Dateline: New Orleans. 5:30 PM on Wednesday night, day two of Tales of the Cocktail 2017.
I’m perched on my seat at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29. (Really, would you expect me many anywhere else?) A few feet away I spot Martin Cate and Jeff Berry chatting in a nook. Soon they’re joined by David Wondrich. A few minutes later, Scotty Schuder and Paul McFadyen. The rogue’s gallery of Tiki icons and rum experts on the Plantation Rum O.F.T.D. Overproof label (missing only Paul McGee) has appeared without warning and likely without planning. When moments like this are commonplace, it’s easy to see why the annual Tales of the Cocktail gathering is becoming a not-to-miss destination for rum enthusiasts.
The primary mission of Tales of the Cocktail is education, primarily via sessions and tastings. This year offered an abundance of rum-focused sessions, more than any other spirit; I’ll dive into those in a moment. Between panelists and sponsors of rum-focused events, a flock of rum luminaries descended on New Orleans for the week. Beyond the folks already mentioned, you’d also have opportunity to spot Ian Burrell (Global Rum Ambassador), Richard Seale (Foursquare Rum Distillery), Joy Spence (Appleton), Gordon Clarke and Alexander Kong (Worthy Park), Jacob Briars and David Cid (Bacardi), Benjamin Jones (Spiribam), Alexandre Gabriel (Plantation Rum), Luca Gargano (Velier), and Jim Meehan (Banks Rum). And that’s just people involved in crafting rum!
The roving pod of rum-focused writers and educators included Peter Holland (The Floating Rum Shack), Paul E. Senft (Rum Journey), Fred Minnick (Rum Curious), Tristan Stephenson (The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution), and Dave Broom (Rum: The Manual)—not to mention your favorite local Wonk. There are no doubt more key rum players I missed, but you get the point—rum was everywhere in 2017. Now on to the sessions!
Feeling the Funk: From Dunder to Wonder
- Moderator: Don Lee (Bar consultant, Cocktail Kingdom)
- Panelists: Joy Spence (Appleton), Jim Romdall (Novo Fogo), Arielle Johnson (flavor researcher)
This session created a lot of buzz and anticipation, as funky Jamaican rum is catnip to many rummies. The mysterious origins of the unique, overripe fruit (especially banana) elements in many Jamaican rums is often attributed to “dunder,” a term bandied about freely but almost always misunderstood. (My own take on dunder and the more relevant term “muck” is here.)
The session unrolled in a very surprising way. Nobody expected to be part of a scientific experiment, with associated paperwork! The notion of what “funk” means is highly subjective and differs from person to person. With a session full of people presumably interested in the topic, flavor scientist Arielle Johnson used the opportunity to collect tasting data from the crowd (participation was voluntary.) Every attendee had a placemat with eight rums, labeled only with a code like “A355.” Our task was to rank each rum on a number of dimensions, e.g. grassy, buttery, fruity, and so on, noting each descriptor on a form. (She will process the data and later write a paper about the results.)
Arielle spoke for quite a bit about the science of rum chemistry – where flavors come from (esters, primarily), the primary esters associated with funk, and how esters are measured (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry). Much of what she spoke about covered the same ground I wrote about in my article From Alchemy to Science: Esters, Aldehydes, Mass Spectrometers and Hyper-Accelerated Aging.
In a session with “dunder” in its title, I was surprised that the topic of dunder–and exactly what it is–didn’t come up. Joy Spence described what makes Appleton rum’s flavor unique — basically, its unique combination of sugar cane, water, yeast. But only in passing did she mention that Appleton doesn’t use dunder. While that may be true for Appleton, other Jamaican distilleries do. During the Q&A period I briefly explained exactly what dunder is and why adding it to the mash supercharges flavor.
Jim Romdall’s contribution focused on why Jamaican rums work so well in rum-based cocktails. His key assertion: Any rum cocktail can be improved with just a quarter ounce of Wray & Nephew Overproof to bump up the funk. I wholeheartedly agree!
Falernum, Shrubs & Mythical Caribbean Rum Liqueurs
- Moderator: Ian Burrell (Global Rum Ambassador)
- Panelists: Richard Seale (Foursquare), Benjamin Jones (Spiribam), Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove)
This was a very typical Ian Burrell moderated session – a humorous and lively excursion through several canonical rum-based Caribbean liqueurs. Richard Seale took up the mantle of Falernum, Benjamin Jones handled Clement Creole Shrubb and Chairman’s Reserve Spiced, and Martin Cate spoke about Caribbean liqueurs in classic Tiki drinks.
Among the key points:
- Certain Caribbean liqueurs and spiced rums including Chairman’s Reserve are infused with Bois Bande (“hard wood”), which is rumored to increase male potency. Hmmmm…
- The heavily spiced Mamajuana from the Dominican Republic is colloquially known as “El Para Palo” (“Lift the Stick”), in reference to its libido-increasing powers. Hmmmm…
- Creole Shrubb is essentially a Martinique Christmas story. In advance of Advent, families gather to peel and dry the orange peels that form the core flavor of this heavily spiced rum liqueur. Ben also shared samples of his own shrubb that he made in the days prior to this year’s Tales.
- Falernum is a quintessentially Bajan product. At the turn of the last century, dozens of different versions were available from different producers. These days only a handful of authentic Bajan-made brands remain, the most popular is John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum, made by Foursquare. Also, many bars making their own Falernum stray far from what Bajan falernum tastes like.
Rum: Just Sip It
- Moderator: Fred Minnick
- Panelists: Richard Seale (Foursquare), Joy Spence (Appleton), Karl Williams (67 Orange Street) Paul Yellin (Cane Rhum Bar)
This session was among the “Exclusive Tastings” events at Tales. For a hefty fee ($130), twenty or so attendees taste very rare and/or expensive spirits. Did this session deliver? In spades!
Over the course of ninety minutes, we went through the rums below, each discussed in detail by the appropriate panelist, e.g. Richard Seale covering the Foursquare products.
- Foursquare 2006 / Foursquare Triptych (Richard Seale)
- Edwin Charley Virtue / Appleton Estate 21 / Appleton Estate Joy (Joy Spence)
- Mount Gay XO Cask Strength (Paul Yellin)
- Rhum J.M 15 / St. Lucia Distillers 1931 5th edition (Karl Williams)
With so much to cover in only ninety minutes (and hello–cask-strength rums!) I couldn’t do detailed tasting notes. Rest assured, everything we drank was stellar. I almost shed a tear when I wisely declined to finish them all off. I will admit that the Foursquare Triptych was the first to be finished, however.
Raising Cane – Rum’s Rise to Respectability
- Moderator: Jacob Briars (Bacardi)
- Panelists: Tristan Stephenson (The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution), Ian Burrell (Global Rum Ambassador)
Although I heard mixed reviews about the session afterward, my takeaway is that it covered vital topics in the forefront of the rum community today, especially regarding consumer (mis)conceptions. It did so in an unflinchingly manner, and despite being sponsored by Bacardi, there was no Bacardi rah-rah like you might expect.
Jacob started the session by way of listing things working against rum’s perception as a noble spirit, equal to the finest whiskies and brandies. Among them:
- The longstanding association with pirates. Tristan noted that real pirates in the 1700s likely weren’t drinking much rum.
- Jungle Juice. The idea that rum is a cheap, flavorless mixer best used in copious quantities at college parties.
- Rum & Coke. The popularity of this ubiquitous highball feeds the misperception that rum is best served drowned in sweet mixers.
From there, the panel discussion turned to some of the thorny issues that rum producers and enthusiasts are wrestling with, including:
- The perception that the color of a rum implies aging, or lack thereof.
- The classification of rums by cultural heritage, e.g. British, French, Spanish.
- The addition of sugars to many rums.
- Recent efforts to categorize rums in a more useful manner. The Gargano and Cate categorizations were explored, as well as a system Tristan proposes in his book.
If you’re interested in the details of the above topics, do check out my article Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun, which covers much of the same ground as this session.
Moving Beyond Colour, A New Classification for Rum
- Moderator: Richard Seale (Foursquare)
- Panelists: Ian Burrell (Global Rum Ambassador), Luca Gargano (Velier), Alexander Kong (Worthy Park), Peter Holland (The Floating Rum Shack)
The first hour of this session could have been titled “Richard Seale Lays Bare What’s Wrong with Modern Rum Production and Marketing.” Using examples from recent spirits competitions and retailer advertising to demonstrate challenges the non-expert consumer faces, he systematically exposed the critical distinctions between traditional artisanal-made rums and their industrial scale, mass market counterparts. Many producers use chicanery and misdirection to market to unknowing consumers–for example, a marketing phrase like “Distilled five times for maximum purity,” which makes no sense unless you’re making vodka. Without an objective way to categorize and understand rums, consumers can’t accurately judge their true value.
It’s no surprise that explaining the Gargano categorization system was a significant part of the session. I won’t attempt to describe Gargano here, as it’s not trivial and I’ve already done so elsewhere, as have many other sources. One key takeaway from the slides: “The classification won’t tell you what to like or what is good; it will tell you how to value what you drink.”
Beyond the formal sessions solely about rum, other great events were worth nothing. At “Alexandre Gabriel’s Chamber of Secrets,” the Plantation Rum CEO brought out a number of never- seen-before spirits. The highlights included two rums distilled by the company in their Cognac stills in France, and then the real treat: extremely high ester Jamaican rum from Long Pond. This rum is part of the bounty from Plantation’s recent purchase of the West Indies Rum Distillery.
At the “Sailor’s Joy: 400 Years of Drinking on the High Seas” session with Jeff Berry and David Wondrich, the British Navy’s “daily ration” was quite expectedly a big topic of discussion. The highlight was conducting a simulation of the daily ration exercise for attendees. Dave and Jeff dumped numerous bottles of Banks 7 Island Rum into a large bucket, then watered it down to make “grog.” (Banks was the session sponsor, naturally.) Folks sitting at the end of each row received a small bucket, and were then summoned to stand in line to receive a portion of the grog for everybody in their row. It seemed absurd at first, but it gave a good sense of what the real daily rations might have been like.
More rummy goodness went down at a two-hour tasting session hosted by Foursquare, Worthy Park, and Mezan Rum, focusing on Traditional Pure Rums. (I unfortunately missed it due to a scheduling conflict.) Luckily, one of the bottles of soon-to-be-released Worthy Park rum made it into my suitcase for the trip home.
So there you have it – my spin on the rum-related highlights at Tales this year. There were no doubt more rum-related activities going on, and apologies for anyone I overlooked. I found it very encouraging to see interest in rum gaining steam among a broader set of consumers, and it’s great that events like Tales bring together the right people to let these new converts seek out more knowledge and ask the hard questions that need to be asked.
See you in New Orleans next July!