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Raising Cane

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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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