It’s 8:45 AM on the second full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2015, and I’m in bed, dreading the imminent alarm clock. Only a few hours earlier I’d been drinking 140 proof Jamaican Rum and cask-strength rye at an impromptu hotel room get-together, followed by a nightcap at the Monteleone’s Carousel bar, before finally falling into bed at 2:30 AM. What I really need is more sleep, but I’m scheduled to drink more rum in an hour. Ordinarily I’d miss the rum and opt for more shut-eye but this is no ordinary tasting. No sir! Plantation Rums had reached deep into their rum reserves, picked of their best casks from all over the Caribbean, and bottled just enough for two dozen people to enjoy at Tales. At 10 AM. The things I do for rum….
Recently, a torrent of articles in the mainstream press has heralded the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail title, and highlighted top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales of these destination-worthy bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’m completely on board with this surge in interest, and I regularly go overboard in my home bar, making libations with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.
However, it recently occurred to me that exotic Tiki recipes specifying esoteric ingredients and very specific rums can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe with what’s already in your home bar.
With this in mind, I set out on a research project: Finding the minimum set of ingredients needed to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I created a minimal working set of ingredients, enabling you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space. It’s too late for me — the home bar spans several rooms — but with what follows, you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.
My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails I consider the essential classics; as with all “best of” lists, it’s completely subjective. However, I’ve conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:
A highlight of the CocktailWonk blog last year was attending TikiKon 2014 in the Portland/Vancouver vortex. In addition to classes and parties, my personal highlight was the Iron TikiTender competition, which my good friend Jason Alexander, owner of the Tacoma Cabana, won in his first time as a competitor. The contest pits three bartenders against each other in a series of challenges, such as “Most Mai Tais in 10 minutes” and “Best drink with a mystery ingredient,” with judging by rum celebrities like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. Sadly, I’ll be missing the 2015 TikiKon as Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to New Orleans a few days in advance of Tales of the Cocktail. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear that some of my local, Seattle-based bartenders are applying to compete at Iron TikiTender 2015.
Within the spirits world, many liquors highlight their particular provenance – bourbon from Kentucky, Scotch whisky from, well, Scotland, cognac and calvados from France, tequila and mezcal from Mexico, and so on. However, you rarely see bottled blends of those spirits where the components are from different countries: Picture a blend of Irish whiskey and Kentucky bourbon – a bit odd, right? Or even Peruvian pisco and Chilean pisco – they’re quite different, and the rivalry between the countries about who makes the real pisco is heated. As you can imagine, they’re unlikely to appear in the same bottle together.
The rum world, with its relaxed, laissez-faire, no-rules attitude is the outlier – French Agricole AOC regulations notwithstanding, which is a story for another day. Sure, most rums hail from a single island or country, but there are also more than a few blended, multi-heritage rums. For this list, I’m not talking about blending rums of different ages from the same distillery. Nor am I talking about rums originating from multiple stills, like Guyana’s El Dorado distillery uses for its higher end rums. The rums in this list are all a blend of rums from multiple countries.
Here at Casa Cocktail Wonk we drink a lot of rum. While I happily pull out my wallet for well-regarded high end rum, I also wonk out over finding great rums at a great price. There’s plenty of well-established brands with wonderful entries for less than $25 US. For instance, the Plantation Grande Réserve 5 is a steal at around $15. However, I also get a kick out of promoting the smaller, lesser-known brands with great bottlings that I stock at home. Below are eight rums I personally endorse, all available online somewhere for less than $25, before shipping. For each rum I’ve listed the best current price and the site where I found it.
Caldas Gran Reserva Oak Cask
This 8-year aged rum from Columbia is very smooth and moderate to dark gold in color. It’s dry and seems to have little or no sugar added after distillation. It’s somewhat comparable to Bacardi 8 in overall feel, but I prefer it to the Bacardi. Good enough to mix in spirit forward cocktails with abandon because of its taste and price, I end up sipping a dram every time I open the bottle.
Aged for three or more years, then filtered to strip the color, this rum comes the legendary Don Pancho Fernandez in Panama. Don Pancho is behind numerous well regarded rum lines including Ron Abuelo (see below.) Cana Brava works well in drinks calling for flavorful silver rum, such as the Daiquiri. It’s part of the 86 Co.’s line of spirits targeted primarily at bartenders.
$24.99 (1 liter) hitimewine.net
Denizen Aged White Rum
A blend of aged rums from Trinidad and Jamaica. The founder of Denizen tells me the Aged White was created to make the perfect Daiquiri. I recently reviewed its sibling, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve. Both are blended by master blenders E&A Scheer in Holland, and deserve a spot in your bar. $16.99 drinkupny.com
A blend of rums from Barbados, aged between six and ten years in American oak, then finished in sherry casks. As with everything from Richard Seale’s Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, there’s no sugar added to juice up the perceived flavor. Richard’s insistence on quality rums are well known in the rum world. Doorly’s XO is what I brought back from Barbados for my rum loving friends.
Hamilton Jamaica Black
This 92 proof rum comes from Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum collection. If you’re a fan of Jamaican hogo, this rum delivers in spades. I find the funk to be more vegetal than the fruity funk of Smith & Cross, but equally intense. Put Hamilton Jamaica in your drink and the flavor will pop right through, so I enjoy it in Tiki drinks where there’s a lot going on. There are both gold and black version of this rum – the only difference is the type of caramel coloring added, imparting a slight flavor difference.
Bull Run Distillery in Portland, OR makes one of the many new American white rums popping up all over. What makes Pacific Rum unusual is that it starts from sugar cane juice instead of molasses, and is then aged for about a month. This rum is essentially an American version of an Agricole style rum – somewhat organic and grassy tasting, in a good way. Not as intense as La Favorite Blanc, I use it frequently in Tiki style drinks that call for an agricole rum. I’ve mentioned it previously in my Essential Arsenal of Tiki Rums post.
Ron Abuelo 7
Ron Abuelo is a Panamanian rum from Don Pancho Fernandez, born in Cuba and considered a master of the Cuban style. The entire Ron Abuelo line is well regarded, but at Abuelo 7 is a smooth sipper at a bargain price. I enjoyed my first bottle of Abuelo 7 so much that I didn’t hesitate to purchase the Abuelo 12 as well.
St. Lucia Distiller’s Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum
I’m normally not a spiced rum kind of guy. However, at a local tasting of the Chairman’s Reserve rums from the St. Lucia Distiller’s group, I was shocked at how well executed the Chairman’s Reserve Spiced rum is. The cinnamon and clove elements nicely complement the aged rum flavors, rather than attempt to mask it like so many other spiced rums. Sure, you could mix with it, but you’ll be happier to just pour out an ounce or two and savor it slowly.
I recently did a post about three Dutch rums, including the new Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of aged Jamaican and Martinique rums. The Merchant’s Reserve has a bit of buzz around it from Tiki wonks as it’s been promoted as being a good facsimile of the rum used to make the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai back in the 1940s and 1950s. After acquiring my bottle of the Merchant’s Reserve, trying it out, and reading as much as I could find online, I still had questions beyond what I was finding. I emailed the founder of Denizen Rum and he graciously agreed to talk with me in more detail about the Denizen Rums.