Spain: land of history, culture, majestic architecture. Complemented by a gastronomic feast — tapas, olives, sherry, and vermouth — best consumed over ice with an orange twist, in the shadow of a cathedral. During our two week trip through Andalucia and parts beyond, from Madrid to Seville to Jerez to Granada to Cordoba to Barcelona and back to Madrid, Mrs. Wonk and I reveled in the best Spain has to offer, including copious amounts of sherry, the genesis of our odyssey. Yet accompanying us at every step along the way was our good friend, Ron.
Ron, in case you hadn’t heard, is the Spanish term for rum. You might ask “What on earth does Spain have to do with rum?” The answer is, “More than you possibly know!” It was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, who brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from Spain’s Canary Islands. A few short decades ago, sugar cane still grew and rum was still being produced in the south of Spain, as we learned firsthand at our visit to a Madrid Tiki bar. Even today, the Arehucas distillery in the Canary Islands distills rum.
And who can overlook that Spain is the mother country of so many former Caribbean colonies? Countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic are famous for making – wait for it – Spanish-style rum. The techniques these colonists brought from Spain, such as solera aging, are synonymous with Spanish-style rum. And in a bit of history reversing itself, Spanish sherry houses now import rum from the Caribbean and solera age it in their own sherry casks. We saw this up close and personal at Williams & Humbert, the home of Dos Maderas rum. Yes, Spain’s rum history gives it solid street cred, which remains strong to the present day.
In our two week expedition, we had a near-constant stream of rummy experiences. So for you hard-core folks who find yourself visiting Spain, here’s my advice for rum-related excursions in Spain.
When visiting France or French territories, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything other than French-style (agricole) rhum–they’re justifiably proud of their rhum-making tradition. However, Spain is a bit more open and accepting of other rum styles. You won’t have to look hard to find English pot still monsters or agricole style rhum on Spanish ground. However, Spanish-influenced rum brands (naturally) dominate liquor store shelves and back bars. Flor de Caña and Havana Club are everywhere. Before arriving in Spain, I thought I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the major and even minor league rum producers. But in the bars and liquor stores, I learned there are many Spanish-style producers yet to hit U.S. shores or consciousness.
If you’re looking to buy rum and find yourself in Barcelona, I can’t recommend highly enough spending some quality time at Lafuente. There are three stores in Barcelona, but the one on Carrer de Johann Sebastian Bach is the largest and best-stocked. From outside, it doesn’t look particularly large, but step inside and you’re in a veritable Candyland of well-curated spirits and liqueurs. Obviously Spanish-style rums are very well-represented, but they also offered a considerable amount of agricole and English-style rum as well. It was tortuous to narrow my selection down to just a few bottles to fill my remaining suitcase space. If Madrid is your destination, there’s a Lafuente there, too.
While buying rum to take home is fun, the real joy of our Spanish Ron experience was meeting fellow rum enthusiasts at their bars. In a country obsessed with Gin & Tonic (and if you haven’t had a true Spanish style G&T, you owe it to yourself to try one), these folks fly the rum banner high and proudly. Each of them provided us with incredible hospitality behind the bar and, in some cases, on their home turf for a few epic bar crawls. Do make it a priority to drop by and say “Hola!” when you’re in their town.
Jerez de la Frontera – Cubaname
This town is ground zero for sherry in Spain and the largest of the three towns that make up the sherry triangle. On the outskirts of the core you’ll find the Williams & Humbert bodega, where Dos Maderas comes to life. Our visit there was facilitated by Eloy Garcia Vergara, who combines his love of rum and sherry at his bar: Coctelería, Cubaname – Museo del Ron (“Sherry Cocktail Bar and Rum Museum”). From this modest space with room for about 20 people, Eloy fashions all manner of exotic Tiki drinks alongside countless classic rum pours.
The real star of the show however, is the rum. It really is a museum: Once your gaze moves beyond the impressively stocked backbar, you’ll see there’s rum everywhere. All around the room are shelves crammed to the gills with bottle after bottle of rum. Look up? Rum. Look down? More rum. Many familiar bottles, and many older version of the same brands. Don’t expect Smuggler’s Cove level of exotica here, but you will find expertly crafted Tiki cocktails and a vast array of bottles sure to please the rum obsessed.
Granada – Alexander
It’s no exaggeration to say this is the most off-the-hook cocktail bar I’ve ever encountered. Located on a quiet side street in downtown Granada, the simple, dark entryway gives no clue to the menagerie of lights, dried flower arrangements, spirit bottles, bar ephemera, vintage equestrian paintings, leather chairs, curio cabinets, and who knows what else that lie inside. The bar is dimly lit and most of the ambient glow seems to come from miles of twinkle lights in every conceivable location. Picture a cozy, English cigar club completely overrun by a squadron of Alice in Wonderland obsessed interior decorators on speed. It simply boggles the mind. Everywhere you look there’s more—more flowers, more ephemera, more detail–in the best possible way.
The mad genius behind Alexander is Alfonso Maya, an extremely passionate second-generation bar owner. His father opened Alexander in 1974, and Alfonso recently purchased the bar and transformed it into the shock-and awe-it is today. The bar counter is completely covered in botanicals, bottles, lights, shakers, bitters, glassware, and more. Luckily, we were able to carve out two spots at the corner of the bar from which we watched Alfonso work his obsessive magic. He makes every drink with the same precise economy of movement and mannerisms used in international cocktail competitions like Bacardi Legacy. At one point, Alfonso crafted a pair of drinks for at least ten minutes, resembling more a florist than a bartender. Needless to say, every cocktail was well-conceived and impeccably executed.
While the visual cornucopia and cocktails are more than enough to make Alexander a must-visit, there’s the small matter of the rum. Alfonso is a man obsessed. Knowing I’m a fellow rum-head, he made my first cocktail with Velier Worthy Park Jamaican rum and La Mauny aged agricole. Pretty baller, no? On the backbar he’s built a world-class selection of many of the best rums available. Velier, Doorly’s, Mezan, Foursquare, Hampden Estate – the man knows what to seek out, so Alexander has one of the most high-end rums selection in Spain. If a visit to the Alhambra isn’t enough to draw you to Granada (and if it’s not, Mrs. Wonk would like a word with you), Alexander makes it a slam dunk easy choice. Just do it!
Barcelona – Caribbean Club
Tucked away in a back alley in the El Raval district of Barcelona, just past the tedious tourist crush on Las Ramblas, it’s easy to walk right past the Caribbean Club. (In fact, I did both times we visited!) Set just a bit below street level, and with low ceilings, the Caribbean Club has the vibe of your favorite secret hideaway. Manning the smallish bar is Spain’s Tiki Monster, Oriol Elias, aka Three of Strong, instantly recognizable by his vibrant Tiki shirts, bald head, and huge smile. Oriol and I chat frequently on Facebook but had never met in person. Sliding into two open seats, and after exuberant hellos, we put ourselves in Oriol’s large and capable hands. He is well-versed in the classics but also is very strong in developing his own original concoctions, many using Real Syrups, which he represents. We left both nights very well-fortified from his libations and sincere hospitality.
Within the narrow nautical themed bar, much of the décor gleaned from an actual boat, it’s difficult to imagine there’s much room for a serious rum collection. But slide down to the far end, away from the street entry, and you’ll find a secondary bar area. Its shelves hold a very healthy selection of top shelf rums, including beauties from Spain, the Canary Islands, and Cuba.
My advice: When in Barcelona, determine when Oriol is at the helm of the good ship Carribbean Club, place yourself in front of him by any means necessary, and hold on for dear life. Tiki is coming!
Madrid – La Ronronera
Rum education is very important to Emiliano Fernández-Peña, the owner of Madrid’s La Ronronera, tucked onto a side street in the burgeoning and multicultural Lavapies neighborhood of Madrid. He looks younger than you might expect for a bar owner, but even a few minutes in conversation and his deep passion for cane spirits is obvious. Originally hailing from Mexico City, and having spent some time in the U.S., Emiliano found himself in Madrid as Spain’s financial crisis was starting to wind down. In early 2014 he opened La Ronronera, with eighty rums and the goal of bringing the best bottles to Madrid and its visitors.
Today, his bar, a cozy affair with room for perhaps a few dozen people, is well-stocked with rum in just about every space big enough to hold a bottle – around 140 unique types at last count. The price of a neat pour of a very nice rum is quite inexpensive by U.S. standards, so it’s a good place to try out expressions new to you.
A bar that only served rum neat would have a tough time keeping the doors open, so he made an early concession to serve local favorite rum and cokes. Over time, Emiliano has built up a respectable rum-based cocktail menu, although not full-metal Tiki. (See above or below for that.) First and foremost, La Ronronera is about the rum. Emiliano also hosts spirit education classes at his location, and he says that the percentage of people ordering rum neat since starting the classes has risen, with a corresponding drop in rum and coke orders. If La Ronronera is open, the odds are very high that Emiliano is around and eager to chat with you about rum, so make it a point to drop by.
Madrid – Tiki Chateau
As our Spanish odyssey wound down, Emiliano had a special surprise for us along an afternoon bar crawl through the streets of Madrid– Tiki Chateau! Like his own La Ronronera, this bar is somewhat off the beaten path in the hipster Malasaña neighborhood, but easy to get to. Stepping through the small front door, the transformation from a traditional Madrid street to Polynesian paradise is initially disorienting. The décor is classic Tiki, slightly restrained (by outsized Tiki standards) and hearkening back to the early 1950s, the golden era of Tiki. No space-themed glassware or H.P. Lovecraft monsters to be found here.
Tiki Chateau is the brainchild of Miguel Escobedo, whom some call the father of modern Spanish Tiki. True story: When Miguel first became obsessed with Tiki, he thought it was an entirely Spanish creation. He had no idea that Tiki originated six thousand miles away in California. Despite this, Tiki Chateau hits all the classic Tiki notes just right. (It reminds me a bit of Vancouver’s Shameful Tiki Room). Had the menus been printed in English, I could have believed we were on the west coast of the U.S rather than central Spain. Speaking of Miguel’s menu, it was small but impeccably curated, a mix of classics and house originals.
The back bar at Tiki Chateau seems solid at first glance – a respectable mix of rums and Tiki mugs. But in time, certain bottles tug at your attention. Wait….! Is that Lemon Hart Jamaican rum? Yes, Jamaican–not Demerara like you would expect. I’d heard of this mythical beast but never thought I’d see it. Soon, the bottle and a pour are in front of me. And what’s that Rhum Poblador? The label looks decades old – familiar, but unfamiliar. It says “Jamaica” on the label, but underneath is “Destileria Aragonesa.” A quick Google search tells you that Aragonesa is a Spanish distillery–we’ve stumbled across some antique rums, made by distilleries on the Spanish mainland and before names like “Jamaica” were protected indicators. All in all, a fun and enlightening journey back into some of rum’s more obscure past, enjoyed alongside Miguel’s top-notch Tiki cocktails. Another “Do Not Miss” bar in Madrid.
Finally, a funny rum incident that made my night after a hellishly long Seattle -> Philadelphia -> London -> Madrid -> Seville journey. The scene: The rooftop bar of our hotel, with the Seville cathedral looming in the distance:
Bartender: What can I get for you?
Me: <In bad Spanish> Flor de Caña siete anos (7 year). Dos. Neat.
Bartender: With Coke?
Me: No. Just rum.
Bartender: With ice?
Me: No. Just rum. Neat.
Bartender: Just…. rum?
Bartender: <Shrugs. Pours two five-ounce pours.>
Me: <eyes grow big>
Bartender: 14 Euros, please. (Given the exchange rate, about $15. At a U.S. bar, these two pours would cost about $50.)
So, that’s my whirlwind take on rum in Spain. There’s plenty of good rum to be had if you do your research. All of the fine folks mentioned above are exceedingly friendly and happy to see fellow rum enthusiasts. Mrs. Wonk and I extend our since gratitude for the warm hospitality and great experiences we enjoyed thanks to them. Now get yourself to Spain and see it for yourself!