RumFest: So what’s it all about? Let us tell you…
RumFest is now in its fifth year and, as the name suggests, it is the UK’s premier festival of rum. Rum distilleries from all over the world (if you thought rum was exclusively Caribbean, you were wrong), gather under one roof to display their wares old and new and give people a chance to sample them.
The kid in a sweet shop analogy just doesn’t apply here. It’s more like being in the warehouse where all the world’s best sweetshops keep their finest sweets, and the shop owners are giving them away to you for free. That’s how RumFest feels. It’s no wonder people all across the country woke up on Monday in a daze, with the taste of rum plastered to the inside of their mouth and the hazy recollection they had a Great Time.
In theory, you pay about £20 for a basic, one-day ticket to attend on either the Saturday or Sunday (a VIP ticket is around £40; or about £40 for a weekend ticket), you receive your five rum tokens and these are in turn exchanged for a small, 10ml rum sample. In practice, many of these rum exhibitors are keen to promote their brand, so you’re only likely to part with a token for a super-premium rum sample – say, a rum that would normally retail at £90 per bottle, or a long cocktail. As the day draws and stocks diminish, tokens may be asked for, but to be honest, by the last hour we were almost throwing our tokens away.
All around us, people were sporting free hats, dancing in conga lines and wearing the broadest smiles they could fit on their faces. Even so, RumFest isn’t an excuse for a piss up, this is serious, dammit. As well as John Q Public and the casual rum lover, RumFest draws in the finest rum craftsmen and distillers, the best mixologists and barmen, leading spirit merchants and distributors, and the keenest rum aficionados and connoisseurs. These people want to know more about the rum industry, be it to see how their business will fare in the coming months, or simply to grow their passion. To this end, educational seminars take place throughout the weekend. This year included seminars from Diplomatico’s master distiller Tito Cordero, who guided attendees through the Diplomatico range and its production; the history of naval rum with Ed Hamilton; and a seminar on the creation of the St. Lucia distillery rums. Downstairs in the food court, there were cookery related seminars – pairing rum with chocolate, or making rum cakes, and so on.
These were free to attend and booked out well within the first hour of RumFest opening its doors, and their value and popularity cannot be understated, I do feel they were somewhat flawed. The ‘Floridita Rum Room’ where the non-food seminars took place, though grand in name, was merely a boxed off area on the main floor in a corner. While earnest students of rum sat in a ready-made classroom, on the other side of a cracker-thin partition wall a rambunctious carnival was taking place amongst the exhibition stands. The theory was all well and good, but there was a constant itch, a yearning, to be out there doing the practical.
Ideally, the seminar room would be located in the quieter food court area, where there were acres of empty space to play with.
Really, apart from the ‘Hidden Trails’ VIP bar, a scant handful of rum cake stalls, and one stand selling fresh coconuts, the only thing in the food court was a long queue. Rumour had it a food vendor was on the other end, but most people left the queue for more free rum upstairs or died on their feet. Sure, it’s not about the food, but if an event is open for six hours, and you’re plying hundreds, maybe thousands, of people with a near endless supply of rum, more than one food vendor is needed.
It doesn’t even need to be Caribbean style cooking. Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary has legitimately and permanently connected rum to burgers, for example. Ultimately, despite the appearance of space in the lower area, it may come down to logistical impracticalities with the venue.
RumFest is clearly popular, and many of the visitors and exhibition staff we spoke to stated it was busier than last year. On occasion it was a bit of a scrum moving from one part of the venue to another. It would be good to see RumFest upgraded to a bigger venue in the coming years before its own success kills it.
The Best Bits:
- Getting there early, and taking advantage of the generosity and enthusiasm of the staff early on.
- Finding stuff you’ve never heard of and absolutely loving it. Seek out the unknown.
- Appreciating more ‘common’ brands in a whole new way. Kudos to Havana Club for only serving unusual cocktails at their bar, like the La Dida with Hemingway.
- The lax policy regarding the vouchers. Allows you to taste some distiller’s entire range, plus cocktails without exchanging any more than a smile.
- Most bartenders are generous with their time as well as their rum. Happy to chat for ages.
- A refreshing lack of hawkers/crap being dumped on you every ten metres, like some festivals.
- Being able to talk to the people who know the most, and care the most, about their product.
- A fantastic atmosphere that captures the rum category perfectly: adventurous, friendly, non-violent and really experimental. Above all: fun.
The Worst Bits:
- Poorly planned food area made a food break almost impossible. Stock up on rum cake or go hungry waiting.
- Seminars were too few and too long, taking a lot of time away from the best parts of the festival, meeting people and drinking their rum.
- Insane decision to install some bars on two-inch raised platforms that you couldn’t see until you were tripping over them.
- Felt slightly cramped later on, making it difficult for the carnival dancers and staff to get around, never mind the punters.
- As with any festival/trade event, there are a lot of people just out for what they can get. Avoid these people.