Rum’s Finer Qualities Emerge as Cocktail Destinations Reach Back in Time
Los Angeles isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for rum. Sure, like everyone else across the country, Angelenos welcomed the Mojito into their drinking routine at the early part of the century. And there’s still a Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach and two Trader Vic’s locations, one in the L.A. Live entertainment center and the other at the Beverly Hilton. But the latter seem more a lingering testament to an old California ideal rather than living, breathing, rum-drinking establishments.
So the response to the recent opening of La Descarga in East Hollywood must be especially gratifying to the bar’s owners. Designed to model pre-Castro Cuba with an emphasis on rum-based cocktails and aged rums, La Descarga has generated plenty of local buzz. More importantly, the bar has found a slew of customers intrigued by quality drinks made with rums they’ve never heard of before.
La Descarga is just one of the latest bars opening with a focus on merging contemporary mixology with classic and new Caribbean tipples. Late in 2009, chef Mark Peel of LA’s Campanile opened the “neo-tropical,” rum-centric Tar Pit in Los Angeles with the assistance of then-partner Audrey Saunders of NYC’s Pegu Club (who has since moved on). In San Francisco last year, Martin Cate threw open the ship-wrecked doors to Smuggler’s Cove, where he’s upped the ante on recreating the Tiki drinks of yore by attending to more contemporary attitudes about cocktails.
Soon to open their doors in New York City are two “serious” rum cocktail spots. Cienfuegos, part of a cluster of Cuban operations in Manhattan’s East Village owned by bleeding-edge bar meister Ravi DeRossi (of cocktail destinations Death & Company and Mayahuel), will start serving a menu of rum punches created by bar star Charlotte Voisey sometime in April or May. Around the same time, bartenders Richard Boccato and Giuseppe Gonzalez are expected to open Painkiller, a New York Tiki bar.
Ready for Prime Time
It’s not surprising that rum is finally ready for a comeback. Its heyday ended in a flood of poorly crafted blender drinks, and the damage caused by bucket-portioned frozen Daiquiris still lingers. But like kids trying on well-preserved vintage clothes found in an old family footlocker, young bartenders have shown special interest in drinking styles that have nearly vanished. Now that they’re engaged, these bartenders bring to classic drinks none of the prejudices that contributed to their unfashionable downfall.
In addition, the reintroduction to the U.S. market of once-rare rum styles — Martinique rhum agricole and long-aged Venezuelan and Guatemalan brands, for instance — helped spur experimentation, as the once-broad rum flavor palate began to be restored. Even flavored rums, often looked down upon by modern mixologists who prefer creating their own infusions, have played a role in inspiring consumers with flavorful options, potentially moving them away from reflexively ordering Rum and Cokes or Piña Coladas when in the mood for rum.
Steve Livigni, who created the drink menu for La Descarga, thinks the rum category offers a range of flavors that consumers will love once they’re finally exposed to them. “I’m cautious about saying this, but having spent the last year really focused on rum, I think if you take [Ron Zacapa Centenario] at one end and JM Blanc at the other, there’s more diversity in rum than any other spirit. There’s something in between those two products that everyone can enjoy.”
The suddenly wide selection from countries not previously well represented in the U.S. market has drawn bartenders to the rich variety cane spirits can offer, says Adam Seger, who heads the drink program at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Nacional 27 in Chicago. The trend among bartenders to use more fresh herbs and spices in their drinks also benefits rum, as its sweetness works better than most other spirits in infusions. “Spices and botanicals are natural fits with rum drinks, which can integrate ingredients like cinnamon, chiles, cardamom and ginger very easily,” Seger says.
Seger has worked with rum for years at Nacional 27, which, according to the menu, has served 250,000 Mojitos. In fact, he likes the fit of rum and botanicals so much he’s created his own rum-based amaro cordial called Hum, made by infusing organic rum with hibiscus, organic ginger, green cardamom and kaffir lime.
Adding strong and bitter flavors to rum has long been a basic tenet for Caribbean drinks — bitters are hidden in the water of the classic Barbadian punch recipe, “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak” — and adding bitter components to drinks is de rigueur in contemporary cocktail crafting. Fittingly, one of La Descarga’s most popular drinks is Tapping the Admiral, sort of a rum Manhattan made with Zaya Rum, Antica Carpano Formula Vermouth, Cherry Heering and Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters. “It appeals to Manhattan and whiskey drinkers and is a gateway to rum. And it makes sense, especially since most rums are aged in bourbon barrels,” Livigni says.
In creating Smuggler’s Cove, Cate moved beyond the pure Tiki style he was best known for at his previous operation and opened with a 77-drink menu divided into five distinct sections to showcase the wide world of rum. “People often tell us that they had no idea rum could be so flavorful,” he says. “I tried to go beyond what I’d done before and make sure that even if you are not a rum lover, we could immediately suggest something that would appeal to your taste.”
Cate’s range of categories — Prohibition Cuban, Tiki, Rum Through the Ages, Contemporary Creations and Exotic Cocktails Made Without Rum — allows him to appeal to both the timid and the adventurous and to get customers excited about products like Demerara rum or funkier pot-still rums by introducing them in cocktails.
“There’s this incredible history of mixology with rum: 350 years of rum drinking, encompassing the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries,” Cate says.
With so many cocktails and rums (Smuggler’s current list is at 177 rums, including Austrian, Indonesian, Mexican and American brands as well as cachaças and rhum agricoles), Cate has crafted his version of the loyalty program that has long been popular with brewpubs. Called the “Rumbustion Society,” members climb the ladder of rum achievement through tasting and testing. To become a “Disciple of the Cove,” customers must work their way through 20 1-ounce pours of rum, review provided notes and pass a test. Level two demands tasting of 80 more rums; to become “Master of the Cove,” customers sample a total of 200 rums, as recorded and overseen by a Smuggler’s bartender.
While Cate has gathered a wide range of rums to capture the entire rum experience, it’s the allure of an embargoed Cuba that seems to be the latest hot bar idea. The pre-Castro focus inspired Livigni of La Descarga, where classic Daiquiris, Papa Dobles and Mojitos are at the core of the menu, though they have had to swim against the tide of the sickly sweet concoctions that almost ruined the drinks’ reputations. Livigni tried to stick as closely as the market allows to recipes of the classic cocktail period, like with his spin on the Ernest Hemingway-derived Papa Doble, called Papa’s Daiquiri.
But La Descarga isn’t a pure cocktail scene — music and the nightlife crowd are just as important. To distinguish cocktail sipping from serious rum tasting, La Descarga management established a separate bar dedicated to rum served neat and in flights, staffed with bartenders well versed in every brand and marque; they carry about 80. “We want the bartenders to be able to really understand the product.” And just the idea of so many shippable rums has created a stir in LA, Livigni says. “Most of our customers have never had aged rums, and people are finding it a unique experience.”
Livigni points out that a great advantage aged rums have in the current economic environment is price. With top-shelf Cognacs and single-malt Scotches soaring well past $200 per bottle, a rare rum that comes in at $100-150 allows bars to sell something special without sinking a fortune into inventory.
At the same time, rum selections should convey quality. Obviously, you can’t have a 1920s and 1930s Havana-style club without serving Mojitos and Daiquiris, but serious rum bars must perfect those cocktails to overcome the drinks’ bad reputations. Of course, the Mojito is the drink bartenders have grown to hate, especially on a busy Saturday night. But like a good Daiquiri, the final result is well worth the effort, as patrons will pay a premium for a hand-muddled Mojito made with a quality rum.
“We make an amazing Mojito, made with Kold-Draft shaved ice and a specific mint we order; we sold 1,700 last month,” Livigni says.
This is indicative of rum’s soaring popularity, thanks in no small part to the dedication and creativity of bartenders, the rise of Tiki and Havana-style bars and the evolution of the American cocktail renaissance. Hemingway would be proud. NCB