On Sunday August 4th there was a rum festival in Toronto. A first! The idea of a rum event being organized should excite every local rum enthusiast.
It did……and it didn’t.
The event was organized in conjunction with Caribana, Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival. Caribana attracts an incredible amount of people from all over the world. Which is great for any side events, especially when it has a Caribbean theme.
It was setup at Ontario Place, right on the lake. A beautiful setting, although a little difficult to reach. The space had 12 booths, which they called “rum shops”, with each having 3 or 4 different rums. There were a couple of food vendors, a DJ and two people dressed up as pirates on a tiny ship.
Mariangela and I each paid $30 to get in. This included a plastic cup and 5 drink tickets. Some people didn’t buy their tickets in advance and had to pay $40 instead. This seemed to not have been clearly communicated, so some discussions arose between staff and visitors.
They gave us a little booklet with a map that showed the (incorrect) layout of the rum shops and a description of the available rums at each booth. Some described more in detail than others.
First up was the festival’s headliner, Bumbu. We had never tried it, just heard horror stories. Turned out we had to pay 3 tickets for a shot of Bumbu, as it was marked as “premium”. They then explained us that anything that has a description under the product’s name is premium, the rest isn’t. So we checked the booklet: Appleton 12, Flor de Caña 12, Chairman’s Forgotten Casks, El Dorado 15, Barcelo Imperial Onyx, Havana 7, Wray & Nephew and Mount Gay Black Barrel were all non premium drinks. What?! Some of the premium ones were Bumbu, Angostura White, Clarke’s Court Passion Fruit, Clarke’s Court Old Grog and every other Clarke’s Court product. Most of these aren’t readily available at the LCBO, so might have been expensive to get. Bumbu is for sale locally though. What kind of message is that sending to the public?!
Let’s get back to Bumbu. I smelled it and subsequently didn’t really want to taste it. Confected, plastic banana liqueur smell. Against my better judgement I took a sip. Absolutely disgusting. In a reflex I spit it out. Right after I did this it occurred to me that an overly eager security guy (which they had lots of) might throw me out for this. Luckily, they let me be. Three tickets for this. Premium? I’d take Captain Morgan Spiced over Bumbu. At least you know what you are getting and it’s much cheaper. Bumbu is deceit in a bottle.
At the next booth we decided to have some Barcelo Onyx. I asked a few questions about the rum but the server couldn’t answer anything apart from what’s printed on the label. This was a theme, nobody could give me any useful information at any booth. She was very nice though and gave us an inside scoop. She told us the festival opened half an hour late, the food wasn’t ready either (they were still setting up when we got in at 12:45, should have opened at noon) and the servers were given no explanation or training about anything. Naturally they had no clue what they were pouring. Zero rum education.
In the mean time the DJ was playing loud music, only interrupted by random giveaways of Bumbu merchandise.
Half an hour in we met up with Matt Curran. He’s a bartender and strong member of the Toronto rum family. He bought additional drink tickets before walking into the venue. He told me they were $5 each. FIVE! That meant a shot of Bumbu was $15! Even worse, you had to pay one ticket for a bottle of water. These were half bottles and not displayed at every booth. $5 for a half bottle of water. We were drinking rum outside with 30 degree weather, no shade and nowhere to sit. Water should have been available plenty and for free. Keeps people sane and happy, plus it might increase rum sales.
We were dressed for the occasion. Mariangela was wearing a Foursquare hat, while Matt and I were wearing Worthy Park ones. Let's not forget my ridiculously green Rhum Clement glasses either. This made a nice gentleman, Mitchell Brown, come up to us and ask what Foursquare is. I gave a brief explanation, we exchanged cards and he’s now member of the Rum Club Canada on Facebook. A positive thing!
He connected with me after and gave some feedback on the festival. He told me it was ok to quote him:”First they opened 45 minutes late. We were starving and decided to buy food when we got there....no food, took them an hour and a half to get food going. Should have been ready upon gates open. Only 2 food vendors made for a slow long lineup...AND no tables to eat at. We ended up buying street meat when we left. Then there were the hired pirates. Get off your ass, go have fun, let people take selfies, enjoy the moment and get a buzz going in there. They just sat at the fake ship. Overall it was lackluster for sure. GREAT idea with huge potential, but a fail. Only positive is I met you guys and learned about Foursquare.”
Was there anything positive? Yes there was. I’m writing this from a rum enthusiasts perspective. But this festival wasn’t aimed at people like me. It was more meant to be a rum themed party. In that it did quite well. It seemed like plenty of people were enjoying themselves and there were a lot of different rums to choose from. It promoted rum in Toronto, although with the wrong angle in my opinion. If rum is to grow as a category, it needs to be respected more. That won’t happen when deceiving products like Bumbu are marketed as premium rum. Education is key in that sense and non was provided. That clearly wasn’t the aim of this event.
If they organize it again next year, I might actually check it out again. I hope they will change a few things. Educating the very nice servers on the products should be a no brainer for example.
PS: after coming home and looking at the booklet again it seemed like we should have “only” paid two tickets for Bumbu, as we had it neat. Adding a mixer would have cost an additional (3rd) ticket. I guess this was another thing the servers were confused about. Who would need to add a mixer to an already mixed drink anyway?!