What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Entries in rum (18)


Swinging, drinking, crooning at the Museum of the American Cocktail

One of the joys of getting older and becoming disorganized and forgetful is that life becomes a series of pleasant surprises. Like yesterday, when I found in my camera a video I'd forgotten I'd shot a couple of weeks ago. It's Dale DeGroff croooning at the World Cocktail Day swing ball and fundraiser to benefit the Museum of the American Cocktail.

And more: I'd forgot I had taken these still shots that evening.


And, then, while cleaning up my desk in advance of my migration to Maine (assuming I remember how to drive there), I found on the back of a business card the recipe for Nick Detrich’s splendid cocktail he made for the event, called the Mystery Train. If I had to categorize it, I’d call it one of the new strain of bitter-inflected tiki drinks. Also, I’d categorize it as delicious.

Mystery Train
1.5 oz Myer’s Rum
1.5 oz fresh pineapple juice
.75 oz Demerara sugar syrup (2:1)
.75 oz fresh lime juice
.75 oz Campari
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Shake with ice and strain into glass misted with Pernod.  

Getting old: it’s just like Christmas, but with more booze.


Question of the day: Where do I get a loggerhead?

Like many of you, I own two loggerheads, one for mugs, and one for pitchers. These are an essential bit of equipment for making flip, a drink popular in the 18th century and consisting of rum, beer, and molasses. The loggerhead is like a magic wand that turns a nasty, treacly soup into something heavenly.

The loggerhead is essentially an iron rod that’s been forged with a heavy bulb at one end. It was originally made for shipbuilders to keep tar pliable in cool weather — the loggerhad was heated in a fire, and then was used to stir a firkin of stiffening tar. Somewhere along the line, it was conscripted into the making of hot drinks. Loggerheads became standard equipment at taverns, kept in the fireplace so anyone in the mood for flip could send up a geyser of hissing steam.

How does this actually work? And more to the point, how does it taste? Well, if you’re in New Orleans you could stop by the Museum of the American Cocktail on Monday May 7 at 6:30. I’m giving a talk on colonial drinks, and I’ll be making a flip. Get you some.

But where does one get a loggerhead? That's not so easy. I've seen one or two at historical museums in New England, but an antique loggerhead is all but impossible to find. If you search for “loggerhead” an eBay, you'll end up with a wall of turtle illustrations so overwhelming cute it will curdle your stomach for a week.

So I set out to have one made. My first loggerhead was forged by an ironmonger I met at a folk art festival in Maine. I told him what I needed. He was of the opinion that he could not possibly make an acceptable loggerhead without having some rum first. I brought back some Zacapa, and he sipped judiciously. His eyebrows made a little dance. He took another sip, this one somewhat less judiciously. He promised to make me a loggerhead.

A few months later, one showed up in the mail. It wasn’t quite as awesome as I’d imagined. (Perhaps I should have given him some Sailor Jerry.) He’d essentially just doubled back the rod at the head, giving it more of a nubbin than a bulb. I could easily get it red hot and it worked fine on a single mug. But I wanted something more substantial for a pitcher.

Yankee Doodle douchebag at 2011 Tales of the Cocktail. (Photo courtesy of Bart Everson).So I paid a call to ironmonger and artist Rachel David, who lives and works in New Orleans. She makes some pretty amazing stuff, including sculptures and other handiwork for homes and business (she was crafting an interior railing woven with iron lady slippers when I visited). She agreed to make me one.

A few weeks later I drove back to her studio to pick it up. And it was… awesome, with big, round head somwhere between the size of a baseball and a tangerine. It feels great in the hand. I don’t have a working fireplace in New Orleans, so I’m reduced to the plebeian method of heating by blowtorch. But it works splendidly.

If you want your own loggerhead — and I realize that’s a rhetorical inquiry because, seriously, who doesn’t? — you could check with Rachel David about crafting one. Or maybe two. She can be reached via her website at Red Metal.

Tickets for Monday’s seminar are available online through


New & notable: Iconic Brands 

Like goofy liquor packaging? You should come to the WSWA convention! Why do Russians keep trying to sell vodka in gun-shaped bottles? What's up with all the strange tequila bottles? A number of bottle manufacturers also hawk their services here, each promising to craft a unique bottle that will cause whatever new vodka it is you’re touting to fly off the shelves. It's hard to not get a little jaded.

Yet... I liked Iconic Brands, and purely for its marketing verve. They were rolling out three products in three very different bottles, all cool. And they’ve got some experience in innovative packaging — one of the Iconic principals was involved in the launch of Kah Tequila, which comes in colorfullly painted Day of the Dead skulls. (And is also embroiled in a longstanding lawsuit with Crystal Head Vodka over that packaging.)     

Iconic had three new spirit lines: Apocalypto Tequila (below left), playing nicely off the Mayan-end-of-the-world meme (um, maybe look for unsold bottles at a deep discount at Costco in early 2013). Three variations of Deadhead rum (above, left, spiced, three-year, and seven-year; evidently sourced from the Foursquare Distillery on Barbados). And Flashbang (at right), a quartet of similarly bottled liquors: tequila, whiskey, vodka, and an herbal liqueur. I only tried one spirit — the Flashbang herbal liqueur, which is a more refined Jägermeister.

The Iconic line somehow manages to walk the fine line between understated and over-the-top. The Apocaplyto was in a well-crafted bottle that looked like an ancient terra cotta Mayan head sculpture. The Deadhead rums were in wonderfully produced shrunken heads bottles. What do shrunken heads have to do with rum. Nothing! But I’d still love to have one of these on my back bar.

The most intriguing was the Flashbang line. The bottles look like hand-grenades. But not nasty combat hand grenades — rather, the civill unrest kind. The sort of greandes that produce noise and a bright flash to allow riot troops to move in and break up crowds. “They aren’t meant to kill,” said Neil Harris, the president of Flashbang. “Just to disorient. Which is pretty much what alcohol does.”

Harris said the idea didn’t so much come from street protests as from video games, which he said commonly employ these stun grenades. (I’ll take him at his word, not being a video game guy.) Doesn’t that put him at risk of charges that he’s targeting the underage market? He quickly pointed out that the majority of video game users are between the ages of 22 and 29 (something else I’m taking at his word). Which, as it happens, is exactly the market he’s trying to reach.

I can’t speak to the qualito of all the products (although the herbal liqueur was perfectly fine), but I can speak to the packaging: pretty damn great. 

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


New & notable: Dzama Rum

A number of rum imports from non-traditional locales have tried to make it into the North American market, but most fail to gain any traction. A lot of these are built around big marketing ideas, the idea being to get cool hunters to try the latest novelty. (I’m thinking of Starr African Rum in the red bottles.) The product seems to be an afterthought.

Not so with Dzama Rum from Madagascar (home to five rum distilleries), which will be rolling into limited U.S. markets next month.

When I first sipped I expected the worse, but was more than pleasantly surprised. It was a rich, complicated rum that, to my mind at least, managed to capture some sort of exotic terroir. Dzama makes a vanilla rum (with a whole bean encased in the bottle, seen at left) plus two unflavored rums. The Cuvee Noire (90 proof) was smooth and tasted of honey and vanilla (the man in the booth claimed it had no additives, although I’m skeptical). But the real winner for me was the 104 proof rum, with a spicy taste up front and lively, sweet finish. It somehow seemed to capture then attenuate into the distance the essence of rum. The retail price of the overproof is expected to be about $50.

 [Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


Gunpowder proof test, revisited. Again. 

I’ve written before (like here and here and here) about the historic gunpowder proof test. (Recap: accounts from pre-hydrometer days in the 17th and 18th centuries suggest that sailors at sea worried that their daily rum tot had been watered down tested it by mixing it with gunpowder to see if it would burn. If it didn’t, it was below proof and thought to have been adulterated.)

In theory, 50% alcohol is the dividing line — the thought being that the  water predominant in lower proof spirits would leach out the potassium from the potassium nitrate and render the powder inert. (At this juncture I won’t get into a lengthy discussion about alcohol by weight vs. alcohol by volume, but suffice it to say that’s been taken into consideration.)

Anything less than 50 percent was considered “below proof” — as in, it wasn’t proven. (Purser gets tossed overboard.) I’ve done demos with black powder and liquors for several groups, and in further tests on my own, and the one constant I’ve noticed is inconsistency. Sometimes a low proof spirit will flare. Sometimes a high proof spirit won’t.

So I invited a brain trust of writers and bartenders over to the house last week to help me figure out what was going on.

We started the test with the highest proof spirits and worked downward. Actually, we started by drinking gunpowder Manhattans, made with Smoke and Oakum gunpowder-infused rum and some smoky lapsong souchong tea syrup. It’s my understanding that one should never experiment with liquor, gunpowder, and matches, especially indoors, unless you’ve been drinking first.

Anyway. Gunpowder mixed with Everclear (190 proof) and Lemon Hart (151 proof) flared up reliably and quickly. But then the outcomes got all vague and flukey — some liquors at 100 and 114 proof flared up. Another at 110 did not. (I think. I wasn’t keeping tidy notes.)

Then I tried sloe gin (54 proof) just for the hell of it, and after applying a blow torch to it for a bit, the powder flared. Whatever. No rhyme or reason. Results were, as usual, all over the map. And I have to believe that historic conditions on board a lurching, filthy ship were much less controlled than in my living room.

The brain trust was very helpful, however, in enumerating an ungodly number of variables that could affect the test results. Among them:

Type of gunpowder. I assumed that historic black powder had to be used, which I tracked down. But did the original sailors use fine-grained musket powder or coarse-grained cannon powder? We were using musket powder. Perhaps the results would change with cannon powder.

Humidity. We tested on a fairly humid day in New Orleans, so that could explain why some results were different than in Maine, or in an air-conditioned hotel ballroom. But not the internal inconsistencies of the night's tests. And wouldn’t a test in the tropics on board a ship be pretty damp? Not so sure if this variable matters much.

Quantity of spirit used to dampen the gunpowder. Most accounts I’ve seen say that the grains of gunpowder were dampened with spirits. But how dampened? In most tests I used 10 drops per quarter-teaspoon of powder. But that was purely arbitrary. I probably should try other ratios and see if that has an effect.

Type of liquor. Do brown spirits affect powder differently than clear spirits? Maybe the additional cogeners are having an affect on the powder. Next time: try diluting Everclear with water to various proofs to control that variable. (Thanks to Brett Martin for that one.)

Method of igniting. We mostly used a $3 charcoal starter, but I also tried a creme brulee torch. (Note: don’t use your creme brulee torch. The gunpowder blows the igniter into a state of permanent paralysis.) Of course, neither were available in the 18th century — maybe a flint was used? Or a fuse of some sort made with hot-burning sulfur. Next time, I'll try different ignition methods. (Thanks Kimberly Patton-Bragg.)

Soaking time. I haven’t seen any account that reports how long the powder was dampened before flame was applied. Perhaps the original test involved drying the gunpowder after soaking it? I’ll give that a shot next.

So my lofty goal to solve the enigma of the gunpowder test was far from achieved. If anything, the night marked one step forward, ten steps back. I’ve now got a lengthy list of additional questions to consider. I was hoping to either figure it out, or dismiss the test as a romantic fiction.

Neither happened.

But the brimstoney gunpowder Manhattan? That’s a keeper. So the evening wasn’t a total waste. 


A Man, A Plan, Panama!

In the better late-than-never department: at Tales of the Cocktail last month, Martin Cate and I created and served drinks at a rum dinner for 70, with remarkable meals crafted by New Orleans chef Adolfo Garcia and Birmingham chef (and, incidentally, 2011 James Beard Award winner) Frank Stitt.

If there was a theme to the night, it was “A Man, A Plan, Panama!” Panama because Adolfo is from Panamanian stock, and three of the four rums we featured hailed from Panama. The plan? To serve great drinks and great food, of course. And the man? Well, Ron Jeremy, as if you had to ask. The former adult film star was rolling out his new rum (a rather good seven-year-old Panamanian rum), which he bills, also as if you had to ask, as the “adult rum” and featuring a “long, smooth taste.” The Man flew in for the dinner and, apparently, to autograph a bosom or two while at Tales. (Sorry, couldn't fit in "a canal" without even further debasing myself.)

A few have inquired, so you’ve brought it upon yourself. Here are the recipes for the featured drinks we served up that night.

Isthmus Cooler
1.5 oz Ron Abuelo 7 Year Rum
.5 oz Dolin Rouge Vermouth
.25 oz Velvet Falernum
.25 oz fresh lime juice
2 oz soda water

Build in collins glass and fill with crushed ice; garnish with lime wheel.

Plantain Daiquiri
2 oz Trigo Reserva Aneja Rum
.75 oz housemade caramelized plantain liqueur
.5 oz fresh lime juice

Shake and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lime twist.
Hedgehog’s Delight
2 oz Ron de Jeremy
.5 oz fresh lemon juice
.5 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz Strong Darjeeling tea
1 oz spiced syrup
Dash of Angostura bitters

Mix all ingredients with long, battery-powered swizzle stick. Serve in ice-filled 9.75” glasses. Garnish with edible orchids, mint sprig, lime wheel.
2 oz Zafra 21 Year Rum
.5 oz Benedictine
Mix and chill above ingredients and top with spiced cream (see below). Garnish with a “¡Viva Panama!” stencil and Angostura bitters in a spray bottle.
Spiced cream: Mix 6 parts cream, 1 part demerara simple syrup, 1 part Licor 43, and dash of Angostura bitters. Beat just until aerated and bubbles appear, and is very lightly thickened.


Mai Kai's secret stash

I spent a fair amount of time at the Mai Kai during the Hukilau. If you haven't been, you must remedy this by planning a trip to Fort Lauderdale. Opened in 1956, it's one of the last, great vestiages of the tiki era, a piece of Atlantis that somehow was not eroded into sand by the waves of white wine spritzers and light beer. It's a marvel.

And during one of my visits here, the freakishly unflappable general manager, Kern Mattei (whose father by the same name was general manager here for years) took us back to the well-run service bar, which cranks out hundreds of elaborate drinks each night.

But what was most impressive here was what lined the top two shelves — bottle of early rums amassed years ago by Mariano Licudine, one of the first bartenders here and a veteran of Don the Beachcomber's. It was like that tomb in China filled with terra cotta soldiers.

Stephen Remsberg, a friend who happens to be the world's most accomplished collector of vintage rums, was with us. Stephen isn't very chatty under most circumstances, but his quiet awe here spoke volumes. He walked slowly down and pointed out decades-old rums that he hadn't seen in years, if ever.

Kern graciously pulled down a bottle of Ron Rico from the 1950s, and poured us a tot. This is not the Ron Rico of today — it was big and round and lush.

Of course, these rums don't go into the drinks served today. But merely being on the shelves next to service bar rums makes the drinks taste better. I'm pretty sure of that.


Scenes from a Rum Revolution

Scenes from the Hukilau's Rumposium, organized and hosted by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, Fort Lauderdale, June 11, 2011. Panelists includes Ian "Rum Ambassador" Burrell of London; Martin Cate of Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco; Stephen Remsberg, noted rum collector of New Orleans, and my own self, Wayne Curtis, Slow Cocktailian and drinks writer.

No thatch was destroyed, nor animials killed during this three-hour event. However, much rum was consumed for the cause.

To join the revolution, sign up at



Hukilau report: Moon Barrel takes tiki drink competition

The Hukilau, taking place this weekend in Fort Lauderdale, is not a drinking or cocktail conference… it’s a lifestyle conference. A lot of Hawaiian shirts and muumuus and garments that probably have very specific names that I don’t know. And music, much inspired by Martin Denny. And art — tiki heads and tiki mugs and things that go in your tiki garden, assuming you have such a thing, which is a pretty good assumption here.

I was a judge last night poolside for the mixology competition, sipping and murmuring with an illustrious crew of fellow judges — Ian (“Rum Ambassador”) Burrell from London, Stephen Remsberg the noted New Orleans rum collector, and Martin Cate, proprietor of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. The whole event was hosted by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the world’s leading arbiter of all potions tiki.

The Master Mixology Competition charged the five competitors to come up with a modern take on the Rum Barrel, a famous early tiki drink concocted by Don the Beachcomber. These weren’t supposed to be replicas, but to take the original taste profile (see Jeff Berry’s Sippin' Safari for the complete history, or swing by Difford’s Guide for a quick recipe) and run with it. 

The winner? New York-based Joe Desmond, who came up with the Moon Barrel, a wonderfully robust, balanced, and well-rounded drink made with lime juice, orange juice, both Montanya white and golden rums, Smith and Cross navy proof rum, and honey. And possibly many other things that I forgot to write down. (My excuse: This drink had four ounces of rum, and the four others in the competition were equally rum-liberal. Plus, to calibrate our tastebuds, some judges stopped by the Mai Kai beforehand for an original Rum Barrel.) And the presentation was superb — with a nice big moony peach as a garnish.

Second place went to Grady Johnson, who won last year. His drink was the Admiral Vernon’s Flagship, a fine concoction enlivened with Blenheim’s extra spicy ginger ale, and with a fine garnish of a mini-sailing ship, made of an orange slice, toothpicks, and dried papaya slices.

More from the Hukilau to follow. But now: the beach. 


Lemon Hart 151: In a store near you. (Maybe. Depending where you live. And how lucky you are.)

Hear that distant rumbling sound? That’s the noise of trucks filled with Lemon Hart 151 rolling across the United States, having just come in from Canada, where the overproof yet densely flavored Guyanese rum is blended and bottled at Hiram Walker’s.

Lemon Hart 151 was pulled out of the U.S. markets over a year ago, prompting much gnashing of teeth and wearing of sackcloth, especially among tiki cocktail strict reconstructionists. (It’s called for by name in some popular tiki concoctions like the Aku Aku Lapu.) Pernod Ricard, which owned the brand, recently sold it to Mosaiq, which led to further complications owing to the Pernod Ricard name being on the label of the remaining cases, etc, etc. Minster of Rum Ed Hamilton has helped sort that out and is now importing the rum in conjunction with Mosaiq.

I met up last night for drinks with Minister Hamilton, who was still agleam from having made a last-minute dash to the New Orleans post office to overnight a five-figure check to his customs broker. He hoped that was the last “i” to be dotted before the rums would start moving into the stores. And everything looks pretty promising right now.

At the outset, he's bringing in the last of the Pernod Ricard bottling, for a total of 481 cases with the old, familiar labels. Those are being parceled out to eight states: California, Illinois (both of which should see it on store shelves in the next few days, if bar owners don’t intercept it first), Louisiana, Colorado, Hawaii, Texas and New York. (TX and NY will likely be the last to get it, due to some downstream complications.)

This allotment will need to tide people over until June, when another shipment (likely 600 or 700 cases) will arrive in the U.S. But this second round will be unlike the first. It will be aged and blended in Guyana, then bottled in Newfoundland (such are the arcane ways of the international liquor trade).

The second generation Lemon Hart will have a new bottle, new label (pictured above), and — actually — new rum. It will be different formulation, but the distiller swears it will be even better than the original. Hmmm. Now where have we heard that before? (*Cough* New Coke *Cough*) Time will tell. Note to self: save a bit of the original bottling for comparative taste tests later.

If you’re not in one of the blessed eight states, check Binny’s website for online ordering (not listed yet, but hope springs, like, you know, eternal).