While 2016 was a year many would have gladly skipped, here in the Cocktail Wonk corner of the boozy blogosphere, it’s been gangbusters for great experiences and stories. As I wrote my 2015 roundup post a year ago, I wasn’t altogether convinced that 2016 would be able to top it. Boy, was I wrong!
Over the past twelve months, I’ve written fewer straight-up spirit reviews and cocktail recipes and more long form essays. It’s taken a while to get to that level. The opportunities for unknown stories and fresh takes on topics are there to be found, but it requires waiting for the right contacts and opportunities to fall into place, as they did this year.
What follows is my take on the most important topics I covered this year. It’s an entirely subjective ranking on my part, without regard to actual page visit statistics. Some entries represent a single post that particularly resonated with readers, while others are a collection of posts. Hyperlinks to the original posts are interspersed in the descriptions below.
Jamaican Rum Distilleries
Since the rum bug bit me hard a few years back, the chance to visit and tour Jamaican rum distilleries has been my top bucket list item. Thus, I was over the moon in February when I got an unexpected email from Neil Morris at WIRSPA, inviting me to an Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) tour of Jamaican rum distilleries.
Over a whirlwind five days, we visited Appleton, Innswood, Clarendon (Monymusk), Hampden, Long Pond, and Worthy Park. Our traveling group included heavy hitters in the rum and spirits world – Martin Cate, Wayne Curtis, Camper English, Peter Holland, and my friend Kate Perry, general manager of Seattle’s Rumba (also known as my second home, says Mrs. Wonk). As you might imagine, there were extreme levels of rum wonkery on our endless bus rides hither and yon across the Jamaican countryside. Of particular interest to our group was “dunder,” the mythical ingredient responsible for ultra-funky Jamaican rums. As we learned, dunder isn’t terribly interesting; rather, “muck” is the secret sauce, as I revealed in this piece.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky Distilleries
With rum and bourbon having established beachheads here on the site, I moved into writing about single malt Scotch whisky in 2016. Another Wonk bucket list item was a visit to Islay, ground zero of smoky, peated Scotch whisky. On the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, Mrs. Wonk and I awoke on Islay, started our morning with a drink of fifty-year-old Lagavulin in their warehouse, and spent a glorious afternoon touring and tasting at Laphroaig. And for good measure, we spent hours touring the Bowmore and Bruichladdich distilleries the next day.
Returning to the Scottish mainland a few days later, we drove in a mad dash across the width of the country to Speyside, narrowly outrunning the worst of winter storm Gertrude. In just three days we toured Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, Cragganmore, Cardu, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, and Macallan, while Mrs. Wonk perfected her ability to drive on the left side of the road without clipping a tire.
Age statements may be the least understood and most abused aspect of the spirits industry. The typical consumer may know little more than “longer is better.” In Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?, I explained the science of barrel aging and why something as seemingly concrete as “Aged 12 years” is anything but. New barrels, reused barrels, barrel sizes, and where the aging happens: They all matter when evaluating age claims. Further likely to confuse the consumer are terms like “solera” aging and “average age.” Finally, there’s outright deception via large numbers on a label that aren’t actually age statements, but are intended to look like they are. Caveat emptor—which will be easier once you’ve read this piece.
Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun?
With the recent upsurge in premium rum interest, a battle has been brewing between producers of honest high quality rum and those gaming the system with inferior products. In some countries, producers are protected by regulations similar to what bourbon and Scotch whisky are required to follow, e.g. no additives allowed and minimum age statements. But elsewhere, producers make (or buy) inferior rum, then doctor it with additives and/or unsubstantiated age claims. My in-depth piece provides a comprehensive overview of existing regulations, who’s bound by them, the games some producers play to create a faux premium rum, and guidelines for finding honest rums.
E&A Scheer – The Most Important Rum Company You’ve Never Heard Of
Following on the heels of our Scotland trek, we found ourselves in Amsterdam, home of E&A Scheer. First formed in 1762, Scheer purchases bulk rums from distilleries all over the world. They then age and blend them in Amsterdam in order to supply custom offerings for brands like Banks, Denizen, Gun Room, The Duppy Share, By the Dutch, and Marauda. The scale of their operations, in terms of the amount of rum handled yearly, puts them in the same league as producers such as Appleton and Havana Club. Yet E&A Scheer strives to remain behind the scenes. I was privileged to visit their headquarters and be among the first to write their story in detail.
Tales of the Cocktail 2016
Tales of the Cocktail, held each July in sweltering and sultry New Orleans, is the combined Super Bowl and family reunion for the cocktail and spirits industry. The rum family was out in force in 2016, with several rum-focused events, including the highly anticipated Plantation O.F.T.D. launch party. Two of my personal highlights were savoring incredibly old and rare Cognac Ferrand and Lagavulin Scotch whisky at exclusive tasting events.
The United States has an exceptionally effective system for keeping liquor out of the hands of the people who want it. After the spectacular failure of Prohibition in the early twentieth century, the federal government relegated much but not all alcohol regulations to the states. Of course, no two states regulate liquor the same way. In most states, a spirit (say, Bacardi rum) can be supplied by only one distributor. And in many states, smaller brands don’t have a distributor, so their products simply aren’t available. My article outlines how the U.S. three-tier system works and why it’s such a nightmare for smaller brands to get distribution and compete with the established players.
Rum Is Made from Sugar – And So Are Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka, and Tequila
After seething over a particularly misinformed article about rum (“Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer”), I wrote this well-received rant about how all spirits are made from sugar. Regardless of whether it starts as grain, fruit, cane, or potato, the source material is converted to sugars prior to fermentation. And after distillation, no residual sugar remains in any distillate, so no spirit is “naturally” sweet. Any sweetness in a spirit was added by the producer after distillation. Wonky science, FTW!
New Rums (TTB Approvals)
Prior to being offered for sale in the U.S., every spirit must submit label information and imagery to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka the TTB) for approval. These approvals are available online, and searchable, so every few months I take a spin through the TTB approvals to see what new rums have received approval. I curate a list, highlighting the most interesting expressions, and post periodic updates. Over the past year I’ve found and written about new rums from producers like Mount Gay, Appleton, El Dorado, Foursquare, Diplomatico, and Angostura. The two most recent posts are here and here.
Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof
One of the most talked about rum launches of 2016 was Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof, developed in conjunction with boozy superstars Martin Cate, Paul McFadyen, Paul McGee, Scotty Schuder, Jeff Berry, and David Wondrich, along with Plantation master blender Alexandre Gabriel. A chance conversation at Miami Rum Renaissance tipped me off that something special was coming, and a subsequent TTB search turned up the label well in advance of the official launch event at Tales. Knowing what was coming, I had my O.F.T.D. article ready to go as soon as Plantation’s official press release hit the wires. That post has consistently been among the most popular on the site since then.
Looking ahead to 2017, I’ll be diving into the world of sherry after Mrs. Wonk and I visit Jerez in the Andalusia region of Spain, where it’s made. I also plan to wrap up the Scotch whisky distillery visit series. Expect more rum coverage and targeted reviews of exceptional spirits. A few new bars of great interest to the rum crowd are looming on the horizon as well. As always, if you have suggestions on topics you’re particularly interested in, drop me a line! Til then, a toast to all that is wonky in 2017!