The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2017

As 2017 draws nigh, it’s time for the traditional year end wrap-up, summarizing the highlights of what appeared here over the last 12 months. Some of what follows could be called self-indulgent navel-gazing; reflections on how my writing has evolved. But I contend there’s also value to you, the reader – it provides a broader context for what the site has become. And who knows, you might have missed a relevant post as the world speeds by.

 The whole notion of a “Top Ten” retrospective is subjective. Do we tally page views? Count traffic from stories posted prior to 2017? Or do we consider which pieces had the most impact?

Being a tech guy obsessed with metrics, I naturally have a list of which stories generated the most traffic; we’ll get to that later. In what immediately follows, I’ve selected the articles that told previously untold stories, or most typify what makes Cocktail Wonk different from other spirits and cocktails focused publications.

Looking over my 2017 stories as a whole, travel held a huge influence: From Los Angeles to Cuba; from the French West Indies to London, Liverpool, and the Cognac region, I came away from these trips with far more than a single post. Most trips yielded several pieces, many I couldn’t have imagined writing beforehand.  Going into 2017, I sure didn’t foresee publishing the complete Cuban Rum regulations, translated into English! Going out into the field to see firsthand and speak to the people doing the work provides a far deeper understanding than you’ll ever get from a press release or trawling through Google results.

2017 was also year in which I dug deeper than ever before. Rather than covering numerous new products, dozens of cocktail recipes, or bar reports from around the globe, my writing gravitated to “long form” pieces. No bite sized nuggets here! A typical story I write for PUNCH, Bevvy, or Distiller is around 800 words. But here on Cocktail Wonk, many stories are just getting warmed up at the 2,000-word mark. Brevity and conciseness has its place, but so does immersing the reader in a story. Anyone can rattle off facts and opinions in a few hundred words. But telling a story while educating at the same time – that’s a whole other league, the domain of great writers like David Wondrich and Wayne Curtis.

It’s likely no surprise that rum topics dominate the list, but I’m also particularly proud of a series of sherry-related posts after visiting Andalusia in southwestern Spain. Ditto for an in-depth look at exactly what the U.S. duty-free exemption means, and how it affects your bringing back suitcases full of liquor bottles acquired from trips abroad. Heck, I even took a stab at vodka humor. So without further delay, the top ten stories of 2017:

1 – The Main Rum Company: Vintage Cask Valhalla

Main Rum Company
Main Rum Company

While this article didn’t quite go viral, The Main Rum Company is incredibly important within the rum world. I was extremely excited to have written about it first, thus unveiling an almost entirely unknown part of the global rum trade.

The journey of rum from distillery to your glass is often far more convoluted than you might guess. More and more independent bottlers are springing up, all selling long aged, single cask rums from many of the world’s great rum distilleries. But you have to wonder… Just how many bottlers are personally crawling through Caribbean warehouses, Indiana Jones-like, to find these rare casked gems? Might there be a wide selection of said casks already slumbering away in Liverpool, England, just waiting to be purchased?

The Main Rum Company story was something even hard-core rum enthusiasts knew next to nothing about, until now.

2 – Cuban Rum

Cuban Rum
Cuban Rum

In May 2017, I visited Cuba as a guest of Pernod Ricard/Havana Club. While Cuban rum is among the most consumed rum in the world, it remains shrouded in mystery, and isn’t yet available in one of the world’s largest rum markets: the United States. Part of the mystery lingers because Cuban rum production is controlled by the Cuban government, not exactly a wellspring of free-flowing information on the best of days. Access to Cuban rum distilleries is very tightly controlled, and you won’t find the Cuban Maestro Roneros (rum masters) on PR junkets, like Appleton’s Joy Spence or Foursquare’s Richard Seale frequently are.

The more I learned about Cuban rum history, the more I realized most enthusiasts don’t have a solid grasp on what differentiates Cuban style rum from, say, Guyanese or Jamaican rums. Or that the flavor profile of Cuban rum has changed over the past 150 years. Or that a tiny group of rum masters watch over all aspects of Cuban production to protect its legacy. My Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet is far longer than an actual cheat sheet, covering all those topics and more. The Many Lives of Havana Club explains the brand’s convoluted history, including the current-day mess of Bacardi and Pernod Ricard both claiming ownership of the Havana Club name. My story about the San José distillery takes you deep inside its operations in a way never before seen.

Very few people realize that Cuba recently adopted a Geographical Indication that defines the rules regulating Cuban rum, much like Martinique’s AOC rules. Although Cuba’s regulations are in Spanish, my Cuban Rum Regulations story provides a complete, annotated version in English. A fitting way to cap off my Cuban odyssey.

3 – French West Indies Rhum

Rhum J.M
Rhum J.M

In February, I traveled to Martinique and Guadeloupe as a guest of Spiribam, the corporate parent of Rhum Clemént, Rhum J.M, and St. Lucia distillers, as well as the U.S. importer of Rhum Damoiseau. To kick things off I first wrote a French Caribbean Rhum Cheat Sheet, chock full of details on rhum agricole and its production.

Each distillery we visited – Simon (where Rhum Clemént is distilled), Rhum J.M, and Rhum Damoiseau — received an in-depth, photo-heavy write-up. And since the Martinique AOC is such a cornerstone regulation in the r(h)um world, I translated the entire 2014 version of the French-language specification into English, making it accessible to non-Francophones.

4 – Rum Has No Rules – A Rebuttal

As the rum world works to raise awareness that rum is much more than just inexpensive fuel for beach drinks, one of the most pernicious myths is that rum has no rules. It’s only been in the last century that Scotch whisky, Bourbon, Cognac, and Tequila became known as noble, high value spirits. Much of the high-end perception is the direct result of “standards of identity” that define exactly what can be labeled as bourbon, single malt Scotch whisky, and so on. These rules protect producers and consumers from inferior products leveraging the hard-won perception of a name like “straight bourbon.”

Creating detailed, factual advocacy pieces for the rum category is something I’m particularly proud of. In Rum Has No Rules – Neither Do Whiskey & Brandy, I pushed back against the “rum has no rules” misconception, demonstrating that many producing countries do indeed have rules. Unfortunately, there’s little consumer or trade awareness, which hurts the rum category, as the typical consumer lumps all rums into silver, gold and dark categories.

5- Sherry Immersion

Bodega Lustau
Bodega Lustau

In February, Mrs. Wonk and I travelled throughout much of Spain and spent several days in the famed Sherry Triangle. Naturally the awe-inspiring sherry bodegas were must-see destinations. Since sherry production techniques are far more complicated than ordinary wine, and with many different sherry categories like Fino and Amontillado to keep track of, my first story went deep on sherry concepts, as to not need to repeat the information in later pieces.

At Bodega Lustau, we spent two enormously busy days going over nearly every aspect of Lustau’s operations, including an extremely immersive visit to a cooperage to see how sherry casks are made. The operations at Gonzalez Byass (home of Tio Pepe) are among the largest in the sherry world, and they’re the only bodega making Brandy de Jerez within the sherry triangle. We also visited another giant sherry producer, Williams & Humbert. However, it was the rum soleras that age Dos Maderas which provided the occasion for our visit.

6 – Black Rum: Setting the Record Straight

More rum advocacy on Cocktail Wonk came via a rebuttal to a Bon Appetit piece that got dark rum completely wrong. When it comes to rum, color and age have no consistent relationship. While people assume that darker rums are older, the converse is more likely to be true. Black Rum: Setting the Record Straight methodically destroys the myth that dark rum is older and/or better.

7- Lost Spirits’ Los Angeles Distillery

Lost Spirits Distillery
Lost Spirits Distillery

Bryan Davis and his science-driven Lost Spirits rums are a frequent topic here. A January visit to their new downtown Los Angeles rum distillery resulted in my story Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ New Los Angeles Location. Bryan and his crew have created the most whimsical distillery imaginable, including a pitch-dark boat ride to the island of Dr. Moreau. Beyond their hyper-speed matured rum, Lost Spirits has also found success in rapid-aging Islay whisky. Since publishing this article, the distillery has expanded and gotten more insane – Bryan & crew move at warp speed, so a 2018 return visit is almost a certainty.

8 – Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?

I love demystifying confusing liquor-related topics, and bringing back spirits to your home country after international travel is endlessly confusing. Here in the U.S. nearly everyone is mystified by the “duty free” limit, erroneously believing you are limited to bringing back a bottle or two at most. Meanwhile, savvy booze-hounds are returning with dozens of bottles and rarely pay a penny in import duty.  In Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next? I recount exactly what happens when a U.S. customs officer flags you for bringing in more than the duty-free limit. Teaser: It’s ridiculously inexpensive to pay liquor duty.

9 – Tonga Thunder

While long-form pieces are frequent here, a quick piece on an original Tiki recipe from yours truly is a fun change of pace from the usual wonking out. The Tonga Thunder is a recipe I dreamed up that got a lot of attention on Instagram and Twitter. With overproof navy rum and rhum agricole, three types of juices, and Jamaican spices, the Tonga Thunder is a beast of drink, along the lines of the classic Zombie and Fog Cutter. You may just want to limit it to two per person!

10 – Industry Events

Returning for my third year running, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans was jammed packed with rummy educational events hosted by rum industry cognoscenti. In Rummy Overload at Tales of the Cocktail 2017,  I covered all the highlights with tons of photos. A few months later, it was off to San Francisco for the California Rum Festival. And in October, Mrs. Wonk and I journeyed across the pond to London. Our first stop: The UK RumFest, which I also covered in rum-soaked detail.

So that’s my personal top ten list. However, if page-view counts are more up your alley, here are the posts published in 2017 which received the most traffic, ordered from number one through ten. There’s a lot of overlap with the above list, but the most popular by page view were often not the ones I deemed most important.

As for 2018, the editorial calendar is filling up fast! I still have plenty of material from the October 2017 jaunt to the U.K., Amsterdam, Paris, and the Cognac region. Stay tuned for some extremely in-depth, long form coverage of Cognac, Maison Ferrand, and Plantation Rum. You’ll also soon see an exclusive look inside the E&A Scheer warehouse. And additional rum-related 2018 travel is in the planning stages.

Finally, on a very personal note, my son Roy passed away unexpectedly in early December, at age nineteen. This has been personally devastating, something no parent ever wants to face. However, my many spirited friends from around the globe have been overwhelming in their support for Mrs. Wonk and me. Spirits, cocktails, and bars are fun to talk about, but ultimately, it’s the people that make this little slice of the world so special. I’m extremely grateful for the countless messages of support and offers of assistance when I needed them most. Discovering and writing about topics in the spirited realm is something I count on to bring me joy in the years to come. Thanks for being a part of this community.

Author: mpietrek

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