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Raising Cane

Rum Makers Are Elevating Sugar's Nectar to Higher Levels
Jack Bettridge
Posted: August 1, 2000

Another perfect day is wrapping up in paradise. A farmer is leading his horses to the seashore for a sunset dip after a sweaty day's work. A fisherman tosses his gear into the trunk of his car, exchanging it for a stalk of sugarcane. He whacks a point into it with a machete, creating a toothsome, if cavity-promoting, reward for his toil. Up the street in Speightstown, one of the 1,000 or so rum shops on the island of Barbados is just starting to fill up. Inside, patrons are toasting each other with a more refined version of the fisherman's treat.

A couple of tourists, refugees from the winter that rages up north, wander into the tumbledown establishment to soak up a little atmosphere and a drink of the only hard beverage served. The man orders a rum and Coke. His wife asks for a Daiquiri and as an afterthought calls her brand: Mount Gay Extra Old. At the other end of the bar, Winston, who is otherwise engaged in a heated game of dominoes, wrinkles his nose. "If she's gonna have Extra Old, why is she wasting it on a daiquiri?" he puzzles.

Winston is a purist. He has an abiding respect for the superpremium rums being created on his island--for that matter, all over the Caribbean--and he doesn't much care to see it adulterated with fruit juice. "That's what the 'see-through' is for," he says, referring to clear rum. Winston grouses that millions of tourists come to the islands every year and never really bother to appreciate the native spirit, preferring to glug it down in Piña Coladas, Daiquiris and Mojitos, or with soda pop. "They don't respect it."

Winston is only partly right. If rum has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the spirits world, that image has begun to come around in recent years. A number of premium aged rums have been added to the list in a movement that seems to follow the increased appreciation for rarified whiskies such as single-malt Scotch and small-batch Bourbon. In Las Vegas, a nightclub devoted to rum opened at the Mandalay Bay Resort Casino and Hotel. Rumjungle serves 147 rums and tries to further the customer's education through flight tastings and encouraging customers to enjoy the spirit neat or over ice. The public is responding, says Kelley Jones, the bar's director of operations. "They're discovering there is more to rum than Captain Morgan and Bacardi."

Indeed, there is much more to Bacardi as well. The largest maker of rum (and for that matter any spirit) in the world, and always a firm presence in the quality-rum world, Bacardi recently punctuated its devotion to aged rums by introducing a limited millennium edition of its already-distinguished Bacardi 8 line. With a sherry finish and a Baccarat container, the refinements pushed its price up to $750 a bottle.

Anyone who looks at price as a prime reflection of quality can spend $5,000 on a gallon of rum. A supply of the spirit the British navy used as its sailors' daily rum ration (until they ended the centuries-long practice in 1970) was lately unimported by Great Spirits Inc. and offered at that price in the wicker-covered jugs in which it was originally shipped. (Rarity and curiosity, of course, are the selling points here. While that rum can claim to be 30 to 70 years old, it is in bottle age, not the all-important barrel age.)

If rum still has a run-down reputation, it isn't a recent development. Much of that infamy derives from semantics and history. Although crude alcoholic beverages were probably made from sugarcane long before the plant was brought to the West Indies by Christopher Columbus, Barbados was long considered the birthplace of rum. That was not because the first rum made here (sometime between 1627, when it was settled, and the 1640s) was the first sugar-based spirit or even that it was the original New World rum (the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch were making simple sugar spirits by that time). It was apparently because Barbados first exported rum and invented its name.

The islanders might have given their drink a respectable, refined moniker such as "sugar brandy." Instead they called it rumbullion (or rumbustion) and kill-devil. The former term, it seems, referred to the effect the spirit had on the drinker and relates to the English words "rumbustious" and "rambunctious" as we use them today. Kill-devil, while sounding even more sinister, probably referred to the supposed curative properties of rum. At any rate, the names bespeak a certain lack of respect. Even the shortened form of rumbullion--rum--has its derogatory meanings: queer, odd, dangerous.

As years passed, the word took on greater infamy, as it was included in other tainted expressions: rummy (for a drunk); demon rum (as a catchall for the evils of alcohol); rumrunner (for smuggler); rum corps (for the corrupt overseers of the Australian penal colonies). The terms grog and groggy comes from British sailors' slang for the watered-down rum that became their daily ration under Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed "Old Grog" for the grogram coats he wore.

It didn't help that the first rums were of questionable quality (hence the term rotgut rum). A seventeenth-century visitor to Barbados called it "a hot, hellish and terrible liquor." These early attempts were considered suitable as tonics for slaves to ward off disease or take the edge off the heat, but plantation owners themselves avoided rum if they could. The drink was also notorious for its connection with pirates (think "yo ho ho and a bottle of ...") and the trade triangle that promoted the spread of slavery. Sea captains found they could get rich quick by trading rum in West Africa for slaves, taking the slaves to the West Indies and trading them for molasses (a by-product of sugarcane distillation). They then brought the molasses to New England distillers who made it into rum, which could be traded for more slaves.

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