Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players at sixth annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival

Miami Rum Renaissance FestivalIt’s a rum enthusiast’s dream: Seven days of nothing but tasting hundreds of rums and cocktails in sunny Miami, learning about the colorful history and culture that envelop every aspect of the industry.

But the sixth annual Miami Rum Festival also revealed a key component of rum’s burgeoning success: It’s rare for an industry to simultaneously embrace both tradition and innovation, giving upstarts equal footing with the industry’s revered giants. In the world of rum, this is possible, and it was on full display in late April.

This story covers my adventures at industry parties during the first Miami Cocktail Week, plus an in-depth look at the festival’s signature Grand Tastings and seminars. Click here for reviews of the week’s best cocktails, including some tasty recipes.

Miami Rum Renaissance Festival was held April 25-27 at the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center. Miami Cocktail Week was April 21-27 at venues throughout South Florida.
Jump below: Rum reviews | Seminars | Photo gallery | Tasting competition results
Related story: Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival

MIAMI COCKTAIL WEEK: Welcome to the jungle

Daniele Crouch and Matt (Rumdood) Robold serve Caña Rum Bar cocktails featuring Plantation Rum during the Miami Rum Festival party at The Broken Shaker on Monday, April 21

Daniele Crouch and Matt (Rumdood) Robold serve Caña Rum Bar cocktails featuring Plantation Rum during the Miami Rum Festival party at The Broken Shaker on Monday, April 21. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The week of rum-soaked festivities commenced on Monday, April 21, with a kick-off party sponsored by Plantation Rum and featuring a pop-up bar with cocktails from Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles. Held at The Broken Shaker in Miami Beach, the laid-back event gave early arrivals and locals a chance to mingle and sample some inventive concoctions.
* Click here to check out my review of the cocktails

The vibe and weather were perfect as attendees soaked up both the atmosphere and complimentary cocktails with equal gusto. Rum fest organizers Robert A. Burr and Robin Burr, along with son Robert V. Burr, chilled out and entertained guests as if they were hosting an informal backyard party at their home. At the time, I thought the Burrs were enjoying the calm before the storm, but a storm never arrived. The weather was perfect all week (clear and sunny days, mild nights), and the festival seemed to run without a hitch.

The Broken Shaker was the perfect spot to open the first Miami Cocktail Week, not only because of its past association with the festival, but also due to its status as a James Beard Award-nominated bar. I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots more of this venue as the Miami Cocktail Week event grows.

Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy (left) and marketing director Pia Dahlquist welcome Miami Rum Festival judge and seminar presenter Ian "Rum Ambassador" Burrell to Tuesday night's party

Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy (left) and marketing director Pia Dahlquist welcome Miami Rum Festival judge and seminar presenter Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell to Tuesday night’s party. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For many festivalgoers, one of the highlights of the week is the annual sojourn to the legendary Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant, the 57-year-old historic landmark in Fort Lauderdale that carries the torch for old-school rum and Tiki cocktails. Many are so enamored, in fact, that they return again and again throughout the week, despite the 40-mile trek up from Miami. We ran into a lively crew including rum judges and fellow bloggers from the U.K.’s Floating Rum Shack on quite a few occasions, ensconced in The Molokai bar with a wide array of tropical drinks and pu-pu platters.

On Tuesday, a large contingent of festival VIPs and judges invaded The Molokai during happy hour before adjourning to The Mai-Kai’s main dining room to enjoy the Cantonese fare and take in the world famous Polynesian Islander Revue (est. 1961), the longest running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States. They were also treated to the night’s complimentary cocktail featuring Don Q Rum.
* Click here for the review and recipe | See also: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide

I didn’t attend Wednesday’s VIP party at Bacardi headquarters in Coral Gables, but I must add this to my short list of must-dos at next year’s festival (assuming the party returns). It’s been an annual event that offers a peek inside the inner workings (and archives) of one of the biggest spirits brands in the world, a unique chance to absorb some history along with rum and cocktails.

After three grueling days of blind tastings, the RumXP International Rum Expert Tasting Panel emerged on Friday to announce the award winners in 17 categories. They sampled 133 of the finest rums in the world during six tasting sessions. It’s a rough job, I know, but luckily they were up to the task.
* See all the winning rums listed below

Koloa Hawaiian Rum made a splash with three awards at the Miami Rum Festival: Koloa Dark, Koloa Coconut, and Koloa Gold

Koloa Hawaiian Rum made a splash with three awards at the Miami Rum Festival: Koloa Dark, Koloa Coconut, and Koloa Gold. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Friday was also Trade Day, and the opening of the dozens upon dozens of tasting booths on the convention floor of the Doubletree by Hilton. Hundreds of individual rums were available for tasting, both neat and in cocktails. Trade Day gave spirits and beverage industry professionals the opportunity to sample new rums and network with the exhibitors before the general public descended on the weekend.

The RumXP tasting competition awards were posted on the Rum Fest’s Facebook page, which gave many of us a handy guide for our Saturday-Sunday excursions to the Grand Tastings. I had already planned to focus my time on new brands that I hadn’t tasted before, and having a complete list of the winners made seeking out the very best rums much easier.

It was no surprise that Plantation took home the most awards for the second year in a row, including a sweep of all three medals in the Special Cask category. After winning five in medals 2013, the Cognac Ferrand boutique label snagged eight awards, proving that its varied offerings from throughout the Caribbean are not only still hot, but are getting hotter. It was also good to see Demerara rum represented for the first time in recent memory, with El Dorado taking home three awards.

The only other label with more than two winners was Hawaii’s Koloa, which garnered three. Very impressive for a relative newcomer. There were plenty of double winners, but the fact that no other brand was dominant is a testament to the variety of cane spirits on today’s market, and the relatively level playing field on which everyone must compete (Plantation’s acclaimed double-aging process notwithstanding).

A CORNUCOPIA OF RUM: The Grand Tasting Exhibitions

Rum was seemingly falling from the sky at the Brugal Rum booth at Saturday's Grand Tasting event

Rum was seemingly falling from the sky at the Brugal Rum booth at Saturday’s Grand Tasting event. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Saturday and Sunday brought the main event of the festival, the public opening of the convention center for rum producers to show off their wares and give enthusiasts a chance to taste a seemingly limitless array of fine spirits. Brands from around the world were on display, showcasing many different styles and products.

Among those in attendance were: Abuelo, Admiral Nelson, Appleton, Arcanem, Atlantico, Bacardi, Barcelo, Barrilito, Barritt’s Ginger Beer, Bãvaro, Bayou, Blackheart, Black Mamba, Blue Chair, Botran, Brugal, Bundaberg, Caliche, Carta Vieja, Centenario, Cubaney, Diplomatico, Don Q, Dos Maderas, Dzama, Edward Gunpowder, El Dorado, English Harbour, Flor de Caña, Gosling’s, Gubba, Hampden Estate, Izapa, Kalani, Koloa, Kraken, Lost Spirits, Medellin, Matusalem, Mount Gay, Ocumare, Oliver’s, Opthimus, Origenes, Owney’s, Papa’s Pilar, Penny Blue, Pink Pigeon, Plantation, Puntacana Club, Pusser’s, Pyrat, Quorhum, Rhum St. Barth, The Real McCoy, Rum Fire, Selvarey, Skotlander, Tanduay, Tiburon, Unhiq, Viejo, Vizcaya, Wicked Dolphin, Ypioca Prata, and Zafra. Most had multiple rums on display. Dzama showcased nine; Don Q and Plantation presented eight each.

But where to start? For me, this was no place to stagger about, sipping rums willy nilly (though that sort of behavior is perfectly acceptable). I had to follow a plan. This being my fourth Miami Rum Festival, I had a general idea of what to expect, so I came up with a two-pronged approach: (1) Sample a wide selection of the award-winning sipping rums; and (2) continue my search for the best cocktails unique to the festival. Armed with a printout of the RumXP International Tasting Competition results, the first goal seemed do-able. The second was a bit more of a challenge, and you can read more about that adventure in the sidebar.

I also wanted to follow my plan of concentrating on new rums that I hadn’t tasted before. Last year, I was introduced to some excellent rums from Papa’s Pilar, The Real McCoy, and Vizcaya, who were all back in attendance. [Click here for the 2013 review]

Highlights from this year:

Pusser's won two awards for its venerable rum and was a welcome addition to the festival

Pusser’s won two awards for its venerable rum and was a welcome addition to the festival. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Tucked into an out-of-the-way corner, the Ron Abuelo booth was a pleasant surprise. There was plenty of room to chill out, the reps were personable, and one of them made a mean Mojito. I sampled both the award-winning Abuelo 12, named Best in Class among rums aged 9-12 years, and the 30-year-old product. Both of these Panamanian rums were very smooth and elegant. Definitely worth recommending.

* Perhaps the best rum in the building was unavailable for consumption by the masses. Brugal Papa Andres from the Dominican Republic was named Best in Class in the Ultra Premium Reserve Rum category (there were no other medals awarded). Considering only 500 bottles were produced at $1,200 each, I don’t really blame them for keeping it on display under glass like a rare diamond.

* The Plantation booth was a must stop, for all the reasons cited above. With eight-award winning rums, it was hard to decide which ones to taste. Plantation 20th Anniversary (gold medal for Premium Aged Rum) is a solid aged rum, full of banana and fruit flavors. But the one that stood out was Plantation Guyana 2005, named Best in Class for Special Cask. Plantation rums swept that category with the collection of cask-aged rums tied to specific years of “vintage.” The Guyana 2005, essentially Plantation’s version of a Demerara rum, is smooth and smokily pungent like any good Demerara should be. But the sophistication that Plantation brings to the table with its unique dual-aging process gives it extra polish. I would rank this right up with the hard-to-find Lemon Hart 80 and El Dorado 8 (gold medal winner for Aged Rum, 4-8 years) as one of the best all-around mixing rums in the Demerara style. And it’s a nice sipping rum too.

Otto von Stroheim and Hurricane Hayward agree: El Dorado 21, a premium Demerara rum from Guyana, was the best sip of the festival

Otto von Stroheim (Tiki Oasis) and Hurricane Hayward agree: El Dorado 21, a premium Demerara rum from Guyana, was the best sip of the festival. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

* Blowing away even the Plantation rums, at least to my palate, was the outstanding El Dorado 21 (named Best in Class among rums aged 19-21 years). I already own most of the aged El Dorado rums [see my ratings], so I thought I knew what to expect. But I was nearly left speechless. All I can say now is “wow!” This top-of-the-line Demerara rum from Guyana, which retails for around $100, is incredibly complex and decadent, full of the signature fruit and smoky flavors, but way beyond the 12- and 15-year rums in its complexity. It’s almost like drinking rum candy. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not cloyingly sweet or artificially flavored in any way. It’s just a pure, wonderful sipping rum. I found out exactly how this nirvana is achieved later during a seminar presented by El Dorado. Scroll down for more on that. Far and away my top pick as the best rum of the festival.

* I was excited to find another great rum that has long been on my wish list: Mount Gay 1703, named the Best in Class Super Premium Rum. A perfect balance of bitter and sweet, it’s a little rough around the edges but lives up to its status as the flagship rum of the legendary Barbados distillery established in 1703. This is another luxury rum that’s probably worth its $100-a-bottle price tag. While lingering at the Mount Gay booth, I ran into Freddy Diaz, owner of AlambiQ Mixology, whose handiwork was featured in a cocktail featuring Mount Gay Black Barrel called the Miami Swizzle [click here for the recipe]. Diaz is one of the best mixologists in Miami, and I respect his recipes, but when he wasn’t looking I slipped in a little 1703 to give the drink some extra punch. It turns out this drink was a great template for adding multiple rums. (I’ve written about Diaz and his cocktails before. Click here for a review of his seminar at the 2012 Epcot Food and Wine Festival.)

Legendary master blender Francisco "Don Pancho" Fernandez could be seen all weekend promoting his new namesake rums

Legendary master blender Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez could be seen all weekend promoting his new namesake rums. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Holding court in a small booth near the back of the convention floor was a true superstar in the world of rum. Recognized as one of the most experienced and respected master blenders in modern history, Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez could be found all weekend showing off his new line of signature rums distilled in Panama and released under the Origines name. Fernandez began his career with Havana Club in pre-Castro Cuba, then later modernized the island’s rum industry in the 1970s. He relocated to Panama, where he built his own distillery in the 1990s to produce luxury rums for other clients. Now, finally, he feels he has achieved a blend of high quality aged rums worthy of putting his own name on them: Don Pancho Origenes 8-, 18-, and 30-year reserve rums. Tasting the 8-year-old, I could see how it’s being compared to the rums made in Cuba during Don Pancho’s youth. It was similar in style to the Ron Abuelo rums, clean and straightforward with few imperfections, though a bit too harsh to be a luxury sipper. I’d use this as a premium mixing rum, and look forward to trying Don Pancho’s older rums at my next opportunity.

* Next to Demerara rum, perhaps the next most distinctive style of rum most craved by Tiki mixologists is Navy rum, which was absent from last year’s festival. Happily, there were several to choose from in 2014. Pusser’s, the world’s most well-known Navy rum brand, made a splash with a large booth front and center on the exhibition floor. There were two of the Caribbean rums on hand, plus three cocktails. I tasted two of the latter and give Pusser’s kudos for putting extra effort into the drinks. [Click here for my review of the cocktails]

Lost Spirits Distillery co-founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta show off their award-winning Navy Style Rum on Sunday, April 27

Lost Spirits Distillery co-founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta show off their award-winning Navy Style Rum on Sunday, April 27. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* One of the rums I was most looking forward to tasting was Lost Spirits Navy Style, the only individual rum to win two awards (Best in Class for Dark Rum, gold medal for Overproof Rum). I finally found Lost Spirits Distillery co-founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta in their nondescript booth late Sunday, and I’m glad I did. They really didn’t need any frills. They let their rum do the talking, along with their own friendly and informative repartee. Based in California, Lost Spirits takes a modern approach to Navy rum, producing what tastes like a decades-old rum without the wait [see review]. Davis, the master distiller and blender, uses an older style of fermentation that quickly produces a very distinctive 136-proof rum that has great flavors and is easily sippable despite the high proof. It’s also perfect for adding a flavorful punch to cocktails, and it became a great addition to that Miami Swizzle mentioned above. I also tasted the Polynesian Inspired rum, another great mixer that takes advantage of a unique fermentation process. After being mixed with ice, the sweet molasses and fruit flavors begin to pop. Keep an eye out for these rums and other distinctive products from Lost Spirits.

* The other rum I sampled neat that’s worth mentioning is Koloa Dark from Hawaii (gold medal for Dark Rum). It presented a unique taste, rich and heavy on the vanilla but not overly sweet. This is not surprising considering Koloa is becoming known for its quality flavored rums. Koloa Coconut was named the Best in Class Flavored Rum. I’m looking forward to tasting the other products from this impressive upstart.

Organizers Robert A. Burr and Robin Burr (front) relax with friends at the end of a successful Saturday at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival

Organizers Robert A. Burr and Robin Burr (front) relax with friends at the end of a successful Saturday at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Other rums on the convention floor that I sampled in cocktails include Brugal Especial Extra Dry, Dos Maderas 5+3, Gosling’s Black Seal, Gosling’s Bermuda Gold, Papa’s Pilar Blonde, and Rum Fire. Check out my cocktail reviews here and find out the surprise winner for best drink of the week.

Overall, the Grand Tasting events seemed to go very smooth, and attendance appeared to be at least as high as last year’s announced 12,500. There was more exhibit space (50,000, an increase of 10,000) and 120 booths (up from 80), and crowds were dispersed more evenly around the center, the two stages and the four seminar rooms upstairs. The Burrs also added some cozy chill-out areas that were much appreciated. It would be nice to see some of the island lifestyle vendors scattered among the rum booths instead of set up on the outskirts, but I understand that the spirits companies pay the freight and need to have top priority. And this is still much better than the previous venue, a hotel with space limitations that required vendors to be in a separate room.

My best advice for attendees to fully enjoy the festivities would be to spring for the extra money to get a VIP pass, and get there early to beat the crowds. Attendance (and the noise level) definitely picks up in the final hours, but that’s also a good time to catch some of the engaging seminar speakers in the quiet meeting rooms upstairs.

EXPERTS RUN AMOK: Competitions and seminars

Miami mixologists representing the Bacardi U.S. Tiki Team put the finishing touches on their cocktail that helped them defeat the U.K. team

Miami mixologists representing the Bacardi U.S. Tiki Team put the finishing touches on their cocktail that helped them defeat the U.K. team. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The World Tiki Team Championship was back after a one-year hiatus, the dominant Bacardi U.K. Tiki Team once again defending its title. I can’t give you a play-by-play since I missed most of the finale on Saturday (it overlapped with some of the seminars), but from what I hear it was one of the closest competitions in history.

I did catch what was supposed to be the finale of the competition. The Bacardi U.S. Tiki Team – featuring South Florida’s Nick Nistico (Premier Beverage), Gui Jaroschy (The Broken Shaker) and Trevor Alberts (Gramps) – appeared on stage to wow the judges with a unique and flavorful Tiki drink. They made a riff on the Yellow Bird called the Cat in the Jungle, featuring Plantation and Appleton rums. The presentation was definitely unique (see photo above) with the drink poured into a vessel that celebrated the feline form.

This came after the U.K. team put on an over-the-top show, even more outrageous than past efforts, I’m told. But after the judges conferred, neither the performance by the Brits (who also won a trivia round) nor the crafty cocktail by the Yanks was enough to gain an advantage. It was declared a tie. This was unprecedented, so a tie-breaker had to be devised on the fly. Rather than just flip a coin, judge Marie King, a mixologist from the Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, suggested a “gonzo bartending” competition with each team challenged to create a drink in 10 minutes using only ingredients they could scrounge from the convention center. “Not only would they have to be creative, but they had to use their people skills to get the ingredients they wanted,” King said. “The U.S. team clearly won,” she said, “creating a delicious, well-balanced Old Fashioned in a ‘smoked’ glass (they actually charred some wood planks and placed the glasses over the accumulation smoke, capturing that flavor in the glass-amazing!).” So there you have it. Perhaps a bit cocky from their past victories, the U.K. fell victim to a creative and ambitious crew that did South Florida and the United States proud.

Meanwhile, up in the second floor meeting rooms away from the craziness, there were many exclusive celebrity and trade seminars on Saturday and Sunday that gave attendees insights into topics such rum production, tasting, and cocktails. My interest in Demerara rum led me to sit in on Saturday’s “The Discovery of El Dorado: Demerara’s Liquid Gold,” presented by Shaun Caleb, distiller at El Dorado’s acclaimed Diamond Distillers.

Guyana's El Dorado Rum won three awards: El Dorado 8 (Gold: Aged Rum, 4-8 years), El Dorado 15 (Gold: Aged Rum, 13-18 years), and El Dorado 21 (Best in Class: Aged Rum, 19-21 years)

Guyana’s El Dorado Rum won three awards: El Dorado 8 (Gold: Aged Rum, 4-8 years), El Dorado 15 (Gold: Aged Rum, 13-18 years), and El Dorado 21 (Best in Class: Aged Rum, 19-21 years). (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The distillery is the last in the world that produces Guyana’s distinctive Demerara rum. El Dorado not only distills its many award-winning rums there, but also provides rum for other Demerara rum brands. There are more than 20 different styles of rum produced at the distillery, Caleb said. Diamond Distillery has benefited from the centuries of consolidation by inheriting the best sugar plantations and most historic stills in Guyana. In the 18th century, there were more than 300 sugar estates distilling their own signature rums, he said.

Among the historic stills that are still in operation at Diamond Distillers are a wooden pot still from the 1700s, and a wooden Coffey still from the 1800s. Both are the only one their kind still in use in the world. Rums from these stills were used for hundreds of years to produce the Navy Rum requested by the British Royal Navy until it ended daily rations in 1970. In a slideshow, Caleb also showed off some of the more modern Diamond stills (they use nine total), including a new five-column multi-pressure still that replicates the old stills. To keep up with the demand, it produces the volume of all the old stills put together, times two. But it also uses just two-thirds the energy to run. Click here for more on the history and the stills at Diamond Distillery.

It was fascinating to learn about the tradition and inner workings of Diamond Distillery and the wonderful El Dorado rums. All the aged rums are outstanding, and as noted above the premium 21-year-old rum was the stand-out sip of the festival. Seek them out at all costs.
Related links: El Dorado lessons | 4 Days in Guyana with El Dorado Rum

Rum Fest organizer Robert V. Burr (left) heartily endorses Tyler Kok's homemade falernum after a seminar on The Flavor of Barbados

Rum Fest organizer Robert V. Burr (left) heartily endorses Tyler Kok’s homemade falernum after a seminar on “The Flavor of Barbados.” (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Equally interesting on Saturday was “Falernum: The Flavor of Barbados,” presented by South Florida craft cocktail consultant and “flavor tinkerer” Tyler Kok. Falernum is a little-known liqueur, at least outside of the Tiki cocktail scene. Its bold combination of lime, ginger, almond and clove can be intoxicating just by itself. But when mixed in a rum cocktail, it can elevate the mundane to the marvelous.

Kok tried to clear up the muddled history of this exotic elixir, tracing its first reference to 1750 and unveiling recipes as far back as the late 1800s. Falernum is deeply ingrained in the culture of Barbados, where it’s included in many drinks. It was a highly organized presentation, and attendees received a printed guide that included all the recipes that were discussed, plus a list of notable commercial brands currently on the market. These include falernums made by John D. Taylor, Fee Brothers, and B.G. Reynolds.

But, as Kok points out, “the best falernum will always be the one you make yourself.” So he presented bottles of his homemade dark falernum featuring three different rums, lime, ginger, cloves, almond extract, and two different sugars. As we enjoyed samples of this rich liqueur, Kok demonstrated many of the steps in the falernum-making process, enlivening the room with great aromas. This was a fun way to learn about a classic cocktail ingredient and discover that it’s not so hard to make. I hope to explore Kok’s seminar and recipes in depth in a future blog post.

Ian Burrell, a RumXP judge and seminar presenter, mixes up the cocktail that would become known as Good Head

Ian Burrell, a RumXP judge and seminar presenter, mixes up the cocktail that would become known as Good Head. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Last but not least, Sunday’s festivities reached a climax with the always entertaining Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, a RumXP judge and international spokesman for cane spirits. Burrell’s seminar, “The Wonderful NEW World of Tiki Cocktails: 10 Reasons Why It’s Here to Stay,” included a fun-filled slideshow, rum tasting, cocktail samples, and mixology lesson all rolled into one light-hearted package.

Burrell – who also founded the UK RumFest and The Rum Experience promotion company to spread the rum gospel around the world – is an unabashed fan of Tiki. (That’s Tiki with a capital “T”, meaning the culture; an individual carving would be considered a tiki.) The first order of business was to cover Tiki’s history, which Burrell did with a colorful and ribald slideshow. Only the disarming Burrell could get away with saying “women love big cocktails” made by what he calls “cocktologists.”

It’s all about “escapism, fun and rum,” Burrell says, something you can experience at the best Tiki bars in the world, from Moscow to Australia to the U.K. to Sweden. Burrell shared photos of some of his favorites, including The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (“the mecca,” he said), Trader Vic’s locations around the world, Mahiki and Trailer Happiness in London, The LuWow in Australia, Tiki Bar in Moscow, Smugger’s Cove in San Francisco, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, and Dirty Dick in Paris.

Of course, it all started in the 1930s with Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles, and Burrell said he’s particularly inspired by Tiki’s pioneer, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach). Note: At last year’s Miami Rum Festival, Burrell debated Tiki cocktail guru Jeff “Beachbum” Berry over whether he (Burrell) or Beach was the true “rum ambassador.” Click here to find out who won that debate.

Hurricane Hayward gets to sample the finished cocktail that attendees of mixologist Ian Burrell's seminar dubbed Good Head on Sunday, April 27

Hurricane Hayward gets to sample the finished cocktail that attendees of mixologist Ian Burrell’s seminar dubbed Good Head on Sunday, April 27. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

Not open to debate is the fact that the Tiki phenomenon appears to be on a permanent upward trajectory after decades of ups and downs. Burrell cited the Internet as a major factor with keeping the momentum going, then gave 10 reasons why Tiki is here to stay: 1) Tiki fashion (Astronauts even wore Hawaiian shirts in space); 2) Tiki events such as Tiki Oasis and The Hukilau; 3) Tiki cocktails are timeless; 4) Legendary Tiki bartenders will never die; 5) Tiki stories; 6) Jeff “Beachbum” Berry; 7) Tiki is fun, even in space (see No. 1); 8) Women love big drinks; 9) Tiki is fun, even in space (see No. 1 and No. 7); 10) The soul behind Tiki is rum, and rum is the future.

To prove his point, Burrell then presented an overview of the different styles of rum: English (such as Jamaican), Demerara (from Guyana), Spanish (such as Cuban), French (from Martinique), Navy strength, overproof, and spiced/flavored. We were then presented with three samples to identify, which proved to be a challenge. I detected the pungency of Jamaica’s Wray & Nephew’s overproof rum in one of the samples, but it was quite a bit smoother. It was actually a blend of light Bacardi with a touch of Rum Fire, a new Jamanican overproof rum.

Finally, it came time for the sample cocktails. Tou-Can Play That Game was a riff on a Piña Colada, with coconut and pumpkin flavors combining with three fine rums for a distinctive creamy drink. We were then treated to Burrell mixing up a new drink he created specially for the Rum Fest. Dubbed “Good Head,” it featured Pusser’s Navy Rum, Bacardi Superior white, and Appleton VX gold rums; fresh cucumber; apple juice; agave nectar; and lime juice. Very fresh and clean but also very potent. Don’t blame Burrell for the name. The seminar attendees were challenged to come up with one, and that’s what someone came up with. As we enjoyed our samples, Burrell (with a little help from the audience), mixed up a big drink (which women love, as we now know) and poured it into a giant skull (hence the name).
* Click here for the Good Head recipe and review

Burrell is the perfect spokesman for rum’s renaissance. He makes the spirit fun and informative, with just the right amount of historical reverence. It was the perfect ending for a whirlwind week.

The 2015 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival returns to the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center on April 17-19. Official sites: and Facebook.


Exclusive Atomic Grog photos

Photos by Susan and Jim Hayward
(click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

More photos
* Official gallery by Tatu Karrlas | Coverage by Betty Alvarez



Some of the world’s finest rums were judged at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival by 12 members of the International Rum Expert Panel (RumXP) and 12 guest judges. The six tasting sessions covered 133 total rums in 17 categories. The judges gathered in a tasting room for three days of blind tastings, with the rums grouped and judged in categories according to their style.

Tanduay Asian Rum made its debut at the festival and took home an award for its silver rum

Tanduay Asian Rum made its debut at the festival and took home an award for its silver rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Here are the Best in Class and Gold Medal winners:

Agricole Rhum: Best in Class – St. Barth Chic; Gold – St. Barth Cool

White Rum: Best in Class – Ocumare Platino; Gold – Skottlander, Gold – Tanduay Silver

Premium White Rum: Best in Class – Diplomatico Blanco; Gold – The Real McCoy 3, Gold – Plantation 3 Star

Gold Rum: Best in Class – Diplomatico Añejo; Gold – Hampden Estate Gold, Gold – Koloa Gold

Aged Rum: Best in Class – Plantation Original Dark; Gold – Pussers, Gold – Appleton VX

Aged Rum, 4-8 years: Best in Class – Plantation 5; Gold – El Dorado 8, Gold – Abuelo 7

Aged Rum, 9-12 years: Best in Class – Abuelo 12; Gold – The Real McCoy 12, Gold – Medellin 12

Jamaica's Hampden Estate took a gold medal for its gold rum, while its new Rum Fire brand won the gold for overproof rum

Jamaica’s Hampden Estate took a gold medal for its gold rum, while its new Rum Fire brand won the gold for overproof rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Aged Rum, 13-18 years: Best in Class – Pussers 15; Gold – El Dorado 15, Gold – Flor de Caña 18

Aged Rum, 19-21 years: Best in Class – El Dorado 21, Gold – Centenario 20

Premium Aged Rum: Best in Class – Don Q Gran Añejo; Gold – Ocumare Añejo Especial Golden Reserve, Gold – Plantation 20th Anniversary

Super Premium Rum: Best in Class – Mount Gay 1703; Gold – Ron Barcelo Imperial Premium 30th Anniversary; Gold – Centenario 25

Special Cask: Best in Class – Plantation Guyana 2005; Gold – Plantation Jamaica 2001, Gold – Plantation Trinidad 1999

Dark Rum: Best in Class – Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum; Gold – Koloa Dark, Gold – Goslings Black Seal

Flavored Rum: Best in Class – Koloa Coconut; Gold – Admiral Nelson Vanilla, Gold – Blue Chair Bay Coconut, Gold – Selvarey Cacao

Festival attendees could look but not taste Brugal Papa Andres, the award-winning Ultra Premium Reserve Rum. It retails for $1,200 a bottle

Festival attendees could look but not taste Brugal Papa Andres, the award-winning Ultra Premium Reserve Rum. It retails for $1,200 a bottle. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Spiced Rum: Best in Class – Bayou Spiced; Gold – Blue Chair Coconut Spiced, Gold – Blackheart

Overproof Rum: Best in Class – Plantation Overproof Original Dark; Gold – Rum Fire, Gold – Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum

Ultra Premium Reserve: Best in Class – Brugal Papa Andres

The annual RumXP Tasting Competition at the Miami Rum Festival is considered to be one of the most prestigious events of its type. The judges come from around the world with combined experience that spans many dozens of countries and hundreds of brands. They are authors, lecturers, trainers, historians, journalists, consultants, collectors, proprietors, mixologists, and promoters of rum.

The judging panel was led by Rum Festival organizers Robert A. Burr, Robin Burr and Robert V. Burr. The 12 RumXP judges were: Dirk Decker, Ian Burrell, Forrest Cokely, John Gibbons, Javier Herrera, Peter Holland, Tatu Kaarlas, “Bahama Bob” Leonard, Paul McFadyn, Paul Senft, Leonardo Pinto, and Bernard Schäfer. The guest judges, representing various roles in the spirits industry, were: Matt Robold, Stefan Brinkmann, Laine Doss, Steve Drda, Franco Gaspari, Pauline Holland, Josh Miller, Marco Pierini, Nigel Sade, James Soper, and David Saffa.

Official rum sites
* Rum Expert Panel | Robert Burr’s Rum Guide | National Rum Examiner

Other coverage on the Web
* Miami New Times: Ten rums we loved at Rum Renaissance Festival 2014
Judging 19 rums in less than an hour | Top five coolest rum backstories
* NPR: Rum Renaissance revives the spirit’s rough reputation
* A Tiki A Wiki | Cocktails and Joints | Uncommon Caribbean

Past Atomic Grog coverage
* 2014: Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival
Take 5: Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador and organizer of the UK RumFest
Six reasons to look forward to the sixth annual Miami Rum Fest
Rum festival expands, introduces Miami Cocktail Week
* 2013: Miami festival showcases a never-ending variety of rums
* 2012: Miami festival offers many lessons in rum appreciation
* 2011: We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai
* The Atomic Grog rates some of the top cane spirits
* 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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