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….
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:
A highlight of the CocktailWonk blog last year was attending TikiKon 2014 in the Portland/Vancouver vortex. In addition to classes and parties, my personal highlight was the Iron TikiTender competition, which my good friend Jason Alexander, owner of the Tacoma Cabana, won in his first time as a competitor. The contest pits three bartenders against each other in a series of challenges, such as “Most Mai Tais in 10 minutes” and “Best drink with a mystery ingredient,” with judging by rum celebrities like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. Sadly, I’ll be missing the 2015 TikiKon as Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to New Orleans a few days in advance of Tales of the Cocktail. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear that some of my local, Seattle-based bartenders are applying to compete at Iron TikiTender 2015.
Within the spirits world, many liquors highlight their particular provenance – bourbon from Kentucky, Scotch whisky from, well, Scotland, cognac and calvados from France, tequila and mezcal from Mexico, and so on. However, you rarely see bottled blends of those spirits where the components are from different countries: Picture a blend of Irish whiskey and Kentucky bourbon – a bit odd, right? Or even Peruvian pisco and Chilean pisco – they’re quite different, and the rivalry between the countries about who makes the real pisco is heated. As you can imagine, they’re unlikely to appear in the same bottle together.
The rum world, with its relaxed, laissez-faire, no-rules attitude is the outlier – French Agricole AOC regulations notwithstanding, which is a story for another day. Sure, most rums hail from a single island or country, but there are also more than a few blended, multi-heritage rums. For this list, I’m not talking about blending rums of different ages from the same distillery. Nor am I talking about rums originating from multiple stills, like Guyana’s El Dorado distillery uses for its higher end rums. The rums in this list are all a blend of rums from multiple countries.
Here at Casa Cocktail Wonk we drink a lot of rum. While I happily pull out my wallet for well-regarded high end rum, I also wonk out over finding great rums at a great price. There’s plenty of well-established brands with wonderful entries for less than $25 US. For instance, the Plantation Grande Réserve 5 is a steal at around $15. However, I also get a kick out of promoting the smaller, lesser-known brands with great bottlings that I stock at home. Below are eight rums I personally endorse, all available online somewhere for less than $25, before shipping. For each rum I’ve listed the best current price and the site where I found it.
Caldas Gran Reserva Oak Cask
This 8-year aged rum from Columbia is very smooth and moderate to dark gold in color. It’s dry and seems to have little or no sugar added after distillation. It’s somewhat comparable to Bacardi 8 in overall feel, but I prefer it to the Bacardi. Good enough to mix in spirit forward cocktails with abandon because of its taste and price, I end up sipping a dram every time I open the bottle.
Aged for three or more years, then filtered to strip the color, this rum comes the legendary Don Pancho Fernandez in Panama. Don Pancho is behind numerous well regarded rum lines including Ron Abuelo (see below.) Cana Brava works well in drinks calling for flavorful silver rum, such as the Daiquiri. It’s part of the 86 Co.’s line of spirits targeted primarily at bartenders.
$24.99 (1 liter) hitimewine.net
Denizen Aged White Rum
A blend of aged rums from Trinidad and Jamaica. The founder of Denizen tells me the Aged White was created to make the perfect Daiquiri. I recently reviewed its sibling, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve. Both are blended by master blenders E&A Scheer in Holland, and deserve a spot in your bar. $16.99 drinkupny.com
A blend of rums from Barbados, aged between six and ten years in American oak, then finished in sherry casks. As with everything from Richard Seale’s Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, there’s no sugar added to juice up the perceived flavor. Richard’s insistence on quality rums are well known in the rum world. Doorly’s XO is what I brought back from Barbados for my rum loving friends.
Hamilton Jamaica Black
This 92 proof rum comes from Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum collection. If you’re a fan of Jamaican hogo, this rum delivers in spades. I find the funk to be more vegetal than the fruity funk of Smith & Cross, but equally intense. Put Hamilton Jamaica in your drink and the flavor will pop right through, so I enjoy it in Tiki drinks where there’s a lot going on. There are both gold and black version of this rum – the only difference is the type of caramel coloring added, imparting a slight flavor difference.
Bull Run Distillery in Portland, OR makes one of the many new American white rums popping up all over. What makes Pacific Rum unusual is that it starts from sugar cane juice instead of molasses, and is then aged for about a month. This rum is essentially an American version of an Agricole style rum – somewhat organic and grassy tasting, in a good way. Not as intense as La Favorite Blanc, I use it frequently in Tiki style drinks that call for an agricole rum. I’ve mentioned it previously in my Essential Arsenal of Tiki Rums post.
Ron Abuelo 7
Ron Abuelo is a Panamanian rum from Don Pancho Fernandez, born in Cuba and considered a master of the Cuban style. The entire Ron Abuelo line is well regarded, but at Abuelo 7 is a smooth sipper at a bargain price. I enjoyed my first bottle of Abuelo 7 so much that I didn’t hesitate to purchase the Abuelo 12 as well.
St. Lucia Distiller’s Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum
I’m normally not a spiced rum kind of guy. However, at a local tasting of the Chairman’s Reserve rums from the St. Lucia Distiller’s group, I was shocked at how well executed the Chairman’s Reserve Spiced rum is. The cinnamon and clove elements nicely complement the aged rum flavors, rather than attempt to mask it like so many other spiced rums. Sure, you could mix with it, but you’ll be happier to just pour out an ounce or two and savor it slowly.
I recently did a post about three Dutch rums, including the new Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of aged Jamaican and Martinique rums. The Merchant’s Reserve has a bit of buzz around it from Tiki wonks as it’s been promoted as being a good facsimile of the rum used to make the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai back in the 1940s and 1950s. After acquiring my bottle of the Merchant’s Reserve, trying it out, and reading as much as I could find online, I still had questions beyond what I was finding. I emailed the founder of Denizen Rum and he graciously agreed to talk with me in more detail about the Denizen rums.
First, a bit of back story to help frame what I learned. Citizen Spirits and its Denizen rum line was founded by Nicholas “Nick” Pelis in 2006. Nick had worked in the finance part of the spirits industry with major companies for a few years before forming his own company, Citizen Spirits in New York. One of Nick’s motivations for going into rum was that the Daiquiri had been butchered over many years, becoming an unrecognizable fluorescent green slushy drink made with inexpensive, flavorless rums. A real Daiquiri as consumed by Hemingway and JFK is a simple, robust cocktail made with rum, lime and sugar. The rum in those daiquiris, while clear, was still robust and flavorful, unlike silver rums today that aspire to compete with vodka in their lack of flavor. The first release from Denizen was an aged white rum, a blend of rums from Jamaica and Trinidad. It’s a relatively inexpensive white rum, around $18, and well regarded from what I understand.
While the Daiquiri was the inspiration for the Denizen Aged White, the Trader Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai was the target for rescuing via Denizen’s next rum, the Merchant’s Reserve. As the story goes, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron originally used J. Wray and Nephew 17 year aged rum from Jamaica in his original Mai Tai, but the Mai Tai’s popularity eventually dried up the stock of that rum, wherein Vic switched to the 15 year Wray and Nephew. When that supply dwindled as well, Vic switched to a blend of younger Jamaican rum and rum from Martinique. These days, the J. Wray and Nephew 17 year rum is a bit of a Holy Grail for Tiki and rum experts, and if any bottles were available they would command a very steep price. Thus a blend of rums is realistically what modern Tiki aficionados have to work with in pursuit of the Original 1944 Mai Tai.
There’s an important detail here that’s easily overlooked and which deserves emphasis. Some modern recipes for a “1944 Mai Tai” specify a mix of Jamaican rum (for the fruity “funk”), and Rhum Agricole, which has a grassy, vegetal flavor because it’s made from raw sugar cane juice rather than molasses like most rums. While a Jamaican rum and an Agricole rhum play nice together, a Tiki expert (and I’ll say who in a moment) contends that the Martinique rum used by Trader Vic wasn’t an Agricole style, but was instead cheaper and molasses based, termed “Rhum Industriel.” This type of rhum isn’t common on Martinique, as most distilleries focus on the Agricole rhum style — considered more refined.
As previously mentioned, Nick wanted to release an ideal rum for a Mai Tai. After consulting with Martin Cate, renowned Tiki expert and owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Nick selected a blend of rums as close as possible to the mix Trader Vic used after the J. Wray and Nephew 17 and 15 were no longer available. Thus, the Denizen Merchant’s Reserve isn’t simply a more aged version of the Denizen Aged White rum. Instead, it uses a different blend of Jamaican rums as well as Martinique rhum industriel, as opposed to the Trinidadian rum found in the Aged White.
To actually produce the Merchant’s Reserve, Nick continued his prior collaboration with E&A Scheer, a Dutch company with a long history going back to 1712. Originally E&A Scheer was a merchant trading company with ships sailing the “Triangle Trade” route between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Eventually the company focused their efforts on bulk rum shipping and blending, and today their storage facilities hold around 20 million liters of rum, Batavia Arrack, and Cachaça for various customers, which will be blended and sold as drinkable spirits or used in the flavor and fragrance industries. E&A Scheer has extensive experience working with distilleries and transport logistics so they’re a natural choice for a company like Citizen Spirits to partner with.
80% of Denizen Merchant’s Reserve is comprised of rum from Jamaica, sourced from four distilleries:
- Worthy Park
- New Yarmouth
The Hampden distillery might be familiar to Jamaican funk aficionados as the source of Smith and Cross rum. The New Yarmouth estate is owned by J. Wray and Nephew, who produce not only the Appleton line but also an essential Tiki rum, Wray & Nephew Overproof. Worthy Park sells rum domestically within Jamaica and is the source of the Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still rums. Some of these distilleries are relatively small and are working hard to stay afloat in a world of much larger competitors. Nick said he intentionally selected rum from the smaller distilleries to obtain a particular flavor profile as well as to help support and keep them operating.
Of the Jamaican rum in the Merchant’s Reserve, 60% is aged for eight years in used American oak barrels. Another 20% is aged for four years and the remaining 20% is fresh, un-aged distillate. All of the aging is done in Jamaica.
A natural question is: Why not use an even more aged rum? There’s a few reasons: First if aged too long the funk that’s such a great part of Jamaican rums starts to diminish. As I described in my post on Lost Spirits distillery, the barrel aging process converts shorter, fruity esters to long chain “honey” style esters. Second, it’s hard to commercialize a rum older than 8 years. Distilleries need to make predictions many years in advance about anticipated demand, and then distill/age towards those targets. Nick says it’s a challenge for distilleries to do this more than 8 years in advance.
The 20% of the Merchant’s Reserve that’s not Jamaican comes from the Le Galion S.A.E.M. distillery in Martinique. It’s the last remaining sugar factory in Martinique that produces brown sugar, and they produce a rum called “Le Galion Grand Arome.” The rum from Le Galion is molasses-based rather than starting from cane juice, so by definition it’s not an Agricole rum. [Update: Be sure to see Martin Cate’s notes in the comment section about the alternative to the “industriel” designation as well as about the fermentation and flavor of “Grand Arome” rum.]
Given all the moving parts of putting together a blended rum like this, I was wondering about its long term availability. Should I be snapping up bottles of the Merchant’s Reserve? Nick says he’s got enough in reserve to expand production and make it an ongoing commercial release. The initial bottling of Merchant’s Reserve was just 700 cases and targeted primarily at the New York/New Jersey, California, and Chicago markets. However, it’s available at online stores that ship nationally.
With two well received rums released, I asked Nick what’s next for Denizen rums. He indicated something more “allocated,” to use his words. By that he means something rarer, for example a single barrel rum, aged longer, perhaps in the 15-year range. I strongly encourage this sort of thing. In Europe there are a number of independent bottlers such as Rum Nation that have limited runs of bottles from a single still or barrel. Unfortunately these sorts of bottles are relatively difficult to come across in the United States. I vividly remember visiting a whisky store in a Glasgow cellar and coming across the whole set of Bristol Classic rums, then agonizingly choosing one as I only had room for one more bottle in my overstuffed luggage. I really hope the U.S. based Denizen can help supply the US market with exotic rum treasures like what are available in Europe.
During my conversation with Nick I was surprised at how open and forthcoming he was with details about his rum’s background. His reasons for sharing boils down to the fact that rum is relatively unregulated and big producers will play games with it to lower costs and/or sell more. For rum to rise in respectability to where Scotch is today, provenance and traceability are key. I’ve seen traceability taken to an extreme with Ed Hamilton’s rums, where you can enter a number from the bottle into a web site and see photos of the actual barrels containing the rum, shipping manifests for the barrels and much more.
Back to Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, the label design is similar in concept to the earlier Denizen White rum, reminding you of an “old school” rum label you might find on a bottle that floated up on a beach somewhere. The label’s orange color is a nod to the Dutch role in its creation. The lions at the top symbolize courage, while the crown symbolizes being the king or queen of your domain. The “Merchant’s Reserve” name is a tribute to the Dutch West Indies trading company – They discovered that during the long sea journeys, the taste of the barreled rum improved. They selected the best of these rums and sold them for the highest premium.
While Denizen rums are still mostly available in a small number of US states, the set of distributors signed up is growing. If you can’t find it locally, check out online sources.