Review: Pan African Rum Festival

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Pan African Rum FestivalOn one of those idyllic sunny summer days at the buzzy Old Biscuit Mill, the inaugural Pan African Rum Festival hosted a fun, laid-back affair which entirely dedicated this golden moment to rum. With chic tumbler and tote bag in hand, we ventured our way through the vast variety of local and international spirit luminaries. And they’d all stepped up to the plate with fiercely authentic cocktails and flavour profiles to encourage a renewed appreciation for the spirit that doesn’t always get the appreciation it deserves.

One of the rums which instantly impressed me was Whistler’s African-style Spiced Rum. As one of the founders, Trevor Burns, explained the unique African ethos behind their small Free State distillery, I savoured the dense and matured aromas of their light amber-coloured tipple. Hints of berries and plums took centre stage, accentuated by a smooth citrusy vanilla finish. Assuredly they have a winner on their hands with both their white and dark spirits. Definitely a refined rum which stands as tall in a cocktail as it does served neat.

Distillery031 may be known as Durban’s finest contribution to the artisanal gin scene, but they’ve since honed in on other spirits as well. Their premium aged rum served neat didn’t quite hit the mark personally. Luckily the experienced barman suggested Brew Kombucha as a mixer, which went down a tangy treat. This is the unique value of the skilled barman: the ability to tap into creativity and innovation to make any spirit more accessible to consumers. Distillery031 also teased their Heart of Darkness Coffee Liqueur made from ethically sourced Tanzanian coffee beans. This post-dinner drink was full-bodied and faultless from start to finish.

The stud squad behind another local indie label, Nihilo, were out in full force, beaming with pride over their African Gold Rum and African Dry Rum varieties. While I found the Dry Rum a bit complex as a clean spirit, we enjoyed the darker version. Its overt and heady cinnamon and clove nuances made it perfect for the festive season. Indeed, Kaban Kempff recommended to keep it subtle with a simple dash of ginger ale to amplify the aromas.

I was a bit apprehensive to try The Floating Dutchman as I ran my eyes over the mythical lore on their leaflet. It’s all maritime mysteries and mayhem, coupled with a bottle designed to look at home in the clutch of Captain Jack Sparrow. But beyond the theatrics lies a new rum which demands a strong degree of respect, and definitely a spot on your liquor trolley. Aged in imported French and American oak, the dark Cape Rum is mellowy with dark fruits and liquorice accents. But their secret weapon is a faint but lingering liquorice profile which rests on the palate seconds after the first sip.

As much as I’d have liked to, it would have been impossible to try all the rums on offer despite my handy Uber app. I’m certainly not an ardent follower of the ‘sip and spit’ theory of tasting, and this somewhat limited my scope of testers. Call it inadvertently doing my bit to combat food waste.

Some of the other solid offerings available included a plantation-style New Grove rum from Mauritius which established foothold in South Africa three years ago, Tipto Tinto from Mozambique with its dominant tropical and saccharine tones, ideal for cocktails and mixing. And also Copeland Rum, a dedicated rum distillery in Kommetjie, boasting an instant fruity aroma on the nose as well as stylish bottling.

Overall the atmosphere was perfect for a relaxed public holiday. Live entertainment was on point, and the little tropical setup complete with sand and umbrellas, however kitschy, really set a tone for the chilled vibe of the festival. Each distiller had the opportunity to decorate their stall and most established a strong brand identity purely with their arrangements. Perhaps more care could be taken next time to curate cuisine options to complement the rum, but the existing stalls served up above average grub.

The Pan African Rum Festival comes at a time when rum is enjoying an immense popularity in chic capitals across the globe. Audience turnout at the festival seemed understated yet moderate, which is understandable because we are still somewhat entrenched in the gin wave. But as with the early days during the gin revival, it will be up to cocktail bars to showcase and amplify the charm of rum in more ways than one. And with the sheer amount of South African and international distillers and their dazzling flavour profiles, the rum renaissance could not have come any sooner.

Benn van der Westhuizen

The Pan African Rum Festival took place at the Old Biscuit Mill on 17 December 2018

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