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Rum Runner

How Ed Hamilton smuggled his way to the top of the Ministry of Rum

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Last Tuesday, Edward "the Minister of Rum" Hamilton was waiting for an e-mail from the U.S. Department of Customs about the status of a truckload of Lemon Hart 151. Just that afternoon he'd FedExed a $51,568.16 check to pay the federal excise taxes, and he was anxious to get the cases out to his distributors.

Hamilton, who runs MinistryofRum.com as well as a small import business, is widely regarded as the world's foremost expert on sugarcane spirits. The author of two books on the subject, his heart is really in the rhum agricole of the French West Indies, which is distilled from fermented sugarcane juice and makes up only about 2 percent of the rums on the market.

So Lemon Hart 151—which is distilled from molasses like most of the rest—is a departure from his small portfolio. A legendary highpowered Guyanese dark—or demerara—rum, it's an essential ingredient in many classic tiki cocktails. According to tiki historian Jeff Berry, it was one of the few rums rivals Trader Vic Bergeron and Don the Beachcomber called for by name in drinks such as the Tortuga, the Tiki Puka Puka, the Test Pilot, and the Cobra's Fang. Bartenders all over town are clamoring for it, though there are a few bottles left at the Lakeview Binny's. Paul McGee considered himself lucky to score a case last March, and has used it in several drinks for his bimonthly tiki nights at the Whistler. "It's really different from any other 151-proof rum I've ever tasted," he says. "It has a richness that others don't have." Mike Ryan at Sable mixes it with house-made horchata in the Teacup River (see the recipe on the Food Chain), but only has a case left. "When it comes in I will definitely be picking some up," he says.

Still, a few years ago the brand—born in 1804 when Lehmynn Hart became the first rum supplier to the Royal Navy—wasn't a huge seller for the spirits megaconglomerate Pernod Ricard, which stopped marketing it. But last year Hamilton rescued it from oblivion when a small cache of 450 cases was discovered in a warehouse, and he made sure it got into hands of guys like McGee, Ryan, and King Cocktail Dale DeGroff. Then Montreal-based Mosaiq Inc., who bought it last year, enlisted Hamilton as the sole U.S. importer. The shipment, due in stores as of July 6, is the first new bottling, and a load off the minds of tiki enthusiasts everywhere.

Hamilton, who's 56, thinks it's funny that he's now writing fat checks to customs, since he used to spend much of his time dodging liquor taxes. A former chemical engineer who grew up sailing off the east coast of Florida, he spent a few years racing Lake Michigan in the 70s while working for a company that made parts for cruise missiles. "We were basically making shit to kill people," he says. "And I said, I don't want to be doing this." Setting a goal to buy his own boat and live out his own Jimmy Buffett song, he found work teaching sailing in California, then put in time with a boat manufacturer in Taiwan. When that company went bankrupt, he traveled all over the South Pacific—Singapore, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines—working computers on oil rigs, making good money and having a good time. "In '83 or so, you could not eat, drink, and fuck 20 bucks' worth a night in Manila," he says.

Five years later he was living on a 38-foot sloop, supporting himself by smuggling rum between Saint Thomas and the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, where he was based. "Rum was $1.99 a bottle," he says. "In Puerto Rico it was $9 a bottle. I'd say 'Hey, I'm going to Saint Thomas. I don't know when I'm coming back but if you want a case of rum put in an order." Twenty cases of Cruzan per boatload could net him $600, which was good money, but eventually not enough to get by on. One night in 1993 he had an epiphany while staring at the full moon over the ocean through the bottom of a glass of ti' punch, the rum, cane syrup, and wedge of lime potion that's the traditional drink of choice in the French West Indies.

Rum, as Hamilton often points out, is the world's most diverse distilled spirit. You have white rum, dark rum, flavored rum, those made from fermented sugarcane juice or molasses, blended or single cask, aged and unaged, filtered or unfiltered—not to mention cachacas from Brazil. He vowed to sail the islands visiting every distillery he could find, and tell the story of each rum he tasted.

"I found 150 rums my first trip—35 distilleries in three months," he says, and spent the next two years collecting more before returning to Chicago during hurricane season to self-publish Rums of the Eastern Caribbean. When he returned to the sea, he embarked on a program of illicit self-distribution: "I ended up smuggling books up and down the islands," he says, and selling them to gift shops. "In Antigua the duty on books is 35 percent. The duty on alcohol is 15 percent. They tax intelligence more than they tax alcohol."

In 1997 he published a follow-up, The Complete Guide to Rum: An Authoritative Guide to Rums of the World. In that year, he says, Sam's Liquors stocked only seven different bottles. Today the Marcey Street Binny's that replaced it stocks at least 100, part of a worldwide growth Hamilton has both documented and helped to foster.

Both books are now out of print—he lost 400 copies of the second title in 2001, when he hit some rocks off Antigua and sank his boat. (A used copy of the first guide is currently listed on Amazon for $315.) He's been working on a new volume to include more rums from all over the world and the rums of the new craft distillers' movement. But it's going slow. "A little thing got in the way called the Internet," he says. "What I recognized is, people don't really want to listen to me talk about rum or write about rum. They want to know what's the best rum. 'Where can I buy it?'" To that end, Hamilton launched the Ministry of Rum site, which includes numerous reviews and articles and a forum where about 5,000 rum geeks obsess over flavor profiles, distillation methods, or where to find high-ester rum.

Hamilton keeps his credibility among site members by not shilling his own brands of Martinique rhum agricole, which he began importing five years ago. Not that he needs to. Last week five of his eight rums placed among the top picks in a New York Times tasting, including the panel's top pick, La Favorite Martinique Rhum, from one of the few family-owned distilleries left in the West Indies. "My phone's been ringing off the hook," he says.

These days Hamilton only gets to spend a month or two in the islands—much of his time is taken up consulting with liquor companies, training brand ambassadors, and hosting events like last week's Rumfest at the Bottom Lounge, where 302 attendees sipped from some 100 different bottles. And though he has a bigger boat now, he no longer needs to smuggle rum or books. 

E-mail Mike Sula at msula@chicagoreader.com.

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