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Tropical Delights

Fine Rums are at Their Best When Served Neat in a Snifter or Just Over Ice
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 1)

"The problem with natural fermentation is consistency," argues Juan Puig, marketing director for Pampero Rums of Venezuela. "We have been using the same yeast strain for many, many years, and so we know from batch to batch exactly what flavors to expect."

Another major production variation lies in distillation methods. Many rum makers, including Myers's, continue to use the traditional pot still for extracting spirits from fermented mash, which produces a heavier, more flavorful, if less pure mix of alcohols. (Pot stills are also used in the production of Cognac and single malt Scotch.) Others, including the makers of Pampero, prefer the more modern continuous-still method (also used by Bourbon makers), which allows for higher proof distillation, resulting in a cleaner, if less flavorful alcohol mix. "We are very proud of the fact that our rums are extremely pure," says Gary Nelthropp Jr., executive assistant at Virgin Island Rum Industries, makers of Cruzan Rum. "We believe in taking out the impurities through a rigorous distillation and then adding back flavor via aging and blending."

Like most spirits, rums are blended to achieve taste and quality consistency. Blending is generally done on the recommendation of a tasting panel and under the supervision of a master blender, such as Owen Tulloch, master blender for Appleton rums since 1970 and a member of its rum-making team since 1945. According to Tulloch, blending is "more of an art than a science." Like most Scotch producers, Appleton uses both pot stills and continuous stills to produce rums of different characters, which are aged independently and then blended before bottling to match a preset quality standard.

For Gosling Brothers, blending is the entire raison d'être: Gosling neither distills nor ages its own rums, but instead sources them via long-term contract from independent producers on other islands. It then blends to produce its very dark Black Seal rums. "We work with distillers that have produced to our specs for over 100 years," says Managing Director Malcom Gosling Jr. "Our blending recipe dates back prior to 1850."

Aging is by far the most controversial aspect of rum production. Like Scotch, rums are often aged in recycled white oak Bourbon barrels that are charred when new to add color and flavor to the whiskey. The char (and, to a certain extent, Bourbon residues in the wood) also affect the color and flavor of the rum. Most countries require rum to be aged for at least one year prior to bottling, and many rum makers argue that aging for more than eight years is counterproductive. Black Seal, for example, is a blend of three-year-old rums, because, says Gosling, "if we aged any part of the blend for longer than that, it would not benefit the product whatsoever."

"With rum, age does not equate to quality," adds Puig, whose Pampero Aniversario is a blend of two-to-eight-year-old rums. "In Venezuela the climate is much hotter and drier than in Scotland or France. So our rums age faster than Scotch or Cognac. Also, we get a very high evaporation rate, about 10 percent a year, compared to their 2 percent. If we aged all our Pampero for 10 years, we wouldn't have much left to put in the bottle."

Still, many premium rums carry age statements on their labels of 12years or more, and under U.S. law, the stated age must be that of the youngest rum in a given blend. Guatemala's La Nacional, which currently has a 12 year old on the U.S. market, is even considering bringing its 23 year old, available now only in Japan, to the States. "You can age rums for as long as you can age any spirit," argues Jarava. "It is really a matter of how and under what conditions you do so."

Though its headquarters and production facilities are in the hot, dry coastal lowlands of southwest Guatemala, La Nacional ages Botran in the country's northwest mountains at elevations of more than 7,000 feet. Days are cool, and nights often see frost. "Our rum warehouses are not like the big, vertical buildings one sees in Bourbon country," adds Jarava. "We build them of natural materials such as adobe and keep them low--about 12 feet high. That way they stay relatively cool and humid year-round, so we get a slow, even aging."

* * *

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.

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