It’s 10 PM on Saturday night and I’m standing in the dark by the side of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Bryan Davis, master distiller of Lost Spirits holds his iPhone aloft, flashlight lit, to help our friend Anders snap a rum bottle photo. A few feet away, a twelve-person party bus sits motionless with its doors open, exposing a veritable dance club’s worth of lighting. An epic Tiki party is awaiting us less than five miles away, if only we could get there. How is this my life? Let’s take it from the beginning – a photo tour of my crazy, rum-packed weekend.
The agony and ecstasy of Plantation Rums is a direct result of their many, many releases of rums purchased from distilleries around the world and finished in France. Once you’re hooked on their sublime expressions and start collecting their numerous bottlings, you realize it’s a herculean task; there’s always some obscure release you didn’t know about that needs a home on your bar shelf. Sure, Plantation has staples like the Barbados Grand Reserve five-year, the Original Dark, and the 3 Star Blend, but once you start collecting single vintages, say Panama 2000, or the even more exotic Black Label series, it’s like Pokémon card collecting. You can’t have just one.
It’s 8:45 AM on the second full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2015, and I’m in bed, dreading the imminent alarm clock. Only a few hours earlier I’d been drinking 140 proof Jamaican Rum and cask-strength rye at an impromptu hotel room get-together, followed by a nightcap at the Monteleone’s Carousel bar, before finally falling into bed at 2:30 AM. What I really need is more sleep, but I’m scheduled to drink more rum in an hour. Ordinarily I’d miss the rum and opt for more shut-eye but this is no ordinary tasting. No sir! Plantation Rums had reached deep into their rum reserves, picked of their best casks from all over the Caribbean, and bottled just enough for two dozen people to enjoy at Tales. At 10 AM. The things I do for rum….
It’s 11 PM, and after a long day, Mrs. Wonk and I are bone-tired. Yet we’re standing in a large courtyard in New Orleans where despite the late time, it’s still approximately 1000 degrees. On a raised platform some twenty feet above us, a Star Wars storm trooper DJs away. Behind him is an actual, honest-to-goodness World War II-era bomber, suspended in mid-air. Nearby a dystopian Thunderdome scene plays out as sporadic giant belches of flames erupt into the (already way too hot) night. Yet a few hours earlier, I was sipping a magnificent selection of Guyanese rums, pulled straight from the cask, not available anywhere else. At Tales of the Cocktail, this is just another day as usual. Continue reading “A Wonk’s First Trip to Tales of the Cocktail”
Recently, a torrent of articles in the mainstream press has heralded the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail title, and highlighted top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales of these destination-worthy bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’m completely on board with this surge in interest, and I regularly go overboard in my home bar, making libations with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.
However, it recently occurred to me that exotic Tiki recipes specifying esoteric ingredients and very specific rums can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe with what’s already in your home bar.
With this in mind, I set out on a research project: Finding the minimum set of ingredients needed to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I created a minimal working set of ingredients, enabling you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space. It’s too late for me — the home bar spans several rooms — but with what follows, you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.
My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails I consider the essential classics; as with all “best of” lists, it’s completely subjective. However, I’ve conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:
The annual Miami Rum Renaissance show is equal parts rum evangelism to the curious and family reunion for the hard-core rum crowd. Having inexplicably missed Rum Renaissance last year, it was at the top of my 2015 list of non-negotiable trips, along with the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail in July.
Show organizer Robert Burr and RumXP judges announcing winners
The core of Rum Renaissance is a three-day exhibition, held at the Miami Airport Convention Center, wherein rum producers host booths for sampling rum and related goodies – rum cake, anyone? Some companies go all out in a large booth with tons of ornamentation, while others are more spartan, choosing to let the rums speak for themselves. A few days prior to the event an assembled panel of rum experts (RumXPs) judge dozens of rums in various classes, electing a “Best in Class” and three gold medals per class. The results are announced the evening of the first day, and medals are handed out for prominent display by the winning vendors over the following two days.
Rums of Puerto Rico booth with RumXP medals
Plantation Rum shows off their RumXP medals
Lost Spirits, which I’ve coveredextensively, has been in the news of late about their plan for a spirits aging “reactor” that claims to provide the equivalent of twenty years of aging in six days. Leading up to Rum Renaissance, master distiller Bryan Davis had announced a new rum called Prometheus, modeled after the 33-year aged Port Mourant from Guyana, to debut at Rum Renaissance. To say the Prometheus was highly anticipated by the rum cognoscenti is an understatement. Although finished bottles of Prometheus were not on hand for sale, Bryan brought a sample bottle that he shared with a few lucky folks, myself included. I look forward to reviewing it once available.
Lost Spirits Prometheus sample
Richard Seale (Foursquare) and Bryan Davis, Lost Spirits booth
The Floating Rum Shack visits the Lost Spirits booth
Toward the end of the first day, I was watching Bryan explain the Lost Spirits story to someone. Standing next to me was an older gentleman, whom I soon realized hadn’t heard the whole Lost Spirits pitch, so I began explaining it to him. We soon exchanged names and only then did I realize it was Phil Prichard, of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tennessee. Talk about an honor! Like Bryan, Phil is a maverick in the spirits industry, bucking the conventional wisdom and competing with the big guys. Mrs. Wonk and I had visited the distillery a few months back but hadn’t met Phil then, so meeting him at Rum Renaissance was an unexpected surprise. As Phil, Bryan, and I chatted, I realized that highly anticipated seminar by Richard Seale on rum categorization was starting momentarily, so the three of us hastily left to get seats.
Cocktail Wonk & Phil Prichard
Richard Seale at his presentation
Slide from the Richard Seale presentation
Like Bryan and Phil, Richard Seale of Foursquare Distilleryin Barbados has acquired a reputation as an iconoclast, a teller of hard truths about the rum industry. He’s best known for forcing the rum community to talk about the practice of adding sugar and other additives to rum without being labeled as such. Richard contends (and I agree) that there are artisanal rums being produced that are on equal footing with premium spirits like single malt scotch, but that rum as a category is held back by useless categorizations (e.g. “white”, “gold” and “dark,”) as well as shenanigans by the big players, including unlabeled additives. At the start of Richard’s session, each attendee was given four unlabeled rum samples with obviously different coloring. Our task was to identify each sample – they all tasted nice enough, but were quite different from each other. The trick was on us however, as Richard revealed they were all the same rum, but with different flavorings added. Even the experts are fooled by this sort of chicanery. Among the key points Richard made is that the type of distillation matters, i.e. pot still, column still, and blends. The session wrapped up with a call to action: Rum producers need to decide whether to go the premium, regulated route like Scotch and Cognac, or whether (like vodka) rum’s value comes solely from marketing and packaging.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at the Afrohead booth
Having reviewedthe Afrohead Seven-year rum recently, I was happy to have a long conversation with Afrohead’s founders, Toby Tyler and Joe Farrell from Harbor Island in the Bahamas. It’s clear that Afrohead is spending some serious marketing money to make an entrance into the rum category, including hosting a breakfast for the RumXP judges. Their booth included large images of the distinctive Afrohead logo, each highlighting a hidden symbol within the design. Among the fun moments of our conversation was when Toby showed me photos on his phone from his trip to the Angostura distillery blending room, where he works on Afrohead’s blends. We talked primarily about the 15 year which I hope to review here soon.
Heaven Hill booth
This year, Rum Renaissance benefited from the addition of a “Trade Expo” portion only accessible to the media and trade, featuring a variety of interesting rums, most currently without US distribution. A special deal allowed these rums to be imported for sampling and allowed generous amounts of time for serious conversations with the producers without being swarmed by folks looking for yet another glass of rum punch or a free T-shirt.
John Barrett, Bristol Classic Rums
Just after entering the Trade Expo section, I spotted Bristol Classic Rums founder John Barrett at a table with a few of their rums. I bee-lined over for some quality time with John, primarily talking about the Bristol story. I already own two of the five Bristol Classic rums he had on display, including the Black Spiced which I reviewedearlier. The new (to me) Bristol expressions were a 1996 Caroni, a 2004 Barbados, and a 2004 Haitian, the latter of which was considered a thing of beauty by myself and several others.
Master blender “Don Pancho” Fernandez with family, Ron Duran booth
Authentic Caribbean Rum booth
Nearby was the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) table. ACR is an alliance of rum producers who have strict standards about the quality of their rums. The table was lined with many top-notch rums I recognized–some by personal experience, other by extensive reading of rum blogs. Among the ACR table highlights for me was the St. Nicholas Abbey 5-year, the first aged expression created entirely at the distillery in Barbados. I own the St. Nicholas Abbey 10 and 15 as a result of visiting the distilleryin 2013; the 10- and 15-year were distilled by Foursquare and then sold to St. Nicholas Abbey, where they underwent additional aging. I found the St. Nicholas Abbey Five to be very smooth, with fewer acetone notes than I get from the 10 and 15 year. Other ACR highlights included the Hampden Gold and Monymusk (love my Jamaican funk!) and the Foursquare port cask-finished.
Skotlander Rum booth
Nine Leaves Rum booth
The Trade Expo area also featured much newer rum producers. Skotlander rum from Denmark showed several of their offerings, including an unaged (“raw”) white, an aged (“cask”) rum, and a sea buckthorn-infused rum (a berry-like fruit); I came away with 50ml bottles of the raw and sea buckthorn rum to noodle on later. With its beautiful bottles, the Nine Leaves rum from Japan caught my eye. They have an unaged white rum, as well as a number of different lightly aged versions, one using a California wine cask. I wish I could tell you more about how the Nine Leaves tasted, but my palate was fried by this point in the day—more news to come on those tastings.
Tito Cordero, Master Blender for Diplomatico
Wandering around the show floor on the second day, I spotted Tito Cordero, master blender for Diplomatico standing alone by the Diplomatico booth. I quickly took advantage of the opportunity and quizzed him about upcoming Diplomatico single vintage releases — the current being the 1997 and 2000 vintage. If I understood him correctly, he said that a 2002 will be coming out later this year.
Something that surprised me as I circulated through the booths was the absence of certain really big players. Bacardi was not in attendance, notwithstanding a small presence in the “Rums of Puerto Rico” booth. Also missing were big dogs Appleton and Captain Morgan. However, without giant players dominating attention, the lesser known brands could shine – there were big, splashy booths from Plantation, Bayou, Afrohead, Rums of Puerto Rico, and others.
Boy Drinks World Bitters booth
Plantation VP Guillaume Lamy at the Plantation booth
With all these rummy people present, you’d (correctly) surmise that the evening activities would focus heavily on bars. A series of events at different locales (proclaimed as “Miami Cocktail Week”) provided a starting point for each evening, but the Broken Shakerwas where most of the rum industry ended up night after night. The Rum Line in South Beach was a big hit with Mrs. Wonk, the Lost Spirits folks, and myself on Friday. And Saturday night? Well, that was the famed Mai-Kaievening – a huge pile of the rummy crowd piled into charter bus headed to the Mai-Kai for a mind-blowing Tiki experience. So much to tell about that visit that I’m saving it for another post!