A Moment in the Limelight
Winning a Spirited Award
While I typically focus on rum news, myth-busting, and deep dives, I have news of my own to share this time.
For those not yet familiar with the Spirited Awards, they are the drinks industry equivalent of the Academy Awards/Oscars. While most of the two dozen-plus Spirited Award categories go to bars and bartenders, there are also writing and media awards, e.g., “Best Cocktail & Spirits Writing” and “Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication.” It’s a huge honor for a spirits writer.
Prior winners in our Best New Book category include:
Whisky: The Manual by Dave Broom
Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, by Fred Minnick
Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix with James Carpenter
The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, edited by David Wondrich with Noah Rothbaum
That’s heady company! Having played a tiny part in the Oxford Companion’s creation, I knew it would be a juggernaut at the 2022 Spirited Awards. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we wouldn’t go head-to-head with it in 2022.
In my early days of spirited writing, I often sat at the bar at Seattle’s iconic Canon. Nestled amongst the thousands of bottles lining the shelves was an inscribed clear glass plate: Canon’s Spirited Award for “World’s Best Spirits Selection.” It impressed on me how high the bar is (Ha!) to win a Spirited Award Later, when some of my writer friends won Spirited Awards, I wondered if I might win one someday. But for what?
The first glint of what became Modern Caribbean Rum arrived in early 2016. Fred Minnick had asked me to review Rum Curious for technical accuracy before it was published. After finishing the review, Fred told me I should write a rum book of my own. I quickly assembled a book proposal and found an agent who shopped it around to publishers.
None of them bit.
Dave Broom’s Rum: The Manual, Tristan Stephenson’s The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution, and Fred’s book were all fresh on the scene. No amount of explaining to potential publishers that my book would be very, very different had any effect on them.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Dejected that my rum book was going nowhere, my wife Carrie, aka Mrs. Wonk, suggested we publish it ourselves. I was initially resistant, but in time decided it was the best way forward. Not just because it would get published but also because we could create it exactly as envisioned rather than compromising to fit another publisher’s desires.
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Much like many of today’s musicians start their own record labels and bypass traditional record labels, we became book publishers. But rather than possibly jumping in over our heads, we first wrote and published Minimalist Tiki as a trial run to see if we could do everything ourselves. It outdid our expectations and gave us the confidence to take on a much larger project, i.e., Modern Caribbean Rum.
From mid-2019 through the end of 2021, I churned out chapter after chapter—38 in total. Carrie tuned my writing, crafted the book’s design, and poured all my work into 850 pages. Early on, we realized the book would be far more than the 500 pages we previously thought. But rather than ruthlessly trimming out important topics or photos, we swallowed hard and kept going, knowing that printing and selling it would be a bigger financial burden.
Fast forward to mid-2023. In June, we learned that we’d make it to the Spirited Awards Top Four, along with:
A SENSE OF PLACE: A journey around Scotland’s whisky by Dave Broom
Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails by Camper English
Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara
Over the following month, I mentally handicapped at least a thousand times about how I thought the judges would vote. I constantly switched between thinking we had a good chance to knowing it was insane to imagine winning. We’d previously reached the Top Four in 2020 for Minimalist Tiki, but it wasn’t a shock that we didn’t win that year. This time was different. Modern Caribbean Rum had been my full-time obsession for six years.
The Spirited Award dinner was a full-on Hollywood-style extravaganza this year. My vacillations over whether we’d win were in overdrive as we took our seats at our table. Having Jeff Berry and Mike Buhen Jr from Tiki Ti at our table helped distract me for a few moments.
At last, after many other award presentations, our category came up. Time crept to a crawl as the nominees were read, followed by a round of applause for each.
“And the Spirited Award goes to….Modern…”
Despite having imagined this moment an embarrassing number of times. I was dumbfounded. A quick, joyous round of hugs ensued as the podium beckoned us. On stage, I remember most of what I planned to say before Carrie took over and beautifully wrapped things up. We walked off the stage and down a service corridor to where a Tales of the Cocktail photographer took our winner photo with our award plates.
You can see the moment on YouTube:
While winning a Spirited Award is extremely satisfying, it means much more than just personal recognition. I left my software career because I was far more interested in helping elevate respect for rum. I firmly believe that today’s rum world needs an extremely comprehensive yet accessible examination of its history, traditions, and producers, similar to what bourbon and Scotch whisky already have. I also believe it’s important to rigorously dispel many deep-seated misconceptions about rum, like “rum has no rules.”
Lastly, I saw an opportunity to give back to the rum-making community in some small way by providing them with detailed information about what their compatriots in other locales are doing. Many copies of Modern Caribbean Rum now reside in the Caribbean, with the people making the rums described in the book. The Spirited Award helps bring attention to my larger cause, elevating respect for rum as a top-tier spirit that’s second to none.