Sixth Annual Key West Bacchanalia

Join us for the Sixth annual Key West Bacchanalia festival, June 13th &15th 2015. Filled with parties, tastings, cook-offs, seminars, celebrities, top chefs and fun! Grand Tasting Village – Rums, spirits, burgers, wine and beer5

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Rum Re-Invented at Mile Marker Zero

As if summoned to the mountains of the Greek Parthenon or the seven hills of ancient Rome, four Gods of Mixology descended on the island of Key West to partake in the rum and spirits festival in June – Bacchanalia. Distillation goes as far back as ancient Greece where Aristotle wrote, “Sea water can be rendered potable by distillation,” ever since then we have had everyone from alchemists, professional distillers, and even our local fishermen in Key West trying to distill sugarcane! These four titans of rumology are the cutting edge of mixology, they all confer and proselytize exciting philosophies of rum, coming from different points of the globe – but for four days, they all shaked, rattled and rolled new rum concoctions for the thirsty followers who came to learn, drink and maybe make a mystical transformation through their nectars.

Today’s rums are far from their 17th century names like ‘kill-devil’ or ‘rumbustion’ from an Old English Devonshire text meaning “great uproar or tumult”, or “rumbullion” – the elixir was bartered much like gold bullion. These rums are far from the dark hubris of America’s triangle trade or the times of Prohibition when in 1922, for nearly a decade, the northeast Atlantic coast had thousands of rum runners picking up their “hoochie-stash” from mother ships. The Bacchanalia instead revealed incredible rums, a renaissance of the light and crisp, to the amber–hued barrel aged liquids’ gold. These fantastic four revealed “elevated rums” much like the arrival of Bacchus in ancient Thebes (an old town – much like Key West – wanting to learn new tricks.) When I taste these rums, involuntary memories of something inescapably good pop-up much like Proust’s dipping of a Madeleine in tea. But, there was something more… I just needed the right recipe to capture it, roll in it, and feel like Ponce de Leon once I found it. Ovid’s Roman poem from antiquity in Metamorphoses describes the reaction of the city to Bacchus, the denied god of drink coming into his own:”All as if naked, anonymous, freed into the ecstasy, the dementia and the the delirium of the new god.” Sounds like many of his followers fell off the wagon… But, if rum is the new god, then these four saints of mixology, poured into our island’s night like gleaming black liquid chrome. They did not pass around a collection basket, but rather attracted all of us jaded drinkers looking for something genuine and a journey into hedonism.

The Modern Mixologist

If, in the beginning, there was light from out of darkness, then Tony was riding a white steed out of hell – drinking is believing. Tony Abou-Ganim is the Dionysian God reborn as a swanky and charming mixologist who can convey the Grey’s Anatomy of a drink in such graceful terms, he shows us interactive rum drinks (he makes’em, we drinks’em!), much like Emeril shows us an exciting food recipe. He demonstrates with distinctive rums and high quality local fruits and other libations for accents and modifiers, the result is nothing I have ever tasted before. Tony quips: “For a nickel more, you go first class.” I’ll remember that next time I actually upgrade to first class when I fly, but when it comes to doing it right and buying locally sourced fruits, Tony is on point. Amen, so long washing machine rum drinks. So many wine experts wiggle and dance as “such wild and crazy guys.” I understand, they are trying to let us know, wine is not an uptight snob just because she doesn’t like to share her glass space with some other ingredients – whatever happened to getting to know each other and having a little fun? Tony, calm and commanding, like his bottle of Don Q, was made to mingle and get acquainted with us lovers of drink and life – he becomes something bigger and better than himself… much like his rum. Tony says while blending fresh bananas, “My doctor told me when I was 42 my eyes would be the first thing to go. Thank God that’s first!” Tony wears a form-fitting chef’s coat when he demonstrates his gems of rum knowledge, when you hear his stories and recipes (including techniques), you do believe wonderful bartenders are the rock stars while the chefs are the panting roadies trying to keep up (at least until you get hungry!) As Tony mixes this creamy masterpiece perfect for a summer rendezvous, he remarks how important thick, solid ice cubes are while reaching into a cooler of Kold-Draft. Indeed, Tony, ice is the great American tragedy when it comes to our drinks. Word of warning here, do not drink this drink and gaze at any wayward lass or even a coconut for that matter, you might begin feeling amorous! Show me the monkey!

1 oz Bacardi Select rum
¾ oz crème de banana
¾ oz dark crème de cacao
3 oz homemade coconut milk *
1 small ripe banana
Toasted coconut for garnish

Blend above ingredients with a cup of ice until smooth; pout into a goblet or empty coconut shell. Garnish with toasted coconut.
Hint: Find the bananas that nobody wants anymore. You will get the best flavor from the overripe ones. Also, Tony recommends in a high quality bar blender for best results.
*To make coconut milk, mix equal parts Coco-Lopez Coconut Cream with half-&-half.
Find this recipe and more in “The Moderm Mixologist” book by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner.

Our Man in San Juan

One of the greatest perks of Fidel Castro’s revolution was nationalizing Bacardi’s rum distillery, now called Havana Club. But the Bacardi founder, Don Facundo, fled with his recipes and family, working hard in Puerto Rico, kinda gives Cuba Libre a perverse twist. After hundreds of years, the Bacchanalia embraces Ahmed Naveira. He is elegant, devilishly charming and has a presence that bespoke of the cradle of the rum Gods! Like a Latin kiss, flambéed with rum, Ahmed’s presentation is spicy and hot with just enough sweetness to either keep you out of diabetic shock or plan your trip to Puerto Rico. Imagine rum aged for years, much like Sherry over the course of hundreds of years in its solera and criadera aging system. He is Puerto Rico in all its excitement and refinement. He explained that the secret to Rums of Puerto Rico had to do with them being demanded for centuries by the island’s rum aficionados for their elixir aged in the small barrel – the barrilito! A green glowing glass was presented to us, it reminded me of another Latin tradition – absinthe fueled artistic soirees (yes, I said soiree, not orgy!), the kind Toulouse-Lautrec took part in during Paris halcyon days. Canvas, broad paint strokes and glamorous dancers under a strobe light – the drink was working, legs and more gorgeous legs – on the stage and in my glass. Anything was possible, from lust to love and back again, as this green “neon-me” entered my brain, I decided to quietly sit while my private ‘Moulin Rouge’ performed and the guests around me, screamed in gammy harmony. The history of some island’s past are written in blood, but a sip of Puerto Rico’s signature spirits lets you know that there is a continuity of a great culture passed on through the ages by the humble sugarcane, distilled and recorded in organic time machines made of strong charred oak barrels. All they needed was their version of James Bondito with his license to barrilito – mix it!

1 1/2oz Don Q Crystal Rum
3 to 4 Kiwi wheels
1/2oz Lemon Juice
2oz White Grape Juice

Muddle kiwi in a cocktail shaker with lemon juice and rum. Add ice and White Grape juice. Shake and strain in to a cocktail glass (martini). Garnish with kiwi wheel.

The Mad Scientist

Junior Merino, the Liquid Chef, wears a long white scientist’s jacket, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s. Hailing from central Mexico originally, he is known for ”mestizaje”, the fusing of exotic and unexpected ingredients and making them work. One look at him and his beautiful Hawaiian wife let you know, he practices what he preaches – they work well together. Three years ago I discovered the radical and exciting concoctions of Junior from my brother filming a story about him for Bloomy news. He called me and said:”He is incredible, he just made me a drink with avocado and I love it.” For the Bacchanalia, Junior revealed blueprints involving the synthesis of bizarre but common ingredients with the pride of St. Lucia – Chairman’s Reserve Rum. Like the island’s double mountainous peaks, they revealed a double distilled pot still spirit with aromas of raisins and dried sweet bananas with a touch of vanilla oak. It just goes to show, no matter how geeky you get, the legs of a great rum combined in a drink of epic proportions, leave you feeling like you have lightening coursing through your veins. Junior’s crowds were captivated by him and how the sum was much greater than any individual component of his drinks, the crowd transformed into a legion of excited techie rum drinkers. Some drinks are born, others are created – imbibe this and become a rum-monster:

2 oz Castries Peanut Rum Creme
3/4 oz Kahlua
1 Tblsp Chairman’s Reserve Rum
3 oz Oat Milk
3/4 oz Chopped Banana
1/2 oz Maple Syrup Grade B
1 tsp Golden Raisins Maple-Pecan Cereal

Put all the liquids in a mixing glass and stir until all the ingredients are integrated then pour the milk mixture over the cereal and raisins and garnish with the banana and Fresh Origins micro orchids.
Find more recipes by Junior Merino at Finds some great ingredients at

The Teacher

Mark Drobiarz is the Director of ABC Bartending School in Miami and has instructed directly or indirectly over 22,000 bartenders. It seems that almost everyday there is another “bartender school opening in Miami”, but with 33 years of staying power – Mark and his school need no Viagra (not that I know personally!) His boyish grin, amiable persona and limp from a long ago stab from a bar fight – convey a hero among bartenders, he can have you whip up the most delicious rum drink in your kitchen with what’s hanging around your fridge. He is the Rachel Ray of mixology, no PhD needed here to make a great drink, just look in your fridge (sometimes finding leftover alcohol is a problem in my house.) Mark is a dark angel of rum; his drinks convey not only the sublime, but the smoky stories of chance meetings in steamy bars. In between heaven and hell, there is a waiting room with a flickering neon-light that says, “Exit” – when they hand you this drink – smile – you made it, heaven awaits!

For the berry syrup:
½ pint of blackberries, ½ pint of blueberries, ½ pint of strawberries (or any other berries you like)
Honey to cover the berries.

Place the berries in a microwaveable container and cover with honey. Microwave for 4 minutes. Muddle fruit into a syrup. Let cool.
For the Mojito:
1 tablespoon of berry syrup
8-10 leaves of fresh mint
6 wedges of lime
1 ½ oz Don Q Limon Rum
Club soda

Place berry syrup in the glass along with mint and limes and muddle. Fill with ice, pour rum and shake. Pour into the glass and splash club soda on top. (Option: instead of club soda use pineapple juice for extra sweetness). Garnish with a strawberry.

Key West Bacchanalia brought the Gods of Mixology to its tiny island situated at the end of the road (US 1) to enlighten worshipers of rums for a few days of drinking during the balmy days of June. When they spoke and we drank their drinks – all was right with the world and it made us all a little closer. We all mingled… and some of us mingled more. This madness of drinking rum under the sun on a faraway island only added fuel to the legacy of mile marker zero’s history of gingerbread houses, pirates, lovers and hooch-runners.

The last night of Bacchanalia, I found myself laughing and listening to stories from the fantastic four, it made me think of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Rum Diaries’: “On the way down the hill we walked three abreast in the cobblestone street, drunk and laughing and talking like men who knew they would separate at dawn and travel to the far corners of the earth.”

As the sun descended, we had the pleasure of accompanying the Modern Mixologist, Tony Abou-Ganim to the airport. The bittersweet smell of frangipani and burnt tar filled the air. As I gladly grabbed his bags for his next journey I remarked: “You won’t find Schraeger carrying your bags in Miami!” We all laughed together. We laughed because it was Key West, we laughed because of the new rum drinks we experienced, but most of all – we laughed.

The artists of rum departed for whatever other utopias awaited them. I found myself dreaming of muddled mint, barrel-aged rums and sounds of thick ice chiming like church bells.

New Disciples

During the Bacchanalia’s “Bar Wars”, mixologists from all over the country and USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild), came to create their own Mojito that was judged by our fantastic four. Freddy Diaz of “Alambiq” won the competition (Alambiq is an Arab word meaning “still” or “alcohol”, the Arabs perfected distillation in the 10th century – Europe than ran with it full hog!)

Muddle 2 big leaves of Fresh Cuban Oregano
1 oz. Orange Blossom Honey infused with Ginger and all spice*
3/4 oz. Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice
2 oz. Don Q Gold
1/8 oz. or bar spoon of Don Q Mojito

Shake with Ice/strain over fresh ice.

Sugarmeg mix:
On a separate plate add sugar and grate whole nutmeg over sugar.

Rim 1/2 glass with sugarmeg mix

Garnish with an Orange Peel and a sprig of Lightly Hand Smacked Fresh Cuban Oregano.

*All spice Honey Ginger Mix
1 part water
1 part Orange Blossom Honey
1 all spice per 2-4 oz. of mix (per taste)
Muddled about 1/2 oz. fresh ginger per 2-4 oz. of mix (per taste)
Heat all ingredients on stove. Remove prior to boiling. Strain with a fine mesh strainer in desired container.

From the earth’s soil grows the simple and pure sugarcane. Harvested and distilled on beautiful islands in the Caribbean and beyond. The spirit created and drank is like a ghost leading us to near mystical experiences and faraway places we wish we could see, those places are the paradises where rum is made. Was rum re-invented or did the four magicians re-invent all of us instead? I would like to think that change and transform we did, from the ancient hills of Rome to the beaches and tiki bars of Key West. A potion of rum handed to us from the new Gods of mixology, that left us wide-eyed and hopeful playing in a sandbox down at mile marker zero. They left us with the ecstasy of a childish grin and those of us yearning for a rum with “somewhereness”. No problem, we all found a home at the Bacchanalia.

Aga and James Hilferty