Lynam Up: rum festival raises spirits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am

Hong Kong's beverage world seems to have been hit by an epidemic of festivals lately.

So far this year - leaving aside this week's Vinexpo, which was a festival of sorts, although the public was not invited to the party - we have had Beertopia in West Kowloon, a malt whisky festival at Crown Wine Cellars in Shouson Hill, and a sake carnival at Gonpachi in Causeway Bay.

Last weekend, there was the second annual Hong Kong Rum Festival at the Honi Honi Tiki Lounge in Wellington Street, which followed a smaller scale prototype staged last year.

Rum's local proponents have gained much in confidence since then. After the fashion in Hong Kong bars for overpriced and preposterously flavoured vodkas, single malt whisky, and, most recently gin, rum and tequila are being touted as the next big things.

It's anybody's guess if either of those will emerge as a front runner in the next few months. Jeremy Moreau of Proof & Company, one of the rum runners involved in the extravaganza, argues that single malt is running out of steam.

But although there is an undoubted problem with the price and availability of aged, high quality spirit, I detect no flagging of interest. Gin, it seems to me, is just getting going here.

On the other hand, Moreau is a former whisky salesman whose card proclaims that rum and tequila are his "spirits of choice", so his money is certainly where his mouth is. And his Plantation Rums, double-aged in the Caribbean and in cooler climate Cognac, were among the most interesting spirits at the show.

Rum and tequila have a good deal in common, besides a strong association with Latin American cultures. Both are available white and in darker colours, and, in both cases, quite a lot of the dark colour often comes from caramel rather than serious barrel age.

Putting caramel in whisky or brandy, common though the practice is, seems to me to be an undesirable and not quite honest addition.

But Moreau argues, fairly reasonably, that rum and caramel are both made from sugar, and that it is therefore silly to make an issue over combining them.

The same is not, I think, true of mass produced "gold" tequilas which are coloured purely as a means to inflate the price.

Rum and tequila also share an image as casual party drinks, when, at the expensive end, both can be connoisseur's spirits.

This festival was geared to addressing both sides of rum culture, with a programme of interesting talks, and the organisers tipping a hat to the late Hunter S. Thompson by calling them "diaries".

A Caribbean Soul after-party was held on the Saturday night. I didn't do the party - intended for younger folks, I think - but in between rums, I did catch some of the talks, and very interesting they were.

A very entertaining and sound introduction to various different types of rums, along with tasting samples, was supplied by Global Rum Ambassador Ian Burrell, founder of UK Rumfest - The Rum Festival, which was the first event of its kind in Britain.

It is now said to be the biggest in the world, with more than 400 rums and 7,000 visitors expected this October.

British-Jamaican Burrell, was sporting a T-shirt with the slogan "Vodka is Dead", a theme to which he alluded regularly in the course of his presentation.

A lively advocate for his cause, he overran his time, leaving André Carey - who with his partner in rum importer Caripelago Trading, Shane Stuart, is the importer of the excellent Blackwell and English Harbour rums - having to shorten his talk on The History of Rum - Pirates and Presidents.

"Wars, pirates and slavery - all linked inextricably to the production of this fine spirit," explained Carey cheerfully.

Along with Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge founders Max Traverse and Fabien Marcault and their team, Burrell organised last year's festival, and this year they were able to point to a vastly expanded choice of premium rums

The total was quite a long way short of 400, but for Hong Kong and a Tiki Bar of modest proportions, 70 from 14 suppliers wasn't bad going. This year the festival overflowed from Honi Honi into Backstage Live in the same building, which provided a welcome blast of air conditioning.

After a week of continuous downpour, the weather smiled on the event, and Honi Honi's terrace had an appropriately Caribbean atmosphere. It was also good to see the big and the little fish swimming together for these rum sessions. Moet Hennessy Diageo and Pernod Ricard brought Zacapa and Havana Club respectively. Jebsen brought Bacardi.

Fine Vintage offered a range of Angostura and JM rums, while Universal Exports was serving Gosling, Pampero, Elements 8 and Kraken.

Drinking samples of neat rum on a hot day is thirsty work, but daiquiris, mojitos and other rum cocktails as well as Jax Coco coconut water were all on hand for slaking purposes, and Honi Honi supplied some very good spicy snacks.

The event was well attended and is to be repeated next year, by which time we should have an idea of whether rum or tequila is winning the race to be the next big thing.

If, as this year, admission and tasting samples are free, nobody could call that a rum deal.