OK accuse me of dredging up the past – but while exploring, always looking for history and the resurgence of not only rum as we knew it – but many rums that actually taste like something. You'll be surprised that in 05 rum was gaining on vodka in popularity. While happy to see that – the quote that we (USA) are, ". . .a one-brand country" shows me how far we've come. Also, not – as far as I can tell, not one American made rum in the bunch....
Flip Fan On, Elevate Feet, Sip
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published in The New York Times: August 10, 2005
That blessed little breeze? It's wafting in from the sea, not the train passing in the other direction. That garbled, indecipherable noise? It's amazing how a few lazy birds squawking can be so loud and annoying. That cool, tempting cocktail? Rum, of course.
Planter's punch, daiquiri, piña colada, mai tai, swizzle, mojito - rum drinks all. No spirit connotes lassitude and indolent relaxation like rum, at least nowadays. Decades and centuries ago, rum evoked other images, not nearly so pleasant. Back when the sun never set on the British Empire, it was the shipboard drink of His Majesty's enforcers, the Royal Navy, in the form of a daily ration of grog (one part rum, three parts water, add lemon or lime juice). Before that, in Colonial America, it was a sturdy component of the infamous triangle trade, in which rum, sugar, cash and slaves were among those goods that traveled the route from Europe to Africa and the New World.
Rum's richly evocative history is matched only by the diversity of distinctive styles on the market today. Like single malt Scotch, rum can vary tremendously, depending on where it is produced and by what method. But unlike Scotch, which must come from Scotland, rum, like gin and vodka, can be made anywhere in the world. The single characteristic that unites rums is that they are all distilled from sugar cane, or to be more accurate, the byproducts of the process of making sugar out of sugar cane.
But even that is not a precise definition. Most rums use molasses as their base, but many use sugar cane juice instead, especially rums made in French-speaking areas, which are labeled rhum agricole, or agricultural rum. By contrast, molasses-based rums are often referred to as industrial rum, which is often an unfairly pejorative term.
Either way, rum, America's leading spirit in the 18th century, is surging in popularity again. It is now second only to vodka in sales (though by a ratio of more than two to one), according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group.
Flushed with heat and ready for fantasy, the Dining section's tasting panel decided to taste a variety of rums. It was more than just a transporting experience - it was fascinating, demonstrating that good rums can be every bit as complex as Scotch or Cognac, and that they can be enjoyed neat just as easily as in a cocktail, although sitting on a beach in the tropics, you would hardly want the cabana boy to return with anything that wasn't cold, tart, sweet and fruity.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Eben Klemm, director of cocktail development for B. R. Guest, a restaurant group that includes Dos Caminos, Fiamma and Vento, and Clark Clark, an owner and the bar director of Bar Marché, a restaurant in NoLIta. They both have a firsthand view of the rum market, and as Mr. Klemm said, "It's a one-brand country."
That brand, of course, is Bacardi, which makes, among other products, the familiar white rum that is perfect for cocktails like the Cuba libre, better known as rum and Coke, or as some cocktail manuals like to put it, Bacardi and Coke. In drinks like that, or like frozen daiquiris, the rum is overwhelmed by the accompaniments, which is fine because these mass-produced rums have little flavor anyway. But while we included two inexpensive Bacardi rums in our tasting of 24 bottles, we were most interested in examining the true flavors of rum. We ruled out two other highly popular categories of rum: those with added flavors like lime, banana or coconut, and spiced rums.
That left us with a narrow swath of rums, as far as sales go, but we still needed to pare our choices. Since rum comes from so many places, no single set of rules guides their production. Our 24 bottles alone included 18 from seven different Caribbean islands, two from Central America, one from South America, one from Louisiana, one from Australia and one from Mauritius in Africa. Some rums are bottled without prior aging. Others are aged in barrels for anywhere from a few months to 15 or 20 years.
They range in color from clear to beige to golden or amber to inky dark, and while it may seem that darker colors correspond with longer aging, that is not true. Many producers achieve a darker color by adding caramel to the rum - no rules, remember? - which can also affect the flavor, adding additional sweetness.
We decided to eliminate dark rums and limit ourselves to white and amber rums, a distinction that was somewhat arbitrary but not inappropriate for such a libertarian, swashbuckling spirit. As someone who has enjoyed rum but hasn't made a study of it, I expected the amber rums to be much more interesting than the whites. Indeed, the amber rums had a lot of character. Many had a buttery quality along with subtle, complex flavors that included vanilla, banana, smoke and spice. But the whites were a tremendous surprise. The best had a purity of flavor, a distinct sweetness that led me to believe I was actually tasting sugar cane, along with other floral and fruit flavors. The best amber rums, too, conveyed a pure cane quality.
"I found myself looking for a preservation of character, telling me it wasn't a bourbon or a Scotch," Mr. Klemm said. Some of the rums also had a distinct brininess to them that we all found intriguing.
"Maybe proximity to the sea is reading too much into it," Ms. Fabricant said, reining in our tropical escape.
Our 24 rums were split, half and half, into ambers and whites, and our Top 10 included, though not by design, five whites and five ambers, demonstrating that great rums can come from any category. In fact, our No. 1, 10 Cane from Trinidad, was one of those white rums with enough of a beige tinge to fall somewhere in between the categories. This rum is a new entry into the high-end rum market from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods company. At $43, it was by far the most expensive bottle in our Top 10, though second in price in the tasting to Bambu, a $60 bottle that narrowly missed the cut. Ms. Fabricant called it elegant and Mr. Klemm found a "great sense of terroir." I loved the smooth, slightly viscous texture and the purity of flavors.
We tasted three rhum agricoles from Martinique, and all three made the list, including the amber St. James Royal, which had lovely floral flavors and was our best value. Perhaps it indicated a preference for rums made in the agricultural style, from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. It turns out that the 10 Cane was also made from sugar cane juice. But all the other rums in our Top 10, including the excellent No. 2, Demerara El Dorado, were made from fermented molasses, so generalizations are difficult, except to say that in most Caribbean islands, the choice of cane juice or molasses is traditional more than anything else.
Perhaps the most familiar name on the Top 10 list is Mount Gay Eclipse from Barbados, which you can find in just about every bar in New York. Its popularity should not diminish the fact that it is a fine rum, for sipping or for cocktails.
Among those rums that did not make the list were Inner Circle from Australia, which we found overly harsh, and Starr Ultra Superior, from Mauritius, which, though we all liked it, could not eke past La Favorite, an agricole from Martinique. Mauritius, by the way, is actually a small island in the Indian Ocean with climate, at least, in common with the Caribbean islands. Though the island is not on the triangle trade route, the fact that an African country is exporting rum to the United States is both a reminder of what once was and a sign of what may come.
Tasting Report: Long John Silver Never Had It So Good10 Cane Trinidad Light
Neither white nor amber, but pure, smooth and elegant, with luscious sugar-cane flavor and enticing texture.
Demerara El Dorado
12-Year Guyana Amber 80 proof
Rich amber color, with aromas of banana and vanilla; pure and subtle.
St. James Royal Amber
Agricole Martinique 90 proof
Smooth, rich, floral; lingering flavors, with great personality.
Cane Louisiana White
Vanilla aroma; smooth, with a thick texture and long, lingering flavors.
Mount Gay Eclipse
Barbados Amber 80 proof
Mellow, pure and smooth, with vanilla and butter aromas.
Puerto Rico White 80 proof
Pure, smooth and subtle, with rich flavors.
Ron del Barrilito "Three Stars"
Puerto Rico Amber 86 proof
Briny, smoky and complex, yet well balanced.
Martinique White 100 proof
Complex aromas, with a delicious natural sweetness.
Jamaica Amber 90 proof
Complex and brandylike, with fruit, floral and vanilla flavors.
La Favorite Agricole
Martinique White 100 proof 1 liter
Harsh at first, but becomes smooth; with lime and brine flavors.