Hard work and dedication will get you far, but no work and dissipation will get you farther. All the way to the Virgin Islands, in fact. That’s the life lesson we learned last month, when a phone call woke us from a sound sleep at the crack of noon. It was Absolut Spirits rep Chris Patino, asking if we were interested in a junket to St. Croix as the guest of Cruzan Rum, one of the brands in Absolut’s portfolio.
The next thing we knew we were on a Caribbean beach drinking with the other attendees of the Cruzan Legacy Tour, hosted by Absolut’s resident cocktail guru Simon Ford. The group ranged from celebrity mixologists (Francesco Lafranconi, Allen Katz, David Nepove, Michael Trujillo, Jason Girard, Armando Rosario and Arturo Sighinolfi, all associated with Southern Wine & Spirits) to big-time nightclub and bar consultants (Tobin Ellis and John Hogan of BarMagic). Bringing up the rear: two freeloading slackers (yours truly and Wayne Curtis, author of And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails).
What’s the chief topic of conversation when you throw twelve guys together without any women around? You guessed it — cocktails. For the next three days, drinks were not only drunk, but discussed with a passion that males normally reserve for females, cars, or sporting events. When the talk finally did drift toward football, David Nepove, who stands over six feet tall and looks like a linebacker, cast a baleful look at the Bum and confided, “Man, I don’t care about sports. All I want to talk about is cocktails.” Our kind of people.
So is the Nelthropp family, which has been living on St. Croix for eight generations and running the Cruzan distillery for three. Paterfamilias Hardy Nelthropp regaled us with tales from the 1930s, when Cruzan began absorbing the many other rum distilleries then operating on the island. (In those days rum was the life-blood of St. Croix: visitors reported back that the entire island smelled like molasses, the sugar by-product from which rum is distilled; molasses is literally the mortar that holds many of the island’s old brick buildings together.)
Mr. Nelthropp’s son Donny led the distillery tour, guiding us through warehouses full of barrels stacked two stories high, then through a Powerpoint presentation detailing how the rum in those barrels is aged to smooth out the harshness that other, larger rum companies don’t take the time to neutralize. (These companies shall remain nameless, on the off chance that they invite the Bum to their tropical island headquarters).
Donny’s sister Karen then conducted a taste comparison of Cruzan vs. those other rum companies. She remained serenely confident at the sight of so many connoisseurs swirling, sniffing, and judging her rum against its rivals. We soon learned the reason why: Competition is in Karen’s DNA. Throughout our stay, she gleefully led us on a series of challenges: a pop quiz on St. Croix history, a swizzle stick hunt, a test to see which of us so-called experts could identify six different kinds of spirits by scent alone (the Bum scored a dismal two, correctly guessing only gin and vodka).
But it was her cocktail competition that emerged as the highlight of the trip. We were divided into teams, then given 30 minutes to create a drink using only Cruzan rums and ingredients native to the Virgin Islands.
The results opened the Bum’s bloodshot eyes to some new ideas. It had never occurred to him to layer a tropical drink as you would a pousse-cafe (which the team of John Hogan and David Nepove did) or to make an instant infusion of cloves in rum (which Tobin Ellis and Wayne Curtis did). But the real eye-opener was what everyone except the Bum seemed to be doing: muddling. These guys were mashing bananas, watermelons, cucumbers, mangos — just about everything in the room that could be squashed and juiced. The results were stellar: vibrant, nuanced, and truly creative.
For the life of us we couldn’t choose a clear winner, but the Nelthropps had no such problem. You’ll find their pick below. First, the recipes (drink photos courtesy of Tobin Ellis):
CRUZAN MELLOW YELLOW (by Francesco Lafranconi)
In your shaker, muddle 1/2 cup fresh mango chunks in 1 ounce fresh lime juice and 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup. Add 2 ounces Cruzan 2-year Dark rum, half an egg white, and 3 dashes Angostura bitters. Shake with ice, then strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Top with a dash of Cruzan Mango rum and grated cinnamon. Garnish with a mango slice and hibiscus flower.
THE NORIEGA (By Tobin Ellis and Wayne Curtis)
Core 1 whole pineapple, reserving the cored shell. Muddle 1/2 cup of the pineapple meat in your shaker with the juice of half a lime, 1/2 ounce simple syrup, 1/2 ounce Cruzan pineapple rum, 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters, and 2 ounces of clove-infused Cruzan 2-year Dark rum (made by steeping cloves in the rum for 10 minutes and then straining). Shake with ice and strain into the pineapple shell filled with crushed ice (pictured below).
PAPARAZZI’S DEMISE (By Allen Katz)
Dissolve 1/2 ounce clover honey in 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice and 1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice. Pour the mixture into your shaker, adding 2 ounces Cruzan Light rum, 1/2 ounce Cruzan Black Strap rum, and 1 egg white. Shake this all up with ice, then strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh crushed ice. Top with 1/2 ounce club soda. Garnish with 3 dashes of Angostura bitters in the egg white foam. Swirl with a straw and serve.
CITRUS RUSH (by Armando Rosario and Jason Girard)
In your shaker, muddle 2 to 3 orange quarters in 1 ounce fresh lime juice. Add 1 ounce simple syrup and 2 ounces Cruzan Light rum. Shake with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Float 1/2 ounce Cruzan Black Strap rum. Garnish with 2 orange wheels inside glass and a lime wheel on top (pictured below).
BAD AZTEC PUNCH (by Jeff Berry and Simon Ford)
Into your shaker pour 1 ounce fresh lime juice, 1 ounce fresh orange juice, 1 ounce Cruzan 2-year Dark rum, 1 1/2 ounces Cruzan Coconut rum, and 1 1/2 ounces Simon’s pineapple & aniseed simple syrup (made by muddling 4 chunks of pineapple per 1 ounce simple syrup and 2.5 ml essence of anise, a.k.a. aniseed). Shake well with ice, then strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a pineapple leaf and an edible flower.
NICE PEAR OF CRUZANS (by Michael Trujillo and Arturo Sighinolfi)
Cut half a lime into quarters and place in your shaker with 3 lychees and 1/4 ounce pear essence. Muddle. Add 3/4 ounce each Cruzan 151 rum, Cruzan Black Cherry rum, and simple syrup. Shake with ice, then strain into a double rocks glass filled with fresh ice.
INDEPENDENCE DAY PUNCH (by John Hogan and David Nepove)
This is a layered cocktail. Step one: In a tall glass, pour in 1/4 oz grenadine and fill with crushed ice. Step two: In your shaker, muddle a third of a banana in 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice, 1/2 ounce simple syrup, and 1 ounce Cruzan Light rum. Shake this with ice and strain over the grenadine (being careful to layer). Step three: Carefully float 1/2 ounce Cruzan Black Strap rum mixed with 2 dashes Angostura bitters over the banana cocktail layer. Step four: In your shaker, muddle 4 one-inch watermelon cubes and 2 barspoons chopped cucumber in 1/2 ounce simple syrup, 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice, and 1 ounce Cruzan 2-year Dark rum. Shake, then carefully strain over the Black Strap layer. Step five: Whisk an egg white with 1/2 ounce simple syrup, then float the foamed egg white on top of your drink. Garnish with a tropical flower. (Pictured below, undergoing scrutiny by judges Donny Nelthropp and Karen Nelthropp Low.)
And the winner was: the most labor-intensive drink, John and Dave’s Independence Day Punch. Okay, so sometimes hard work really does pay off … but if anyone asks, you didn’t hear that from us.