Plantation Jamaicans

This being the Whiskey Jar, I feel like I should explain my forthcoming apostasy. I mean to pour some rum into this old Jar, and I have good reasons.

I’m not sure Brad has talked on here about our grandfather, Ted, so I should probably introduce him.

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In his element

Ted was a rum drinker. Back in the mid 20th, he had a condo on Saint Croix in the US Virgin Islands and used to spend quite a bit of time there. He was very fond of Cruzan rums and used to make an Old Fashioned with Cruzan dark and Antoine Peychaud’s finest bitters. It was one of his Things. I remember him showing me the “belly pills” he would keep around for when he’d had too much rum.

Cruzan has, unfortunately, gone a bit downhill these days. If I buy it, it’s generally only the Single Barrel, and I’ve had a bottle of that sitting on my shelf for over 2 years. What’s happened to Cruzan is a pretty fair demonstration of what has happened to rum over the last fifty years or so.

It’s been dumbed down, subjected to the multinational corporate marketing machine, while cocktails that were once works of art with mixes of as many as 5 different rums have been replaced by Gosling’s Dark n’ Stormys and Mai Tais that don’t remotely resemble what they once were in the heyday of Tiki. There’s no pineapple juice in Vic Bergeron’s original Mai Tai, for one. (Maita’i means ‘great’ in Tahitian.)

The worst indignities have to do with flavored rums. And our pals in the USVI have gone whole hog into it.

Cruzan Banana. Cruzan Citrus. Cruzan Coconut. Cruzan Guava. Cruzan Key Lime.

Okay, I’ll stop. You catch the drift. They’ve fallen prey to the worst and most American of palates — sweet, fake-fruity, and not a lick of flavor that would remind you that you’re drinking a spirit made from noble sugarcane. (As for its nobility, we shall some day discuss Agricole. That’s a very different story.)

These abominations, along with the complete dumbing down of most of the Bacardi line, are why you probably don’t have a decent rum on your shelf. (If you do, great!) But I’m here to assure you that there are excellent rums on many a liquor store shelf that will spill forth from your favorite crystal glassware with grace and beauty.

There’s a little bar in San Francisco called Smugglers Cove. You might call it a Tiki bar, and they do have Tikis. You might call it a Pirate bar, but they aren’t. (They’re pirate-friendly.) But what you should call it is this: the bar with the most insane selection of hard to find rums on the planet. I’m a budding member of their Rumbustion society, which entails learning about rum in a short textbook while you drink several different styles and learn what it’s all about. Once you’ve completed the course and passed the exam (easily accomplished after several cask strength glasses) you move on to simply tasting from their massive collection of hard to find molasses and cane juice spirits, eventually having the chance to earn your name on their plaque of Guardians of the Cove. They have rums from small New England distillers. Rums from islands all over the Caribbean. Rums from English and Scottish independent bottlers. (Did you know Cadenhead’s was initially a rum importer? I’ve got a Guyanan 100% pot still cask strength bottle to prove it.) Some of the Cove’s rums are considered Immortal — rare bottles from long-shuttered distilleries, from the heyday of the spirit in the 1950s and 60s. They even have some of the last rum ordered by Parliament and served to British Royal Navy troops until Black Tot Day in 1970. You can order it!

Their book, containing a history of the Polynesian Pop fad and dozens of fantastic recipes for exotic cocktails, also contains a fantastic primer on how rum is made, how to find the good ones, how to taste them, how the various styles differ.

It’s also the book that really got me into rum.

My home bar has become very different over the past couple of years. Yes, I still have 2 very full shelves with peated whiskies, bourbons, Speyside indie bottlings, and so forth. But the top 3 shelves are simply full of rum now.

And I love it.

See, while Brad is sipping his Pappies (and oh, do I love the Pappies) I have been collecting every weird rum bottle I can find. And the quality stuff can be seriously cheap, although not always. Partially, that’s because rum is often aged in a hot climate, so you simply get more wood contact and interaction in a much shorter amount of time. The barrel breathes the booze more. (This is also why some Indian whiskies are very good for their age. Try out some Amrut Fusion sometime.) The other reason why rum is such a good value is that, well, most people just aren’t buying it.

I hesitate to tell you more. Because it might hurt my bank account.

Oh, what the hell.

The first brand I want to tell you about is Plantation. It’s fairly available, and it’s a producer with a really interesting story.

There’s a Cognac house in France called Maison Ferrand, after a gentleman by the name of Pierre. Their brandies are lovely, and not nearly as sought-after as some of the bigger names, so they tend to be a good value. The distillery is currently run by an extremely enthusiastic guy named Alexandre Gabriel. Alexandre, however, is not just interested in Cognac. He’s a rum lover from way back. So what he started doing was importing barrels of rum from all over the Caribbean, bringing them back to France, racking the contents into ex-Cognac barrels and letting them mellow in the French countryside for a couple of years.

The results are sublime.

Their range is extensive, but the ones I want to call out today are from Jamaica.

The first is a new all-the-time, very available bottling called Xaymaca, which is an old, archaic spelling of the island’s name itself. How it came about is an interesting story.

Not too long ago, Maison Ferrand managed to buy majority stakes in a couple of rum distilleries (Long Pond and Clarendon) in Jamaica. Just in case you’ve never experienced it, Jamaican rum can be really funky. This is due to a secondary fermentation they do that produces a ton of esters, making the rum just full of ripe (or overripe) fruit aromas, and other sour and interesting smells. They like their pot stills in Jamaica too, which allows more of that funk to make it through the stills. The market often demands a more subtle product, so large distilleries like Appleton will often mix that high-ester pot still rum with a column still product, which can be lovely. But the pot still produces a muscular spirit that’s challenging and worth the effort.

Xaymaca is a 100% pot-still rum from two Jamaican rum houses, no added sugar, and is pretty fantastic stuff for the money. Our favorite store in South SF has it for less than 25 bucks.

It sips well, and is a great introduction to the Cult of Hogo (that funk I was talking about.) Where it really shines, though, is in cocktails. Adding full-bodied pot still flavor to a Daiquiri — not the frozen strawberry kind — is always great, and this stuff makes an amazing Mai Tai.

The Xaymaca is a new expression, but Plantation has been bottling great rums for quite a while. They often do single-cask bottlings for specific liquor stores, and they do several single-distillery bottlings that are more widely available. The ones from Panama are worth looking out for. In SF, you can still get some older single-batch Jamaican rums from Plantation.

I have a couple of bottles of the Plantation Jamaica 2002. I have made a Mai Tai with it once, but it’s well aged and the subtle Jamaican funk, having been tempered by oak, was lost in the mix. I only sip it now. It’s a mix of a Plummer low-ester and a Wedderburn high-ester rum, aged 10 years on Jamaica in American oak and 3 years in France in ex-Cognac French oak casks. It really is tremendous stuff.

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Alexandre and me. I’m the dorky American.

Anna and I were lucky enough to be able to meet Alexandre — two days in a row, in fact. We went to a rum dinner at Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, where Alexandre was pouring several different expressions along with a rather tasty assortment of Polynesian-inspired fare cooked up by the chef at Vic’s. He had some wonderful stories to tell. (He told us the secret to making a small fortune — take a large fortune, run a distillery for several years, and voila! Small fortune!) We found out that he was also doing a Plantation and Pierre Ferrand tasting at Bitters & Bottles the next day, so we just couldn’t resist showing up, even if we were a bit hung over. We had a lovely conversation with him, and he signed a bottle of the Plantation 2002 for me — which is apparently as rare as hen’s teeth everywhere except in San Francisco, where some brilliant liquor distributor happened to buy a great deal of it.

As with most rums, it is absurdly cheap for what it is. (Current price is $52. I should get more. Where’s my wallet, anyway?)

Jamaican rum is enchanting stuff. It’s not for drinkers of weaker spirits — Bacardi White pales in comparison, no pun intended. I’d expect readers of the Jar could handle its mysteries. If you’re looking for a change, something to throw your palate into the Great Beyond, you can’t go wrong with some Jamaican funk.

And if you see ANY bottle of Plantation rum, it will be good. Buy without fear of regret. Oh, and the Pierre Ferrand cognac is definitely worth picking up.

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