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Rum Makers Are Elevating Sugar's Nectar to Higher Levels
Posted: August 1, 2000
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Piedra goes into a reverie about rum and "the art of Caribbean passion," describing a bygone indulgence from his native Cuba, involving cigar-smoke-filled casinos with men in white linen suits and Panama hats, enjoying music, dancing, rum and fun.
"We were doing it before it was chic," he says.
SPIRIT OF THE VOODOO GODS The ancestors of Dupré Barbancourt, who founded the company in 1862, came to Haiti from the Cognac region of France. Stories say that his kin had survived the earlier era of Haiti's wars of independence--a time when almost everyone with links to France was killed or exiled--because they produced quality drinks for islanders of all political stripes. After his death, Barbancourt's widow brought in her nephew to run the business, and it has remained in the Gardère family ever since, surviving invasions, wars and conspiracies.
Barbancourt only makes two million bottles a year of its "rum of rums," the 15-year-old Estate Reserve. Set against the surrounding squalor and chaos of its homeland, the rum's quality is little short of miraculous. In fact, at blind tastings people who don't associate rum with this degree of quality sometimes mistake Barbancourt for a Cognac, or single-malt Scotch.
While Barbancourt has as many medals as a Haitian general, perhaps its biggest accolade is that it is--by default, if not "by appointment"--the libation demanded in rituals by the Voodoo spirits, who get famously upset if they don't have their way. (The star on the rum's label is said to be a symbol of a Voodoo god.) Thierry Gardère, the fourth-generation head of the family business, is almost equally as upset at the idea that people would want to drink his rum with mixers. "Some makers don't like people to drink their rum without a mixer and I'm not surprised," he sniffs. "[Barbancourt] has a particularity, like a fine Cognac, but you can smell the sugarcane." His disdain for mixing applies to the eight-year-old Five Star as well, although he's prepared to consider the possibility with the four-year-old Three Star.
While Barbancourt is exported worldwide, it's not easy to track down the company. Several weeks of phoning the plant in Haiti produced no response; local thieves steal the telephone wires. Ultimately, I decided to make a personal visit, only to discover that the
roads in Port-au-Prince are in no better condition than the phone lines. The Barbancourt plant, itself, is an island of technology in the sea of sugarcane fields, however. Indeed, the fields themselves are surrounded by the rising tide of slums spreading from the capital. Gardère has been buying nearby acreage in an effort to protect the fields from encroachment, since the rum's quality depends on the local cane's natural ferments to augment the yeast cultures.
Unlike most rums in the English-speaking world, which use the molasses by-product from sugar refining to distill alcohol, Barbancourt uses the full juice of the sugarcane, milled on the premises the same day that it's cut in the fields. Within three days, the fermented juice is bubbling its way through the three-column still, leaving behind most of the hangover-inducing fusel oils.
What emerges is 90 percent alcohol (180 proof)and has to be cut with water before it enters the longest stage of its journey. It begins aging in large vats made by French carpenters out of white Limousin oak. Most of these coopers' time is spent constructing barrels for Cognac makers, so it's fitting that the final five years of the maturation stage of the Estate Reserve's life is spent in barrels that were previously used to age Cognac.
Once the rum gets to your lips, it is even more fitting to sip it, straight up, and roll it, like cigar smoke on the palate. After savoring Barbancourt, the Voodoo spirit will haunt you so that you'll never want Coke in your rum again. There is synergy in good rum and good cigars, made as they are side by side in places like Cuba and Jamaica. While Haiti makes no memorable cigars, it is, however, on the same island as the Dominican Republic--creating the potential for some memorable pairings. --Ian Williams
Ian Williams is a New York-based freelance writer.
SUGAR 'N' SMOKE
Given that rum and cigars are so often created in proximity, they are among the most perfect companions. Three Cigar Aficionado senior editors conducted a tasting of 13 rums to provide a starting point for your own experiments into pairing the two. First, the rums were blind tasted for overall impressions and to classify them in terms of their fullness of body. Then three cigars were chosen: a medium-bodied La Flor Dominicana Torpedo, a medium-to-full-bodied Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 with five years of box age and a full-bodied Ashton VSG Belicoso No. 1. The panel smoked them one at a time, comparing them to the rums (whose identities were now known to the panel) in order of body strength. The rums are listed in order of preference.
BACARDI 8 RESERVA SUPERIOR (Bahamas)
By consensus, this medium- to full-bodied rum did best on its own and as a partner to cigars. Caramel, vanilla and licorice notes give this rum a slight resemblance to Bourbon, even as it expresses a delicate softness and a subtle, elegant finish. The Bacardi's sweetness overpowered the flavors of the La Flor Dominicana, but was otherwise an excellent partner to the cigars. It may have been the best match for the Hoyo of all the rums, rounding out the cigar and bringing out its earthy and leather notes. The rum became sweeter and more complex, and the finish seemed to stretch forever. The match with the Ashton was well balanced and almost as good. Leather and nut notes were emphasized in the cigar, and the rum seemed rounder and chewier.
ANIVERSARIO PAMPERO (Venezuela)
Another rush of flavors, the full-bodied Pampero is loaded with spice flavor--a graham-crackery ginger note, cloves, cinnamon and tea--tempered with lemon notes and a finesse that masks its complexity. The rum's full body overpowered the La Flor, but gave it some leather notes. An excellent partner to the Hoyo, the Pampero gave the cigar spice and received it in return. They seemed to talk to each other, as the rum woke up and the cigar gained power. Pampero's pairing with the Ashton was the best of the rums with that cigar. The Ashton settled down with hints of toast and cream and its leather and chocolate notes were accentuated. The rum became even more elegant and balanced, with a hint of honey.
SANTA TERESA 1796 RON ANTIGUO DE SOLERA (Venezuela)
Perhaps the most complex of the rums in the tasting, the medium-bodied Santa Teresa shows flavors of lime, licorice, spice, wood and leather, before finishing with a velvety honey. It consistently paired very well with all the cigars. Santa Teresa made the La Flor creamy and took on a delicacy and subtle sweetness of its own. It also brought out the leather finish on the Hoyo and did the same for the Ashton.
HAVANA CLUB ANEJO RESERVA (Cuba)
A distinct rose-and-honey aroma sets up the senses for the mixture of cloves, spice, Earl Grey tea and floral notes that come from this full-bodied Cuban rum. The cooked vanilla finish is a pleasant addition. Its sugary quality overpowered the La Flor, however, and the rum itself took on a Scotch-like taste. Both became more tart in the deal. Suitably, the match with the rum's Cuban cousin was sublime. The rum became more muscular and the cigar's earthiness came out. Havana Club also made an excellent pairing with the Ashton. Fruit, spice and floral notes came out on each, and the cigar generated more energy.
MOUNT GAY EXTRA OLD (Barbados)
Vanilla and citrus notes are at the forefront of this straightforward, medium-bodied rum. Over ice it becomes more sugary. An oily finish gives it a velvety texture. It paired better with the La Flor than any of the other rums, making the cigar woody and leathery and taking on a flavor of crème brûlée itself. Conversely, it paired worse than all the other rums with the Hoyo de Monterrey. They conflicted from the start, resulting in a muddled heat. But Mount Gay redeemed itself against the Ashton, with a very good showing, making the cigar seem sweeter and toastier, and displaying its own ginger qualities.
RHUM BARBANCOURT ESTATE RESERVE (Haiti)
From the start, velvety vanilla, coconut and honeysuckle are the primary expressions of this full-bodied rum, yet it finishes with a slight petroleum taste. That chemical note disappeared when paired with the La Flor, which took on some extra spiciness in the transaction. Again, the Barbancourt was a very good partner with the Hoyo, giving it more of its earthy barnyard characteristics and gaining floral notes. The marriage with the Ashton wasn't as fortunate. While the cigar was nuttier, the rum burned.
R.L. SEALE'S (Barbados)
A light tangy rum with a fiery hot nose, Seale's is perfect for lunchtime consumption or when sitting by the pool. It's candy apple and pear notes open up over ice. Surprisingly, the pairing with the milder La Flor Dominicana was only fair to good, the rum becoming more delicate, but the cigar becoming sour. The Hoyo was a very good partner, perking up the rum and taking on sweet cedar and spice notes. The Ashton was only a fair partner, although the rum helped bring out a nutty character in the cigar.
APPLETON ESTATE JAMAICA RUM V/X (Jamaica)
Another delicate rum, Appleton is full of honey, apple and pear notes, with a ginger finish that's a bit rough. It paired very well with the La Flor, giving the cigar a creamy almond flavor. The pairing wasn't as fortunate with the Hoyo, however. While the Cuban seemed to bring out cedar notes on the rum, it became gassy itself. The marriage was better with the Ashton, which brought out the depth of the Appleton's floral notes and became nut-like and well rounded in return.
CRUZAN SINGLE BARREL ESTATE RUM (St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands)
To the nose, Cruzan seems like Cognac with a pronounced oakiness. On the tongue, it is nowhere near as full-bodied, manifesting orange, cinnamon, licorice and honey. A middling partnership with the La Flor, in which rum and cigar seemed not to relate at all, was followed by an excellent match-up with the Hoyo. The rum made the cigar cedary and leathery and the cigar returned the compliment by giving the rum fruit and honey notes. While the marriage with the Ashton was very good, the Cruzan got the better of the deal, gaining apple and caramel notes.
GOSLING'S BLACK SEAL (Bermuda)
Licorice and molasses are the up-front impressions from this dark rum, but beyond the initial cough-syrup assault are subtle flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. It was a very good partner with the La Flor, giving it a leathery quality and taking on spice. It wasn't quite as good with the Cuban, which dried out a bit even as it gave the rum spice. There was a good synergy with the fruits of the Ashton, but some heat on the finish.
RON FLOR DE CANA CENTENARIO 21 EDICION LIMITADA (Nicaragua)
A complex medium-bodied rum, the Flor de Cana greets the palate with a big sugarcane taste and syrupy texture, then expresses notes of honey, vanilla, caramel and cream, before finishing with a taste of camphor. As good as this rum is, it did not fair well with the cigars tasted. It overpowered the milder-bodied La Flor. It didn't seem to be communicating with the Hoyo. The Ashton and Flor de Cana created a medicinal aftertaste.
RON DEL BARRILITO THREE STAR (Puerto Rico)
A rich core of maple syrup and caramel inform this medium-bodied rum. Its nose hints at candied fruit and toast, and it delivers on the tongue with a velvety full body. While the Barrilito generally overshadowed the La Flor, there was a moment of caramel on the cigar that made it a worthwhile tasting. It was a little better than fair with the Cuban, showing more of its pear qualities. This rum was probably best with the Ashton, giving the cigar a taste of apple and nuts, but losing something in the exchange.
RON BARCELO IMPERIAL (Dominican Republic)
An aggressive, fiery rum, the Barcelo calms down somewhat with water and shows its simple charms: citrus, honey and caramel. It seemed to balance well with the cigars, but didn't give any extraordinary results. It was a good complement with the La Flor, giving it a cedary quality. It stood in, but faired a little worse, with the Hoyo, which became gassy. The rum gained some improvement from a match-up with the Ashton. --JB
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