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.

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Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival

Miami Rum Festival Cocktail WeekFueled by the first Miami Cocktail Week, mixologists upped their game at the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April, presenting new and classic drinks with a modern flair. From the full week of events hosted by area bars, to the three-day Grand Tasting exhibits attended by more than 10,000 enthusiasts, there were plenty of opportunities to sample some of the best rum drinks being created today.

This story covers my search for the tastiest and most creative cocktails of the entire week. Click here for an overview of the festival and reviews of the best rums.

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.
See recipes below: Don Q Cocktail | Miami Swizzle | Passion Fontaine | Good Head
Jump below: The Grand Tastings | The Top 10 cocktails
Related coverage: Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players at Miami Rum Fest
Atomic Grog photo gallery | RumXP International Tasting Competition results

Matt Robold pours Plantation Rum as he mixes up Caña Rum Bar cocktails
Matt Robold pours Plantation Rum as he mixes up Caña Rum Bar cocktails at The Broken Shaker on Monday, April 21. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

THE PRE-PARTIES: Cocktail Week kicks off

It’s fitting that the first event of the week was held at Miami Beach’s The Broken Shaker, one of the most acclaimed cocktail bars in South Florida. But this was not just an ordinary evening at the funky indoor/outdoor bar, which would have been just fine. I did manage to squeeze in one of the establishment’s carefully hand-crafted rum cocktails before I left, but the main attraction of the evening was the pop-up bar sponsored by Plantation Rum and featuring mixologists from Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles. [See the flyer]

There were four complimentary drinks [see menu] expertly mixed by Daniele Crouch and Matt Robold, aka Rumdood. This was no easy task considering the temporary bar set up on the patio, not far from the pingpong table and quite a distance from any traditional bar fixtures and plumbing. But the drinks were spot-on, made to order and consummately garnished. This pair deserves an award for most impeccably produced drinks under strenuous circumstances. I noticed Rumdood sweating in the Miami heat, but he and Daniele never lost their cool. My only complaint would be that they ran out of their homemade peach cordial before I could try the Gypsy Cab cocktail, which got high marks from the folks I talked to.

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Dada in Delray Beach embraces rum with new cocktail menu

If I have one complaint about the proliferation of craft cocktail bars, it’s that many of the mixologists tend to shun perhaps the most versatile and tasty base spirit of them all. Of course, I’m talking about rum.
Related: Innovative watering holes fuel rise of craft cocktails

A barrel of small-batch rum at Dada in Delray Beach
A barrel of small-batch rum at Dada in Delray Beach. (Facebook photo)

So when I heard that Dada in Delray Beach – already one of the best spots for mojitos in South Florida (not to mention the award-winning food) – was expanding its bar menu to include new rums and cocktails, I regained my faith in the new cocktail culture. It took a while to get down there to check out the offerings, but on a recent visit I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of the drinks. Pairing them with delicious food and lounging in Dada’s outdoor dining area only enhanced the experience.

Previous: A Taste Of … Dada in Delray Beach (February 2013)

While Dada is often mentioned among the top restaurants to grab a cocktail, and boasts some acclaimed bartenders, it’s typically not mentioned in the same breath as some of the area’s top craft cocktail spots. The mojitos are great, but there was nothing there for those who prefer a classic, or something a little less fruity. That all changed last summer, when Dada released its own line of small-batch spiced rums.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Updated August 2020
See below: Our Black Magic review | Tribute recipes UPDATED
Postscript: The Black Magic picked up by bloggers and bartenders, goes viral on social media UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans

Prior to the opening of The Mai-Kai in 1956, there were perhaps other icy cocktails that employed dark rum and coffee as key ingredients. But none perfected it quite like the Black Magic.

Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org
From a 1963 Mai-Kai calendar. (Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org)

The drink that has spawned dozens of imitators – and even two similar concoctions at The Mai-Kai – has taken on legendary status in the Tiki cocktail community. The Black Magic is the oldest of what some call the “Holy Trinity” of large snifter drinks at The Mai-Kai: The Black Magic, Mutiny and The Hukilau.

One of the keys to this drink is a distinctive dark rum favored by original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine: Dagger was a dark Jamaican brand that stopped production some time ago. It became somewhat of a holy grail of Tiki mixologists looking to duplicate the key flavor in many Mai-Kai cocktails, especially the Black Magic.

During a back-bar tour in November 2011, Manager Kern Mattei revealed the secret of how that flavor is preserved: An obscure dark rum called Kohala Bay that was produced by Wray & Nephew, the same company that previously made Dagger.

Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum
Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum was a key ingredient in many Mai-Kai cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2012)

Needless to say, we immediately went on an intensive search, but short of taking a trip to Jamaica it was nearly impossible to locate. We were told it was being imported only to Florida, and The Mai-Kai was one of only two bars to serve it. After some digging, however, we miraculously found a rare retail outlet that carried Kohala Bay and immediately stocked up. Our discovery of Kohala Bay sparked many other tribute recipes that you’ll find in this guide, and also spurred many other home mixologists to seek out the rum. Click here for more on the history of Kohala Bay at The Mai-Kai and check out this Tiki Central thread for the full story of my search.

UPDATE: But all good things must come to an end. Kohala Bay was taken off the market in April 2016 and has not returned. While still seeking out an appropriate dark and funky run to fill the bill, The Mai-Kai switched to one of the Appleton Estate rums as its dark Jamaican mixer. Then, suddenly, a new rum appeared in April 2019. It’s a secret in-house multi-rum blend , similar to one of those we had been touting here on the blog. Click here for an in-depth guide along with all the suggested Kohala Bay substitutes.

The Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It's not really raining. That's The Mai-Kai's special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It’s not really raining. That’s The Mai-Kai’s special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The name Black Magic comes from the combination of dark rums and coffee, which sets this drink apart from most others from its era. It was reportedly created by Licudine while he was still working for Donn Beach as the No. 2 bartender at the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago. But even Beach’s top men were not given the opportunity to contribute their own creations to his legendary drink menu.

Lured to Fort Lauderdale to run The Mai-Kai’s bar and create what would decades later become an iconic menu in its own right, Licudine borrowed heavily from Beach’s classics but also added his own flair (Mara-Amu, Derby Daiquiri, etc.). The Black Magic may be his crowning achievement, and it was his first creation to appear on a Mai-Kai menu.

While it’s not nearly as complex, an early Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s called the Jamoca could possibly have influenced Licudine, since he worked at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles at the tail end of that decade. As revealed by Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the Jamoca contains 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/2 ounce coffee syrup, 1 ounce chilled coffee, 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum, and 4 ounces of crushed ice. Blended at high speed for 5 seconds and poured into a specialty glass, it’s a coffee-heavy drink that hits few of the nigh notes later achieved by Licudine with the Black Magic. Berry theorized that it may have been an early Donn Beach experiment inspired by turn-of-the-century soda fountain fare. It’s historically worth noting, but probably not a true ancestor of the Black Magic. We consider this classic to be a true Mariano Licudine original.

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