The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2018

It’s an annual Cocktail Wonk tradition to holistically examine the last twelve month’s writings and pick the ten stories most deserving of highlighting and after-the-fact commentary.

Looking back, the frequency of publications here slowed somewhat in 2018, but the topics dove even deeper than before. And while I consider Cocktail Wonk a cocktail and spirits site (see the Single Malt, Bourbon, and Tiki sections), the rum world draws my attention most often. There are so many great topics once you leave the beaten path of reviews and roundups. I know reviews are the bread and butter for many writers, but my attention always follows the offbeat and unexplored. I’ve been presented with fantastic opportunities to go behind the scenes, and I do my best to leverage that access into stories that stretch the boundaries.

As in prior years, spirited travel lead to many of the stories I most enjoyed writing. From Paris to Portland, New York to New Orleans, Barbados to London (twice in one month!), Mrs. Wonk and I accumulated a lot of air miles, drank amazing cocktails and rum, and made many new friends. Nothing inspires me to write more than returning from a trip, bristling with fresh updates to share! Among the many highlights was meeting Lance Surujbally, who writes The Lone Caner – if you’re not reading Lance’s unique takes, you’re missing out.

Realizing that my thirty-year career in software was getting in the way of my travel and writing, I did the obvious thing – leaving my day job to throw myself wholeheartedly into the ever-looming opportunities that Cocktail Wonk has created. Since I’m not yet independently wealthy, part of this change writing more for publications that pay for content. But I assure you, here on, you’ll continue to find the most hardcore of the hardcore — The Wonk, unleashed!

Partially stemming from my new gig as the vintage bourbon columnist for Bourbon Plus, I caught the historical research bug – digging deep into historical archives going back centuries; all to more effectively add meaningful historical context to today’s stories. You can see some strong hints of this in my Barbados Rum Cheat Sheet (#5 on the list below), as well as on the Cocktail Wonk Facebook page, where I post all sorts of interesting items that don’t necessarily make it as stories here.

So, without further ado: The Top Ten List!

1: Independent Rum Bottlers: The Real Story

As consumer interest in high-end rum expands, independent rum bottlers like Velier, Duncan Taylor, and Samaroli are receiving more attention. The number of such bottlers and the profusion of expressions is great! However, you must wonder how a two-year-old indie-bottler can release an eighteen-year-old rum. Surely, they didn’t buy unaged rum from the distillery eighteen years ago.

As it turns out, many indie bottlers purchase their rum from the same source. I first wrote about Liverpool’s Main Rum in 2017 but only alluded to the deep connection with bottlers. However, in a follow up story this year, I dove headlong into the topic – their history, their sourcing, and much more.

2: Two Centuries in a Bottle: Drinking the Harewood House 1780 Rum

How cool is it to drink rum distilled more than 230 years ago? Pretty damn cool! In October I was a guest at La Maison & Velier’s Hampden Estate rum launch in London. The highlight of the evening was the Rum Tasting of the Century – tasting through six bottles spanning four centuries of rum making, including the famed Harewood House rum. But beyond tasting notes, I also mused on why people desire to drink such exotic spirits and what they get from the experience.

3: The Case of the Missing Marque – The Barrel Did It

I particularly enjoyed this story due to how it came about. A curious reply to an Instagram post I made about a Jamaican rum sample led to a wealth of rum science. Did you know that in addition to imparting woody notes, many years in a cask can quadruple the number of fruity esters in the rum? The gas chromatograph data backs it up! A particularly fun post for lovers of Jamaican rums who like to geek out over marques like Hampden DOK or Long Pond STC^E.

4: The Unabridged Jamaican Rum Geographical Indication – aka Jamaica’s Rum Rules

The ongoing misreporting about rum’s lack of rules is a particular peeve of mine. Toward that end, I’ve published translated and annotated version of regulations from important cane spirit producing countries. The relatively new Jamaican GI (geographical indication) has garnered a lot of interest, despite not having appeared in print. This post addressed the gap.

5:  Barbados Rum Cheat Sheet

Barbados is one of the seminal locales of the rum world. While much has been written about Barbados rum, there’s not been an up-to-date overview spanning both its history and modern-day rum industry. In my Barbados Rum Cheat Sheet, I tackled the topic, tying together many threads of Barbados rum’s story, including a substantial amount of little-known information about the vital role of the West Indies Rum Distillery.

6: Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof: Behind the Scenes and Deeply Deconstructed

While the title implies this might be just another rum review, this heavyweight bruiser of a story doesn’t contain a single tasting note. Rather, it describes the history of blended spirits such as navy rums, before taking a deep dive into rum marques and ultra-wonky details of the nine rums in Plantation’s O.F.T.D. Overproof. I also squeezed in a few fresh details about the team of rum experts and Tiki legends who came together to create the rum’s unique blend.

7:  Beyond Jamaican Funk – Next Level Hogo

While Jamaican funk is beloved by many hardcore rummies, the question inevitably turns: What’s the next frontier? The essence of high hogo Jamaican rum comes from natural yeasts, long fermentations, and often the use of the mysterious “dunder” and “muck.” It turns out Jamaica is not alone in using these techniques. However, little’s been written about the other practitioners of high ester techniques — spirits like Martinique’s Grand Arôme and the HERR and Lontan expressions from Reunion Island. The Beyond Jamaican Funk story travels to the outer extremes of rum funk and lives to tell the tale.

8: Liquid & Logistics: Inside E&A Scheer, Master Bulk Rum Blenders

While I’ve previously written about the intentionally below-the-radar bulk rum blenders E&A Scheer, in late 2017 Mrs. Wonk and I visited Scheer’s staggering warehouse facility in Amsterdam. Residing in the forest of tanks lies the equivalent of ten million bottles of rum, destined for brands like Banks, Denizen, Ron de Jeremy, and many other familiar names. But Scheer’s warehouse tanks pale in comparison to their enormous tanks at the nearby port. If you’re curious about what’s behind the label of many of your favorite brands, this story is a must read.

9: First Look at Devil’s Reef: The Pacific Northwest’s New Tiki Wonderland

In terms of page hits, this January 2018 story of about Jason Alexander’s Devil’s Reef in Tacoma, Washington, was the clear winner. Jason lives and breathes Tiki and is a perennial inspiration to my own home bartending. He and his wife and business partner Robyn have poured all their genius into this Tiki temple.

10: The Missing Minister of Rum

One stumbling block to rum’s recognition as a spirit equal to the finest whiskies is the proliferation of false and misleading marketing. Such chicanery, once exposed, tarnishes respect for rum’s centuries of tradition. One producer and its master distiller are a vortex for claims that raise dubious eyebrows among rum’s cognoscenti. Panama’s “Don Pancho Fernandez” has had an illustrious, sixty-year career in rum, starting in Cuba and continuing in Panama. Unfortunately, brands like Caña Brava have inflated Don Pancho’s achievements, claiming he was Cuba’s Minister of Rum for thirty-five years.

After several years of this falsehood repeated endlessly, enough was enough. I methodically used the brand’s own marketing material to illustrate that it simply wasn’t true. More important, the story serves as an object lesson on critically evaluating a brand’s claims. In the end, Caña Brava issued a mea culpa and fixed their marketing material. Unfortunately, other brands have persisted in promoting provably incorrect versions of Don Pancho’s story.

11: American Single Malt – The Next Great American Whiskey

Wait! There’s a number eleven? I couldn’t pick only ten stories I felt summed up the best of this year’s output.

One of my favorite non-rum stories is the rise of American Single Malt whiskey. While the category has many similarities to single malt Scotch whisky, over one hundred American distilleries are making their own mark on the whiskey world via local terroir driven releases. They’ve even put forth a proposed Geographical Indication (GI) for the category, and I love a good GI! When it’s approved, the GI will give American single malt whiskey equal legal status (including labeling requirements) to Bourbon or Rye whiskey. My post covers the basics of the category and sets the stage for subsequent distillery-specific stories.

What’s Next?

Predictions are a dangerous thing – life rarely goes as planned. But let’s give it a try.

Entering 2019, Mrs. Wonk and I are finally free to take advantage of more spirited opportunities, unleashed from the tether of nine-to-five jobs.

In the short term I’m focused on two hush-hush projects, large in scope, that should come to light in the first half of 2019. Beyond that, early in 2019 we’ll leave Seattle on a lengthy, slow paced road trip to an undisclosed final locale somewhere to the south and east. If you know your geography, that’s approximately 98 percent of the U.S. You’ll know it when we settle down in our new home.

My plan is to write on a broader array of topics for publications, as well as branch out into educational classes. As such my posting here may be more sporadic, but I assure you they’ll be deep tracks and full of the wonkiness you’ve come to expect.  

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