Miami festival showcases a never-ending variety of rums, but what does the future hold?

The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival celebrated its fifth birthday last month, drawing thousands of industry reps and enthusiasts to a weeklong celebration of one of the world’s most popular spirits.

The April 15-21 event marked the occasion with an impressive new venue, some informative and entertaining expert speakers and, of course, hundreds of product samples available at the weekend Grand Tasting events.

Some of the many product samples awating the expert judges at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April 2013

Some of the many product samples awating the expert judges at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April 2013. (Official event photo by Tatu Kaarlas, RefinedVices.com)

The tastings were the big draw, attracting large crowds to the Miami Airport Convention Center (MACC) for every rum under the sun, from Abuelo (Panama) to Zaya (Trinidad & Tobago). It’s this great diversity that has always made rum special, as devotees well know. Unfortunately, a dark cloud threatens to mar rum’s renaissance, but we’ll save that buzzkill for later. First, a few highlights of The Atomic Grog’s experiences during the fest.

The first five days featured the VIP parties and product judging that draw the bulk of the rum industry movers and shakers to South Florida. I caught some of Tuesday’s party at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale and rubbed elbows with a few notables from the Tiki world. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it down to Miami Beach for one of the Broken Shaker’s daily happy hours. This highly acclaimed bar in the Freehand Miami hostel is on my short list of South Florida cocktail hotspots I need to explore in depth.

Friday saw the event’s first ever Trade Only Grand Tasting for industry reps, with Saturday and Sunday open to the unwashed masses. I was among those masses on Saturday when attendance hit its peak. The MACC, while not the swanky beachside locale of years past, does have many advantages. The space is massive, and it has somewhat easier access for locals. The venue seemed to handle the crowds just fine, though the parking attendants were a bit backed up when I arrived. But it was nothing like the nightmare of parking on Miami Beach. After a full day of indulging, some patrons got a little rowdy by the end of Saturday’s event, but I’m told that Sunday was a little more laid-back.

Acclaimed bar owner, mixologist and rum expert Martin Cate of Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco educates festival attendees on the history of Tiki and rum cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Acclaimed bar owner, mixologist and rum expert Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco educates festival attendees on the history of Tiki and rum cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

When the revelry got to be too annoying, it was easy to escape to the quiet upstairs area set aside for seminars. I caught two very informative speakers: Paul McFadyen, a London Tiki bar owner and brand manager for Plantation Rum in the U.K., not only explored the rich history of British Navy rum. He also mixed up his own blend on the spot using bottles he snagged from the tasting booths. Author Phil Greene, a brand ambassador and consultant on the new Papa’s Pilar rums, brought his new new book on Ernest Hemingway to life through anecdotes, slides, and cocktail tastings. Check out our in-depth coverage of the Navy rum seminar:
* Rum and the British Navy: When men were men, and sailors drank Daiquiris

Meanwhile, the main stage on the convention floor hosted speakers and entertainment throughout the day. It was here that some of the biggest names in the Tiki and rum worlds attempted to spread the gospel to the somewhat distracted crowd. A more secluded spot for these events, at least during prime time on Saturday, would have probably done them more justice. Some of the speakers found themselves having to shout over the din, even when armed with a microphone.

But luckily, they were some of the more charismatic folks in the business. Martin Cate, owner of the revered rum bar Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, took on the task of educating newbies on “The History of the Tiki Bar and the Rise and Fall of the Exotic Cocktail.” He touched on all the finer points of the golden age of Polynesian supper clubs, expressing his unabashed admiration for the 57-year-old Mai-Kai. He also shared his excitement at discovering that Florida contained hundreds of other “tiki bars,” then the inevitable letdown at realizing that most were either beachside beer shacks or paeans to Jimmy Buffet. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he clarified. “They’re just not Tiki bars.”

Jeff  Berry and Ian Burrell face off

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (left) and Ian Burrell face off in the “Battle of the Ambassadors.” (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The climax of Saturday’s main stage info-tainment was the “Battle of the Ambassadors,” a spirited debate between modern-day bon vivant Ian Burrell (representing himself) and rum cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (representing the late, great Don the Beachcomber). Aided by slides and their own persuasive arguments, both made their points on who should hold the true title of “rum ambassador.” Burrell, who obviously still has many modern-day travels still to come, put up a good enough fight to emerge with a tie when the very unscientific voting (done by audience applause) was held. The entire exercise was done with a large dollop of humor and tongues-in-cheeks, the end result being a fun way to sit back, relax and wind down from a long day of rum tasting.
Take 5: Atomic Grog interview with Ian Burrell

And there was certainly plenty of opportunity to taste a plethora of fine spirits. My mission was to seek out some of the great new rums, or at least rums that were new to me. I had no interest in the bigger brands and tired old products. Even Appleton, which is a longtime favorite, turned me off via a brusque and dismissive representative manning its booth. Among the day’s best of the best were:

* Vizcaya, a perennial award-winning rum from the Dominican Republic. I was urged to try the 12-year-old Vizcaya Cask 12 first, and this premium dark rum showed a surprising light yet complex taste featuring subtle vanilla and maple flavors that make it suitable for both mixing and sipping. Next was Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21, billed as “the world’s ultimate sipping rum.” This great luxury rum did not disappoint and was the best I tasted all day. A rich and complex blend from 100 percent pure cane juice, it displayed a perfect balance of sweet and spicy flavors (butterscotch, nutmeg, vanilla). Vizcaya also makes a light rum for both sipping and mixing.

The servers in the Dictador Rum booth were the center of attention

The servers in the Dictador Rum booth were the center of attention. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* In the booth right next door was another great premium aged rum, a 20-year-old from Columbia’s Dictador. The leather-clad servers may have attracted most of the attention, but the complex and potent dark rum came close to Vizcaya is taste and complexity. Dictador also makes a 12-year-old rum with the same caramel, cocoa and toffee flavors, plus two XO products (Insolent and Perpetual, the latter of which won a gold medal from the judges).

* Santa Teresa is an acclaimed rum from Venezuela that’s hard to find in South Florida, so I was thrilled to run across the booth at Rum Renaissance. The 3-year-old Claro was perhaps the best light rum of the day, closer to a light gold with a full woody and fruity flavor that I can’t wait to try in cocktails. The brand’s premium product, Santa Teresa 1796 Antiguo de Solera, blew me away with a complex blend of 4- to 35-year-old rums that manages to be simultaneously sweet, smoky and smooth. And the polite and helpful staff (the polar opposite of Appleton) paired their aged rum with a great dark chocolate, a very classy touch. Rum and chocolate is a perfect match, a growing trend that industry magazines such as Imbibe have recently spotlighted. Santa Teresa also makes a gold Gran Reserva (which I recently stocked in The Atomic Grog’s bar) and Selecto Extra Anejo, a premium gold aged from 8 to 10 years.

* I was thrilled to see several new American boutique rums inspired by, and named for, legendary historical figures. On shelves less than a month, Papa’s Pilar (named for Ernest Hemingway’s beloved boat), is already generating a huge buzz. The 3-year-old blonde (light) rum was awarded “Best in Class” by the International Rum Expert panel of judges and was the perfect mixer in cocktails I sampled during the seminar by Greene, author of To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. The 24-year-old dark rum, like the blonde, comes in a distinctive bottle that combines a vintage look with authentic images and promotional materials to evoke the adventurous spirit of Papa himself. The Hemingway Rum Co. is based in Delray Beach, and its products are available throughout Florida. Also launching in early 2013, The Real McCoy is named for the legendary Prohibition rum-runner Bill McCoy and also features vintage packaging and promotional artwork. The 5-year-old gold rum, crafted by noted Barbados distiller Sir Richard Seale, is a dry and fiery blend with heavy bourbon and oak notes. It was a little harsh as a sipper, but I’d love to try this rum in a complex Tiki cocktail. It’s currently available only in Connecticut, where it’s bottled, but it should be rolling out in other states soon.

A Deadhead Rum rep shows off the brand's unique bottle

A Deadhead Rum rep shows off the brand’s unique bottle. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Deadhead Rum from Mexico had one of the most colorful booths on the floor, the friendly staff serving tasty samples from their distinctive shrunken head bottles amid a jungle of Tiki decor. A sponsor of The Hukilau (June 6-9 in Fort Lauderdale), Deadhead is a nice mixing rum that’s featured in a cocktail contest I’m currently judging. Not only is the bottle one of the coolest on the market, but the rum is also quite versatile and works great in cocktails. FYI, Deadhead is available in California and other states, but not Florida yet.

* And last but not least, the booth containing Cognac Ferrand’s Plantation collection of rums. These never fail to disappoint, great for both sipping and mixing. The company’s unique double-aging process includes distilling and years of aging in young bourbon casks in the Caribbean, then further aging in cognac barrels in France. This booth featured perhaps the best cocktails of the day, and the RumXP panel give Plantation rums five awards, more than any other brand. Click here to see all the winners and here for the judges.

The tasting floor was abuzz all day as festival guests sampled a great selection of craft rums. But amid all the hoopla, there are growing pains in the industry that threaten some of the best products on the market. And, as usual, big business and politics are at the root of the problem.

Not surprisingly, the industry’s major producers are in cahoots with major players in government, creating what many consider (and I agree) is an unfair playing field for the smaller countries and companies. The end result could be higher profits for the big guys and fewer boutique brands for the connoisseurs, never a good thing.

This issue is just beginning to get press coverage, but more is needed. This Associated Press article gives a broad overview of the problem, plus a nice plug for the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, but it doesn’t get to the crux of the issue.

The Real McCoy is a new boutique rum inspired by infamous Prohibition-era rum-runner Bill McCoy

The Real McCoy is a new boutique rum inspired by infamous Prohibition-era rum-runner Bill McCoy. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Like the pirate and rum-running skirmishes of old, the battleground is centered in the Caribbean, home of many of the finest rums in the world. Small producers in countries such as Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica complain that they face a huge strategic disadvantage due to unfair trade and marketing practices by global beverage corporations operating in U.S. territories. In a nutshell, U.S. rum subsidies threaten to drive some beloved top-shelf Caribbean labels out of business, or force them to sell out.

The subsidies come from money raised through an excise tax on liquor sold in the United States. Under an obscure federal law, almost all of the tax money generated by rum goes to the treasuries of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those territories then give a huge share to the producers as a subsidy to do business there. For years, Bacardi, Cruzan and other distilleries have reaped the benefits.

But now, with rum’s popularity exploding, the stakes have gotten higher and the giant companies – like sharks who sense blood in the water – are attacking the smaller, weaker competition with the full support of all the governments involved. This unfair advantage was extended for two more years by President Obama when he signed the fiscal cliff deal early this year.

In the Virgin Islands, corporate giant Diageo is getting a $2.7 billion kickback over 30 years to build a massive distillery to make Captain Morgan, among other popular but generic brands. It also gets marketing support and generous subsidies for rum’s key ingredient, molasses. In Puerto Rico, the government has boosted its payoffs to rum producers such as Bacardi from 10 percent to 25 percent of the tax money it gets. Bacardi also got a $95 million grant to renovate its production plant.

Competing Caribbean distillers have urged their governments to complain to the World Trade Organization, fearing that the subsidies may put them out of business and encourage other multinational distillers to take their business to the U.S. territories. The issue also affects small distillers in Central American nations such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, who have even less of a voice than their small Caribbean counterparts. It even affects the great new rum companies in the United States, who are inexplicably seeing tax dollars on their product sold in their own country being funneled to corporations operating overseas.

Diageo and their cohorts argue that the concerns are overblown, but something smells fishy. Sure, the world economy is still fragile. The U.S. and its Caribbean territories need all the help they can get. But why trample over the rights of the little guy? Could it be because they essentially have a better product? It just seems greedy and unfair.

So what can consumers do? For starters, patronize all the great small rum labels from non-U.S. territories such as the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana. And don’t forget the rums from small distilleries elsewhere – from Central America to the U.S. Urge anyone you know to do the same. Avoid Bacardi, Cruzan and Captain Morgan unless absolutely necessary. Lobby your representatives in Congress to take this issue seriously and not cave in to big business lobbyists (Diageo hired ex-senators Trent Lott and John Breaux to lobby their former colleagues).

If there’s enough support, there’s hope that the WTO will intervene and issue a challenge. You can also sign an online petition to make your voice heard. This link also contains more background on the issue.

If we’re lucky, when next year’s Miami Rum Renaissance Festival rolls around, the playing field will be a little more equal and the great small rum brands will be able to thrive as much as the big players.

The 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival returns to the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center on April 21-27. Official sites: RumRenaissance.com and Facebook.

2013 fest photos: Official gallery by Tatu Karrlas | SouthFlorida.com | SoFlaNights.com

Other coverage on the Web
* Miami Rum Renaissance Festival: Ten rums you probably haven’t tried yet
* International Rum Expert Panel announces 2013 award winners
* Barcelo, Papa’s Pilar Highlight RumXP award winners
* Blackbeard’s revenge at U.S. rum fest
* Video: Rum growing in popularity worldwide

Past Atomic Grog coverage
* Rum’s best and brightest stars take center stage at annual Miami fest
* Rum festival’s ascension mirrors explosive growth of cane spirit
* 2012: Miami festival offers many lessons in rum appreciation
* 2011: We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai
* More on: Rum | Rum cocktails

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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