Java and Spice with Sea Island Rum

Our recent visit to Firefly Distillery in Wadmalaw, South Carolina, was a great experience, and also provided a chance to taste the Sea Island rum that Jim Irvin is crafting there. They have three varieties – the Carolina Gold, the Spice, and the Java, which is a coffee and spice infused bomb of a rum.

The donkey-driven sugarcane press from Guatemala
Rum aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels

All of these rums start with Southern sugarcane, sourced from John’s Island near the distillery as well as Louisiana and Florida. There’s a cranky old sugarcane press out in the yard that they found in Guatemela, which, with the help of a donkey, presses out the sugarcane. Distilled in small batches, the rum then sees some time in used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, up to three years or so. The high quality sugarcane and the bourbon barrel aging come together to create a distinctive product, and Irvin’s experiments with infusing all-natural flavors and spices into these rums takes it up a notch or two in the “wow” category. They currently have distribution around South Carolina,  and at the distillery itself of course, but are expanding now to Georgia and hopefully beyond. Here’s a taste of what you can expect if you can get your hands on some of the Sea Island Rum.

Sea Island Spice Rum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

A clear pale straw gold in the glass, with a nice viscosity that clings to the glass. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla jump out on the nose, a hint of nutmeg and baking spice lingering behind, like a warm, buttery cinnamon roll. On the palate, the spice and sweetness of the sugarcane are incredibly well balanced, this is not an overly assertive spiced rum, more like a spiced banana bread with an almost creamy (well, cream ale) presence. Warm lingering finish, a touch of heat that manages to hold the sweet and sharp notes in harmony. The folks at Firefly recommend trying it with an assertive ginger beer or ginger ale like South Carolina’s Blenheim for a spin on the Dark and Stormy, but it works great straight as well.

Excellent* – a great marriage of rum quality and balanced spice, a true treat if you’ve only tried Captain Morgan’s.


Sea Island Java Rhum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

Dark walnut brown in the glass, nearly impenetrable.  Huge coffee and deep dark chocolate brownie nose (yet again, that bourbon barrel-aged sugarcane rum makes baked good comparisons come naturally), tart dark cherry notes underneath that massive coffee and chocolate, burnt brown sugar as well. Incredibly full when it hits your tongue, warm and deep, obviously coffee driven, but the dark chocolate brownie presence rushes to the front, then subsides under a chewy bite of a finish, which alternates back and forth between coffee, chocolate, dark but bright cherry notes, and the miraculously long lingering pleasantly sweet burn of the rum.

Excellent* – dessert in a glass, an amazing dessert at that, and will blow away comparisons to Kahlua (try it in any cocktail recipe that calls for Kahlua and see what you think).


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Scenes From H&F Bottle Shop, Atlanta

There is joy and there is pain. Joy, in the faces of those who have endeavored to open the doors of a long-awaited bottle shop. Joy, in the faces of those who enter and discover an air of tranquility and character that is not often enough seen in purveyors of wine and spirits. And the pain? It’s there, underneath it all, in the not-yet-filled shelves that know they were destined to bear bourbons, amaros, house made magic. The labyrinth of hurdles that must be traversed to open a store such as this is still somehow shocking in this city that sometimes likes to keep a good thing down. It’s enough to turn a man to drink…

H&F Bottle Shop is open now, stocked with wonderful wines, vermouths, cocktail goods, glassware. The vinyl is playing loud; today it was the Ramones. Greg, Andy, all the familiar faces from Holeman & Finch are there to get things rolling. And in a few more weeks, finally, the whiskey and rye will also grace the shop’s shelves, barring any further hurdles thrown their way. Even today though, it’s clear that H&F Bottle Shop will be something special. From the stunning style present in every little detail, to the artfully chosen selection of wines, to that quirky stack of LPs in the back corner – this is indeed a bottle shop like no other in Atlanta, nor elsewhere for that matter.

We’ll let the photos speak, just crank up some Ramones and sip some farmer fizz as you scroll on through…

H&F Bottle Shop
2357 Peachtree Road
Atlanta, GA 30305

Thirsty Reading: Boozehound, by Jason Wilson

See this book? The one with the multitude of darkly enticing bottles and casks on the cover? This is a dangerous book. A book that will cost you dearly. A book that will drive you to drink. A book that just may turn you off vodka forever (OK, that last part is not so dangerous).

Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson is dangerous not because of its somewhat subversive stories of what constitutes a good drink, but rather because it will likely compel any fan of spirits and cocktails into the dangerous realm of obsession that the author clearly occupies. A world where chasing down rare brandies or long forgotten liqueurs is a path to wallet depleting joy and illumination.

Mr. Wilson finds a way of weaving tales that will leave you tipsy and laughing and thirsty for more. The book is literally a tour through some of the world’s great libations, their history, their path through glorious popularity or confounding decline. A jaunt into the agave fields of Mexico juts up against a tale of teenage tippling in suburban New Jersey. Secret formulas of herbs and uncommon ingredients are juxtaposed against the hyperbolic and highly suspect modern marketing “backstories” that seem to come with every new bottle on the liquor store shelf. Cocktail recipes appear at the end of each chapter to entice the mind, to further the already deeply felt urges that the stories implant – WHERE can I track down that rare Calvados, HOW can I live without that Creme de Violette, WHY is my collection of Italian Amari so minuscule???

Beware. Reading Boozehound is dangerous stuff. Now I better get over to the liquor store to pick up my bottles of Dubonnet, Benedictine, Amaro Montenegro, Creme Yvette, Luxardo Maraschino, rhum agricole…

Great Southern Distillery: Old Rip Van Winkle, AKA “Pappy”

Part two of Thirsty South’s “Great Southern X” series features one of the most revered names in bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle. Rare. Cherished. Distinctive. Amazing. Those are but a few of the descriptors for the bourbon that carries the “Pappy” name. Old Rip Van Winkle is a standout among the many great Kentucky bourbon brands, true to a long heritage of great whiskey in the South. Read the full story here.

Woodford Reserve, Maple Wood Finish: Brilliant New Approach or Bourbon Gimmick?

The fine folks at Woodford Reserve just released the fifth in their series of “Master’s Collection” bottlings. Arriving in stores today, the Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish is (quoting their press release) “finish-aged in a toasted maple wood barrel, resulting in a whiskey enhanced with hints of maple, honey, and cinnamon… Maple Wood Finish continues Woodford Reserve’s tradition of crafting rare whiskeys that extend the category in bold new directions.”

Now, bourbon, by definition, is matured in new, charred oak barrels, thus the prominent use of the word “finish” on this bottling. Woodford Reserve is not divulging the mix of time in new oak vs. finishing time in maple wood, and the practice of finishing in a unique wood barrel type to drive specific flavors (such as the sweetness inherent in maple wood) is somewhat controversial for bourbon purists. The use of maple wood does indeed appear to be unique to Woodford Reserve so far, and they deserve props both for pushing new ideas and for getting this product out in time for the holiday season (go buy some Brown Forman stock now!).

This one clocks in at 94.4 proof, just a touch above their normal 90.4 proof bottling. It also costs more than double the regular bottling, with a suggested retail price of $90 vs. an average of roughly $35 for the regular Woodford Reserve. So, is it worth that type of investment to experience what the maple wood finish can bring?

Well, the bottle is beautiful (see photo below), so if you like collecting glass, this may be for you. Early reviews around the web are mixed – with many noting heavy wood notes, and, yes, hints of maple syrup. I’m personally not inclined to give it a shot, given the price (I have not received a free tasting sample as the early reviewers above did (*see update below)) and the somewhat gimmicky nature of this bottling. A few drops of maple syrup in my regular bourbon will do just fine to spice up my bourbon experience if I’m looking to add a touch of maple sweetness. Heck, in Woodford Reserve’s marketing of their new release, they even include a cocktail recipe that calls for the addition of maple syrup.

You can learn more about the Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish release with this educational video! which looks to me like it ought to be on late night TV somewhere, or maybe QVC. Maybe that’s fitting for this one.

*UPDATE, 11/11/2010: Woodford Reserve was kind enough to send a tasting sample after the original post was written. The nose on this Maple Wood Finish release is lovely – think cinnamon-spiced apple pie sitting on a toasted oak barrel. On the palate, it actually wasn’t as sweet or maple-y as I expected, with heavy wood and a somewhat harsh lingering finish. Very glad I was able to taste it, but it would be a bit hard to justify the $90-$100/bottle to experience this unique finishing approach.