You can throw an empty bottle in any given direction and hit a whisky aficionado, wine connoisseur, beer expert, tequila/mescal enthusiast and on occasion vodka or gin loyalist, but rarely do you encounter the person who sips his or her rum neat. Likewise, many drinkers seem only dimly aware of rum’s diverse and premium portfolio, their brand vocabularies limited to the words Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Myer’s and Malibu (which let’s be honest is barely rum). In fact, most Western consumers will tell you they only drink rum when it’s in a Daiquiri or mixed with Coke and even then they don’t want to catch a whiff of the spirit lest they be reminded of that one night ages ago, when they drank too much of the stuff and woke up in a puddle of it in regurgitated form along with that late night pizza they’d chased it with.
Until recently, I never really thought of rum as something to taste and enjoy. Call it the mainstream effect, where most rum (be it light, dark or spiced) I encountered on a casual basis shared the same odorous qualities and tasting notes as the few name brand rums you were always likely to see behind the bar. I was therefore pleasantly surprised if not delightfully shocked after opening a bottle of the award-winning Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum from Hemingway Rum Company. Upon the first sip it became apparent this was a sweet, special spirit, to the point where I was kind of dumbfounded as to why a sugarcane-based full proof liquor doesn’t get more attention in general.
Needless to say it’s with absolute pleasure that I present Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum as the “Spirit of the Month” for December of 2016. Read on for a brief history of the brand, tasting notes and an interview with Carlton Grooms, the Rum Maker and Director of Operations at Hemingway Rum Company.
The Hemingway Rum Co. takes its namesake seriously and so does former Naval Officer turned savvy entrepreneur Carlton Grooms, a man with enough adventure under his belt to give Hemingway himself a run for his money. When Grooms isn’t crafting his delicious rum, he’s literally running with the bulls in Pamplona, competing in marathons, flying planes to provide humanitarian relief to Haiti and bungee jumping from the world’s highest landmarks. To put it another way, Grooms is the genuine article who arguably out Hemingways Hemingay, especially if you take into account how much of the famous author’s legacy is shrouded with reports of exaggeration.
Regardless of what Hemingway did or didn’t actually do, the myth lives on, especially in Key West, Florida. That’s where Grooms lived for many years, drinking in Hemingway’s old haunts and flying planes to distilleries in the Caribbean. Grooms developed a fondness for the Caribbean people he met and the alcoholic beverages they enjoyed, particularly rum, the sugarcane-based spirit that receives plenty of love in certain tropical regions but often gets overlooked in countries like the USA or Australia.
Throughout the course of his travels Grooms became an expert on his favourite spirit and that expertise ultimately led him to co-found the International Rum Council, co-author the book Rum & Contemporary Cuisine and oversee operations at the Hemingway Rum Co. The brand’s benchmark expressions are the Papa’s Pilar Dark and Light Rums, Papa being a direct reference to Hemingway (who’s nickname was Papa) and Pilar referencing Hemingway’s old boat, Pilar. Emblazoned on every bottle is the phrase “Never a Spectator” and those are words that Grooms duly lives by.
Seemingly never content to rest on his laurels, Grooms is currently leading the team that’s building the new Papa’s Pilar Distillery and Experience Center in Key West, just yards away from where Hemingway used to dock Pilar. It practically goes without saying that Grooms is never far from the next adventure and with Papa’s Pilar he managed to combine his experience, passion and expertise into one stunning bottle.
Each gorgeously rotund bottle of Papa’s Pilar 86 Proof Dark Rum is a master class of blending and aging. To achieve such an exquisite profile, the team hand-selects various premium rums from ports-of-call in the Caribbean, Central America and the US. They choose these sources based on things like character and maturity, with some of the rums being aged for up to 24 years (hence the number 24 on the bottle). Next, the team of Master Blenders solera age and blend the rums using American Oak Bourbon barrels and Port Wine casks, before finishing them in Spanish Sherry Casks.
The result is an award winning pour of dark rum that flaunts a rich auburn colour and makes all kinds of delectable impressions on the nose and taste buds. Those without at least a marginal sweet tooth might be a little turned off because each sip is almost like creamy, spicy, full-bodied liquid candy rolling over your tongue. The character and flavour was to me most like a full-proof Kahlua (which turns out to be a rum based liqueur) with an added hint of Cointreau. However, completely absent were the overly syrupy qualities that make something like Kahlua more of a mixer, less of a sipper. Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum is most definitely a sipper! Here’s a more detailed breakdown:
Nose – Thick, dense notes of caramel, coffee and butterscotch laced with sherry, chocolate, cinnamon, whisky and a little spice. The nose on this spirit really sticks around, powerfully and unmistakably wafting into the room after even just a tiny pour. In fact the lush, sweet nose of Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum is so strong that the scent lingered in my empty glass for well over 24 hours. In some ways the smell reminded me a little of Canadian Whisky and also, as mentioned, liqueurs like Kahlua.
Taste: Potently and perfectly sweet at first sip, so much so that if you’re not traditionally a rum drinker it might take a few pours before your palate adjusts to such pronounced flavour. Present right away are notes of caramel, vanilla, coffee liqueur, toasted coconut, chocolate, sherry and cream. Behind the top layer of luxurious sweetness are notes of cinnamon, toffee, oak, spice and orange liqueur (think Cointreau). It really does taste like fine candy melted into liquid cream before coasting over your palate on a tide of rich, smooth goodness.
Finish: Sweet and smooth with hints of spice. All the aforementioned flavours linger on the palate and that dreamy, distinct smell definitely stays its course.
In summary, if you’re used to spirits like bourbon or Scotch there might be a short adjustment period when taking on a bottle of Papa’s Pilar, which isn’t to say you won’t enjoy the dark rum right off the bat, rather that it takes a few sips before you begin to relish the profoundly palatable flavour balanced by spice and complexity.
Soon you’ll be asking yourself why you aren’t more readily acquainted with fine rums, and soon after that you might find yourself asking for dark rum neat the next time you’re at the bar (I know I did). Naturally, if you stick to the name brands you’re going to be instantly reminded of that one night in college where you practically overdosed on Bacardi and Cokes. However, should you seek out a premium expression like Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum you’ll find time and again a lush bounty of creamy, spicy sweetness that lingers on the tongue and goes down like silk. Do yourself a favour and check out Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum ASAP.
Q & A with Carlton Grooms
In case it’s not incredibly obvious yet, Hemingway Rum Company’s Rum Maker and Director of Operations Carlton Grooms has seen and tasted some things that we’re more likely to read about than encounter on our own. With such an impressive resume under his belt, it was an honour to ask Grooms a few questions about his many passions and most importantly his passion for rum. Read on for his answers.
Has the process or recipe for Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum changed at all since inception?
Not at all. My team and I work diligently to ensure consistent nose, colour and taste in every batch. I approve every blend before bottling.
Based on your bio, your experiences sound like an adventure novel in the making. Care to share one or two stories in particular?
Amongst my many careers, I was a U.S. Naval Aviator flying the A-6 Intruder from the deck of the USS America. My first glimpse of Key West was from the ejection seat of my jet 27 years ago. It was sunset and I was flying on the wing of my commanding officer. It was the last flight of his career. The sun bounced between cloud layers and painted his gray jet pink, the seas were dark and the lights of the city were just coming on. I was mesmerised. I knew I had to live here one day. A goal I achieved 4 years ago.
A few years ago I took a year off and travelled the world westbound with my wife, daughter and son. 25 countries, through Africa, Middle East, India, SE Asia, China, Japan and of course Australia. We lived in Surfer’s Paradise where my children attended public school for almost 2 months. I am a former ultra-marathon runner. One of my favourite memories in Australia is while we drove across the Nullarbor I jumped out of the RV and just started running, with my wife waiting behind. A number of miles in, cars passed by, the drivers eyes were as round as saucers trying to figure out how and why I was running so far in the outback.
What turned you on to rum as a premium spirit?
Rum captured my imagination because I love the spirit in the bottle. By that I mean the spirit of the people who make rum, especially throughout the Caribbean. Most people see a label, a style, a flavour. I see a culture, have memories of the people who make the rum and respect the privilege they bestow by inviting me into their homes and lives.
From this base, I work to honour all those people who have made rum before me by making the best premium rum that I know how.
What is something that you feel Americans don’t really appreciate about rum that other cultures (say in the Caribbean) do appreciate?
The history. What rum has meant to individuals as craftsman as providers for their families and what rum has meant to economies as providers for an entire population. Also, that rum can be so much more than cheap clear mixer. Rum has no rules except to be made from sugar cane. Thereafter, it’s up to the rum maker to be creative, letting the consumer decide on success, not industry rules.
What characteristics separate Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum from other similar dark rums?
I like to say that the science of rum happens between sugar cane stalk and fresh rum from the still. Then the art of rum making happens with barrelling, aging and blending. Well handled together, you get a special rum. One secret of Papa’s Pilar rum is the extra care we take in barrelling through American Oak, Hungarian Oak and French Oak. Interaction with the former occupants in these barrels being bourbon, port and sherry create something special. It is an expression of our art of rum making, done like no other.
Papa’s Pilar Dark Rums are hand-selected from ports-of-call in the Caribbean, Central America and the U.S.A. for their age, character and maturity, and then solera aged and blended in a unique process using American Oak Bourbon barrels, Port Wine casks, and finishing in Spanish Sherry casks.
At 86-proof, it is both pot and column distilled and boasts hand-selected rums up to 24 years old, and a long, velvety finish.
The expression is a bold and complex sipping rum, which was named “Best Rum in America” by the Caribbean Journal in 2014. It also won a “Double Gold” Medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
I’m almost completely new to the experience of sipping dark rum, and I couldn’t help but notice it shares some overt (and delicious) characteristics with liqueurs like Kahlua. Is there any common ground between dark rum and dark liqueurs?
Rum shares much in common with complex full proof spirits such as whiskey, bourbon, rye and even brandy. Kahlua itself is a rum based liqueur, and as such a cousin of full proof rum. Many premium dark aged rums have numerous layers of flavour discovery, which for a new rum drinker is often a wonderful discovery.
What qualities does aging the rum in bourbon barrels bring to the table?
The magic of barrel aging happens at the very fine layer where wood breaks down in decomposition and rum interacts molecularly. Most people do not know that rum ages twice as fast as whiskey because of tropical heat, which accelerates decomposition. Therefore a 25 year old rum is aged roughly the same as a 50 year old whiskey.
Common flavours from bourbon barrels include vanilla, butter, light cinnamon, and scents of oak itself.
What’s your favourite Hemingway novel and why?
“To Have and Have Not”. It was the only novel Ernest Hemingway wrote focused wholly on life in Key West. Many of the buildings he references still stand today. Many aspects of life as he described on the island and the time are still relevant. I feel like I’m a character in that book.
Any particular stories about Hemingway that still circulate in Key West that you’d like to share?
While living in Key West, Ernest Hemingway was known as a great socialiser but he also worked very hard on his writing. He covered the Spanish Civil War, travelled to Africa and fell in love with Cuba during this time. The vast majority of the local stories today centre on his thirst, largely centred on a few establishments only one block from our distillery.
What do you sip on when not sipping Papa’s Pilar?
Water! Seriously I sip on and enjoy many spirits. I’m always challenging my nose and palate, trying to deduce what the maker was trying to achieve. My curiosity makes me a better rum maker. Two rums I love are St. Nicholas Abbey 15 from Barbados and English Harbor 1981 from Antigua.
I’m also a great wine enthusiast, and I enjoy whiskey and bourbon and never turn down a cold beer during a glorious day of deep-sea fishing.
Favourite cocktail/recipe using Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum?
New Orleans is one of my favourite cities. I sailed as an engineer on an old steam merchant ship from the Crescent City. One of my favourite cocktails is the Sazerac. Rye, Absinthe, Peychauds bitters, Angostura bitters, sugar cube, lemon peel. I trade Rye for Papa’s Pilar Dark. Heavenly.
Favourite cuisine to pair with Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum?
Since I wrote a rum cookbook called Rum & Contemporary Cuisine, available on Apple iBooks with my co-Author Geoffrey Blythe, I better get this one correct!
I was always perplexed as to why top contemporary chefs did not reach for rum in their cuisine outside of dessert. So I co-wrote a book to show how amazing rum is in both classic and modern cooking. Working together with Geoffrey we make a Roasted Wild Boar Shank with dried fruit and Papa’s Pilar Dark 24 Solera. The layers of complexity with the dark rum compliment perfectly the wild meat and fruit.
Any new expressions in the pipeline?
Recently, my team released two special edition expressions of custom barrelled Papa’s Pilar Dark, which, after solera aging in American oak bourbon barrels, port wine casks, and Spanish Sherry Casks, we further aged in bourbon barrels for an additional 90 or 120 days, respectively. The extra aging adds a spicy finish on the back of the palate. The flavour is magnitudes more complex and the longer we age, the more the sweetness drops.
With our new distillery opening in Key West soon, my distilling team and I will have many more tools and ability to innovate. Stay tuned.
What can we expect from the Papa’s Pilar Distillery and Experience Center?
We are currently only a few short months away from opening a new distillery in Key West, Florida, further honouring Hemingway’s contribution to the classic spirit of the island. We are excited about creating both a destination that will serve as the physical heart and soul of our brand as well as an asset for the city of Key West. It is located in a former brick tobacco warehouse built in 1878 by Irish brick layers. Our guests will be able to walk completely through and around our process being truly engaged and amazed at the access and interaction. A trip to Key West will no longer be complete without a visit.