Summer of Rum: Islamorada Distilling

Every year for 39 years my family has taken a pilgrimage down to the Florida Keys for the opening of Lobster Season. While I have missed years here and there, my parents have continued the tradition without a break. This year myself, the Junior Traders and my lifelong friend Sailor Rick joined the trip.

While fishing/lobstering was the overall focus, I’m always on the hunt for a Tiki Bar or new Rum. As I was about 12 miles from the end of my drive south, Islamorada Beer Company caught my eye. I noticed something that I maybe didn’t notice on my last trip two year previous… the side of the building also says “Distillery”. I immediately reached out to the Islamorada Distilling Team and scheduled a visit with Master Distiller/Brewer Stephanie Harper.

Upon arrival, Sailor Rick and I were given a warm welcome by the Manager Larissa. She invited us to the tasting bar and went through our rum lineup.

The set up is very unique… on one side of the building is the Beer Co, with full bar and high tops and merchandise then “next door” is the Distillery where you can do tastings and purchase their liquors. Some information that Larissa provided us is that under Florida law you can’t combine a Brewery and Distillery, so they have to remain separate.

Larissa explained that the Distillery has been in business since 2017 and they currently have four rum profiles for sale to the public (as well as two gins and a vodka). We strapped in to try the Silver, Spiced, Select Barrel Aged and Dark Barrel Aged. While the Dark Barrel Aged uses black strap molasses, the others all use Pearl Select Molasses, which includes a blend of sugars from throughout the Caribbean.

We started with the Silver rum, which is aged over oak chips. It was very smooth and light. It is a great mixing rum that still holds a lot of its oaky flavor. Stephanie later explained that originally they were aiming for a 100% clear rum however the filtering was removing too much of the unique flavors. They settled on a more silver color as to not lose the heart of the rum.

We next moved on to the Barrel Aged Rum. This rum is under a continued journey and will soon be re-branded as their Select Rum. It is first distilled in a copper pot still and then run through the column for the spirit run. It is then barrel aged in new white oak barrels at a medium toast and, at the moment, aged for 8 months (soon will be a minimum of a year). The flavor profile had nice hints of vanilla and, of course, a tinge of oak. It reminded me of a lighter bourbon.

Their Spiced was next… I will say that for quite some time I haven’t really been a fan of spiced rum. I know that some on the market have a lot of additives and some are of a high quality but I tend just to avoid them all together. If I want cinnamon or cloves or vanilla in a drink then I like to just added it separately using a homemade syrup. But I went into this with an open mind and I was pleasantly surprised. Islamorada’s Spiced Rum was very “spice forward” and well balanced. It starts with vanilla and ends into a great cinnamon but without the burning of something like Fireball. I would actually almost compare it to St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. It is a spiced rum that I wouldn’t mind having around.

Finally, we stepped things up a notch with the Dark Rum. This rum is, in my opinion, their best offering. (It won a gold medal from the International Rum Expert Panel in 2018.) Like the Select Barrel Aged, it is currently being aged at 8 months but soon will be at a year. They are using New Oak barrels with a Char 3. The Dark has gone through a revolution. Currently you can purchase batch 9 and Master Distiller Stephanie loves its “richness”. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to also try batch 6, which used Hungarian Spiced Oak Chips, as well as batch 10, which was BOTTLED THAT DAY.

I have to say that I loved the batch 10! The butterscotch and caramel shine and it makes it a good sipping rum. It is fun that they are bottling all their rums as Single Cask so you get a slightly different experience each time you dive in. While blending is essential for the big distilleries, single cask allows smaller, independent shops to offer some wonderful flexibility and different experiences.

After our tastings, Stephanie invited the Sailor and I back into the distillery! She was an amazing hostess and really has learned her craft (and loves to share it, which is wonderful). Stephanie was a dive instructor who really took the job of Brewer on almost a dare (“you think you can do better, then come in here and show me”). She then migrated to Distilling when, without much warning, Islamorada Beer Company was granted their Distilling license.

Currently they are doing all their distilling and barrel aging and bottling and labeling right on the premises but soon will have an additional location further north in Ft. Pierce, FL. While I like the thought of having everything happen in Islamorada, I get the need to grow and I know that having more storage space will allow for longer aging and more profiles. The plan is still to distill everything in the Keys but then use the extra space in Ft. Pierce for storage and aging. Stephanie told us that they have a Queen’s Share (saw the barrel) and Reserve in the works as well as a Rye and a Bourbon.

We were fortunate enough to be there while a spirit run was working through the column still and even were able to sample some still strength rum which, while STRONG, was extremely delicious. Not sure if an overproof rum in in their future however, I’d purchase it if it comes to pass.

We spent over 2 hours with Stephanie and Larissa and we could have stayed even longer! Their hospitality and information was invigorating and infectious but we knew they also had jobs to do. Before leaving I knew I needed some of the Dark to bring back to Trader Jay’s (and some Hibiscus Gin for Mrs. Trader) however, batch 10, my favorite, was not quite ready. Stephanie invited us next door for beverage from the Beer Company and offered to wax a few bottles of Dark Batch 10 for us. (As a side note, I tried the No Wake Zone Key Lime Coconut Ale and it was delicious and refreshing.)

For one final treat, Stephanie invited us back to watch our Batch 10 bottles be waxed and presented us with bottles 1-4. It was an extremely kind gesture and now I’m kind of hesitant to open bottle 1.

I cannot speak highly enough of Islamorada Distilling! While still very young, they are well on their way. They have an amazing staff down there at Mile Marker 82 who all offer a wonderful, casual Florida Keys hospitality. If you are in the area then I would definitely recommend stopping in to say hi and for a taste, I do not think you’d be disappointed.

Mahalo Stephanie and Larissa! We will be back!

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Rum Tasting: Bajan 1966

I was very fortune last week to obtain a bottle of Bajan 1966 Barbados Rum. Currently Bajan is only available for purchase in Barbados so I was lucky to gain access to a bottle.

There is no secret that Barbados is one of the largest rum producing islands and of great importance in the history of rum, however in learning more about Bajan Rum, I also learned some Barbadian History.  From the Bajan site:

Our regal, barrel-aged rum was named in honor of Barbados’ Independence which was granted on November 30th, 1966 after 300 plus years as a British colony. Dominated by a lucrative sugar industry, once run on the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves, this historic date marked more than our emancipation — it sparked cultural and economic change.

Rum is still the essence of Barbados, the DNA of the nation. Old-timers even call it, “the nectar of life,” there through heartbreak, romance and exultation. Day and night, on palm-fringed streets, families, friends and strangers-just-met are seduced by its dark and delicious taste. You could say that rum is the oil in our engines, the beat behind our rhythm, the spirit of Barbados.

Half a century may have passed since our Independence, but our country celebrates in serious style when November rolls around. We revel in 50 plus years of emancipation, hosting parades, socials and festivals.

BAJAN 1966 is the people’s rum, a drink for any occasion. Relax, unwind and sip that tipple. Be inspired by the spirit of freedom.

I also learned that the word “Bajan” is another term used to refer to people from Barbados and is pronounced BAY-jun.  It is actually thought to be a shortened version of Barbadian and is used by locals quite often.

Bajan 1966 is a mix of both pot still and column rums and then aged in American oak bourbon barrels. (I was, however, disappointed to not find any age statement.)

The bottle is clear, very crisp looking and the rum color has a red hue to it.  It is beautiful for sure though the gold lettering on the bottle makes it a little hard to photograph with my simple iPhone. (From their website it looks like the bottle actually is sold in a beautiful blue and gold cylinder however mine didn’t have that upon arrival.)

I invited my good friend Steve over for a sampling.

First we started with some neat and sipped it… as Bajan claims you should.  The smell is AMAZING! They do not add any sugars or perfumes (as I would prefer) and the nose is really clean and fresh. You really get a nice aroma of vanilla along with a hint of caramel.

The taste is very clean as well. The vanilla hits you first as it merges into a finish of oak and tropical fruits.  There is a slight harshness for only a half of moment on the palette but I find that comforting because it reminds me that I’m drinking rum. While we didn’t try some on the rocks, I can see how this would be the way I would sample it next time around.

Next I mixed it up in a classic Mai Tai.  I usually mix my Mai Tais with a strong Jamaican rum (per Trader Vic’s original) however the Bajan 1966 stood up fair well.  Steve really enjoyed the Mai Tai and was pleased on how Bajan was complimented by the lime and orgeat.  I will say that the curaçao was a bit overpowering against the rum for me and maybe I’d pull it back some in the future.

I think the Bajan will also shine nicely in something simple like a Barbados Rum Punch or a Rum Old Fashioned (so that’ll be on tap for the future).

I haven’t really established a “Rum Grading Scale” yet but I would give this a 4 out of 5 tikis.  You won’t find it in the U.S. but if you’re visiting Barbados then it might be a nice addition to pick up.