Get in the holiday spirit as Hong Kong’s Rum Fest goes from strength to strength

This week’s fourth running of the festival sees it move to a bigger venue, in Wan Chai, where more than 150 rums will be on offer. ‘Hong Kong is becoming the city in Asia for rum,’ says organiser

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 1:50pm

When the Hong Kong Rum Fest was established in 2013, it was intended as an industry event that would introduce makers, distributors and outlets of the often under-appreciated sugar-based spirit to each other. The general public, the organisers assumed, wouldn’t be terribly interested.

How wrong they were. Three years later, the fourth edition of the event is relocating on Saturday and Sunday, May 27-28, to Mahalo Tiki Lounge in Wan Chai, having outgrown its smaller sister bar Honi Honi Tiki Lounge in Central when it attracted several thousand visitors last year.

The festival will feature 151 rums, up from 85 last year and 50 in the first year, from 21 countries and territories across five continents. Hong Kong drinkers, it turned out, were unexpectedly keen to get better acquainted with a spirit that has never really had its moment in the sun in Hong Kong – until recently, with a spate of specialist rum bars opening across the city, fuelled by a growing interest in mixology and cocktails, of which rum is a very popular base.

And the sun is very much what rum is all about. “Rum brings holidays to people’s minds,” says Max Traverse, the event’s organiser and owner of both Mahalo and Honi Honi. “When I arrived in Hong Kong, I realised it was missing something. Hong Kong is a busy city, and people need a little bit of a reminder of holidays – the feeling when you go in that you’re not in Hong Kong any more; you remind yourself of where you were a few months ago.”

The event will feature the likes of Black Magic Spiced Rum from the US, Bumbu Spiced Rum from Bardados, Trois Rivières Agricole Rhum from Martinique and Nusa Caña Rum from Indonesia, as well as most of the rums made in Mauritius.

There will also be cocktail-mixing displays, including one from “world flair motion champion” Frenchman Nicolas Saint Jean; a cocktail competition in which the top eight concoctions from 26 bars battle it out in the final; body art; DJs; a series of after parties at Mahalo, Honi Honi and Lily & Bloom; and seminars, including several hosted by rum historian, aficionado and educator Ian Burrell, a charismatic former TV presenter, rapper and basketball player who created the template for the rum festivals that havesprung up around the world since RumFest in the UK, which launched in 2007.

Hong Kong now boasts so many rum joints that in the run-up to the festival throughout May, rum fans have been able to participate in the Rum Run, collecting stamps in a passport for trying any of three specially created cocktails at each of the 26 bars, all priced at HK$100, to win prizes at the event.

Rum probably originally came from China or India thousands of years ago – and of course it’s still produced in Asia, notably in the Philippines and Thailand – but modern rum production began on 17th-century sugar plantations in the Caribbean when slaves discovered they could distil the sugar by-product molasses; these days it’s also made from sugar cane juice.

Rum soon became popular throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and also became a key component of the slave trade, as currency. It is still closely associated with the British Royal Navy, which only abandoned its daily rum ration for sailors in 1970, and of course with pirates.

The contemporary revival of interest in rum, though, stems from the realisation that it comes in such a startling variety of manifestations, with flavours from mild and mellow to dark and fiery that should please a broad range of palates. It has an affinity for mixing that makes it the base spirit for many of the best-loved items on cocktail menus, including the mojito, daiquiri, Cuba libre, piña colada, planter’s punch, mai tai and the zombie – the last two mainstays of tiki culture, the affectionate but often rather kitsch mid-20th-century American appropriation of Polynesian design and culture that gave rum a previous spike in popularity in the West.

Classifications generally include dark, gold and white – although they can vary wildly by country – as well as flavoured and spiced varieties. The style of a rum often reflects the colonial background of the producer nation: Spanish, and they tend to be smoother and lighter; British, and they’re stronger, often with a pronounced molasses flavour; and French, and they’re usually made from sugar cane juice, come with a powerful flavour and are often more expensive.

“Whisky drinkers love that style of rum,” says Traverse.

Sugar cane is also used to make the very similar Brazilian spirit cachaça.

Its naval and piratical associations – and the fact that it’s undeniably made from leftover agricultural products – has led to a lot of unfair snobbery about rum over the years, and it has sometimes struggled to enjoy the same sort of connoisseur appeal as spirits such as whisky and brandy. With vodka having its moment in the sun over the past couple of decades, however, rum has long been an obvious example of a spirit ripe for reinvention.

“People told me that Honi Honi would never work,” says Traverse, “because people weren’t drinking rum; they were drinking vodka. I thought: then it’s time for a change. Now Hong Kong is becoming the city in Asia for rum. People are ordering it – Hong Kong is ready.”

For the full schedule of the 2016 Rum Fest, visit facebook.com/rumfestivalhongkong/

FIVE OF THE BEST

With rum on the rise in Hong Kong, here is our pick of the best places in the city to splice the mainbrace.

Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge

The sister bar of Rum Fest host Mahalo stocks more than 200 rums, the largest selection in Asia, and the spirit is naturally the base for most of its cocktails.

www.honihonibar.com

Rummin’ Tings

This Central bar’s full-throated Caribbean pastiche extends to a range of about 100 rums and a range of rum cocktails, including the innovative Staple Crop, which includes sweet potato and beer.

www.rummintings.hk

Ham & Sherry

The upscale Wan Chai tapas bar makes some knockout rum cocktails; it also has a taste for cheesy movie puns, as in the Cool Rummings and the Ron Burgundy.

www.hamandsherry.hk

Bibo

Street art adorns the walls of this Central bar, and innovative ingredients fill the glasses, including rum cocktails such as the fruity A Night in Bali.

www.bibo.hk

The Envoy

The rather suave contemporary-colonial bar of Central’s The Pottinger hotel is big on cocktails, including the arresting Tiki Stormy, a Pacific update of the traditional dark ’n’ stormy.

www.theenvoy.hk