In Search of the Mona Lisa of Rum: Finding the World’s Oldest (and Dustiest) Vintage

Stephen Remsberg had been on the hunt for Mona for thirty years.

A maritime attorney living in suburban New Orleans, he was one of this modern era’s earliest dusty collectors, and rum was his passion. His home had a room with each wall stacked floor to ceiling with dusty bottles: pre-Prohibition Cuban rum and pre-World War II Jamaican rum, early era New England rum, and oddball rums from unexpected places like Uganda and Egypt. But there was one bottle of rum Stephen Remsberg had never been able to find.

Myers’s Mona was a thirty-year-old Jamaican rum discontinued in 1947 because, thirty years earlier, in 1917, the Kingston distillery that once produced it had burned down and was never rebuilt.

And though Remsberg had searched for it his whole life, it was Martin Cate, a bar owner, rum connoisseur, and friend of Remsberg’s who found it one day on a high, dusty shelf in a San Francisco restaurant that had just recently shut down.

“The label was all faded. It was just like Indiana Jones, where I blew the dust off of it. And the word ‘Mona’ in faded type suddenly appeared,” recalls Cate. “I almost screamed. The greatest rum collector of all time has been looking for it for thirty years with no luck. So it was an incredible experience to be able to give it to him.”

Unlike with bourbon, dusty hunting is not exactly something that existed for rum collectors, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit.

Unlike with bourbon, dusty hunting is not exactly something that existed for rum collectors, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit.

Also unlike bourbon, which may have been better in the past but still tastes fairly similar, dusty rum can transport us to a past that no longer exists, while teaching us about previous distillation practices, cultures, and cocktail history, and even forcing us to grapple with colonialism and slavery. That whole tragic wisdom thing again.

Finally, unlike bourbon—or Scotch or tequila or even Chartreuse—rum is the one major spirit that comes from everywhere. Rum has been and still is produced in numerous countries on every continent and has been imported to and bottled in many more. That makes picking one single location to focus your dusty hunting an impossibility.

A key demarcation point, if not a tectonic shift in rum history, occurred when the University of Puerto Rico opened a $500,000 rum research laboratory and pilot distillery in 1953. Essentially, this was the point where multicolumn stills became the norm throughout the rum industry. These are two tall vertical tubes, filled with porous plates on the inside, that can continuously distill a liquid. They are great for highly efficient production—great for a post–World War II world becoming more globalized—but not necessarily great for retaining flavor, as they endlessly strip and rectify a spirit until it is mostly lacking in character.

But when Facundo Bacardí Massó first started making rum in Cuba, he was using a pot still just like everyone else had in the nineteenth century, and he was producing his rum very slowly, very inefficiently, in small batches. It’s what got his rums a certain notoriety throughout the world, winning a gold medal at Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exhibition of 1876—the same world’s fair where Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz Ketchup were first introduced. By the early twentieth century, he had switched to a Coffey still—more efficient than a pot still, but still able to pump out very flavorful rums.

“The rums that were justifiably famous through Prohibition for Americans traveling down to Cuba are these 1930s, ’40s-era Cuban rums that were all made on two-column Coffey stills,” says Cate. This early, Cuban Bacardí reawakened Americans’ love affair with rum—a love affair they had divorced from on July 4, 1776, when American revolutionaries immediately turned their backs on anything the British loved. This light and clean Cuban-style rum is still most Americans’ preferred style of rum even today.

Other Caribbean islands didn’t see as many thirsty American visitors during this era, however, forcing these distilleries to change their production plans a bit.

“With Prohibition, the Caribbean’s largest market for rum was shut down,” explains Cate. “So a lot of Caribbean rum really just sat in casks and got older and older and older, and in many cases, better and better and better.”

A post-Prohibition world would see the rise of tiki bars, fanciful and fictionalized tropical escapes, notably from Ernest Raymond Gantt (taking the nom de guerre “Donn Beach”), who opened his Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1933. Suddenly, there were willing buyers for these Prohibition-matured rums of what Cate calls “crazy ages.”

Early menus would offer a full page touting “Fine Rums from Don the Beachcomber’s Cellar” that, even today, would be the envy of any rum bar on planet earth: Ron el Infierno at 20 years old, Palau Cuban rum at thirty years of age, Treasure Cove Jamaica Rum at a startling thirty-two years old (and a buck thirty a glass!), and, yes, Myers’s Mona (only eighty-five cents!)

“Don’s mission when he launched was to try to restore in the American eye the glory of this spirit,” says Cate.

It would certainly work with Remsberg, who fell in love with these sipping rums as a young man attending Northwestern Law School in Chicago in the 1970s; he became a regular at the Beachcomber location there—by then owned by Don’s ex-wife Cora—sampling from a display case that offered pre–World War II rums.

In turn, Remsberg began his own collection in 1973—his unique job would send him to countries and islands where he could stalk stores for interesting bottles. He’d vacation in Jamaica and Barbados and stuff fifteen bottles in his suitcase per trip.

In the 1990s, shopping on Magazine Street in New Orleans, Remsberg found a wooden crate in a secondhand shop. Inside it were uber-rare bottles of 1925 Bacardí, the aforementioned pre–World War I Jamaican rum, and a forty-year-old rum from Sloppy Joe’s, the famed Havana haunt that Hemingway frequented—Remsberg landed them for five bucks apiece.

When eBay launched in the late 1990s, Remsberg claims he was maybe the first spirits collector around to start raiding it for all of dear old Grandpa’s collections that had been thrown on the auction site after a death. At every step of the game, he was the collector ahead of everybody else.

(Unfortunately, I was never able to interview Remsberg, who developed Alzheimer’s and died at age seventy-five during the writing of this book.)

The other key tiki maven of the mid-century era, “Trader Vic” Bergeron, likewise tried to offer neat pours of well-aged sipping rum to his clientele. But as Cate often points out, by the time of his 1974 book Rum Cookery & Drinkery, even Bergeron was lamenting that he had failed at that endeavor. He would find a ton more success, however, with an original rum cocktail he engineered in 1944.

When eBay launched in the late 1990s, Remsberg claims he was maybe the first spirits collector around to start raiding it for all of dear old Grandpa’s collections that had been thrown on the auction site after a death.

“We talked about creating a drink that would be the finest drink we could make, using the finest ingredients we could find,” he wrote in another book, 1973’s Frankly Speaking: Trader Vic’s Own Story.

Bergeron would use a half ounce of French Garnier Orgeat and another half ounce of DeKuyper Orange Curacao along with some rock candy syrup and the juice of one fresh lime. For the rum, he reached for two full ounces of Wray & Nephew 17 years old, one of those over-aged rums produced during Prohibition.

He called this drink the Mai Tai.

“The fact that he was using something so luxurious as this seventeen-year-old product for his everyday drink speaks to how cheap it was,” says Cate, who quit his job in transportation logistics to bartend at one of the few remaining Trader Vic’s locales in the early 2000s. (In fact, the Wray & Nephew distillery was aging rums in Jamaica for up to thirty years at the time.) “And I wish we could have stopped him and said, slow your roll.”

The Mai Tai, in fact, became so popular that Trader Vic burned through Wray & Nephew’s aged stocks, selling the cocktail faster than it could produce and age the rum. Bergeron would eventually be forced to swap in a 15 year old before he started stretching that out by adding Red Heart and Coruba Rum, more affordable and lightly aged Jamaican dark rums. Eventually he began to use a dark rum from Martinique.

Cate, who opened Smuggler’s Cove, a rum and tiki bar in San Francisco, in 2009, has one of the world’s three known bottles of 17 years old, but he has never opened it, leaving it sealed in a climate-controlled storage facility. Cate does own and has tried a slightly less rare Wray & Nephew 20 years old from the same era, giving him some unique insight as to how the vaunted 17 years old would have tasted both neat and in a Mai Tai.

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry would also be critical in researching the value of finding dusty rum to know what tiki cocktails of yore would have tasted like. A Hollywood punch-up writer (Inspector Gadget) who once even directed a TV movie starring Olympia Dukakis, he became a sort of hobbyist looking to create these drinks from tiki’s glory days.

Acquiring out-of-print recipe books and old menus, Berry kept noticing something called Dagger dark Jamaican rum appearing in the specs. Frustrated, he scoured Los Angeles–area liquor stores until he finally found some bottles—little did he realize he’d inadvertently dusty-hunted for something that hadn’t been produced in decades.

Berry, who has since written numerous works of scholarship on the tiki world, and now owns his own bar in New Orleans, Latitude 29, has helped figure out the correct ingredients and rum profile needed for many tiki classics like the Zombie. In 2007, Remsberg would even invite Cate and Berry over to his house for Zombies made with the exact same dusty rums that Donn Beach would have used in the drink: Ronrico Red Label Puerto Rican, a Lemon Hart 151 Demerara Rum from the era, and an extremely rare Lowndes London Dock Jamaican that Remsberg had found a mere mini of.

Though there was only enough for the men to share a single vintage Zombie, Berry would still call it the greatest thing he had ever drunk.

Unlike other categories, however, the rum world—propelled by these modern tiki bartenders and enthusiasts—has done a pretty good job at trying to recreate the flavor profiles of vintage rums that eventually went defunct, such as the case for Smith & Cross, a 114-proof 100 percent pot-still-produced Jamaican rum released in 2009 that could stand in as a bit of an analogue to those legendary Jamaican rums Donn Beach and Trader Vic were pouring.

When Lemon Hart 151 got scarce for a few years while in the hands of beverage conglomerate Pernod Ricard, importer Ed Hamilton created his own Hamilton 151 Overproof. Hamilton would likewise team with Berry to release Beachbum Berry’s Zombie Blend rum in 2021. (Rum nerds had long wondered why the Campari-owned Wray & Nephew refused to offer an aged version of the brand; that was until 2023, when it released, and I got to taste, Appleton Estate Seventeen-Year-Old Legend, “a re-creation of the legendary rum crafted by J. Wray & Nephew in the 1940s.” Its retail price was $500.)

As mentioned earlier, there were never really glory days of dusty hunting for rum like there were for bourbon. Most island nations didn’t export any rum to the United States or the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, so there simply wouldn’t be much dusty stuff to find, if any at all. Many experts even wonder if stuff like Wray & Nephew seventeen years old was ever even sold via retail, or strictly sent to these popular tiki bars.

Today almost all vintage rum is found through auction. That was how the so-called Rum Tasting of the Century came to be on September 13, 2018. Organized by Luca Gargano, the Italian CEO of rum importer Velier and now the preeminent rum collector in the world with more than fifty thousand bottles—he would also acquire Remsberg’s collection shortly before the latter’s death—and held at the Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square in London, it drew several top rum experts from across the globe to taste several unicorns.

The tasting included a bottle of Saint James 1885 (Martinique “inhabitant rum,” a cane juice rum then drunk only by locals and never exported), Bally 1924 (Martinique’s first vintage rhum agricole), and a Skeldon rum from Guyana distilled in 1978; one taster, journalist Jason Wilson, couldn’t help but point out that was the same year  cult leader Jim Jones had led his followers to drink the Flavor Aid and commit mass suicide in the nearby Guyanese jungles. Tragic wisdom, yet again.

There was also a 1780 bottle of Harewood rum from Barbados, the oldest dated rum in existence, though one that was not without its own ominous past.

The Harewood estate in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, was built by sugar, cotton, tobacco, and banking magnate Henry Lascelles, who had arrived in Barbados in 1711 at the age of twenty-one. Three hundred years later, his descendant Mark Lascelles, brother of the eighth Earl of Harewood, found twenty-eight handblown, unlabeled bottles while doing inventory in the cellar.

These were literally the dustiest bottles I have ever seen; covered in cobwebs, dirt, mold, soot perhaps, and looking like they’d been caught in the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and coated in black, volcanic ash. But they cleaned up pretty nicely, and the wax enclosures were still sealed well.

A discovery of the estate’s Cellar Book found an entry from July 1805 that confirmed they were surely the oldest rums in existence (“cane spirit,” they are called in the book), bottles of both light and dark rum, imported to England from the family’s Barbados plantation. Today some of the plantation is now in the hands of Mount Gay, the island’s most famous rum producer.

A discovery of the estate’s Cellar Book found an entry from July 1805 that confirmed they were surely the oldest rums in existence.

The first twelve bottles sold for a quite reasonable £8,225 each at the Christie’s auction in 2014, with Gargano getting his hands on at least one of them. To deal with the fact that this rum had almost certainly been produced by enslaved people, the proceeds were donated to a local charity focused on the West Indies.

“Drinking old rum forces you to think about things like colonialism, slavery, American hegemony in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the significant disparity between the poverty of the workers who cut sugarcane to ferment and distill, and the wealth of those who enjoy the end product,” wrote Wilson of the tasting.

The other tasters, including Matt Pietrek, a rum connoisseur who posts online as “Cocktail Wonk” and who has written the indispensable eight-hundred-page behemoth Modern Caribbean Rum, found the 69% ABV rum outstanding, with notes of watermelon juice, fried bananas, molasses, and dark chocolate—a complex beast.

“This puts to bed the notion that the rum of the past was a horrific concoction,” wrote another attendee, Steven James of the Rum Diaries blog.

Or, as Pietrek told me of the Harewood tasting:

For people who study rum, we can hypothesize all we want, we can read about how it was made and this and that. But the actual tasting, for that five minutes or so that the rum is in the glass and you’re enjoying it, it’s like you’re in a little time machine. You get to go back in time, and you’re frantically trying to record your perceptions of it.

Before it’s gone forever.


Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits - Goldfarb, Aaron

Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits by Aaron Goldfarb is available via Abrams.

Aaron Goldfarb

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