When a customer walks into RumBa at the InterContinental Hotel in Boston, it’s pretty clear right away that this place, with its eclectic international collection of nearly 100 rums and selection of rum-based drinks, is something different. Sipping rums ranging from the $8 Westerhall from Grenada to the $120 British Royal Navy Imperial Rum from Jamaica aren’t served just anywhere.
But in a number of cities today, bars that specialize in serving a broad selection of sugar cane spirits — white, gold, dark, aged, spiced, overproof, agricole and Brazilian cachaçha — are appearing and thriving. The emergence of operations including RumBa and the expansion of concepts such as Cuba Libre, which ventured from its hometown of Philadelphia to Atlantic City and Orlando in recent years, is just one of the reasons that premium rum showed significant growth in 2008. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that premium rums grew eight percent at a time when most categories were flat.
It’s a good time to be a fan of premium rums, as more brands from more countries than ever before are widely available in the United States, says Dori Bryant, whose company Polished Palate has been hosting rum events since 2002. Bryant says better rums are gaining interest fast among consumers and the media.
“As consumers have become more aware of the immense versatility and flavor of rums, we continue to customize the types of events we do,” Bryant says. “When I held that first RumFest, there were very few reviewers who paid attention to this category, fewer columnists devoting features in their respective media — and precious few experts focusing on cane-based spirits. Now there are dozens who devote volumes to reviewing and promoting this category of spirit.”
The pool of imported rums is growing; Bryant’s events have been attracting entries from Nepal, South Africa, Mauritius, Tanzania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Australia, Panama, Guatemala and other countries.
Rum has always been the most elusive of categories, as the rules in production, distillation and maturation have been freewheeling and developed on the fly over the years. But a basic rule always applies: rum is made from either sugar cane or sugar by-products, generally molasses.
While styles differ regionally, there are a few basic types of rum: light rum, which is usually fresh or lightly aged and filtered, with crystal clear clarity and youthfulness; gold rum, which picks up colors and flavors from the addition of some aged rum or caramel in the blending process; and dark rum, which can develop its color and more intense flavor from both longer oak aging and added caramel. These three are the major rum varieties in terms of consumer sales, but a commonly agreed definition about what constitutes each varies from country to country. Ditto for aging rules and regulations and even ingredient sources; rums may be made in such-and-such a place, but the molasses probably comes from far away.
In style, rums differ mostly due to tradition and history. Those from the Spanish language islands in the northern Caribbean — Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic — are known for dryness, lightness and clean and crisp flavors Cuban rums are embargoed, so the best known examples include Bacardi, Don Q and Barrilito from Puerto Rico and Brugal and Barcelo from the Dominican Republic. Those flavor attributes are the reason these rums work so well in cocktails with fresh juices but can’t really compete with more intensely flavored ingredients.
Varieties from English language islands including Barbados and Jamaica tend to be darker and richer with a more intense molasses quality, although light rums are also made here; Myers’s, Mount Gay, Appleton, Gosling’s and Cruzan are the best known. That makes these spirits, heavier in flavor or body, and thus, good candidates for drinks made with more complex ingredients.
Producers in French-language Martinique and Haiti use fresh sugar cane almost exclusively, which delivers a more fruity, estery and even slighty funky quality to young rums Haiti’s Barbancourt and Martinique’s Depaz, Clement, Neisson and JM are the best known. Light or aged, these rums can deliver subtleties and complexities that make them a bartender’s favorite.
There are exceptions to every rum rule, and as rums age, they take on character and depth in ways that vary tremendously. Rums coming from Central and South America fall all across the general spectrum, but it is with their aged rums that these producers shine.
Rums such as Zacapa and Botran from Guatemala, Diplomatico and Santa Teresa from Venezuela and Flor de Caña from Nicaragua become fuller-bodied and more seductive than their Caribbean counterparts, developing a broader flavor palate without taking on extreme astringency. In some ways, these rums deliver on the promise that sugar cane spirits can rival the qualities of good Cognacs and Armagnacs when aged.
While these styles matter, what may be most significant in defining rum’s character is the selection of yeast and the type of distillation — column or batch. Far more than region of origin, yeast and distillation impart character, flavor and aroma to the basic ingredients.
The New Mixology Muse
A resurgence of Tiki drinks, which emphasize fresh fruit juices and a blend of rums, spices and syrups, has helped spur drink creativity, but it’s still the Mojito that is widely responsible for the growth in rum sales on-premise. For instance, the 10 rum-based Mojito varieties served at Cuba Libre are by far the most popular drinks at the concept’s venues, according to marketing director Stacy Schulist, probably partially due to the use of fresh squeezed cane and the hierba buena mint variety.
At least one seasonal specialty, the Grilled Pineapple Mojito, is so popular it’s joined the permanent menu at Cuba Libre. A Champagne Mojito leads the pack at RumBa as well, and the Mojito served at the Bahama Breeze chain of 24 tropical-themed restaurants is so popular that the company recently added five fresh fruit variations — strawberry, strawberry banana, orange, golden pineapple and ripe mango — to its beverage mix.
Creative bartenders are turning more to rum for inspiration. The list at RumBa, for instance, developed by Southern Wine & Spirits director of mixology Francesco Lafranconi, includes the Rumbullion [Bacardi 8, orange curaçao, lime juice, pomegranate juice, a proprietary flavor blend and a float of Demerara rum] as well as the Caribbean Swizzle [Gosling’s Black Seal, lime juice, Angostura Bitters and pineapple ginger beer] and the Mai Tai [Appleton 15-year-old Barbancourt Estate Reserve, orange curaçao, orgeat rock candy syrup and lime juice].
Newer or rarer brands are driving drink development as well. At White Star in New York City, owned by cocktail luminary Sasha Petraske, who is also proprietor of Milk & Honey in New York and London, three varieties of Diplomatico make it onto the back bar. Even at the insider New York City cocktail joints that have become a destination for pre-Prohibition cocktail seekers, barhoppers can opt for the Beachbum [Mount Gay Eclipse, Flor de Caña Silver, apricot brandy, orgeat syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice] at PDT and the Zombie Punch [Appleton’s VX, Brugal Gold Label, El Dorado Overproof Rum (151 proof), lime juice, Velvet Falernum and absinthe] at Elettaria.
It’s a sure sign that rum is shedding its fun-in-the-sun reputation and appealing to some serious sippers. NCB
Frequently writing and consulting about spirits, Jack Robertiello also judges at events including the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the International Rum Fest and Spirits of Mexico.