Wednesday
Mar062013

Rum Hunting - Day Four - St. Nicholas Abbey

Built in the mid-17th century, St. Nicholas Abbey is a former sugar plantation that has been immaculately preserved and restored in the St. Peter parish of Barbados. It's been around for more than 350 years and current owners, the Warren family, have decided to turn part of the old plantation into a boutique distillery. We were excited to get off the guided tour and adventure out on our own a bit, so we caught a taxi to the Abbey for a closer look.

The distillery itself is merely a small Holstein still over to the right of the barn entrance, exactly like you would see at St. George or Old World Spirits in the Bay Area. To the left, however, is a fantastically old-school sugarcane crusher that squeezes out the fresh juice and sends it to the boiler where it's turned into a syrup.

While the Abbey has been around for centuries, the distillery at St. Nicholas is quite new. They've only been up and running for about two years, so there's still some construction going on inside the plant. Over to the left you'll see the tanks for boiling the juice, which is piped in from the crusher directly behind me, which you'll see in the next photo.

The crusher was fully-operational today. The sugarcane was coming right in from the field outside where it was being fed through the machinery. It was quite fun to watch.

A tractor outside brought the sugarcane right out of the field and into a the pile being fed to the crusher. The entire operation was quite romantic: local agriculture being harvested and utilized right there on the island. Mount Gay's molasses supply is mostly imported from India and Guyana due to lower prices. Only about 30% of it comes from the island. Our cab driver told us that Barbados' sugar is quite special and demands the higher price point on the market.

The rum being distilled at St. Nicholas Abbey is not blended. It's all coming off their small Holstein still and is not combined with any other distillate from another still elsewhere. Currently they only have the white rum for release as their oldest aged expressions have only been in wood for about two years. The problem with the "pot still" rum is that it is immediately fed into the column still next to it where it's rectified into an almost neutral spirit. We loved the aromatics on the nose, but the palate might as well have been Belvedere vodka. It just goes to show you that you can have all the romance, the small, hands-on production, and the intimate environment, but you still might not have a good product. Mount Gay doesn't have the romance (which is why they've been keeping us away from their production), but their rum is still superior.

As we headed into the gift shop we noticed some aged expressions. "What are these?" we asked. Lo and behold, St. Abbey is bottling pure pot still rum at both ten and fifteen years of age – and they're not cheap. The fifteen year old will set you back about $130 a bottle. Where are they getting this aged rum?

St. Nicholas Abbey is following the old High West business model. Make your own rum, but sell someone else's in the meantime. There are two other distilleries on the island of Barbados: West Indies, which used to make Malibu rum before it was sold to Pernod-Ricard, and Foursquare, which makes a number of other rums sold on the island. The rum was quite good – round and supple, but nothing super special. Nothing that justified the high price tag, at least. I'd rather have the Mount Gay Extra Old or 1703, especially since I could buy multiple bottles for that price. It's clear, however, that the other two distilleries on the island are willing to sell off their stocks to any distillery in need of extra inventory and that there are serious rums being made elsewhere in Barbados. Just in case another company was running low on supply, wanted to buy some, or blend some into their own stock, there is some good rum to be had. Who else would need to do that, however?

More news from Barbados later tonight as we head back to RemyLand for a cocktail competition and more Mount Gay

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar052013

Rum Hunting - Day Three - RemyLand (Part Two)

The blending session was by far the best part of today's events, mainly because we got to ask Allen all the questions we had about the distillery. We had spent an entire morning in a cave, in a field, eating great food, drinking great drinks, but we still hadn't seen anything about how the rum was actually made. It was like a giant tour full of fun and wonderful information, but none of it about the hard facts we actually care about. Every time we had a serious question about the rum and the production methods, those questions were carefully avoided. Now there would be time for time for interrogation. We had the master blender all to ourselves for the next hour and we planned on utilizing that time to the utmost. In front of us were four glasses: white column still, aged column still, white pot still, and aged pot still. Yes, Mount Gay is a blended rum.

As Mr. Allen gave us a quick run down on the four different distillates, David OG and I just peppered him with questions. "What's the percentage of the wash?" "Where are the stills?" "What's the proof off the still for the column?" "What proof do they go into the barrel at?" Some of it was clear cut. Other answers seemed to be a bit fishy, but that may have been because we were like two hard-boiled cops with a suspect in questioning. Mount Gay distills two different rums, albeit both from the same fermented molasses (so it's not quite like blended whisky where there are two different mashbills – malted barley single malt and unmalted grain whisky). The same wash is used for both stills, but the column still manages to get the 6-12% wine up to almost 99% pure alcohol after so much rectification. The other rum is double-distilled on a pot still like single malt whisky and is far more aromatic. Getting to taste the unaged pot still distillate was a revalation! It was incredibly fragrant with hints of menthol and an incredible herbaciousness much like I tasted in the pure molasses. Both rums are aged separately and then blended together to make the various Mount Gay expressions, much like blended whisky and single malt are for something like Johnnie Walker or Dewars. We were given our own quantities to blend with and there was a contest to see who could most accurately recreate the Mount Gay Black Barrel. It was great fun and I learned more about rum in the half-hour we spent in that session than in any other experience so far working in this business.

Here's what doesn't add up for me, however. We were not allowed to see the distillery. No stills, no fermenting molasses, nothing. According to Remy it's being remodeled and the building is considered dangerous for outside visitors at the moment. Yet, there are people working in there? Distilling rum at this moment? Why is the distillery completely separated from the rest of the warehouses and offices? Why is there a chain-link fence with barbed wire surrounding it? Why was there no trace of fermentation anywhere in the air? Not even a whiff! When you go to Glen Garioch you can smell it from five blocks away. At Mount Gay, you wouldn't even know they distilled anything unless you asked. And then when you ask you're told you can't see it. 

The warehouses at Mount Gay are another mysterious component of this puzzle. There can't be more than ten thousand barrels in the warehouse we saw and there are only four warehouses at Mount Gay. That means there are probably around forty-thousand casks aging at the facility. When we asked how many barrels were on site, we were told they couldn't answer that question. "Why not?" we asked. "Because smart people like you will do the math," was the reply. The others in the group scratched their heads. What could that mean? Why would they be so coy and crpytic about basic statistics. David and I smirked, however, because we knew exactly what that meant. The picture was becoming clearer every hour. We had already asked how many cases a year Mount Gay ships globally, so we had the info we needed.

According to one of the Remy people Mount Gay ships about 900,000 cases of rum a year globally, most of it aged rum and not clear (which plays a role). Here's the math.

900,000 cases x 9L (assuming they're all 750ml cases, which they're not because some are 12L) = 8,100,000 liters of alcohol every year for the market. 40,000 barrels x 200L per barrel = 8,000,000 liters. That means in order to meet their global demand Mount Gay must use 100% of its rum on site to fill those bottles. But that's not possible, is it? What about the rum that needs to age? The 10+ year stuff that is slowly maturing and consolidating into fewer and fewer barrels as it evaporates? Where is Mount Gay getting all that extra rum? Look at the picture of the distillery again and tell me if you think that facility (which is "under construction") cranks out enough rum to supply that amount. Unless there's another warehousing facility somewhere, it's just not possible. Maybe in RemyLand this all makes sense.

After taking another break for lunch we went back to the distillery and chose our barrels for K&L. The distillery is releasing a fantastic new expression called Black Barrel - aged first in Jack Daniel's barrels before being transfered over to charred Jim Beam barrels for an extra kick of spice. The samples we tasted were fantastic and we selected two for the store. We have no doubt in our minds that people are going to love them for the price, which ultimately is the real problem here: we love Mount Gay rum! It's fucking outstanding rum! It's not sweetened or altered or colored or manipulated. We tasted right out of the barrel, right into our mouths and this stuff is legit. So if you know you've got the goods, why the vague information about distillation? Have you ever heard of a tour without seeing the actual distillation process? I want everyone to understand right now that my skepticism so far is in no way based on the quality of the booze. Mount Gay rum is probably my favorite rum in the world. Therefore, I'd like to know how it's distilled. Or, more importantly, who's distilling it? I don't really care how it's made because whoever is crafting these selections is a master. I just want to see the actual process!!

Here's the thing: Mount Gay is not the only distillery on Barbados. Who else is making rum on the island, you ask? We might know a bit more tomorrow. 

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar052013

Rum Hunting - Day Three - RemyLand (Part One)

What a day we've had. There's so much to share with all of you. This morning and afternoon were spent doing a variety of activities that were meant to help us understand the reason that Mount Gay Rum tastes the way  it does. We learned about the island of Barbados, about how it's not a volcanic island like the other Caribbean outposts, and how the coral limestone that composes the island helps filter the drinking water. The rain must travel through layers of it before filling the many wells underground. There is some damn fine water in Barbados.

Harrison's Cave is one of many natural wonders one can visit on the island. Hundreds of feet beneath the surface is a series of passages and caverns that have hollowed out over thousands of years due to rainwater that drips down through the limestone. Stalactites and stalagmites eventually join columns within pools of pristine water that are deposited throughout the cave. We took a forty-five minute tour under the earth before emerging with a thirst (for water, rum, and more knowledge about Mount Gay!). Remy wanted us to understand that the island of Barbados is unique, quite fascinating, and has incredible drinking water. Supposedly this is big part of why Mount Gay rum tastes so good. I'm fine with that!

Remy had all their ducks in a row today. We got on the bus at 8:30, hit up Harrison's Cave, then stopped off at an official Mount Gay rum shack, where more Remy people were expecting us. There are no billboards or large advertisements allowed on the island, so rum shack owners make deals with brands to paint their buildings instead. A rum shack like this one might get $3000 a year for choosing allegiance to Mount Gay and Remy, which is a nice little cherry on top of what is already brought in from liquor sales.

We know that the water can play a big role in why a spirit tastes the way it does. We know this from single malt whisky studies. Barbados has great water. It also has a lot of sugarcane and, since rum is made from sugar, it was time to learn about the fundamental substance behind rum distillation.

Awaiting us in the sugarcane field was a giant tent with a few chefs who had prepared some fantastic snacks for us. While we had a small bite and some refreshments, Chesterfield Browne - Mount Gay's International Brand Ambassador - got out the machete to show us some sugarcane basics.

Cane is quite an interesting plant. It has a hard, thick outer layer, but a fibrous and juicy inner core. Most of the sugarcane on Barbados is now machine harvested, but some hard to reach or mountainous fields are still done the old fashioned way – with a machete. We all got a turn manning the blade, cutting down the sugar cane, and taking a bite out of the sweet inside.

I found it quite interesting tasting some rum right next to the sugar cane. There are definitely similar flavors to be found that carry over into the Mount Gay profile. However, there was one big problem with this explanation: there wasn't much talk about molasses. Mount Gay rum isn't made from fresh sugar cane. While sugar does indeed come from sugar cane, Mount Gay rum is made from fermented molasses – the by-product of the sugar, which is the by-product of the sugar cane. Shouldn't we go to a refinery, maybe? Shouldn't we at least taste some molasses? Right before getting into the van to make our way to the distillery we got to sample a wee bit of molasses which was incredible because it was raw and fresh. Now that is where I really got an idea of why rum tastes the way it does. There was a bit of black licorice and menthol in the bitter and intense flavor of the leftover sludge. That's where Mount Gay comes from. I could taste it and sense it. But that wasn't very important. At least, Remy didn't think it was.

At the distillery we met Allen Smith – the master blender for Mount Gay. We settled down in one of the open warehouses (there are four at Mount Gay) which had pallets of barrels stacked upward rather than on their sides.

"How do you taste what's in the barrels?" we asked immediately, flabbergasted that the bungs were on the side in a vertical position. Pulling the peg out in this position would shower the culprit immediate with a stream of valuable liquid. What's the deal? Apparently, they cover the bung in Barbados and drill a new whole on top which allow them to palletize their barrels in three by three rows, making nine barrels per pallet. Allen said there was more wood exposure that way, they had less evaporation due to a smaller surface area, and they could fit more barrels per warehouse if they did it vertically. That makes total sense. Barbados is hot so the Angel's Share can be about 10-15% by volume per year (Scotland is more like 2-3% in comparison). That's a huge loss to evaporation, so minimizing the surface area is helpful. Nevertheless, they're in a hot, humid climate, so there's not much you can do. Mount Gay does top up their barrels after a few years, combining what's left of the remaining rum to fill up the remaining space.

More to come! We're off to dinner.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar042013

Rum Hunting - Day Two - Barbados Party

Ahhhh.....the Caribbean. A tropical paradise of multi-cultural islands that all rally around one common principle: relax! We were at a bar tonight and I, with my loud-ass voice, was ranting about something to the people we were with when a local man came up to me and said, "Hey! You're in Bardados, man! Relax!" Good advice. 

The Barbados Tourist Industry has put us up at a nice little beachfront spot called The Colony Club. We got in late afternoon, threw down our bags, had a nice swim in the blue ocean water, and then freshened up for our cocktail hour meet-and-greet. 

While the outdoor buffet was nice, we weren't really feeling the vibe of the hotel. It was mostly old British tourists shushing us while they tried to read their latest page-turner in a fold-out chair. We all said, "Let's go drink some rum in town." To the rum shack we went. 

Two things about Barbados you need to know: 1) They have an amazing beer called Banks. 2) They don't sell you shots, but rather bottles. We met a gang of locals down at the local rum shack and they told us all about how wonderful Banks beer is, about how the water in Barbados is precious and it feeds the soul of the Banks recipe, and about how we need to drink more Banks. We drank a lot of Banks. We poured a lot of rum. We made a lot of friends.

Marketing in Barbados is entirely different as well. I would kill to see an Irish pub put this poster up in their establishment. I've never thought of Guinness as a warm-climate party beer, but maybe it's working here. Put a beer on that booty!

Tomorrow is an educational smörgåsbord of rum information. We should have a lot to tell you about Mount Gay in about 24 hours. For now, I will rest.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Mar032013

Rum Hunting - Day One - Miami

Let me get this out right now: I freakin' loooove Miami! This place has it all going on. Beautiful scenary, glitzy glam, gorgeous looking people, a melting pot of Caribbean culture, outdoor cafes and bars galore, and a splendid selection of great grub. I had never been to Miami before today, but with a six hour layover looming over my early morning pre-Barbados departure, I decided to come out a day early and spend the day wandering through South Beach. Boy, was that the right move.

Our old pal Nicolas Palazzi emailed me two days ago and told me that I needed to contact a friend of his if I planned to spend a day in Miami. Jennifer Massolo is a Miami based cocktail enthusiast who is currently engaged in a number of education-based projects geared towards bringing the craft spirits culture to her beachfront community. Her blog Spirited Sirens focuses on booze from a feminine perspective and she admits to being a big fan of our K&L Spirits Journal. We connected last night when she told me to drop my bags off at the hotel, catch a cab over to Lincoln Lane, and do some people watching until she could join me. I did as she instructed. I got myself a little cafecito, a Cubano ham sandwich, and walked down to the shore to take in the view. The water in Miami is gorgeous. It's truly on another level from what the Pacific Ocean offers us Western beach goers.

Jen knew I was on the hunt for rum and general Caribbean culture, so our first stop was a Haitian restaurant and bar called Tap Tap. We sat at the counter and looked at the rum selection - Barbancourt all the way across. This was my kind of place. One thing only – loyalty to the culture! I love it. 

I'm in Miami. It's warm and balmy outside. I'm getting the Mojito. And can you please mash up all the ingredients in that gigantic, tribal-looking mortar and pestle? Thanks!

Tap Tap is my kind of place. Simple, spicy, flavorful foods with honest prices and quality ingredients. We started with a Chiktay Salad - lettuce, tomato, avocado, and smoked herring with super spicy chilies chopped up into the cilantro dressing. Then on to the Mayi Moulen - rice and beans mixed with cornmeal, Zepina Nan Sos Kokoye - spinach in coconut sauce, a bowl of fresh shrimp in creole sauce, and a plate of fried plantains. 

And, yes, I would like more passion fruit cocktail with Barbancourt rum, thank you.

Jen and I talked cocktail culture and booze basics for hours as we sipped, sampled, and skipped around South Beach. I had a blast just people watching and getting a sense of the scene. Miami is like New York, Los Angeles, and Italy wrapped all into one. You've got the trendy, urban nightlife of LA, the tall, thin, everyone-is-a-model beauty of NYC, and the cafe culture with the it's-still-cool-to-smoke attitude of Italy. But everyone is speaking Spanish.

What a great place. I will be back soon. Barbados mañana!

-David Driscoll