheltering walls on all four sides.

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