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Denizen Merchant’s Reserve celebrates the heritage of the original Rum Runners

October 22, 2014

Denizen Merchant’s Reserve has made a splash in the sea of recently released premium rums.

Whether it’s garnering accolades from expert spirit panels like the Ultimate Spirits Challenge organized by one of the world’s foremost spirits authorities, F. Paul Pacault, or shaking up the rum world with a long list of praise from the industry’s top critics and bloggers, Merchant’s Reseverve has left its mark early on in its existence.

We owe this to the skilled craftsmanship of our Master Blenders at E.A Scheer in Amsterdam, who have been importing rums from the Caribbean and blending them for the European market for nearly three centuries. While the term “Rum Runner” has its roots in Prohibition, there can be no doubt that this is the real origin of the practice.




Recently we’ve discovered that our blend has also stirred up something of a controversy in the fanatical world of tiki culture with diehard fans of one of the flagship cocktails of Tiki taking sides.

When we set out to define what our new product (what would later be dubbed Denizen Merchant’s Reserve) would be, we were keen to the idea of creating an aged, amber blend that could be a counter-point to our critically acclaimed aged white rum.

As we honed in on the concept and profile, we continued to stumble upon a couple of things: we wanted the thread that made its way throughout our blends to be the high ester “funky” pot-still style rums that come from Jamaica, where the tradition of rum-making runs as deep as any cultural phenomena on the island nation.

Secondly, we kept coming across the famous Mai Tai as the benchmark cocktail for which to blind taste-test these blends as we honed in on the desired flavor profile.

Furthermore, it should go without saying the Mai Tai deserves its day in the sun as the simple, balanced showcase for rich flavorful rums as it was meant to be by its inventor, none other than tiki progenitor Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron.

And so, the Mai Tai became a mascot, of sorts, as Merchant’s Reserve began to take shape.


 This is where the story begins of how Merchant’s Reserve has rocked the rum boat a bit:


After tasting through dozens of blends against some of our favorite rums, and in our favorite cocktails, we were confident that we had found our ideal. We took a sample to our friend, long time supporter of Denizen, and tiki historian, Martin Cate at Smuggler’s Cove. What Martin told us was a revelation that made us do a double take; we may have just walked into making a Mai Tai blend that was even more true to the long since defunct blend that Trader Vic himself may have used in his potion.

According to legend, Trader Vic used J. Wray and Nephew 17 year aged rum from Jamaica in his original Mai Tai recipe. As the story goes, a confluence of factors including the enormous popularity of the Mai Tai and of tiki culture at large diminished the stocks of the long matured rum.  With the Mai Tai being a cornerstone of Vic’s operation and being the shrewd business man that he was, eventually Vic opted to utilize a blend of younger Jamaican rum and rum from Martinique.  As a young bartender and Tiki aficionado, I myself had always tinkered with a number of rum blends including not only Jamaican and agricole Martinique rums from fresh pressed cane, but also rums from Guyana, for example to add richness and depth to the original 1944 Mai Tai (Rum, lime, orange curaçao, orgeat and sugar as needed according to the level of sweetness of my almond syrup.)

To us, this possibility is less a dogmatic call to arms to affront the Tiki Faithful who adhere to the split of Jamaican and Agricole rums, but moreover another fascinating chapter in the ever unfolding story of this legendary drink and its rightful place as a gateway to all things Tiki. You can find more of an in-depth discussion of the Mai Tai from our friends Kevin Upthegrove at 5 Minutes of Rum and Helena Tiare Olsen at A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Let me be clear; we love Denizen Merchant’s Reserve as much on its own, in an Old Fashioned, Brooklynite, or any other number of classic rum cocktails, but the Mai Tai…oh, the Mai Tai.

To quote our friend and cocktail journalist Josh Miller from his wonderful Inuakena blog…

“…And while Denizen Merchant’s Reserve can definitely stand on its own, it absolutely sings in a Mai Tai.”

Hear, hear.

So what’s with all this talk about blending rums?

For centuries, a largely under recognized craft has been shaping the industry of rum. Of course, that craft is Blending. While this process is a large part of the discussion when we learn the basics of some other spirits, most notably Scotch whiskey, it is not often discussed in rum making. Rather, one of the first things that many people tend to want to know about rum is its geographical source of origin. The first question is always “Where is it from?”

This is probably party due to the strong nationalistic association of the longstanding traditions in the Caribbean of distilling rums according to the European nations that colonized the different islands. English pot-still styles are largely associated with Jamaica et al while the Spanish speaking isles of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic tend towards lighter, column still rums, and of course the French agricole styles of Martinique and Haiti. There is much more that can be explored here and we recommend Dave Broom’s compendium on the subject for thorough breakdown of all things RUM.

While many  brands do not tend to tout the process of blending that takes place across the industry to varying degrees, there have been a breadth of new rum brands in recent years that  celebrate a resurgence of old style rums such as the colonial American style of Medford rum being produced once again in New England and also rums that have a more international provenance, being a blend of styles from different islands.

This is where Denizen comes in: We are proud to celebrate this centuries old tradition of blending rums for a desired flavor profile. We also are very proud of our sources and dedicated to protecting their survival, which is always threatened by monolithic corporate brands that undercut the industry with government aid, tax cuts and building new distilleries using tax dollars in havens such as the British Virgin Islands and U.S. controlled Puerto Rico. We will tackle this subject and mount the soap box in another post.

So: what are the sources of Denizen Merchant’s Reserve?

The Jamaican rums are a blend of Plummer (the second highest esters on the scale) pot-stilled rums sourced from Worthy Park, Hampden, New Yarmouth, and Clarendon estates, comprising a large portion of Jamaica’s remaining traditional rum distilleries.

Worthy Park, in particular, is an estate known for its  slow-working yeasts used during the fermentation process to contribute the high ester “heauxgeaux” flavors that we so desired for the blend.

From Martinique, we have sought out a rare molasses-based Rhum component created at the Le Galion S.A.E.M distillery, not rhum agricole and not  just rhum traditionnel, but a sub-category called rhum grande arôme, which uses both an extra long fermentation period and some spent wash to create a more high ester, funky rum. These rums are prized for their particular affinity for blending with high ester Jamaican rums and brought an edge to this blend that really pull it out of the glass, aromatically.

A little over half of the blend (60%)  is aged in second-fill American Oak  barrels for eight years, hence the age statement, and then all of the rums are blended to 43% (86 proof) for a bit of an edge that can stand up to the Mai Tai for which we are so thirsty.

So in summary, while we hadn’t necessarily set out to create some sort of polemical statement on the history of the Mai Tai or start any debates, we are quite happy that Merchant’s Reserve has driven the discussion forward.

I think we all can agree that a little historical discourse has never tasted so good.

So let’s raise a glass to the long tradition of sugar cane spirits and to their rich past, present, and future.


Marshall Altier


Photo credit: Nick Feris,


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