Yo ho ho and . . . 150 bottles of rum?
Aye, mateys, 150. May sound like fun, but we were to take them seriously, each and every blasted rumjack one of 'em, in a rigorous tasting to award the highest rankings of the Third International Rum Fest in Ybor City late last month.
Grand treasures there were but buried in 12 grueling hours in the filigreed quarters of the 1895 Don Vicente Inn.
The fun would come later in dinners, barbecues and tastings for folks happy to be called rummies at least for the weekend. Dori Bryant, a New York transplant to Florida who now hosts spirits events across the country, held her first rum festival in Ybor in 2006 with 50 rums and 350 tasters. This year's drew a record 150 rums and 1,500 rum lovers.
At our judging, however, when curious hotel guests were told that our bunch was blind-tasting 150 rums, they turned with envy and quickly decided they'd rather watch paint dry.
Which we smelled like, a paint shop of varnish and shellac.
Ten of us sat two to a table, as in chem lab, with 10 to 25 samples in numbered circles, eyeing, sniffing, sipping, sloshing and spitting. And scoring on a 100-point scale and adding up.
Jack Robertiello, a veteran New York spirits journalist, acted as a chief judge, warning "Some of you aren't adding up your scores and you should.''
And then quipping, "Some of you are adding up scores and you shouldn't.''
One had to spit. I've tasted through scores of wines and analyzed liquors but never spirits in such quantity and potency.
Oddly, I didn't note any sobriety issues from sipping. Only a headache after 20 sugar-packed, fruit-flavored rums.
A diverse field
It took us more than 400 identical Riedel glasses, short-stemmed bowls with long chimneys like miniature hurricane lamps specifically designed to taste rum. Each contained an ounce or so of white, gold or dark rum, both fresh or cask-aged for 20 years, spiced, fruited, crystal clear, delicate gold or molasses brown. Each capped with an overturned paper cup. Lift those caps and the demons came out, hot powerful alcohol from 60 to 180 proofs, and aromas that ranged from paint thinner to tutti frutti.
But the most refined reached higher across a sophisticated spectrum from a refined brandy to a robust, sweet tawny port.
By the way, the 150 entries before us weren't half of the world's rum. If you or your favorite bar think rum consists of several levels of Bacardi, a spiced rum and a coconut concoction, you've just begun to taste.
Distilleries large and small make hundreds of rums on the islands and coasts of the Caribbean with French, English and Spanish accents, and as far as Nepal, in many grades and styles,
Diversity has grown as distillers add exquisite signature rums more than 15 years in age and $50 in price for a new generation weaned on single malt Scotch and show-off call brands.
Accordingly, a growing body of trade journalists, mixologists and bloggers are devoted to rum, and came for the competition.
Robert Plotkin a spirits expert from Arizona, joined Robertiello at the helm. "You're the one who passed math,'' Plotkin said, but the captain corrected him, "No, but I can handle arithmetic.''
Then there was:
• Ian Williams, a sandy-haired hulk of a historian and rum raconteur with a publican's cheer.
• Jerri Banks, a consultant and bartender extraordinaire from New York, lastly of Taj, who colors cocktails with wheat grass juice for a very neon green.
• Eric Schiller, grizzled owner and host of Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor who uses Cap'n Ehab as his nom de rum.
• Chris Carlsson, of Rochester, N.Y., a rare book dealer who collects exotic spirits with equal passion and catalogs them on his Web site. He has a fondness for bottles preserving insects.
Rounding out the bunch: Rick Crossland, who oversees drinks for the Bahama Breeze chain; Arturo Sighinolfi, the spirts guru of Southern Wine & Spirits in Miami; and Terry Jones of ABC Fine Wine and Spirits.
And me, rum lover and wine guy but a newbie.
A palette of flavors
We were to grade each sample on 100 points (5 for appearance, 5 for mouthfeel, 35 for aroma, 35 for flavor and 20 for finish).
My first whiff reminded me of a key in tasting of spirits. Don't stick your nose straight down as with wine; let your nose sneak above the rim of the glass to get more flavor and less alcohol.
It's still tough and at first I was not finding much of anything. Perhaps so, my half of the group started with whites while the other bunch got darks.
Lucky them, but I began to tease
out shades of sugar and molasses and spice and when we got into the aged, vanilla, oak, cedar, coffee and toast. Some were haunted by the sherry, brandy and whiskey the barrels once held.
But among the non-molasses cane spirits, some kept a vegetable smell, from fresh grass and tropical fruit to overcooked vegetables or crude firewater.
Since we did not compare notes as we judged, I didn't know if I was in line or wildly off base until on the second day our study-hall quiet erupted.
"It's dog . . .'' Williams declaimed, and not hair of the beast.
What? Either he made it up or my nose was badly off.
Two samples later, I hit it. A clean-looking artisanal rum had an aroma so rank, I choked.
Truly, the one stinker, and it left a dilemma. "If it does taste that bad, is a long finish a good thing?'' Plotkin riddled.
To the tongue, the flavors of most rums became bolder when I took on water to coat and cool the palate, first, not just after. As with fine whiskey, I think most great rums will benefit from a lone ice cube. Still, the best ranged from elegant, delicate brandy to liquid candies.
Yet I, the purist who likes rum straight — not cocktails — confess I dreamt of a Coke to set me libre.
As to feel, my best were aged dark rums with clean edge, and a creamy and butterscotch texture to tame the alcohol flames.
I didn't do too badly. Several favorites in the 100 or so I tasted got gold and shared top honors, Diplomatico and Ron Millonario in the 9- to 15-year-olds and Santa Teresa 1796 and Ron Zacapa 23, in the over-15 group.
In the end, I need only one rum at a time. Maybe there will be a treasure of taste, but I know I'll find a ship in every bottle.
Chris Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8585.