Once again I have traveled deep into the heart of Florida to attend the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival (or RumFest as its is affectionately know). Rum is fun, rum has almost no rules and rum has an image that is care free and delightfully escapist. It is also emerging into the public consciousness as a premium spirit. This makes attending the worlds largest rum festival an easy decision for those of us in search of fine drink and good times. For me, the festival is more than just rum and business. I instantly got a sense of warmth and community from the collective of rum experts, enthusiasts, producers and even pirates that made me feel a welcome part of the family. I knew from my first moments in rum country that I was indeed home.
As carefree as rum is, there is a serious side too. It is an industry and a craft vying for your dollars and attention. There are some helpful tools available to help us decide where to spend our rum dollars. First there is RumFest, an opportunity for those able to be in Miami in April to taste numerous rums and to form opinions about and relationships with the brands themselves. Second there is Rob’s Rum Guide, an annual publication with tasting notes on hundreds of rums that is produced by and in coordination with the festival. The third tool, and perhaps the most serious, is the international panel of Rum Judges known as the RumXPs. This cadre of experts are your rum sommeliers and each year they solemnly sit in judgment of the rums offered at the festival. In a blind tasting they evaluate and score each rum, awarding gold medals to the finest rum products on the market. I have been lucky enough to be counted among these experts as a guest judge on two occasions and am very grateful for and respectful of the opportunity to hone my craft and celebrate these amazing spirits. Because the tastings are blind, they are impartial and without prejudice when it comes to brand or label, and because this tasting is annual it is a great way to measure consistency in a brand as well as how the tastes of the community evolve. As a result, the winners of these medals are quite often your best bet when selecting a rum.
I am not going to delve too deeply into the winners of the Grand Tasting because to me this year’s RumFest had a different story. The real winners this year were small artisanal brands. The big boys of the industry, the real rum powerhouses of money and influence, for assorted reasons did not show up this year. Whether it was internal company changes, shifts in brand strategy or competing events, the juggernauts of the industry took a powder. Smaller, newer brands pounced on the opportunity to stand out without all the distraction of the big money players trying to upstage them with glitz and glam. We were delighted to meet some incredibly passionate producers of some fine rums. Small brands decided to go big at this event because of it the whole event felt more exciting.
It also felt to me like a chance to step back in time. I have often said that Miami Rum Renaissance is like Comic Con for rum. San Diego is my hometown and the Comic Con that is today an almost overwhelming assault on the senses. Going to Comic Con as a teenager, it was still big and awesome to behold, but the big movie money was less, the noise and distraction were less, and the real star of the show was comics and artists. This is how Rumfest felt to me this year. Sure it is nice when big brands toss about big dollars on lavish parties, but instead we got to see small, gritty, character-driven, and passionate producers step up and grab our attention with some fantastic rums.
I experienced this phenomenon firsthand as a producer of cocktail bitters and extracts. I decided to spend big and go to RumFest to showcase my young brand this year and in the process try to win the hearts and minds of the rum community. Normally at least one large bitters producer has a presence at the show, but this year, I was fortunate to get all the attention as none of the bitters big boys were able to attend. I felt like a king or a rockstar. I was embraced by my rum family, I got some great attention paid to my brand, I made many new friends and I basically killed it in Miami.
I want to extend some special thanks to the Burr family and RumFest, you guys are awesome, I love you and what you do and I wish you guys continued success. I also want to thank some of the amazing folks with some of the brands that I partnered with so successfully this year, especially the guys at Amrut Rum, Admiral Nelson/Blackheart Rum, Blue Chair Bay Rum, Rhum Barbancourt, Stroh, Plantation Rum, and Wicked Dolphin Rum. I also want to thank Isaac from 786-Bartend, your students were amazing. I could not have asked for more professional and enthusiastic help at my booth, so give these guys a shout if you are in the Miami area and need bartenders or are looking to up your bartending game.
If you are a rum fan (or think you could be), take a look at these resources, try some new rums and really think about spending a week in Miami next April.