“I left my heart in San Francisco” (in a glass of aged RHUM and elsewhere)
August 11, 2010
Cocktail Culture is alive and well in San Francisco. Please click on Tiki for the soundtrack to this piece.
First, a bit of background: I was asked by Ed Hamilton, the world renowned authority on Cane Spirits to be a judge in the “Ministry of Rum” tasting competition, held yearly in San Francisco. My background in rum tasting is honed by years spent sailing the islands of the French and English West Indies. To know about Rum, first you must drink Rum. The flavors run the gamut from deeply oaked (from used American Oak that held Bourbon Whiskey) to Spiced Rum, to the Rhum Agricole (from Martinique, aged in used French White Oak casks that once held aged Cognac) to the Rums of the New World, which use wood that may have held Scotch Whiskey, Sherry and Madeira. Which one is best? Good question. I seem to prefer the Rhum Agricole which comes from a specific AOC in Martinique.
What is an AOC? Appellation d’origine contrôlée simply means that the Rhum (Rum in French) comes from a specific place and is manufactured in a specific manner according to law. Martinique is most well-known for Rhum Agricole because French law allows for an “Appelation d’origine Controlée” of “rhum agricole AOC Martinique” for rums produced on the island of Martinique. In many ways the fine Rhum produced on Martinique is as important as the high end spirits and wines of France because of this “proof of production” for the specific place. The AOC determines the provenance and quality of the spirits contained in the bottle. It is, in many ways a statement of quality.
Fifty of the best Sugar Can rums of the world would pass through my lips over two days. Immediately this number seems like a lot of rum. Yes, to the unenlightened perhaps this is the case. But should you dig a bit deeper, the tasting of the rums was spread out over the two days in a most manageable fashion. First of all, you weren’t drinking the rums, unless you wanted to… Spit buckets were provided, after tasting through twenty five rums the first day alone, you don’t want to be drinking them.
Smell is as important as the taste. Sugar cane rum does not smell like the mass produced industrial rums that clog store shelves. Sugar Cane rums are as important to the liquor industry as expensive cognac. The flavors in sugar cane rum run the gamut from piercing acidity with earthy notes of the wood barrels, to floral almost perfumed spiciness. This spiciness comes from the “taste of the place” and from the flavor of the oak barrels used to age the rum.
How do you taste rum in a competition? Good Question. First, hold the glass up to the light. Swirl it to release the aromas. What do you smell? Roasted nuts? Caramel? Vanilla? Stone fruits? Earth? It’s all subjective. Some Agricole Rhum like the J. Bally is aged in both Bourbon and Scotch Whiskey oak barrels. Brown rhum agricole distilled from fermented fresh sugar cane. This is my favorite style of dark rum. You taste a very specific Terroir in this rum. How do you know? Intuition I think plays a big role in tasting rum. And after tasting through fifty over two days- I know my way around a liquor store a bit better.
What about palate fatigue? Another good question. We spaced out the tasting over two days. Two sessions each day. Twelve Rums per session. Six dark rums, six light rums. Light doesn’t necessarily mean light in flavor. Some of the light rums were every bit as complex as the darker varieties. You don’t EVER want to mix the light rums with anything but a splash of coconut water or in a pinch, a few drops of spring water.
Coca-Cola is not on the menu at a sugar cane rum tasting. But a trip to the Tiki Lounge is!
Sprinkle a few drops of spring water over the top of the glass of rum. Swirl it around, sip, wash it around your mouth, breathe in the aroma, wash it around some more. Spit. What? Spit? Yes. If you don’t spit, you’re going to get drunk and there is no room at a tasting for a drunkard. This is serious work.
Ed Hamilton is the world authority on the topic of Cane Spirits. I first met Ed some thirty years ago. I was on my family’s sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. Ed was moored next to us. I had attended a book signing earlier in the day for his book called the Rums of the Caribbean. I have always sought out writers who are authorities of the spirits I enjoy drinking and Ed was no exception. He lived the life of a true sailor, following the wind and navigating by the stars on his wooden sailboat. Where the wind took him, he found rum and life. My step-father asked him on board our boat and a fine few hours ensued.
In the islands, water is very expensive- yet rum is very cheap. A fifth of Cruzan Rum costs about half of what a bottle of Evian costs. We drank a lot of rum that afternoon.
Whenever we found our way to a liquor store, I would seek out the exotic and the expensive. For over twenty years I’ve gathered Rhum Agricole from around the islands. My bar is filled with exotic shaped bottles.
I asked my friend Robin Leventhal to join the group of judges. She accepted! We had a blast.
Shirley Copeland was also able to attend. She is co-editor of Served Raw Magazine who kindly links back to Wild River Review. Having only worked for Shirley and her co-editor Stacy Baker on a virtual level, we’d never met prior, it was a thrill to put the name to the face! Thank you to Shirley and Stacy for being so good to me.
How would I forget the center of Tiki Lounge culture? Smuggler’s Cove orchestrated a very boozy time for the judges. What happened there will stay there. Right? Right?
I learned something while in San Francisco drinking rum. Thank you Ed. You made my day. Here are the RESULTS of the competition.
While in San Francisco, traveled almost exclusively via public transportation. Janet was at the bus stop and I asked to take her picture. We started talking. She is born and raised in San Francisco. Of a certain age. Loves to cook. I asked her about food. She told me that she loved make peach pies. I asked if she used lard or shortening for the crust and she proceeded to show me exactly how much shortening to use.
“You gotta use two heaping tablespoons” How much is that, I asked. ” This much” and she showed me in the air. We should all be as elegant as Janet. Thank you Janet for letting me take your picture.
Three Head/Six Arm Buddha
Over by the library there is the sculpture of Three Head/Six Arm Buddha. What can be said? Anything more would create more questions.
Postscript: I used to live in Portland, Maine when trains rolled slowly down Commercial Street filled with fish for the fertilizer factory up near Bath. The smell on a hot summer’s day, coupled with the smoky rich smell of baked beans from the B&M baked bean company… and the paper mill up near Lewiston-Auburn (LA) made for a cassoulet of aromas for your nose, some good, some bad and some downright ugly.
Warren Bobrow is a mixologist, chef, and writer known as the Cocktail Whisperer. In 2010, Bobrow founded “Wild Table” for Wild River Review and serves as the master mixologist for several brands of liquor, including the Busted Barrel rum produced by New Jersey’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition.
Bobrow has published three books on mixology and written articles for Saveur magazine, Voda magazine, Whole Foods-Dark Rye, Distiller, Beverage Media, DrinkupNY and other periodicals. He writes the “On Whiskey” column for Okra Magazine at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and has written restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly.
His first book Apothecary Cocktails, was published in September 2013; and immediately went into a second printing. In 2014, he published Whiskey Cocktails. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ, on a Biodynamic farm.
Warren Bobrow in this Edition
COCKTAIL WHISPERER, Editor
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The Cocktail Whisperer asks Anthony Bourdain Four Questions about Scotch
The Five Questions: Andrew Bell, American Sommelier
The Five Questions Catherine Reynolds
The Five Questions: Lincoln Henderson (Master Distiller)
The Five Questions: Natalie West (Foppiano Wines)
The Five Questions: Randall Grahm
The Five Questions: Sustainable Sushi
A Glass of Bourbon, Branch, and History
Midnight in the Bronx: Visit to Hunt’s Point Wholesale Fish Exchange
A Modern Day Absinthe Alchemist
A Summer Cocktail Party for Artie Shaw
Tales of the Cocktail: New Orleans, Louisiana