Once upon a time, there was a sailor. For twenty years he voyaged around the Caribbean as the winds took him. Living on an anchor, he saw an awful lot of the world, and from a very different perspective than you and I. And as a man is wont to do, when afloat on the seas of experience, he took time for introspection. And since such men are likely to deepen their thoughts with whatever spirit others around him enjoy, this man found himself awash in the mysteries of the spirit of the Caribbean, rum. The man found that rum wasn’t just a useful aid in processing his experiences into wisdom, but that wisdom of rum was a wondrous thing in and of itself. And his wisdom grew….
The sailor’s name is Ed Hamilton, and when his life’s journey at last carried him to the shore, his knowledge and love of rum took him there. Now Ed is a spirits consultant and an importer of various rums and complementary products. He also is the proprietor of one of the premier repositories of rum wisdom, The Ministry of Rum.
In the last two years, Ed has taken on a great task, one that makes him important to many cocktail lovers in America, whether they know him or not. And it is why I want to tell his story here during Tiki Month.
You see, there is a magical elixir, utterly unique in the rum world. It is an essential ingredient in the drink that made the Tiki revolution happen back in the past. This ingredient is Lemon Hart 151 rum. For most people, 151 proof rums are rocket fuel, in taste as well as potency. If they think of such rums at all, they view them as Everclear with a Caribbean accent. But Lemon Hart is a rich, flavorful rum in the demerara vein, very pleasant to nose, and not quite impossible to sip… while still being quite capable of getting your jet off the ground.
This combination of complex flavors and (somewhat) hidden potency makes Lemon Hart 151 an iconic Tiki drink ingredient, reflecting the characteristics of such standard concoctions as the Zombie, which are also delicious and deceptively powerful.
But as a brand navigating the cold open oceans of the international liquor business, Lemon Hart was, and is, but a small ketch. Since the heyday of both it and Tiki, it has been kicked around from one owner to another until it landed in the portfolio of Pernod, which eventually dropped the brand to concentrate on such products as the Malibu Coconut Rums. (Ed stands behind no man in his admiration of Malibu. Really. Just ask him….) At last, Pernod found a buyer in Montreal-based distillers, Mosaiq,
makers purveyors of Flor de Cana, among many other types and brands of liquor. Mosaiq searched for the right man to bring Lemon Hart back to the US market, and through the Ministry of Rum, they found our sailor.
Since then, Ed has been laboring to work this funky product back into our market. Since his efforts are responsible for my now having a good supply of Lemon Hart 151, and I’ll be featuring it several times this Tiki Month, I called Ed to ask him about Lemon Hart, and other things.
In the photo above, you see two bottles, both Lemon Hart 151. The one on the left is the classic label that Lemon Hart aficionados were used too. It is readily distinguished form the old Lemon Hart 80 only in the little red corner on the upper left that says “151″. The design, while iconic to those who know the product, is frankly dated and has a tired, 70′s look to it. It is also the label that buyers saw when we excitedly bought our first bottles when Ed brought back Lemon Hart to the States.
Now, the bottle looks like the one on the right. It combines such modern tech as embossing and gilt lettering, with an ancient, pre-colonial design that probably does a better job conveying the sort of spirit that is in the bottle. But it is radically different looking. I wanted to know what was up, as did a whole bunch of fans.
It turns out, so did Ed. The first bottles sold in the US upon the spirit’s return were leftovers from Pernod’s old inventory, which Ed bought lock, stock, and barrel. With that gone, he started obtaining the newly produced stuff. Mosaiq, he told me, had elected to change the production stream for Lemon Hart. It is and was distilled in Guyana. But whereas it used to be blended, colored, and bottled in Ontario, it is now blended and colored in Guyana, before being bottled in Newfoundland, in the same place that
makes bottles Crystal Head Vodka. Any time a liquor changes its production chain, some alteration in the product is almost inevitable. In some cases, the change can be so great as to make it an entirely new product. Ed told me that Zaya is a recent example, and that it has happened more than once with products in the Matusalem line. So he was itchy about what would happen with this product in which he has invested so much of his time, credit, and prestige.
He was especially antsy when they told him it was going to be “better”.
“Listen, you or I don’t get to say whether it is ‘better’ or not,” he told them. “The bartenders out there across the country, and their customers who know this spirit, will want to try the new version, and see if it works for the special uses they have for it. They will tell us if it is acceptable, let alone better.”
Ed took a new bottle of the LH151 to San Francisco. He sat down with Martin Cate, rum god of Smuggler’s Cove (one of the single most entertaining bars of any kind I have ever entered), and one of those people who will likely be most responsible for deciding the whole “better” thing. They tasted the new against a bottle of the old. They videotaped their discussion, and you can watch them evaluate the new versus the old yourself.
That video is not a marketing exercise designed to puff up expectations about the product, but two old pros really trying to evaluate whether a new version of a tool is still going to be good for the job it in which it is to be used. The bottom line, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, is that both men feel that Mosaiq has managed to keep the character, aroma, and flavor of Lemon Hart 151 essentially intact. Whatever minor variances from the example bottle of the old stuff they compare it to are the sort you would expect anyway between runs of a small batch product like this.
In the language of sailors everywhere, they didn’t f**k it up.
Now, I had never had Lemon Hart’s 151 until Ed brought it back, but I was quite fond of the regular, 80-proof stuff. The 80 also stopped entering the US inventory stream at roughly the same time. Since stocks finally ran out, I have from time to time seen grumpy cocktail geeks fanatically trying to track down reported rumors of remaining bottles of LH80 as if they were shouting, “Hast thou seen the White Whale?”
I asked Ed about the status of getting the 80 proof Lemon Hart back, and he confessed to having no good answer. Mosaiq does in fact make the 80, and sells it as far away as Germany, but has chosen not to offer it here for the time being. Buy lots of the 151, Americans, and perhaps they’ll get off the dime.
So what should folks like me who have favorite recipes that use LH80 do to employ LH151 in its place, I asked Ed. While the 80 is supposedly nothing but the 151, more heavily diluted, he replied, it isn’t as simple as just pouring (just over) half a bottle of 151 into a new bottle and filling it up water. It takes time to add the water slowly, in steps, to allow the liquor to marry up and the flavors to remain balanced. The characteristics of the water would also matter. Bottom line is that if you want to sip good Lemon Hart 80 in the US, see if you can get the Kennedys to make themselves useful again and go back to bringing in hooch from Canada under cover of darkness.
In an individual cocktail, you can get away with using less of the 151 than you would of the 80, and adding a little still water. In fact, Ed points out that this is likely to be considerably more economical than if you just bought the 80. In my own experiments with this LH80 cocktail, a favorite of ours before the dark days of its disappearance from shelves, I’ve found you get the best results from using a ratio of 2 parts LH151 to 1 part water to make up the required volume of LH80 in the original recipe. I’m willing to accept the hardship of a slightly higher alcohol content to reach the flavor I remember….
Lemon Hart 151 is available in close to half of US states now, including the big ones like Texas, New York, and California. Sorry, my fellow Ohioans, if we want it, we can mail order it or drive to Kentucky.
I asked Ed what was his favorite Tiki cocktail that used the 151. He first noted that he actually isn’t a big cocktail guy at all, preferring to sip his rum neat to really appreciate the unique character of each. But he was quick to point out that in the case of Lemon Hart 151, this isn’t really practical, as sipping straight 75% ethanol is a short trip to a long night…. He makes plenty of Zombies, of course, though he has no set recipe.
Instead he offers us this suggestion for a cocktail we may not have tried: A Lemon Hart 151 Old-Fashioned. He carefully pointed out that you do need to actually use some water in this version. His unspoken contention being an agreement with me, and David Wondrich, that real men, and real broads, don’t put no stinking soda water in Old-Fashioneds other than this one. To sweeten, he suggests using Petite Canne Sugar Cane Syrup, a rich, raw sugar syrup that brings a lot of character of its own.
By the by, Petite Canne is imported by Carribean Spirits, Inc., Ed Hamilton, proprietor. Our Sailor is also a Salesman….
Talking rum with Ed is like drinking from a fire hose. I learned a helluva lot more about rum from him than I’ve been able to put in this post. I’ll try to share more as the opportunity presents itself during this and future Tiki Months. Should you want to learn more from Ed and his merry crew of rumophiles, I urge you to visit the Ministry of Rum, read the articles and explore the message forum.
Thanks Ed, for the time and the hooch.