The man who is an unparalleled connoisseur of rum and its behind-the-scenes aspects, an advisor to certain producers, and a blogger, has released what will undoubtedly remain the reference book on Caribbean rums. Meet the one, the only, Matt Pietrek.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers who don’t know you?
I am an independent author, historian, consultant, and educator focused on rum. I’m probably best known for my Cocktail Wonk site and Rum Wonk Substack. I am also Community Envoy for the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association (WIRSPA).
Our new book, Modern Caribbean Rum, was written and published by me and my spouse, Carrie Smith. Previously we wrote and published Minimalist Tiki: A Cocktail Wonk Look at Classic Libations and the Modern Tiki Vanguard.
In a past life, I was a software developer and architect, including seven years at Microsoft. My specialty was developer tools and operating systems, and I wrote two books on these topics.
I was born in the United States and live in New Orleans, sometimes called the northernmost city in the Caribbean. I’m 57 years old — eek! How did that happen?
How did you get interested in rum?
I fell in love with Tiki cocktails and associated culture via a Jeff Berry book circa 2007. Naturally, that meant learning a bit about rum. Eventually, Carrie tired of me constantly talking about tiki cocktails, so she said, “I love you, but you have to share your passion with other people’. That’s what pushed me to create Cocktail Wonk . I first focused on cocktails, but rum soon took over everything.
And how did you come up with the idea of writing your bible on Caribbean rum?
I’m a voracious learner, so I looked around for books and articles to help me better understand rum. What little was available was books focusing either on history or what bottles you should try. There was very little detailed information about how rum was made and how each distillery made it. Nor did they talk about the business side of rum.
When I know that the answers to my questions are out there somewhere, I get impatient and become obsessed with finding the answers. My investigation skills previously served me well when writing about software, which was full of secrets at the time, unlike today.
So you worked 7 years on this book!?
I first had the idea after a 2016 trip to Jamaica, where I visited five distilleries. I thought I should write what I’d learned in a book. My original plan was to write the book in about one year, but soon I realized that I wouldn’t be happy until it had very in-depth chapters on each phase of rum making, as well as chapters on things like bulk rum, geographical indications, rum flavor science, the problems with rum categories, and much more. In the end, the book was 38 chapters and 850 pages.
You publish your own book. Why?
When I first presented my idea for a reasonably sized book to publishers, none were interested. There were already books on rum, so why do another one?’ They couldn’t understand how my book would be different. Finally, the idea of publishing the book ourselves took form.
Carrie, my wife, is a very talented designer with book publishing experience. But rather than starting with an enormous book, we did something simpler. That book was Minimalist Tiki. The overwhelming response proved to us that we could take on the rum book. It was a huge investment of our time, plus a very substantial amount of money to print it. We also distribute the book ourselves, allowing us to retain all of the profit, rather than giving half to companies like Amazon. We took a very large gamble, and it has paid off.
Why did you focus the book on Caribbean rum?
I wanted to write about the Caribbean because that’s where rum was born, and I had the most firsthand knowledge. Equally important, if I hadn’t limited myself to one geographical area, I would still be working on the book with no end in sight! I had to establish boundaries, and nobody has complained about how small it is!
Is it in the Caribbean that the best rum is produced?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Caribbean produces the best rum. For example, I very much enjoy rums from Reunion and Australia. But if we had to choose one region where the most world-class rum is made, I would say it is the Caribbean. Also, the Caribbean has so many diverse styles of rum, many of which you rarely see elsewhere.
Do the rums of the Caribbean have a common point apart from the fact that they are produced in the same region?
If we look at all the rums of the Caribbean, we can see groupings of rum in similar styles. For example, the rums of Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba share many commonalities. Likewise, the cane juice rums of Martinique and Guadeloupe are quite similar. To my mind, River Antoine has similarities to some Haitian clairins. There’s so much diversity that the only thing uniting them is that they all come from sugar cane. It’s similar to asking about the common points of French cheese.
Do you separate the different rums into Anglo, French and Spanish styles?
These terms are often used, and I describe in the book why those terms are used. One cannot deny that certain countries with a shared colonial heritage have similar styles. But while those categories may once have made sense, many rum producers are breaking out of the style normally associated with their region.
For example, rum makers in the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Panama generally make column-distilled molasses rum, with most of the flavor coming from aging. But in Puerto Rico, San Juan Artisan Distillers is making pot-distilled cane juice rum. Ultimately, I think there are better ways to categorize the main styles of rums without getting overly technical.
How do you explain rum to a beginner?
All alcoholic beverages come from a plant. Wine and brandy come from grape juice that has been fermented. Most people understand this basic fact and that the resulting beverage has some taste element of the source material.
It is not a big jump to say that Rum starts from sugarcane juice rather than grape juice. If they want to know more, I can explain how fermentation creates flavors they are familiar with. I can then talk about distillation which concentrates those flavors.
What is responsible for the appearance of aromas in rum?
Fermentation and aging are where most of the flavor molecules enter the spirit. Most aromas we associate with Jamaican or unaged cane juice rum are created during fermentation. But in the case of Spanish-heritage rums, the aging process contributes much more of the flavor. And there are some rums which are strongly influenced by both!
Can we talk about terroir in rum?
I believe terroir can be found in rum, but how much terroir is expressed in the finished product depends on how the rum was made. In general, the more we process the liquid during rum making, the more terroir is lost. Molasses is cane juice that is heavily processed, so it’s easier to discern terroir in a cane juice rum compared to a molasses rum. Likewise, if you distill a highly flavorful ferment to very high strength, you lose most or all of the terroir. Of course, terroir can come through during aging. The environmental factors of where a rum ages influence the resulting spirit.
Can you explain what WIRSPA is?
WIRSPA’s proper name is West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association. It is comparable to something like the Scotch Whisky Association, which promotes the common interests of Scotch whisky producers via education and trade advocacy.
WIRSPA is the same idea for the rum-making nations of CARIFORUM, e.g., Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and several more countries. Martinique and Guadeloupe are not part of WIRSPA because they are part of France, which isn’t a CARIFORUM country. Likewise, Puerto Rico is a US territory, and the US is not a CARIFORUM country. WIRSPA allows these Caribbean rum makers to collectively amplify their voice regarding things like trade policy with large trading blocs like the European Union.
Can you give us some examples of cooperation?
There is a movement within CARICOM to promote using Caribbean-made glass bottles by increasing the imported tariffs on bottles made elsewhere. However, the Caribbean’s single glass factory doesn’t have the capacity to supply the region’s rum makers, so rum makers bottle costs would go up substantially. WIRSPA is working with CARICOM on reasonable ways to minimize the economic effect of this legislation on rum makers. Another example of WIRSPA’s efforts is lobbying against the US “cover over,” which is effectively a large tax break given to the largest Puerto Rican and USVI rum makers.
And what is your role within WIRSPA?
My role as Community Envoy is just one of many different things I do. With WIRSPA, I am a part-time consultant whose task is to be a bridge between rum enthusiasts and WIRSPA producers. I work closely with Vaughn Renwick, WIRSPA’s CEO. Part of my role is producing and hosting the Rum Talk and Icon series videos on the Authentic Caribbean Rum YouTube channel. There are also many things I do behind the scenes.
Are there any common rules for the WIRSPA rum?
WIRSPA itself does not make any rules. It has no official power of its own. However, WIRSPA has helps member nations create and evolve their regulations. The best example is the CARICOM Rum Standard, which defines the requirements to be called rum in CARICOM countries, regardless of where the rum was made.
The CARICOM Rum Standard is a regulation that all CARICOM countries have adopted and abide by. WIRSPA is the organization through which various CARICOM rum makers collaborated to create the initial standard and subsequent revisions. For those interested in such things, including geographical indications, there’s a lengthy chapter in Modern Caribbean Rum on this topic.
Alexandre Gabriel (Plantation) told us he was working with you. What are you up to?
In 2018, Alexandre asked me if I could research the history of London Dock and Royal Navy rums. Real research, going back to the original source materials, not just what I could find on Google. I wrote what I learned in early 2019 and turned it over to Alexandre. It will become a substantial portion of a book that Alexandre and his team are still working on. My part is the history part; their part will focus on the flavor science of those old rums.
In conjunction with this effort, Alexandre has been making a rum using an approach similar to how the Royal Navy made its rum. I get updates on the project occasionally, and I’m eager to see the finished book and taste the rum. Even though my part of the project is officially complete, I still spend some time continuing to look for even more information about these historic rums.
Where do you get your information for your research?
It depends on what type of information I’m looking for. Searching for firsthand accounts of how Martinique rum was made in 1900 is very different than researching what strength a particular distillery puts its rum into casks. Luckily, I’ve built quite a list of domain experts I can consult on the latter.
There’s lots of information on the internet that doesn’t appear on the first or even 10th page of search results. I’ve become very good at constructing highly specific queries, both for Google and for online archives where documents aren’t indexed by Google. I’ve also become good at searching in languages other than English and knowing how to translate those documents quickly.
When I find a document of interest, I save it in my special archive that I can search within very quickly. I’m very organized and use all the tools available to me.
How do you explain French rums to consumers who are not rum connoisseurs?
This is an interesting question. How do you define “French rum?” One of the very interesting things I learned while writing Modern Caribbean Rum is that the French overseas territories make a tremendous amount of rhum traditionnel, i.e., molasses-based rum. In fact, if you look beyond just Martinique and Guadeloupe’s cane juice rum distilleries, you’ll find that France makes more molasses rum than cane juice rum.
If you’re surprised by this, I can point you to the ODEADOM data I summarized in the book.
If I assume that your question refers to cane juice rum, I would say that the average drinker is unaware of different types of spirits and their core flavor profile. Agave spirits like tequila and mezcal are equally challenging to the palate of someone used to only spirits heavily influenced by aging.
The raw essence of unaged agave or cane juice distillate quickly jumps to the forefront. One approach for people who don’t immediately enjoy such flavors is to start slowly. Perhaps use a bit of them in spirit-forward cocktails or blend them with a similar rum they’re more comfortable with.
Jamaican rums are becoming more and more popular. What is their future? Will they become luxury products?
It’s fantastic how rum enthusiasts have embraced bold Jamaican rum, perhaps too much when one makes Mai Tai with unaged Hampden DOK! Drink what you like, but please realize that true high-ester rum (over 700 gr/hlAA) was not what consumers drank in prior centuries.
Many newcomers don’t realize we are in a golden age of pot-distilled Jamaican rum. Before Smith & Cross appeared circa 2009, there was almost no boldly flavored Jamaican rum widely available. Nowadays, many new brands are clamoring for your attention. Both Hampden Estate and the NRJ distilleries have seen an enormous reversal of fortune in the past decade. The casual enthusiasts are becoming more comfortable with a good Jamaican rum commanding a premium price; perhaps not crazy bourbon prices, but a fair price for the high-quality rum in the bottle.
What do you think about the speculation in rum and the increase in prices?
I’m of two minds. On the one hand, such speculation might seem good for rum’s public perception, as it demonstrates that good rum costs more. It also brings attention from future enthusiasts.
On the other hand, much of the price increase is from speculators looking to make a quick profit. True enthusiasts can no longer afford a bottle that they previously could.
Bottle shares are a great idea but can be challenging on a wide scale because of arcane and unfair country-specific spirit importing and sales regulations.
I don’t chase the latest unicorn bottles at auction. I don’t even look at what’s being offered. I acquired many wonderful rums on my shelf through ordinary retail purchases without paying above-market prices. If a particular rum is meant to cross my lips, it will happen eventually without extreme effort.
What do you think about the fashion of independent bottlers? Aren’t they making the rum market more difficult to understand?
It’s an interesting dynamic. The independent bottler world has exploded over the past five years. We didn’t have any true, single cask independent bottlings here in the US until very recently. With so many brands jumping into the market, it’s become far more difficult for them to differentiate themselves, especially when many source their rum from the same small set of suppliers. I know of many trips to Liverpool made after a particular article I published in 2017.
I don’t know that independent bottlers make the market more confusing. I believe that all the different and occasionally conflicting details IBs provide create a learning opportunity for enthusiasts who want to jump into the deep end.
What is E&A Scheer, and what is their importance in the current rum world?
E&A Scheer is a Netherlands-based rum broker and blender that sells enormous quantities of rum to brands. Scheer provides access to a wide swath of rums from many iconic rum distilleries for brands without a distillery or who can’t buy directly from a distillery. While not the only company offering such services, Scheer is the largest and most well-connected, and many well-known brands source their rum from Scheer. Unsurprisingly, nearly an entire chapter of Modern Caribbean Rum is devoted to Scheer’s operation.
Alongside their bulk rum business, Scheer’s Main Rum Company subsidiary in Liverpool fulfills a similar role in selling single casks at a time, usually to independent bottlers. Main Rum’s operations are also detailed in the book.
Do you prefer blended rums or single casks?
This is similar to “What is your favorite rum?” I usually respond, “Tell me which of your children is your favorite.” I love rums across all the many styles available. They all spend time in my glass, depending on how I feel at a particular moment. I particularly enjoy single marque rums with some “rough edges” to explore. But there’s also beauty in blends like Mount Gay XO or Angostura 1787. As noted earlier, I don’t actively seek out high-priced, limited-edition rums just because it’s on trend.
What is your vision of the European and American markets and their dynamics?
There are many reasons I dream of living in Europe; the availability of rum is one of them. European markets are typically far less regulated than the American market. New brands can find a niche to grow into within Europe.
In contrast, the American three-tier system, where each state has its own rules, is a complete disaster. So many brands give up on the US because of the challenges and expenses of being present in just a few large states, much less the many smaller states. My American friends frequently lament that particular brands aren’t sold in their state. (Mail order isn’t allowed in many states.)
The US market appreciation of high-quality rum is at least a decade behind the EU. Much more attention and money goes to bourbon. America’s interest in high-quality rum has been on the rise for a few years, but it still lags behind EU markets like Germany, France and Spain on a per-capita basis.
What about the Asian market?
I hadn’t paid too much attention to Asian markets until very recently. However, the initial demand for our rum book from places like Singapore and Hong Kong made me realize that I must pay more attention.
While not technically Asia, the interest in rum from Australian and New Zealand consumers has been staggering. I’m shocked at how many copies of our book have been ordered from “down under.” I very much need to arrange a long visit to see firsthand what’s going on.
What do you find in your rum collection?
Too many bottles crying out for attention! I don’t drink a prodigious amount, so I may only visit one or two bottles on a typical night. All the styles and nearly all rum-making countries are represented. The Jamaica shelf has roughly 50 distinct bottles, as does the Martinique/Guadeloupe shelf. (For an American, this is quite a lot!) I also have many high-quality Spanish heritage rums. Sprinkled throughout the shelves are many weird/extreme bottles that I mostly enjoy with others of a similar palate.
What is your taste in rums?
I truly love all the styles and rarely focus on one style for long periods. While doing this interview, I had several small pours, starting with a cask-strength pot distilled Barbados rum (not from who you might guess), then a moderately-aged Venezuelan, a Reunion rhum traditionnel, and finally, a young Martinique agricole.
When I first got into rum, I gravitated to Jamaican rum, as many do. However, I can’t drink high-ester funk bombs like DOK or TECC all the time. I have many extreme rums like them on my shelves, but I’m more likely to be enjoying a reasonably flavored rum at around 45 to 50 percent ABV. However, I can drink Lemon Hart 151 from a snifter when the moment calls for it.
I prefer my rums unsweetened, but if they are, very lightly. I’m not hardcore about “no sugar in my rum.” If I enjoy a particular rum, I won’t avoid it just because it has 4 grams per liter. I don’t subscribe to the notion that any sweetening in a rum is to cover up flaws. I drink what I like, and I understand very well what I’m drinking.
What is your best tasting memory?
I’ll differentiate “best tasting” rum from “best experience.” The best tasting rum is hard to choose, although Jamaica is well-represented among the contenders. Best tasting experience? The Harewood House tasting at the Velier event was very memorable.
But I’ve also tasted Jamaican rum from the 1890s at Stephen Remsberg’s house. I’ve sampled rum from a gigantic open vat while standing on a ladder above it. I’ve enjoyed the last few ounces remaining in a $25,000 bottle from a plastic cup next to a dive bar in Port of Spain. Too many memories to choose from! I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to rum and the people I’ve met through it.
Modern Caribbean rum, Matt Pietrek et Carrie Smith, chez Nonfiction Wok Press 850 pages, 145 €, disponible en France chez Rhum Attitude[/wcm_restrict]