Kevin hosts the podcast 5 Minutes of Rum.
Over the course of an episode he dives into a bottle of rum, educates, and makes a cocktail. He is nearing 60 episodes. As of early early August 2016 the episodes have a collective run-time of 1,122 minutes - making the show’s subtitle, “notes on rum, a few minutes at a time,” closer to a day’s worth lectures. The average college seminar covers less material in a semester. Brian and Neil sit down with Kevin, share a drink, and conversation at North Hollywood’s Tonga Hut, Los Angeles’ oldest tiki bar. We discuss rum, tiki, and 'ohana.
Kevin: Cool. You guys did the math on the [series run-time], I can't believe it.
Brian: I wanted to go through and see how close you actually got to five minutes.
Kevin: On a particular episode?
Brian: On any episode, and actually the El Dorado 3 [episode 58], was the shortest one.
Kevin: You mean, like just the rum part of it?
Brian: No, the whole episode.
Kevin: That was the shortest one?
Neil: [Thirteen] minutes or something.
Kevin: Wow, that one seems really short.
Brian: So when you say 5 Minutes of Rum, do you mean five minutes discussing the rum? Or did you intend whole thing to be five minutes?
Kevin: I sort of grasped at that. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started the show. I just knew that I have a pre-existing interest in tiki and cocktails. As I started listening to more podcasts, I started turning over in my head, this is something that I could do. I don't how deep you want me to go into the genesis of the show?
So, the way it came about was I actually had started listening to a lot more podcasts probably around like 2011, 2012. There used to be, in addition to coming to the Tonga Hut every Sunday night for Exotica Sundays dating back to like 2011, we'd also done this thing with one of the artists in the community, his name is Kirby, who did some of the art that's in the Tonga Hut along with some of the pendants that we bastards wear. He used to do a weekly thing at his place. He had converted an external garage into what he called Kirby's Rumpus Room. There was a beautiful tiki bar, really dark, when you would go inside and close the door. Every Wednesday night, a small group of people would come over and just hang out and chat. It was like one of those old sort of things that you used to do.
Anyways, so we went to that a lot and developed a sense of the community there. A lot of friends that we built from there. At some point Kelly Riley - HipHipaHula - who used to bartend [at the Tonga Hut], she was the one who usually was the main bartender at the Rumpus Room. She allowed me to come back behind the bar a couple times, and I was talking to Mike Cantua. I was kind of yammering on about rum or something like that, and just offhand he was like, "You ever thought of doing a rum podcast?" And really that was all it took. I had already started thinking about it, and if I don't know a thing about podcasting that gives me an excuse to learn about it.
I had no idea what I was going to call it. I sort of turned the idea over for a while. One, I don't know how long people are going to want to listen to me talk about rum, two, I don't know how long I'm going to be able to talk about it. I have no idea what I'm getting myself into.
Brian: It’s daunting.
Kevin: So yeah, I'm just going to call it 5 Minutes of Rum, and we'll see what happens.
Neil: It's like "Six Minute Abs." It's the perfect amount of time.
Brian: Or like A-1 Radiator Shoppe. It gets you to the top of the directory.
Kevin: It's a good name now, because people know it, even if it's a bit of a misnomer, or a bit of a joke. I think if I looked at some of the episodes, there are some that if you just take like the first segment, because they all follow a pretty easy to follow template, there's no trickery, the rum segment can sometimes only be about five minutes. Then maybe five minutes on whatever the middle segment is, that kind of thing. In a way, there is sort of a truth to it.
Brian: It's like five minutes of rum, five minutes of education, five minutes of recipe.
Kevin: Yeah, and literally that was all it took. I needed to register a domain, I needed to come up with a title, I needed to start working on it. So that's how that came about.
Neil: So imagine you strike up a conversation with someone about their favorite liquor, and they tell you they love bourbon and scotch whiskey, but they never had a rum they liked. Which rum do you pour as a (re)introduction to the spirit?
Kevin: My answer might change over time, but generally speaking, it's going to be an aged rum that has a certain amount of woodiness to it. That's an entry point for them based on what they know, but then you can start, and it's going to be very different from what they've probably preconceived as rum.
If it's someone who's a big bourbon drinker, I'm going to give them a single barrel, a Cruzan Single Barrel, or even better, there's a Clément rhum agricole, called Select Barrel, that's been [aged] for a good amount of time in a barrel. It's going to give them a point of entry where it's not totally foreign. I definitely would not start them with a very funky Jamaican rum that has a lot of hogo to it. Because it's just not going to be something they'll enjoy probably.
I definitely don't want to give them something like a straight white rum. There a number of good straight white rums, but I think that's probably going to reinforce their notion of what rum is, which is just something that they just pour into a cola. Probably something that they're already familiar with, but that maybe expands their horizon a little bit.
Neil: Has that ever happened to you, introducing somebody to rum?
Kevin: Yeah, for sure. Actually, the [Clément] Select Barrel, I've given that to people as a gift just because that's something that, [for] someone who is a whisky drinker, they're going to appreciate this. My dad, actually, was not really a big rum drinker. I think at some point in the last few years when I started doing the show and making cocktails he started to entertain it a little bit more. I took the same approach with him, as someone who's a scotch and bourbon drinker. Now he's expanded his horizons a little bit, and he'll be good with a Demerara rum. But I think [aged single barrel] was like the entry point for him, for sure.
Brian: In listening to your podcast and following you on Instagram, I feel like I've learned a lot about major tiki events. 5 Minutes of Rum says about in 2009 you got into rum, but specifically tiki drinks. Sort of chicken or egg question, was it rum or tiki first?
Kevin: It was tiki. I do get asked. Well, my wife and I get asked, because she makes a lot of clothes and she's very into tiki culture as well. We sort of get asked if there was like a moment where it became a thing, but I think it was more just sort of latent tendencies that sort of involved into an appreciation for tiki culture, sort of around the early 2000s I would say. We were living in northern California at the time, and we visited like Trader Vic's in Emeryville for a special occasion. We bought a tiki mug for my sister as a gift. Again, in the early 2000s, I can find a picture of our apartment up in northern California where we have this one white wall with one black shelf from IKEA, with three tiki mugs on it. It's a very a stark picture, but I can point to that and say ...
Brian: That's the moment.
Kevin: Yeah. Where we started at that time with cocktails was I didn't know a lot at the time about what I was getting myself into. We got a couple bottles of rum, and I used to make what we called like a lazy Mai Tai. We get like the Trader Vic's mix, and a fresh lime, and mix it in with like Meyer's rum. That was actually the introduction to making those cocktails. Then we got Grog Log by Jeff Berry, and then things sort of blossomed a little bit from there. Like you said, 2009 for me was definitely a seminal moment, because that was the first weekend that we did go to Tiki Oasis. Instead of just going on the last day to see what was going down and go shopping, we stayed the whole weekend. We packed a very tiny bar. I was very self conscious about what I was bringing, because I didn't know the event at all.
Now of course, I bring in boxes of booze and try wardrobe changes and decorations, but at the time I was very self conscious about even putting up stuff for two drinks. I had the stuff to make a Mai Tai, a real Mai Tai at that point, and stuff to make a Miehana, which was my other favorite cocktail at the time. We attended a couple of symposiums that Martin Cate did. One was “Rum and Chocolate,” and one was called “Rum, Inc”. Where he talked the class through making a daiquiri, and everyone made their own daiquiri. Everyone had their own shaker. The “Rum and Chocolate” one was basically 'rum as a spirit that you can pair with desserts,' but yeah both of those were sort of watersheds for me, because if I go back and look at pictures now, I see myself taking it very seriously unknowingly. There was a picture that somebody, I think my sister, had taken and you can see me very intently just shaking and trying to learn without really realizing. So the tiki came first.
That's a really long answer, I'm sorry. So the tiki came first, but rum was a very important part of it. That was what got me to where I felt like I had something to contribute, where I could find my way in. A lot of what I like about tiki is that everybody kind of finds their niche, how they're contributing -
Brian: Something about music, something about arts ...
Kevin: Exactly. It's a group of people who are contributing to make something else. There are people that go for the weekend and have a great time, but the people that I gravitate towards are when everybody is doing their little part, and you make it something even more so after it's done. I feel like in some twisted way that was my way to make a contribution. I could serve cocktails, or I could contribute recipes. Sort of honor the past and push forward.
Brian: I wanted to follow up a little bit more on that and ask how you got into the culture. When I was reading the Cate's Smuggler's Cove book, on page ninety seven I notice there's a recipe called “Golden Gun”, and the header in the book said the drink was invented at Tiki Oasis. A memory was triggered, and I went back and looked for the “Man with the Golden Rum.” You and the rest of the table in the book, were you taken by surprise by the inclusion of the recipe?
Kevin: I was very flattered. That was one of my favorite moments obviously at Tiki Oasis, and to work backwards from the question, we actually got the [Smuggler's Cove] book when we were at Hukilau last month. That was when they did like the release party for it, and somebody who I kind of recognized but I don't know very well, had asked me at the end of the weekend "Hey, you're the one who did the recipe such and such, the Golden Gun Recipe." I went, "I have a recipe called the “Man with the Golden Rum”, but I don't think I have a recipe in the book or anything like that." Then Monday we were leaving Hukilau, and I flipped through to "Golden Gun" and then I read it and I'm like, "Oh, yeah, oh it is mine." I felt bad. I wanted to go back and tell the person, yeah that was [the recipe], because I think she sat at the table. The setup for that symposium was - and it was a great conceit - it was basically part two of what Martin had done [at Tiki Oasis] before, and this one there was a lot of sponsors. Basically, everybody came in and at these round tables they sat us, I think in either groups of ten or twelve, and we sat around this round table that had a bunch of stuff covered in a sheet that nobody knew what it was. Sort of de-evolution of how tiki had come to die, and your goal was to go back in time and fix tiki. Everybody at every table had these ingredients to work with who were sponsor ingredients. They basically took the sheet off, and we saw all these ingredients we had to work with.
Every table was tasked with coming up with something and presenting that to the judges, and I, without going too far into the details, I remember when they started talking about the drink. They tasted them all, and everybody kind of devolved in the whole symposium. You know, it was a lot of fun, but when you put the open bottles in front people ... it was hard to get the crowd back when they were done.
Brian: Was there a lot of sampling?
Kevin: Oh yeah. We took the Ron Zacapa bottle, back when Zacapa was still a better rum than it is now. We took that up and said like, we're not mixing that. We got free reign to take whatever was left after that.
Neil: Oh wow!
Kevin: Everybody was hitting the rum bottle, and we were throwing things together. They eventually brought the crowd back together, and we started talking about the drink, which didn't have a name at that point. I started to hear ingredients, I'm like, "that sounds like my drink." Then they announced table eleven, and I now that I had contributed and knew that my recipe was up there. I was simultaneously very excited and very nervous, because I felt like at once everyone was going to turn around and look at our table. It was very fun, and then they came out and gave everybody at the table a bottle of either Mount Gay , or Brugal 1888. Now fortunately for me, because my wife was at the table, we got a bottle of each. The table was very happy, and that Mount Gay 1703 is a very good rum. That was a very very good thing.
Super flattered to have the recipe in the book, too.
Brian: I mean your photo's in there, too. A tiki event day, or something like that.
Kevin: There was a photography session done at a gentleman's home by the name of Ron, who lives out in Ventura and has a home backyard bar called the Rincon Room, which is amazing. Amazing space. We've been fortunate enough to be invited there a couple of times. One of those times was when they were doing a photoshoot for Martin's book. You can see me sort of in the background. They actually photographed me, Tiki Tony and a couple of other people. Yeah myself, and Danny [Tiki Diablo] are behind the bar. I'm lurking back there, but I like the fact that I'm sort of in the background.
Brian: Like a hidden gem.
Kevin: It's a good fit for my personality, because I don't really like to be out in the front.
Neil: You were talking earlier about how you got the impetus for the podcast. I noticed that you state an open disclaimer when you start each podcast that you're not a supertaster, not picking out minor notes, and that you're giving your general impressions so the audience can compare and contrast themselves. How did you feel starting a podcast reviewing and talking about rum, giving that general disclaimer?
Kevin: Not to be presumptive about who might or might not listen to it, because I don't know, I don't have very good stats. All I get is feedback from people and then I know they're listening. I was very nervous about my skill level [at tasting], so I tried to sort of say that this is me approaching as a hobbyist. I'm not authoritative. I'm not going to tell you if something is right or wrong.
I feel like I've evolved over time, and now I have a little bit of better palette than I used to. This is a totally approachable subject that somebody might be intimidated by, but I was very worried about giving something wrong or being incorrect about something. Fortunately, to date, that really hasn't happened. I'm sure it's coming at some point, but if somebody has found something -
Brian: It's an opinion though.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, I'll say the one thing that I found reassuring was one of the books that I really enjoyed in the last couple of years was a book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who's the owner of Clyde Common in Portland and somebody I really admire from afar. I've never met him. I've been to a couple of his bars in Portland. He has one called Pepe Le Moko. His book, The Bar Book, is a great resource. I recommend that to anyone who's getting started, even if they want to just make cocktails at home. Reading through that book, and seeing information that wasn't contradictory to how I approach [tasting], for me was great reinforcement.
It is intimidating to think that somebody might listen to it and think that I got it wrong. I found that hasn't been the case.
Brian: You seem like you take a lot of time to research things, when you want to talk about shaking and stirring and -
Neil: I think it also makes the audience feel less intimidated in approaching tasting liquor.
Kevin: Sometimes when you read reviews and there's a long list of things that people are tasting. And through no fault of my own I don't have a real good taste for tobacco or leather. I don't eat a lot of belts. (Laughter.) So I can appreciate that people are picking up these notes, but really to me it's about what do I think we can do with this rum and do I enjoy it if I'm just going to sit back and sip it.
Brian: I listen to the Whiskycast. Mostly out of love for the ads. At the end he has a little tasting session and sort of lists all these things that he tastes. I don't think you can taste so many different [flavors] without like a severe chemical reaction.
Kevin: Yeah, I wonder. There are these people who can taste better than others. I wonder if they can even enjoy spirits, or if it's too overwhelming. I don't know. There is, every once in awhile, it's almost like when I don't try that hard, I can better pick up something I'm not expecting.
So a lot of time I'll nose in on a rum, like, all right, well I'm getting barrel and getting vanilla - that's a real obvious one to pick out. Then I'll work my way down through sipping and finishing and come back, like, wait a second, I just smelled old banana or something like that. It's almost sort of an unconscious thing where if I try too hard, I can't pick it up. Another thing, I hope, is that when people listen to [the podcast], it should be fun. It should be something that anybody can go and do, and there is a little bit of a curriculum to it. It starts out really simplistic, because that's what I was going for, and then we worked our way into things more complicated like zombies and punches and stuff like that.
Brian: Initially, it seems like you leaned on tiki cocktails as the work horses for 5 Minutes of Rum, and then you began branching out to a wide range of rums. What criteria did you use to pick the rums on the show?
Kevin: Initially it was things that I could find a recipe where I could build a drink that was simple, and then over the course of time, I could start compounding rums or compounding spirits.
Brian: You're talking about kind of blending different rums in your drinks?
Kevin: Exactly. Yeah, so the first episode, I knew I wanted to start with something that was relatively inexpensive, a very good rum, and something where I could find a pretty simple cocktail where someone could make it with just three ingredients. We ended up with - that's the other thing I found out about broadcasting - we use this "we" and there's only me.
Neil: You and the microphone?
Kevin: Me and the cocktail. (Laughter.) There was an effort to start simple and look for recipes that sort of fit that mold. Then we could get into like, now we've got two rums that we've talked about before, or we've already talked about fresh lime juice and now we've talked about the syrup, now we can go into something that's a little more complicated. There was an effort to build it simple and work your way up. Now, I feel like if the listener wants to go back and listen to the old episodes, they can do it in whatever order they want, but like fifty or some odd episodes in, there's a good base to build upon. I try to reference old episodes so if I'm talking about something that's a little more complicated but I've talked about something in the past that was a little more simplistic, I'll try and link to that and say here's your reference point. I feel a little more comfortable now going more complicated and more outside of that simplistic stuff.
Brian: The Death Star recipe you had a few episodes back. I was listening to that I just remember being like, I'm totally lost on where he is on this. There was a lot going on in that drink.
Kevin: That was an interesting one to put together. That was the with the riff on the Black Magic, the Mai-Kai's Black Magic, which I really called the Dark Side. Yeah, my friend, the artist Eric October, texted me at some point in December right after The Force Awakens had come out and he's like, "have you ever considered doing a cocktail with a Star Wars theme?" I was thinking about doing something, and somehow I arrived at the Dark Side. My wife had gotten Death Star ice molds for Christmas, and all this sort of cool stuff. That one was complicated to put together, because it was a rather complicated drink.
There's no one true recipe. There's tribute recipes of people who've tried to replicate it. This is really super geeky, but this is the way you can break down a cocktail. You just take some more recipes, write down the components, and see where they overlap, what are the common components, what ratio do the mixes have. With something like that where you have ten ingredients, it does get a little dicey. If someone wants to just make a daiquiri, who am I to suggest otherwise.
Brian: There's a drink at Tiki-Ti, that I would order, the Tiki Kapu, that Neil always orders. I order it and, always, like five other people order it.
Neil: As soon as you put that drink out on the bar, people start to order it.
Brian: It is a beautiful looking drink. I went probably the last weekend before my son was born, and I ordered a couple and carefully watched them pour the entire thing every time. Like, what was that ingredient again? Because those drinks are great, and there's never going to be a recipe for it that you can find. [Watching and experimenting are] really like the only way you can do it and make it at home.
Kevin: That actually reminds me of two things. One is the notion of like with these theme drinks and also the Tiki-Ti, and also I witnessed this, I didn't realize I was witnessing this until the bartender told me. I was in Trader Sam's one night, and this was a few years ago, probably 2011 or 2012, it was when Trader Sam's was relatively new and this was a random Tuesday night. It was relatively quiet and nobody had ordered the Uh Oa! bowl, but it was funny. As soon as one person ordered, then everybody started ordering it and you could show. I had seen the same thing at Tiki-Ti, especially if it's like an Ooga Booga. It becomes this thing like sort of -
Neil: I have to have that!
Brian: [The Tiki Kapu] is beautiful because like it comes in this very special glass, has this green layer at the bottom, and has a nice yellow green separation.
Kevin: I don't think I've actually had that cocktail.
Brian: It's a vodka drink though. I've made it at home with rum, and it's actually better with vodka.
Neil: It's also served in a vintage glass that you can't find easily anymore. It's called a balloon pilsner. It's got the hollow neck to it, so you can actually put in the layers and see them.
Brian: So feel free to be geeky, because you're speaking to people that are going to soak it up.
Kevin: The other thing that reminds me of is that sometimes, when I work we go to a friend's house, and I'll volunteer to bar tend or something like that, or even at Oasis, I'll bring a menu with me. If you just tell people I'll make whatever you want, they kind of freeze. They need a menu to at least get them started. I'll put on the recipe that Jeff Berry's published for the 1940s Don the Beachcomber Rum Barrel, and it's a long list of ingredients, but it's a great drink and I like making it. The slug I put on the menu is like, "if you want to see the bartender, use every ingredient in the bar, order this one." Sounds like that drink at the Tiki-Ti might be somewhat similar with numerous ingredients.
Brian: It's more like an order of operations, you have to make a part, you have to separate them. You got to ice it, then you got to mix the rest. Then you pour it in slowly.
Kevin: Does the bartender roll their eyes when you order it?
Neil: Not that one so much. There are others that are more complicated, that aren’t ordered very often. They do have a recipe [box] in the back for quick reference. Not Mike or Mike Jr., but Greg sometimes.
Brian: Yeah, Greg has to ... every time I order [a Tiki Kapu], Greg looks at it.
Neil: He's been there for one year now so he's got most of them down.
Kevin: Has it been a whole year now?
Neil: It's been a year. Yeah, it was July or end of June when -
Kevin: That's right, that was the whole -
Brian: Scared everybody, yeah.
Neil: I was there that last day of smoking. "The Great Tiki-Ti Smoke Out."
Brian: Even before that it was like, "we're closed." An indefinite hiatus for like a month. People were freaking out. It was almost like a sign on the door saying "gone fishing."
Brian: Have you developed any custom rum blends, or combos, or splits that you keep come backing to? For instance, I really like Coruba with Smith and Cross; flavor profiles that really speak to you [and] that you use in your own recipes.
Kevin: Probably not blends, but there are certain rums that I definitely favor because I know what they're bringing to the table. That said, there's a sort of mythical rum that's used at the Mai-Kai when they can get it, and there's not an interruption. It's called a Kohala Bay rum. Hurricane Hayward, who runs the Atomic Grog, he's done the world a great service by going and deciphering a lot of Mai-Kai recipes and publishes his tribute recipes. He's come up with an approximation of Kohala Bay, which is equal parts Smith and Cross and El Dorado 12. I've used that to great effect. I generally find different rums that I like individually. Say I'm working with Hamilton 86, because I just got it and I really like it, as opposed to having like a go-to blend. That said, I have to go back again to Martin Cate's symposium, but one of his symposiums last year at Oasis was about rum blends, and sort of DIY rum blends. Everybody in the audience rum samples in these little plastic pipettes, and you got to see what happens when you put in seven drops of high ester funky rum with base column distillate rum, and sort of create their own DIY rum blend. I found that very fascinating. I just haven't devoted the time to come up with my own signature blend. It is on my list of topics.
Brian: It's something I want to do also.
Kevin: A couple of years ago, I bought one of those small barrels to do like barrel aging. I wanted to barrel age some Rhum JM Blanc. I really like agricole blanc rhums, but I wanted to see if I did my own aging at home, what would become of it. I sampled it a couple weeks in, and then sort of put it aside. Didn't really know my way around aging rum in a small barrel. By the time I got to it, everything was angel share - it was all gone. So, I haven't recreated that experiment yet, but I do have one test tube at home of the rum that aged.
Brian: I just barreled some Wray & Nephew. It ended up being a little oaky. I did like four parts aged, and then one part unaged.
Kevin: Do you guys enjoy Wray & Nephew normally?
Brian: I love it.
Neil: I love it.
Kevin: I do too, but that's a very polarizing rum I've found. In fact, that's why I think I made a drink the other day, like a swizzle with Wray & Nephew, I don't remember what I called it, but there was a reference to it being "an acquired taste." That's what it was. Just because some people are like "too much" and don't really care for it. I'm perfectly happy, on a hot day, with some Wray & Nephew and Ting soda. Sublime.
Brian: Maybe on the edge of "not enough."
Neil: Sometimes I run out of aged agricole rum to make my 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai and I'll use a Jamaican blend with Wray & Nephew. I know it's a little bit too funky, and a little overproof, but it provides a certain element that other rums wouldn't.
Kevin: I think it brings some character to it, because if you're going to pour in like ... When I did the Mai TaIPA with the El Dorado 3, it was fine. The El Dorado 3 is not contributing a whole lot. It's not making it worse, but it's not really bringing anything to the party, other than maybe a little bit of ABV. Other than that it's [not present]. That’s an interesting experiment. I haven't really done a lot of Wray & Nephew in a Mai Tai. I've found that ever since Denizen Merchant’s Reserve came out, I've dialed way back on the agricole Mai Tai's. I still like them a lot, but the Denizen Mai Tai has kind of just taken over as the house standard.
Neil: I was going to ask about domestic rums. You made an episode recently about Santeria. You've given us a glimpse of domestic rums, even though a lot of products aren't distributed in California. How would see domestic rums fitting into the world of tiki drinks?
Kevin: I think based on the way that some of them are made, they fit in very well. My only concern with, what do we want to call them, "local rums?", is distribution, because this becomes the challenge, right? I kind of have two minds of this. One is I think that some distillers' rum is just a way for them to get value out of the distilling equipment until they can start.
Brian: Along with gin and vodkas.
Kevin: Yeah, because you can't sit on capital for seven years. I understand why they do it, but there's other folks that are making rum, I feel, just for the sake of making rum. I like what they're doing, because there's some roots in the US's rum past. I think a lot of people don't know that pre-Prohibition, if you think about colonial America, rum was very important and very heavily drunk. Privateer Rum, I think they were based in Massachusetts, they make probably what would be considered a pretty close approximation to some of that old New England style rum, so I think it's great. I think you can absolutely mix that in, because there wouldn't be tiki drinks [without that history]. There is sort of a foundation that tiki drinks are sort of built upon, having sort of that punch element to them, like old colonial flips, aside from having like egg in them or something like that, there's spice, there's beer. It's a pretty hardy drink.
Actually, I would like to find more smaller distribution U.S.-based rums that we can talk about on the show. The other advantage of those rums, aside from using the product and finding ways to popularize themselves, I find they're much more willing to talk about their process. They're very proud of what they're producing. They're very open about how they're doing things, by and large, the ones that I spoke to the before. Which is super helpful because some of the big brands, I may like, but it's next to impossible to find information because all they want to do is market. They don't actually want to talk about how they make their rum, for better or worse.
Neil: It's interesting. I think we could talk about this a lot longer, but you're right. Rum has its history in the Americas and unlike a lot of spirits that have high regulation and even stringent geographic definitions ... rum is very American in its free nature. I like that. I'm always reminded of this song from a musical called 1776, about the founding of the United States. There's a dark song called "Molasses to Rum" about the early economic system of the [American] colonies.
Kevin: If you talk about rum, you end up talking about the history of the sugar trade and becomes a very touchy subject for reasons...
Brian: You're [discussing] one of the legs on the most dubious triangles in history.
Kevin: For sure. You want to be cognizant to how it got its start, but it is inexorably tied to American history. I just think sometimes, people don't understand it, because sometimes people don't realize how many distillers there were in Colonial America before it all sort of imploded.
Brian: And punch.
Brian: Punch was king. Tiki drinks are all generally some version of punch.
Brian: You have called out a fair number of sites, like A Mountain of Crushed Ice, the Ministry of Rum. You've even mentioned more esoteric sites, like Chemistry of the Cocktail. As a nerd, would you share any other highly detailed obscure research sites?
Kevin: Obscure is kind of a funny term. My usual go-to for anything is to start with the Ministry of Rum, just because that's kind of like a database. They're a good starter point. Somebody who wants to get really geeky and really technical, a gentlemen by a name of Matt Pietrek, and he runs the site Cocktail Wonk. He really nerds on rum, as evinced by his name. He doesn't have a wide repertoire, but he writes very detailed. You know if see something on his site, you're going to get a lot of good information on it. Other than that, I kind of just Google around and see what comes to mind. My normal go to is Ministry of Rum, then I branch out from there. What would be another good one? I'm going to slight somebody without intending. He doesn't publish as many reviews now as he used to but, Inu a Kena. He does rum reviews, his site is a pretty good resource.
Then somebody else who also doesn't write as much anymore, but was a very good resource was Rumdood. He was very well versed, and I think he just recently had a child as well. I think his blogging sort of tailed off before that, but I don't think that's going to help his blogging efforts at all. He wrote extensively kind of in the late 2000s and early 2010s, if I could use that period. His site is still a really good resource for a lot of tiki and rum recipes.
Brain: One of the great things about 5 Minutes of Rum are all the little details that are between the lines. In Episode 30, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, you describe the background banana aspects that you reminded you of a Panamanian rum. I had never had a Panamanian rum, but that made me think that I was missing something for the cocktails that I like to make. It's the little moments that take the show beyond a dry review. How does each episode come together?
Kevin: That's a whole Pandora's Box.
Brian: Are they really scripted? Do you have an outline and notes or...
Kevin: I start with what rum I want to talk to, and what cocktail I can fit to it. Generally speaking, I'll get some sort of middle thing that goes along with it. Once I know what I want to talk about and I do the research, I do work from the outline. I try to not script everything. I may script the intro, I may script some parts of it, but for better or worse, I want those mistakes to be in there. I was really self conscious about how it sounded the first couple of episodes I did, but some of them really truly are asides that I think of while I'm talking about the recipe or rum. Just some offhanded comment. It's a mixture. I always work from an outline, and one of the things that I don't know if it's observable or not, is that, as I work my way through, because I record in order I don't record the recipe and then go back. It's not a movie.
Brian: It's almost like one take.
Kevin: Yeah. I'll break it in between sometimes because I want to make the cocktail before I talk about the cocktail. If I make a blatant misstep, where I just sort of lose the whole plot completely, I'll pause it and re-record. I try to leave the little stuff in there, because I think that's where -
Brian: And it's character so.
Kevin: That's the way I talk.
Brian: I think it adds to handmade aspect of it as well. It's a hobby. It makes it much more approachable as well.
Kevin: There is an outline that I follow per show.
Kevin: I don't really have a dog in this hunt when it comes to added sugar. I agree with some of the big guns in the industry like Richard Seale from Foursquare. I agree with him that there should be some disclosure, and that's one of the things that you mentioned, Plantation, that I like about is that they are very specifically adding sugar as a reference to dosage, which is a style that they use for making cognac. I think that's great. I don't really like it as much, although I know it happens. When somebody wants to blend and round out a spirit. I don't mind when they do it, I would just like there to be some sort of disclosure. I don't think it ruins the rum necessarily, so I'm not that dogmatic about it. I wouldn't say I'm ambivalent about it, but I just wish there were a little more truth in advertising. I certainly don't mind when it's done for a purpose, as long as that purpose as long as that purpose isn't to mix something just sweet.
Kevin: This would be considered a bit of re-education on my part, but one of the things that is in the new Smuggler's Cove book, one of the things that again, Richard Seale is advocating for, is sort of a change in rum palatalizations from more traditional island based or base based - Spanish, English, or French, and a move towards production methods and the level of aging. What I would think about is not so much, this is something I'm trying to get my head around as well, but not thinking so much as this is a Spanish style rum, but what is it that I'm going to do with this rum and what are it's particular strengths. How do I want to combine this with something else? A lot of time when I think of dry rums or column still rums is that they're not going to be noticeable in a very layered, complex cocktail.
I want to think of something maybe with a little more nuance. Something that has a little bit more subtle flavors, and maybe build around that. I don't know if that addresses the question. Your question was more around how do I approach it.
Kevin: Right, you want to find a recipe where you going to pick up something more subtle. You don't want to bombard it with strong flavors, and that might be a way in. A lot of times, frankly, when a recipe calls gold Puerto Rican rum or silver Puerto Rican Rum, what they're calling for is to add some more fuel to this fire. Your flavor is coming from the other. I find if you find something like a Cãna Brava Anejo, which is a column still lightly ... well, not so lightly, because I think it's aged up to seven years, but you want to find something relatively straightforward that's going to play to that rum's strengths. I'm not going to put that in a rum barrel, because that's a waste of that rum. That rum is good on its own, and another thing I would say is if you find a good column, just do a drier rum. They're not as frequently a good sipping rum, but when you find one that is, they are really really flavorful, and you can. They just take a little bit more work.
Neil: Do you have an example of one that you have come across that you really enjoyed?
Kevin: The Cãna Brava Seven, which I just recently purchased. Cruzan single barrel, was pretty underrated considering Cruzan's considered sort of a [filler rum]. It's a Virgin Islands rum. I think the Cruzan line is for me, for a long time, has been like that sort of base material. Crisper, quote unquote bold Puerto Rican rum we called for. I think it's a little under-appreciated as some of the other labels, I guess. The single barrel's pretty good. What else would I ... Some of the Angostura [rums], they're mostly if not all column distillate as well. They some really good aged rums, like the 1919, which is sort of the midpoint between a mixer and something you want to sip. If you haven't had it, the Angostura 1, which unfortunately has gone way up in price. When it was introduced it was no more than fifty dollars, now it's about one hundred.
Neil: Oh wow. Brian and I had the Angostura 1 at Cãna the other night. He was pouring us a Diplomatico and the 1 to try. [That's the night when we came up with the idea for the blog.]
Kevin: It's good stuff, it's just gotten a little more expensive.
Brian: How much did we have before? Because I don’t remember that.
Neil: I think we had a couple of daiquiris before we started.
Kevin: That's another thing that's good too. Simplistic, but do different column distilled rums, just in a straight daiquiri, and you'll see the different flavors come out. That's one way to find one that you prefer. If it completely disappears, probably not a great rum, it doesn't have much to offer. It's pure to the point where you're losing all of the character. That's a problem.
Brian: What cocktail do you make for yourself? You're at home, not doing research for your blog, you just want to go in the backyard sit in the shade and ... think about life.
Kevin: There's a lot of them, but I will narrow it down. Whatever cocktail I'm working on, whether I'm making someone else's recipe or my own, I think it's still picking me up right, but yeah whatever cocktail I'm working on for an episode I tend to make a lot within like a week or two period, so I get really concentrated on that.
Brian: Just to refine it or just to really get to know it?
Kevin: Just to get to know it. Obviously, I need to photograph it, and it sounds silly, and to me ... it sounds really ridiculous, but when I take a picture of a cocktail that's in a tiki mug, I could put anything in there, including water.
Brian: I have the same issue myself. I take these pictures on Instagram, I put them up there, and I go like "That could be anything". I doubt anybody knows what it is.
Kevin: I assure you, everyone knows it's these cocktails, just because it matters to me right. So yeah, when doing prep for an episode I make that for like a week or two, depending on how long it takes for that thing to come together. If I'm just going to make the drink, it really depends. If I'm just going to go and sit on the patio and read, it might be something as simple as a J Wray & Ting. It might be something as simple as a drink that's been trademarked by the Gosling Corporation but maybe in a somewhat different form.
My favorite drink in the whole world is the 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai. That's my gateway drug. A lot of it comes and goes with how I'm feeling at the time. I went through different phases. I happen to be going through a 1934 Zombie phase right now, which is a bit of a difficult phase. You have to plan accordingly. That drink is so impressive to me as someone who tries to create cocktails, because when I look at it on paper, there's no way it should work. It should be an absolute disaster. But somehow it comes together.
Brian: You would never line up all those bottles on top of a bar and say, I'm going to use that that that and that, but only six drops of that though.
Kevin: Then those proportions right? Three quarters of an ounce of lime. Meanwhile, you have the equivalent of four and a half ounces of liquor in there? I have a certain appreciation for that. It's just a phase I should work my way out of.
Neil: So related to that, you're here at the Tonga Hut right now. I know you ordered a Rum Barrel, but say you're out at a different bar, a fully-stocked tiki bar, what do you order? What's your go-to?
Kevin: It depends on what bar I'm at, and who's tending the bar. Any place that I've been to many times and gotten to know the bartender, I want to know what they like to make or what they feel like 'this is something I'm really good at making or something I'm very proud of'. That's why I got the Rum Barrel, because Lisa-Marie [Burnside] makes a very good Rum Barrel, and she tends to not be in on Sunday nights so I don't get to order one then. When I saw Lisa-Marie tending the bar, I knew I was getting a Rum Barrel.
Neil: Everyone's out at "Tales of the Cocktail" right now.
Kevin: When Syd [Thomas] is here, it's a toss up. Syd actually makes a very good 1934 Zombie, so I'll sometimes order that here. But he has a really good drink called the Witch Doctor. That's one of his relatively new ones, so I'll order that. It's really situational. If I want to know what I think might be a good strength at the bar program at that particular spot, I order something simplistic just to know what I'm going to get, if it's tiki establishment, let's order the Mai Tai. Let's see what they're going to produce, or a daiquiri just to make sure you don't get a sideways glance, so you know what you're getting. If it's a non-tiki bar, I'm definitely [ordering an] Old Fashioned, because based on how that Old Fashioned comes out, it's going to tell me that I need to order a beer or if I'm going to order a Vieux Carre or something like that.
Brian: Are there any tiki bars that you really want to go visit that have opened up recently?
Kevin: I would love to visit Latitude 29. Jeff Berry, I haven't mentioned his name enough probably -
Brian: You haven't. This is the first time you've mentioned him.
Kevin: I might've mentioned the Grog Log or something like that.
Brian: We have some questions coming up.
Kevin: Oh okay, so I won't go too far into that. Latitude 29, which for me would be kind of like ground zero of the ones I haven't visited. There's other seminal tiki bars that I've been to -
Brian: Which ones that you visited really just hit the mark?
Kevin: For different reasons, different bars sort of hit it for me. So Tiki-Ti, because that is a direct link to Don the Beachcomber, thanks to Ray Buhen. Going in and standing in Tiki-Ti and knowing that's the bar that Ray opened in 1961. I absolutely have a lot of reverence for that and I really like going in there. That's what I was saying earlier before we started talking for the interview, if I were to go to Tiki-Ti, I'd try go on a Wednesday and I'd try to be there at nine o'clock, when Mike does the toast to Ray.
[Another is] Smuggler's Cove, because everybody there is a top notch professional, and I could sit there and watch Steven Liles tend bar all night. I enjoy the cocktails too, but watching him build cocktails horizontally. He is building four across the line at once and keeping them all straight. Amazing!
I like going to Trader Sam's, and I love Disney's stuff, too. Seeing the well done homage to Tiki-Ti, but with a different twist is a lot of fun, and seeing Kelly Merrell work down there. He does some great things down there, too. It's helped broaden the minds of the people that work there. At Trader Sam's I feel like there's not just people who are punching a clock, but they're actually enthusiastic about what they're doing, which is great. Forbidden Island, which unfortunately opened one year after I moved away from Northern California. We go up there as often as we can. I like going there just because it's an awesome Bamboo Ben [Bassham] built-out bar. Suzanne Long got her start there. Martin Cate got his start there. Speaking of Suzanne Long, Longitude in Oakland is fantastic, I've been there a couple of times. Hale Pele, which was the old Thatch in Portland which Blair Reynolds helped rescue when it was going to be closed.
There're a lot of tiki bars that I'm enthusiastic about, for sure. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Mai-Kai, which is the last great tiki temple that exists today. So Ray Buhen’s, Tiki-Ti, is directly linked to Don. I think the only one that even comes close to that is the Mai-Kai, which is a big supper club. It's not just a bar, but also the dinner and the show. When the brothers Bob and Jack Thornton opened up the Mai-Kai, they snatched Mariano Licudine from Chicago's Don the Beachcomber and had him build out the program there. That's why you see so many drinks that are just a riff on Don's drinks, so it's not the Cobra's Fang but it's the Cobra's Kiss. If there's ground zero west, it’s the Tiki-Ti. The Mai-Kai would be ground zero east.
Brian: The Mai-Kai, it's the dinner, it's the show, it's the temple. It's a different experience.
Kevin: For sure, yes. It's the whole thing. This year we were fortunate enough to visit during Hukilau, which we've never been to before. When you're there [at the Mai-Kai], not just with yourselves, who are into it, but with hundreds of other people who are like-minded, it's pretty special. It's pretty cool.
Brian: So aside from [Martin and Rebecca Cate's] Smuggler's Cove, what other cocktail books are you really looking at now?
Kevin: The big ones for me, and I'm going to take opportunity to talk about Jeff Berry. His books were the primary source for me, those were the gateway. Seeing Martin talk live was one side, and other side of it was Jeff Berry publishing the Grog Log, Intoxica!, Sippin' Safari, and then the big one that sort of hit home when I started to make drinks at home was when he published Beachbum Berry Remixed. He took Grog Log and Intoxica!, and sort of took the best of those, added more recipes, reformulated some...
Neil: Corrected some...
Kevin: Yes, corrected some, took out the sour mix. Things like that. I got that book, and that was mind-blowing for me, because when I got the Grog Log, it was still and I wasn't sure how much these things I wanted to buy. One thing called for a quarter ounce of Maraschino. Was I really going to buy a bottle of Maraschino for that?
Brian: How many have you bought since then?
Kevin: More than one. Remix sort of blew that open. In fact, we got the book. It wasn't spiral bound like these other books are. I took that to Kinko's, got the spine chopped off of it, and had it spiral bounded so that I could use it in the bars. I sort of worked my way through it. Jeff Berry's products, like his books, including now Potions of the Caribbean, which is like Sippin' Safari but like, the maxed out version. That was an unbelievable book. That was another one like the Smuggler's Cove, when it just came out where I wanted to spend as much or as little time as I could with it, because I wanted to savor it, but I wanted to soak it all in. I still like just flipping through that book.
Brian: That's my gateway book.
Kevin: Potions of the Caribbean?
Kevin: I haven't bought another copy of the spiral bound for that one yet. That one, when I want to make cocktails, I take a picture of the recipe and I use that as my guide, instead of breaking that one. A couple other books, The Bar Book, which I think I mentioned, from Jeffrey Morgenthaler, is just a good how to. Real basics on like how to do this, how to do that, it's just real good. I recommended that to people who just want to get technique down. What's another good one? The Jeff Berry books are great, I refer to those all the time. I learned so much from them.
Brian: You get one Beachbum Berry book for a deserted island, which one?
Kevin: One? Probably Remixed and the only reason Remixed gets the nod is because it's a great resource. Potions of the Caribbean is something I like to read, and it also has a good number of recipes. I just feel like there's so many recipes and so much information in Remixed, and a little bit of a sentiment as well, just because that was the one that I latched onto. That's a tough one. I was hoping for a top three. I like when people ask top threes, not top ones, but I'll take a stab.
Brian: Well there's not that many to have a top three.
Kevin: I'll say Remixed.
Neil: So you've talked about some home bar gear: ice crusher, juice extractors, ninja blenders, Louis bag, and all the other stuff. What travels when you go to one of the events?
Kevin: It gets worse every year. Now If I'm going to something that's going to be multi-day, like Tiki Oasis, I'm not too shy to bring a lot of stuff. I definitely bring the spindle blender, just because that's a really crucial thing to a lot of cocktails that I'm making now, as opposed to just shaking. I got to bring the Boston Shaker, cheater edition, two metal cups, because at Oasis a few years ago, I broke one of these glass ones. In a fit of not being able to get them separated. I bring the ninja blender because it's easier to transport. You can get crushed ice without it being too difficult to bring the Waring. I'm a little worried about the Waring now only because it's been discontinued, and I don't have a replacement.
That and then a lot of what I bring aside from that the standards, I bring a portable bar that I bought from Bamboo Ben years ago, because it's important to have something that you can put some stuff up on. I bring a bar -
Brian: Is that like a travel bar, a suitcase kind of bar?
Kevin: No, you have to put the seats down in the car to bring it with you. It stands maybe a little bit above waist height. I wedge myself into the corner of the hotel room and tend bar from there. Then, I'll bring that to backyard parties and stuff like that, too.
Neil: What does it start off with? Just to kind of continue the question, how did it evolve?
Kevin: First time we stayed for the weekend [at Oasis] was 2009, as I said I was only making Mai Tais and Miehana at the time, so with minimal ingredients. I had a shaker, I had some cups, and I had essentially the booze. I was very self-conscious about bringing in anything resembling a cooler or a box that wasn't a suitcase. Then that weekend I saw what other people were bringing in, and starting the next year I was like I don't care. We're going to start bringing in stuff. Since then it's just exploded. [I'm] not doing nearly as much as they're doing for some of those rooms for the room parties, and you're helping contribute as well. You're making it something better, or greater, than it's original.
Brain: In episode 30 of 5 Minutes of Rum, you had a rhetorical question: "If you the listener were in the same position as Martin Cate, throwing a bottle or procure that bottle of 17 year J Wray & Nephew, would you be able to resist opening it and making an actual 1944 Mai Tai, the way Trader Vic did?" What would you do?
Kevin: I would make that Mai Tai, and the answer's really simple. One of the things I've learned, whether it's rum or just with tiki bars, is you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. We live in earthquake country here. I do have a few bottles of Lemon Hart 80, old label. I have a Lemon Hart 151, the old label, but I'm not afraid to open them. I'll open them for special occasions, but I'm definitely not going to drink them because I'm one earthquake away from not having any collection at all. Similarly, the reintroduction of the Luau that was only around in Beverly Hills for about nine months a few years ago, never made it there, because I always thought there was going to be an opportunity to go. I learned that things can change really quickly, so I would. Some of these people might its sacrilegious, but I think that's more of a collector's instinct. Just one, historically, you just got to taste it, and two, you really don't know what tomorrow holds.
Brian: So you're a millennial! You're in it for the experience.
Kevin: I had no idea. I have one thing in common with the millennials now.
Neil: A question came to mind talking about older tiki bars and places you want to go. Is there any now defunct tiki bar that either you've been to and wish you could go back to, or one that you've read and learned about that you wish you could have gone to before it closed?
Kevin: Yeah, there's probably quite a few. The original Stephen Crane's Luau, it was open in the fifties. I would have actually, this sounds funny, I would have liked to have gone to the original Los Angeles Trader Vic's, but I missed out on that as well, because when we started going to more of those places, we lived in Northern California. We didn't go to the one down here. After we moved back to southern California, which was probably 2006 or 2007, we went to an art exhibit down in Santa Monica, I think it was the Copro Nason Gallery, it might have been a different one, but they were doing a Shag exhibition. It wasn't the opening night then, it was just random Saturday afternoon and we wanted to go see it. Then afterwards, a friend said let's go to Trader Vic's for lunch. We went over there, and they weren't open for lunch. Then, months later, they closed and we never made it there. I would've liked to have gone, even if it wasn't the best. I would've liked to have gone to that early Trader Vic's. In my heart , I’m an Angeleno, and so I kind of missed out on that.
Other historical ones? I would've liked to have gone, just for the experience, this is more for tiki than rum cocktail, but the Kahiki supper club in Columbus, Ohio with its giant, two-story moai fireplace.
Neil: I was lucky enough to go to the original Beverly Hills Trader Vic's for dinner and drinks with an old girlfriend before they closed. No longer with her anymore, but good memory of seeing Vic's before it was all gone.
Kevin: I've actually since gone. It kind of left, not a bad taste in my mouth, but a ... I just have never gone to the lounge. Like they still have the poolside lounge or whatever?
Neil: You went to probably Trader Vic's in San Francisco before that all closed down too?
Kevin: I went to the second location that was sort of downtown. Again, we went a once after a Shag art show that was up there. In fact, I don't remember the name it was on, the older one I think was on Palmer or something, I have an old matchbook from my dad that showed the location there. We went to the newer one that was sort of short lived, and I want to say that that might have been the one that Martin Cate worked at for a while.
I just now, in retrospect, wonder if I stumbled in there once when he was working. I just didn't know at the time, but we did go to that one. That, unfortunately, was short-lived.
Brian: The Vic’s at Staple Center was okay. I was really irritated it closed right before I started working [in downtown LA].
Kevin: I don't know if I've mentioned this on the show before, I probably haven't, but I liked that one despite all of the shortcomings, because I happen to be a very big Los Angeles Kings fan. For me, it was a place where I could go and there was a little bit of tiki before every game. My friend and I, who I go to the game on weeknights with because I half season plan, we go down very frequently. We could, not anymore so much, but we could get there for happy hour and rather than have stadium beer, we could have Navy Grog, especially if we got there at happy hour.
Brian: The drinks were good. The food ... it's more of where it was.
Kevin: It was a good happy hour. But it was all wrong, because the TV's they had inside. It was all wrong, because it was way too wide open, it wasn't dark. But I have a lot of good memories there. They did have Danny [Gallardo]'s tikis out front. On a good night you would get a swizzle stick, on a bad night you wouldn't get much of anything. The staff that worked there, at least the first couple of years that we were going there, they were pretty consistent. We got to build up a little bit of a relationship with them. That was fun. It was not definitely representative of the best of Trader Vic's could offer, but I was definitely bummed out when it closed, because it was a little bit of tiki in an otherwise pretty standard downtown [bar] environment.
Brian: The Trader Vic's Empire is kind of like the Byzantine Empire. It just slowly shrinks ... something happens like the fire at the Portland, Oregon location and everything just gets smaller and smaller.
Kevin: That one was a beautiful location that should've been open for longer, but I will say, we traveled three times to Portland in the time that it was open. We had a great time every time we were there. They had giant windows out front, but if it was a night time, it wasn't so bad. The decorations were second to none. They just couldn't find a market. It was never very crowded when we went in there. I think unfortunately the owner just couldn't justify re-opening it. I think I talked about this on the episode I did that featured a cocktail and a couple of tiki mugs. The owner opened it only out of his love of Trader Vic's and how much it meant to him. He had met his future spouse at the time at Trader Vic's. I think the one in D.C. So, he had a sentimental spot for it. The one that [was previously] open in Portland, they found some of the decorations were historic, so they had some historical decorations there.
I think it was just the owner had to sell high to keep it open, and once they had the fire ... that was that, you know what, we're not going to continue with it. I can tell you the story afterwards, it's not going to be good for your interview, but there's many great memories I have at Trader Vic's, including the one in Emeryville, being taken out on a stretcher.
Brian: Oh wow.
Neil: We'll turn the mic off on that one.
Brian: Kevin, thank you for your time.
Ten minutes is the shortest run time of any of the episodes of 5 Minutes of Rum. The average is nineteen. Please keep the title an unrealized aspiration in summarization. It has been great getting to meet you. I feel I know you from the podcast, but it was wonderful getting to know you today.
Carpe Drinkem from Kapu Cocktail!
Kevin: Likewise, thank you guys. This was a lot of fun. I'm very flattered that anybody would ask why I'm doing what I'm doing. I appreciate you guys asking. You get one drink in me and I'll just talk longer than you need me to talk.
Neil: We'll get another drink in you to hear more about the stretcher.