The images on social media grab your attention –empty bottles, neck down in a sink. The contents? Flor de Caña rum. A recent article in Vice magazine details the fates of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters, who are dying at an alarming rate from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Influential bar owners and rum experts, such as Martin Cate, Ed Hamilton, Bobby Heugel, Andrew Friedman, Nicholas Feris, and Jim Romdall have posted their own empty-bottle photos or links to the Vice article (as well as a previous link in The Guardian that tread similar territory, without the groundswell) on Facebook and Instagram with thoughtful commentary. If you have access to those posts, I urge you to read them.
The crux of the Vice investigation is that in the Chichigalpa region of Nicaragua, in the years between 2002 and 2012, a syndrome called Mesoamerican nephropathy caused 75 percent of the deaths of men aged 35 to 55, numbering in the thousands. The primary employer in Chichigalpa region is Ingenio San Antonio, which harvests the sugar cane used to distill Flor de Caña rum. Sugar cane workers are paid by the harvested ton, rather than an hourly wage, thus many work extremely long days to make enough money to survive. The common term for Mesoamerican nephropathy is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD); symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, and associated problems, leading to kidney failure. The Vice article suggests two primary causes of CKD: First, insufficient hydration and rest for sugar cane harvesters, who often work in extreme heat in a subtropical climate, leading to kidneys being overloaded. Second, pesticides used for the cane harvest may also contribute to the condition.
Close your eyes, and image a dark, intense sipping rum, created in a distillery surrounded by vast sugarcane fields and then aged for a decade or longer. Odds are you’re picturing an idyllic Caribbean island like Jamaica or Martinique. You probably weren’t thinking of a coastal valley just fifteen minutes from the Pacific Ocean in South America. Sure, Peru is known for Machu Picchu, pisco, and wine, but rum? Believe it or not, rum from Peru makes sense – numerous South American countries support sugar industries and produce rum, including Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, and Argentina. Knowing that, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Peru might also play in the cane spirits world. Since the high-end Cartavio rums started appearing on shelves around 2008, they’ve won a bushel of awards at spirit tasting competitions. Let’s check it out.
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Woodford Reserve distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
It’s a rainy second day of our Great 2015 Bourbon Crawl. Having blazed out of the Buffalo Trace parking lot, we make a quick sprint south through Frankfort, KY, via Route 60. Eventually turning off the highway, we find ourselves in over-the-top beautiful horse country, like in the movies or that one time of year that you watch horse racing on Derby Day. Kentucky horse breeder estates, rolling green grass, wooden fences, barns larger and nicer than most houses in our Seattle neighborhood, a private training track, and the occasional (no doubt irrationally expensive) thoroughbred horse. If we weren’t rushing to make the noon tour at Woodford Reserve, we’d have pulled over and gawked. But bourbon and copper pot stills beckon us toward the distillery. In the Cocktail Wonk book, a pot still trumps rolling hills any day.
July 2015 – Mrs. Wonk and I are seeking respite from the stifling New Orleans heat and humidity at Arnaud’s French 75 bar. Tales of the Cocktail hasn’t flown into full swing yet, so it’s just the two of us at the bar. I spy a bottle on the backbar unlike anything I’ve ever seen – downright architectural, with angles, lines, and curves all about. What is this mystery bottle? Some new high-concept vodka? I casually ask the bartender, and the bottle appears before me, alongside a small sample in a glass. The aroma hits me before my fingers touch the glass. I smile. Oh yes, this is cachaça.
In the simplest terms, cachaça is made in Brazil from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. If this sounds like rum, you’re on the right track. More specifically, it very similar to rhum agricole, a style of rum made in the French Caribbean from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. So what’s the difference? In terms of the production process as the average person understands it, not a whole lot. Sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then fermented and distilled, followed by an optional aging step. Per regulations, cachaça is bottled between 38 percent and 54 percent ABV, and up to six grams of added sugar per liter is allowed.
This posts is for my rum wonk compatriots who are always searching for new rumtastic beauties for their collection. In a prior post, I wrote about the searching the TTB site to look for TTB label approvals. Generally speaking, each unique spirit must get TTB label approval before it can be sold in the U.S. The presence of TTB label approval implies that the producer plans to bring this sprit to market. To get label approval, label images and other details must be provided to the TTB. In turn, this information and label images for approved labels are available to anybody on the TTB site.
To construct the table below, I did a targeted query against the TTB database, constrained to the past few months, and then cherry picked some of the label approvals that I think are of broadest interest to the rum community. There are certainly more rum approvals than what’s listed here. It’s also likely that many of the rums in this list haven’t been officially announced by the brands. There is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing on the shelf.
If you ask me for my favorite site for learning about new spirits releases, I’m almost positive the answer will surprise you. Sure, there are great sites like Liquor.com and countless blogs (including this one) which breathlessly promote little nuggets of information, frequently gleaned from a spirits company’s PR rep. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But what if I told you about a site that lists every single purchasable spirit, regardless of who makes it? And frequently well before it’s on any liquor store shelf? (Small disclaimer: This site only covers spirits for sale in the United States, but the U.S. has a huge spirits market.) Now are you intrigued? Even better, imagine that site was searchable by product name, type of spirit, or producer? Now how much would you pay?