Rum Renaissance Festival: Judging 19 Rums in Less Than an Hour

It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it, I suppose.

Each year, in addition to tastings, seminars, and general rum-infused revelry, the Miami Rum Renaissance festival hands out awards for the world's best rums in several categories. The awards will be announced Friday in a gala presentation where thousands of rum enthusiasts are expected to gather.

Winning an XP award is a big thing, with medals of achievement proudly placed around the necks of the bottles proven superior by a drunk esteemed panel of judges over the course of several days of swirling, sniffing, and sipping. So who are these people who taste rum on a professional basis, anyway?

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See also: Miami Rum Renaissance Festival and Miami Cocktail Week

They come to Miami from all over the world and range from writers to bartenders to master distillers. What they have in common is a delicate palate, a passion for rum, and years of mastery in the field. Before the judging starts, there's chatter (all rum-related) of finding an out-of-the-way distillery on a small Caribbean Island or a friendly debate over the merits of the 18-year-old versus the 30-year-old Don Pancho Origenes. And then there's me.

For the third year, I've been asked to "guest judge" a session of the rum tasting. Although these experts could snicker at me, they are always gracious and welcoming. My rum-tasting mate at this session is Forrest Cokely. He's a spirits expert, a bar consultant, and has a blog called A Drink With Forrest. He pours me some water (gentleman!) and we're given the ground rules.

This session, we'll be tasting nine rums with a four-eight year statement and an additional 10 flavored rums. Judging is based on the following criteria: color and clarity (up to 10 points), aroma (up to 20 points), taste (up to 50 points), and finish (up to 20 points), for a possible total of 100 points. And with that, the room turns as silent as during SAT's and we get to work.

Although at first glance, the rums might all look amber in color with the same clarity, when you get down to it, each one has its own nuances. Different shades reveal themselves in the light. Faint hints of vanilla, tobacco, leather, and dried apricots tickle the nose, play on your tongue. Some rums have a clean finish, almost leaving no trace of the flavor it just imparted. Others assault with a strong alcohol air. As I taste, I note a few favorites. Number five resembles a rich dulce de leche and number seven mimics a fine port mixed with leather notes. Number nine the my favorite by far. I note its aroma as "peach, dried fruit, holidays, old barrels, and attics," while the taste was "strong, candied fruit in a fruitcake, and plum pudding."

The flavored rums prove to be difficult. Tasting notes include "coconut? banana? no, no, no, no;" "tastes exactly like suntan lotion and sugar cookies;" and "diabetes." There was a knockout flavored rum, however, that tastes like "hazelnut and chocolate cake," which gives me hope for rumkind.

After tasting all the rums, I congratulate myself for still being able to stand and proceed to the "reveal" room. There, we can discover which rums we loved and which we... didn't. I won't reveal any of the rums I didn't like. But the winners?

Turns out I'm crazy for the Ron Medellin Eight Year from Colombia. And that hazelnut, chocolate rum? It's the Selvarey Cacao from Panama.

How do I fare compared to the experts? Turns out, my picks are pretty solid.

If you want to have your own rum tasting, the Rum Renaissance Festival's grand tasting at the Doubletree Miami Airport and Convention Center is open to the public Saturday, April 26, and Sunday, April 27, from 3 to 7 p.m. VIP ticket holders can access the festival at noon each day. General admission is $50 each day and VIP admission is $75 per day. Tickets are available online at rumrenaissance.com.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

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