The 12th annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival may not have reached the epic proportions of past events, but it was a welcome return as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic world. Like an old friend who had only one day for a visit, the short-but-sweet tasting session on Nov. 14 brought the extended “rum family” back together in a safe space.
“Our decision to keep it simple paid off,” co-organizer Robert A. Burr said after the event. “We sold out with 500 tickets and the size of the crowd was very comfortable. It’s so satisfying to gather with our rum friends again.” Burr and wife Robin also welcomed back son Robert V. Burr to the rum fest. His move back to South Florida will enable him to once again be involved in the event, he told us during the festivities.
While socially distant interactions are still awkward, it was clear that both attendees and participating rum brands were very happy to be there. The elder Burr said many “expressed their heartfelt appreciation.”
Hosted for a second time at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club, the event was not spread out over multiple days like years past. The Rum Renaissance Tasting Event featured no seminars or judging sessions, but the Burrs definitely didn’t skimp on the rums. There appeared to be even more tasting booths than there were in 2019.
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The tasting session for the general public ran from 2 to 6 p.m., and we spent the better part of that time catching up with old friends and sampling many fine rums. We immediately knew we were in for a treat when we entered the first of two event halls to find an elaborate Rhum Barbancourt booth manned by master mixologist Tobin Ellis. The legendary rum from Haiti was making a rare appearance in Miami with Ellis, an influential bartender and consultant from Las Vegas who made a splash at the rum fest in its early days.
I had not seen Ellis since we faced off in 2011 at the third annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai. He won that mixology contest, of course, and I remember him offering this newbie some great advice. It was fantastic to catch up with one of the bar and cocktail world’s most creative minds. It was also comforting to find out that he remains a very humble and down-to-earth guy.
Some other no-less-notable names were in the house, representing dozens of rum brands from around the world. With my time limited, I made an attempt to sample as many new and intriguing rums as possible. It was definitely tough to restrain myself from revisiting the many past favorites, including Diplomatico, Dos Maderas, El Dorado, Pusser’s, and others. Check out our past coverage for all of these, plus more.
Here are seven memories we walked away with from this year’s rum reunion in Coral Gables …
QUICK TAKES: 2021 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival highlights
BEST BOOTH: Rhum Barbancourt. The sophisticated kiosk from Haiti’s flagship brand had everything you’d want from a rum festival presenter: Classy and eye-catching displays plus a perfect photo-op spot, the full range of distinctive rums readily available for tasting, and a world-class mixologist shaking up fresh (and delicious) cocktails. It was almost unfair to the rest of the brands. Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the full Barbancourt range from its years as a sponsor of The Hukilau. And we’ve always kept our home bar stocked with the three 86-proof core products – the lightly aged Rhum Blanc, the 4-year-old “3 Stars,” and the 8-year-old Speciale Reserve “5 Stars” – along with the 70-proof Barbancourt Pango, one of the best flavored rums on the market. You’ll find several Barbancourt rums featured in our new Haitian Zombie recipe. But the brand’s crown jewel is the premium sipping rum, the 15-year-old Estate Reserve blend. Like the others, it’s distilled from sugar cane juice in the rhum agricole style and aged in French oak. We were reminded just how good this rum is after tasting the complex, nuanced and very refined sip. Rhum Barbancourt remains one of the most consistent (and reasonably priced) brands on the market.
BEST NEW RUM: Plantation Trinidad 2009. I almost skipped the booth from longtime festival participant Plantation – the popular rum brand from France’s Maison Ferrand. I own or have tasted most of the booth’s award-winning bottlings, which are sourced from islands across the world before a second aging and bottling in France. But I spotted a new one, and I’m glad I stopped to try it. Plantation Trinidad 2009 is a limited-edition blend that was aged for 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in Trinidad before aging for a year in oak barrels in France. Plantation has perfected this somewhat controversial production style, and it serves this release well. Clocking in a 103.6 proof, this is a dynamic yet delicate blend with light citrus and spice notes along with hints of gasoline (in a good way). The latter was something I don’t recall ever encountering in a modern Trinidadian rum (Angostura is now the island’s sole rum producer). It’s an intriguing release, one I definitely recommend. Just for the heck of it, I compared it head-to-head against a similar rum from the festival’s VIP Tasting Bar: the acclaimed Velier Caroni 15. This is a 15-year-old, 104-proof rum from the Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which unfortunately closed in 2003 after a long history that included many years of supplying its rich, dark rums to the British Navy. This bottling from Italy’s Velier is outstanding, a rich and powerful rum with lots of dark fruit flavors and an oily, gasoline-like punch. One of my favorites from the tasting bar. The similarities in the two rums was clear, particularly the smoky petrol. To me, the Plantation Trinidad 2009 release comes off as a lighter, more approachable version of the Caroni 15. (Note: There’s also a 12-year-old Caroni from Velier that I have not tried.). The ABV is almost identical, and the same unique gasoline notes stand out. When Caroni closed, the majority of its remaining rum was acquired by Angostura, so it’s entirely possible some Caroni stock is used in this blend. All the Plantation website says is the rum “was chosen from the cellars of Trinidad Distillers” (which owns Angostura). There has been speculation that Angostura uses some of its Caroni stock in the “1787” expression, its top-of-the-line rum blend that’s aged for a minimum of 15 years but released at just 80 proof. It’s possible there’s also a tiny bit of Caroni in this new blend from Plantation as well.
BEST OLD RUMS: VIP Tasting Bar. It’s hard to go wrong with anything featured in this special booth stocked with rare bottles from Rob and Robin Burr’s private collection, but two caught our eye and stand out in our memory. Lemon Hart 151 is a crucial rum in the history of Tiki cocktails, and a bottle from the early 2000s remains the top rated rum in our home bar. But Burr’s older bottle of the fiery Demerara rum from Guyana, circa 1995, gave us a jolting reminder of why this is considered to be the holy grail of mixing rums. Nevermind mixing, we enjoyed it neat and were taken aback by the incredibly bold and over-the-top flavors. Rich molasses, burnt sugar and other dark flavors assault the senses, even after sitting for 25+ years. Burr speculated that an overproof rum like Lemon Hart 151 might even benefit from extra years in the bottle. But our overall favorite sip of the entire day was one of the most rare and expensive in the tasting bar. It required six tickets ($30), but the proceeds went to charity and it was worth every cent. Distilled in 1986, the 92-proof “Rockley Still Sherry Finish” rum from Barbados was bottled in 2012 by Bristol Classic in the UK. That makes this delicious sip 26 years old and reported to be from a much-debated defunct distillery, or at the very least produced in the same style. All I know is this rum envelopes you with waves of flavors, both nutty and oaky, but also funky and buttery. It’s rich and dark with a pot-still funkiness more akin to a Jamaican rum than modern Barbados rums.
BEST COCKTAILS: Rhum Barbancourt. The venerable Haitian rum brought in the big guns, including a mixologist who has reached the highest levels of the industry. To promote their distinctive spirits, they hired flair bartending pioneer and Bar Magic of Las Vegas founder Tobin Ellis to mix up two outstanding drinks. Ellis’ own Strawberry Rhubarb Daiquiri featured Barbancourt Rhum Blanc, fresh organic strawberries, rhubarb bitters, fresh basil and lime, plus cane sugar. It was rich and fragrant, with the funk of the rum shining through the balanced cocktail. A second cocktail, Stella Cho’s Karabela, included the 4-year-old Barbancourt 3 Stars, hibiscus bitters, and tea-infused agave syrup. This take on the Old Fashioned was even better than the Daiquiri: Bold and floral, boozy and satisfying. Honorable mention goes to Copalli’s Daiquiri featuring organic white rum, and SelvaRey’s Clean Colada featuring coconut rum. Both take traditional recipes to the next level, much like their spirits (see below).
MOST INTRIGUING NEW BRAND: Copalli Rum. Belize in Central America may not be a traditional rum-producing country, but the impressive lineup of organic and sustainably produced spirits from Copalli are sure to turn some heads. They sure turned mine, grabbing my attention with the most unique rums at the festival. Made using fresh-pressed juice from organic sugar cane and pure canopy water from the rainforest, the production methods should be lauded. But the flavors in the three rums (White, Barrel-Rested and Cacao) were also off the charts. All have the distinctive nose and earthy flavors of an agricole rhum, but the blend of pot and column still distillates has its own distinctive style. The 84-proof White is light on the grassiness, a little fruity and perfect in a Daiquiri. The 88-proof Barrel-Rested is mild on the nose, but the flavors assault the senses with bold bursts of leather and oak. Even the flavored rum caught me by surprise. Handed a small sample of the 80-proof Cacao Rum and expecting a sweet aroma, I was bowled over by the pungent punch of a cane juice rum. Just the right amount of chocolate balanced the rough edges, creating the perfect rum you never thought you needed.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: SelvaRey Rum. Situated right next to Copalli, this upscale brand co-owned by singer Bruno Mars had a hard act to follow. Produced in Panama under the auspices of legendary blender Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez, the rums from SelvaRay also follow a socially responsible approach. The website promises safe, healthy and respectable labor conditions for its sugar cane harvesters. No chemical fertilizers or cane burning is allowed by the distillery. The rums are distilled in antique copper column stills, then cask-aged on site to produce a “single estate” product. I was still not sure it could live up to the hype – until I tasted it. The 80-proof SelvaRey White, a blend of 3- and 5-year-old rums aged in Bourbon barrels, is a surprisingly good sipper. Featuring lime and other citrus notes, it’s almost like a sophisticated Daiquiri in one bottle. Also surprisingly complex were the 70-proof chocolate and 60-proof coconut flavored rums. The latter was featured in the Clean Colada (1 part rum, 1 part pineapple juice, 2 parts coconut water), a very fresh and crisp take on the much-maligned classic. My only knock is that we weren’t offered a taste of the premium Owner’s Reserve, a blend of rums aged from 15 to 25 years that we expect shows off Don Pancho’s prowess learned from his years as one of the leaders in Cuba’s rum industry.
NEWEST TREND: Chocolate rum. We try to avoid flavored rums when possible, especially those using artificial ingredients and offered at low ABV levels. There are always exceptions to this general rule, from Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple from Plantation to the array of coffee rums that were the flavor du jour at the 2019 festival. Now, the cocoa bean seems to be having its moment in the sun. Forget cigars, we’ve long believed that chocolate makes the perfect pairing for cane spirits. It’s great to see brands put these flavors together in the bottle with craftsmanship. Among the best rums, period, that we tasted at the fest were the cacao-flavored offerings from the aforementioned Copalli and SelvaRey. The 80-proof Copalli Cacao Rum is made using freshly harvested organic cacao nibs from Belize. To enhance the tasting experience, we were given pieces of Belizean chocolate with our rum samples. It perfectly enhanced the best tasting flight of the day. No less outstanding was the 70-proof SelvaRey Chocolate, a 5-year-old rum infused with natural chocolate. It was a sophisticated sip with deep chocolate notes and no hint of artificial ingredients. Here’s hoping others who follow this trend uphold the same high standards.
PHOTO GALLERY: Miami Rum Festival 2021
Photos by Hurricane Hayward / The Atomic Grog
Official Miami Rum Fest photos
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The Atomic Grog: Previous coverage
Preview, photos and event history: Miami Rum Renaissance Festival is back for a 12th taste of cane spirits
Everything you need to know about the return of the Miami Rum Festival, including an in-depth preview and look back at the past 11 events with exclusive photos and remembrances.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL STORY
2019 PHOTOS AND RECAP: Rum festival returns to its roots
EVENT HISTORY: Miami Rum Renaissance Festival year-by-year
ATOMIC GROG FLASHBACK: Our top nine Miami Rum Fest memories
More Miami Rum Festival recaps
* 2018: Spirited mash-up: Rum Renaissance Festival moves next door to The Hukilau
* 2017: Miami Rum Festival and Trade Expo turns 9
* 2016: Koloa, Plantation and Don Q dominate awards at annual Miami festival
* 2015: Miami Rum Festival boldly explores the next frontier of cane spirits
Rum aficionados gather for 7th annual Miami festival
* 2014: Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players at Miami Rum Festival
Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival
* 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
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