Jonathan Forester is a brewer and distiller in Maine. He writes about spirits and cocktails at Slashfood.
They call New Orleans the Big Easy, but Tuesday was big, but not easy, as I spent my first full day here, prior to the start of Tales of the Cocktail. I am one of the 24 judges for the 2008 Ministry of Rum Tasting Competition, a strict rum judging event coordinated by the Ministry of Rum at Tales. There was a long list of people who were considered as judges for this event and Ed Hamilton, the head of the Ministry, spent several weeks winnowing down the list to some of the top rummies around.
We met at the famous Arnauds restaurant for the event. As we chatted before the judging began it soon became evident just how knowledgeable this crew was. Rum distillers, importers, writers and bloggers, and of course rum collectors. I thought I had a nice collection of spirits with over 500 bottles, of which around 100 of them are exceptional rums. I’ve given away more than that of mediocre rums over the past year or three, saving just the best. One of my fellow judges has over 800 top of the line rums in his collection. The least of which makes my best look like a cheap $1.99 pint of generic white rumbullion. When you have pre-embargo Cuban rums and rums over 100 years old in your collection you’re on a different level of connoisseurship than I. I just want to try some little 1/4 ounce sips of a few dozen of his collection one day and I’ll be happy. Just the thought has me drooling like a drunk.
Speaking of drunk, I had drunk quite a few rums during the judging. If you can call it drinking when you have to spit out each sip so that you retain a semblance of sobriety. The first session was focused on flavored and spiced rums, 19 to be exact. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to judge a battery of rums in a blind taste test, and I was proved right. In some ways it was simpler than I originally thought, in others more difficult. Simpler since in this category one can’t even begin to compare one to another. each has a remarkably different flavor profile and you just have to judge each one on its individual merits, or lack thereof. Aroma, Taste, Body, Finish. these are the categories you look at and rate from 1-25. Then add up the four to come out with a 1-100 point score. Plus remarks on what you like, dislike, or notice about the spirit. usually in this category I found them to be mostly “lack thereof” and so my job was more difficult than anticipated. Many had the comment, “GAG!” as a suffix.
After the first sessions notes were turned in we were allowed to see which were which and compare to our secondary notes which many of us had kept for our own research. Then my fellow judges from our table set off for a leisurely lunch of raw oysters and assorted fried shrimp, fried oyster, and hot sausage Po’ Boy sandwiches at the Acme Oyster House. Then we waddled off to the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone to sit and spin for awhile as we digested our repast. Then back to Arnauds for the second session, which was of premium, or aged rums.
This proved both simpler and more difficult than I imagined.This time it was simpler because the great majority of the rums were excellent. More difficult because even though you wanted to judge each one on its own merits, many had similar flavor profiles, or else in a few cases one knew almost exactly which rum it was from prior experience. We all tried our best to focus on the job at hand and remain neutral as we sipped and spat, nibbling on crackers and cheese to cleanse our palates. After the session we chatted about our likes and dislikes, and many of us enjoyably sipped the remains of our samples as we milled around in a mob talking rum, and viewing the bottles as they were revealed. I don’t know the results yet, but as soon as they are tabulated you will be able to see them at the Ministry of Rum on Friday July 18th. Today there are two more judging sessions, I hope to be able to make one or both, but my schedule is so full I may miss out. If so I’ll have to check the results and see if there are any new and special rums for me to add to my collection. Well, I am off to Tales of the Cocktail to spend the day sipping fine and spirited creations by the best mixologists in the world, Cheers!