Rum Champions: John Gulla

Rum Champions is all about sharing the stories of the folks who’re passionate about making, promoting and talking rum. An awesome resource that deals with those last two points is Rumcast, a podcast that’s hosted by John Gulla and Will Hoekenga. 

It was a pleasure to interview John about his journey into rum and what inspired him to set up the podcast. Read on to discover John’s thoughts on how rum compares to bourbon, the state of the rum industry in Miami and the famous historical characters he’d share a tot with. 

The Rum Ration: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat John. It’s been great to listen to you and your cohort Will Hoekenga on The Rumcast sharing stories about the people who’re leading the way for the rum revolution. What inspired you to start the podcast?

John Gulla: Well, first and foremost, I’d like to say thanks for listening! It’s really great to know that people find value in what Will and I are creating, and I truly believe the best is yet to come with it as we build on the platform we’ve created.  

To answer your question: As a podcast listener, I found myself sitting in my car in traffic wishing there were more rum-specific content out there in that format as I was diving deep into learning more about rum as a spirit category, its versatility, and its rich history. 

Of course, there are great books out there as well as other mediums for learning, but you can’t read while driving (especially in Miami traffic–let me tell you!) and I also found that my daily commute was one of the places I typically had the most time to myself for engaging in whatever it was I wanted to know more about. 

So, with that in my mind at the time, I went off to the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in 2019 and happened to meet Will there.  After seeing him host a panel there and a brief discussion, I thought to myself, “now there is someone who would be cool to do a podcast with!” The rest, of course, is (fairly recent) podcast history.  

In a way, I think Will was part of the inspiration, as I believed in his ability to bring a good product to the market, and I felt strongly that there was indeed an appetite for it (myself included). I also have a background in music and am no stranger to audio editing or performing, so I felt like that made for a good basis to start.    

The Rum Ration: Having listened to the podcast, I found it interesting that you came over to rum from the bourbon world. What qualities do you feel bourbon and rum have in common?

Yeah, I think a lot of folks who are connoisseurs of other spirits are beginning to discover premium rum for two major reasons: The first is that rum is making good strides in educating and gaining a reputation for being equal (or better!) to other spirits that are considered as high-end sipping spirits, e.g. single-Malt scotch, bourbon, etc. This is one area that Will and I hope to contribute to with The Rumcast over time. 

The second reason is that those other markets are getting incredibly exclusive, expensive, and competitive, to the point where consumers and enthusiasts like me begin to feel excluded because we either simply cannot find (or cannot afford) a significant portion of the products that are considered most worthy of experiencing within those categories.  

I think consumers are beginning to look for other, similar experiences where there are excellent and affordable products that merit our time, money, and attention.  Like many others, I feel strongly that rum offers perhaps the most diverse selection of any spirit, and that many premium rums offer an incredible value based on the quality of the spirit –especially in direct comparison to those other categories and their exorbitant prices.  

As a bourbon drinker, I was always looking for a drink that suited my palate, which is something with good wood characteristics, a little smoke, a slightly sweet undercurrent, balance and an overall complexity and viscosity that activated all of my taste buds when experienced neat.  

I also appreciated the higher ABV and cask-strength versions offered in many bourbons.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that aged rum was not only capable of producing this similar experience to what I wanted from bourbon, but that it was decidedly better at delivering it.  

I’m even more excited now to see rum distilleries and independent bottlers offering cask strength and single barrel versions of their products for enthusiasts like myself.  I still appreciate a good bourbon, but after learning how broad a category rum is by comparison, how many excellent varieties and styles of rum exist, and the many different places and cultures which it is made, I was completely and utterly hooked on rum.  

The Rum Ration: As you’re from Miami, what kind of rums would you recommend trying from your local area? 

John Gulla: This is a great question that I wish I had a better answer for!  There are some local rum distillers, but I regret to say I don’t have much experience with them yet.  Hoping to change that in the near future.  

In terms of the Miami area as a whole, I think the South Florida rum market is a difficult one to crack.  As most people know, we are very multicultural here, with a large Hispanic population, but also with decent-sized populations of many other cultures, too.  

Nevertheless, the Spanish-style of rum really dominates the market (or at least the expectation of what rum “is” for a high majority). As such, it’s more difficult than you may imagine to find some of the really interesting rums that rum connoisseurs would typically look for (the high-end independent bottlers, limited releases, cask strength).  

What we do have is pretty good access to a lot of the really great South and Central American rum producer’s lines.  The Florida Rum Society (FRS), which I am a member of, has made some strides recently with showing that there is a market for more great, high-end rums to be distributed in FL, and it is my hope that the effort will extend more into South Florida soon. 

I’m hoping to get some FRS local rum events going once the COVID-19 health concerns are lessened. We already have amazing rum festivals and large events here in Miami, but I want to complement that with getting the local rum community together for more intimately-sized, but perhaps more focused events like I’ve seen happen in Central Florida.         

The Rum Ration: The American rum market feels like it’s starting to really take off. Do you feel there are any specific characteristics that separate the American style from other varieties?

John Gulla: I’m excited for what American rum has been able to do over the past few years and I can’t wait to see where it goes with more aged stock and experienced distillers continuing in the traditions that are being built right now.  Having said that, my answer as to whether there are specific “American” characteristics is: NO.  The reason for that answer, though, may be the more interesting part.  

The United States covers a fairly large geographic area, includes so many distinct cultures, and various different traditions based on these areas and cultures.  With that being the case, I think the rums developed in one region of the USA–say the Northeast– can be significantly different than rums being produced in another region, like in the South or the West. I think that’s a great thing, but I also think it makes it very difficult to say that American rum has a specific or dominant characteristic across the board.  So, I’m willing to say that a region within the USA may at some future point develop a certain unique characteristic or profile, but I’m hesitant to say that the country will develop one – and I’m not even sure it really wants to!   

The Rum Ration: Something that’s struck me about premium rum is how affordable it is compared to other high-end spirits like a Scotch. What do you believe is the reason behind this?

John Gulla: It’s a really good question worth exploring, with the hopes of preventing the same things from happening to rum in the future.  As I mentioned previously, I got out of exploring bourbon due to the insane pricing and lack of availability of the really high-end stuff.  I never even started with scotch because it felt like it was out of my price range to get the type of quality product I wanted in the first place. 

When you think scotch: what are the first thoughts that come into your head? For me, it conjures images of distinguished sipping; home bar carts with crystal decanters located in or near a home library; a large, cozy chair sat next to a warming fireplace and a classic novel sitting half-open nearby. 

I think that scotch has done a great job at conveying this image, and thus creating a perceived value behind it. Likewise, I think the scotch industry has done an excellent job at generating a high-end market that makes a large amount of product simultaneously feel unique, scarce, and interesting. I didn’t have a local friend that had a Scotch collection, so starting out in scotch felt like too high an investment for me, not knowing whether I’d even like it.  

Rum by contrast, as we all know, has a bit of a public perception problem. Heck, even those who pay attention to rum can’t seem to agree on much of it! We have pirates and beaches, Polynesian and Tiki, and now a segment that is going for a more distinguished sell, closer to the Scotch image I mentioned earlier. 

So, I think the very thing that holds rum back in many ways may also be what has stopped it from getting out of hand with crazy prices on the super-premium products –to the great benefit of those of us who are able to take advantage of a superior product without the added free-market hype. I, for one, enjoy the personality disorder that rum seems to have to a degree, but I do think it also holds the category back from being considered by the masses as a world class spirit that should complete with whisky in terms of a quality distillate. 

For what it’s worth, I do think bourbon prices will come down significantly at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised to see scotch hold most of its value though. Perhaps rum can further define a sub-category and promote that sub-category to allow for it to be considered more equal to fine whiskey, bourbon, and scotch.  The rum community would need to agree on what that is exactly, though, which seems a bridge too far in the current environment.    

The Rum Ration: What are some types of rum that you’d not had a chance to get your hands on yet but would like to try in the future?

John Gulla: My unspoken goal when I started my rum adventure was to try rum from every country/culture that produces it.  (I now realise the difficulty associated with doing that).  

Luckily, I have been able to try a fair amount of different rums from rum producing countries and distillers over the past few years, but some of the rums I’d still very much like to try are from Japan and Okinawa, including Nine Leaves, Teeda, and Cor Cor.  Another place high up on the list would be Australia, which Steve Magarry of Beenleigh rum convinced me I had to try.  Would love to get my hands on some Inner Circle and Beenleigh soon! 

Finally, although I have had the opportunity to taste various rhum agricoles, I don’t feel like I’ve been able to “properly” introduce myself enough to the style. That will certainly be another one of my short-term goals for expanding my r(h)um knowledge and experience.      

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

John Gulla: While I am tempted to say someone like Julius Caesar, Da Vinci, MLK, or Einstein, my assumption is that those persons may not be able to appreciate rum the way rum drinkers do.  

So, purely from an appreciation standpoint, I think I would want to go with one of two persons: Ernest Hemingway or JFK – both of whom are well known to have been able to empty a good bottle of rum!  

I would imagine in either case a stirring conversation over some great drinks, a fascination at some of the incredible rums being produced as of late, and perhaps some words of wisdom that could be exchanged to inject a glimmer of hope into life’s more challenging moments.  

Now, if we’re talking about sharing rum with fictional characters instead, that’s got to be Gandalf, hands down.  Come to think of it, maybe J.R.R. Tolkien should have been my first answer!  

The Rum Ration: What’s the most unusual cocktail you’ve tried with rum in it and why did you decide to try it? 

John Gulla: I’ll start by heavily prefacing that I’m more of a sipping rum kind of guy, though I do have a few “go-to,” simple mixed drinks that I make and enjoy, including the Daiquiri and a Rum Old Fashioned.  

Anytime I venture out to a bar or restaurant, there are plenty of cocktails that I would consider to be unusual!  My favourite experience with mixed drinks, given my inexperience, was a bar that had a full sampler menu item for all of their rum mixed drinks on the menu.  It came with smaller glasses of 8 or 10 different mixed drinks that featured rum, which my wife and I could try and compare/contrast. 

I’ll admit that they probably weren’t the best instances of those specific drink recipes, but it gave me a good basis to at least identify what I was more attracted to and wanted to seek out better examples of, including the Painkiller.  I now make a pretty good Painkiller at home and greatly prefer it to the Pina Colada.  I guess I’m coming around to the Tiki stuff!       

The Rum Ration: What kind of content can we expect from the Rumcast podcast in the future? 

John Gulla: I’m incredibly pleased with the early response from listeners and the rum community regarding the Rumcast thus far.  The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive from both guests and listeners, and I think it’s great to see other podcasts and communication efforts about spreading the word on great rum popping up.  

Our goal is to continue to be the foremost podcast resource on rum, and a widely known, credible source for those who want to learn more about rum in general, hear detailed information on specific brands and distilleries directly from the people who make it and/or bring it to the world, and to find more ways to bring useful and creative discussions to the rum community that further grows the category. 

We want to make learning about rum more accessible for those just coming into the hobby, but also feature engaging and entertaining content for those who are already rooted in the rum community and looking for opportunities to absorb more unique content about the thing they love. 

As for a hint on things to come, look for more episodes where Will and I discuss a topic or question that comes from listeners, and also for more guests that aren’t necessarily tied to a specific brand or distillery, but still integrally connected to the world of rum in an interesting way.  Stay tuned!  

The Rum Ration has also interviewed John’s podcast partner, Will Hoekenga about his experiences with rum. Be sure to read the interview for more information and be sure to check out Rumcast too.

3 thoughts on “Rum Champions: John Gulla

  1. Pingback: Fall Down The Rhum Agricole Rabbit Hole With Kiowa Bryan (Rumcast Review) – The Rum Ration

  2. Pingback: How To Start A Rum Society With Jay Cocorullo – The Rum Ration

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