Rum connoisseur interview of the week:
DAVE CLASSICK Jr & Sr
Owners and distillers at Essential Spirits, makers of Sgt Classick Rums.
1) Who are the “Dave’s”-a.k.a. Essential Spirits?
“The Daves” refers to the father and son distilling team of Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries, based in Mountain View, CA, the heart of Silicon Valley. 20 years ago (when only 6 micro distilleries existed in the entire western region of the United States) our Master Distiller, “Big Dave” Classick, with a dream and desire, and no previous knowledge of distilling, other than the self-trained palette and gastronomy of an accomplished home chef and candy maker, apprenticed at the hands of the man who made our one of a kind (to the USA at least) alembic still, an acclaimed 3rd generation still maker from Bordeaux France. Many mad scientist evenings that followed were spent in the family garage, creating ferments to be distilled and experimenting with flavor profiles and techniques that would eventually lead to the bevy of house brands offered by Essential Spirits today. Son, Dave Jr, then only 15 years old, yet already on a path to Silicon Valley “tech nerd”, (thank Jeebus that path forked…) essentially grew up at the distillery. This sounds much more exciting than the actual existence of scrubbing brew kettles and forklift driving to which he was relegated until he was of legal age to work with the spirits himself. None the less, apprentice he did (with some tasting here and there of course) and over the years, under the watchful eye of Big Dave took on more and more responsibility at the shop, eventually earning the mantle of Head Distiller, and becoming part owner of the business. We have a saying at our shop… “Dave is right”… which of course is always true, in some form or another. Together, father and son have struggled yet persevered, experienced hardships and accolades alike, and continue to enthusiastically participate in the growth of a once nascent industry, clawing its way back from near extinction post prohibition.
2) What made you fall in love with rum and when did it happen?
My earliest memory of rum was sneaking some of great grandmother’s famous rum balls my parents had received as a Christmas present that year… I think I was maybe 10 or 11. I didn’t actually know they contained alcohol (but knowing Momo, they absolutely did, and then some), nor did I really know what rum was… but I knew they were sweet and made me feel “happy”. My desire for the delicious treat grew exponentially when upon finding me sitting around 5 or 6 empty wrappers, my parents scolded me and forbade me from having any more… now they were delicious AND mysterious… I was hooked. That was pretty much the last I messed with rum, until university, where like most American youth, I was introduced to a certain white rum from Cuba (by way of Puerto Rico), that, upon reflection, only allows me to remember the horrible repercussions and wicked hangovers; any memory of the awesome adventures it instigated remain somewhat fuzzy.
It wasn’t actually until we started doing, let’s call it “research”, for the production of our own rum that I came to know the world I had been missing out on for so long. There were so many flavors, so many styles, such sophistication and history from a spirit that up until that point I had only known superficially. So began my real love of Rum… late to the party, but better late than never.
As not just a producer, but also an enthusiast, it’s been my absolute pleasure to serve as a rum-abassador to friends and family, introducing them to my favorites, and sharing the knowledge and history I’ve come to understand about rum over the past 8 or 9 years.
3) The biggest achievement you personally feel you have accomplished for the rum industry.
At Essential Spirits, we pretty much had two main goals… 1) to hone our expertise while continuing to create world class spirits, and 2) To create a distilling dynasty, where the education, and passion for the art of distilling may be passed down through generations to come. Having slugged it out for over 19 years now, we feel that although we are constantly learning, and improving, we are well on our way to accomplishing these goals. Dave Jr alone has over 4000 distillations under his belt, and grows each day under the tutelage of our Master Distiller, “Big Dave”, looking forward to a lifetime dedicated to the craft. With regards to our rum offerings, the main goal was to create a wonderful “spiritual” representation of Hawaiian cane/molasses, which we felt was woefully under-represented in the world market for rum.
4) What is that thing that makes you want to continue in the rum industry?
What’s not to like about rum? It’s sweet, or dry, can be simple yet complex, serious yet whimsical. There is rum for every occasion, and occasion for every rum! Being a part of that storied history is a very special thing. On a more personal note, I (Dave Jr) drink rum as my preferred “neat” drink. In that, there is the opportunity to experience so many flavors, so much… spirit…. of the regions from which they’re born… plus, there’s always the tease of getting to travel to far off exotic locations and visit other rum distilleries…for “research”.
5) Favorite Drink + Recipe
If I’m not drinking Sgt Classick Gold rum in one of our signature drinks (i.e. The Dude-man Drew: half Sgt Classick Gold Rum, half pineapple juice, with a splash of cane cola), my favorite cocktail alternates between:
Corn’n’Oil, (with crushed /pebble ice instead of cubes, and 3, not 2, dashes of Angostura bitters)
- 2 oz Blackstrap rum (I prefer Mount Gay 1703)
- .5 oz John D. Taylor’s Velvet falernum
.5 oz Lime juice
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Barbancourt 15 Cap’Haitian
which I was introduced to by one of the first Masters of the Cove™ and long time bay area rum/tiki enthusiast, Mark Holt.
- 2 ½ ounces Barbancourt 15-year-old rum (or mix Barbancourt white with an aged rum such as Bacardi 8)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons honey, to taste (the drink will mix easier if the honey is diluted with an equal amount of hot water)
- 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
6) Where do you see the rum industry today and in the next 5 years?
This, as it turns out, is a pretty complex question. As the craft spirits industry in the US has grown, so too has consumer education. As a result, there has been a concerted effort by some to define what actually constitutes “rum”, and of course as the old adage goes, opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one. I believe certain trade associations have been established to try and bring some order to the labeling requirements for rum, at least domestically produced, as well as some unification as to recipes, ingredients, adjuncts, etc. How successful they will be, I’m not sure, but as long as distillers keep making distillates from sugar, I’m sure I’ll find a nice quiet hammock to lounge in and enjoy them.
7) Share some of your mentors and how they have influenced you.
In addition to the local giants in our industry, Hubert Germain-Robin, Lance Winters, and Jorg Rupf, who were early inspirations to us in this venture, we also had the great fortune of befriending some serious enthusiasts nearby who have not only helped elevate our appreciation for the world of rum, but have also fostered the introduction to and education of the entire silicon valley with respect to rum. Martin Cate, of Smugglers Cove, SF, “TikiTastic” Mark Holt and “Kahuna Kevin” LaBounty, along with the now peerless Bryan Davis from Lost Spirits, have all greatly contributed to both our drive and passion for rum at Essential Spirits. Their hard work, dedication to rum ethos, and willingness to help me create and taste new recipes a moment’s notice has certainly been instrumental in our growth as a manufacturer of this divine nectar.
8) What 3-5 things do you have on your bucket list for the next 12 month?
For the last 6 years, we’ve been quietly aging and tasting some barrels of Sgt Classick rum, and just this week, we finally committed to starting our añejo program; putting aside a number of barrels to age for at least 5-10 years. After having tasted the test batches… well, the only thing I can say is, we are very excited for the future. Additionally, we will be experimenting with some new worts/ferments in the never-ending quest to produce world class spirits. And finally, we are looking to expand, both our space and eventually our team!!! The idea of getting to build out a shop specific to our needs is thrilling, considering when we opened our doors oh so many years ago, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and only by great chance does our forklift fit between our tanks and our still.
9) Any final thoughts?
When we first released our Sgt Classick rums, 100% of the molasses we used was sourced from the island of Kaua’i and at the time, we were the only producer of rums made using Hawaiian molasses. However, since nothing on the internet ever dies, there exists today several trade articles and reviews suggesting that we are the only Hawaiian rum being produced. Obviously some people read that and take offense, usually for 1 of 2 reasons: 1) our rums are not actually produced IN Hawai’i or 2) since the release of those articles, a few other distilleries were founded on the various islands, meaning we’re no longer the sole producers of rum made from Hawaiian molasses. Additionally, some have made the point (sometimes quite rudely in fact) that the island of Kaua’i is no longer processing sugar cane. When the last plantation shut down on Kaua’i, we sourced a few batches of molasses from Maui, but eventually, even that closed down as well and as of January 2016 there are no longer any active sugar plantations in Hawai’i. (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/hawaii-s-last-sugar-plantation-finishes-its-final-harvest-n695396) This is obviously an issue for our humble distillery, as we no longer have access to one of the main components that made our rum so special. Fortunately, we still have a supply of those original batches, sitting at high proof, waiting to be bottled… but down the road, who knows. We just want people to know that we understand things have changed, but we have never misrepresented our efforts or our award winning product, and we encourage all who wish to sample the Spirit of Hawai’i ™ to track down a bottle of Sgt Classick Rum while you still can.
10) How can people learn more about you? Website? Social Media Page?
We are very active on facebook for both the distillery (http://www.facebook.com/EssentialSpiritsDistilleries ) and our rum brand (http://www.facebook.com/SgtClassick) as well as on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/essentialspirits/