We had the privilege of attending a most remarkable evening recently: Appleton Distillery, Joy Spence, the original Mai Tai, a lost legend, and a new limited edition rum – it all happened. And now Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend has arrived at Master of Malt. Here’s the full story.
Any bartender will tell you how rare it is to be able to trace a drink back to its origins. But you can with the Mai Tai, and specifically the spirit it was made with. At the forefront of the emerging tiki cocktail movement in the 1940’s was the famous Trader Vic’s bar in San Francisco. There, founder Victor Bergeron began a love affair with his rum of choice: J. Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old. He loved its rich profile full of smoky, orange notes and aimed to create a cocktail that would present its potential but not overpower it. Shared with his friends from Tahiti, it was declared ’Maita’i roa a’e’, or simply translated, ‘the best’.
The story of the Mai Tai
Nowadays if you order a Mai Tai too often it’s a tacky, syrupy, fruity blend of pineapple juice, grenadine, and a speed rail rum, but that’s nothing like the original recipe. Fresh lime juice, orange Curaçao, and dashes of simple syrup and orgeat were paired with J. Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old to create a complex, rich cocktail. But before long, tiki went out of fashion. With the end of the movement came the loss of the recipes, cocktail culture, and the rums.
When the tiki revival came in the early 2000s, the now discontinued J. Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old became a legend, a prized collectable, a remnant of an old golden age. Trailer Happiness founder Sly Augustin describes its mythology as a rabbit hole bartenders get lost in. To him, tiki culture doesn’t exist without Jamaican rum, and jokes about how much incredible spirit worth thousands today that was happily sunk back in late tiki nights. “They had no idea they were ballin’, those drinks should have cost 35 dollars”.
Rum ambassador supreme Ian Burrell says J. Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old represents Jamaica for him, pointing to the ingenuity of its creation, even the terroir that’s inherent in this spirit. “We are small, but we punch above our weight, and create rums that turn people’s heads from a little tiny island”.
Introducing Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend
That same island is now in a position where it can recreate the rum. Joined by Augustin, Burrell, and various other rum luminaries including Appleton master distiller Joy Spence herself, we attended the launch of Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend. It’s described as an exclusive and faithful recreation of the legendary 17 Year Old rum crafted by J. Wray & Nephew in the 1940s.
Spence describes the rum as the most difficult blend she has ever made. She had a sample of pure pot still rum remaining that she could compare to, but when you have to match a legend, it’s nerve-wracking, even for Spence. She says she was always asked at every masterclass, “When are you putting out the 17”. The reply would be in typical Jamaican fashion, “soon come”, but Spence understood the fuss. When she started at Appleton in 1981 the brand was still shipping to Trader Vic’s. In 2005, the master distiller began the process of bringing the unicorn blend back to life.
But this was a rum with a difficult brief. Spence had to match a memory, a profile very different to what Appleton makes today, while still making a rum that’s got Appleton at its core. It is the name on the bottle after all. Knowing the chemical composition and sensory profile of the original, Spence selected four marks of rum, tweaked the fermentation and rested it longer to bring more esters, then after distillation, aged it for 17 years. She says she trialled 15 Mai Tais with the prototype and slept well that night. Once the blend was settled on, it was bottled last year. There were just 10 barrels created which produced 1,500 bottles. That’s it. Once they’re gone you will never ever see it again.
Tasting Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend
This is a shame, although you can understand that this wasn’t exactly the most commercially viable creation, which perhaps explains the price tag. As Augustin says, only the die-hard rum geeks and bartenders understand the gravity of this revival. This was not lost on the room when the bottle was unveiled, an event space people described as “hallowed ground”. It was honestly one of the most romantic and borderline evangelical launches I’ve attended. It wouldn’t have surprised me if a couple of people passed out when the bottle was presented first.
The palpable sense of passion meant that I did feel genuinely privileged to be in that room, with that company, tasting this spirit, however. And what a fascinating sip it is. A constantly evolving, completely original rum to my taste (having never had the original myself), this is much funkier and bolder than I’m used to from the usually elegant Appleton. It stands on its own two feet so much you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it’s been designed, at least in part, to be a Mai Tai base. Which we’ll get to now after a quick tasting note:
Nose: So funky we’re in blue cheese territory, but also rewardingly tropical with creamy banana filling, marmalade, burnt black molasses, and fresh ground nutmeg. There’s also hints of overripe blackcurrant, leather, Liquorice All Sorts, crystallised peel, and praline.
Palate: The same bright blue cheese funk, accompanied by peach chutney on a rye cracker according to Milroy’s own Laura Carl. There’s also aromatic wood, overripe mango, grilled papaya, aniseed, cherry cough sweets, gingerbread, and eucalyptus.
Finish: A medley of aromatic spice, tropical fruit, ancient woody tannins, and full-bodied funk.
Making an Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend Mai Tai cocktail
We also got to try the rum in a Mai Tai, because of course, that’s what started the legend. Fellow tiki geeks can enjoy the 1944-style Mai tai at the relaunched Kwãnt, Mayfair. It won’t be there long and will not be cheap. The recipe features a bespoke orgeat creation and input from bartenders and rum enthusiasts who own some of the original 17, as well as inspiration from the original San Franciscan Mai Tai. Here is the recipe, if you manage to get a bottle and can bring yourself to mix it.
50ml Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend
20ml fresh lime juice
15ml Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
5ml rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water and 1:1 granulated and demerara sugar)
Method: Shake with crushed ice and pour contents into a Mai Tai glass. Garnish with ample mint sprig and top with half a spent lime shell resting cut side down on the top centre of the glass.
Preparation time: five minutes
Servings: one person
Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend is available from Master of Malt.