Rum Champions: Will Hoekenga

The rum industry is full of passionate people who’re dedicated to changing the perception of rum. And The Rum Ration is keen to share stories that capture the passion of what makes people from all walks of life fall in love with the spirit. Introducing Rum Champions, an interview series that puts the spotlight on the folks who’re making the rum community such a joy to be a part of.

The first guest is the co-host of Rumcast and founder of American Rum Report, Will Hoekenga. Will is doing some great work with promoting the emerging American rum category and spreading the gospel of rum all over the world with the podcast. Read on to discover what got him into rum, what types he’d recommend and his historical drinking partner of choice.

The Rum Ration: Cheers for taking the time to talk Will. Between co-hosting the awesome Rumcast podcast and running American Rum Report you must have quite the busy schedule. it’d be great to hear how you first fell down the rum rabbit hole.

Will Hoekenga: Thank you for having me! I’m definitely keeping busy with rum these days. My initial plunge down the rum rabbit hole all goes back to drinking a mai tai in Hawaii on my honeymoon in 2012.

It wasn’t exactly an authentic Trader Vic recipe mai tai, but it was in the ballpark enough to make me realise the drink wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. It was a golden-brown colour rather than neon red. It was balanced rather than syrupy sweet.

A couple years later, I decided I wanted to make one back home during the dead of winter in hopes of transporting my mind to warmer days. That’s when I learned about the original Trader Vic recipe, the existence of multiple types of rum beyond simply “light” and “dark” (insert eyeroll), and the hints of rum’s long and complicated history. Next thing I knew, I was on the hunt for aged Jamaican rum and rhum agricole vieux, tumbling in headfirst.

I do still love cocktails, but these days it’s the rum itself that occupies most of my mind.

Rumcast is a great podcast for learning more about rum.

The Rum Ration: What inspired you to start Rumcast with John Gulla and what has the feedback been like for the podcast so far?

Will Hoekenga: The inspiration for the podcast came from simply wishing that an in-depth, interview-focused rum podcast existed! John and I met at the 2019 Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami and shortly after discovered we both independently shared the same wish. So, we decided to make it ourselves.

So far, the feedback has been great. We’ve heard some version of “I’ve been wanting a rum podcast like this” from a lot of people, which is exactly what we were hoping to hear! 

The Rum Ration: On the first episode, I was drawn to the phrase you used about being a citizen of the world when it comes to rum. What are some of your favourite styles?

Will Hoekenga: I frustrate my wife endlessly because anytime she asks me about my favourite anything—whether it’s a movie, TV show, restaurant, whatever—I almost universally respond with, “It depends,” and then don’t really give a straight answer. I’m terrible at choosing favourites!

I will say that currently I’ve been on a Barbados and Jamaican rum kick. As the weather keeps getting warmer, I’ll probably start drifting into agricoles and cane juice rums more often as well.

I’m also fascinated with rum producers who are still in the process of finding themselves a bit. I always tell people that’s one of the things I find enjoyable about following the American rum landscape. Sure, you’re going to encounter plenty of unremarkable spirits (as is the case with any category of craft spirits), but you’re also increasingly seeing producers who are really starting to figure some stuff out. It’s fun to be able to taste the evolution in their products as they learn, tweak, and grow.

American Rum Report offers insight into the latest news from the American rum industry.

The Rum Ration: The American Rum Report provides some great insight into what’s happening in the US market right now. What do you think is distinctive about the American style?

Will Hoekenga: Thank you! And actually, I’ll give a similar answer to the end of my previous one—what’s distinctive about American rum to me is that it’s evolving. It’s still figuring itself out. There isn’t a single cohesive style with the kind of living history you’ll find in many countries throughout the Caribbean.

As time goes on, I do think you’ll start to see more distinctive regional styles develop throughout the U.S. Kind of like how there’s not really one style of American barbecue (Memphis is the best, fight me), I don’t think there will be one style of American rum.

You’re going to see more fresh cane juice rums in the cane-growing regions of the country. You’re going to continue seeing regions that do have rum history coalescing around a style and fine tuning its characteristics (like New England rum).

That said, there are certain characteristics you can already find more often in the U.S. than in other places, like aging in new American oak barrels rather than used bourbon barrels.

The Rum Ration: Which American distillers do you feel are leading the way for the rum revolution in the US?  

Will Hoekenga: Ahhh, that’s tough because I don’t want to leave anyone out. The obvious choices you absolutely can’t ignore are Maggie Campbell (Privateer Rum), Karen Hoskin (Montanya Distillers), Erik Vonk (Richland Distilling)…what they’ve managed to accomplish, both in terms of the rums they make and how they’re expanding their businesses and reach, is really commendable.

You also have to include Bayou Rum, which has a ton of market share and might be reaching more people than any other modern U.S. brand right now.

Phil Prichard (Prichard’s) has to be mentioned too, as he was one of the firstpeople to show you actually could make American rum and people would pay attention.

I also don’t want to overlook Puerto Rico, which has its own distinctive rum identity and history, but is absolutely part of American rum as well. I really like the direction Don Q is heading with their limited releases, and there are a number of super interesting craft producers on the island who are just getting started as well. Destileria Coqui is making a batch distilled rum that’s aged in new American oak barrels for three years then bottled unfiltered at cask strength that blew me away.

I never expected to find a rum like that in Puerto Rico! Then you have San Juan Artisan Distillers, which is growing its own cane and making cane juice rum just outside San Juan. Lots of interesting stuff happening there! 

Apologies in advance because I know I’m forgetting a handful of people and companies I should be mentioning right now.

The Rum Ration: If you could share a bottle of rum with anyone in history, who would it be?

Will Hoekenga: OK, first we have to establish my criteria here.

If I’m sharing a bottle of rum with this person, I want it to be with someone I know enjoys rum. One of my least favourite feelings is experiencing something I love with someone who I know is just not into it. Like, I can’t watch a favourite movie with someone who I know won’t enjoy it. It makes me feel so uncomfortable. 

This person needs to be sociable and capable of having fun. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was a fascinating person…but would he be a good hang? I just don’t know.

They have to carry the weight in the conversation. If we’re splitting a whole bottle of rum, we’re gonna be there awhile. I’m looking for a skilled conversationalist who can navigate us through any awkward silences or lulls.

With all that in mind, I’m going to go with Joe Scialom. You can read all about him in Jeff Berry’s excellent book Potions of the Caribbean, but I’ll try to give you the short version. Joe was a bartender who got his start at the Shepheard’s Hotel Long Bar in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1930s, where he created the Suffering Bastard cocktail. He served everyone from Winston Churchill to the king of Egypt to Charlton Heston. He eventually ended up at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after he was imprisoned in Egypt for suspected espionage. 

There’s a lot more to the story, but the point is…he knows rum, he would have tons of unbelievable stories, and he would be a great hang. Joe checks all my boxes!

The Rum Ration: For people who’re only just getting into rum, what kind of festivals would you recommend visiting?

Will Hoekenga: I’ve been to festivals put on by the Rum Lab and the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival and would recommend both. The Rum Lab does festivals across the U.S. throughout the year. I’ve heard great things about the UK RumFest but haven’t been yet. Someday! 

The Rum Ration: Are there any kinds of unusual rum you’d like to try in the future? 

Will Hoekenga: Oh yes — all of them! I’d love to try more of the cane juice rums made throughout the world that aren’t widely distributed (or in some cases distributed at all) in the U.S. More clairins, more charanda, more of the rums from Mauritius and Reunion.

The Rum Ration: Without giving too much away about the future of Rumcast, what’s one episode you’re excited to release soon?

Will Hoekenga: We’re in the process of scheduling an interview with someone involved with Velier that I know will be fantastic.

The Rum Ration: What would you change about the rum industry?

Will Hoekenga: Man, that is a question that demands a complex answer and I would nominate much smarter people than myself to answer it!

In general, a few things come to mind:

  • A greater emphasis on sustainability (some producers are doing great work with sustainability, and I’d love to see more follow in their footsteps).
  • More localised sugarcane production where possible and economically feasible. 
  • Codified and respected standards of identity that enhance quality without restricting freedom too much (the Barbados and Jamaica GIs both fall in this category to me).
  • Greater transparency—a label should tell you if anything other than water has been added to rum.

Giving those answers is easy, of course. The hard part is figuring out how to make them happen.

If you’d like to learn more about Will’s rum adventures, then be sure to check out American Rum Report or listen to Rumcast. You won’t be disappointed.


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