Two US Spirits Newcomers: Beet Spirit & Overproof Rum

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

(photo source:

(photo source:

Two standout new spirits of the year thus far? Here are two unusual US-made spirits that immediately drew me back for a second taste.

Bete from Sidetrack Distillery ($32.95/375 ml)
In my three trips to Seattle in seven months, a spirit that keeps impressing me with every sip is the uncategorizable Bete from Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA. The spirit is distilled from sugar beets and like the great beet cocktails I’ve had over the years, it’s vegetal, earthy, while simultaneously light and bright. Figuring out ways to use it in cocktails may seem initially daunting, but messing around at home, I find it plays beautifully with lime, lemon and other citrus, as well as vegetables like celery. A fascinating product, never has the essence of beets quite been captured like this.

High Ester Navy Style Rum from Lost Spirits Distillery ($45/375 ml)

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Monterey’s Lost Spirits Distillery (from Distiller/Blender Bryan Davis, formerly making Leviathan peaty whiskey and an absinthe) is not far from my home of SF… but their new cask-strength, Navy-style rum (68% ABV) is an adventure hinting of far away islands and stormy seas.

Hardly what one might call an “elegant” rum – though it is well made – this high ester rum is robust, overproof and most importantly, memorable. Not as boozy as its ultra-high proof would suggest, its Grade A molasses-base ensures a dark, moody spirit with the kind of funk I adore in a rum, hence my first loyalty to agricole-style rums. This is not agricole, but it’s funky, alive, woody, laden with overripe fruit and licorice notes, produced in copper pot stills. There’s a wildness to the rum more exciting than dozens of American-made rums I’ve tried this year, or in any recent years.

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Cachaça: Primed For Mainstream?

In Conversation with Avuá Co-Founder
Nate Whitehouse

Article by Virginia Miller

Avuá Cachaça (pronounced ahv-wah kah-SHAH-sah) is spreading the cachaça gospel. Founders Nate Whitehouse, Pete Nevenglosky, and Mark Christou are key voices raising awareness of the complexities and range of Brazil’s beloved sugarcane spirit, best known as the base for the Caipirinha cocktail. Though it surged in popularity a few years back with major brands, the category never quite took deep root in US bars as a wide diversity of brands did not make it to the US.

Cachaça is primed for far greater exposure as Brazil hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer and the 2016 Summer Olympics, where the nation’s favorite drink will surely be consumed in copious amounts. Though the spirit has long been lumped in with rum, despite being considerably different, recently gaining its own official classification/category won’t immediately help bring it to the forefront of spirit drinkers’ minds. Education and greater access to the range of cachaça out there is still greatly needed.
(Photo credit:

(Photo credit:

I first tasted Avuá (the Portuguese word voar, meaning “to fly”) back at Tales of the Cocktail last summer, both the clean, fruit and floral notes of Prata (aged 12 months before bottling), and the 24-month aged Amburana, named after the wood it’s aged in, exhibiting savory vegetal notes alongside the soft caramel of the wood. I was immediately impressed by Avuá’s quality and complexity above other brands I’d previously tasted. Made from single-sourced cachaça, Distiller Katia Espírito Santo is one of few Brazilian female distillers who also grows all sugarcane used to make Avuá on her family farm, Fazenda da Quinta, in Carmo, roughly four hours north of Rio de Janeiro.

Talking cachaça, I recall pisco a few years ago. The Peruvian and Chilean grape-based spirit has long had a close connection with San Francisco where there have have been bars dedicated predominantly to pisco for years, even when most of the US didn’t know much about it. Pisco really didn’t place on the national cocktail consciousness until recent years when brands like Encanto upped the profile and quality of pisco and bar managers began to feature it more. In my visit to Peru last year making pisco in Ica and visiting cocktail bars around Lima, I was amazed at the diversity of ingredients mixed with pisco in cocktail menus often 50-deep, far beyond how it has been used in the US. Though the spirit has gained much more attention in recent years, there’s still unexplored worlds of its possibilities best represented in its home countries. I see similarities with cachaça.
In a recent conversation with co-founder Nate Whitehouse, I immediately caught his passion for Brazil and cachaça. There’s a growing US community of cachaça producers, importers and aficionados who are uniting to educate and share in a greater way than ever before. Whitehouse is working with cachaça expert Felipe Jannuzzi, who runs the extensive site, Mapa da Cachaca, to translate it article-by-article into English (English site here; more on Facebook).
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(Photo source:

Whitehouse compares the rise he hopes to see in the cachaça category to the way mezcal has captured the national cocktail scene. His hope is that as knowledge of the sugarcane spirit deepens, it will face a similar widespread growth. He talks of over 4000 registered cachaça producers in Brazil, but that actual estimates range from 7000 to more than 30,000 producers. With over 500 years of history, cachaça is one of the historic spirits of the world. It can be young, clean and cocktail-friendly or aged in a wide range of woods, resulting in elegant, sipping cachacas. Whitehouse describes these cachacas as embodying, “… a richness we’re not familiar with because of many of them have not come into the US market.”

Similarly, Brazilian bartenders mix cachaça with a wide range of fruits from the Amazon, punches are commonplace, and some infuse the spirit with Amazonian barks and other unusual ingredients. Alongside the revival of the dining scenes in Rio and Sao Paolo, the cocktail scene is thriving.

Inspiring views from Centro de Tecnologia in Cachaça in Brazil (photo source: Mapa da Cachaca

Inspiring views from Brazil’s Centro de Tecnologia in Cachaça (photo source: Mapa da Cachaca

The story of how lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Whitehouse fell in love with cachaça and Brazil is a good one, well told in 2012 in Gourmet. Whitehouse was inspired by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, sharing with me Niemeyer’s most famous quote, a passage that inspires the ethos behind Avuá: “It’s not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line—stiff, inflexible, created by men. What really attracts me is the free, sensual curve. The curve I see on the sinuous course of our rivers, on the clouds in the sky, on your favorite woman’s body. The universe is entirely made of curves.”

While Avuá launched on the East Coast in NYC this fall and at a few choice spots here in San Francisco, its official rollout in California is right now: late February. In San Francisco, you can find it bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lolinda, Absinthe, AQ, Wingtip, Local Edition, Laszlo, Penelope in Oakland, and more.

As I listen to bossa nova, which I’ve been crazy about since I was teen, while sipping Avuá cocktails I’ve made at home, I long for a visit to a few of Brazil’s many cachaça producers myself. Every time I get up close and personal with a spirit – particularly when I visit its home country and distilleries – I fall further in love with it and the people who make it. But until I get there, I’m grateful for people like Whitehouse and Jannuzzi who are working to share the best of what’s going on in Brazil here at home.
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Blackbird's Age of Sail

Blackbird’s Age of Sail

SF’s 7 Best Summer Rum Cocktails

Hi Lo's Bajan Rum Punch

Hi Lo’s Bajan Punch

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

While any quality spirit should be enjoyed all year round, rum carries the island breezes of summer in its cane sugar and/or molasses nectar.

In honor of rum and summer, here are seven rum cocktails currently on menus around town… each one capturing the celebratory simplicity of the long days of summer.



Alembic’s 30-Day Notice

ALEMBIC’s 30-Day Notice ($11)

Alembic’s 30-Day Notice, a creation from the ever-gracious Danny Louie, ushers in summer in its vividly tart blend of Flor de Cana rum, lime juice and a house banana cordial, while Yellow Chartreuse and chili tincture add complexity and power.

BLACKBIRD’s Age of Sail ($10)

Proprietor Shawn Vergara experiments with different aged cocktails at Blackbird, the current offering being my favorite on the summer menu, a recipe from GM Matt Grippo. Age of Sail is a bracing rum cocktail, aged 4-6 weeks, smooth with El Dorado rum and Velvet Falernum, perked up by House Spirits coffee liqueur, Dolin Blanc white vermouth and housemade Teeccino (an herbal coffee) tincture. Bonus: as Blackbird hits its fourth anniversary over the next few weeks, they’ve refreshed the interior with a minor remodel and a new pool table.

Jasper's Koko Head

Jasper’s Koko Head

JASPER’S Koko Head ($10)

The Koko Head cocktail is quintessential Kevin Diedrich (Jasper’s Bar Manager): nodding to Hawaii, where Diedrich has roots, and exemplifying the gratifying layers often found in his creations. Named after a famed Hawaiian hiking trail, the foamy drink weaves Appleton Reserve Rum with lush Kalani Coconut Liqueur, is frothy with egg white, refreshed by a pour of Kona Brewing Koko Brown Ale, another Hawaii inclusion.

HI LO BBQ’s Bajan Rum Punch ($10)

Hi Lo BBQ’s Bar Manager Michael Lazar unearthed this layered rum punch from the Sugar Reef Cookbook, an East Village restaurant/bar that closed before its time in the early 1990′s. This lively refresher mixes rum and lime with a house nutmeg almond syrup, reminiscent of orgeat. The drink makes a playful partner with Hi Lo’s gourmet BBQ and Southern-influenced dishes.

Fifth Floor's Marooned in Kingston

Fifth Floor’s Marooned in Kingston

FIFTH FLOOR’s Marooned in Kingston ($13)

Fifth Floor Bar Manager Brian Means and Pastry Chef Francis Ang team up on some of Means’ thoughtful cocktails. Ang occasionally adds gelatin-like spheres exploding with flavor, resting on an absinthe spoon atop the cocktail. Currently, that cocktail is Marooned in Kingston, a nod to Jamaican rum (Appleton Reserve), mixed with ruby port, Velvet Falernum, and fresh lime juice.  The sphere encapsulates the flavor profile of a classic Daiquiri with Denizen rum, lime and sugar.

LOLINDA’s The Lone Palm ($10)

Lolinda's Lone Palm

Lolinda’s Lone Palm

Served up in a coupe glass, former Bar Manager Chris Lane’s (who is now at Alembic) creation, The Lone Palm, thankfully remains on Lolinda’s current menu. This vibrant cocktail shows off elegantly funky Smith & Cross Rum (which they then spice in-house), the acidity of lime, grapefruit and bitters balanced by honey.

NOVELA’s Huckleberry Finn ($11)

General Manager Alex Smith and Maven‘s Bar Manager Kate Bolton have created an all-around winning menu at new Novela. The rum crowd-pleaser is Huckleberry Finn, in keeping with the bar’s literary-named cocktails. Served long, it’s a refreshing mix of silky El Dorado 8 year rum, tart lemon juice and grapefruit marmalade, topped with Fever Tree Tonic. Once finished, it is tempting to order another.

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Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Perfect for summer cocktails (or neat pours), here are two new spirits I’m rather crazy about.


AgricoleRumIt’s back! Sporting a new label aligned with their gins, St. George Spirits released its California Agricole Rum this week. Formerly Agua Libre (first released in 2010), it’s no surprise, given that agricole is my favorite rum category, that I take to the grassy, funky elegance of St. George’s agricole. Most notably from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, this style of rum (or rhum) is made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses, often notably earthy, vegetal and other flavor profiles I crave.

Keeping it local, St. George’s sugarcane is grown in SoCal’s Imperial Valley. Stalks are then pressed at their Alameda distillery in a sugarcane press, while the fresh-pressed cane juice is distilled (post-fermentation) in a 500-liter copper pot still.

Delight is not too keen a word to describe how I feel about seeing this rum back on the shelves and on bar menus. Lance Winters, Dave Smith and the incomparable St. George crew, prove that the refined umami funk of agricole needn’t merely come from the Caribbean. I’m proud to say this local agricole keeps up with quality Martinique rhums.

TAPATIO 110, $48

B110_Blanco110ProofTapatio tequilas are a pleasure (the bright and affordable blanco – $34, reposado – $38, and anejo – $44), distilled by the genuine Carlos Camarena of Mexico’s 75-year-old Tequila Tapatio and El Tesoro. Just released in the US? Possibly my favorite of the line: B110 Tequila Blanco (55% alc. by vol.), averaging 114 proof.

At 110 proof, it is less watered down, more intense than the basic blanco, yet does not feel “hot” or out of balance. Floral, spice notes, even hints of tea and earth, shine more vividly in the smooth B110. Distilled at La Alteña Distillery (alongside El Tesoro, Tequila Ocho, Charbay Tequila - the latter of which should be re-released later this year), Tapatio’s blue agave plants are 100% estate-grown. In conversation with renowned tequila experts, I’ve learned Carlos is the last producer left in Jalisco to own and source all plants from their estate rather than purchasing plants from growers. Carlos’ grandfather, Don Felipe, opened the distillery in 1937 in in the Arandas Highlands, although tequila distilling goes back in his family into the early 1800′s.

Ukiah Sour # 3

Ukiah Sour # 3

Distilled first in a stainless steel Alambique still, with a second run through a copper Alambique, then aged for 6 months in stainless steel, B110 is certainly a tequila-lovers’ tequila. It ups the ante in flavor for any classic tequila cocktail, from a Margarita to a Paloma.

In downtown Napa, Mercantile Social bar in the lobby of the Andaz hotel features local, craft spirits, including one of the best ways to try Tapatio (ask them to “perk it up” with B110 or enjoy with the standard Tapatio blanco): the Ukiah Sour #3, mixing Tapatio blanco with bay leaf syrup, lime and Tempus Fugit’s earthy, lush Crème de Cacao.

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NEW SPIRITS: Rum & Vermouth

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Here are a couple noteworthy products that crossed my desk in recent weeks…

MOUNT GAY BLACK BARREL RUM, $29.99 Mount-Gay-Black-Barrel-Rum
Barbados favorite, Mount Gay Rum, recently released Black Barrel Rum, a rum finished in charred bourbon oak casks.

For American whiskey lovers like myself, it makes for a fine marriage of bourbon and rum, balancing caramel-vanilla-sweet notes from sugar cane molasses and wood with subtle hints of pepper and spice. Barbados’ acclaimed water, naturally filtered through coral layers, is said to contribute to the smooth taste of the rum.

Its subtle elegance especially works given the value. It can double as a sipping rum and elevates cocktails, like a simple mix of Black Barrel, lime juice and St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.

ATSBY VERMOUTH, $44 each armadillo
is a newer artisanal vermouth out of Upstate NY. Atsby’s two, non-traditional vermouths are best enjoyed on their own.

Atsby Amberthorn is the lighter of the two, fresh and sweet with botanicals like French lavender, basil, Chinese anise, which intrigue though none dominate. It’s soft so a squeeze of lemon brightens it up.

Atsby Armadillo Cake (yes, there’s a story behind the name) makes a bit more of a statement with a dark caramel sweetness (from Indian Muscovado sugar) and complexity from cardamom and unusual botanicals like wild celery and Japanese shitake.

There’s little bitterness to either vermouths so they should both be approachable to a wide range of drinker. Though soft, they stand strong solo, but I have a harder time mixing them in cocktails as the unique botanical profiles of both aren’t an easy replacement in classic recipes. There’s a number of recipes on the website, though it’s the simpler ones that work better, like a twist on a classic Martinez using Bols Genever, the Armadillo vermouth, Maraschino Liquor, and Angostura bitters garnished with an orange peel strip.

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The Most Expensive Thing I Ever Drank

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Brandon Clements' Island Heat on fire

The most expensive thing I ever drank may be one of only 12 bottles of Dalmore’s Sirius Scotch with Master Blender Richard Paterson, a blend of vintages all the way back to 1868… or maybe it was 1865 Rouyer Guillet & Co. cognac shared by Salvatore Calabrese at Tales of the Cocktail 2010. Most recently, however, it was Legacy by Angostura, valued at $25,ooo for one of only 20 bottles worldwide (3 coming soon to the US)… the first bottle sold for $40,000 with most of the proceeds going to charity.

Anyone who spends much of their days tasting knows that older doesn’t mean better… neither does more expensive. I cannot count the times I’ve sighed with delight over a mid-range spirit compared to a more expensive pour alongside it.

Legacy by Angostura

Though best known for the most famous of all bitters, Angostura Trinidadian rums are a pleasure. 1919 is the most popular, but my two favorites are the woody elegance of 1824 as a sipping rum, or the value of Angostura 7 year rum (usually around $25) which elevates a cocktail but works neat, too.

Tasting through the line with Master Distiller John Georges, who worked with Master Blender Robert Wong and crew over 6 years blending Legacy, we discussed Legay’s long finish, its liveliness yet signature elegance.

They went all out on an Asprey hand blown crystal decanter with Art Deco design and sterling silver stopper of a butterfly (their signature logo) atop sugar cane.

As for the product itself, I cannot imagine having a fortune and wanting to spend $20k of it on a bottle of anything. But for those who do, nosing Legacy’s whispers of tropical fruit and vanilla-clove is to be transported to the Caribbean, albeit a restrained, elegant vision of it. To taste, dried fruit, spice and orange zest comingle with subtle wood and tobacco notes. Consider it Trinidadian history (the youngest rum in the blend being 17 years old) in a glass.  

Clements' version of a classic Daiquiri

At Spruce in Laurel Heights, Brandon Clements recently crafted cocktails using the line of Angostura rums at a special dinner, including a 1919 rum-papaya-pineapple-pomegranate juice imbibement. He sets a thick pineapple wedge aflame, caramelizing demerara sugar on top. Clements’ house cinnamon-cardamom tincture adds a layer of spiced complexity.

My favorites were his elevated (tart, clean, yet lush) classic Daiquiri, and Island Heat, a decadent blend of expensive 1824 Angostura rum macerated with apples, spice added from pür orange spice liqueur, bitter ting from Gran Classico, a rinse of Black Bottle Scotch with two dashes of Angostura bitters. 

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Sipping volcano bowls at Tradition


Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Jasper's new Rum Shaker on the fall menu

Rum bears a rough and tumble history, whether as the Royal Navy’s spirit of choice, or on a grim note, benefiting from the slave trade. Despite its dark days, rum thrives as the spirit of the Caribbean where, along with Latin America, the majority of the world’s rum is produced. Legend swirls throughout rum’s history, as with the story of Admiral Horatio Nelson whose body was preserved in a cask of rum after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar en route back to England. Upon arrival, the cask was empty of liquid, the rumor being his crew drank it in hopes of ingesting Nelson’s courageous spirit. From this comes one of rum’s many nicknames, “Nelson’s blood” or “tapping the admiral”.

Despite a sometimes grizzly past, rum is likewise associated with island breezes, relaxation, the good life. Whether an airy white rum or a sweet, spiced dark, there’s more complex rum variances than many initially suspect. Though no hard and fast rules apply to all rum, here’s a quick rundown of categories:

- Light/silver/white rums are often smooth, sometimes sweet, mixable rums, ideal for cocktails, made from both sugarcane and molasses. Typically aged briefly, they maintain a colorless look aged in stainless steel, neutral oak or having color filtered out.

- Gold/amber rums are typically medium-bodied rums, generally aged in wood barrels – the halfway point between light and dark rums.

- Dark rums are molasses-based, aged in charred barrels, at times quite sweet and silky, other times complex, for mixing or sipping.

Comal's Black Daiquiri

- Other categories: Spiced rums have spices and even caramel added in. Flavored rums are infused with a wide range of flavors. Overproof rums are high proof spirits well over the standard 40% ABV. Premium rums are essentially the more refined category of sipping rums. Cachaça is essentially Brazilian rum made solely from sugarcane juice.

In addition to styles, regions determine rum characteristics. Spanish-speaking Caribbean (namely Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) and South and Central America are most regarded for a smooth añejo style. English-speaking islands (like Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Saint Kitts, Trinidad) are best known for full, dark rums, including demerara rums made from natural, unrefined demerara sugar. French-speaking Caribbean islands (including Haiti, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Martinique) are famed for agricultural rums (rhum agricole), produced solely from sugar cane juice, which are refined, complex, even grassy and funky.


Smuggler’s Cove: One of the greatest rum selections you’ll find anywhere, the standard-setting menu at Smugglers offers over 200 rums with flights and pours grouped by style or region and a Rumbustion Society encouraging (and rewarding) exploration. On top of being a rum haven, Smugglers honors the roots of Tiki (Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s paraphernalia intact) in its intimate, three-level layout. The cocktail menu is extensive with sections on Cuban cocktail favorites from Havana’s glory days, to modern interpretations of Tiki drinks utilizing flavor profiles like Jamaican jerk tincture (in the Port Royal cocktail).

Kona Kope at Tradition

Tradition: This new bar offers themed booths (called “snugs”) around subjects like New Orleans, Pre-Prohibition, Scotland, each boasting vintage ads, signs, and barware in keeping with the theme. An artistic menu is likewise themed around each category – with a reservation at the bar or in a snug you can order from the whole menu (there’s plenty of room for walk-ins with a shorter menu). One theme is exotic/Tiki, a page of mostly rum-based cocktails. For a unique rum experience, there’s an extensive house-blended and barrel-aged spirits program, including all manner of spirits finished in house barrels, like Flor de Cana rum in Pinot Noir or sweet vermouth barrels, imparting unexpected wine notes to the rum.

Classi Daiquiris at Bar Agricole

Bar Agricole: Though not a rum bar per se, Bar Agricole, with impressive modern design and a bar backed by dramatic photography, is named after French Caribbean rums, boasting a strong selection of rum. Agricole perfects classic rum drinks – chat with bartenders on which version of a classic daiquiri you might want to try – they’re well-versed on each. Imbibe lesser-seen classics like a Martinique Crusta from Charles Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, this particular recipe dating back to 1840 of agricole, lemon, bitters and Maraska, a Croatian maraschino liqueur.

Additional rum-centric bars: for dive bar rum and cheap rum punch, Hobson’s Choice in Haight-Ashbury; other notable Tiki bars include transporting East Bay classics, Forbidden Island in Alameda and Conga Lounge in Oakland, and out-of-the-way Tiki Haven in SF’s Outer Sunset.


Jasper's new Haymaker

Among the best rum cocktails all year? Brand new to Jasper’s Corner Tap fall menu is frothy, light beer and rum beauty, Rum Shaker (a cheeky reference to the 1990′s rap song, Rump Shaker): Bacardi 8 Rum, Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, lime, pumpkin syrup, cream, egg white, orange flower water recall a classic Ramos Gin Fizz. Also new to the menu is bartender Taylor White’s Haymaker, allowing Appleton Reserve Rum to shine a fabulously musty, spiced way with Combier orange liquuer, chai tea infused Punt Mes vermouth, Angostura and orange bitters.

Maven's Nauti’ Mermaid, creamy with housemade hazelnut orgeat

An after dinner sipper at AQ this summer was Senegal at Dusk ($10), a mixture of Lemon Hart rum, coffee and a blissful cardamom banana cream. At Tradition, Kona Kope stands out from an entire book of cocktails. Sweet Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva rum and barrel-aged spiced rums intermingle with coffee syrup and a touch of coconut cream, evoking lively coffee-tinged tropical breezes. For a milky rum stunner, try Smuggler’s Cove‘s Jamaican Milk Punch, reminiscent of traditional Brandy Milk Punch, smooth, frothy, spiced.

Lower Haight’s Maven is not a rum bar, but they offer one winning rum cocktail, the Nauti’ Mermaid mixing Jamaican rum, lime, orange, coconut and housemade hazelnut orgeat, substituting orgeat’s typical almond base for hazelnuts. In downtown Berkeley at Comal, a refreshingly unique expression is a Black Daiquiri mixing Pampero Aniversario Rum, Averna, lime, sugar, and Chiapan coffee tincture for a tart, bitter, sweet and robust imbibement. Coffee notes don’t dominate but add a hint of earth and body.


Brugal 1888 (photo: Brugal website)

Sophisticated Sipping: One of my all-around favorite rums is Brugal 1888 ($54.99), from five generations of family distillers in the Dominican Republic. First aged in American white oak barrels, then finished in Spanish oak, it’s a blend of rums aged 5 to 14 years, hitting the nose with spice, coffee, dried fruits, then to taste, bourbon-like caramel, wood, spice, a hint of earth, with a complex finish. An affordable sipping rum is Appleton Estate Reserve 12 year ($34.99) from Jamaica, blended by female master blender Joy Spence. It’s bright and bold, but also nutty and buttery. If you get your hands on Appleton 21 year, it’s a beauty of fascinating grassy notes, nuts, orange blossom, molasses.

Banks Five Island Rum (photo: Banks website)

Sweeter Sips: Ron Zacapa 23 year ($37) is a Guatemalan classic, smooth with toffee and spice, crafted by a female master blender, Lorena Vasquez. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($35) is lushly sweet with caramelized brown sugar, a spice-redolent Venezuelan dark rum. Botran Solera 1893 Gran Reserva ($24), a Guatemalan anejo rum, is an affordable and different side of the sweet coin. A blend of 5 to 14 year old rums, is balanced vs. cloying, tasting of caramelized banana and coconut.

For Mixing: Shellback is a new release of two affordable ($17 per bottle) Barbados-blended rums, ideal for cocktails. The silver is clean with vanilla smoothness and whispers of tropical fruit, while the spiced is medium-bodied with cinnamon bark, ginger and clove oils, nutmeg, cassia.

Appleton Reserve (photo: Appleton website)

White Rum For Aficionados: Possibly my top white rum, Banks Five Island ($25.99) is rife with character, funk and elegance – a blend of rums from five islands (hence the name), it’s reminiscent of the Asian/Indonesian sugarcane spirit Batavia Arrack. Banks recently released Banks 7 Golden Age Blend ($30), 23 rums sourced from seven places, which is likewise complex, dry, nutty, tropical and rich.

For Agricole Fans: Rhum agricole is my favorite style of rum – often funky, grassy, complex, elegant. I adore the floral, fresh spirit of Clement Martinique Rhum Blanc ($30) and their VSOP ($35), exhibiting spice, coconut, apple, earth. Rhum Clément. Already a fan of their elegant rhum agricoles, they just released a fresh, smoky 6 year old ($56), and a cinnamon, wood, vanilla-inflected 10 year old ($73). For a splurge, I adore the unique, cask strength (though still reasonably under 100 proof) 10 year Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997 ($130), unfolding with toasted nut, lemon, sage, cinnamon. Another agricole recommend is La Favorite Martinique Rhum ($38 Ambre, $29 Blanc).


Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997

Ministry of Rum: Started by rum expert and all-around great guy Ed Hamilton, Ministry of Rum is a key resource for all things rum. Find reviews and discussions on just about every rum in existence, glossaries, rum basics, and rum events worldwide, including the annual Ministry of Rum tasting held in the Bay Area.

Rum for All: Rum For All is a project started by F. Paul Pacult (publisher/editor of Spirits Journal) and industry expert Sean Ludford. Their website is an online resource of rum primers, select producer profiles and cocktail recipes. I recently went to their touring seminar when it was in SF, offering an impressive range of rums to sample side-by-side: the best way to get educated.

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Tasting craft beers alongside (expensive) Scotch at Highland Park & The Beer Chicks fantastically fun seminar at WhiskyFest SF 2012 (photo: Daniel Stumpf)


Photos (unless otherwise noted) and article by Virginia Miller


photo source: Plymouth Gin website

Unforgettable: my journey to the south of England in the town of Plymouth and its legendary distillery with Master Distiller Sean Harrison. Possibly the most beautiful distillery I’ve yet visited, I relished drinking Plymouth Navy Strength ($34.99) while in the UK, a bracing version of their classic gin at 57% ABV/114 proof, the preferred gin of the British Royal Navy. Though still smooth like Plymouth gin, Navy Strength packs a greater botanical punch, enlivening cocktails.

The good news is it finally arrived to the US merely weeks ago in September so drink up. It radiates in a classic Pink Gin (2 parts Plymouth Navy Strength, 3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters, lemon twist to garnish), which I enjoyed in the hills above Plymouth made by Harrison using fresh drops of reservoir water from the reservoir we enjoyed tea alongside. 


The sassy, lovely Beer Chicks (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

This year’s WhiskyFest was another memorable one. The hilarious Martin Daraz of Highland Park and the uber cool Beer Chicks, Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune (their book, The Naked Brewer, just released), killed it with their laughter-packed seminar. There wasn’t enough room for all who wanted to attend their tasting pairing Highland Park whiskies, all the way up to the glorious 30 year (still a favorite every time I taste it) with well-chosen craft beers selected by the Beer Chicks – a number of pairings went shockingly well together. This seminar should definitely return next year, giving all those who missed it a chance to partake of the joys.

Get him a stand-up comedian gig already! Highland Park's hilarious Brand Ambassador Martin Daraz (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

Digging further into the independent distillery line of BenRiach whiskies with international Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan was a highlight, whether the affordable steal of 10 year Curiositas, a robust, elegant 1995 Pedro Ximenez Cask #7165 (at cask strength, 52.3%) or the otherworldly, perfectly balanced 25 yr. The BenRiach line is a nuanced alternative to an Islay Scotch. Though peaty, these whiskies corner balance, letting the peat shine alongside other layers.

Photo source: Ben Krantz

On the American side, the standout was St. George’s 30th Anniversary XXX Single Malt Blend, a layered blend of whiskies from three generations of St. George distillers, Jörg Rupf, Lance Winters, Dave Smith. This new release (only 715 bottles) is a rare blend of whiskies: Winters’ first single malt distillation, his 1999 single malt aged in Rupf’s pear brandy barrels, a small portion of Lot 12 whiskey, and a whiskey distilled in 2007, aged in a port cask made of French oak. Pear notes shine in this bright whiskey as does ginger, butter, banana, hazelnut and orange peel.

Another Scotch standout was Classic Malts’ Glen Spey 21 year, a limited edition whisky maintaining a lively profile in spite of age from bourbon casks with notes of coconut, caramel, toffee.


My favorite new taste at Spirits Carnival: Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997

Held this weekend in the massive Fort Mason, the first SF Craft Spirits Carnival was yet another opportunity for the consumer and industry to sample a wide range of international spirits. Though burlesque felt off in the middle of the vast space, acrobatics were more in line as we explored a US craft spirits-heavy selection with a good mix of Scotch, tequila, rum and the like from around the globe surrounded by gorgeous Bay and Golden Gate Bridge views.

While a number of my usual favorites were there (Highland Park, St. George, Old World Spirits, Charbay, Rhum Clement), there were quite a few new releases to taste. Charbay started importing beloved Tapatio tequila earlier this year, one of the best values out there for quality tequila, and at the Carnival, poured Tapatio’s just-imported Reposado and Anejo tequilas. Finally in the States, both are green, bright beauties thankfully allowing the agave to dominate over barrel wood.

Local distiller Don Pilar just released a refined Extra Anejo (aged a minimum of three years). Though I am typically not a big Extra Anejo – or sometimes even Anejo – fan when it masks agave properties with too much oak, Don Pilar manages complexity with agave liveliness.

Spirits tasting in a massive Fort Mason pavilion

Greenbar Collective’s (aka Modern Spirits) spiced rum ($30) from downtown Los Angeles could have been too sweet – as their fruit liqueurs were for me – but the spiced rum is subtle, nearly dry, aromatic with allspice, clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, redolent of fall.

Michter’s from Kentucky (I’ve long appreciated their 10 year bourbon and their rye) poured their two brand new releases out this month, a decent Sour Mash (86.6%) aged over 4 years, mixable more than sippable, and a robust, cask strength (114.2%) 20 year single barrel bourbon, aged over 20 years with a definite rye spice, although they can’t disclose any information whatsoever on the grain make-up or distilling location.

Tapatio's just imported Reposado & Anejo tequilas

The tasting highlight of the weekend belonged to Rhum Clément. Already a fan of their elegant rhum agricoles from Martinique, they just released a fresh, smoky 6 year old ($56), and a cinnamon, wood, vanilla-inflected 10 year old ($73), both aged in virgin and re-charred oak.

In addition, Rhum Cément Cuvee Homere is aged in French Limousin barriques and re-charred bourbon barrels, smooth with tastes of biscuits, almond butter, hazelnut, chocolate, black pepper, while the stately, pricey Clément XO Rhum, is a Cognac-reminiscent treat blending rhums from highly regarded vintages, like 1952, 1970, 1976, complex with fruitcake, toffee, tobacco, leather. My favorite ended up being a cask strength (though still reasonable under 100 proof) 10 year old Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997, unfolding with toasted nut, lemon, sage, passion fruit, white pepper, cinnamon.

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