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Rum Renaissance Festival 2014: Top Five Coolest Rum Backstories

Rum Renaissance Festival 2014: Top Five Coolest Rum Backstories
Flickrcc/jenny downing

Sunday concluded the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, a playground for wannabe pirates, booze-hungry businessmen, and diehard rum enthusiasts to geek out together in drunk bliss. But looking beyond the flashy booths and Tiki merch, I found distilleries with fascinating origins that can get lost amid all the shots and swag. To honor these interesting tales, here are the five coolest rum company backstories from this year's showing.

5. Owney's NYC Rum

After five years as an investor for a global beer, wine, and spirits hedge fund in New York, Bridget Firtle was bored with finance. She fantasized about reviving New York's distillery roots, perhaps down the road as a retirement project. She couldn't stop thinking about the idea, however, and in 2011 she jumped headfirst into establishing The Noble Experiment, a small-batch organic rum distillery in Brooklyn. Firtle was named one of Forbes 30 under 30: Food and Wine in 2013. Her distillery's first product is a white rum called Owney's - named after 1920s New York rum runner Owen "Owney" Madden.

"The exciting thing for me is the tangibility of actually making a product, selling it, and having someone enjoy that as a drink," Firtle said. "It's exactly the opposite of Wall Street to me... Every step of the way has been exciting."

4. Don Pancho of Las Cabras Distillery

Described by Rum Fest's Robert V. Burr as "the Godfather of rum," Francisco "Don Pancho" J Fernandez is the Master Distiller at Las Cabras and has more than 45 years' experience in the industry. Mentored by his father, Don Antonio Fernandez Castro, and later the well-known Cuban Master, Don Ramon Fernandez Corales, Don Pancho became Director of the Cuban Beverage Industry in the mid-1970s and assisted in training Master Blenders in distilleries around the world. After 35 years perfecting the "Cuban method" of making rum, he moved to Panama in the early 1990s and began working as the Master Blender for the Varela Brothers, the makers of Ron Abuleo rum. By the mid-1990s, Don Pancho and PILSA CEO Carlos E. Esquivel G. would transform a neglected sugar mill warehouse into Las Cabras Distillery, where Caña Brava Rum is distilled in classic 1922 copper stills. For the 6th Annual Rum Fest, Las Cabras spotlighted its latest series, Don Pancho Origenes.

"Back in the day when Cuba was making real good rum, it was made by Don Pancho," said Esquivel G. "After making rum for third bodies, private contractors, and other big companies...we decided to make a rum with no compromises, not following any trend. That's why we created the Origenes line, meaning Don Pancho's origins - when he was young and the rums he was drinking."

3. Lost Spirits Distillery

There's often a bit of mad scientist lurking inside drink makers. No one is experimenting more boldly or successfully than Lost Spirits Distillery, a young outfit based in California. Co-founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta believe the aging process should be seen as the last step in the long line of process decisions that go into creating spirits. In that vein, Davis, Master Distiller and Blender, has devised a way to produce the flavor and appearance of long-aged rums without the decades-long wait. Davis began with inspiration from Jamaican rum-making traditions, in which holes dug in the ground are filled with waste from stills and left to ferment in order to produce carboxylic acids, which yield esters (aromas of fruits, flowers, and spices). Davis' method, nitrogen-deprived fermentation, leads to higher production of esters, which in turn leads to more flavors completed from the acids. Funnily enough, "Pirates of the Caribbean" also inspired the team's journey.

"We started by watching 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' freezed the frame, looked at the bottle and asked ourselves, 'What would that rum taste like if this was a real place?'" Davis said. "...Instead of using waste from the still, we used bananas, put those in a bucket and went through the list of carboxylic acids we wanted... based on the aroma thresholds we wanted. From that we cherry-picked the bacterias, ordered them from a lab, and added them to the bananas, basically sanitizing the Jamaican process."

Rum geeks can read more about the distillery process here

Ernest Hemingway on his boat in 1950
Ernest Hemingway on his boat in 1950

2. Papa's Pilar Rum

"When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?" - Ernest Hemingway

Literary giant Ernest "Papa" Hemingway spent years fishing, storytelling, and guzzling spirits on his beloved boat, Pilar. His adventures have inspired writers and drinkers the world over, including cocktail historian Philip Greene. Greene was born July 2, 1961, the year Hemingway died. After discovering Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River at age 15, he was hooked, spending his high school and college years researching everything about the author. By 2012, Greene would publish the book To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, which goes further into the author's drinking habits and offers dozens of recipes for drinks directly connected with the novels, history, and folklore. The Hemingway product family got wind of Greene's work and brought him aboard as Brand Ambassador for their latest endeavor: Papa's Pilar, a premium rum launched in 2013.

"They reach out to me and it was like a marriage made in heaven," Greene said. "Here you have this great rum, this great tradition of Hemingway the adventurer, and here you have the guy who can help interpret Hemingway, who can put this rum in these drinks and tell the story...Pilar was a shrine in Zaragoza, Spain that he used to go visit. It was also a nickname for his second wife. He had three sons, but he always wished he had a daughter he could name Pilar."

1. The Real McCoy

When Prohibition began in 1920, Captain Bill McCoy became America's pioneer rum runner. McCoy earned the name "The Real McCoy" because he always delivered genuine, undiluted alcohol that wouldn't make you go blind, unlike much of the era's homemade hooch. Inspired by his story, filmmaker Bailey Pryor began work on a documentary in 2006 based on Stephen Jones' book The Actual McCoy. The film, which aired on PBS in 2013, captures McCoy's journey from boat builder to public enemy No. 1 through archival materials, historic re-enactments, and interviews with scholars, including Jones. It went on to win five Emmy awards, and stirred Pryor to create a line of rums that live up to the McCoy reputation. Much to Pryor's surprise, no one had ever trademarked the phrase "The Real McCoy."

"The most unique aspect of this for me is that we've been able to actually track down the original family distillery that sold to McCoy in 1920," Pryor said. "They're still in business today, still making rum, and the fourth generation master distiller is about my age. When I brought the idea to him and showed him my film, showed him the photographs of McCoy, he said, 'You know, my grandfather used to talk about McCoy. I would absolutely love to do this.' It's been a fantastic collaboration ever since."

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