No tale from the Tiki canon looms larger than the creation of Trader Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai and the subsequent changes in the rums used. It’s no surprise then that the recent teasing of Appleton Estate “Legend,” a new 17-year aged Jamaican rum, has hearts aflutter in the rum and tiki sphere. While the bottle’s label doesn’t explicitly name the Mai Tai or Trader Vic, it’s clear that the rum is a modern version of the J. Wray & Nephew 17-year that Vic used in 1944. Appleton’s big reveal is slated for May 17th, but we can already make an informed guess about how the recreation was approached.
The Original J. Wray & Nephew 17-Year Rum
Victor Bergeron, aka “Trader Vic,” first described the Mai Tai’s origin story in a 1970 letter to a Honolulu newspaper:
I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.
Putting on our historian’s hat, the existence of this rum on an Oakland bar shelf in 1944 is curious. How so? During the 1940s, Jamaican law established a maximum retail price for each rum sold on the island, and those prices were published in the newspaper. These newspaper notices provide a remarkably detailed look at the product portfolios of Jamaican producers of the time. Nowhere does a 17-year J. Wray & Nephew rum appear on the dozens of price lists I’ve scanned.
Note: I’ve abbreviated “J. Wray & Nephew” to “JW&N” from here on out for brevity’s sake.
The most expensive JW&N rum of that era was the Special Reserve, frequently specified as a 15-year rum in contemporary advertisements.
Furthermore, in his 1946 book Trader Vic’s Food & Drinks, Vic lists several JW&N rums, including the 15-year Special Reserve, but no 17-year:
Perhaps the JW&N 17-year was only sold in export markets. However, it would be unusual for the company not to sell a top-tier rum in its home market. An alternative explanation is suggested by a 1941 Don the Beachcomber rum list that includes a JW&N 17-year “Bottled Exclusively for Don the Beachcomber.” (Note well: Don the Beachcomber, not Trader Vic.)
We know that Don made rum-buying trips to the Caribbean and had special rums blended and bottled there for his bars. It’s possible Trader Vic did as well. Or perhaps Don sold excess stock to Vic. We may never know.
What else do we know about the original JW&N 17-year? For Vic to have a 17-year rum on his shelf in 1944, it must have been distilled in 1927 or earlier. Since Jamaican rum makers didn’t use column stills until approximately 1958, we can safely say the JW&N 17-year was entirely pot distilled.
We might also ask, “Was it distilled at Appleton?”
During the 1920s, JW&N was owned by the Lindo Brothers, who owned several distilleries, including Bernard Lodge, Monymusk, and Appleton. Rums blended from the marques of multiple distilleries were common at the time, including Applemony, a blend of Appleton and Monymusk rums.
However, it was the newly built Bernard Lodge that received most of the attention in the late 1920s. A story in Planter’s Punch notes:
Bernard Lodge is equipped with modern sugar making machinery, and the output of rum on this and on the other estates of the Lindo Brothers is so great year by year that a special Rum Store to the west end of the city has been allocated to their use by the Government.
It’s far from unthinkable that some of the marques used in the JW&N 17-year blend came from Bernard Lodge or Monymusk. However, when I interviewed Joy Spence and asked about this possibility, she said all the rums were distilled at Appleton.
What else do historical texts tell us? Photos within the JW&N aging warehouses show that puncheons, or something of similar size, were used for aging rather than ex-bourbon barrels. A puncheon’s capacity is 2.5 times larger than a bourbon barrel, so there is less wood contact per unit volume. All other things being equal, rum can age longer in a puncheon than in a bourbon barrel without becoming dominated by wood notes.
As for the rums aged for the new Appleton 17, I would bet they aged in ex-Bourbon casks rather than puncheons. Hopefully, we’ll learn these details.
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Mission: Recreating JW&N 17
With our slightly more detailed understanding of the original JW&N 17-year, let’s briefly ponder how Appleton may have recreated it for the Legend release.
In an ideal world, such a project is as simple as sourcing and blending the exact same ingredients used circa 1944. However, If Appleton had access to the same component rums, surely they wouldn’t have waited so long to capitalize on the intense desire of Tiki enthusiasts for a modern JW&N 17-year.
Sure, Appleton could (in theory) distill the exact marques made in 1927, but they’d also have to wait 17 years for the rum to mature. In 2005, high-end, limited-edition rums for tiki cocktails was far off the radar of rum makers.
In the absence of the exact same component rums, the other way to recreate a long-lost rum is to blend existing stocks of available marques to make something that tastes very similar to the original rum. A recent notable example is Plantation Rum’s The Collector from 2018. I’d bet that Appleton took this approach.
Given the seven Appleton Hearts expressions released so far, all pot distilled, JW&N clearly has good stocks of long-aged, pot-distilled rum to draw from for projects like this. It will be interesting to see if Appleton reveals any details about the specific marques used in the original JW&N 17.
What else can we learn from the Legend’s label, which is publicly available on the US TTB COLA site? For starters, Appleton received label approval in May of 2022, so rum geeks have been waiting for this release for over a year! The front label notes that the rum was distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2022. At 49% ABV, the strength is somewhat unusual but consistent with Jamaican rums of the 1940s.
The back label notes:
IN THE 1940’S, J. WRAY NEPHEW BROUGHT JAMAICAN EXCELLENCE TO THE WORLD WITH RENOWNED AGED RUMS PRODUCED ON THE APPLETON ESTATE.
LEGEND SAYS IT WAS THE RARE 17 YEAR OLD THAT INSPIRED THE BARTENDING WORLD, DEFINING OUR RUM AS THE OUINTESSENTIAL JAMAICAN SPIRIT.
There’s no mention of Trader Vic or the Mai Tai. This may be to avoid any legal entanglement with copyright holders. I’m curious to see how the brand addresses this when the Legend is formally announced.
Availability and Pricing
The Appleton 17’s front label notes 1 of 1,500 bottles. Word on the street is that this number is worldwide, and this special blend won’t be made again. If true, Legend will be in extremely high demand.
Regarding a minimum price, we can look to the Appleton Hearts 2003 as a baseline, as it’s also pot distilled and aged 18 years. Current market prices have it selling for $250 or more. It’s a safe bet that all retail bottles of the Legend will be immediately snapped up. Unfortunately, many will be resold by flippers, and aftermarket prices will be substantially higher than the MSRP. Tiki and rum enthusiasts with modest means will likely have very few opportunities to sample this rum, much less make a Mai Tai with it.
For those interested in Jamaican and J. Wray & Nephew history, chapter 20 of Modern Caribbean Rum has substantial coverage of these topics.
Appleton/Campari hasn’t provided me with any advance information or samples. Everything stated above is simply my informed opinion based on many years of diving deep into rum history and the rum industry. Like many of you, I’ll be watching closely for news from the May 17th announcement.
Great article, thanks! The whole issue of what the JW&N 17 was and where it came from is really interesting. I have TV menu from somewhere around 1940, pre-Mai Tai, and it only has the JW&N 15 as well. Also really intrigued about your observations on the difference between cask/barrel aging and puncheon aging, had not thought about that.
We’ll done as usual. There are rums on island that could reasonably approximate the old blend, but not necessarily in Appleton warehouses. Funky Jamaican rums never demanded high prices, but the current state of hype in the category will surely lead to exaggerated value placed on such expressions.