The Jungle Bird Goes to War

The Jungle Bird is a relatively recent addition to the Tiki canon, originating at the Aviary Bar in the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in 1978. It’s solidly identifiable as Tiki, and the beginner home bartender can execute it without all sorts of “exotic” ingredients that show up in more complex Tiki drinks, such as falernum, orgeat, or pimento dram. Like many Tiki drinks, the Jungle Bird recipe has evolved over time, and I’m continuing the tradition here.

As it appears in Beachbum Berry’s Remixed, the Jungle Bird recipe goes like this:

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Plantation Rum Tasting with Alexandre Gabriel

The Elusive Plantation Rum Stiggins’s Fancy. Photo credit: Rumba.
World-wide rum sales are dominated by a handful of producers–the three goliaths of Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and McDowell’s, a rum made in India. The dominant thrust of Bacardi and Captain Morgan’s marketing is toward inexpensive rum with a fun, beach party atmosphere. For that reason, the rum-loving community (myself included) generally doesn’t focus on the big players. Instead, most of the attention goes to producers the average consumer hasn’t heard of, minuscule compared to the goliaths and perceived of higher quality and craft. Within the long tail of rum producers, one of the most respected is Plantation Rums. My personal collection contains more than a few of their offerings, so when Kate Perry of Seattle’s Rumba mentioned that Plantation Rum president and master distiller Alexandre Gabriel would be visiting Rumba to host a tasting, I practically lost my cookies, counting off the days till the event.
Within the spirits industry, there are two basic types of producers: those who distill and sell their product and those who buy distilled product from a distiller and then (hopefully) add their own stamp to the finished goods, typically via additional aging or blending. Plantation Rums is in the latter category, however don’t think that Plantation is merely reselling someone else’s rum.  – There’s a great story to tell about Plantation’s rums.
The Plantation rums are one of several product lines from Pierre Ferrand, a French company that got its start distilling cognac and today still creates some well-regarded cognac at very reasonable prices. Under the leadership of Alexandre Gabriel, Pierre Ferrand has expanded into several different spirits categories, including but not limited to cognac, rum, gin, and calvados. For the Plantation line, Alexandre purchases premium aged from established rum producers, mostly in the Caribbean, and then ships the rums to France where they undergo a second aging in used barrels sourced from the Cognac side of Ferrand’s operations. Some of the higher-end Plantation rums even go through a third aging (more on that in a bit). The less expensive Plantation rums are phenomenally priced and great for mixing. The more expensive, single vintage rums are outstanding sipping rums.
The primary person behind all this rummy goodness is Alexandre Gabriel, a Frenchman who initially was brought into assist the struggling Maison Ferrand Cognac with their sales, and today is the president, majority owner, and Master Blender. It was on a trip to the Caribbean that Alexandre sampled some rums and had the insight that finishing these rums in his previously used cognac casks could yield great results.  Plantation is now the realization of that vision. At this point the company has put out several dozen releases, and I’ve thought favorably of every one I’ve tried, so I was naturally very interested to meet Alexandre and hear him speak about rum.
Alexandre Gabriel being introduced at Rumba.
The tasting at Rumba was a mid-day event, attended primarily by Seattle area bartenders, but also by some of the local rum media, including Nicholas Ferris of The Rum Collective and yours truly. Short of Ferrand’s barrel house, you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more welcoming venue than Rumba, with its enormous rum collection extending all the way to the ceiling. Rumba GM Kate Perry and Bar Manager Jim Romdall co-hosted the event, including creating custom placemats for the tasting. In my case, the placemat became my de-facto notepad where I furiously scribbled notes:
Hastily scrawled notes.
After a brief introduction by Jim, Alexandre spoke for about ten minutes before getting to the five rums on the agenda for tasting:
  • Nicaragua 1998
  • Jamaica 2001
  • Panama 2000
  • Guadeloupe 1998
  • 20th Anniversary (Barbados)
The tasting lineup. Photo credit: Rumba.
On the placemat was a mysterious sixth spot without a tasting glass, with a lone pineapple image. Mid-way through the tasting, I saw Rocky Yeh, a very well-known portfolio ambassador and friend of Plantation Rum slip into a seat near the back with a single bottle. Could it be the very rare and coveted Stiggins’s Fancy? Yes! Suddenly the pineapple image made perfect sense. We were in for a bonus tasting of the Plantation pineapple rum that’s not for sale, and may never be for sale. More on this in a bit.

 

Alexandre Gabriel imparting the rum knowledge. Photo credit: Rumba.
Alexandre’s talk covered not only the rums we tasted, but also additional details about the Plantation aging and blending process, plus many more topics. It’s difficult to fit it all into a single-threaded narrative, so what follows below are the highlights I found interesting:
We must change to stay the same. While it’s fine to strive to recreate flavors from years past, it’s not as simple as slavishly using the same ingredients, because the ingredients themselves are changing.
Global warming affects how plants grow and how they taste. He gave the example of the taste of a particular grape, Folle Blanche, that has changed significantly over the past decades. As such, if we want to replicate old tastes, we must experiment with new techniques and starting materials.
Terroir means three things to Alexandre:  Two are well-accepted, the third may be debatable.
·       Soil and climate: This is well established and generally accepted.
·       Environment: For example, during aging in a wet cellar, the alcohol content will evaporate more quickly, whereas in a dry cellar, the water content evaporates faster, which obviously affects the resulting flavors. Another example he offered is that a freshly painted cellar room can affect the eventual flavor in a negative way.
·       Local know-how: The way people do things during the production process. Alexandre believes this is part of terroir, but accepts that some may disagree.
A new cognac barrel can cost in the $1,000 price range, whereas a used barrel may only fetch $30. This was one reason why Alexandre was looking for ways to reuse his own barrel stock. Plantation Rum is now a big consumer of its sibling’s cognac barrels, but used barrel supply still exceeds demand.
Cognac is like classical music. The score has already been written, i.e. there are all sorts of rules and regulations, so cognac is mostly about how the music is “played.” In contrast, rum is “anything goes.” The lack of rules allows for much more new techniques and experimentation.
American oak barrels provide the whiskey lactone, also known as the coconut/vanilla flavor you often get from spirits aged in it.
Most rum that Plantation buys from the Caribbean is aged five to ten years, and only 65 percent of it remains in the barrel due to the angel’s share (evaporation).
Adding water to a spirit can release smells and flavors. However, that reaction really only happens once, so it should happen immediately prior to serving. To minimize flavor release during dilution prior to bottling, Plantation takes special steps including introducing water very slowly, as well as letting the water first sit for a while in a cognac cask.
During distillation, the “tails,” which are the chemical compounds that boil at a higher temperature than ethanol and hence come later in the distillation, are what give a rum its particular character. As such, some amount of the tails is usually included in the finished product.
The rum producers of Barbados– Mount Gay, Foursquare, etc.–have perfected the blending of pot and column still rums, creating light rums that have lots of character.
Spanish rums came to the party relatively late, primarily because during rum’s formative years, Spanish parts of the Caribbean were still consuming spirits from Spain. By the time the Spanish-held territories started producing rum, the column still had been invented and was more efficient than pot stills. Thus, rums from Spanish territories are typically made in column stills, so are relatively light.
The Jamaican rum distilleries have perfected the high-ester rum. Distilleries do all sorts of crazy things in the fermentation process to introduce compounds that eventually become the characteristic funky esters. Alexandre said that one Jamaican distiller told him he’s added goat’s heads to the mash. (I’d already heard of bat carcasses being used.) For more on this particular topic, see this prior post of mine. (For the record, Mrs. Wonk prefers her rums without goat heads or bat carcasses.)
Plantation is currently experimenting with high ester rums from other regions beyond Jamaica. The esters in these rums have different flavor characteristics than the dominant Jamaican rum. I can’t wait for these to show up and experience the differences
The French Agricole style, which uses sugar cane juice rather than molasses as a starting point, came about because of war between England and France. In the early 1800s, England blockaded France’s trade routes with the Caribbean, leaving the French territories with no place to sell their sugar. As a result, they started distilling rum from the cane juice.  Voila!Rhum agricole.
Plantation has released an agricole-style rum (the Guadeloupe, which we sampled), but it can’t be labeled as such because it doesn’t meet the French AOC regulations. I found the Guadeloupe rum had the distinctive agricole flavor, but more refined and very “Plantation-like” in taste – Smooth and slightly sweet.
Plantation uses the elevageprocess for aging, which is much more labor intensive than simply putting the rum in a barrel and letting it rest for some number of years.  Plantation’s process includes sampling sixty to eighty barrels a day to frequently assess how they’re coming along and possibly making changes along the way. For instance, if a particular barrel begins to get a certain characteristic that’s impacted by wood, the barrel may be emptied, a single stave replaced, and the barrel refilled to continue aging. Another less drastic example would be moving the barrel from one warehouse to another to provide a different environment.
Some higher-end Plantation rums, typically the “black label” editions, are aged a third time in a different type of cask, frequently one having held Pineau des Charentes, a sweet liqueur made from blending aged cognac with fresh grape juice. I find the flavor added by Pineau cask aging to be among my favorite rum tastes.
Plantation Rums has put out many releases, only some of which are available in the U.S. Sometimes the issue is simply that relatively small amounts are made, but frequently the trouble lies with the U.S. TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), which imposes strict and often arbitrary restrictions that make some releases difficult to import into the U.S.

 

Portfolio Ambassador Rocky Yeh. Stiggins’s Fancy in background.
Near the end of the presentation, we finally got to the Stiggins’s Fancy rum. It’s a pineapple-infused rum that came about from a collaboration between Alexandre and David Wondrich, a true cocktail-world treasure and my favorite spirits writer. Only a relatively few bottles of Stiggins’s Fancy were produced, as it’s very expensive (tiny, very expensive Queen Victoria pineapples are used) and time consuming to make. The Stiggins’s was first seen at a Plantation-hosted event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, and the few bottles out in the wild now are highly treasured. So far, I’ve not been able to lay my hands on one. Thus, I was elated that Rocky Yeh was able to supply a bottle, which we all got to sample. Simply stated: It’s out-of-control amazing. Many folks are pushing Alexandre to formally release the Stiggins’s, but at the time of the Rumba event, Alexandre still hadn’t decided if it was economically viable to produce on a larger scale.
Rumba Bar Manager Jim Romdall introducing the rum map.
As part of the tasting, Rumba launched their rum map, wherein once you try a certain number of rums from various regions (sixty rums in total), you receive a DTO  or “Daiquiri Time Out” coin, which entitles you to a daiquiri upon future visits. For this event, attendees were able to use the rums we tasted to fill slots in our newly started rum maps. Very nice!
Cocktail Wonk and Alexandre Gabriel. Photo credit: Nicholas Ferris.
After the formal event wound down, I was able to speak with Alexandre individually for about twenty minutes, during which I peppered him with questions and clarifications. He seemed genuinely happy to answer and even told me a few things followed up by, “But don’t blog that,” a request I’ve tried hard to honor here. I left the event with my head spinning from all the things I learned, and even more excited than before to see what Plantation Rums does next.
Alexandre Gabriel, Jim Romdall and Kate Perry at Rumba. Photo credit: Rumba.

Lost Over Jamaica – Jet Pilot inspired Tiki

Of all the classic Tiki drinks (and I can seriously wonk out over the 1944 Mai Tai), a well-executed Jet Pilot with its mix of falernum, rich cinnamon syrup, and Jamaican rum funk is Tiki Valhalla. A descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s “Test Pilot,” the name personifies the ethos of the jet-age 1950s, but also conveys the slight preemptive warning that this drink “goes to 11.”
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Of Goliaths and Dragons – Lost Spirits’ Salinas Distillery

It’s 5 PM on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. I find myself not manning a grill or lounging in the sun on a Santa Cruz beach, but rather, driving a rental car through the agricultural fields of Monterey County, California. Into Castroville we go, past the giant artichoke, and back out into more farmland. Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to visit Lost Spirits Distillery, one of the more unconventional and unconventionally located distilleries you’ll likely come across.

A bit of backstory before continuing: Lost Spirits has quickly made a name for itself in just a few years, producing first whiskeys and then rums that win awards and cause spirit aficionados to gush about the incredibly bold flavors and unusual production techniques. The very short synopsis is this:   Distiller and co-owner Bryan Davis is a biochemistry hacker who deeply understands the chemistry of spirits flavor and has developed a number of innovations to hyper-accelerate the production process and accentuate whatever flavor profile he targets in a given release. I’ve written quite a bit about Lost Spirits in the past, so will simply point you to a few recent posts that contain a large amount of scientific details:

The picture doesn’t do Goliath’s size justice.

After a few turns away from the coastline and inward toward the artichoke fields, we pull up to a brick and wood gate. Without the GPS we might never have found it. James, the distillery’s only employee beyond Bryan and partner/co-owner Joanne Haruta (and Joanne’s brother), opens the gate and we pull in. As I exit the car, an enormous German shepherd wanders up and begins to take my spot in the driver’s seat before being called off. Goliath is 140 pounds and I imagine a very effective guard dog when called upon. He takes an instant liking to us, rolling on the ground for belly rubs.  (Never mind that he could likely pin any of us to the ground with little trouble…)

Fermentation vat platform on the left. The still is behind it in this photo.

A scan of the surrounding grounds shows the distillery property surrounded by fences and walls; beyond in all directions is agricultural land, with the nearest building way off in the distance. To the left is what we came to see:  A raised, covered platform with a very large dragon head and neck sculpture attached to one end, as if it were the bow of a Viking ship. (More on this—the Lost Spirits still—a bit later.) Directly in front of us is a small stucco barn, the Lost Spirits logo hand-painted on the doors. Between the two structures is a cement walkway and a Japanese-style garden in-progress, including an above-ground swimming pool. To the right is a single-story structure, housing the small tasting room used for the occasional tour and tasting, but also where Bryan and Joanne stay sometimes when working late.

Steam vents from the dragon’s mouth – Quite a sight, especially at night.

But, back to that dragon head. As I approach the tarp-covered platform, I can see the spirit production process laid out linearly from left to right. First is the raised platform, upon which sits a unique square wood and copper vat.  The vat holds a dark, thick liquid which I correctly guess is molasses–a batch of Polynesian-inspired rum is just starting, slowly warmed by coils to aid the eventual fermentation process.

Copper fermentation vat on pedestal.
Baking grade molasses warming up on its way to becoming rum!

Moving to the right, you see the unusual looking still – It doesn’t look anything like those used in Scottish distilleries or like the shiny copper and chrome bulb-headed stills you might find in many modern distilleries. The Lost Spirits still is relatively small at 600 gallons and was constructed by Bryan out of sheets of copper roofing.

Current homemade copper still at Lost Spirits Distillery.
Still cap, found on Ebay.

Prior to our visit, I had learned from Bryan that he had studied sculpture, and now seeing the still and its dragon head, it suddenly made sense: Bryan has a very strong “build it yourself” ethos. In fact, the Lost Spirits site itself was originally not much more than a “mud pit” with a small building on it, as Joanne described it. Joanne and Bryan spent an enormous amount of their own time preparing the land, pouring concrete and building things by hand to get their distillery going.

Lyne arm, headed to the cooling coils/mock spirits safe.

Continuing to the right, a mock “spirits safe” like those used in Scottish distilleries is fed by a long lyne arm resembling a dragon’s tail coming off the top of the still. It’s in this area that the distillate is cooled before being piped over to an area to the far right, where it’s collected in tanks. The tank area is off limits to everyone, including yours truly–a requirement for the patent process that’s under way for several of Bryan’s innovations.

But what about that dragon? It’s more than just an idle curiosity. Both the fermentation vat and still are heated by steam created via natural gas powered boilers. In a stroke of good luck, the land where the distillery is located is very close to a natural gas distribution point. As a result, the boiler used to heat the still and vat costs only a few dollars an hour to run. And what of all the steam that’s created? It’s piped over to the dragon head where it emerges from the mouth, a very impressive sight when the boilers are running full out, and even more so after dark, when it’s lit from below.  Needless to say, a few gawkers pull off the road to peer over the fence when the still is running at full power.

Japanese-style garden with pool in near background.

As for the swimming pool, it has its own interesting if unfortunate story. In the past it was used as a giant source of cooling water for the still operations, and could reach temperatures of up to 105 F, creating the side benefit of an oversized hot tub. Unfortunately, at one point the pool developed a leak, and when the water mixed with the underground organic materials, TCA (aka cork rot) was formed. TCA is a foul-smelling compound that can completely ruin wines and spirits in very small quantities. To make a long story short, the TCA found its way into Lost Spirits’ original wooden still, rendering it useless, which is why Bryan and Joanne now use a copper still.

Prior to my visit, I had obtained two of the Lost Spirits whiskeys, the Leviathan III and the Seascape II. Both are in short supply and I asked Bryan why he didn’t simply make more to capitalize on the demand. He mentioned a few reasons: For starters, rum is easier to produce. Most of the hard work of processing grain for whiskey (including moving it around and milling it) aren’t required with molasses, which he buys from a supplier. Also, the fermentation for some of the whiskeys uses salt water. While the salt water helps create a better environment for distillation, it’s hell on the stills and other equipment. As Bryan related to me, the Scotch distilleries in Islay replace their stills far more frequently than other Scottish distilleries, and Bryan speculates that salt water in their mash is at least partially responsible.

A new batch of empty bottles has arrived!

After quite a long time exploring the main production area, we wandered over to the barn area. Much as I wanted to see the barrels and goodies within, it’s also off-limits for now due to those patent law requirements. Instead, we stood around palettes of molasses buckets and boxes of soon-to-be-filled bottles while Bryan told us all sorts of interesting stories and factoids about the distillery, potential future projects, and general spirits industry scuttlebutt. Eventually we made our way into the tasting room/laboratory where we continued to chat while tasting some of Lost Spirit’s exceedingly rare products, including the Fire Dance whiskey and the (hopefully soon) forthcoming Anejo Blanco rum, which is based on the current Cuban-inspired rum.

I’ve toured a number of distilleries, big and small, as part of my interest in spirits. I’ve seen my share of big warehouse buildings, enormous vats, and gleaming stills. The Lost Spirits distillery is the opposite of that, reminding you that in the not-too-distant past, spirits production used to be just another agricultural process, and not a particularly glamorous one at that. It becomes clear that while basic distillation of consumable spirits isn’t rocket science, the bio-hacking that Lost Spirits performs behind the scenes makes all the difference between a $10 bottle of whiskey or rum swill and something that blows you away with its flavors and intensity.

Clockwise from left: Cocktail Wonk, Bryan Davis, Joanne Haruta, Goliath.

Although we were lucky enough to be invited to the Monterey compound for a tour, the Lost Spirits distillery is not currently open to the public for tastings or tours.

It’s National Rum Day!

Here in the U.S. it’s National Rum Day! A fine time to celebrate rums and the U.S. contributions to their history. The photo above is my current, ever-expanding lineup of 100% American born and bred rum. Bull Run Distillery, Sun Liquor Distillery, Lost Spirits Distillery, Eastside Distilling, and House Spirits are represented, bu there are many more great American rums.

Here are some way to celebrate!

Eastside Distilling Below Deck Silver Rum

The day after the Iron TikiTender competition at TikiKon 2014, Mrs. Cocktail Wonk and I had an afternoon to spend in Portland. We made the requisite trip to Pok Pok for amazing Thai food, and the rest of the afternoon was spent at the Pearl Specialty Market and Spirits, as well as several distilleries. Portland has become a hotbed of small producers, and six of them are close enough to have banded together as a collective known as Distillery Row. On this particular Sunday, we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Eastside Distilling with the owner, Lenny Gotter. At the end of our visit, Lenny generously provided me with bottles of the Below Deck Silver Rum and the Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon. In this post I’ll cover the Silver Rum, while a subsequent post will cover the Oregon Oaked Bourbon.

The Eastside Distilling stills

Although Eastside Distilling is only six years old, they have a fairly large and diverse product line.  Most of their operations including fermentation, distilling, and bottling fit within a medium-sized room at the back of a single-story industrial building. There are numerous big blue plastic vats containing mash and distillates that take up a big chunk of the room. Eastside has an interesting, locally built still setup utilizing 100, 35 and 8 gallon kettles. In addition there’s both pot and column still “heads” which can be fitted to any of the kettles. The output from one head can be fed into the kettle of another to create a multi-still configuration.

Section of Eastside’s column still

The Silver Rum is distilled using a pot still configuration up to 65% ABV before being bottled without aging. Lenny told me that he has aged some of his rum, but not yet released any as of yet. As it is now, his existing barrel space is primarily devoted to whiskeys, but he’s considering the future release of an aged rum after he acquires more space for barrels.

To my taste, the Silver Rum is on the slightly sweet side relative to other silver rums and has a subtle fruity essence. To validate my initial tasting notes, I had a friend blind-taste the Eastside Silver Rum, Bull Run Distillery’s Pacific Rum (also from Portland), and Cana Brava, an aged, filtered white rum from Panama which I’ve covered recently. Although these three rums are substantially different in how they’re made, they are good representations of the spectrum of the non-blended white rum used in cocktails. My friend and I agreed that the Eastside rum was the sweetest of the three and was smoother than Pacific Rum. Separately I put it side by side with the well-regard Plantation 3 Stars Silver Rum and was surprised at how similar they were. At $18 per bottle, I’ll happily use the Eastside rum in daiquiris, mojitos, and similar cocktails.

Eastside Distilling’s bottling station
Some of Eastside Distilling’s vats

To take the Silver Rum out for a spin, I chose a daiquiri variation I particularly enjoy, using both a spiced-infused syrup and maraschino liqueur:

Eastside Daiquiri

  • 2 oz Eastside Silver Rum
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1/4 oz Clement Sirop de Canne
  • 1/8 oz maraschino

Shake over ice, strain into a chilled coupe.

While you could use 2:1 simple syrup here, the Sirop de Canne makes it substantially better, and it’s worth the effort to find it at around $15 per bottle. The Clement website describes it thusly: “…fresh pressed sugarcane juice is slowly reduced down over a low temperature with a maceration of crushed rolls of cinnamon, pulverized cloves, and cracked vanilla beans to make our spiced sugarcane syrup.” In short, yum! You need this!

Eastside Daiquiri

Besides the Silver rum, Eastside also offers other rums that start from a base of the Silver–Spiced, Ginger, and Coffee. I found their taste to be pleasing and nicely restrained in sweetness, i.e., they weren’t sugar-bomb liqueurs. I could easily picture experimenting with them to come up with some interesting cocktail recipes.

Eastside Distilling currently has distribution within Oregon and Washington State, and their spirits are offered in a number of restaurants and bars (listed on the Eastside web site). And as mentioned earlier, stay tuned for a post covering Eastside’s Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon.