Every camera in the room is trained on a lone man struggling to open a rather plain brown glass bottle, unlabeled except for a paper tag around its neck. The red wax sealing the neck is not giving way easily to his run of the mill corkscrew. Sukhinder Singh, co-owner of The Whiskey Exchange, has opened countless rare and historic bottles in his time, but this bottle of obviously very old bottle is vexing him.
The 2018 edition of the California Rum Festival saw the four-year old-event hitting its stride. Held in the Soma Arts building for the third year running, many of the prior year’s small kinks were absent. People lined up around the block to get in, good rum flowed, and the international rum family joyously celebrated together–before, during, and after.
Call me biased, but at my fourth Tales of the Cocktail, the global rum family seemed front and center at the annual cocktail and spirits show. I didn’t do a rigorous analysis, but more than any other spirit, rum seemed to be on the rise–the most sessions, tasting rooms, and special events. As much as I wanted to attend every rum-related event, there were simply too many! So what follows are my personal highlights of rum-related events at Tales, with no slights intended to the events I missed.
While Plantation’s 2017 West Indies Rum Distillery purchase has received the lion’s share of recent press about the brand, the deal also granted them one-third ownership in the Jamaican Long Pond and Monymusk distilleries. Plantation has been strongly emphasizing the Jamaican lately: The high profile Xaymaca blends distillates from both distilleries, while the latest Extreme Series (No. 3) comprises two very long aged Long Pond marques. At a private dinner during Tales of the Cocktail 2018 in New Orleans, Alexandre Gabriel unveiled yet another exotic Jamaican release – a limited edition rum, for a good cause, as well as some very surprising news for rum collectors.
In the past year or so, the chatter amongst the uber-wonks frequently turns to the perceived friction between Richard Seale of Foursquare Rum Distillery, and Alexandre Gabriel of Plantation Rum. Without getting into myriad of points of contention, it’s safe to say Richard advocates for precise rum categorizations, geographical indications such as Martinique’s AOC, and rum free of undisclosed additives. Alexandre says that badly-formed Geographical Indications freeze a spirt category in time and constrain innovation. In addition, Alexandre believes rum can be further enhanced by traditional techniques like boisé, aka “dosage”. Trust me, it goes much deeper than this. I could write a book on just this debate, but that’s not my goal here.
After many years of impatient waiting, rums from Italy’s Velier S.p.A. have finally landed in the U.S. market. Long considered the premiere independent bottler of rum, the company has had massive success with European rum-wonks due to its near-legendary releases from distilleries like Hampden Estate, Foursquare, Demerara Distillers Limited, and Caroni. Meanwhile, American rum aficionados could only salivate over Facebook photos or, if they were lucky, squirrel away a few bottles in their suitcaes on European jaunts.