Why Rum is the Next Big Thing (at K&L at least)

I don't have time to write a long, detailed article right now, but I do want to touch on a few quick points concerning rum. Since returning from Barbados, I've been thinking quite heavily about the spirits market and rum's role within it. Of all the spirits that are vying to become the next single malt whisky, the next big thing in booze, I think rum has the most crossover potential. Granted, American whiskey has already filled that niche and is currently struggling to keep it's inventory available due to high demand, but I think that will pass in about five years or so. Bourbon drinkers and single malt drinkers are often one in the same (like me, I enjoy both), but they are also commonly divided. I talk to single malt drinkers everyday who find Bourbon to be overly woody, while I talk to Bourbon drinkers who find single malt to be overly expensive. Here's where rum comes in:

- Rum can be done on a column still or a pot still and, like single malt whisky, there are blends of both as well as pure-pot still distillates. The blends tend to be less expensive and more accessible and the pot still rums are more expressive and intensely flavored. Just like single malt whisky.

- Rum is usually aged in ex-Bourbon casks as well as ex-Sherry butts. Mount Gay Extra Old is to rum what our Springbank Single Bourbon Barrel malt is to single malt whisky. El Dorado 15 is to rum what Glendronach 12 is to single malt whisky (except the El Dorado is $15 cheaper). Other Bourbon barrel aged rums like Zafra 21 continue to fly under the radar of most whisky drinkers, but Sherry-aged rums like Zacapa and Zaya have become very popular. Zacapa and Zaya are the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich of rum. Something like Santa Theresa or Diplomatico from Venezuela offers more of an Aberlour experience.

- Unlike single malt whisky, white rum is actually useful! See our older posts about the Daiquiri to learn everything you need about mixing. Having uses for both white rum and aged rum is a huge advantage for the rum distiller and for the customer! You can have rums for sipping and rums for mixing, which is an advantage that American whiskey currently holds over single malt. You might fly through a bottle of Rittenhouse in two days making Manhattans, but you wouldn't do that with your Macallan bottle. On top of that, no one is trying to fool you in the rum industry when it comes to the value of maturity because aged rum isn't all that more expensive. There are no "age is everything" or "age is just a number" marketing taglines to try and convince you to pay more for something aged or to accept something younger simply because the producer is out of mature stock. At least, not that I know of!

- Rum is cheeeeeeeeeap! Compared to single malt whisky, that is. Mount Gay's Eclipse sells for $15! The Extra Old is a marriage of eight to sixteen year old rums and sells for $35. Zafra 21 year old is $36! Barbancourt 15 is about the same. El Dorado 12 year is in the mid-$20s. These are serious rums at bargain basement prices when you compare them to the malt shelf. More importantly, their flavors are far more similar to single malt whisky than any American Bourbon or rye. At least once a day someone will tell me, "I like single malt, but I'm looking to crossover into Bourbon because it's more affordable." I should be steering these folks over to the rum section.

- Women who hate single malt whisky and Bourbon seem to love rum! Rum is fun. It goes in fruit-flavored drinks. It reminds people of the beach. However, even the aged sipping rums are more accessible to the less-initiated palate. My wife will spit out any single malt whisky or Bourbon offering I have her taste. It's never gone well and it's never going to either because to her they taste like poison. She has enjoyed each and every rum that has crossed her lips, however. Even the agricole ones! Haven't you ever wanted to share your passion for sipping mature spirits with your loved one? I can finally do that thanks to rum and its mellower profile.

- Rum has the history and the romance. Caribbean history is utterly fascinating. Pirates! What's more romantic and fun than a pirate? American history is steeped in rum culture. In fact, rum played a key role in the foundation of the United States (you can look that up on your own). I know people who dream of driving through Scotland or Kentucky, visiting the distilleries, and sipping whisk(e)y at each stop. Are you honestly telling me that you'd rather bundle up in the cold Highlands than go island hopping from Jamaica to Barbados to Martinique and then down to Guyana?

- There are tons of Caribbean and Latin American rum distilleries that are not owned by major corporations. That means there is still undiscovered country out there as well as niche products that never leave the area. I've tasted whisky from every operating single malt distillery in Scotland (and most of the mothballed ones as well). If you're looking for a new adventure, it lies to the south.

These are just a few thoughts running through my head this morning. I've been looking for a new direction in spirits for some time and I think it points toward the Caribbean. We need more rum at K&L. We need more rum education as well. We need more rum tastings. It's time to contact some people.

-David Driscoll


What Happens When You Don't Like It?

I get asked this question a lot. We at K&L have to do business with all these brands, these giant companies that own most of our favorite spirits on the market. How is it that you, David, can be honest about what you think when it comes to writing the spirits blog?

It's easy.

If I don't like it, I don't buy it. I only have to write about what we carry at K&L because I'm trying to help customers make decisions about purchasing. Rarely will I write about anything beyond the products we're selling at the store because it doesn't really concern me. If we have it on the shelf, it means I'm fine with the booze (or at least I can appreciate why someone would like it). If we don't have it, it doesn't necessarily mean I don't like it, but it might. I keep that clarification as nebulous as possible when I'm on the record. If you ask me in the store that's different (the advantage of being a local shopper).

Therefore, if I'm writing about my affinity for a product on this blog it's going to be honest and real. I'll only write about something if I find it interesting or beneficial for people to know about. I'm definitely not trying to guide people towards products I don't like, but the process of focusing on the good while neglecting the bad begins long before the blog. It begins in the office when I'm cutting purchase orders with vendors. I'll always screen and filter our inventory at that stage first. "No, I don't think I'll be ordering any Jose Cuervo for K&L. Why? Because it doesn't taste good to me."

I'll read things every now and again about the trustworthiness of a retailer's blog. Unlike reviewers or journalists, however, I'm only responsible for what goes into our stores. If it's in the store, it's on me. The blog is just extra.

-David Driscoll


One Week Away!

Have you bought your ticket for the Salon yet? Are you telling me you're not going to spend next Sunday evening with us? That's crazy! Why would you not want to come drink Irish whiskey, have a glass of Guinness, and snack on some fine Irish grub? Why would you not want to do that?

We've still got plenty of space for next Sunday's big Irish whiskey tasting. Tickets are $55. Get a ticket and we'll have your name on a list when you get to the Vault in San Mateo! Come on! Stop procrastinating!

Get your tickets here. If you just want to eat and watch some movies on the big screens, then purchase a guest ticket here.

I expect to party with you. I mean it.

-David Driscoll


Black Barrel (or Why We Went to Barbados)

David - you said you picked out a few barrels while at Mount Gay's warehouse in Barbados. What are you planning to bring back from the Caribbean?

Good question!

Sorry about not explaining further on this subject. As you know, I got so sidetracked with all the vagaries and the supersleuthing that I completely forgot to inform you all about Black Barrel and what's to come at K&L.

Mount Gay is launching a new rum that will complement their Eclipse and Extra Old portfolio. There is indeed a hole in between these two rums and Remy was smart to fill it. The Mount Gay Eclipse is the mixer. It's a fine rum, it does the trick, but it's nothing special. The Extra Old is the next step up, but it's too good to mix. It's a sipping rum and to me it doesn't mix all that well anyway (as I discovered after ordering an XO with ginger at the tasting room's bar - I left that one on the counter). The Eclipse will run you $16 or so depending on where you buy it. We sell the XO for $35. In between those two there is room for another rum – a $25 expression that offers more punch than the Eclipse, but less richness and weight than the XO. Enter Black Barrel.

Here's the deal with the new Mount Gay release: it's been aged in Tennessee Whiskey barrels (something the distillery normally doesn't use), then married into a final blend before being put back into Bourbon barrels (they're using Jack and Beam) for an extra finishing spell. The result is a spicy, aromatic, round, and charismatic rum that mixes beautifully into a number of cocktails (as David and I discovered after losing the Black Barrel cocktail competition soundly – we're not bitter about that, by the way). We made a few drinks with it while trying to put together a final recipe. A Daiquiri (delicious), a Sidecar (delicious), and finally the Trinidad Sour (amazing). The rum has the goods. The quality is there, the label is well-designed, and the price is perfect. They really did their homework and they're set to release what should be a very successful product. Normally I'll find fault with something (usually the label), but I really love the Barbados map as the backdrop – it gives the rum a very powerful sense of place.

We were invited to Barbados as the very first retailer to select our own cask of Black Barrel. So basically we were choosing the Bourbon barrel that the rum was finished in for a number of months (remember that months offer more intense maturation in the hot Caribbean heat). There were about thirty to choose from and we found two that were different enough from one another to justify getting both, but still mainstream enough to offer a variety of utilities.

In the end I went for barrel number 1140, which had a wonderfully rich nose full of sugar cane and potent vanilla. Round, supple, and easy – a sure-fire winner for those interested in rum, but unsure of what they want. David OG took barrel 1098, which was much spicier and more extravagant on the palate, giving the more adventurous drinkers something exciting. With spring on the horizon and summer coming soon after, these should be two very popular bottles at K&L. I think we'll be blowing through barrels of this stuff if we can continue to get access. Rum doesn't last in my house, unlike the Bourbon and single malt bottles that I nip from every once in a while. Rum gets poured into a glass of ice. It doesn't get measured. It just gets dumped. Then some ginger beer. Maybe some tonic. Maybe some fruit juice for a punch. It's so refreshing and fun, plus it pairs with the type of food I usually eat. Black Barrel is versatile, tasty, and inexpensive. That's the triple crown of mass consumption.

So that's the rundown. Black Barrel is coming and two barrels of Black Barrel will be barreling into our own barrel program very soon. More on this subject as the arrival time draws nearer!

-David Driscoll


Rum Hunting - Day Five - Duty Free Clue

I was on my way through the Barbados Airport duty free store this morning when I found the bottle I had been searching for on the island: Mount Gilboa Pot Still Rum. Mount Gay distillery was once known as the distillery at Mount Gilboa plantation and we knew there was still an eponymous rum in production somewhere. In my hand was now the evidence. At the behest of plantation owner John Sober, Mount Gilboa was renamed Mount Gay in 1801 after the death of Sir John Gay Alleyne, who had been an effective and inspirational leader of the company for more than two decades. There was already a Mount Alleyne in Barbados, so they went with his middle name instead as a tribute. 

Flash forward to the 20th century. In the early 1900s the distillery fell into the hands of the Ward family who increased production and recognition of the brand's reputation. It wasn't until 1989 that Remy Cointreau became the majority shareholder. Audrey Ward was perhaps the most famous of the master blender/distillers at Mount Gay and, for some time, one would find his signature on the label of each bottle. Today no longer. Where you will find the Ward family name, however, is on the Mount Gilboa label. According to the packaging with the bottle, Frank Ward, who is descended from Audrey Ward, is currently the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery Ltd, where Mount Gilboa is made today. Here's a photo of the distillery below.

Wait a minute, David! This is the exact same photo you showed us two days ago! You said that was the distillery at Mount Gay! The one they wouldn't let you into! 

That's correct. However, I found a blog post from a webpage called the Rum Collective that shows the same building, but with photos of the inside as well taken from an educational tour. The tour itself wasn't organized by Mount Gay, however. It was given to this person by the man and family behind Mount Gilboa rum: Mr. Frank Ward, whose family ran the Mount Gay brand for ninety years. If Frank Ward is the head of Mount Gay distillery, the home of Mount Gilboa rum and apparently of Mount Gay rum as well, does this mean that Remy Cointreau doesn't actually own Mount Gay distillery, but rather just the rights to the Mount Gay brand? This isn't an uncommon practice in the booze business. Berry Bros. & Rudd, for example, recently purchased the rights to Glenrothes as a brand, but have no control over the distillery itself.

When we were on the boat last night one of the crewmen showed me a sugar refinery off the coast and said the industry is dying a slow death on the island. I found a link to an article from ten years ago that talks about the limited access to molasses on Barbados and how the Wards were forced to look elsewhere as a result. This article from Ebony Magazine in 1975 claims that Audrey Ward founded the Mount Gay Company in 1908 (the company not the distillery) and that every bottle of Mount Gay rum bears his name: A. F. Ward. Yet, today it does not. The modern day Mount Gay is a new brand with a new face that stresses the foundation of the distillery in 1703, rather than the hard work and history of the Ward family. They seem to avoid all discussion of the Wards, but I'm not sure as to why.

So here's the deal. Frank Ward's Linkedin page still lists him as the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery, but there is no mention of him at Remy's Mount Gay. As I wrote a few days back, Allen Smith is the master blender, (italicized in that post, as well), but we never met anyone with any knowledge of distillation. Conclusion? Remy Cointreau owns Mount Gay, but likely not Mount Gay Distillery, which is still owned and operated by the Wards, who founded the company in 1909 and sold the brand in 1989. They're likely contracting rum from the distillery, but I couldn't say for sure. 

Now I'm excited to try this Mount Gilboa! All pot still, no column still! It looks like part of the mystery is solved.

-David Driscoll