Spirits to Sing About
The Spirits Review
by Margaret Swaine
For another man it would be a hard act to follow. When Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Sammy Hagar expanded his repertoire to launch Cabo Wabo tequila he struck it rich, very rich. The brand was inspired by his Cabo Wabo nightclub which opened in 1990 in Cabos San Lucas. It’s a rocking party place that’s a must go for everyone who visits the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.
Said Hagar, “Cabo Wabo is a lifestyle. Something that requires only a willingness to enjoy your life and embrace all that makes you happy.” And oh boy do people party there, I can attest.
Cabo Wabo Tequila was born in 1996 on the back roads of Guadalajara when Hagar went searching for a tequila exceptional enough to serve inside his cantina in Cabo San Lucas. He partnered with a tequila-making family with over 80 years of experience where the agave used to make Cabo Wabo is grown, cultivated and harvested by this same family.
In May, 2007 Hagar sold an 80% interest in Cabo Wabo Tequila to Gruppo Campari, the world’s sixth-largest spirits company, for $80 million. In in 2010, Sammy Hagar sold his remaining 20% stake in Cabo Wabo to Campari for $11 million.
That’s a pretty profit. The 66 year old now ranks among the highest-net-worth rock stars. So what’s he doing now? For act two in the spirit world, he’s launched a rum from Maui, Hawaii called Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. Distilled from two year old Maui Gold Sugar Cane using unique column stills it’s bound to be a success.
When I asked Hagar, the multi-platinum former front man of hard rock champions Van Halen, if he was going to write a rum song, he said “After Mas Tequila, it’s a hard act to follow.” (Cabo Wabo Cantina was where the video for the 1999 hit song “Mas Tequila” from the Red Voodoo album was filmed.) I’m not sure I believe him. His next acts seem as strong if not stronger than the previous ones.
I had the pleasure to meet the fun loving Hagar in Toronto during his promotional tour for the launch of his rum in Canada. He quipped, “When you work for me it’s mandatory to drink.” Where do I sign up? For more on him go to: www.redrocker.com
Hagar’s right on target with today’s tastes. All deluxe white spirits are trending up: rum, vodka and gin.
Barbancourt 5 Stars 8 Year Old Reserve takes pride in producing rum from sugar cane juice instead of molasses which is the norm. Barbancourt rum produced in Haiti since 1862 is double distilled in pot stills and aged in French Limousin oak barrels. This well-aged version is lovely.
Appleton Estate Reserve rum is a smooth, full and flavoursome rum. Visiting the estate itself is more on the rough side. The distillery is in the picturesque Nassau Valley in St. Elizabeth in the interior of the island. Almost as soon as we left the protective walls of the Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall (our base on the island), we were in what I like to call the un-sanitized Caribbean.
The narrow, twisting road had a raging case of potholes, with sharp edges that slashed at our tires (and did manage to puncture one). The verdant countryside was teaming with life: huge bamboo groves, towering palms, fruit trees of all sorts and fields of agricultural crops. Amidst the green were houses – many wood shacks in colourful shades of robin egg blue, chartreuse, bright yellow and the like with corrugated zinc roofs; others imposing cement McMansions with several storey’s either completed or in the works and not yet painted. Cows, goats and chickens scurried about the yards.
Along with schools, each town we passed had its share of churches, largely Seventh-day Adventist and charismatic types where singing and dancing are part of the service. Beside just about every church was a rum bar, many painted with the slogan “Show me the Wray”. (Wray and Nephew Ltd own Appleton Distillery.) “We like to sooth both spirits,” explained Joy Spence, master blender at Appleton.
This colourful countryside was a captivating prelude to our Appleton Tour and almost before we knew it we had arrived. Joy met us and began our tour by taking us up the hillside to gaze upon the over 4,000 hectares of sugar cane fields owned by the distillery. These fields supply the entire base product needed for Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum. This single estate in a small circumscribed geographic area makes Appleton one of the few rum brands in the world to claim a “terroir”.
And the “terroir” of the Nassau Valley is unique. The valley’s fertile fields enjoy a regular afternoon rain shower and warm sunshine – the optimum conditions to grow sugar cane – a giant grass belonging to the genus saccharum. The valley is also part of Jamaica’s world famous Cockpit Country, a Karst formation which was formed over millions of years. (Karst is a generic name given to limestone that has been eroded by the chemical action of rain.) There are just three Cockpit Karst formations in the world; the others are in Montenegro and China. The hilly landscape looks like an egg carton turned upside down.
Once the cane is harvested, it’s brought to the factory where the sugar manufacturing process begins. Animals are not encouraged to go anywhere near this factory. We saw a sign that proclaimed “Goats will be shot, cows impounded.” When asked about that, Joy replied with a laugh, “Jamaicans like curry goat a lot more than beef.”
The cane is washed, chopped and milled to extract the cane’s sweet juice. The juice that is extracted is boiled to make a syrup. The fibres (bagasse) that are left behind after the juice is extracted are used to fuel the factory’s boilers. Sugar crystals are spun out of the syrup and molasses is left; the latter is what’s used to make rum.
Ten tons of sugar cane makes one ton of sugar and 0.4 tons of molasses. From that 30 cases of rum can be made.
As part of the tour we got to grind the juice out of some sugar cane and sample the result. We also tasted the syrupy mixture of sugar crystals and molasses. We toured the distillation area with its pot stills and continuous stills; a hot part of the plant filled with the aromas of molasses. We cooled down in the aging cellar, stacked with old barrels and intriguing smells of its own. Then of course it was time to sip the range of rums. Joy called her seminar “The Joy of Rum” no pun intended.
We learned that sugar cane was brought from Papua New Guinea to the Caribbean in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. The first documented rum production at Appleton was in 1749. By 1893 there were 148 distilleries in Jamaica producing 73 million litres of rum. In 2011 there were just six distilleries left but they manage to produce 20.5 million litres.
The secret to many exceptional rums is blending- a creative step that demands a true artist of the palate. Master Blender, Joy Spence, the first woman to be appointed Master Blender in the world, uses many different types and styles of rum to create each blend that has the Appleton Jamaica Rum name. Pot still rums are more aromatic and flavourful. Continuous still rums have subtle fruit notes and lightness. Aging in former American bourbon barrels adds notes of vanilla, coffee and toasted almond. Joy can pick from 240,000 barrels of aging rum at Appleton.
Of the Appleton rums available in Canada, the best all-rounder is Appleton Estate V/X, the flagship brand of the rum family.
Bacardi Anejo has a soft open style and light bronze hue. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I visited the Bacardi rum distillery. The company’s free distillery tour in San Juan includes two drinks per person so no surprise that it draws crowds from morning to closing. The Puerto Rico distillery goes 24/7 and produces 100,000 gallons of rum a day from imported molasses. Bacardi was founded by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó in Cuba in 1862. Now the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world, it set up distilleries in other countries (including in Brampton, Ontario) after the Cuban Revolution.
Let’s all sing to the success of rums throughout the world. Maybe if we pen the right words or create the perfect spirit we’ll make a fortune. If not, at least we’ll be happy.
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