The plight of the sugar cane cutter

December 14th, 2015

The discussion about sugar cane workers in Nicaragua and the response from Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited is highlighting Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), a problem that has been identified in several countries across several industries associated with strenuous work particularly in tropical climates. If you think I’m writing this to exonerate anyone for the death of any human being stop reading this and crawl back into your dark, ignorant hole. Today, I am not employed by Flor de Caña or any of the affiliated companies that make this rum but they have earned my respect over many years.
I had the privilege of visiting Nicaragua and the Ingenio San Antonio sugar factory and the Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua distillery that makes Flor de Caña rum a few years ago after Skyy Spirits acquired the import rights to Flor de Caña for the US. Before traveling to Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, I was aware of kidney disease among cane cutters in that region, which at that time was being attributed by some journalists to insecticides used to control insects. To say I was concerned about this issue, and my involvement as a consultant to the importer of a rum company that was being accused of poisoning their workers, is an understatement. During my visit I asked about insecticides and was told the use insecticide use had been reduced after planting eucalyptus trees around the sugar cane fields which provided a habitat for birds of prey that control rats and other pests that attract the sugar cane harvest.
A couple of decades ago burning cane was a common practice that drove poisonous snakes from the cane fields. Burning also makes it easier for workers to cut the cane by eliminating the sharp, serrated leaves that cut worse than paper. Every year less and less cane is burned around the world. The environmental impact of burning cane is terrible as the dense, thick smoke blows for miles through dwellings adjacent to the fields. At times the smoke can be so thick visibility is reduced and airports miles from the fields are forced to close. As an alternative to burning, more and more sugar cane around the world is cut by massive machines that have a couple of advantages. Machines are more reliable than men toiling in the tropical heat and the fields don’t have to be burned (though they still are in many places).
I saw some sugar cane cutting machines in the maintenance yard next to the sugar mill and asked how much sugar cane was being machine cut. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and labor is cheap in this country of six million people. Following the trend of using more machines to cut more cane could have drastic effects on those who depend on the sugar cane harvest as their primary means of support. I was told that the sugar estate will continue to employ as many cane cutters as want to work. Under ideal conditions machines can replace as many as one hundred men. The heavy machines can’t operate in steep hills or muddy fields, so there will always be some demand for manual cane cutters. I also learned that all of the cane cutting was done by contractors but that cane cutters in Chichigalpa make more money than those in adjacent Central American countries. Competition for jobs and the fact that these workers are concentrated in Chichigalpa as opposed to being migrant workers may account for some of the higher CKD rates in this area. In many other places, cane cutters travel many miles to work in the fields and aren’t counted in their communities if they get sick and can’t work or even die. Is this scientific proof that this disease isn’t actually more concentrated in Chichigalpa? Of course not, but it is a fact that may skew the statistics viewed by the casual observer.
Today, I’m surprised that many medical researchers agree that they don’t know as much about the causes or prevention of chronic kidney failure that is affecting agricultural workers, miners, dock workers and other laborers around the world as we might assume them to know in 2015. It is generally agreed, however, that more fresh water for hydration and more rest breaks in the shade, two things that will help reduce the body’s core temperature can significantly reduce the occurrence of CKD.
Can more be done for the plight of the cane cutters in Nicaragua? Absolutely! In September, Bacardi was called out for their involvement in buying distillate produced from sugar cane cut by workers who are also affected by the harsh conditions in the cane fields as reported by Fair The tide is turning and more people every day are becoming aware of this problem and more resources are being committed to the health of the workers in Central America but the problem of CKD is affecting more than sugar cane cutters in Nicaragua.
A few times during my trip to Nicaragua, I felt like I was getting the corporate banner waved in my face, or maybe I was just being my cynical self, but I listened and learned more than I thought I would. Grupo Pellas, the parent company of Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited, Ingenio San Antonio (the sugar mill that processes the cane) and Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (the distillery that makes Flor de Caña Rum) is committed to the improved welfare of the country. My skepticism about this corporate giant in a country that was endured years of war and an earthquake in 1972 that leveled Managua, the capital city, was tempered when I saw the modern, high-pressure, super-heated boiler and generator in a warehouse near the sugar mill. During the cane season, roughly the first half of the year, the spent cane was burned to produce 23% of Nicaragua’s electricity. The rest of the year, eucalyptus, harvested by men who cut sugar cane during the cane season and who would be otherwise unemployed, fueled the high-efficiency boilers to produce 17% of the country’s electricity.
Another surprising revelation was that spent yeast from the distillery was used as feed stock for the million-gallon anaerobic digesters that convert the nutrient-rich distillery effluent to methane that is used to generate all of the energy used in the distillery and bottling plant. And instead of only producing raw sugar to be sold as pawn chips in the international sugar market, more ethanol was being produced to further reduce Nicaragua’s dependence on foreign oil.
A more subtle suggestion that these companies care about the environment and their future was the rum bottle itself. A more efficient shape than the round bottle used by almost every other spirit company. Square bottles fit into smaller boxes which saves a piece of cardboard a bit bigger than a postcard but multiplied by four million cases a years added up to a few box cars of imported cardboard. Since my visit, Flor de Caña introduced a new bottle which is less efficient, hopefully they will revert back to the more efficient bottle but that’s another story.
Over dinner and the ubiquitous rum and Coke, made with sugar not hfcs, I asked one of the engineers how he was able to convince the company to invest millions of dollars in what seemed like luxuries in this poor country. The answer reminded me of language attributed to Henry Ford. I don’t remember the exact words but it went something like this: By reducing our dependence on foreign oil we can help the stability of our country. By selling electricity to the government grid at just above our cost, we can help every citizen of this country. As the standard of living in Nicaragua improves and people use more electricity we will not be able to continue to provide as much of the electricity demand as we do today, but we will continue do our part to build this country.
Every sugar mill sells molasses to more than one distillery, just as almost every distillery buys molasses from more than one source (only distilleries like this one which are aligned with a sugar mill that produces more molasses than they can use are the exceptions). Likewise, every distillery sells alcohol to more than one customer after they satisfy their own needs. Ingenio San Antonio is no different. Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua is Ingenio San Antonio’s biggest and most important customer but it is by no means their only customer. There are a handful of rums blended from rum from this distillery, but in deference to the blenders and brand owners I’ll let them tell you where they source their raw materials. On the other hand, if I published everything l’ve learned over the past twenty years I would lose the trust of many of the people who have been instrumental in my education in this industry. As I wrote in 1995, there’s a bit of magic in every bottle of rum. If I told you everything, it would no longer be magic. While I take every opportunity to be transparent in regards to every bottle of rum I sell through my import company, I will not take that liberty with every other sugar cane product on the shelf.
Growing and harvesting sugar cane is hard work and one of the reasons that since 2000 there has been no sugar being produced in Puerto Rico, St Kitts and Trinidad. Other Caribbean islands like Antigua, Dominica, St Vincent got out of the sugar business years ago as the economy of scale favored the larger estates in Central and South America.
Cane cutters in most countries are paid by the weight of the cane they cut. Laborers work as hard as they can to make as much money as they can during the cane season. Workers paid by the hour can afford be more concerned with getting enough hydration, rest and staying healthy. In Martinique, for example, a cane cutter can earn more than $2,000/month plus health and retirement benefits as well as having some stability in their lives. But before you think that is a good money I will tell you that I have cut sugar cane in the fields in Grenada while I was researching my first book. I didn’t arrive in the field at sunrise like the rest of the crew but after my breakfast and morning coffee. The crew I was working with were paid about $2/ton of cut cane. We took a few breaks under the mango trees along the road next to the cane field but the fruit wasn’t yet ripe. We quit cutting before 1pm, stopped for lunch and then spent another hour or so stacking the cane into piles to be picked up by a tractor that hauled our harvest to the mill. I would have made enough money for a couple of beers and some food, but wouldn’t have been able to sustain myself on what I made in the field on that relatively nice cloudy day. I also had an advantage over my crew. I brought a few new files that I used to sharpen the blades we used and the time I spent sharpening blades in the shade wasn’t spent cutting cane in the sun.
The reality and truth of this and other work related health issues is that some of us, even in what we call civilized societies, do things that endanger our well being lives. And even if we don’t endanger our own lives we support businesses that endanger the lives of others. As I write this on Sunday afternoon, how many athletes will risk career- or life-ending injuries on the American football field today? The first difference is that many of these athletes are paid more for this day’s performance than the rest of us will make in years and more than most sugar cane cutters will earn in many lifetimes.
How many small American corn farmers that have been bankrupt by the makers of gmo seeds and how has that affected the whiskey you drink. What are the working and environmental conditions in the factory where your phone or computer was made? Yes, these are rhetorical questions.
Before I set sail for the Caribbean, my last job was on an oil, actually gas-drilling, rig in Papua New Guinea. I later learned that it is much less expensive to insure an oil drilling operation than a deep-depth gas exploration drilling rig in the remote jungle. This was the third exploration well in what is now one of the biggest natural gas production fields in Asia. To get to the rig site we flew a chartered, fixed wing aircraft from Port Moresby to Hari, a remote, mountain village that had little more than an air strip and a few huts. From there, we flew in a helicopter to the first exploration well site, marked by a helicopter crash where all of the crew and passengers had died. From there, the pilot took a course over a mountain ridge to the second exploration well site, also marked by a helicopter crash that also took the lives of all on board. Even if we survived the helicopter flights in the rugged mountainous terrain we could only hope that nothing would go wrong as the rig drilled day and night to depths of more than three miles into the earth. I left the oil, or rather gas, fields because I knew I could survive doing something else. I didn’t for a moment think I’d end up in the rum business, but I was open to anything that didn’t involve the possibility of my fiery death as the result of circumstances beyond my control. Many of the friends I made in those places didn’t have the options I had, some perished within a few months of my departure.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned in the Gulf of Mexico after a blowout due to a faulty cement job and a rushed schedule that can only be explained by corporate cost cutting, eleven lives were lost. There was predictable, justifiable condemnation of the events that led to those deaths and the environmental damage that followed. Every conscious person was outraged, but who among us quit driving a car in response to that event.
Certainly, to date, the response from Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited sounds a bit corporate, like GM’s response to their ignition switch problem, or gun manufacturer’s response to mass shootings. If you don’t know it by now let me tell you that this is what corporations do. But, the ball has begun to roll and is gaining speed. Research dollars are being spent and the workers are getting some of the relief they so desperately need. Unfortunately those dollars won’t help those who have died or been disabled by this disease. I am encouraged that research has also been initiated into possible environmental or hereditary conditions that might predispose populations to this condition.
Here’s a link to a new website that outlines what is being done by Ingenio San Antonio as well other information I found interesting and informative about the causes and treatment of Chronic Kidney Disease.
By next year’s harvest, hundreds of cane cutter’s jobs in Nicaragua could be eliminated by buying a couple of cane cutting machines. Is this a solution to the CKD problem in Nicaragua? I, for one, don’t think so. For my part, I’m going to continue to ask questions and listen for the answers. International attention has been drawn to this issue, but I’m not going to condemn a company that is committed to raising the standard of living in Nicaragua. There are a lot of proposals on the table and some may actually be completed.
The Pellas family emigrated from Italy to Nicaragua in the last decades of the nineteenth century and have been citizens of Nicaragua for more than a century. This is not a multinational, corporation that is exploiting everything and everyone in their path. They have built an enviable business under very difficult conditions over many years and from my experience are more proactive toward improving the environmental and social impacts of their business than many others in the industry. Is there a lot more work to be done? Absolutely, but I also wish there were more companies like this one in the spirits industry.

Edward Hamilton
Dec 13, 2015

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Rum Cover Over Tax

March 3rd, 2013

Nearly one hundred years ago the US Congress initiated what has become to be commonly known as the Rum Cover Over tax. Without knowing anything about rum, the reader should understand that something is being covered over and the word tax should tell you that it involves money. If you drink rum in the US, it’s your money.

For the last 80 years or so, no one really talked much about this line in the congressional archives that gave money back to the US Virgin Islands according to the federal tax that was paid in the form of Federal Excise Tax on sugar cane spirits imports from that Caribbean territory.

Currently the Federal Excise Tax, or FET as it is known in the industry, on a 750ml bottle of alcoholic beverages at 80 proof, the standard bottle you’ll find on a liquor store or bar shelf is or 40% alcohol is $2.17. One liter and 1.75 liter bottles are taxed $2.89 and $5.06 respectively. Back in 1917, the US government agreed to give back to the US Virgin Island general fund, most of that tax, which was smaller in those days. Since the money came back to the USVI general fund, it could be used for whatever purpose the local governor thought best served his islands.

About 1957, Puerto Rico appealed to the fine folks in Washington for the same deal. And they confirmed what fine folks they are, by giving Puerto Rico the same benefits that their windward neighbors had been enjoying the previous 40 years. Bacardi was in the process of gearing up production in Puerto Rico and it wan’t long before the tax on that rum sold in the US brought considerable dollars back to the island. The Puerto Rican government recognized that by passing on some of the money that Bacardi and other distilleries on the island were generating to the distillers themselves in the form of marketing assistance that even more money would come south from Washington, D.C. And it did.

The rest of the tax money would go to the Puerto Rican general fund and go to build schools and buy lavish houses and yachts for those elected to disperse that money from the general coffers. In the Virgin Islands, the story is similar but names of the people and companies involved differ.

And then came Diageo. No. That isn’t exactly true. Diageo had been buying rum from Serralles since the late 20th century for their Captain Morgan brand rum after they acquired that brand from Allied Domencq. Historically, Diageo didn’t own their rum distilleries as Seagrams had in the last century. But as the Captain Morgan and other brands grew, Diageo began searching for a place to build a modern rum distillery. They were already buying rum from Venezuela – Pampero and Cacique, and Guatemala – Zacapa, but they wanted to build a distillery so they could more closely manage their production costs in a stable political environment. The decision of where to build was also influenced by the value of the concessions afforded them by the host country. Being a British company and since the British Virgin Islands are too small to accommodate a project of this size, Diageo went to the US Virgin Islands began the conversation about building on St Croix.

Rum production on St Croix dates back centuries, almost to the introduction of sugar cane to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus to what he called the West Indies in 1493. Well, Chris, didn’t actually carry the sugar cane with his own hands, he was too busy for that, but he was the guy that got the Queen of Spain to finance his trip after successfully returning from a shakedown cruise the previous year. Sugar cane, was one of the plants he brought which he claimed he would use to start a new Spanish colony in the New World. Closer to the truth was that starting a Spanish colony would give the conquistadors a base from which to explore, or more accurately exploit, the riches of the New World.

By the 18th century, St Croix was a patchwork of sugar cane fields. Even today you can see the remains of sugar mills and distilleries from almost anywhere on the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Lacking a protected port like Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas, St Croix didn’t develop as the trading center but rather the agricultural center of the Virgin Islands.

In the last century only two distilleries remained until hurricane Hugo destroyed the Brugal distillery in 1989. Since that time the Cruzan distillery has grown through a number of acquisitions and takeovers as international companies recognized the quality of the rum produced and aged on St Croix. Everything changed a few years ago when the US Virgin Islands governor made a deal with Diageo to build a distillery not too far from Cruzan. But there was going to be a big difference, Diageo would get back half of the rum cover over tax money that it generated. Governments giving industries incentives to invest in their region is nothing new, but in this deal, Diageo would get back more than their cost of production for any sugar cane spirit sold in the US and thence taxed by Uncle Sam, their new favorite uncle.

And there was more, St Croix would help finance the construction of the distillery through bonds guaranteed by the money that would be generated by the new distillery. A match made in political heaven. Not many businesses get back more than their cost of production even before they get paid for their product.

Five hundred years after the Spanish sailed by what are now the Virgin Islands because they didn’t see the golden treasure they were looking for, it seems Diageo has found more than gold.

As you might expect, Puerto Rican rum producers cried foul because by their laws only a small percentage, less than 20% of the rum cover tax received by the Puerto Rican island government could go to the rum producers themselves. Another percentage would go to Rums of Puerto Rico, that promotes all of the rums from that island.

The owners of the Cruzan distillery also felt a bit slighted but were able to negotiate some low cost loans to they could modernize their facility and compete a bit more fairly with their new neighbor. Unlike Diageo, Cruzan depends on aging their rum, a process that ties up a lot of money and resources. But like Diageo, Serralles and Bacardi, Cruzan also sells a fair bit of fresh bulk rum to blenders and bottlers that use it for a myriad of products some of which don’t even have the word rum on the label.

But don’t think for a minute that this is just a local controversy between a couple of neighboring islands over an estimated $30 billion over the next 25 or so years. Almost every rum producer in the Caribbean has cried foul claiming Diageo and other US Caribbean rum producers are enjoying unfair advantages in what is supposed to be free and level market.

Most of the those people have forgotten the $5 million euros the EU spent a few years ago to promote Caribbean rum. But even if Diageo had orchestrated that promotion and paid the entire bill itself, it would have paled in comparison to this deal. There have been rumblings of misconduct by Congressmen, but that’s mostly died down as business as usual as there were more important issues during the last US presidential election. And there has been talk about a suit against the US in the World court. Who will finance such a court battle is yet to be seen. Every rum producer and rum producing country has their own interest and though unity is probably the only way such a challenge could succeed, the reality just isn’t that simple.

The Dominican Republic rum producers claim to be harmed by the Diageo rum cover over tax deal. The reality is that only rum sold for consumption in the US is subject to the rebates. And much of the rum produced on the Dominican Republic, less than 100 miles downwind from Puerto Rico, is distilled on Trinidad or Panama and then blended and bottled in a free trade zone on the south coast of the DR. The next time you pick up a bottle of rum, look for the country of origin of the rum, not just the country where the rum was produced.

The Dominican Republic government receives a lot of aid from Uncle Sam and many influential Americans including the Clintons vacation on the south coast of the DR. Although the blended and bottled rum market is important to the DR for employment, there are little to no alcohol tax paid in that country since the bottling industry operates in a free trade zone and most of those products are not sold on that island.

Historically, the West Indian Rum and Spirits Producers have failed to cooperate as a group to do much of anything. In 2000, they agreed not to adopt any best practices for their industry, so it seems unlikely that they will be capable of uniting on something even this important to them. In the bigger picture, this as an opportunity to differentiate between the rum that is being distilled and bottled by Diageo and that which has decades, if not centuries, of tradition. Certainly the Caribbean rum producers on Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Jamaica, Antigua, St Lucia and others are justified in feeling that they are at a disadvantage, but they have so much more to sell in terms of authenticity and heritage if they wanted to be more transparent. It should be noted that the tax advantage is greatest for a company that is selling the cheapest, freshest rum. The price of an older, more expensive rum isn’t affected by the cover over tax nearly as much as a young, cheap rum. And as the rum market expands, imbibers are looking for better products with less regard to what even Diageo admits is a high fructose corn, flavored, sugar cane spirit.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the future of this controversy. (Don’t get me started on the corn subsidies that are destroying the health of livestock and the American population. Please). But there is one indisputable fact that is as clear as the words on this page. When everything thing is said and done, there will have been a lot more said than done.

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National Rum Day 2012

August 16th, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012 is National Rum Day. In recent days I’ve received more rum recipes than I could possibly publish but I would be remiss if I didn’t post a new blog post on National Rum Day. Never heard of National Rum Day? Well, you’re not alone, unless you’re a rum drinker that follows the internet buzz on my favorite spirit. In about it’s fifth year of being a recognized day of appreciation for sugar cane spirits National Rum Day is being recognized by all of the important media including too many blogs to mention and that icon of credibility, the Huffington Post. Sorry cachaça drinkers and importers, cachaça is still classified as rum in the US where National Rum Day was born but at the Ministry of Rum we still accept you as a sugar cane spirit.

How you celebrate National Rum Day is up to you, but here are a few tips to help you make the most of this special day. Take the opportunity to try something new today. Everyone has their favorites, but rum is the most diverse of all the distilled spirits. Celebrate the diversity of rum with something you haven’t tried before. There will still be time to go to one or two of your old favorites, but you owe it to yourself, if you call yourself a rum drinker or an adventurous soul, to expand your horizons. If you’re like most of us you’ll be working part of the day, so take some of that work time and educate yourself about a rum you haven’t tried before. You don’t want to be another boring rum drinking do you? Learn something you can share with your friends. Even if you and your friends enjoy the same rums do you know the population of the country where that rum is made? What year was rum first made in that country? What is the capitol? And what is the current exchange rate between your countries? The moer you know about the rum in your glass the more you’re going to enjoy it.

Invite a friend share some rum with you. You’ll feel better and so will your friend.

Ask your bartender what they recommend? Bartenders are a wealth of information and misinformation, but they shouldn’t be overlooked as resources. Even if they don’t know the capitol of the country that made the rum they are pouring, they could very well introduce you to a new drink that will become a new favorite.

So what rum should you drink on National Rum Day? Go with a a few to celebrate the diversity of this noble spirit. My first drink of the day will be a ‘ti punch made with rhum agricole. Then I’ll look for something to eat and a rum punch made with something that has been aged, but not aged too long. After dinner it will be time for a rum old fashioned or something aged in a glass with a little water.

What is the best rum to drink today? Twenty years ago I was visiting Barbados and was asked this question by a local reporter. The previous week I had enjoyed a lot of incredible rums ranging from fairly young rums to some of the oldest in the Caribbean. It was getting on into the night but I gave that reporter an answer that I has stood the test of time. The best rum is the one in your glass. There is a bit of magic in every glass of rum. No other spirit can take you from wherever you are to a sunny Caribbean beach in one sip.

Since rum is a truly international spirit, I’d like to offer a suggestion for National Rum Day. This day should be changed to International Rum Day. And to all the PR interns that have sent me rum recipes, you can post them on this website by registering on the forums and adding them yourself to the database. They will be selected at random to be shown on the front page every time that page is loaded, about 70,000 times a month this year.

Lastly, remember that you can’t lie on the beach and drink rum all day if you don’t start in the morning. Enjoy the day even if you aren’t on a beach in the islands. Cheers!

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Angostura Global Cocktail Contest

April 15th, 2012

It was nearly twenty years ago that I first sailed into Trinidad’s Carenage anchorage protected by the westernmost point of Trinidad and a few sparsely populated barrier islands. The trade winds that had powered my sloop from Florida south through the Eastern Caribbean island chain had died to a gentle breeze during the night. The ocean current augmented by the outflow from the Oronoco and Amazon rivers was stronger as I approached the Bocas, a group of small islands that guard the entrance to the Gulf of Paria and Trinidad. The brilliant blue Caribbean water had turned a duller hue and the tropical heat was almost oppressive early on that August morning. Even before I dropped anchor there were signs that this was not just another Caribbean island that wore the scars of hundreds of years of wars, slavery and the fall of the sugar trade on its chest.
In this anchorage, almost everything was different from the other islands, the aroma of the landscape drifting across the water, the sounds of the wildlife and the roar of the outboard motors on the fishing boats confirmed what I had heard Trinidad was a rich island where fuel was cheaper than water on many of the other islands. A few minutes later while clearing customs and immigration a woman wearing a freshly-pressed uniformed looked me straight in the eyes and asked the purpose of my visit to Trinidad and Tobago. “I’m here to research the rum of your islands,” was a reply that I had practiced on more than a dozen islands by that time. Without losing her eye contact she spoke directly to my eyes. “Beware the Puncheon!” She repeated the admonishment. “ Beware the Puncheon!” Then she firmly stamped my passport. She was practiced at imprinting the dark blue seal of her country evenly so that every letter would be easily read. I collected my papers and headed back to my dinghy where I got my first introduction to doubles. Without a doubt, Trinidad was going to be an experience like no other in the Caribbean.
So it didn’t take me long to accept an invitation I received a few months ago to come back to Trinidad and be part of the 2012 Angostura Aromatic Bitters Global Cocktail Challenge. Fortunately, for me, I wasn’t asked to judge the competition, there were more worthy souls to do that. Not that I don’t like cocktails prepared by some of the world’s best bartenders, but all too often it has been my experience that at the end of the day there is one winner and a dozen or more discouraged bartenders, some of whom have had more than enough time to consolidate their hatred of the judges while sipping some of their competitor’s concoctions and waiting for the results to be announced.
Arriving before most of the competitors, judges and other journalists, I wasn’t as jetlagged as some unfortunates who had traveled more than 36 hours to arrive at Piarco Airport outside Port of Spain, Trinidad in mid-February. I had forgotten how absolutely glorious the weather was in Trinidad at that time of year. Traveling from higher latitudes the weather, camaraderie and opportunity to catch up with old friends, connect face to face with people I only knew as Facebook friends or twitter followers really set the mood for a truly festive week. The competition itself was held on Sunday. Monday was the first day of Carnival, followed by the big celebration and parade Tuesday. Timing is everything, but it was only Thursday and there was a lot to do before the competition and carnival.
Each of the fifteen finalists had won regional competitions around the world – North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Europe, Russia, India, Australia, New Zealand and South America. The rules were straightforward, use Angostura Aromatic Bitters in two cocktails, one with rum – with Angostura being the preferred brand, this was after all an Angostura competition, and the other was a freestyle cocktail where bartenders could use just about anything they wanted to use. And they did.
Even before my first visit to Trinidad I was familiar with the small bottle with the over-sized label containing Angostura Aromatic Bitters but it wasn’t until I arrived on Barbados that I really got to know what was in that iconic bottle. Despite being made on Trinidad, Angostura Aromatic Bitters is more a part of the drinking culture on Barbados than it used to be on Trinidad, but that is changing. Visiting the Angostura compound just east of Port of Spain it is impossible to miss the name Angostura above the door, but until the past few years, my focus has always been on the rum produced here. In fact, in all of my visits over the years it was only recently that I was invited to see where the closely guarded medley of herbs and spices are percolated with alcohol to make the world’s most famous bitters. The ingredients are actually blended on the floor above where the essential oils, fragrance and flavors of the ingredients are extracted. After being meticulously measured by one of the only five people who guard the secret of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, the dry mixture is dropped through a chute onto stainless steel trays over which the alcohol is percolated by pumps for about 12 hours before being filtered, reduced and colored prior to bottling.
Originally formulated in 1824 as a tonic for troops fighting under Simón Bolivar in Venezuela by DrJ. G. B. Siegert, the bitters took its name from Angostura, a town on the banks of the Oronoco River where Dr. Siegert served as the Surgeon-General of Bolivar’s military hospital. After fighting in South America foreign soldiers returned to their homeland and took bottles of Angostura bitters with them, spreading the Angostura name around the world. In the last century Angostura Limited, as the company became known, began making its own alcohol to make the iconic bitters. Though a series of acquisitions and mergers, today the alcohol is produced by Trinidad Distillers Limited, which is wholly owned by Angostura Limited. Since 2000, TDL has been the only company producing molasses based alcohol in Trinidad. With the rise in popularity of bitters in the growing cocktail culture, Angostura has maintained its place as the most recognizable bottle behind the bar. Angostura Orange Bitters was the first new product to be released by the company in nearly two centuries. Though both of these products share the bitters name only the original Angostura Aromatic Bitters is considered an aromatic product, one where the aroma of the bitters is as important as the flavor of the liquid itself.
I’ve used bitters in cocktails, with varying degrees of success and I’ve added a few dashes of bitters when I’ve cooked stew, but was always afraid of using too much. When I was invited to an afternoon feast, to call it anything less would be an understatement, titled “Flavors of the World; Fusion Cuisine” ~ Featuring Angostura Bitters my appetite was tempered by apprehension. I’ve encountered more than a few things that had to be tasted to be believed and I became a believer that afternoon. Now, I’m not going to say that you are going to experience the same culinary wonders on your first try at home (this feast was created by Chef Israel Calderon, CEC, CCA). I certainly would encourage you to try a bit of bitters in your cooking the next time you’re ready for a bit of adventure on your plate.
Take a look at some of these recipes and if your mouth doesn’t water, you have just finished a great meal or you need to have your glands checked.
After a great meal and another cocktail it’s time to relax and listen to the sound of the islands. Antigua and Trinidad claim to be the original home of the steel pan. Sometime after WWII, discarded oil drums were beaten into shapes that would yield a number of delightful notes, depending on how well the pan was tuned. The process of making a steel pan takes many careful hours by trained pan makers. In most pan yards there are a couple of apprentices that do the initial shaping before the masters take over to tune the pan. Then the pan head is heated to relieve some of the stressed formed in making the instrument. At this point it is no longer a discarded oil drum. The pan is ready to be painted, chromed or powder-coated to keep it from rusting away over time. Orchestras of more than 30 pan players are common with that number going over 50 in the larger pan orchestras. Close your eyes and you can hear all kinds of instruments from brass to wind to all kinds of percussion. In Trinidad young people learn to play pan music in school and for a few it becomes a lifelong passion that takes them around the world.
A few days before Carnival, Panorama is a nationwide competition of pan bands from around the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Don’t even think of going to Trinidad without going to see and hear at least part of Panorama. Like a lot of the activity in Trinidad during the Carnival season, Panorama is broadcast live on local tv, but there is nothing like seeing this in person.
The 2012 Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge was held Feb 19th at Trotter’s Restaurant & Bar. Although the competition itself is not a public event, a number of distributors, press and enthusiasts managed to get in to see a great exhibition of talent. And lucky for us, we got to sample most of the cocktails as the contestants made extra a few extras for the crowd to taste with straws.
Each bartender made two cocktails and before long it was evident that even simple drinks that we all have been enjoying can, with judicial use of bitters, be enhanced. The complex mixture of alcohol, roots, herbs, spices and other secrets quickly mixes in any alcoholic drink. Everything from a gin and tonic to a Manhattan can benefit from a bit of bitters. The addition of bitters adds another layer of flavor to cocktails just as it does in cooking. It soothes the acidity in citrus-based cocktails as well as non-alcoholic based drinks. Angostura Aromatic Bitters is 44.7% alcohol but since only a few dashes of this ingredient are used the additional alcohol added is negligible. Creamy drinks are enhanced in color and arom, while the nutty, citrus notes of the bitters tends to add a coherence to almost every cocktail in the competition. There is simply no other cocktail ingredient that adds so much flavor and character to a cocktail.
At the end of a grueling day (sampling cocktails all afternoon is hard work, if you can get it) the judges – mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, Eric Forget – Hine Cognac Cellar Master, Jacob Briars – Leblon Brand Ambassador, Vidia Doodnath – Angostura Executive Director and Andy Griffiths – the 2011 Global Cocktail Challenge Winner had to make some tough decisions. In the end, Rikki Carter of New Zealand won Best Rum Cocktail. David Delany Jr. from Massachusetts won the Best Freestyle Cocktail and Global Challenge Winner. David who had just quit his job a few days before flying to Trinidad took home a check for $10,000 and a position as the Global Ambassador for Angostura Aromatic Bitters for the coming year.
Want to try your bartending skills? Take a look at these recipes that were served in the 2012 AGCC.

Unlike many other competitions, everyone who participated in Trinidad had already won $5,000 in their regional competitions, not to mention a trip of a lifetime to the home Angostura Aromatic Bitters, which just happened to be the day before Carnival. Timing is everything.

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The Annual Competition blog post

September 27th, 2011

Last week, six friends, who happen to be professionals in the spirits industry, joined me to judge rum submissions from 12 countries. The list of sugar cane spirits awarded medals in the Ministry of Rum Tasting Competition can be found here, along with information about my friends, aka the judges. Since the results were announced I have received more comments from email than any other since I began hosting competitions in 2006.

The spirit, no pun intended, behind the Ministry of Rum Tasting Competition is to recognize brands in a competitive setting. The results should only be used as a guide to your next purchase. Competitions are also a way to discover new products and get verified information into the Ministry of Rum database. Competitions are also a way to reach more press about the sugar cane spirit I love. There are always a couple of journalists on the panel of judges as well as other journalists who cover the competition and the results for a number of online magazines.

I hope this sheds some light on the process employed for the Ministry of Rum Tasting Competition, a process that has been adopted by a number of other spirit competitions. I look forward to next year, in the mean time I hope you have a chance to try more tums this year, there are some very good rums coming to a store or bar near you.

Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions.

You don’t have the bests rums in the competition?

Entries were submitted by distillers, blenders and pr firms from around the world. I don’t go out and buy a bunch of rums off the shelf in some US city, or wherever I happen to be. That approach would limit the competition to products that are available in a given city. Once a rum has won a few medals at competitions, sometimes the brand owner feels that it is a liability to risk not winning the highest medal every year.

If you don’t buy bottles off the shelf how can you be sure you’re not getting a competition bottle?

I rely on the distillers/blenders/pr firms not to misrepresent their product. In the words of Ronald Reagan, trust and verify. So, how do you verify that you’re not getting a competition bottle? All of the judges taste rum every week as part of their profession. With that said, once the judges have submitted their scores we reveal the rums and talk about any surprises. On occasion, judges have felt that the bottle before them wasn’t the same as what they remember from previous tastes. Unless the product isn’t available locally, we have gone out and obtained a bottle. And most of the judges have extensive collections so we can usually come up with another bottle, another reason the judges are chosen carefully.

Obviously, this competition was sponsored by . . .

I’ve been accused of being sponsored by several spirits companies in the past, but this year the number of different sponsorship accusations is already at three. None of the judges are compensated for their participation other than for their lunch. So they aren’t inclined to leave as soon as we’ve tasted the premium rums. This year Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, one of the best bars in the country, and it happens to be a tiki bar, was kind enough to offer the use of his bar for the tasting. Thank you Martin.

How do you determine the classes of rums? There should be more categories.

Ideally every rum would be in its own category, which is something I am considering, but more on that later. Categories are adjusted according to the entries. The premium rum category doesn’t include any white rums for instance. Of course there are premium white rums, just look at the prices on some of the white rums on the store shelf. Maybe I’ll change the category name to Premium Dark rums. At least that would satisfy one person. Me.

Sometimes there are only one or two rums in a category, such as the spiced rum category. Flavored rums are generally combined in a flight with spiced and the judges are instructed as to which are spiced rums and that the other rums are flavored, though the flavor is not revealed. I have tasted ’spiced’ rums that tasted more like vanilla-flavored rum than what I expect in a spiced rum. I go by the label and if the predominant word is spiced then that’s where the entry goes.

What rums didn’t win medals?

While many of the rums tasted do win bronze, silver or gold medals, not every rum wins a medal in this or any other competition. I don’t publish a list of rums that didn’t win medals because I don’t believe that publishing that list would encourage others to try them. And it could be viewed as a ‘do not drink’ list for rum snobs. The truth is that the quality of rums being submitted is better every year. Small and large distillers are making and selling better products that deserve recognition.

How could XYZ rum win a gold medal and not ABC?

If this competition was being held in any other country the results would be different. Tastes among rum lovers vary. Tasting 10 or more rums in a flight is a difficult job, which leads to an idea that might be more palatable to more people. Let the judges taste one sugar cane spirit at a time and then all of the judges would discuss what rating that spirit should receive. In the present system there is no discussion so no one or two people can influence the other judges. In the proposed system, less experienced judges may be intimidated if their opinions vary from those who they might think know more about the spirits than they do. On the other hand, using a smaller group of judges makes it possible to have a discussion with less possibility of prejudice.

I’m always looking to improve everything I do. If you have constructive input I would like to hear it, drop me a line. There’s an email link at the bottom of this page.

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Aug 16 is National Rum Day

August 15th, 2011

There are a few things we have as Americans that only a few other citizens of the world can claim as their own. I’m not writing about redundant, dysfunctional government officials, or over-taxed citizens but that not-so-famous, not-yet-holiday known as National Rum Day. This year, the speculation continues to swirl on the blogosphere about the origins of this iconic day in our lives so I’ll throw my two cents in the ring and state for the record that National Rum Day was started as a marketing campaign for a Caribbean Rum by a talented, not-quite-on-Madison Avenue PR company.

Over the weekend I have been sent numerous links to articles about National Rum Day by writers and publicists. The last of these National Rum Day articles made it painfully clear that I needed to get to work.

Before you read any further, take a moment and try to name ten different rums and the countries from which they come. Got it? Now read on.

In no particular order, here’s a short list of rums to look for in anticipation of National Rum Day. I’m writing about these rums because by the time National Rum Day comes around next year, you may not be able to find them and you certainly don’t want to miss out on these rums.

Bacardi is the best known, and best selling, rum in the world. Originally from Cuba, today’s Bacardi rums have evolved since the family fled that four-letter island and are produced around the world. Change can be good, but like their Añejo, that used to be one of my favorites when it was produced in Puerto Rico, not all changes are necessarily regarded as better by the wider audience. Another Bacardi product is going to change so here’s some news you can use. Bacardi 8, sometimes erroneously called Bacardi 8-year-old, is going to change, if not go away entirely. The distillery where this rum was made was shut down a couple of years ago, but there’s still some Bacardi 8 to be found. When you find a bottle, look on the back label for the words, ‘Product of the Bahamas.’ That’s the one you are looking for. Good enough to sip, cheap enough to mix, Bacardi 8 will have your friends asking where you found that rum.

Variety is the spice of life and there are no more diverse spirits than those made from sugar cane. Flor de Caña has been making a variety of rums for more than a hundred years. From the crisp, tropical fruit and coconut notes found in their clear 4-year-old white rum to the dry, roasted nut and smoky oak finish of their 19-year-old rum, there is something for every taste in their offerings. But nothing lasts forever and Flor de Caña 5-year-old is going to be hard to find in some markets, particularly in North America. But don’t despair if you can’t find any Flor de Caña 5-year-old, reach for the 7-year-old and you’ll be glad you did.

Another suggestion for National Rum Day, and this one isn’t going away, is Santa Teresa Claro, the rum of the month for August, 2011. About as close as you will come to the old Havana Club three-year-old rum for which Havana Club is famous, Claro has a slight tint since it isn’t fully carbon-filtered as aging at least two years. Venezuela has one of the longest minimum ages for bottled rum in the industry. Can you name two other islands with minimum ages for bottled rum? There are a lot of recipes for daiquiris and Claro and Flor de Caña 4-year-old white bring unique qualities to this drink.

Another rum that’s going to go away, though it was hardly known by even many of those who sold it, comes, or came, from Barbados. Mount Gay Sugar Cane Rum, also bottled as Mount Gay Sugar Cane Brandy on Barbados was arguably, the best rum from Mount Gay. Mount Gay Extra Old Barbados Rum has been one of my favorites since I first tasted it in 1994, but their Sugar Cane Rum was only a couple of bucks more than their least expensive Refined Eclipse. In August of each year, Crop Over on Barbados is the annual celebration of the bounty of the island. Since this is the closest of the island celebrations to National Rum Day, it could have been, just might have been, someone working on the Mount Gay account that first coined this National Day, but like the secrets in every bottle of rum, some secrets are best when they remain secrets.

Other secrets should be shared, like how to best enjoy these and other rums. It is almost impossible to miss if you mix one of these fruit juices with rum and a bit of lime. Depending on your taste I suggest guava, pineapple, coconut water or those old standbys orange or grapefruit juice. If you buy your juice, make sure you are buying juice and not fruit drink. Look for 100% fruit juice in the label ingredients and not high-fructose corn syrup mixed with some fruit flavoring. Ginger Beer or high quality Ginger Ale is also one of my go to mixers that is sure to please.

If you’re more talented, or think you are, take a look at the recipes on this site and you’ll certainly get some inspiration. Experiment a little and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Substitutions are acceptable, but remember that the person that makes those great drinks for you at the best bars in the country has spent months, if not years, perfecting the drink they are serving you. Practice makes perfect.

What will I be drinking on National Rum Day? It’s a good bet that I’ll start with a ti punch and then move on to something with fruit juice in it and then I’ll probably end the night with something that has spent a decade or more in an oak barrel silently maturing in the tropics either with a couple of chips of ice or mixed in an old fashioned.

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2010 is all but over,

December 31st, 2010

but before I say goodbye to 2010 I’d like to offer a few observations of the past year and a few predictions for 2011.

As the song said, “It was a very good year . . .” If you were a rum drinker, you saw more new spiced rums come to the market than any time since, well, suffice it to say, ever. More companies are planning to spend more money marketing their rum portfolio next year.

There will continue to be new, over the top, super duper, ultra, pinnacle-topping rums coming to a store or bar near you, along with new desriptors dreamed up by marketing people drinking rum on tropical islands at great expense. And there will be more rums that didn’t live up to their hype over the last decade in the bargain bin next to the cash register in your local liquor store. And the flood of email from laid off marketing people looking for work at the Ministry of Rum will persist.

The category of spiced sugar cane spirits that has been largely ignored by all but the largest spirit company in the world, is seeing renewed interest. In the last twenty years even Bacardi, despite their plethora of flavored rums, discontinued Bacardi Spice, but the tide is changing and even Bacardi has introduced a new spiced rum, though it doesn’t have the familiar bat on the label. Among the new spiced rums entering the market in 2010 some aren’t sweetened with artificial sweeteners and some are even quite good.

Cachaça continues to struggle in the export markets outside Brazil but the scheduled Olympics and World Cup in Brazil will certainly pay dividends to those that have put their hearts and souls into this category.

Rhum agricole has seen a couple of new exports from the French Caribbean. Demand for these rhums continues to rise and more and more bartenders outside the French Caribbean have learned to make a ‘ti punch. And, a  few of these bartenders actually know that ‘ti is Creole for petit, the French word that translates to ‘delicate, little.’

More and more rum bars are opening outside the Caribbean, and the better news is that some of the people behind these bars actually understand the spirits they are pouring. Tiki, that authentically faux culture that transports the patron to exotic places where nothing on the menu has ever been served, is also seeing renewed interest. Call it a desire to escape from the reality of the world or a desire to drink better rum drinks, either way it’s a good thing for rum.

And Lemon Hart, that elusive quintessential tiki drink ingredient is going to come back to the rum shelf. There’s just a small matter of attorneys, a lot of money, and a few other details that I’m hopeful will be worked out in the coming week. Lemon Hart does deserve a place on the bar and I’m confident it will find its way back to your glass next year.

Punch is making a comeback, but this is your grandmother’s mint sherbet and ginger ale fruit punch. Made with whisky, bourbon or rum, I’ve also seem more gin punches than I care to remember, punch can be great, or less than memorable. The good news is that most punch bowls hold more than a couple of ounces of rum and it is easier to make a punch bowl full of drink than to make individual cocktails for your next party. And you’ll friends will think you’re ahead of the cool curve. Or is that the awesome curve this year? Leftover punch is also great ‘hair of the dog’ to go with your, greasier-the-better, sausage and eggs breakfast in the morning.

The problem of finding the new sugar cane spiris that come to the market is one of the challenges I addressed when I started working on the Ministry of Rum website 15 years ago. In the coming weeks distillers, importers and distributors will be able to add their customers to the Ministry of Rum database and make the consumers task of finding new sugar cane spirits easier than ever. Will this change the way sugar cane spirits are marketed? Probably not, but it will reduce the pile of messages in my inbox asking me where someone can buy the latest rum they found mentioned in a press release that didn’t give them a clue as to where to buy, or even taste, the latest sugar cane elixir.

So here’s to a successful New Year. Please enjoy my favorite spirit responsibly and take the time to share your good fortune with friends.

All the best,

Edward Hamilton

And though my crystal ball isn’t a lot clearer than it was last year, I also see too many gin mojitos, faux-rum-tinis and a few bogus tiki drinks with plastic umbrellas in the coming year. My best advice is to simply ask yourself, “Would Hemingway drink this?”

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Are the rules interfering with your rights?

September 8th, 2010

If you haven’t noticed by now, you have very few rights in this or any other country. You do have, however, a few privileges. But before you flaunt your new-found freedom understand that there are people in your government who are working overtime to curtail those privileges in the name of, well, they’ll think of something, that’s just what they do. Before you tweet this post with your comment that I’ve finally gone off my rocker, please read a little further.

There is hardly a country on this planet where the size of the government is shrinking. Oh there’s a lot of talk about candidates who are working to decrease the size of government, and there are whole parties based on the theory that smaller government is better. The truth is that even those who want to decrease the size of their government, first want to increase the size of the government by at least one individual, themselves, and a few others who have helped them get elected. Dictators aren’t a whole lot different when it comes to the size of the ruling force. And while I have been accused, correctly, or having a strong distaste for most elected officials, or those who take home a paycheck based on their ability to hold a job in the public administrative sector, there have been times in my life, albeit few of them, when I have actually agreed with a bureaucrat. Well, let me correct that, there have been exactly two times in the roughly half century of my life.

Just before the Labor Day weekend I canceled what would have been the third New York Ministry of Rum Festival. I was really looking forward to this event as were others who consider themselves connoisseurs of the spirit from as far away as Boston and the nation’s capitol. In the past this event has been a showplace for some of the best cane spirits available in the US. In the past two years, several brands have launched new products to an audience that appreciates quality and is respectful of the intoxicating effects of spirits. After both of the previous events all of the vendors took the time to personally tell me how much they liked holding this event at Papillon Bar & Bistro, a beautiful restaurant tucked under skyscrapers on 54th St in Midtown Manhattan, so as soon as the date was set for this year’s event, vendors and attendees began making arrangements to attend.  And then I found out that I didn’t have the correct permit to hold a spirits tasting in a restaurant. More correctly it seems that it is illegal to hold spirits tastings in restaurants anywhere in New York state.

I can hear you cry out, “Spirits tastings have been held in restaurants in New York for years!” And you’re right. They have been. (And the guy that got run over by the bus that turned right through the crosswalk, who is now under the bus, had the right of way as well.) But according to the current law, it is illegal to do spirits tastings in restaurants in New York. To date, no one has been cited for violating this provision of the State Statutes. Yes, these are State Laws, enacted by the State Legislature, and that’s the beginning of what will surely be a long, draw-out exercise in government inefficiency. Now I’m no lawyer, and I don’t play one on the internet, but after a few hours spent trying to make sense of the dos and don’ts of the current state of the New York State Laws, I’m only slightly less confused than I was before I made my first call to the State Liquor Authority. Let me back up, my first call left me more confused than I was when I got the notice from a major distributor that handles several brands that have participated in past events telling me that I didn’t have the right plenary permit to conduct a tasting in a licensed on premise restaurant where I had hosted tastings in the past. I won’t even try to make sense of that conversation that ended with the bureaucrat telling me that you couldn’t offer tastes of spirits in a restaurant because you might cheat the customer on the amount of spirit in the glass. To his credit, he did acknowledge that he wasn’t aware of any minimum amount of alcohol that a taste or cocktail had to legally contain. That was about the time that I mentally confirmed that that conversation was a waste of time and that to continue would serve no purpose, I was after all dealing with a government employee who takes home a paycheck to protect the public and the concept of rational thought was beyond the scope of our interaction then or in the future.

A few days later, my second phone call to the SLA was a complete and utter surprise. First, the person whose contact I had been given answered the phone instead of a secretary whose job it is to get rid of anyone who wants to talk to someone in the SLA office. Within a few minutes I began to understand that there are actually people, well at least one person, who understands that their job is not just to say no, like the guy in the Capitol One commercial, but rather to work toward a reasonable solution to the challenges of responsibly serving alcohol in New York in accordance with the State Law. My first clue that this person actually understood that saying no wasn’t going to work, was when he told me that he appreciated that prohibition didn’t work. What a revelation! For the second time in my life I was actually dealing with a bureaucrat that understands that just because there is a law on the books doesn’t mean that it is right, or that it is necessary to enforce that law for the public good.

It turns out that in early August, the SLA had a big meeting about how alcohol, specifically tastings, etc. should be handled in New York. It was really refreshing to hear a bureaucrat say that they didn’t want to shut down every tasting in New York without doing more work on the issue because there are a number of alcohol related tastings that have been going on for years. So without trying to upset the system myself I asked, “So what is the current enforcement policy on tastings?” While I tried not to gasp at the directness of my own question I moved the phone to the full extension of my long arm. “Well, at this time,” I heard a faint voice tell me and I dared to move the phone back to my ear, “we aren’t citing these events, providing . . .” And then it got a bit murky. The gist of the conversation is that the SLA is working hard to figure how they can enforce the laws regarding tastings, in restaurants, or at places with catering licenses, without upsetting the proverbial apple cart, too much.

So what’s going to happen. Well, in my case, it already has. I canceled the third New York Ministry of Rum Festival and here’s why. My crystal ball doesn’t work any better than yours, but it is my guess that at some point in the foreseeable future, there is going to be a publicized event that will be attended by a number of SLA employees, attorneys and others for the purpose of documenting what actually goes on at a spirits tasting. The event or events that are selected to be scrutinized will probably be analyzed and dissected by others who didn’t attend and these events will be used as examples of what is right or wrong with the current law. It is anyone’s guess what will happen when it is determined that the tasting broke the State Law, but I’m not in a position to defend myself against a citation for something that I know violates the State Law. I don’t have to agree with it, but I will, this time, respect the State Law and here’s why.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with a tasting that is held in a restaurant that is licensed to sell alcohol. The legal problem occurs when there is an admission charge, which there has to be in order to limit the number of attendees and to pay the cost of using a restaurant space during the busiest part of the day. And who is going to pay for the food, which isn’t available in off-premise businesses, which are the only legal place to currently conduct a tasting under New York Law. I’m also not in favor of events that are advertised on the internet as an opportunity to drink as much as you can in two or three hours. We’ve all seen the ads. I don’t want to deal with that kind of clientele and neither do the restaurants where I’ve hosted tastings in the past. Tastings that are held under a caterer’s permit run foul of the law because you can’t charge admission for such events and when you do you are essentially running an on-premise business in competition with surrounding businesses that do have an on-premise license and are paying thousands of dollars in property taxes and licensing fees every year.

So what’s the answer for someone who wants to host a responsible tasting? Well if it was simply up to the SLA, I think we would have a solution hashed out by the end of the year, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. We’re dealing with State Laws that can only be amended by the State Legislature, when it gets around to it. New laws will have to be drafted, voted on and then passed before there can be a change. Another solution would be for the State Legislature to give the SLA the authority to act responsibly in making rules that protect the public good and allow spirits companies to act responsibly while marketing their products to the protected public. The good news is that at least one person in the SLA understands that prohibition didn’t work.

If you’d like to leave a comment about this post please leave it here in the Ministry of Rum forums.

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Is the rum industry sustainable?

August 30th, 2010

In the 2010 Gibbs & Soell Sense & Sustainability TM Study the Executive Summary of 304 Fortune 1000 Companies concluded that 78% of the executives polled felt that there was insufficient return on investment for them to engage in a green initiative in their business.

Fortunately most agriculturally based businesses see sustainability as one of the cornerstones of their industry. The sugar cane spirits industry is certainly agriculturally based, but a surprising number of distillers and bottlers are doing nothing to save the environmental impact of their businesses. Certainly there are big differences between these two businesses, distillers generate byproducts that can be turned into methane and used to generate steam for more distillation while blenders have fewer opportunities. When I first started asking distillers what they did with their distillery byproduct streams no one, including me, was talking about environmental consciousness. This was all about money, cost of energy and cost of systems to convert byproducts to energy.  Once in a while the word pollution was mentioned but it was clear that neither the EPA, or any other similar foreign government office, wanted to interfere too much with the status quo when it came to the rum industry. From Puerto Rico to Martinique to Trinidad the general consensus was that it was too expensive to treat the distillation byproducts and at the same time too expensive to build a reliable system to turn these product streams into energy. In Trinidad where energy is relatively cheap, the answer was economics. “It will cost more than we can save in energy costs. Besides waste water treatment isn’t our problem that’s what we pay the municipality to do.”

In Martinique, no one wanted the government to impose anything that was untested and would cost too much money. Bacardi on Puerto Rico had spent upwards of $2 million, at a time when $2 million was considered real money, on a distillery waste treatment and anaerobic digester that failed to meet the expectations of Bacardi or the designer. In the mid-90s, the mantra echoed through the islands was that if Bacardi can’t do it, how can we be expected to?

At a recent Rum Barrel Debate in Oakland, I was joined by David Cid from Bacardi, Martin Cate – Smuggler’s Cove, Gerry Schweitzer from Leblon, some notable press representatives including Camper English from Alcademics and fifty other attendees. After a few minutes talking about the history of environmental consciousness in the sugar cane spirits industry it became clear that this was a topic that everyone felt was important enough to pay attention to. Bacardi, working with a local energy company, now has a wind turbine on their Puerto Rico property that provides all of the electrical energy required to power their visitor center. The last numbers I have from Bacardi are that they are also producing 30% of their energy from distillery byproduct conversion. On the south side of the island, Serralles is producing about 70% of their energy from distillery byproducts. About 200 miles west, on the island of Hispaniola, Brugal is producing more than 75% of their distillery energy from an anaerobic digester installed nearly ten years ago and expanded after the initial project proved to be successful.

It appears that you don’t have to be operating the biggest distillery in order to benefit from distillery byproduct conversion. And certainly in the Dominican Republic where energy costs are higher than in Puerto Rico, which are higher than in many places in the US, there is more of an economic incentive to convert as much distillery byproduct as possible to usuable energy. As Diageo builds what will arguably be the biggest and most modern distillery in the Caribbean, a distillation byproduct recovery system is part of the design that will not only help control energy costs, which will undoubtedly rise during the life of the plant, but also reduce the environment impact of distilling so much imported molasses.

The size of a distillery has a lot to do with how efficiently it can handle all of its byproducts. Small distilleries, like those popping up all over the US don’t produce enough spent yeast to warrant an anaerobic digester and most simply dilute the waste into the municipal waste water treatment system. On the other hand you don’t have to be big to make a difference as Brugal has demonstrated. And then there’s Flor de Caña where distillery byproducts are used to produce all of the energy needs for the distillation, bottling and packaging of the primary product – rum. A couple of miles away, at the sugar factory that makes the molasses used at the Flor de Caña distillery, crushed cane or bagasse, is burned in a modern, high-pressure boiler that provides nearly one quarter of the electricity to power the country of Nicaragua during the cane harvest season. The rest of the year, the power output from this investment provides more than 15% of the country’s power while reducing Nicaragua’s dependence on foreign oil.

Just as sugar mills in the early years of the Caribbean sugar industry viewed molasses as a waste product, today no one throws molasses away but rather distills it themselves or sells it to a distiller who turns it into rum and a tidy profit. I look forward to the day when the spent yeast from these distilleries is viewed with the same eye to the bottom line as molasses is viewed by the companies that produce it.

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Spiced Rum is a lot more than a fad

July 8th, 2010

Even if you aren’t a rum geek you have probably noticed that there are more spiced rums on liquor store shelves and in press releases these days. For more than a few years, Captain Morgan has controlled the lion’s share of the spiced rum market but that hasn’t kept others from joining the fray and throwing their hat into the spiced rum arena in the last few years.

Despite the recent popularity of commercially bottled spiced rums the tradition of adding fruit and spice to rum is almost as old Caribbean rum itself. To cool the heat of fresh rum and to add effects, some of which have to be experienced to be appreciated, islanders have been adding spices, and things that range from common fruit to fish, insects and even raw meat to fresh rum for centuries. On almost every Caribbean island today, rumshops woo customers with their spiced concoctions, though some of these ’spices’, as they are commonly called in the Caribbean, are delegated to under the bar status since even in the islands they might contain things that aren’t supposed to be sold over the counter. Among commercially bottled spiced rums, vanilla, clove and nutmeg seem to be the most popular ingredients but in the islands the bark and root of the bois bande tree, a reputed aphrodisiac, is the most popular rum spice.

In the last year, Cruzan has launched their new spiced rum, Cruzan Nine following last years tentative release of Seven Tiki by the rum giant Bacardi. Seven Tiki isn’t being made in Puerto Rico or the other usual Bacardi rum factories but is rather a blend of southern hemisphere rums and spices.

In the last year I’ve also seen the mysterious Kraken Black Spiced Rum come to the shelf at an imposing 94 proof though the brand owner prefers to rely on the mystery of this very dark rum rather than tell potential consumers much about it’s origins. Kraken Rum Co, Lawrenceburg, Indiana doesn’t instill a mental picture of the Caribbean traditions in my mind, except that the only distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is more of a blending operation when it comes to sugar cane spirits than an actual distillery, is owned in large part by the largest rum company in Trinidad. Since the label states that this is imported rum,  I would stake my reputation on this being a blend of Trinidad rum and natural flavors. Kraken is one of the few new entries to follow Sailor Jerry’s 94 proof spiced rum in the higher than usual 80-96 proof category.

I’m told Don Q will be launching a new spiced rum from Puerto Rico in the coming months and if you think this would be a departure for one of the larger distillers in the Caribbean, they have had quite a lot of experience making Captain Morgan over the last few years under contract with Diageo, who is building a new distillery slated to open next year on St Croix.

The Lash is another new entry into the spiced rum market and even at the lower 35% abv, the same alcohol proof as Captain Morgan and others, The Lash is full on flavor and there’s nothing wimpy about this spiced rum. Unlike most other spiced rums with which I am familiar, The Lash is made by steeping spices in hot water and then using this spiced tea, if you will, to dilute the aged rum used in this blend of spice and rum.

At one percent more alcohol is the July 2010 Rum of the Month, Shipwreck Spiced Rum, from the St Kitts Rum Company. This is the latest in a portfolio of flavored rums blended and bottled in St Kitts for the US and Caribbean markets. Shipwreck is unique in that it is blended with 4-year-old rum, the oldest aged spiced rum in the Ministry of Rum database today.

Among the spiced rums that have been around a while, though they may not be sold in your area, are Voodoo Spiced Rum, Tortuga Spiced Rum, marketed by the people who make the most famous rum cakes,  and Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Louisiana Rum, a blend of cajun spice and aged rum from New Orleans. Made with real cajun spices, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Louisiana Rum is one of the spiciest rums I’ve tasted. Add some jumbo and you’ll be ready to hit the road to New Orleans.

In addition to what some might call spiced rum there are a few more rums flavored with spice and other flavorings that I would suggest you put on your wish list. Rum Jumbie, made with orange flavor, spice and aged Panamanian rum is gaining distribution in the US. Kilo Kai from Curacao is another spiced/flavored rum that is gaining ground in the US as is Horne Spiced Rum.

But wait, there’s more. The good folks that import Chairman’s Reserve and Castries Rum Cream from St Lucia are launching their new spiced rum from St Lucia this year at Tales of the Cocktail. And more than a few of the newly licensed micro-distilleries in the US are working on spiced rums as I type.

So are these new rums worth pursuing or are they just low-end line extensions designed to crowd your favorite rum off the shelf at your liquor store or behind your bar? The easy answer is yes and no. I don’t discount the spiced rums from the big producers like Cruzan, Bacardi and Don Q. After all these distilleries have all made millions of liters of spiced rum, Cruzan’s Clipper Rum was discontinued a few years ago in spite of the fact that it had a good following in the Virgin Islands. but it didn’t fit into the expansion plans for the brand when Cruzan was controlled by V&S, the Swedish parent of Absolut that sold Cruzan to Pernod who sold the Caribbean rum label to Beam Global a little more than a year ago.

Bacardi discontinued their Bacardi Spice about the time Captain Morgan became a household name among the generation of new rum drinkers, read those who wanted more than x-time distilled vodka at a premium price that had less to do with the quality of the drink than the cost of marketing over-hyped fresh spirits.

I have high hopes for Don Q’s spice, they have, as I mentioned above, been making Captain Morgan since before Diageo bought the brand after the Seagram’s meltdown and withdrawal from the business on which the family made a large fortune before the younger generation blew a large part of their inheritance in Hollywood. Say what you will about Captain Morgan, it is made with rum aged at least a year and is one of the most successful brands in the industry. On the other hand, I’m confident that the people who have been making Captain Morgan have been thinking about how to make a better spiced rum after their contract runs out. And don’t forget that Don Q is the number one selling rum on Puerto Rico so they are a lot more than a contract distiller and bottler.

Most of the spiced rums I see coming to the market fall loosely into two groups, those with an overpowering vanilla flavor component – designed to be mixed with Coke, and those in which the natural vanilla flavor is less conspicuous. After all everyone uses natural flavorings, right?

And while I understand that a lot of people who want to get into the rum business write a business that sounds easy -  capture 2% of Diageo’s Captain Morgan market share, the truth is that it’s a lot harder to do that than you might think. If you’re new to the business and don’t have an established distribution network, or a supply contract that allows you to bottle and ship your product for a small fraction of the shelf price you’re going to have to do something different. So what do you do? A. Make a better product? B. Compete on price and then sell out to a greater fool before you go bankrupt? C. Make something different and create a new market for your unique product?

If you chose A, and are going to try to make a better tasting vanilla/spiced rum and are planning on competing with Diageo, you probably need to go back to the business plan writing chapter of your new business, unless you are already selling at least a few hundred thousand cases of rum and own your distillery and have an established distribution network.

If you chose B, you’re probably going to be divorced and bankrupt, so I’d suggest taking your spouse on a long vacation and soaking some sense into your sunburned head. On the other hand, it you can count five companies that have succeeded in that plan in the rum industry in the last three years, you’re ahead of a lot of people. They may be out there but I haven’t met them, I’m writing about the people who can count five successes, not people who have chosen choice B.

If you chose C, chances are you’ve done your homework and unless you spend all of your money before you get your product out to your audience, you have a chance of success. And if you work hard into the night you might find enough people to buy your product to stay in business.

As I have written before the overall quality of the rum segment of the alcoholic beverage industry is improving. I’ve tasted it over the better part of the last two decades. Sure there are some great rums that are no longer available, but fortunately, there are also a number of rums that have gone away because they couldn’t compete on the higher bar that is being set across the country and the world. In the spiced rum arena, there are more better spiced rums coming to the market than worse ones.

A few years ago I was approached by more people who just wanted to source rum than wanted to source better rum. Today the  first inquiry sentence usually contains the word quality. How you define ‘quality’ is at the mercy of the person doing the writing, but I’m seeing more and better rums coming to the marketplace including the spiced rum category. But before you delve into the spiced rum business you owe it to yourself, and your investors, to try all of the spiced rums mentioned above and then decide what is going to make your rum stand out among the crowd.

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