Posted on | August 1, 2012
Written by | Warren Bobrow
Rum has a dark, often tempestuous history. Before there was a United States there was rum. Rum was used as a currency in the means of international trade. The distillation of rum and the transportation of its base raw materials fueled countries’ coffers and their revolutions. The dark side of rum was the slave trade; rum slaked the thirst of sailors, presidents, kings and even the slaves who cut the cane.
Rum was and still is a liquor of historic proportions. Beer has a long history of being brewed but would sour on long sea journeys. Wine was spoiled by heat and humidity when transported to the New World. Rum could be stored for decades without fail, carrying this spirit into the modern age.
Suddenly and with fervor, 21st-century rum is being perceived as serious of a spirit as bourbon and Scotch. You don’t have to cover up rum with cola any longer. Rum is a flavor-driven beverage. Now, with the explosion of flavored rums, it has a very important place behind the bar—for all seasons, not just summer.
Flavors, Barrels & Blending
Bacardi, the venerable brand from Puerto Rico, remains a category flag-waver, making vast quantities of rum available to an emerging, thirsty market. As an ingredient, Bacardi is indispensible in flavor-driven, modern versions of cocktailian pleasures such as the Mojito and the timeless Cuba Libre (Rum and Coke). As a bellwether of rum overall, it is useful to note that Bacardi has pioneered flavored rums as well. With OakHeart Spiced Rum plus flavors such as Limón, Peach Red, Black Razz, O (orange), Big Apple, Melon (watermelon), Cóco (coconut), Wolf Berry (blueberry) and Dragon Berry (strawberry, infused with the trendy dragon fruit), Bacardi has the range to sustain any mixologist’s dreams far beyond the typical. Bacardi also makes miniscule quantities of their seriously delicious 1873 Solera Rum.
One key to rum’s modern renaissance is found in the barrels. Rum casks from the production of bourbon have transformed the former “kill-devil” to a drink of great elegance. There are very specific rules pertaining to the use of bourbon oak; casks can only be used once to age bourbon and are then sold to rum distilleries.
Abuelo from Panama is one producer that has excelled in using ex-bourbon barrels. Ron Abuelo Anejo Reserva Especial and Ron Abuelo 7 Años Reserva Superior both “play well with others” in cocktails. The “only in a snifter without ice” Ron Abuelo 12 Años Gran Reserva, is as elegant as the finest whisky from Scotland or Kentucky.
Venerable brands like Ron Barceló from the Dominican Republic utilize both new oak and bourbon-oak for aging. These rums are expertly blended to give a creamy, tight mouthfeel and a lengthy finish.
Blending is another means to a finer end product for rum distillers. Denizen Rum is a carefully blended combination of 15 pot-still distilled rums in three distinctive styles from Jamaica and Trinidad. These exotic individual rums are then blended in Amsterdam. Denizen is brightly flavored and glows in the glass with tropical aromatics.
The distinctive Pyrat Rum is a blend of nine different Caribbean rums, aged for 15 years in a mix of French Limousin oak and toasted American oak. Pyrat is lovely in the mouth, creamy and pure at the same time. The squat bottle is reminiscent of early bottles that swashbucklers and sailors alike stowed away below deck of their vessels to make the journey somewhat more bearable. Pyrat was initially released a few decades ago but it was nearly unavailable outside of the Caribbean due to the extremely small production. Now with the acquisition by a new parent company, Patrón, shortages have disappeared, giving consumers another quality choice for authentically produced Caribbean rum.
For historical authenticity, look no further than the Jamaican brand of Appleton Estate, handcrafting distinctive rums since 1749. Magnificent in a snifter with a splash of coconut water or in a punch, Appleton Estate is Jamaican rum personified. Distilled from local sugar cane, then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Appleton Estate Rum is boldly flavored in a most modern style, rich with caramelized sugar notes.
Malibu is continuing their profitable trend of flavoring rums with tropical fruits like mango, coconut and citrus. The most recent offering, Malibu Black, is a bit less sweet and a bit higher in alcohol, for a drier-finishing rum. It mixes well with other spirits.
Spiced Rum: Gimmick or Trend?
The distillers of Captain Morgan, long known for their 80 proof spiced version, are adapting to consumer demand for strength along with edgey flavor. Captain Morgan Black rolls in at 100 proof, powerfully laced with a proprietary blend of Caribbean spices evocative of the islands. Captain Morgan is extremely mixable in many Tiki-bar-style concoctions. It is also is absolutely sublime in hot buttered rum or as a lively aperitif with fresh lime juice and seltzer.
Sailor Jerry, distilled in St. Croix, is a 92 proof spiced rum that plays well in mixed drinks or alone on the rocks in a tall glass. It is most recognizable for the sour cherry, savory cinnamon and freshly scraped nutmeg flavors that are woven through this very recognizable brand. Sailor Jerry is not overly sweet and is quite refreshing, especially with seltzer and lime.
Blackheart, from Heaven Hill in Kentucky, is a distinctive spiced rum that rolls in at a palate-warming 93 proof. The warmth of this spirit is offset by the creamy elegance of careful blending. Blackheart is laced with sweet vanilla that meets nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and hot chilies. Marvelous mixed with coconut-water ice, a splash of simple syrup and a hit of fresh lime juice, the Blackheart will shake up the preconceived notion that spiced rum only means candy-sweet concoctions.
Admiral Nelson, also from Heaven Hill, is known for a massive 101 proof spiced rum as well as creamier, thicker 70 proof offerings. Both are wonderful in a classic hot toddy, hot buttered rum, a lively piña colada or even a spiced rum and tonic.
Domestic producer Siesta Key in Sarasota, FL, makes a small-batch spiced rum that speaks clearly of the quality of the local Florida-grown sugar cane. Flavors of vanilla, nutmeg and allspice evoke a very tropical feel with the backbone of handcrafted rum.
Rum is only getting more popular as time goes on, in all varieties and formats, from a simple molasses-based spiced quaff to sophisticated sugar-cane spirits as serious as the world’s finest digestifs. Here is a roundup of other rums of distinction on the U.S. market:
How does dark rum get its color?
True, dark rum can achieve its color from the cask, through oxidation, but in this day and age where cask aging costs more money, it is often from added caramel or other coloring agents. Gold, or amber, rums—stylistically midway between light and dark rums—gain their color via barrel aging.
How/when in the production process do they add spice to create spiced rums?
The spices (typically baking spices such as cinnamon, vanilla and/or ginger) go in at the end—unless it is a very expensive spiced rum, then they go in at the beginning of aging. Siesta Key is one producer doing it the old-fashioned way.
How are flavored rums made?
Flavored rum is made with flavoring agents—sometimes natural but often artificial, for cost-efficiency, not unlike the bulk of flavored vodkas.
What accounts most for stylistic differences between rum from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, etc.?
Jamaican rum is fat, thick, full-bodied and oily on the tongue. Puerto Rican Rum is more akin to vodka in mouthfeel; it is mostly clear and tends to have less rum flavor. Barbados rum is English-styled, fermented from cane juice; rich and almost sappy in the mouth. Rum from Martinique is crisp, aromatic and very refreshing; the flavor of the cane is in the forefront of the mouth. Rums from Panama tend to be thicker and richer than rums from Guadeloupe or Martinique. Burnt sugar and ex-bourbon barrels give Panamanian rums signature aromatics of white flowers, toasted oak, vanilla and treacle syrup. Rums from the French islands tend to be cane-sugar-forward; their oak is usually from France, previously used for aging Cognac. Central American rums use predominantly ex-bourbon oak in their aging process. American rum from the U.S. Virgin Islands tends to be industrial; sugar beets are utilized (in addition to molasses) as a base material because these ingredients are less expensive than freshly cut cane. Making rum from sugar cane is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, but as is so often the case with fine spirits, the final product is stylistically distinct, and to aficionados such rum is worthy of a higher tab.
Rum from Martinique, made from freshly cut sugar cane, is known as Rhum Agricole. Martinique has now earned an official appellation status, similar to the AOC regions for growing and fermenting grapes in France. By law, spirits must carry one of the following designations to be called Rhum Agricole:
Rhum “Blanc” Martinique (white rum): colorless rum which has been laid still for at least three months and not more than three months if it has been aged in oak barrels.
Rhum Martinique “Élevé Sous Bois” (cask-aged rum): Rum that has been aged in oak barrels within the production area and for at least 12 uninterrupted months. The rum must also contain at least 250 grams per 100 liter of pure alcohol of volatile elements other than ethanol and methyl at the end of the aging period. This minimum concentration accounts for the cask-aged Rhum Agricole’s bouquet.
Rhum Martinique “Vieux” (extra-aged rum): Rum that has been aged in oak casks within the production area and for at least three uninterrupted years. Capacity of barrels must be under 650 liters. The rum must also contain at least 325 grams per 100 liter of pure alcohol of volatile elements other than ethanol and methyl at the end of the three years. This minimum concentration, higher than the one imposed to cask-aged rum, guarantees an even richer bouquet for the extra-aged Rhum Agricole.
Whatever category the rum may be, no rum with the designation of origin “Martinique” can be sold with an alcoholic concentration lower than 40%.
Rhum J.M is a gorgeous example. Esoteric and highly aromatic, with notes of white flowers and citrus peel, J.M is still hand-made with freshly crushed cane from their estate on Martinique.
Cachaça: Now Official
April 9, 2012, was a landmark date for spirits: In an accord signed by U.S. trade representatives, the U.S. pledged to recognize Cachaça as a distinctive Brazilian product. No longer will Cachaça be termed “Brazilian rum.” While similar to other sugar-based distillieries, it is now recognized as a product that has its own distinctive terroir and provenance.
Culturally, Cachaça is more than just a panacea of the underclass; Cachaça is the national drink of Brazil. It is also part of the national identity. The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made with Cachaça, sugar (preferably raw cane sugar) and freshly cut limes.
Protecting the name Cachaça is very important to the cultural preservation of the uniquely Brazilian method of distillation. During production of Cachaça the distiller is allowed to add sugar to the blend, forcing up the alcohol levels. If more than six grams of sugar are used, the end result must be labeled Sweet Cachaça by law. Cachaça is traditionally aged in a diverse array of wood, such as traditional oak, but also in woods found only in Brazil. These include umburana, ipê, cedar, balsam, jatobá, freijó and jequitibá. Different varieties of native wood impart different unique and indigenous flavors.
Cachaça runs the gamut from high-power, fire-driven moonshine to highly elegant and cherished spirits, not unlike the finest Cognac or Scotch whisky. At present, the U.S. market has a limited selection, but Leblon Cachaça (SRP $30) is available in all 50 states. Leblon’s master distiller, Gilles Merlet, uses techniques from his native France, including alembic batch-distillation and aging in Cognac casks. A new expression, Maison Leblon Reserva Especial, is reaching the U.S. in August.
Higher-end Cachaças have been slow to hit the market. Sao Cachaça is one of a growing number of Eco-Cert (Certified Organic) Cachaça brands in Brazil. Rich in the mouth with sharp notes of bitter chocolate and citrus rind, this Cachaça speaks clearly of the quality of the ingredients. Avuá Cachaça is the only brand of the liquor made by a woman in Brazil; she does two expressions using indigenous Brazilian wood.
As a market sign of how hot Cachaça is expected to become, Diageo has recently purchased the Ypioca brand from Brazil for $453 million.