Reviewing Paul Clarke’s The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass

As an avowed wonk about all things spirited, I have a secret shame involving books about cocktails and drinking. I have more than a few, including most of the current “must haves” of the past decade: Wondrich’s Imbibe and Punch, Morganthaler’s The Bar Book, The PDT Cocktail Book, the Death & Co. book, Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari and Potions of the Caribbean…the list goes on. The shame isn’t in owning all those books–the shame is that most of them sit on my shelf, awaiting a dose of quality reading time that never seems to come. I do read tons of blogs however, and I’ve discovered more than a few recipes and stories from Paul Clarke’s Cocktail Chronicles blog since the cocktail bug bit me nearly a decade ago. So when I learned that Clarke, editor of Imbibemagazine had his own book coming out, The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass, my first thought was, of course, “I need it!” My second thought was, “Will Paul’s book befall the same fate as the others on my shelf?”
In the (far too distant) past, I avidly consumed books about technology and programming – I even wrote a fewmyself. But with the advent of a rapidly searchable internet, I’ve found I prefer the buffet style of learning: It’s easy to survey what’s available, with a low level of commitment, and I can take as much or as little as desired. Well-written blog posts are often the perfect vehicle for learning — I’ll decide later if I want to dig in deeper and read an entire book about rum. (Yes, I have. More than one.) Ditto for a well-written magazine column. When Esquire arrives at my house (Mrs. Wonk will have you know that it’s her subscription, and she’s been an avid reader and subscriber for—gulp—25 years), the first thing I flip to is David Wondrich’s column–no matter who’s on the cover, and no matter how scantily clad. On the other extreme, books that are especially heavy on recipes or techniques to the exclusion of background stories get monotonous. Sure, The Savoy Cocktail Bookis an essential piece of cocktail history, but good bedtime reading it’s not.
As such, it’s important to know what sort of experience you’re setting yourself up with when you pick up a book about drinking. The Wondrich and Jeff Berry books are travelogues through a slice of time, painting a detailed picture of a particular era, with the recipes acting mostly as signpost along the way. Other books like Morganthaler’s The Bar Book focus on techniques — great for reference, but you need to be pretty devoted to read it cover to cover.
The meat of Paul’s book is essentially a series of one-pagers on a wide variety of drinks, spirits, and ingredients. Some warrant several pages, but at no point do you feel as if you’re reading a master’s thesis. Think of it as a parade of stories about classic drinks such as the Gimlet, Blood and Sand, Old Cuban, and Penicillin. Interspersed frequently between the “feature” recipes are sidebars divided into three categories:
  • Cocktail Essentials: Primary spirit categories, e.g. gin, brandy, whiskey, bitters
  • A Taste Apart: Accent spirits, e.g. Amer Picon, sherry, Falernum
  • Cocktail Style: Categories of drinks, e.g. Tiki, Flips & Fizzes, New Orleans
Within the sidebars are additional recipes related to the topic at hand. While the sidebar recipes are equally compelling, they just don’t get their own individual description.
Chapter One, called “Notes from a Renaissance in Progress,” starts (as one would think) with an engaging account of the cocktail revolution we’ve experienced over the past 15 years, including Paul’s firsthand account of starting the Cocktail Chronicles blog, and meeting the legendary Murray Stenson for the first time back in 2005 at Zig Zag, long before the Last Word became a cocktail nerd passphrase.  The rest of chapter one is a very quick spin through of basic bar techniques and glassware. The brevity of these descriptions are fine, as the book is focused on the recipes – there are plenty of other more detailed references out there on how to shake, express an orange peel, and so forth.
Chapter Two (“Not Forgotten”) begins the parade of recipes and sidebars covering classics like the Sazerac and Sidecar. Chapter Three (“Muses & Bridges”) spends a bit more time on five classics that are the inspiration for numerous other beloved drinks:
  • Daiquiri
  • Old Fashioned
  • Manhattan
  • Martini
  • Negroni
Chapter Four (“Staying Power”) focuses on more contemporary cocktails–“and a few that just might be built to last,” in Clarke’s words– including some of my particular favorites, such as the Chartreuse Swizzle, the Old Cuban, and the Single Village Fix. Tiki gets an extended treatment here, including recipes for the Mai Tai, the 1934 Zombie, and the Jungle Bird.
Chapter Five (“Bottles, Tools & Tips”) provides a quick rundown on various bar tools as well as name-brand suggestions for recommended representative spirits in each major category. I’d argue that the discussion of glassware from chapter one belongs here in chapter five, but that’s a minor quibble. As for the spirit recommendations, I found myself nodding enthusiastically at each category’s suggestions: Rum is the spirit nearest and dearest to me, and Clarke’s recommendations were spot on. The remainder of the chapter discusses other ingredients (citrus, syrups, etc.) and a list of resources for further cocktail enlightenment.
The writing style is upbeat and engaging – at no point did I feel as if I were slogging through an endless list of only vaguely related topics. Although not over the top, Paul shows some much appreciated attitude at times. Referring to legendary cocktail writer Charles H. Baker Jr., Paul concludes: “Baker’s recipes typically suffer one major drawback – the drinks quite often suck.” And in the sidebar, “Drinks of Empire, Cocktails that flowed from England’s global sprawl,” he asserts: “But just as baseball, Hollywood films, and political dumbfuckery have become wildly popular international exports, the cocktail has also found ardent fans – and picked up enduring influence – far from home.” You also have to love that a recipe for the oft-lambasted Cosmopolitan is included in his pages: “Yes, I put a goddamn Cosmo recipe in this book.”  Like Morganthaler, Clarke has no qualms about standing up for a pretty pink vodka drink—well-executed, of course–that he believes in.
Since most of the recipes are classics (or aspiring classics) they (thankfully) don’t require a home science lab or three days’ advance notice to make wacky ingredients, e.g. Zebrawood-smoked pineapple/chipotle foam. Given my only slightly excessive home bar, I can make just about any recipe in this book. The wackiest thing he suggests making on your own is falernum – a syrup with rum, cloves, lime peel, and a few other ingredients. Seriously, every home bar wonk should make it at least once.
Although there are no photos, only stylized line drawings, The Cocktail Chronicles is otherwise very modern, name-checking the DTO(“Daiquiri Time Out”) and bars that have risen to prominence in the past five years. Being a Seattleite like myself, Paul isn’t afflicted with “anything of significance only happens in New York City” syndrome. There’s plenty of love and callouts to west coast bartenders and their recipes. If you’ve read the Cocktail Chronicles blog and are concerned that the book is just a rehash of Paul’s posts, there’s no need for concern. I spot-checked a number of drinks in the book, comparing them to what he wrote on the blog, and there was almost zero overlap – the book reads like completely fresh content.
While The Cocktail Chronicles doesn’t tread into virgin territory in the pantheon of books about drinking, it’s highly readable and especially well-suited to the newly minted craft cocktail home bar enthusiast. If you enjoy David Wondrich’s short pieces, such as what he writes for Esquire(and I certainly fall in that camp), it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy the Paul Clarke’s The Cocktail Chronicles as well.

Meet Dozens of Pacific Northwest Distillers at Proof Washington – July 11th, 2015

While visiting distilleries is always the best way to meet the folks who craft your spirits, the Proof Washington Distillers Festival is the next best option for sampling spirits from dozens of distillers based in Washington and nearby states. Washington State has the most craft distilleries of any state in the U.S., and the Proof festival is the official event of the Washington Distillers Guild.
The event, now in its third year, is one night only–July 11that Fremont Studios (155 N. 35th Street in Seattle). Roughly three dozen distilleries have tables where you can sample their products and chat with representatives who are frequently the owners and distillers. Among the well-known distilleries attending are Westland, Captive Spirits, Sun Liquor, and Sound Spirits. But wait! There’s more: Over a dozen local restaurants–including 8oz. Burger & Co., Bluebird Ice Cream, Moshi Moshi, and Urbane, among others–will have food booths with small bites. If you’re looking for a little education, local cocktail celebrities Paul Clarke (Imbibemagazine), Amanda Reed (Tavern Law), and Andrew Friedman (Liberty) are presenting 45-minute classes during the event.
Last, and certainly not least, spirits from participating distillers will be for sale at the event. This is a pretty big deal as finding spirits from smaller distilleries at local stores can be a challenge, even in Washington State. And in contrast to prior years, you can now buy directly at the distiller’s booth, rather than waiting in line at a “store” area.

Tickets are $40 for general admission and $60 for VIP, which gets you in an hour earlier and includes additional drink tokens. I recommend the VIP pass and going early–it’s a bit less noisy during the VIP time, which makes it easier to have a relaxed conversation with your new distiller friends.

Cocktail Obsession: The Starboard (Pisco, Suze, and Apricot)

One of the benefits of getting to know your local bartender is figuring out what they’re passionate about and then letting them run loose with that desire. At a recent pisco throwdown at Damn the Weather in Seattle, I learned that Canon’s Dustin Haarstad is a bit of a Pisco freak. Fast forward a few months and I found myself on a slow evening at Canon with Dustin and Chris Goad at the bar. Canon is a place that has an exceptional menu (Tales of the Cocktail nominatedagain for 2015), but is also a bonanza of great mixology when you let the staff run wild. On this particular night, I remembered that Dustin has an affinity for pisco, so I went dealer’s choice, aka “Shrouded Roulette” in Canon parlance. The result was the Starboard – Pisco, Salers and Apricot Liqueur. I completely dig this drink – it’s light yet complex, and not particularly difficult to make. Dustin graciously provided me with the recipe and the okay to publish it.
Conceptually, the Starboard falls into the way-out Negroni category. Wait, what? None of the classic Negroni ingredients (gin, Campari, vermouth) are in the Starboard. However, it’s commonplace to swap out gin in a Negroni for other base spirits: Use bourbon instead of gin in a Negroni and you have a Boulevardier. Using rum instead of gin yields a Right Hand, a particular favorite of mine, especially when it’s a pungent Jamaican rum.
While a classic Negroni is 1:1:1 with its ingredient ratios, a growing trend in Negroni variations is to bump up the base spirit and reduce the bitter Campari and sweet vermouth components accordingly. This helps keep the more delicate, floral base spirits like pisco from being overwhelmed by the bitter component, e.g. Campari. Pisco, in case you’re wondering, is made in Peru and Chile from grapes, making it technically a brandy. Peruvian and Chilean piscos are quite different when examined with more than a casual glance; in general, Peruvian pisco is better suited for a cocktail like the Starboard.
The Starboard trades the firetruck-red Campari component of a Negroni for a slightly more subtle but still powerful bitter French amaro. Salers, which is strongly flavored with gentiane root and offers a bold greenish-yellow hue. (Truthfully, I prefer it to Campari in my drinks.) While Dustin’s recipe calls for Salers, I successfully reproduced this at home with Suze, another gentiane-based liqueur from France with a similar color and flavor profile.
Lastly, the Starboard cocktail replaces the sweet vermouth with apricot liqueur. You’ll want a sweet liqueur here, not a dry apricot brandy or eau de vie. While apricot liqueur is generally sweeter than a sweet vermouth, the overall sweetness is tempered by the larger ratio of pisco to liqueur. Dustin and I both used Giffard Abricot du Roussillon. (Giffard, also from France, makes an outstanding lineup of liqueurs and syrups. The Giffard orgeat is my go-to almond syrup when mixing Tiki drinks.
The Starboard Cocktail
  • 1.5 oz Peruvian Pisco
  • 0.75 Gentiane aperitif, e.g. Salers or Suze
  • 0.5 Apricot liqueur, e.g. Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon twist over the top, then drop in.

The Starboard Cocktail, as prepared by Dustin Haarstad at Canon, Seattle.

Checking out Mezan Jamaican XO Rum

Having recently inventoried and loosely categorized my ever-growing rum collection in a spreadsheet (because that’s what wonks do), it’s no surprise that Jamaican rums are among the best represented on my shelves. Why the love affair with Jamaican rum? Distilleries in Jamaica use “muck”–a big slug of bacteria grown in pits in the ground (stay with me here), that when added to the fermenting molasses creates tons of chemical compounds known as esters, rendering the rum full of fruity, banana funk, also known as “hogo.”  You may have heard muck referred to as “dunder” — they’re related but not exactly the same thing. No other style of rum comes close to this particular character, and I can’t get enough Jamaican rum in my life.

Beyond the household name Jamaican brands (Appleton and Myers), it takes a bit more work to hunt down lesser known brands like Smith & Cross, Coruba, and Wray & Nephew – they’re available, just maybe not at your corner liquor store. Once those are in your possession, however, it gets exponentially harder to add to your Jamaican collection, often requiring international trips or friends shipping you limited releases. Thus, I’m excited that the Mezan line of rums, including two Jamaicans, is finally available here in the U.S., brought to us by Niche Import Co. Here I’ll take a wonky look at the Mezan Jamaica XO, batch 8146, provided to me for review.

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Gin is Big at Seattle’s Captive Spirits

My GPS tells me that I’ve arrived, but I’m not quite sure I believe it. I’m trying to find Captive Spirits, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but I’m clearly on a residential street, and the building in front of me looks like a small, two-story apartment building. Only after I spot the sign hanging off the corner of the building do I know I’m in the right place.

There are no obvious signs of life out front, so I wander around the side of the building. In a long alley/driveway, are a young girl and a dog (“Rosie”), who playfully rushes to greet me. The small girl helpfully points me around to the very back where an open garage door reveals what I’d come to find. Co-owner Holly, whom I’d met a few days earlier, steps outside to say hello.

Captive Spirits is (at the moment at least) all about gin. Not vodka, not whiskey in small barrels waiting to be released. Not fruit infusions, not “moonshine.” Just Gin. Among the major “base” spirits (vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy, etc.), gin is the only spirit whose flavor doesn’t originate from fermenting and distilling an agricultural product—for example, grains, sugar, agave, grapes, potato, and so on. Gin’s distinct flavor is the result of infusing a neutral, high-proof ethanol with a veritable tea of botanicals. Juniper berries, for one, are used in just about every gin –but beyond that, the remaining ingredients are a gin-maker’s secret sauce.

Although not exactly a well-kept secret, it’s not widely known that many gin makers don’t distill their own ethanol as the base for their gins. The economies of scale offered by large industrial distilleries allows gin-makers to purchase less-expensive, high-proof, 95 percent ethyl alcohol in bulk, and then infuse it with their own particular combination of botanicals. Sure, some distilleries like Sound Spirits, also here in Seattle, do distill their own ethanol, but the availability of bulk product allows gin-focused enterprises to step right into adding their own unique value, rather than trying to compete with a mega-distillery in the alcohol production process.

Outsourcing of ethanol production, and focusing on just gin lets Captive Spirits’ Holly Robinson and Ben Capdevielle do very well in a relatively small space, approximately 2,000 square feet. After releasing their well-known Big Gin to positive reviews, the pair recently released Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, the same product but aged in used American oak barrels for six months. One wall of their small office features a floor-to-ceiling blackboard listing all their distributors in numerous states and several foreign countries, including Australia, Italy, and the UK, as well as notes for prospective deals and future trips to be planned. I was a bit surprised seeing how many outlets they’ve already acquired, being such a seemingly small (but apparently very efficient) enterprise.

 
Within their space, small nooks contain an office, kitchen, and tasting area separate from the main work area. Racks of barrels and palettes of Big Gin cartons fill much of the available room. A clever organizational trick:  Upside-down boxes hold new bottles ready to filled, while right-side up boxes hold filled bottles, ready to ship. The barrels, once-used American oak, have previously nurtured whiskey at Heaven Hill in Kentucky. One small nook holds bright blue 55- gallon barrels filled with corn-based, 190 proof ethanol (aka “Everclear,” which some of you may know from your college days) made by Pharmco-Aaper in Kentucky. The desk in the office is literally a door perched atop two of these empty blue barrels.

Near the tasting area, a lone oak barrel rests on the floor. Previously used for whiskey, and then Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, it now ages a new batch of Bradley’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Kina Tonic. Bradley Feather is the head for Sounds Spirits, a few miles down the road (read about it here). The craft spirits community in Washington State is tight knit – Holly is the group’s current Vice President. Next to the Kina Tonic barrel is a large white bag of dried orange peels, a key player in a future gin batch. On nearby shelves are the less botanical tools of the gin trade: large rolls of Big Gin labels, as well as thousands of corks ready to top a Big Gin bottle.

At the very back of the building is the Captive Spirits main work area. Ben, Holly’s husbandand co-owner, has returned from a trip to the hardware store and is busily working at the large bottling table. Two large cylinders hold several hundred gallons of gin, resting for a week or so before bottling. Holly tells me that after distillation, the botanical oils in the gin take a while to fully integrate. Every week there’s a bottling day where Ben, Holly, and several friends form an assembly line for bottling, labeling, and hand-numbering each bottle before boxing them up. Holly says she usually handles the numbering portion. Captive Spirits ships to international locations, some which require 700ml bottles rather than the 750ml bottles we use in North America, so they need to maintain two different bottle and label sets.
Across from the bottling table is the Big Gin Bike, equipped with a bottle of tasty gin in the bottle cage, and a rack on the front, perfectly sized to hold a case of Big Gin.  Close by are more large white bags of juniper berries, the key ingredient in all gins. The juniper smell is strong in the air as Ben grabs a mesh bag roughly the size of a football and explains how they fill the bags with the juniper, orange peels, and other secret botanicals, then drop the bag into the still prior to starting the distillation run—like making a supersized vat of gin tea. When the run completes, they simply fish the bags out, making post-run still clean out much easier.
The big prize of my visit is naturally the pot stills themselves, labeled “Phyllis” and “Jean,” each honoring dear departed grandmothers. The stills are sourced from Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky, one of the biggest players in the still industry. Phyllis and Jean each hold 100 gallons and take 90 minutes from a cold start to the point where gin can be collected. Ben tells me they’re direct-fired, meaning heated by a direct flame rather than a boiler. Circling each still’s base is a brick wall of sorts, to keep the heat where it belongs.

I was particularly curious about what exactly goes into the stills, as I knew that 190 proof ethanol is the starting point; it doesn’t make any sense to “distill” a spirit that’s already as pure as it can get. Ben says that the ethanol is blended with water to bring the mix down to 100 proof. Then the botanical bags are added to the solution and distillation can begin, with the collection phase lasting about ten hours.

 

Just outside the building are plastic tanks filled with water. Holly explained the water cools the still’s condenser unit, causing the vapor coming off the still to condense into liquid that’s collected. Rather than cooling with tap water which is wasteful and incurs added costs, the plastic containers hold harvested rainwater which can be recycled endlessly.

As for the gin itself, I will save a proper review for another time. However, I will say that the Big Gin has a particularly bold flavor relative to other gins, which I love. Ben and Holly both stressed that their target was a traditional gin, emphasizing the juniper, rather than a “New American” style product that merely glances in the general direction of the juniper berries. I asked if there was a particular gin that they admired prior to making their own, and Ben quickly answered, “Beefeater.” Both the regular and Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, bottled at a healthy 94 proof, have won medals at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition. While I enjoy the original Big Gin, the Bourbon Barreled Big Gin is particularly smooth and different than anything else in my collection, I happily took home a bottle for the Wonk bar.

Recent Washington State laws provide tax breaks for small distilleries who produce their spirits using at least 51 percent ingredients from Washington State. Captive Spirits doesn’t qualify for these tax advantages, as the majority of the ingredients come from out of state. However, Ben and Holly are adamant that they make exactly the gin they want, rather than twisting their production process to take advantage of a tax break.

Unlike big distillery tours where a guide leads you from building to building, a visit to Captive Spirits is essentially dropping in on artists in their workshop, where the “art” is delightful gin. It’s a particularly laid-back place, so no need to book online or show up at a particular time. If you find yourself in the Ballard neighborhood, poke your head into the office in front, or follow Rosie the dog to the garage at the very back. Odds are, you’ll find yourself chatting with Ben or Holly about gin, Big and otherwise.

Checking out Afrohead XO Rum

Unless you’re a spirits aficionado, you might not know about blending and the role of the “master blender.” And it might be a surprise to you that, say, a seven year bourbon isn’t simply liquor that sat in a barrel for seven years before it was bottled, straight from the barrel. It’s also not generally known that the identical spirit, when placed in different barrels and stored in different locations, may end up tasting radically different. The role of the master blender is twofold:  To either create a new flavor profile, or work to create a consistent taste, year after year. In the second case, a master blender must be so familiar with an existing product that, working from the available barrels that a distillery has at hand, he or she can determine the precise amounts and ratios of spirit from various barrels to create the flavors that a brand’s supporters have come to know and love. Very few people–with exceptional palates–can do this exacting work. Toby Tyler of Afrohead Rums is one such practitioner.
A few months back I received a bottle of the new Afrohead Premium Aged Dark Rum (“seven-year”) for review. I put it through its paces, wrote my review, and figured that was the end of the story – on to the next rum. In my review of the Afrohead seven-year, I compared it to Angostura’s seven-year rum and found them very similar in flavor profile. After posting my review, the Afrohead PR firm asked if I was interested in trying out the fifteen-year X0. But of course! As luck had it, Miami Rum Renaissance was coming up very soon, and Afrohead was exhibiting. Perfect timing for me to dig in and learn more.

Afrohead booth at Rum Renaissance 2015 in Miami
I won’t repeat the entire Afrohead backstory from my previous review, but here are the essentials: A few years back, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler, co-owners of The Landing, a hotel on Harbor Island, Bahamas, created a house-rum blend using rum from Angostura Distillers in Trinidad. More recently, an investment group set up the Harbour Island Rum Company in Nokomis, Florida, to import the rum into the US. Currently Afrohead offers two rums: The seven-year and the XO, aged for fifteen years.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015
Immediately upon entering the Rum Renaissance show the first day, the large Afrohead booth jumped out and demanded attention. I immediately spotted Joe and Toby (I’d seen photos) and headed over for what would be a lengthy conversation, where I got answers to all sorts of questions I’d had after my review of the seven-year, as well as learning more in advance of this review of the XO.
Toby Tyler at Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Blending room at the Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
First and foremost on my mind was the similarity between the Afrohead seven and Angostura seven. Toby (Afrohead’s master blender) told me of his experiences at the Angostura blending laboratory where he worked side-by-side with Angostura’s master blender to create both the seven-year and the X0 blend. At one point he grabbed his iPhone to show me pictures of his more recent trip (a few of which he has generously supplied for inclusion in this post); Toby was at Angostura last July and will go back again soon. Once he develops his exact flavor profile, the blenders at Angostura will replicate it, but Toby still visits the blending house to confirm that each batch is consistent with what he believes the Afrohead expressions should taste like. One thing Toby emphasized several times during our meeting is that the Afrohead rums have a very “clean” finish, with no added sugar and very little palate fatigue after repeated tastings. I have to agree with Toby in that regard – the finish is very clean.
Sample bottle at the Angostura Distiller (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Another thing I learned in my meeting with Toby and Joe Farrell is that the Afrohead line is well-funded and positioned for growth. Joe told me that many beverage executives visit The Landing and have wanted to take the Afrohead rum to the US market in the past. Eventually, a deal was struck with a group of investors with extensive beverage industry experience. A little internet searching turns up that two of the three Harbour Island Rum Company executives have worked as high-level executives for Bacardi and are now working with “beverage alcohol startups” like Afrohead. One of the investors in the Harbour Island had previously invested in the company behind Angel’s Envy whiskey, which was recently acquired by Bacardi. It was quite evident from the Afrohead booth events at Rum Renaissance that Harbour Island Rum Company has the backing to spend a significant amount of money to make a splash in the US market.
Afrohead seven-year and Afrohead XO
With the company preliminaries behind, let’s take a look at the Afrohead XO, with callouts to the differences between it and the seven-year.
The XO bottle’s glass is identical to the seven-year. However, while the seven-year bottle is clear, showcasing the contents, the X0 bottle is opaque from a matte black paint (or similar) covering. The stopper fits the bottle, creating somewhat of a challenge to remove – I noticed this with the seven-year as well. The striking Afrohead logo (a woman with a very large head of air intermeshed with visual symbols) is, at a distance, visually the same on both the seven-year and XO, but up close the XO’s label is a nicer, heavily embossed foil. Whereas the seven-year bottle’s front label has latitude/longitude coordinates for The Landing on Harbour Island, on the XO bottles is an “X” overlaid with a “’15.” The backs of both bottles show the identical “Universally inspired, authentically crafted” Afrohead origin story.
The X0 weighs in at 43 percent ABV (86 proof), a tad higher than the seven-year’s 40 percent ABV. Pouring a bit into a glass, I noted that the color is very similar to the seven-year: medium to dark copper. The nose is inviting – it smells of “serious rum” with woody tones. The taste immediately brings to mind many years in heavily charred barrels, caramel, and a slight hint of smoke. Tasting the seven-year and XO side by side, the seven-year starts out lighter, fruitier, and slightly ephemeral, while the X0 dives down to darker wood and caramel tones. After the X0 fades away, my tongue still feels fresh, ready to go again immediately. The viscosity of the XO doesn’t suggest to me that sugar was added, as some rums do.
The Afrohead seven-year and X0 are obviously cut from similar cloth, but there are clear differences. As a sipper, the X0 is much more interesting. At about $60 retail, this is a bit on the more expensive side (there are plenty of good sipping rums in the $40-$60 range). In fairness, the closest obvious comparison to the Afrohead XO is Angostura 1824, a 12-year from the same distillery that retails for around $80, so suddenly the 15-year Afrohead seems reasonably priced. If you’re a fan of Trinidad style of rum with a lot of aging, and that doesn’t break the bank, the Afrohead XO is a solid choice.