Rum Spotlight: Ed Hamilton brings new West Indies blend to Florida

Updated Dec. 23, 2020

Importer Ed Hamilton has announced the arrival of a new Hamilton Rum blend bottled for the Florida Rum Society, soon to be available in retail locations across the Sunshine State. Plans call for the rum, a blend of Jamaican and Guyanese rums, to be distributed in 2021 to other states as well.

Ministry of Rum Private Collection, Florida Rum Society Blend

The first shipment arrived in Orlando on Friday (Dec. 4) from Hamilton’s New York bottling facility, he announced during a Zoom happy hour event that evening. On Thursday, he teased Florida rum lovers with an Instagram post containing the label, announcing that the rum was “on I-75 on the way to Florida.”

Jump below: 15 things you need to know about Ed Hamilton and Hamilton Rum
Recipe: Hamilton Navy Grog, as served at The Mai-Kai

The quick arrival pleased the longtime rum connoisseur, author and owner of his own boutique label and import company, Caribbean Spirits. The new rum will be part of Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Private Collection, containing a similar label but more limited-edition bottlings than his standard Ministry of Rum releases. These include a variety of rum blends sourced from Jamaica, Guyana, St. Lucia and other islands.

He also imports a selections of acclaimed rums from Martinique, including the Neisson, La Favorite and Duquesne labels. Ministry of Rum refers to the website and message board Hamilton launched in the late 1990s that remains an essential reference tool for researching and learning about all rum.

Ed Hamilton spars with rum ambassador Ian Burrell at the first Miami Rum Congress in February 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Ed Hamilton spars with rum ambassador Ian Burrell at thefirst Miami Rum Congress in February 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For the Florida Rum Society blend, Hamilton said he went with a modified version of his popular Navy Strength blend, a powerful 114-proof combination of 60 percent Guyana rum and 40 percent Jamaican rum. The new blend is more accessible, clocking in a 45 percent alcohol by volume, or 90 proof. Hamilton said the blend is 65 percent from Demerara Distillers in Guyana and 35 percent from Worthy Park Estate in Jamaica.

Besides the proof and percentages, there’s a slight variation the age of the rum, Hamilton said. The Jamaican component is a 1-year-old rum while the Navy blend contains unaged distillate. The Guyanese rum is the same blend of 2- to 5-year-old rums that Hamilton uses in the Navy Strength bottling, as well as the Hamilton 86 and 151 Guyana rums that are well-known and loved at Tiki bars across the country. Check our in-depth look at Hamilton’s journey in bringing these rums to market, and their use at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.

The Florida Rum Society blend promises to be more versatile and just as tasty as the Navy blend, its lower proof and added aging making it more assessable as a sipper and all-purpose mixer. It’s also a higher proof than the similar New York Blend, an 84-proof version of the Navy blend. At 65 percent Demerara, it could also make a fine substitute for Hamilton 86 in cocktails. During the Zoom meeting, Hamilton sipped on one of his favorite easy-to-make highballs, a blend of Hamilton 86, Hamilton Jamaican Pimento Dram, and orange juice. I tried a mix of 1 part dram, 3 parts rum and 6 parts juice, and it was delicious.

The flagship Hamilton rums from Guyana are available at Total Wine stores in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)
The flagship Hamilton rums from Guyana are available at Total Wine stores in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)

The new rum should also work well in classic Tiki cocktails that call for a roughly equal blend of non-overproof Demerara and Jamaican rums, such as the Navy Grog (and Beachbum Berry’s The Ancient Mariner), Pearl Diver’s Punch, and Sidewinder’s Fang. The extra 5 percent ABV will give the drink a boost to help it hew closer to the original rums. In the mid-century heyday, it was not unusual for standard mixing rums to be higher than 80 proof, especially those from Guyana and Jamaica. During the Zoom meeting, I enjoyed a Navy Grog featuring three of Hamilton’s signature rums (see recipe below).

Follow the Florida Rum Society on Facebook and Instagram for updates on distribution. Hamilton confirmed that the main retail location will be the Sarasota Liquor Locker. The rum society boasts a robust online store with quick delivery across the state featuring rums stocked by the Sarasota store.

UPDATE: Sarasota Liquor Locker and the rum society’s online shop were the first get the rum. Soon after, it was on its way to Five Star Liquor & Wine in Orlando, Primo Liquors in Broward County (multiple ocations), Big Game Liquors in Miami, and Beach Liquors in the Panhandle (multiple ocations).

Florida Rum Society

Hamilton said he expects retail outlets across the state to carry the rum. Part of the goal of the partnership with the Florida Rum Society, he said, is to leverage the group’s influence to persuade more retailers to carry the Hamilton (and Caribbean Spirits) product line. The bottling includes 112 cases, he said, though he didn’t rule out another batch in the future depending on demand. If the store you frequent in Florida doesn’t carry Hamilton rums, or you’d like to request the new blend, ask them to contact the distributor: Progress Wine Group from Opa Locka, (321) 230-4682.

UPDATE: The Florida Rum Society announced an online cocktail contest featuring the new blend, with the winner earning “a hoard” of Hamilton rums. The group has quickly ramped up its activities after forming only in mid-2019. Members began holding in-person gatherings before the pandemic and have continued them online, with Hamilton and other high-profile rum industry veterans, such as Privateer Rum’s Maggie Campbell, joining in.

The Hamilton blend is not the society’s first special bottling. Just last week, a Plantation 2008 single cask rum from Guyana featuring a Florida Rum Society label landed in Orlando. This label release is extremely limited (just 140 bottles) and available at Five Star. There are also a few bottles remaining at Five Star from the exclusive (214 bottles) release in August of a 109.2 proof New England rum from Privateer dubbed Rumdemic. The release marked the return of Privateer’s single barrel program (now known as the Letter of Marque series).

If that’s not enough for Florida rum fanciers, another exclusive release is coming in 2021. The Florida Rum Society Masters Selection from Chairman’s Reserve and St. Lucia Distillers is available for pre-sale at Jensen’s Liquors in Miami. This 115.6 proof blend is expected around April. Shipping and pick-up are both available.

For more on the Florida Rum Society, check out the interview with founder Jay Cocorullo on the Rumcast podcast, episode 14.

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15 things you need to know about Ed Hamilton and Hamilton Rum

As part of the inaugural Miami Rum Congress in February 2019, the “Minister of Rum” (he actually prefers to be called “Administer of Rum”) hosted his first-ever master class at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale on his Hamilton Rum product line, including a discussion of his journey from Caribbean sailboat adventurer to rum importer and label owner.

Hamilton Rum master class at The Mai-Kai

The hands-on symposium took place in the historic restaurant’s intimate Samoa dining room and included rum and cocktail samples, plus a heaping helping of Hamilton’s wit and wisdom. Here are a few nuggets we gleaned from the presentation:

* After studying chemical and mechanical engineering and getting his college degree, Hamilton worked a job “selling bomb parts” in the mid-1970s. “It really wasn’t something I wanted to base my career on,” he said. When his boss queried him about what he wanted to be doing in five years, he exclaimed: “Go sailing.” Asked how he could make that happen, he replied: “I quit.” He says never spent another day looking for a job after that.

* Hamilton later attained his goal of going sailing after buying a 38-foot boat in Miami and taking it to the Caribbean. He ended up spending 20 years sailing around the islands. But he realized quickly that “you can’t just sail around the Caribbean without drinking rum.” By 1995, he said, he had acquired 175 different rums from 37 different distilleries on his boat. Along with this came the idea of writing a book on rum. The result was The Complete Guide to Rum: An Authoritative Guide to Rums of the World (1997), now sadly out of print.

* After starting Caribbean Spirits Inc., Hamilton began bringing rhums from Martinique into the U.S. An early proponent of the French style long before it was trendy, he did that for 10 years before creating his own branded rums. “If you think selling rum is hard, try selling rhum agricole,” he said. “In 2005, nobody had heard about rhum agricole.” Those original rhums, and others, remain in his portfolio and “a significant part of the business.”

Ed Hamilton teaches a master class on his namesake rums at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 7, 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Ed Hamilton teaches a master class on his namesake rums at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 7, 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* His first branded rums were Hamilton 151 and Hamilton 86 from Demerara Distillers in Guyana. He saw the demand for these rums while he was the U.S. importer of Lemon Hart 151. Both are a blend of column and pot still rums, aged two to five years. The rum is blended and aged in Guyana, then shipped at 154 proof in 20,000-liter tanks to Hamilton’s New York distillery partner. It’s then diluted down to 151 and 86 proof and bottled.

* The experience with Demerara Distillers taught him the lesson of economy of scale in the rum business. “If I wasn’t importing it in 20,000-liter tanks, I couldn’t afford to sell it at the price that I am and I’d be out of business,” Hamilton said. Doing something smaller isn’t really feasible. “It’s like opening a restaurant with three tables,” he said, offering his advice to people who only want to dip their toes into the rum business. “You’ll go broke.”

* Hamilton 86 is the best-selling rum from Caribbean Spirits. “I could not bring myself to bottle this at 80 proof,” he said. “I knew that Lemon Hart was going to come back” to the U.S. market at 80 proof, and “I didn’t really want to compete with that.” Historically, many rums in the 1950s through 1970s were bottled at 43 percent ABV. “Captain Morgan is not rum,” he said, since it’s bottled below 80 proof. “It’s spiced rum,” he points out. “You can bottle spiced rum at 35 or whatever you want to bottle it at.”

* On the subject of added color in rums, Hamilton was totally transparent, as usual. The dark color Hamilton’s Demerara rums is due to a little bit of spirit caramel added to the barrel before aging in Guyana, he said. “I don’t add color to it.” This reddish tint is unique to Demerara rums. However, he said, he does add color to his Jamaican rums before bottling.

The Hamilton rum samples served during the February 2019 master class at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Hamilton rum samples served during the February 2019 master class at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* The reason he can’t use “Demerara” on his label is due to Demerara Distillers keeping a tight trademark grip on its namesake product. He said they’re trying to avoid the fate of Demerara sugar, which has no trademark and can be produced anywhere. This is why the labels of Hamilton’s rums instead say “from the banks of the Demerara River.”

* Hamilton’s next rums were the result of demands from bartenders across the country, who said they wanted “a black Jamaican rum with character for Tiki cocktails,” he said. He sources this rum from Worthy Park Estate, home of the Rum Bar brand. Bartenders loved the Jamaican Black, he said, but also wanted something lighter for Daiquiris. “It won’t look like a toilet bowl if you make a gold rum,” he said he was told. So he just used a different coloring with a gold tint on the same base rum. The gold and black rums use two different caramels, but everything else is the same. “It takes 1 liter of caramel to color 4,000 liters of rum,” Hamilton said.

* The Navy rum was also a result of bartender demand, Hamilton said. He made sure to follow the exact specs of Navy strength, which is 57 percent ABV. This is the traditional “proof” as it evolved from the British sailors testing the rum aboard ships to see if it caught fire. “If it was too low, they would through the purser overboard,” he said, only half joking.

* The actual blend is more complex, but if you can’t find Hamilton Navy rum in your market, you can make a similar blend yourself by simply combining one bottle of Hamilton 151 with two bottles of Jamaican Gold or Black. At the New York distillery, they combine 60 percent of the rum from Guyana (at 154 proof, before dilution) with 40 percent of the Jamaican rum (at 170 proof, before dilution). That blend is then diluted to 114 proof over five days.

The Hamilton rums discussed and sampled in February 2019 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Hamilton rums discussed and sampled in February 2019 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* The reasons he blends and bottles his rum in New York are both logistical and stylistic. Many importers, including Hamilton, use million-square-foot warehouses in New Jersey. Distributors pick up there almost every week, making it smart business to locate there. He needed a bottler close to the warehouse, and Five & 20 Spirits in Westfield, N.Y., also happens to have “really good water.” Also, “the guy in charge is a chemical engineer, a winemaker, and has good quality control.” That last part “is everything,” he said. “If I have a bad batch of rum, I’m out of business.”

* The New York Blend originated from requests by Pier A Harbor House in New York City for a Hamilton-branded rum that would work well in Daiquiris during the height of the Hamilton craze on Broadway. The owners loved the Navy blend, but it needed to be lower proof. The final product is 84 proof with roughly the same blend. Hamilton said the regional name is not a problem around the country, including California, but in Boston “they wanted nothing to do with it.”

* When trying to classify rums, Hamilton said he likes to look at the raw material and the still. To divide rums by English, French and Spanish styles “is a misnomer.” He calls rum “the most complex and the most varied of all the distilled spirits. … You can’t classify it precisely.”

* When Hamilton launches a new rum, he said he likes it to fill a demand, from both retailers and bartenders. Bartenders are usually the first to ask for it, he said, then stores will want to stock it when people request it for their home bars. He added that his top concern is putting out quality rums at a price that people can afford, and that also appeal to bartenders and work in cocktails.

More on Ed Hamilton
* The evolution of Hamilton Rum, the Ministry of Rum, and more (Rumcast episode 12)
* This Importer is bringing back some of the Caribbean’s best rum (Saveur)

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Bonus recipe
Hamilton Navy Grog
As served at The Mai-Kai on Feb. 7, 2019, during Ed Hamilton’s master class

The Atomic Grog's interpretation of The Mai-Kai's Hamilton Navy Grog, December 2020. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Atomic Grog’s interpretation of The Mai-Kai’s Hamilton Navy Grog, December 2020. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 3/4 ounce grapefruit juice
* 1 ounce honey mix
* 4 dashes (1/2 teaspoon) Hamilton Pimento Dram
* 1 ounce Hamilton Navy Strength rum
* 1 ounce Hamilton 86 Guyana rum
* 1 ounce Hamilton Jamaican Gold rum

Shake or pulse blend with a heaping cup of crushed ice. Dump into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a swizzle stick or other minimal accoutrement. More advanced mixologists may want to strain into a glass containing an ice-cone straw, originally created by Don the Beachcomber and still used at The Mai-Kai.

Already a rum-forward cocktail, this version ups the ante with three potent rums from Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Collection clocking in at 114, 86 and 93 proof, respectively. It also employs Hamilton’s potent pimento dram for an extra boost of allspice flavor. The result is a surprisingly balanced yet rummy cocktail with citrus and honey lending just the right amount of sour and sweet. Dangerously drinkable.

The cocktail specs

This version of the Navy Grog is actually just a slight variation of The Mai-Kai’s Yeoman’s Grog, which is believed to feature three rums (light Puerto Rican, dark Jamaican, Demerara) and other similar ingredients as the Don the Beachcomber original. The major difference is the added allspice liqueur, which was a staple of the Trader Vic’s version.

A Hamilton Navy Grog at The Mai-Kai on Feb. 7, 2019, during Ed Hamilton's rum symposium. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A Hamilton Navy Grog at The Mai-Kai on Feb. 7, 2019, during Ed Hamilton’s rum symposium. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Also note that this version skips the splash of soda water, making it less diluted and more flavor-forward. The ingredient list above was printed and distributed during Hamilton’s talk at The Mai-Kai during the first Miami Rum Congress. We just extrapolated the measurements based on our experience with the Yeoman’s Grog. It was one of several Hamilton Rum cocktails guests enjoyed while listening to the entertaining stories, insights and tips from the noted importer and cane spirits expert. Scroll up for more on the masterclass and 15 things you need to know about Ed Hamilton and Hamilton Rum.

The back story

The Navy Grog was created by Tiki cocktail pioneer Donn Beach (of Don the Beachcomber fame), most likely in the late 1930s. Cocktail author, historian and bar owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry was the first to reveal an authentic recipe, the version in his groundbreaking Grog Log (1998) that he coaxed out of an old Beachcomber bartender and dated back to around 1941. The recipe later appeared in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2012) and the Total Tiki app.

Trader Vic, aka Victor Bergeron, was less secretive than Beach, publishing many recipes in books over the years. He was inspired to launch is own Polynesian paradise after visiting the original Don the Beachcomber in the 1930s. However, Bergeron did keep a few secrets, one being the “Trader Vic’s Navy Grog Mix” listed in his Navy Grog recipes. This turns out to be an allspice syrup, and you can often find it (along with the more intense grog concentrate used by Trader Vic’s bartenders) in the worldwide restaurant chain’s online store.

A Yeoman's Grog in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2018)
A Yeoman’s Grog in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2018)

When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, original mixologist Mariano Licudine sought to mix things up on the menu and not simply copy the cocktails he learned over 15 years working at Don the Beachcomber restaurants in Hollywood and Chicago. For the Yeoman’s Grog, he simply added some allspice – either a syrup or alcoholic dram, possibly a mix of both (aka Don’s Spices #2). Not surprisingly, the Navy Grog served at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans also features both honey and allspice, Berry revealed on the A Bar Above podcast in June 2020.

It’s believed that Beach originally created the robust Navy Grog (along with the even more potent Zombie) with his male clientele in mind. These masculine cocktails were likely designed to dispel the notion that the bar’s colorful and elaborately garnished tropical drinks were only for the fairer sex.

In fact, the Navy Grog has some of the most interesting (and sordid) links to infamous male celebrities and historical figures. It was believed to be both Frank Sinatra’s and Richard Nixon’s favorite tropical drink. We’re not sure which version the Chairman of the Board preferred, but the disgraced President Nixon was rumored to have made secret sojourns to Trader Vic’s in D.C. at the height of the Watergate scandal. Berry revealed in his 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari that blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein would escape the mid-century threat of the House Un-American Activities Committee by relaxing with a Navy Grog at the Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. And, in the most ignominious incident, record producer Phil Spector quaffed several Navy Grogs at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills before he murdered actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, according to court testimony.

Hamilton Pimento Dram
Hamilton Pimento Dram follows a traditional Jamaican recipe.

Mixing tips

* Fresh-squeezed lime is always essential. It’s white grapefruit season in Florida, so I was lucky enough to be able to squeeze fresh juice for the drink in the photo above, which I enjoyed during Hamilton’s Zoom meet-up on Dec. 4. White grapefruit, which is preferred in most traditional Tiki cocktails, have unfortunately become harder to find. So if you can’t find the fruit, 100% fresh bottled or canned juice is fine in a pinch. If necessary, go with fresh red grapefruit (or fresh, unsweetened juice). The Mai-Kai uses fresh-squeezed red grapefruit from local groves when the white variety is out of season.

* Honey mix, a staple ingredient in Mai-Kai and Don the Beachcomber cocktails, is simply a 1-to-1 (or 2-to-1) mix of honey and water. Combine in a squeeze bottle and shake vigorously. It should stay fresh for a week or more if kept refrigerated.

* Hamilton Pimento Dram is a distinctive 60 proof liqueur made from pot still rums and sugar from Worthy Park Estate, plus Jamaican pimento (aka allspice). Unlike other pimento liqueurs, there’s no added color so it appears clear in the glass. But don’t let that fool you, it’s full of flavor and just as viable as the more widely available St. Elizabeth brand. Seek out Hamilton, but another label (or homemade version) would still work fine in this drink.

* Of course, Hamilton rums are essential in this namesake version of the Navy Grog. But don’t fret if you don’t have all three. Any combination of Ministry of Rum Collection bottlings from Jamaica and/or Guyana would work well. Just go easy on the 151. We can’t wait to try out the new Florida Rum Society blend.

Okole maluna!

PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!

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