Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum

Although rum is most frequently associated with the Caribbean and Central America, its production has a long history on the eastern seaboard of the United States, going back to the colonial era. Using molasses imported from the Caribbean, rum was produced in distilleries in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. Eventually, nearly all the Northeast’s rum distilleries went under, victims of economic forces, prohibition, and a swing to other spirits such as bourbon, which could be produced from locally grown grains rather than imported goods. With the recent upswing in craft spirits, distilleries such as Boston’s Bully Boy and Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, have revived the east coast rum tradition. Lyon Distilling has three different rums for sale, and here I’ll take a look at their most popular version, Lyon Dark Rum.

Continue reading “Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum”

Checking Out the Partida Tequila Lineup

Tequila is one of those spirits that has fought a long battle for respect from the casual drinker. All too often, people’s tequila perceptions are formed in some drunken college haze ending in an incident with vague memories of pressing their face to a cool tile floor, causing them to declare “I don’t do tequila.” Even if an early experience doesn’t cause people to keep a wide radius, there remains a wretched culture of tequila shots, the assumption being that tequila tastes so awful that it must be pounded with a lime and salt chaser. There’s even a blog and Instagram account devoted to tequila face. The truth is, artisanal tequila can hold its own with the world’s great spirits.
The basics of tequila are simple: It’s made in Mexico using the heart of the agave plant, which is baked, crushed to extract the juices, which are then fermented prior to distillation. Per Mexican government regulations (known as NOMs), to be legally called tequila, the agave must be of the Weber Blue variety and the production must occur within the Jalisco region of Mexico, on the western coast of Mexico about 1300 miles south of the US border. Tequila is a subcategory of the broader category of mezcal, which I’ve writtenabout previously. The short synopsis of the difference between tequila and mezcal is that mezcal can be made with a wider variety of agave, and within a larger region within Mexico.  So in short, all tequila is mezcal, but all mezcal is not tequila.
As with many spirits, tequila is sold in both aged and unaged varieties. Formal categories denote the amount of aging:
  • Blanco (little or no aging)
  • Reposado (more than two months, but less than one year)
  • Anejo (at least one year)
  • Extra Anejo (at least three years)

The typical drinker’s perception of tequila starts and ends with Jose Cuervo. This and other low-end tequilas (known as “mixtos”) are required to be made from at least 51% agave, with the remainder coming from “neutral cane spirit,” essentially vodka. Slightly more advanced consumers drink Patron, which occupies the “high-end” tequila niche in most people’s minds.

Beyond the heavy hitters in the tequila space– Jose Cuervo, Patron, Sauza–are quite a few smaller, artisanal producers who make topnotch, thoroughly enjoyable spirits, yet with a price point that’s a bargain compared to more trendy offerings like bourbon, scotch, and “premium” vodka. Dozens of smaller tequila brands, such as Corzo, Fortaleza, Casa Noble and Don Julio, are taking their share of shelf space, and the space is heating up with celebrity owners, two notable examples being George Clooney’s Casamigos and Sean “Diddy” Combs’s DeLeón. In this post I’ll take a look at the Partida line of tequilas, well-regarded by tequila aficionados. I received 50 ml samples bottles of the Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo bottlings for this review. Partida also offers an extra Anejo, but at $300 or more for a bottle, review samples are understandably scarce.
The origin of the Partida line starts with Gary Shansby, a California native who made his fortune in marketing brands such as Famous Amos cookies, Mauna Loa macadamia nuts, and Vitamin Water. After these successes, he was looking to build a company from scratch that integrated his personal passion for Mexico. Around 2005 (dates differ depending on the source), he partnered with Sofia Partida, a California woman with family connections in Mexico.  These connections include her uncle Enrique Partida, who farmed 5,000 acres of agave crop in Amatitan, southeast of the city of Tequila and northwest of Guadalajara. Sofia, an executive at Partida, functions as a global brand ambassador. Given the current interest in artisanal tequila, it’s surprising that Partida hasn’t been snapped up by one of the big liquor conglomerates like Diageo or Pernod Ricard, perhaps because Shansby isn’t looking for just another corporate payday.
When selecting agave to harvest, Partida uses stock that’s reached at least seven years of age, letting the agave heart reach an optimal sweet flavor profile. The Partida Reposado and Anejo expressions are aged in once-used Jack Daniels American oak barrels. By sticking with one barrel supplier–and one with an enormous pipeline of stock–Partida can maintain its consistent taste profile. Shansby’s strong marketing background is evident in the bottle design: Rather than a standard cylinder or squared bottle, Partida’s rounded horseshoe shaped bottle (for lack of a better description) make the bottles distinctive and very easy to spot in a crowd. All three versions of the Partida come in at the typical 80 proof.
The Blanco has a very pleasant nose that reminds me of creamed honey – I enjoyed it quite a while before sipping it. The initial sip has a very slight burn on entry, a nice mix of spices in the middle, and ends with a bit of pepper. Upon subsequent sips, I noticed a buttery, creamy note which I’ve experienced before in certain agricole rhums. Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits distillery tells me this is likely the presence of ethyl lactate, commonly found in distilled spirits.
For comparison, I tried the Blanco side-by-side with Cabeza tequila, my normal go-to for a solid mixing blanco-style. The Cabeza is fruitier and has a tiny bit more burn, not surprising given that Cabeza is three percent higher in ABV. I found the Partida Blanco to be quite enjoyable by itself, but it would also be great in a Ti’ Punch-type drink, simply subbing the Blanco for the normal agricole rhum. Mrs. Wonk wasn’t as much a fan of the Blanco, calling it “too earthy” for her tastes.
Next up is the Reposado. It also has a wonderful nose, although quite different from the Blanco. I get lovely spice notes, bringing to mind a great-smelling men’s aftershave. Tasting it, I found none of the creaminess that I get from the Blanco. Alongside the obvious agave notes is a hint of orange, bringing to mind a nice curacao. There’s very little burn, making it an excellent sipper.
Placing the Partida Reposado side by side with Patrón Reposado, I found the Patrón to me much sweeter and less complex. In this regard, the Partida Reposado was the clear winner. Of the three Partida expressions, Mrs. Wonk and I agreed the Reposado was our favorite. It’s refined, but the interesting characteristics haven’t been smoothed away by the aging process. The Reposado would be outstanding in a tequila-based Old Fashioned (tequila, simply syrup, bitters).
Finally, the Anejo.  Somewhat surprisingly, the nose wasn’t a more intense version of the Reposado, and instead is closer to the Blanco’s nose. Tasting the Anejo, I found it to be very smooth and round, to be expected given the additional amount of aging, and there’s no burn to speak of. Unlike the Reposado, I didn’t taste the curacao note. Make no mistake, the Reposado and Anejo are very different animals.
I also put the Anejo head-to-head with Corzo Anejo, one of my favorite sipping tequilas. The Corzo is more buttery (again, I’m guessing ethyl lactate) and also had cinnamon notes I didn’t perceive in the Partida Anejo. I’d happily enjoy a dram or two of the Partida Anejo neat so as to best enjoy all the flavors within.
Pricewise, the Partida bottlings are within the range of other premium tequilas such as Patrón or Corzo. Checking online at my usual sources, the Blanco can be had for around US $37, the Reposado for around $42, and the Anejo for $49. If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend going with the Reposado as the best mix of bold flavors yet refined enough to enjoy drinking neat.

Death & Co Book Event and Rob Roy Takeover, Seattle

Scotch Lady
New York City’s Death & Co is one of the world’s most well-known and lauded bars, including having won the 2010 Spirited awards for Best American Cocktail Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu, and coming in at number 21 on the 2013 World’s Best Bars list. In keeping with the recent trend of books from the brains behind well-regarded bars (PDT, Clyde Common), Death & Co owners David Kaplan and Alex Day, along with writer Nick Fauchald, have given us “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails.”
In promoting the new book, David Kaplan and a rotating staff of Death & Co bartenders have been traveling to cities around the country, staging “takeovers” of a local bar for an evening. Attendees get a copy of the book and enjoy “bottomless” (i.e. all-you-can-drink) cocktails crafted by the Death & Co team.

Thanks to a friend who provided me with an early heads up, I was able to snag a ticket for the Feb. 10 takeover at Rob Roy, one of Seattle’s most respected craft cocktail dens. The ticket cost about $60, which included a copy of the book, a $40 value (although Amazon offers it for $30). The evening’s cocktail list featured eight different offerings from the book; in perusing event write-ups from other cities, the list is the same at each stop.

Going into the event, I wasn’t sure if the cocktails would be batched or crafted assembly-line style. Luckily, neither was the case. We simply worked our way up to the bar and ordered. The most I waited in line was about ten minutes, as the three and sometimes four bartenders churned though drinks with ridiculous speed, but without taking shortcuts. Okay, one shortcut I noted: Citrus peel garnish was done in advance, but that’s certainly allowable in the context of an event like this. Over the course of three hours, I worked my way through six of the eight drinks–for research purposes only, I assure you. All were something I’d happily have paid a typical Seattle cocktail price for ($13 or so at the moment).

David Kaplan addressing the crowd, Rob Roy, Seattle.
Midway through the event, David Kaplan got the crowd’s attention and gave a short speech, introducing the hard-working bartenders and thanking the Rob Roy crew for their hospitality. Other than that, it could have been any other busy night at Rob Roy, although with most of the patrons dressed a bit nicer than usual. And without the need to close out a big tab at the end of the night! As the event closed down, David Kaplan took time to personalize and sign books.
Little Engine
Moon Cocktail

Kew Gardens Cooler
David Kaplan signed book

The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone

Canon, Seattle
Being any sort of respectable spirits blogger these days requires you to have a social media presence beyond just your blog, be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc… I devote most of my efforts into documenting my wonk lifestyle on Instagram (@cocktailwonk), which means plenty of drink photos from dimly lit cocktail bars. Along the way I’ve picked up a respectable level of Instagram followers and have a pretty good sense how to create photos that resonate with people.

What follows are my tips for creating great looking bar-based cocktail photos, often in low light, and with just a smartphone. I use an iPhone 6, but have every reason to believe the camera-based tips would work similarly on Android phones. In special circumstances, such as a special event or seeking out a bar while we’re traveling, I’ll use a dedicated camera, but these tips are for the enthusiast drinker who has a smartphone handy and wants a good shot.

Focus
So many people have no idea that you can tell your phone’s camera where to focus. An iPhone in a dark bar does a lousy job of figuring out where the center of attention should be. So tell it: A quick tap on the screen points to where you want the image to be most sharp; the yellow square that appears confirms the focus location.

Exposure

Even fewer people know the camera also adjusts its exposure for the focus location. Thus, with a dark drink in a dark bar, tapping on the screen image of the drink (rather than something in the background) prior to taking the picture sets the exposure for the drink and not the much brighter lights behind the bar. Pro tip: If you’ve got a new enough iPhone you can adjust the exposure before taking the photo by sliding the “sun” up or down.

Subject

Perhaps the drink is visually amazing – it’s on fire, or has a fantastic garnish, or is in a great glass– or maybe all three! In which case, get up close. Fill the frame with what’s cool. On the other hand, if the drink is more pedestrian, zoom out a bit and capture why you think this drink is worth commemorating. In a really snazzy looking room? Capture a bit of the bar background in your photo. Hot bartender?  Immortalize them alongside their work. Every photo should showcase the reason you took it. If it’s just an up-close image of brown liquid in an ungarnished coupe, no one cares.
In close to capture the garnish details, Tacoma Cabana
Including bar elements as backdrop, Beretta, San Francisco
Any time Murray Stenson makes me a drink, it’s photo-worthy. Elysian Bar, Seattle.
Flash
No. Seriously.  Do. Not. Use. It. Flash photos look washed-out and crappy, and you annoy the folks around you. I mock my friends to their faces when they use flash in a bar. And don’t think you’re being clever by snapping a photo while your friend floodlights the scene with their own phone’s LED light. It still doesn’t look good, and now everyone else is annoyed with both of you.
Don’t do this. Ever.
Lighting
While flash is a no-no, don’t hesitate to acquire and use more subtle light sources. Candles are the most obvious choice, if available. With the right drink and glass, a candle hidden behind the glass can provide a nice glow effect. A candle off to the side, just out of frame, often works wonders. And sometimes an artfully placed candle in the frame makes a great shot. Recently I ordered a drink at Seattle’s Rumba and GM Kate Perry delivered a candle with the drink without my asking. At times I’ve collected several candles together near a reflective surface to create a crude “studio light,” but then again, I can be a bit obsessive.
Candle lit from the side, Hemingway Bar, Prague
Built in LED underlights at Bugsy’s, Prague
Props
If the bar offers fun visual elements that can be worked in to your photo, use them! At Seattle’s Canon, the legendary pork buns arrive with a small metal toy cannon. At Rumba, there are a few 10-inch brass palm trees that always liven up a shot. At Rob Roy (again, in Seattle) the infamous hoof lamp (as in the cattle variety) that often pops up in photos. If there are visually fun ingredients in your cocktail–perhaps a house-made tincture or some exotic bottle of spirits– including it in the photo can add to its relevance. Just try not to annoy the bartenders with oddball requests. If you ask nicely on a slow night, many are happy to help you stage your shot.
Rumba, Seattle.
Why is this drink special? Because it has Stiggins’s Fancy rum in it! Tacoma Cabana.
Bar logos
The bar menu itself is often a good prop–for instance, Callooh Callay’s London Tube map, or the paint fans at Trick Dog in San Francisco. Drop it casually next to the drink; it’s not necessary to get the whole menu in, but ideally the logo or bar name is visible. Even better are the one-off menus that bars create for special events. A bit of that in your photo gives you a more unique photo and, of course, bragging rights.
The artfully placed menu, Tretter’s new York Bar, Prague
Angles
The standard 45-degree overhead shot often isn’t the most interesting perspective. Try shooting from below the glass. This works best with coupes, especially if the liquid within is translucent, and you can often pick up backlighting from sources elsewhere in the room, such as the backbar. If there are multiple drinks, lining them up and then shooting from the side captures a unique perspective.
Shooting from below – Loló, San Francisco

 

A non-traditional angle – Trailer Happiness, London
When to shoot
As soon as possible. A photo of a half empty glass just isn’t visually appealing. Bartenders frequently take care to create a great presentation for your drink before serving it — use that to your advantage. In the past, I’ve annoyed Mrs. Wonk by taking longer than I should to photograph our newly arrived drinks with multiple shots (and even multiple cameras) from different angles, making her wait to imbibe. With practice, I’ve vastly improved how quickly I can get a keeper shot.

Depth of field

If doing a wide-field shot (rather than a close up), use depth of field to your advantage. Slightly blurred backgrounds with shelves of bottles, mixing tins, tinctures and bitters, and even the bartenders themselves give a nice ambience to bar photos. The trick again is focus. Tell the camera to focus on the bottle, and things significantly behind it will be blurred, creatively known as bokeh.
Serious bokeh at Rob Roy, Seattle
Post processing
Professional photographers manipulate their images for best results. So should you. It’s really quite easy and fast once you’re familiar with the in-phone tools.I’m not a big fan of filters; I rarely use them, much preferring the more basic controls readily available in either the basic iPhone photo editor or in Instagram. Sure, you can go all Adobe Photoshop on your images if you have the time and inclination, but I can edit an image to my liking in 15 seconds or less.
Before straightening and enhancing
After straightening and enhancing – Much better!
Every photo I post goes through most, if not all of these steps, in this order:

1) Straighten and crop. I have a particularly bad habit of taking photos that are just slightly not level. I fix this first, and then zoom and crop the image to fill as much of the frame as possible with what’s interesting.

2) Adjust exposure. If the whole image is dark, I adjust the overall brightness to a better level, but not so much that it gets grainy. In the default iOS photo editor, this is done via Light/Exposure slider. If the overall brightness is okay but certain details are lost in the shadows, use the Light/Shadows slider to brighten just those parts. The Instagram equivalents are under the “wrench” tool: Brightness and Shadows.

3) Enhance colors and contrast. Sometimes simply adjusting the contrast to make details stand out is sufficient. When the image feels flat, bumping up the saturation (in moderation) is all that’s needed. In the Instagram app, the “Lux” slider is frequently one-stop-shopping, doing everything I need to make the photo pop.

Adjusting exposure with the iOS photo editor
Most useful Instagram conrols
If you’re looking for good examples of bar photography, here are a few Instagram accounts that I follow who consistently post great bar photos: @wayofthewong, @tikicommando, @carolineoncrack, @denizenrum, @livethelushlife, and @mezcalelsilencio. And although primarily staged shots rather than in the field, @beautifulbooze posts consistently great drink photography no matter what environment she’s in.

 

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)

London Underground: Stepping Back Through Spirits History in the Cellars and Back Rooms of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

The framed letter on the wall reads:

“Dear Sirs,

TITANIC

Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot.

Yours faithfully,

For WHITE STAR LINE.”

We’re standing in 3 St. James Place, the London store of Berry Bros. & Rudd, purveyor of wine and spirits to the British Crown since 1760. The family-owned company can trace its history at this location back to 1698, when it was established just footsteps from St. James Palace, the onetime residence of kings and queens of England. Today Berry Bros. & Rudd are very much an international enterprise, selling wine from around the around, as well as high-end spirits, which include their own Berry Bros. & Rudd label. Their cellar in Basingstoke, Hampshire, currently holds close to nine million bottles of wine, so no small operation here!

Doug McIvor, who holds the title of Spirits Director for Berry Bros. & Rudd, is very generously giving Mrs. Wonk and me a private tour of the No. 3 St. James complex, including their very old original cellars. (Henceforth I’ll use BB&R as shorthand for their full name.) During our preliminary small talk before the tour, I asked Doug about what his job entailed. One of his duties is tasting and selecting spirts still at the distillery for their eventual use in a BB&R labeled release. Doug quite obviously has a Scottish feel about him (born in Scotland, moved to England at age 11) so I mentioned that it must be fun for him to travel around Scotland sampling whisky straight from the cask. He laughs –“That’s the romantic view of what I do.” He’s more likely to do his spirits tasting at his desk, as distilleries usually ship him barrel samples in small bottles, a process I got to experience firsthand a bit later.

Our tour started by stepping outside to the front of the festively decorated storefront – the decorations fresh from Christmas just a week prior. Doug begins by pointing out the gate to St. James Palace, less than a block away. In the distant past, wine from the BB&R would be carried through underground tunnels to a locked subterranean palace gate; after departing, staff from the palace would appear and move the wine and spirits inside to the palace, completely from prying eyes and possible thievery at street level. He also mentions that in the days before running water, royalty would occupy one of the several palaces along the Thames until the sanitary conditions became off-putting, then migrate to the next palace, presumably leaving the staff to clean up behind them.  Thus the nearby proliferation of palaces in the neighborhood, assuredly with better plumbing systems these days.

Balance scale for weighing customers at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Above us hangs a painted black sign, similar to others on English pubs and shops, this one featuring the image of a coffee mill. The sign hearkens back to the early 1700s, when the grocery at 3 St. James (started by the Widow Bourne, progenitor of the BB&R family) became a coffee merchant. The original sign was stolen not too long ago, and a hefty reward (a case of BB&R champagne) was offered for its return, but the offer wasn’t taken up, so what hangs above us now is sadly a reproduction.
A few steps to the left, we turn down a small passageway between 3 St. James and the adjoining building, but immediately pause to read the plaque commemorating the establishment of a legation (an embassy) from the Republic of Texas (then an independent country) to the Court of St. James, aka the British Crown, between 1842 and 1845. Continuing to the end of the passageway, we find ourselves in a courtyard ringed by other small buildings, residential and commercial, similar to the one we exited. We are standing in Pickering Place, London’s smallest public square. All of the buildings surrounding the square are owned by BB&R.
Doug McIvor showing us the customer weight recording books.
From the courtyard, we head back into the storefront where we marvel a bit at the Titanic letter. A few feet away, a human-sized balance-arm scale sits; a tray of metal weights on one arm, on the other what appears to be an uncomfortable sitting bench for one. And in fact, Doug tells me, this is exactly what it was once used for–after it was no longer needed as a coffee scale. He then leads Mrs. Wonk and me over to a small bookcase holding nine red leather-bound books, and selects a volume. Doug opens to a random page and explains that customers of the store we’re standing in would come here to be weighed and have their measurements recorded in these volumes—as it was not common practice for medical doctors of the day to have scales in their offices. One volume is dedicated exclusively to ladies – very important to keep that information separate, you know. Famous people who appear in the books include Lord Byron (early 19th century) and the Aga Khan (early 20thcentury).
The cellars at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Doug then grabs a set of keys and down  the narrow stairs we go, into the original BB&R cellars which today still hold thousands of bottles of wine and spirits, some probably unimaginably rare, not to mention expensive. Modern equipment works to keep humidity and temperature at a hospitable level. The cellars are the interconnected basements of the multiple Pickering Place buildings we saw above, so the overall effect is of several connected rooms at slightly different levels. Dusty bottles are everywhere, some behind metal gates, but most easily touchable if we so dared.
Doug McIvor shows the wine course room at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
In the midst of all this dusty history, it’s a bit jarring to come across one reasonably modern room with rows of tables arranged to face a large video screen at the head of the space. This is the training room where BB&R teaches wine courses, everything from basic wine appreciation to master sommelier training.
Napoleon Cellar at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Another set of stairs takes us even deeper below the store to a room filled with large brick pillars supporting a low vaulted ceiling. This is the Napoleon cellar, named after Napoleon III who used these cellars to hold secret meetings while he was in exile. Countertops and cases line the room’s perimeter, filled with extremely old, obviously handmade bottles, a museum of sort. Running down the middle, and nearly the length of the room is a giant banquet table. BB&R hosts company events here, and for a modest fee, you can hold your own private party here as well.
The room were Cutty Sark was conceived, at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back up at store level, we step through a locked door at the back and into a quintessential British parlor. Old books, black & white photos, and bottles are everywhere. A small fireplace is lit, which keeps the room warm. This is where Cutty Sark blended whisky was conceived in 1923, partially in anticipation of the eventual end of prohibition in the US. At that time, BB&R was doing booming business in the Bahamas, a popular stop for smugglers bringing liquor into the US during prohibition. By the 1970s, Cutty Sark was the largest selling brand of blended whisky in the United States, and was contributing the vast majority of BB&R’s spirits (non-wine) revenues.
Today, Cutty Sark is no longer in the BB&R portfolio. BB&R, seeing the potential decline in blended whisky sales due to markets focusing on single malt scotch as well as increased competition, decided to sell the high revenue generating Cutty Sark brand in 2010 and use the profits to refocus BB&R on premium spirits. Part of this strategic shift included buying the Glenrothes distillery, which makes the whisky in Cutty Sark. Another substantial deployment of the proceeds was purchasing a forty percent stake in AnchorBrewer and Distillers, a San Francisco-based distiller and importer of many highly-regarded spirit lines, currently including Luxardo, Glendronach, Nikka, and Tempus Fugit.
Antique, handmade bottles at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Today, BB&R and Anchor carry each other’s product lines, on both sides of the pond. Thus, the product lines that BB&R directly owns are available here in the US, including The King’s Ginger, The Glenrothes, Penny Blue rum, Pink Pigeon rum, and Berry’s Own private label — whisk(e)y, rum, cognac, etc. I’m immensely excited to have these spirits available here, and in fact it was BB&R/Anchor partnership that led to our private tour. The Anchor PR folks had traveled from San Francisco to hold a portfolio tasting at Westland Distillery (also part of the Anchor portfolio) here in Seattle. I got to chatting with Georgiana Green, one of their senior brand managers, about rum, and when I mentioned I would be in London a few months later, she told me I absolutely had to get a tour of BB&R and the cellars. A big thanks to her for making this happen!
Just a few of the available spirits at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back in the storefront area, with the tour concluding, Doug asked us if we wanted to taste some rum. But, of course! We moved to one of the store’s display rooms, lined with bottles from across the BB&R portfolio on display. He brought out a small package with several small sample bottles. The first four were cask samples of the four rums from the Medine distillery in Mauritius, selected by Doug and comprising the fourth batch of Penny Blue rum. A fifth bottle held a preview of the final blend of those rums. (I’ll save a writeup on this for a future post, but I will say it’s quite good.) Next, we tasted a cask strength, 66% ABV sample from Barbancourt in Haiti. And saving the best for last, Doug brought out a sample of the Exceptional Cask 1977 Jamaican Overproof rum, aged for 35 years and bottled at 121 proof. It was quite simply exceptional. At only £495, or about US $750, Mrs. Wonk had to keep a watchful eye on me to make sure I didn’t reach for my credit card. The agony of leaving without it!
The tour of BB&R was easily one of my top highlights from our two week European tour. Doug McIvor is a wealth of spirits information, a wonderful tour guide, and a generous host. If you find yourself in London, I highly recommend visiting the store, including a walk to Pickering Place. Even if you don’t get the private tour, it’s something not to be missed!