To the uninitiated, a spirits festival, especially one focused on rum, might seem like an exercise in debauchery with faux pirates swinging from the chandeliers. As appealing as that may sound to some, a well-run rum event like California Rum Festival dispenses with the antics and serve two important purposes. First are the stated goals of educating consumers, those within the bar industry as well as enthusiasts. Educational seminars provide in-depth information on rum-related topics, and brands pour their products for attendees to taste a wide variety of rums. The second, unstated purpose of rum festivals is a rum family reunion. Thanks to the Internet and social communities on Facebook, producers, influencers, and enthusiasts from all over the globe have the chance to talk rum nearly 24/7. But rum festivals are where large groups of the family get together for a few days to really wonk out.
The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.
Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?
“Are you going to Tales this year?” If you’re connected with the spirits and cocktail industry, it’s a question you’ll hear more than once in the months preceding Tales of the Cocktail, held mid-July every year in New Orleans. For veterans of Tales, there’s an unspoken understanding that this isn’t just a few days having fun in New Orleans, popping into a few bars with friends and enjoying the occasional free cocktail, courtesy of the hundreds of brand sponsors. No, going to Tales is a commitment. You will push your body to its limit. You will race from event to event in the sweltering New Orleans heat, knowing that for every tasting room, pool party, or French Quarter bar reception you arrive at, there will three other concurrent events that you’ll miss. The FOMO (Fear or Missing Out) can loom large at Tales.
It’s Wednesday, July 20th, the first full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2016. The line outside of the Orleans room at the Hotel Monteleone had started queuing at least thirty minutes earlier, for a highly anticipated event that was scheduled to start soon: The official public unveiling of Plantation’s new O.F.T.D. Overproof rum.
Arriving early, I secure a spot not far from the head of the line. Shortly, Guillaume Lamy, Vice President of Cognac Ferrand and Plantation Rum, pops out of the room where preparations are still underway. We chat briefly and he mentions that just five days earlier, the half-pallet of O.F.T.D. now on-site in New Orleans was sitting in a warehouse on the East Coast, awaiting the U.S. government’s approval for importing–always an uncertain process. Talk about cutting it close!
The powers that be (whoever they are—curiously, no one ever seems to know) have decreed that July 19th of each year is National Daiquiri Day. Of course, in my book, every day is Daiquiri Day. I’d live life in a perpetual state of #DTO if I could get away with it.
Their name practically synonymous with daiquiris, Bacardi flew in top bartenders from around the country to make distinctive daiquiris at five bars around New Orleans for National Daiquiri Day, which conveniently enough landed during Tales of the Cocktail 2016. I personally am partial to a dry, expertly crafted Hemingway daiquiri (also a Mrs. Wonk go-to, over pebble ice if you’ve got it), but I also enjoy seeing what creative bartenders can do, starting from the classic daiquiri’s basic trio of rum, lime, and sugar.
Mrs. Wonk, ever-perceptive as she is, spotted it first. We’d just taken our seats at the bar at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, and I was already engrossed in the cocktail list. Pointing to the backbar, she exclaims, “Isn’t that the new Plantation rum you’ve been talking about?” Indeed it was! The new Plantation O.F.T.D., which outside of a small handful of very select people had never been seen before. In the months leading up to the Tales of the Cocktail 2016, Plantation had been teasing a new, high-profile rum release to be unveiled at a special event. Yet here it was, on the Latitude 29 backbar, nestled inconspicuously amongst the other rums.
I asked the bartender if I could hold the bottle. While I’d known vague details about a replacement for Plantation’s Original Dark Overproof for several months, it was only a few weeks earlier that I’d spotted the TTB label approval, full of details about the forthcoming release. Knowing a big launch was planned, I opted to not include it in my most recent rum label approval roundup, but did give a few big hints and nudges, if you were paying attention.