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Rum, A Tropical Treat

Fine Rums are at Their Best When Served Neat in a Snifter or Just Over Ice
Mark Vaughan
Posted: June 1, 1994

(continued from page 2)

Rum-making styles tended to differ early on from island to island. Today, most island spirits are still largely produced to traditional standards, with rums from those areas using slow fermentation and pot stills being darker and fuller-bodied, and those where controlled yeast strains and column stills are used being lighter and more delicate. Color is not a good measure of either a rum's age or intensity of flavor, as it is often adjusted, even with the best rums, by adding a little caramel coloring, which is produced by burning sugar and has little to no effect on flavor.

"The key point to remember about rum is the tremendous variation that exists," says Alberto Torruella, a senior vice president at the Seralles distillery in Puerto Rico, maker of Don Q rums. "It's not like Scotch whisky, where the parameters of difference are much smaller. A Puerto Rican rum really has very little in common with a rum from Antigua, Barbados or Jamaica."

In fact, the lightest and most delicate rums now available in the United States come from Puerto Rico. All are molasses-based, fermented with proprietary yeast cultures and distilled via a column still. Though some Puerto Rican rums are aged for 10 or more years, most are released at a much younger age, in keeping with local taste preferences. In this respect, they closely resemble Cuban rums, which are noted for their extremely light and delicate flavors. Rums from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are also made in this lighter style.

Rums from Barbados, Martinique, Nicaragua, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands, though on the light side, tend to be heavier than those from Puerto Rico. Almost all are made from molasses and most, though not all, are processed in column stills. Aging is from medium to long (though usually not for more than six years). The result is often a soft, smoky or leathery flavor, somewhat reminiscent of Irish whiskey. Bermudian, Guatemalan and Jamaican rums are by far the heaviest, with Myers's Original Dark being something of thestandard setter. The best of these rums are slow fermented and pot-still processed, with long to very long aging. They are almost pungent, full of smoky oak and rich caramel flavors.

As with Bourbon, Cognac and Scotch, traditions run deep in the rum-making industry. The Nelthropp family, for example, has been making rum in the Virgin Islands for seven generations, and the family coat-of-arms is embossed on every bottle of Cruzan rum sold. The Gosling Brothers have been in Bermuda since 1806, when a great-great-great-grandfather was unexpectedly put ashore with a shipment of liquor that was originally destined for the state of Virginia. Appleton was founded in 1825, Bacardi in 1862, and Seralles in 1865.

"Most of us have been making rum for a very long time," says Gary Nelthropp. "Naturally we take such things as quality and consistency seriously."

Though the producers all agree that rum makes an excellent base for cocktails, most suggest that their premium brands be reserved for sipping on special occasions. "We don't want to tell people not to mix Bacardi Reserve with cola, but the truth is that it's very good on its own," insists José Bacardi. "A lot of people still think rum is just something you stick in a Mai tai," adds Chris Hargitt, marketing manager for Pusser's British Navy Rum, an unusually full-bodied rum. "But if you're going to pay the money for a premium aged rum, you really don't want to dilute the flavor at all." Pampero's Puig agrees. "Our Aniversario is a delicious, hand-crafted rum. I don't recommend mixing it with anything. Instead, it should be drunk straight in a snifter and perhaps even warmed slightly, as you would a fine Cognac."

With rum, as with cigars, international politics again has found a way to come between man and his pleasures. In this case, one of the world's highest-rated rums, Barbancourt from Haiti, is not available in the United States because of the current import embargo on all Haitian products. "I can't get a bottle--not even a sample," laments Bob Bingham, a vice president at Monsieur Henri Wines, which imports the rum. "There is a 15-year-old Barbancourt that is very, very special, but I can't get it; nobody can." And, of course, Cuba's Havana Club is not available in the United States, due to the 30-year-plus embargo on Cuban goods.

Politics aside though, life is sweet--and short. Whether in a hammock or by the fireside, it might just be time to rethink your attitude about rum.

A Tasting of Rum


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