The annual Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami, Fla., is a delightful blend of rum geeks who are deadly serious about the craft of rum-making and those who are out to sip some delicious tropical cocktails and have a good time.
Often, these people are one and the same.
Heading into its seventh year, the Miami Rum Fest is the biggest celebration of rum and rum culture in North America, and one of a small-but-growing number of such events held around the world, including in such unexpected locations as London, Paris, Germany and Italy. The brainchild and baby of husband-and-wife organizers Robert and Robin Burr (assisted by their son and rum prodigy, Rob), the festival consists of a week of sampling and judging by the Rum XP
group of international rum experts followed by a long weekend of grand tasting events open to the public.
And did we mention parties? VIPs can not only get in the door early for the grand tastings but also can join evening events at such famous local watering holes as the Mai Kai
tiki restaurant and Miami's Broken Shaker
and the Regent Cocktail Club at Miami Beach's Gale hotel
, both mixology meccas.
Rum has a long and not especially glamorous history — a key cog in the Triangle Trade, the daily ration of firewater for British Navy sailors, and in many places the cheapest swill you could get drunk on (not for nothing do we still sometimes call alcoholics "rummies.") As a spirit to be taken seriously, rum definitely needed a "renaissance" when the Burrs first held their festival in 2009.
Since then, the Rum Fest and the universe of fine rum has both seen tremendous growth. The event, begun at the boutique Shore Club hotel on Miami Beach, now requires the vast space of the Miami Airport Convention Center floor to accommodate its 120-plus vendors, dual performance stages, seminar speakers, and thousands of attendees. Meanwhile, everyone from old-line producers like Barbados' Mount Gay
to mass-market leaders Bacardi
and upstarts like Tiburon
— two new products produced by American entrepreneurs who fell in love with rum during trips to the tropics — are releasing innovative aged and blended rums meant to be savored, not swilled. To the delight of hipsters everywhere, there's even rum being made in Brooklyn again: Owney's, named for infamous Hell's Kitchen bootlegger Owen Madden
and owned by former financier Bridget Firtle, is a white rum made with high-grade molasses, yeast, and good old fashioned NYC tap water.
There was a lot to be excited about at the 2014 show, notably a new line of signature rums from legendary blender Francisco "Don Pancho"
Fernandez, whose long career began with Havana Club in pre-Castro Cuba. Drawing on private rum stocks hidden away for decades, Don Pancho Origenes features 8-, 18-, and 30-year reserve rums, ranging in price from about $40 to $90 to $425. These are rums meant to be savored, like a fine cognac. Pusser's
, two of the most famous brands in rum and the key ingredients in the Painkiller and Dark & Stormy cocktails, respectively, also showcased new aged rums.
The islands of the Caribbean and the coastal Caribbean nations of South and Central America are the epicenter of fine rum production, but in recent years the Miami Rum Fest has been showcasing rums from around the globe, including several from Mauritius like the new Penny Blue
, named for the world's rarest stamp. Several varieties of rhum agricole — French Caribbean rums made from sugar cane, not molasses — and cacacha (another cane rum, known as the main ingredients in the Caipirinha, Brazil's national drink) were exhibited, alongside the world's first cocoa rum from newcomer Selvaray
— further evidence of the growing diversity and adaptability of rum.
You don't have to be a rum snob to attend the Miami Rum Fest. Nearly all of these same rums are available during the public Grand Tastings on Saturday and Sunday, and while there are plenty of rum punches and other mixed drinks to divert your attention, you can also try your hand at sampling some aged rums neat or on the rocks. As you might expect from a rum festival, there's no shortage of singing pirates or party atmosphere, either: Want to drink rum from a coconut? Take a photo with a wench or a parrot? Done and done.
Onstage you'll find bands playing, food demonstrations, mixology sessions, and a raucous tiki-drink competition. Every year the festival is a little different, and a little bigger, growing as rum grows in acceptance and popularity. Pretty much everything I've learned about rum outside of sipping cocktails in the Caribbean, I've learned from attending four of the six Miami Rum Festivals. Will I be back in 2015? You bet your aaarrgghh I will!
Photo credit: Andrea Chung
Photo credit: Andrea Chung