San Francisco is undergoing a rum-centric renaissance, with tiki bars popping up over the city at an extraordinary rate, including: Pagan Idol (2017), Rum & Sugar (2017), Kaya (2018), Del Mar (2018), Last Rites (2018), and Zombie Village (opening soon November 2018). Not to say it hasn’t always been a bit of a leader in tiki: the famous Mai Tai cocktail was originally invented in Trader Vic’s in the Emeryville/Oakland area; the Tonga Room is a San Francisco institution; and Smuggler’s Cove, the kitschy rum haven and granddaddy of the SF tiki bars, is often among the list of the World’s Top bars (typically in the top 100 – if not the top 50).
You’re unfortunately hit with how popular rum has become when you stand impatiently in the (very long) line at RumFest, in which you see a mixture of techies with rainbow colored hair and donning company hoodies, to tiki fanatics dressed in their finest Hawaiian shirts, and groups of apparent Oakland Raiders fans with baggy white Hanes shirts and their buxom girlfriends in bodycon dresses.
After making it through the line, you are (if you only purchased the standard tickets) handed a plastic tasting glass and a list of the rums. If you purchased the VIP tickets, you receive a glass Glencairn (and the opportunity to arrive early to avoid the line).
Finally: you arrive. The tasting room comprised of around 20 tables and pretty crowded, but manageable. There, you’ll find everything from new upstarts Sea Spirits to old hats, including Bacardi, which instead decided to call itself “Rums of Puerto Rico” to obscure its name.
When in doubt, follow the people in the fez hats or the Hawaiian shirts. Most of them are clustered around a very select number of tables: Foursquare, Rum Fire, the Clarin/Caroni/Habitation Velier table, and the Smuggler’s Cove table, where Martin Cate (owner of Smuggler’s Cove) himself is pouring from very rare bottles. The Smuggler’s table is the only table where tastings are not free: instead, pours cost anywhere between 1 to 4 tokens (each token is $4), and the proceeds go to charity. We ended up getting four pours from the table, including a Scotch Malt Whisky Society musky sample of “Visit at a Gothic Art Gallery” (distilled in 1991 aged 21 years) for 3 tokens, which was my favorite, and an odd rum-but-not-rum Demerara that tasted like dry bitter coffee.
In front of the Habitation Velier table (the brand’s portfolio owner was also debuting their fantastic new Transcontinental Rum lines), we struck up a conversation with a fellow rum geek. We discovered our new friend was Bryan Davis, the proprietor of Lost Spirits, going incognito as a consumer rather than industry. He made for scintillating conversation; he educated us on several of the esterification processes in rum and described his laboratory/distillery with loving pride. We left excited to visit him, although I did give him some honest feedback on one of their spirits: The Abomination, which despite my love of Islay and peat, was one of the few drams I could not finish.
We finished the festival by meeting other spirits enthusiasts while waiting in line for a tortuously late seminar featuring Richard Seale of Foursquare fame. The talk unfortunately did not provide any rums and we sobered up as we watched him pontificate about the historical significance of rum and his crusades against sweetened rum and for new classifications of rum. Despite the absence of samples, the good news is you can always return to the Foursquare table to re-sample their Principia and 2005 rums.
The final verdict: is Rum Festival worth it? Once you get past the line, absolutely and without a doubt. It’s less expensive than WhiskyFest by a mile, but there are some quite tasty drams on display (some also pour cocktails featuring their offerings as well). But be selective – going to all the rum tables in the 3-hour timespan is doable but will leave you with a painful* Sunday morning.
*Editor’s Note: There is a joke about painkillers somewhere here, but I’m too hung over to figure it out.