Miami Rum Festival boldly explores the next frontier of cane spirits

UPDATE: RumXP Awards announced at eighth annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival

The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival returned for an eighth year on Friday, April 15, through Sunday, April 17, at the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center. Go to MiamiRumFest.com for more info.

Here’s our look back at the 2015 festival
Jump below: Special cocktail recipe: Mai-Kai Moai | Photo gallery | Award-winning rums

A Bayou Rum representative prepares cocktails.

A Bayou Rum representative prepares cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

If there was an unofficial theme of the 2015 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, held April 17-19 at the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center, it was the impressive innovation and continuing commitment to quality from a new wave of craft rum producers from around the world. In a year when some major players were absent, the young guns definitely picked up the slack and presented products fit for any rum connoisseur.

The festival was less about the big brands flexing their muscle and more about the boutique labels showing off their innovation and commitment to craft. This is the typical scenario at the annual Rum XP Awards, but it’s now overflowing to the convention floor, where consumers had the opportunity to see firsthand what the critics and judges have long known.

Near the end of the three days of public tastings, festival organizer Robert A. Burr was like a kid in a candy store when I ran into him talking to RumXP judge Bernhard Schäfer and enjoying the special trade-only area for rums not yet released in the United States. These rums are the future, he said, pointing to the dozens of brands from around the world seeking entry into the American market. And it was hard to argue with him.

Miami Rum Renaissance Festival organizer Robert A. Burr (left) with longtime judge Bernhard Schäfer.

Miami Rum Renaissance Festival organizer Robert A. Burr (left) with longtime judge Bernhard Schäfer. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

“You have to try the Monymusk,” he said, referring to the aged rum from Jamaica that was on display on the Authentic Caribbean Rums table. Indeed, Monymusk Plantation Reserve was the nectar of the gods, one of the best rums I tasted during the festival. When Burr recommends a rum, my advice is to listen closely. In 2016, he’ll be opening up his private collection for all to taste, which should be a real treat.

Nearby in the industry-only section of the festival were an array of premium rums from around the Caribbean (Barbados, Haiti, etc.) produced by Bristol Spirits in the U.K. and inexplicably not yet distributed in the U.S. Bristol’s Demerara Port Morant from Guyana was amazing, perhaps my favorite of the weekend. I ran into Rum XP judge Suzanne Long, owner of the acclaimed Longitude neo-Tiki bar in Oakland, and we both marveled at the rich complexity of this Demerara-style rum. It would sure shine in a Demerara Cocktail.

But rare rums from the Caribbean were just the tip of the iceberg at the 2015 Miami Rum Festival. Spirits producers came from near and far to show off their products, and many went home with awards for their efforts. The perfect example of this were the white rum categories. The best in class winner for white rum was Skotlander, all the way from Denmark. [See review] One of the brands with a booth in the trade zone, lobbying for U.S. distribution, Skotlander also picked up a gold medal for its premium white rum for the second year in a row. Skotlander also makes a wide variety of other rums, including cask and aged varieties.

Avi Aisenberg (right) and Joe Durkin make their first appearance at the festival with their new Fwaygo Rum.

Avi Aisenberg (right) and Joe Durkin make their first appearance at the festival with their new Fwaygo Rum.

The surprise winner of the best in class ribbon for premium white rum was Fwaygo, produced just 30 miles away in Fort Lauderdale. Earlier in the week we got a sneak preview of when The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale served the Grapefruit Julep, a special cocktail featuring Fwaygo during one of the rum fest pre-parties. [Video: See recipe] The flagship rum from South Florida Distillers is funky and clean, a great mixer. It’s right up there with acclaimed expressions such as Plantation 3 Stars, which won a gold medal.

Avi Aisenberg (CEO and proprietor) and Joe Durkin (head distiller and COO) personally manned the Fwaygo booth, handing out samples and chatting up the appreciative tasters. They happily gave out coupons for a fee tour and tasting at their spanking new operations near downtown Fort Lauderdale, billed as the “city’s oldest distillery.” Well, it’s true. It’s also a DIY operation with passion, not profit, driving the creative process. Though widespread retail distribution has been difficult, Fwaygo Rum is available at bars and restaurants throughout South Florida. In 2016, we’re looking forward to trying Fwaygo’s two new premium rums: Single Barrel and Grilled Pineapple.

Other new rums that caught my attention:

Another small American craft distillery, Richland Rum from Georgia, impressed with what’s essentially an agricole rhum handcrafted from Georgia sugarcane juice and natural water from the state’s aquifer. Though not as funky as a rhum you’d find in Martinique, Richland’s Single Estate Old Georgia Rum is a creative craft rum worth keeping an eye on.

Bryan Davis (left) and Joanne Haruta of Lost Spirits Distillery won a gold medal in the overproof category for their Colonial American Inspired Rum.

Bryan Davis (left) and Joanne Haruta of Lost Spirits Distillery won a gold medal in the overproof category for their Colonial American Inspired Rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

No distillery epitomizes the new DIY spirit better than Lost Spirits, the California company that’s breaking all the rules with its high-tech, chemically altered blends from master distiller and mad scientist Bryan Davis. When I met Davis and partner Joanne Haruta, they told me about their plans to transition out of the business of producing their own rums. The new business plan involves leveraging their expertise and technology to create aged rums in a fraction of the time for any interested clients. Luckily, I got the chance to sample a few of their final products. The 124-proof Colonial American Inspired Rum (gold medal for overproof rum) was very dark and powerful, its bold flavors almost like a blackstrap rum. And the revolutionary Prometheus, which was making its debut at the festival, was an insanely good Navy style rum with a complexity that would make you swear it sat in barrels for 20 years, not the six days it took to produce. Lost Spirits will be represented in 2016 by Rational Spirits, a new Charleston, S.C., craft distillery producing the 92-proof Santeria Rum, a funky Jamaican/Navy style rum that was featured in a cocktail at The Mai-Kai on Tuesday. Davis will also be in attendance, touting his latest technology.
* See The Mai-Kai event recap and recipe for Santero’s Elixir

Mezan Rum, with expressions of premium aged rums from Jamaica and Panama, made its first appearance at the festival. The XO Jamaican (gold medal for premium aged rum) is raw and unfiltered, just as a pure Caribbean rum should be. Additives are unnnecessary and would keep you from fully enjoying the flavors dancing on your taste buds. [See review] Mezan is returning in 2016 with four rums for sampling.

Yolo Rum won a gold medal in the category for rums aged 12-15 years.

Yolo Rum won a gold medal in the category for rums aged 12-15 years. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Yolo Gold 10, a gold medal winner for aged rum 12-15 years, was smooth and sippable with caramel and smoky notes dominating the flavor profile. It’s the handiwork of legendary Cuban blender Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez, which explains the classic Spanish style. Yolo will also be back on the convention floor this year with two rums.

Afrohead had several rums on display, including a 7-year-old expression sourced from Barbados that I thought made a solid mixing rum. The cocktail being served at the Afrohead booth, featuring tea and homemade falernum, was one of the best of the festival.

Amid all the new rums, however, there was some normalcy. For the second year in a row, Plantation walked away with a festival-best eight Rum XP Awards, including four best in class medals and four golds. [See our earlier coverage] It was here I got my first taste of Stiggins’ Fancy, Plantation’s pineapple rum that stands above every other flavored rum on the market. It won best in class in that category, of course. Original Dark, named best in class aged rum for the second straight year, was also featured in an excellent cocktail.

The Trinidad Daiquiri, one of the best cocktails of the festival, features the award-winning Plantation Original Dark.

The Trinidad Daiquiri, one of the best cocktails of the festival, features the award-winning Plantation Original Dark. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Trinidad Daiquiri had nice balance with bitters offsetting the sweetness and the dark rum bringing bold flavors to the table. Recipe: Shake up 2 ounces Original Dark with 1 ounce fresh pineapple juice, 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/2 ounce simple syrup, and 3 dashes Angostura bitters. Fine strain into a coupe glass rinsed with Plantation Overproof Original Dark (named best in class for overproof). I also marveled at the Plantation 20th Anniversary from Barbados, a gold medal winner for premium aged rum. It’s a great sipper, the perfect combination of heat and sweet. Plantation is back again with eight rums at the 2016 rum fest, including a new version of Original Dark that we plan to contrast and compare to the old.

Other rums, while not new, made a triumphant return to Miami. After enjoying the Plantation booth on Saturday, I ran into Robert V. Burr, son of Robert A. and co-organizer along with his mom, Robin Burr. “Have you had the Cartavio XO,” he asked? In short order, I was sipping the best in class winner in the premium aged rum category, a wonderfully sweet and sippable spirit from Peru. It’s sophisticated and well-balanced, aged in sherry barrels with no added sugar, Burr told me. Cartavio, which was a big winner in 2010 and 2011, returned to the fest in 2015 with a splash, also winning best in class for aged rum 5-8 years and taking home the first best in class medal from the Consumer Rum Jury. The panel of collectors and consumers agreed with the judges that this is one high-quality spirit. Cartavio will have five runs on display in 2016, including the XO.

I chatted with the younger Burr about the state of the festival, and he admitted the lack of “big dogs” like years past. There was no sign of Captain Morgan, and Bacardi’s participation was minimal. But the commitment to quality over quantity was appreciated by many in attendance. Also noticeable was a move to keep the party crowd to a minimum. Most tickets were sold in advance, and not once during the weekend did the convention floor approach the rowdiness of years past.

Mixologist and author Warren Bobrow, representing Stroh, shows off some of his books.

Mixologist and author Warren Bobrow, representing Stroh, shows off some of his books. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

That’s not to say that the event was dominated by new kids on the block. I was happy to see the venerable Pusser’s back for a second straight year. And the distinctive British Navy rum, a blend that dates back centuries to the days of daily rum rations on the high seas, took home medals for aged rum (gold) and aged rum 12-15 years (best in class). I was impressed by Pusser’s 15, perhaps the smoothest Navy rum I’ve ever encountered. And I was knocked out by the Gunpowder Proof blend, a darker and more potent Navy rum with big, bold flavors. This 109-proof rum would make a great mixer in Tiki cocktails. You’ll find Pusser’s on the convention floor again in 2016 with its three flagship rums. It’s a booth well worth stopping at for a sip, or a cocktail such as the trademark Painkiller.

I also dragged myself away from the rum booths to attend a few seminars. Judge Bernhard Schäfer offered some great insights into the “Art and Technique of Evaluating Rum,” providing first-hand knowledge, tips and guidance culled from his years of experience. “How to Elevate Your Home Bar” featured tips and advice by members of the local Gumbo Limbo chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai. These fez-wearing guys (and gals) really know their stuff when it comes to setting up and running a stellar DIY home bar. Most impressive were the homemade syrups they showed off. The hibiscus grenadine, passion fruit, pineapple and ginger flavors were all outstanding.

And to the delight of many of us, the generous FOM members opened up their bar that they had set up in the small conference room for the dozens of attendees to mix up their own concoctions at the end of the seminar. I wanted to take advantage of some of those excellent syrups, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start. As people grabbed random bottles, I decided to do what I do best: Make a Mai-Kai style cocktail with bold rums, distinctive syrups and some bitter notes for balance. A selection of rums from the festival floor was available for use, so I gravitated toward two of the best in class award winners. Below is the result, re-recreated at home a few days later.

The Mai-Kai Moai by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Mai-Kai Moai by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

THE MAI-KAI MOAI
(By Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog)

* 1 ounce 100% natural white grapefruit juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce honey syrup (2 parts honey to 1 part water)
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1 ounce Fwaygo rum
   (or any good funky/aged white rum)
* 1 1/2 ounces Plantation Original Dark rum
   (or any premium dark Jamaican rum)
* 3 drops Pernod
* 2-3 dashes Fee’s Old Fashioned Bitters (or Angostura)

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice and serve in a double old-fashioned glass or custom Tiki mug.

Sweet, sour and just a little funky, this mash-up of classic ingredients and new rums is both familiar and new. The cocktail name (and mug) were inspired by the massive Barney West moai that still stands after some 50 years outside The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (see photo). The mug was crafted by noted artist Tiki Diablo and originally produced for the wedding of Mike and Chelsea, friends from the Texas Tiki scene. The pair tied the knot in The Mai-Kai’s beautiful outdoor gardens on April 18, the day before I created the cocktail at Miami Rum Fest. [See photos on Tiki Central] This drink is dedicated to them (and the FOM) and fits perfectly in the mug.

With Fwaygo hard to find, I’d recommend Plantation 3 Stars (another award-winner) as good substitute. Plantation Original Dark is worth seeking out, but if necessary you could go with a not-too-dark Jamaican rum such as one of the Appleton Estate blends or Corbua. The Old Fashioned Bitters has a slightly different taste than Angostura, so use it if you can. It’s not quite as bold as Angostura, so go lighter (1-2 dashes) if substituting.

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Exclusive Atomic Grog photos
2015 MIAMI RUM RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL

(click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

* Official photos by RumScout (Robert V. Burr)

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2015 RUMXP COMPETITION RESULTS

Some of the world’s finest cane spirits were judged at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival by the International Rum Expert Panel (RumXP), plus guest judges. The six tasting sessions covered 127 total rums in 14 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.

Plantation representatives show off some of the brand's award-winning rums from throughout the Caribbean.

Plantation representatives show off some of the brand’s award-winning rums from throughout the Caribbean. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The 2015 RumXP judges were Dirk Becker of Germany, Javier Herrera of Spain, Leonardo Pinto of Italy, Bernhard Schäfer of Germany, Forrest Cokely of California, Tatu Kaarlas of Australia, “Bahama Bob” Leonard of Key West, Paul Senft of Georgia, Juan del Busto of Miami, John Gibbons of Sweden, Rene van Hoven of Holland, and Ingvar Thomsen of Denmark. Guest judges were Marie King of California, Johnny Drejer of Denmark, Suzanne Long of California, Mark Theron of St. Kitts and Nevis, and Alexander Brittel of Miami.

Here are the best in class and gold medal winners:

White Rum: Best in Class – Skotlander White; Gold – Blue Chair Bay White, Carta Vieja Silver, Brugal White Extra Dry.

Premium White Rum: Best in Class – Fwaygo White; Gold – Plantation 3 Star, Nine Leaves Clear, Skotlander Rum III.

Gold Rum: Best in Class – Bacardi Gold; Gold – Brugal Anejo, Ron Carta Vieja Gold, Don Barrilito 2 star.

The venerable Pusser's snagged several medals for its distinctive Navy rum.

The venerable Pusser’s snagged several medals for its distinctive Navy rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Aged Rum: Best in Class – Plantation Original Dark; Gold – Ron del Barrilito 3 star, Pusser’s British Navy, Bundaberg Small Batch 4.

Premium Aged Rum: Best in Class – Cartavio XO; Gold – Plantation 20th Anniversary, Mezan XO, Brugal 1888.

Aged Rum 5-8 Years: Best in Class – Cartavio 5; Gold – Plantation Barbados 5, Bacardi 8, Real McCoy 5.

Aged Rum 12-15 Years: Best in Class – Pusser’s 15; Gold – Yolo 10, Don Q Gran Anejo, Real McCoy 12.

Aged Rum 18-25 Years: Best in Class – Opthimus 25; Gold – Opthimus 21, Opthimus 18, Carta Vieja 18.

Aged Rum – Special Cask: Best in Class – Plantation Jamaica 2001; Gold – Plantation Guyana 2005, Opthimus Malt Tomatin Whiskey Barrels 25, Opthimus Oporto Barrels 25.

Spiced Rum: Best in Class – Siesta Key Spiced Limited Edition; Gold – Siesta Key Distillers Reserve, Siesta Key Spiced, Blue Chair Bay Coconut Spiced, Bayou Spiced, Blue Water Caribbean Gold Premium Spiced.

Flavored Rum: Best in Class – Plantation Pineapple; Gold – Bayou Satsuma, Blue Chair Bay Banana, Caray Cafe.

The Real McCoy earned gold medals for its 5-year-old and 12-year-old aged rums from Barbados.

The Real McCoy earned gold medals for its 5-year-old and 12-year-old aged rums from Barbados. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Overproof Rum: Best in Class – Plantation Overproof Original Dark; Gold – Don Q 151, Lost Spirits Colonial American Inspired Rum, Wicked Dolphin Strawberry RumShine 100 Proof, Stroh 80.

Rhum Agricole Blanc: Best in Class – Trois Rivieres Rhum Blanc Agricole 55%; Gold – — Trois Rivieres Cuvee Speciale 40%, Trois Rivieres Rhum Blanc Agricole 40%, Trois Rivieres Rhum Blanc Agricole 50%.

Rhum Agricole Vieux: Best in Class – Trois Rivieres Rhum Vieux VSOP ; Gold – Trois Rivieres Rhum Ambre 40%, La Mauny Rhum Vieux X.O. 40%, Trois Rivieres Rhum Vieux Martinique 12.

Consumer Rum Jury
A new feature of the competition for 2015, the Consumer Rum Jury was comprised of 20 rum collectors and experienced consumers. They offered their own perspective as active and engaged rum buyers: Best in Class – Ron Cartavio XO; Gold – Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, Opthimus Ron Artesanal Solera 25 Anos, Siesta Key Distillers Reserve Solera Spiced Rum.
* More on the competition at MiamiRumFest.com

Rob’s Rum Guide coverage
* Plantation Rums score big | Brugal wins three gold medals

Related coverage on the Web
* Bahama Bob’s Rumstyles: April 15 | April 16 | April 17 | April 18 | April 19
* Rum Journey: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6
* Sipping around the world at Rum Renaissance 2015 (Straw Hat Barmen)
* Rummy fun at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015 (Cocktail Wonk)
* Miami Rum Renaissance – The Rum Trader’s experience
* Boy Drinks World goes to Miami Rum Fest
* Rum Renaissance Festival returns with discovery of rum theme (New Times)
* Cheers! Renaissance event all about rum (Florida Today)
* Miami Rum Renaissance Festival grows up (Uncommon Caribbean)

Related rum sites
* Rob’s Rum Guide | Blog | Facebook page
* Rum Minute | YouTube channel

Past Atomic Grog coverage
* 2016: Miami festival specializes in education, but reminds us that ‘rum is fun’
* 2015: Miami Rum Festival spotlights explosion of new brands
* 2014: Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players at Miami Rum Festival
Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival
Take 5: Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador and organizer of the UK RumFest
* 2013: Miami festival showcases a never-ending variety of rums
Rum and the British Navy: When men were men, and sailors drank Daiquiris
* 2012: Miami festival offers many lessons in rum appreciation
* 2011: We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai

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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