Last fall, Neat Pour secured passage on a Tiki Time Machine crewed by a couple of legends known as ‘Beachbum’ and ‘The Professor.’ The description may conjure images of a contraption built of whirring coconuts and palm frond windmills, the type of, er, streampunk device and crew that might have spirited Gilligan off the island. In reality, the Polynesian peripatetic was a far more orderly affair, an experiment to discover what two classic cocktails, the Zombie and Kona, taste like when built with the same vintage Jamaican Gold style, pot stilled rum that the Beachcomber, himself, employed.
Jeff “Beachbum”Berry is widely regarded as the world’s foremost expert on tiki creator Donn Beach and his delicious drinks. Alas, the pesky parameters of space and time prevented even Berry from sampling some of Beach’s drinks in their original habitat. To boot, many of the rums that were used at the legendary Don the Beachcomber spots simply no longer exist.
Enter Stephen “The Professor” Remsberg. Remsberg is hailed in spirits circles for his extensive rum collection; assembled over a lifetime, the stash is considered the largest in the world. Yet, for Berry, it is Remsberg’s experience earlier in life that is so valuable. “I’m the only guy still walking around who has ever been to a Don the Beachcombers and still has his memory,” bluntly offered The Professor.
The Professor’s Education
During his shoestring, collegiate days in the 60’s, Remsberg saved his money carefully. When his balance was high enough, he would spend his meager savings at the Beachcomber.
“Don was almost exactly between my apartment and school. I could take $10 and drink from the bottom and the $1.50 sections of the menus,” he recalled. “Planters Rum Punch, Beachcomber’s Punch Sharks Tooth. Beachcomber’s Gold—I loved these drinks.”
After his establishing his bonafides as the ‘scholar-in-residence’ at Beachcomber’s, Remsberg received some benefits. Sometimes, the staff would slip him an app or a drink from the pricier side of the menu. However, the greatest perk that he received was a visit to the notoriously secretive service bar where the drinks were made.
“I am also the only known living person who has ever seen the service bar at one of Don’s restaurants in the 1960’s,” mused Remsberg during a recent interview with Neat Pour. “I saw the bottles that the bartenders were working with.”
The Bum Begins
After school, Remsberg’s finances increased and he began collecting bottles and socializing with other rumheads. In 1993, he met the Beachbum through these circles and the pair struck up a friendship. The duo became penpals, exchanging recipes by mail and Remsberg helped fill in the blanks in Berry’s research.
“My roll in Jeff’s success is that I know which rums the Beachcomber had,” The Professor theorized.
Often, Berry’s research would reveal the portions and general ingredients in a classic. Still, some of the components would be vague. Specifically, some recipes called for rum, but which rum? At this point, Remsberg would search his memories of those trips to the backbar. “That’s something that I relied on very heavily as far as Stephen’s advice,” said Berry.
The collaboration was as fruitful as the drinks both men loved. Ultimately Remsberg assembled his fabled collection and Berry completed enough research on tiki to author four books and an app, not to mention open a tiki mecca of his own, Latitude 29.
The Lost Rum
However, one mystery remained. Jamaican Gold rum is a called for in the specs of both the Kona (rum, lime juice, passion fruit syrup, pineapple, honey mix, ice) and the signature Zombie (many rums, falernum, lime juice, Angostura bitters, Pernod, Don’s Mix). “I knew that there was a style of Jamaican rum that was unlike any that they’ve been making for the last thirty years,” mused Remsberg. “Very very flavorful. Dry pungent flavor.“
Jamaican Gold rums were distilled in copper pot stills (as opposed to column or hybrid) until 1950. The copper pot stills were noted for their high rate of retaining esters, chemical compounds created during fermentation. Esters are responsible for much of the flavors and aromas that we associate with heavier bodied rums.
However, Jamaican Gold was more of a light bodied and light hued product. So, a coloring agent was added. “They want the same color year to year, so they add a burnt caramel“ Remsberg griped. “Wretched stuff, awful flavor, but a half teaspoon will turn this gold to a dark mahogany. Distillers Caramel.”
That pot stilled Jamaican Gold style was no longer readily available when the penpals were tackling Beach’s recipes in the 90’s. (The pair of pros estimate that about 20% of the rums mixed by the Beachcomber are now ‘extinct.’) So, they opted for a contemporary option with a comparative taste.
Alas, Remsberg, like most collectors, prefers precise fits over approximations. “When Jeff asked for advice, I steered him to a nice Appleton [with a similar profile]. Then [years later], I felt guilty for leading him astray. I woke up one night and thought, ‘Shit, they were probably not drinking Appleton,’” lamented the perfectionist Professor. “In fact, I don’t think they had that in the 30’s.”
Owning the world’s largest collection of rums has its advantages. One of them is an ample supply of ‘extinct’ rums. So, about a quarter of a century after their initial meeting, Remsberg called up Berry and invited him to try recreating the Kona and the Zombie with original rums.
NOTE: By original, we mean original. These dusty bottles likely date from the 50’s when tiki was at its prime.
Remsberg was certain that he glimpsed two Jamaican Gold style rums years ago on the Beachcomber’s secret backbar. For the experiment, he pulled both of them from his library.
Wood’s Old Charlie Inimitable Finest Jamaica Rum, described by Remsberg as “a myopically pungent pub rum” disappeared at some point in the 90’s. Coruba Gold is a mellower expression that is still produced and distributed in small quantities by Campari today.
In addition to these two expressions, J. Wray Gold was used as a control in the Time Machine. Of note, J. Wray is produced in a column still. Berry also mentioned that Wray’s distillers use very low doses of coloring agent as the rum will color itself naturally with enough time in an oak barrel.
Latitude 29’s Head Bartender, Brad Smith, mixed up three variants each of the Kona and Zombie, using the two vintage rums and the control.
Upon first sip, it was evident that the vintage, pot stilled rums delivered a previously absent dimension to the drinks.
“The esters just punch through all of the other ingredients and gives it a rummy flavor,” observed Berry. “All these other ingredients are supposed to support not hide the rum. The problem with column stilled rum is that they don’t punch through just give it an alcoholic taste.”
In fact, the esters were so dominant in the Charlie that the base came close to overpowering the single rum Kona. “Old Charlie is a bit of a beefcake, the cross-fit of rums,” reflected the Beachbum. “But, the Coruba plays really well with the Kona, just matches with the 12 Year, mellow taste.”
Remsberg agreed with the assessment. Picking up where his friend left off, he labeled the Charlie as “a real dockworkers’ tugboat rum around Liverpool” in its day.
That beefiness served the Charlie well in the Zombie which employs several different rums. “These rums now need to interact with one another,” said Berry. “All of a sudden this one that wasn’t good on its own is now singing with all these other rums.”
The Zombie’s rum symphony also served to mask the limitations of column stilled control. “The lightness of the Wray didn’t hurt the benchmark zombie at all,” stated Smith.
Back To The Future
Of course, most of us don’t have access to the largest rum collection on the globe. So, the takeaway here was clearly the importance of the ester heavy, copper pot stilled rums in recipes that call for Jamaican Gold. Simply put, the funk balances the fruit.
Smith advised that finding a decent sub is not too hard given the influx of distillers since the rum revival began. “There are a lot of new pot stilled stuff coming out of Jamaica: Worthy Park, Ed Hamilton,” he suggested.
Of course, some cocktailians would argue that drinks, like any other art form, is constantly evolving. So, perhaps, it’s best to visit your nearest tiki bar and let them mix (or blend) up the latest approximation of the classic. At Neat Pour HQ, we’ll be dreaming about the time we quaffed the original.