Mrs. Wonk, ever-perceptive as she is, spotted it first. We’d just taken our seats at the bar at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, and I was already engrossed in the cocktail list. Pointing to the backbar, she exclaims, “Isn’t that the new Plantation rum you’ve been talking about?” Indeed it was! The new Plantation O.F.T.D., which outside of a small handful of very select people had never been seen before. In the months leading up to the Tales of the Cocktail 2016, Plantation had been teasing a new, high-profile rum release to be unveiled at a special event. Yet here it was, on the Latitude 29 backbar, nestled inconspicuously amongst the other rums.
I asked the bartender if I could hold the bottle. While I’d known vague details about a replacement for Plantation’s Original Dark Overproof for several months, it was only a few weeks earlier that I’d spotted the TTB label approval, full of details about the forthcoming release. Knowing a big launch was planned, I opted to not include it in my most recent rum label approval roundup, but did give a few big hints and nudges, if you were paying attention.
The bartender poured us a sample—after confirming with the manager that it was okay to do so–and I snapped a few photos. Unbeknownst to me, as we sat at the bar, Plantation’s PR maven had emailed a press release announcing the rum, two days in advance of the release event. In short order, a friend tipped me off and I raced to my laptop to publish my own (pre-written in anticipation) post, including my just-snapped photos, thus making this blog the very first to cover this splendid new rum. What a great way to start out a rum-soaked Tales of the Cocktail!
When Is a Rum Not a Rum
Wednesday was rum’s marquee day at Tales, starting out with a bang at the hotly anticipated 10 A.M. Session “When is a Rum Not a Rum.” Moderated by Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, the panelists are all heavy hitters in the rum world: Plantation’s Alexandre Gabriel, Ben Jones from the House of Agricole (Rhum Clement), Roberto Serralles from Don Q, and last but not least, Foursquare’s Richard Seale. Richard, as you may know, is a bit notorious for his blunt statements about rum chicanery – unlabeled sugar and additives, as well as distillation techniques that leave little or no flavor in the “rum,” if you can call it that. The discussion was hotly anticipated.
Having read nearly all of Richard’s writing on this subject, as well as attending several of his talks at other shows, I know Richard pulls no punches, and likes to tease the audience with tastings of fake flavored distillates to drive home his points. Anticipation was high among the rum journalist crowd – What sort of fireworks were to be had? We got a good laugh when someone passed out a Rum Bingo sheet prior to the session, filled with terms like dosage, solera, caramel, and hydrometer.
The 90-minute session was broken into a number of sub-topics. Among them:
The definition of rum. The U.S and E.U. definitions were cited at the beginning, setting the stage. A good discussion about whether regulating rum would hinder creativity. An oft-stated opinion in rum circles is that the lack of global rules in rum production makes it the most diverse spirit. Richard effectively counters that much of what’s sold as rum isn’t “true rum,” and suggests using the word “protection” rather than “regulation” when thinking about this issue. (In the same way, bourbon makers are protected from just any old distiller creating swill and labeling it “bourbon.”)
A discussion about labeling. Would requiring labels to include information about additives help or hinder, given that it could confuse consumers? Ben Jones spoke out against it, saying it would confuse consumers. Mezan’s “untouched” slogan was brought up as confusing because how can you produce a rum without touching it? Alexander in particular backed this position.
Must it be made from a cane-based source? The Stoneyard “rum,” made in Colorado from beet sugar garnered a very unfavorable reaction from most of the audience. Ian called on me at one point, as I had recently found and posted the TTB label approval for this particular bottling as part of an explosive thread on one of the Facebook rum groups.
The addition of flavoring and additives like glycerol. It goes without saying, hardcore rummies are against this. Ian’s show a slide with the back label of Lost Spirits rum stating: “Ingredients: Rum distilled from baking grade molasses, water & a yeast culture.” While that label is indeed a model of simplicity and disclosure, an audience member did bring up that the label doesn’t make reference to Lost Spirits’ unusual aging protocol (which I’ve written about extensively), with the label saying only “… matured…” If you’re interested in this aspect of things, be sure to read my article about it.
Age statements. While some countries require an age statement to be tied to the youngest rum in the bottle, others don’t. The solera method was cited as a telling indication that any age statement is circumspect. Zacapa Centnario, for example, which many people believe to be a 23-year old rum, is closer to a six-year average age, say various experts.
Is there too much sugar in rum? Should regulations force sugar to be disclosed, as it is in some European countries? Alexandre Gabriel spoke about Plantation’s traditional dosage process.
Bacardi speaks. Although not officially part of the Panel, David Cid from Bacardi also had an opportunity to speak. Among his points: Bacardi has a single column copper still, used to make flavorful rum that’s blended with other, lighter rums. There’s too much vanillin used in white rums, to help simulate aging. He also talked about how Bacardi makes a high quality rum for a very low price. In a nutshell, Bacardi buys so much molasses that they can cut deals to get top-grade molasses for much less than the typical distiller.
Rum classifications. Velier’s Luca Gargano was called up from the audience to talk about the classification system that he and Richard Seale have been promoting as of late. In a nutshell, the system focuses on the type of distillation. (My review of Martin and Rebecca Cate’s book has much more about this, so I won’t repeat it here.)
Tastings. Organized by Richard, they drove home some critical points. Since he wrote a recent Facebook post about them, I’ll excerpt them here:
In the first round, there were two white distillates. #1 was a distillate from grain sold as vodka and #2, a distillate from molasses is sold as rum.
The audience were asked to “pick the vodka”
Over 60% picked wrong, picking the ‘rum’ – #2 – as the vodka.
In the second round I presented, there were three ‘rums’:
#5 and #7 were ostensibly premium rums. These two rums were chosen because although sold as ‘premium’ there are confirmed by analysis as doctored by sugar and flavouring.
#6 was a ‘fake rum’ prepared by me which contained only 5% actual rum (the remaining 95% was from grain neutral spirit).
The audience were asked to “pick the rum with most authentic flavour”.
Over 90% picked #6, the fake rum as the “most authentic”.
The session was packed with dozens of high profile people from the rum world, including Martin Cate, Stephen Remsberg, Paul McFadyen, Jeff Berry, Paul Senft, among others. To be honest, there were no major fireworks or revelations not already known to us hardcore rummies, but the topics were red meat to the crowd, and it was great to see them discussed in a panel format. In case you were wondering, midway through the session I glanced over to see that Camper English had already achieved rum bingo.
Plantation O.F.T.D. Launch Party
Plantation had a big party for their newly announced O.F.T.D. rum. The room was absolutely packed with Plantation-heads eager to taste it and see its affect in cocktails. All of the rum superstar contributors on the label were present, save David Wondrich. Stay tuned for a subsequent post dedicated to this event with tons of photos and video, as well as the story behind the O.F.T.D name.
The New American Rum Revolution
Hosted by Robert Burr and his son Rob V. Burr, this session focused on the new wave of small but growing rum producers here in the U.S. It’s surprising to many that there once had been hundreds of rum distillers in colonial-era New England—a region not often recognized as a hotbed of rum production. Prohibition and America’s later preoccupation with whiskey had effectively brought U.S. rum making to a standstill as of a few decades ago, other than the U.S. Virgin Island-based giants like Bacardi and DonQ. But with the advent of the craft distillation market, there’s been a huge surge in people making rum, with some nearly becoming household names – well, within the spirits industry at least.
I unfortunately missed the first few minutes of this session, arriving in the middle of Rob V. Burr working through the first seven rum samples from brands like St. George Spirits, Montanya, Richland, and Siesta Key. The remainder of the session–and the last three rum samples–were put in the capable hands of the three panelist: Stephen Gubb from Gubba rum, Bob Gunter from Koloa, and Trey Litel from Bayou. Of all the rums sampled, my personal highlight was the Maggie’s Farm Queens Share, made from redistilled tails–making for an unusually rich rum.
National Daiquiri Day
National Daiquiri day fell on July 19th, fortuitously the day before the main Tales festivities kicked off. Bacardi was all over this event, hosting a gaggle of media types (myself included) on a mad dash via bus through five bars, each with a unique spin on the Daiquiri. The tour ended at the rooftop of the Ace Hotel for a party and final toast. A separate post will tell the story in more detail, with tons of photos.
Sessions, Parties, and Tastings
Lustau and Santa Teresa Rum hosted a session titled “Deconstructing the Solera Method,” focusing (naturally) on the solera methodologies used by Lustau for their sherries and brandies, and Santa Theresa with their rums. It was with great sadness that I missed this session, as I absolutely love the combination of rum and sherry. At the last minute I was able to get in to the Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar, and that’s really, really hard to pass up. I was also gutted me to miss “Pumping Out Paradise: Secrets Behind a High Volume Tiki Bar”, which unfortunately coincided with the When is a Rum Not a Rum session. First world problems, for sure.
Bayou Rum and Angostura both held pool parties on the roof of the Monteleone, although to be accurate, Angostura’s party was for their orange bitters. Luckily, the torrential summer rainstorm just before the Angostura party didn’t shut it down. Lot of rum brands held smaller tastings and events, including Barbancourt, Mezan, El Dorado and Lyon Distilling (Always fun to see Jaime and Ben, and I was able to taste the new Sailors Reserve aged rum and Overproof White rum.)
The Lost Spirits/Rational Spirits/Rattleback folks were in town for Tales, and brought a small stash of freshly labeled bottles with them to share with friends. And not just one rum, but two! The Santeria with its fresh new white label is certainly fetching, although Oh So Five Minutes ago. The new darling is the Rational Spirits Cuban-Inspired, a 141 proof monster, which I wrote about in a previous post. Stay tuned for a subsequent, picture-laden post covering the latest scoops from these folks.
As with last year, Tales was jammed with great rum-specific content and events, and vast swaths of the global rum family converged on NOLA. I want to extend a special thanks to my rum brother Paul Senft from RumJourney.com for working closely with me, making sure we got as many great rum stories as possible in a jam-packed week.