Rum Makers Are Elevating Sugar's Nectar to Higher Levels
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.
Over the years, production methods improved, aging was introduced and rum became widely accepted. It became the most popular alcoholic beverage in the American colonies prior to the War of Independence. However, the Revolution curtailed trade with British islands like Barbados and stemmed the flow of rum as well as the molasses to make it. Tastes changed and America looked elsewhere to quench its thirst for quality aged spirits. Rum was largely relegated to cocktails and became the drink of unsophisticated youth--the memory, perhaps, of a hangover from too much bad rum imbibed with Coke.
At the Mount Gay plant in St. Michael, Claire Jordan, the company's international brand manager, is sitting on a verandah bemoaning the lack of knowledge about high-end rums. "It is the only category that hasn't had a recognized superpremium end," she says, the emphasis on "recognized". "It's all perception." To Jordan's way of thinking, fine rums are there. What is needed is for the rest of the world to appreciate choice rums the way it has single-malt Scotch. That's not a problem in Barbados. "We have a real rum snobbery here. We live a rum culture in the Caribbean."
Inside a nearby laboratory, Jerry Edwards, the master blender, conducts a tasting to lead some visitors through the niceties of rum. He holds up a glass of rum and asks, "Are you aware there is a difference between age and maturity? Maturity is a description of quality." It can come at different ages, he explains, depending on where a spirit is aged. Since rum is usually aged in a warm climate, it doesn't take long to gain maturity. In the heat, the alcohol easily expands into the barrels in which it is stored, taking on flavor more quickly than a whisky that is resting in a cool climate such as Scotland. As a result, you don't see 25-year-old rums. A law of diminishing returns would take over by that age: the rum would have already gained most of the flavor possible, as well as quite a bit of tannin, and its alcohol would be evaporating from the barrels at a prohibitively expensive rate.
Since all rum is made from either molasses or sugarcane juice (usually the former), there is no mash bill or sugar conversion process to consider during the fermentation process. Some whiskies contain three different kinds of grain, one to help the complex carbohydrates turn to sugar. With rum, yeast is simply added to the diluted molasses and it begins converting the sugar into alcohol. The resulting liquid is distilled and then put up in barrels to age. Therefore, rum making is a blender's art. The formulae that are most closely guarded are the ones that tell how much rum of a particular age goes into the mix for any particular brand (of which there are four at Mount Gay). Edwards is the guy who keeps those secrets at Mount Gay.
One recent entry to the aged rum category is, Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum. It isn't really a single-barrel in the way the term would be used for Bourbon. That fine rum, made on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is actually a married spirit that is further aged after blending and then bottled straight from the barrel in which it spent its final maturation. (Todhunter Imports, which brings the rum to this country, is also involved in the elevation of another downtrodden spirit--Tequila--with its Porfirio.) Thomas Valdes, the Todhunter president and a cigar smoker, says that the rebirth of cigars goes hand and hand with that of rum, especially since they are both produced in the same area and have historically made wonderful pairings (see sidebar, page 176).
At Mount Gay, one of the variables Edwards must consider is that they do two kinds of distillation. One is done with old-fashioned copper pot stills--a process that is performed twice to render the levels of alcohol needed to make rum. The other is with a Coffey, or continuous, still. The rum boils off a column, creating a purer distillate at the correct proof in one try. Edwards believes each process has its advantages. While pot distillation isn't as pure, the impurities it renders add flavor. The distillate from the Coffey still ages up to four times as fast as that from the pot still, however, and that is a major consideration in blending the rums before they go in the bottle.
When it comes time to blend, Edwards has to choose from the thousands of barrels, ranging in age from two to 20 years, that rest in a nearby warehouse, its walls painted with fungus from the humidity created. The white oak barrels have come to him from Kentucky, where they were used once to make Bourbon. They arrive disassembled, and a cooper puts them back together in the yard, using fronds from cane lily plants to seal the spaces between staves. Edwards says that part of the flavor profile of Mount Gay comes from the Jim Beam that was once in the barrel.
So many variables exist--such as the number of times a barrel has been used to age rums (no more than five) and the temperature in the aging room--that blending is never an exact science. Edwards and his team have the happy responsibility of constantly testing the rum while it ages and then again after it has been blended. "Sometimes we have to go back to tweak the rum. Luckily, we don't have to do that too often."
A visit to the Four Square Distillery, across the island in the parish of St. Phillip, is perhaps more reflective of the sugarcane and rum tradition that pervades Barbados. As you drive past acres of cane in the relatively rural area, you are likely to get stuck behind a slow-moving truck fraught with cane or find yourself waylaid in one of the rum shops that dot the island. While the distillery, which makes the spectrum of different rums that make up the R.L. Seale line, may be one of the most modern plants of its kind in the world, the property itself also contains Heritage Park, a monument to the history of rum making on Barbados.
When rum was first made on the island, it was mainly an ancillary operation to the main business of growing sugarcane. Settlers grew the cane, refined it into sugar in a conical mill made of stone, and made rum for personal use as an afterthought from the molasses that was left. Later it became an import commodity for sale to the British navy and American colonies.
Mount Gay claims to be the oldest rum maker in what may be the world's oldest rum culture, based on its having made rum as early as 1703 and possibly as far back as 1663, when namesake John Gay Alleyne was the caretaker of the Mount Gilboa estate in northern Barbados. The rum is still distilled there (although the distillery can't be toured) before being brought to the blending plant.
Nevertheless, David Seale, the scion of R.L. Seale, makes his own claims to local seniority. He points out that there has been an unbroken line of five generations of Seales making rum here. A tradition, he says, that is "our family silver." Mount Gay's pedigree was broken, he explains, in the early 1900s when Aubrey Ward (the man whose signature appears on the bottle) bought the company and reinvented it.
Despite this apparent bit of rum snobbery and the fact that David Seale recently became Sir David when he was knighted, he is not at all a haughty man. Of British ancestry, he nevertheless speaks in the sing-songy island accent as he enthuses about his passion for rum. "It's in our blood here in Barbados."
Seale makes a white rum called E.S.A. Field that is the island's most popular. Nevertheless, enough of a tradition exists in the family for aging rums that when Seagrams was putting together its recent collection of four brands, called Rare Rums of the Caribbean, it asked Seale to create the only rum in the series not made by the company. "I don't know why they happened to come to us," says Seale, "but we must be doing something right." He adds that the Seales always made aged rums for private consumption even when the market wasn't clamoring for it. "The older rums were the chairman's reserve," he says with a smile and a hint of a lip smack.
Hans Bergheim, Seale's export sales director, takes a visitor on a tour of Heritage Park. The park, housed on what was once a sugar factory dating back to 1700s, has replicas of the buildings used in the trade as well as quite a few of the tools used to make rum. "There are a lot of myths about rum that need to be dispelled," he confides. The first is that a rum's dark color is a reflection of years in the barrel. Like Scotch, rum will only take on so much color from the barrel. Even at the relatively ancient age of five years, it is only slightly muddy. To make it darker, manufacturers add caramel coloring, as do makers of blended Scotch. Seale prefers to package its older rum in a darkened bottle to give it that suggestion of age rather than mix the rum with as much caramel.
Another myth, Bergheim notes, is that the age statement on a bottle of rum is necessarily reflective of all the rum that goes into the blend. It might refer to only the oldest rum in the mix, and not very much of it at that. "If you read that a rum is 21 years old, it may be just a teaspoon of it is that old. People didn't predict 21 years ago that there would be a market for aged rum and put away enough of it to sell now." What Bergheim doesn't say is that a pure rum at such an age is likely to be past its prime.
In stark contrast to the historical displays at Four Square is the distillery itself. Spic 'n' span clean and highly computerized, it can be run by a team of two men checking needles and gauges. The modern vacuum stills are capable of cooking rum at a constant low temperature, which, Seale says, is the hallmark of his product. The plant's degree of technical sophistication is rivaled in the rum world only by Bacardi's Puerto Rico plant.
Both facilities are highly ecologically conscious, recycling by-products of the fermentation process to make solid foods for livestock and carbon dioxide for soft drinks or dry ice. Four Square Distillery takes pride in the fact that it doesn't dump spent molasses at sea where it might retard coral growth. At Bacardi, 70 percent of the energy used to run the boiler comes from methane that is captured in the fermentation process.
While Bacardi may be the most modern of rum makers, it still wears its pride and passion for the spirit as a badge of honor no less obvious than its familiar bat logo. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Bacardi Museum at its U.S. headquarters in Miami, Florida. As you step into the museum, you see two maps. One shows Bacardi's worldwide presence before 1958, the other shows it now. On the former there is one bat logo, representing a Cuban plant. On the latter there are dozens scattered all over the world--but none in Cuba.
Bacardi made the fortunate decision to move to Puerto Rico before Cuba turned Communist, thereby giving itself a foothold outside the country that was invaluable when its Cuba property was confiscated. While it lost its home base and millions of dollars in property, it was able to regroup with a worldwide presence.
Largely a family-owned company, Bacardi values its Cuban heritage and created the museum in 1995 to display what artifacts of its history are available outside of Cuba. Jose "Tito" Argamasilla Bacardi, a vice-president and the director of the museum, is the great-great grandson of the company's founder, Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso. He explains that many of the displays--photos, signage, promotional materials, etc.--were donated by people who had brought them from Cuba after the 1959 revolution. They tell the story of Don Facundo, a wine merchant originally from Catalonia, Spain, who set out to elevate the status of rum by smoothing its rough edges. He did it by applying the latest scientific methods available, and, after years of experimentation, bought a distillery in Santiago de Cuba to test his theories. Many of the advancements that Don Facundo brought to the process, such as the use of the Coffey still (the first in Cuba), were aimed at ridding the rum of impurities. The final product was a light rum made from molasses, using a standardized yeast and a quickened fermentation process. The aging process utilized oak barrels and charcoal filtration. And, as always, there were the proprietary secrets of the master blender, which have been passed down and jealously guarded through the generations. To this day, Bacardi rums have followed the same basic style formulated by Don Facundo.
In the building's dining room, high above Biscayne Bay, Tito gives a visitor a mojito, a sugary concoction, to sample. "Pretty sweet, eh? You don't have to drink it. Why don't you try the Bacardi 8?"
In his office, president of global brands Alfredo Piedra is describing the origins of that blend. "Bacardi 8 is our flagship," he says, explaining that while it was first commercially introduced about two years ago in limited quantities sold only in duty-free shops, the rum has been around much longer as a special taste reserved for family and friends. The trend toward other superpremium spirits and cigars, Piedra says, suggested that there was an opportunity for finely crafted age rum. "We saw the trend 10 years ago, but the formula was in our archives for 120 years."
Part of the key to Bacardi 8, he reveals, is selection of special barrels that accentuate the aging process. "The eight-year-old matures more than an 18-year-old Scotch," he claims.
The Millennium Edition, issued with 3,000 bottles on a one-off basis, was made by way of commemoration and used to raise $300,000 in charity for underprivileged children in an auction of celebrity-signed decanters. (Some bottles are still available.) The inspiration to put the rum in sherry casks for extra finishing he describes as "intuitive."
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