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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

Picture yourself in a hammock strung between two tall palms. Before you, beyond the shade's edge, a wide, empty beach, brilliant in the afternoon sun, stretches down to the emerald waters of the sparkling Caribbean. In one hand you hold a long, dark maduro: the smoke from the slowly burning ash rises gently on the breeze, carried upward toward a perfectly clear sky. In your other hand is a coconut, still moist from the husk, and in the coconut, mixed with its own natural juices, is a good measure of rum, the nectar of the tropics. Now and then you sip languidly from astraw....Ah, life is sweet.

There is no other distilled spirit known to man that has enjoyed the fame--and infamy--of that ol' devil rum. A by-product of sugar production, rum has been made in some form since man first began to harvest cane nearly 3,000 years ago. The distiller's art followed the planting of sugar cane from its Asian origins to North Africa, across the Mediterranean to southern Europe and, with the Spanish explorers, to the New World. Rum fueled the slave trade, helped keep the British Navy afloat, inspired pirating on the high seas and was a major inspiration for the American Revolution. During Prohibition, rumrunners plied their illicit cargoes up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States, turning the tropical elixir into liquid gold.

For many norteños, rum is a spirit to be mixed. Ernest Hemingway helped popularize the Daiquiri--still one of America's favorite rum cocktails. "Papa" liked his simple and frozen: a bit of lime, crushed ice and lots of rum. Already a legend by the mid-1930s, he would sit on the porch of his Key West home in Florida,smoking a cheroot and sipping double Daiquiris served up by his houseboy, while the tourists gawked at the front gate. Planter's Punch has long been a big hit with the resort set. Rum and cola (a Cuba libre) is a favorite combination as well as rum with nearly every other soft drink or juice, from the pedestrian orange to the exotic passion fruit.

To children of the Caribbean, though, such mixing is akin to sacrilege. For cocktails, be they Daiquiris, punches or what have you, high-proof, crystal-clear raw rum, bottled directly from the still, does just fine. True rum, which any son of Antigua or daughter of Jamaica will proudly attest, is an aged product, golden to dark amber in color, full of flavor and spice, more akin to Cognac and fine Scotch than to the white spirits, such as vodka and gin, to which it is often compared. In the Caribbean, aged rums are savored on the rocks with water or taken neat after a meal.

Though no secret in the islands, the notion that high-quality rums deserve the same respect as fine Scotch and Cognac is just catching on up north. The release of a number of upscale brands into the U.S. market in recent years has done much to turn the tide. These include such labels as Appleton Estate Extra from Jamaica, Bacardi Añejo and Reserve from Puerto Rico, Botran Añejo from Guatemala, Brugal from the Dominican Republic, Cockspur V.S.O.R. from Barbados, Flor de Caña Grand Reserve from Nicaragua, Gosling's Black Seal from Bermuda and Pampero Aniversario from Venezuela, to name just a few.

"What distinguishes these rums from those of lesser quality is the aging process," says Carlos Gonzales Jarava, general manager of the La Nacional de Licores distillery, in Guatemala City, makers of Ron Botran. "Like fine Scotch or Bourbon, rum must be aged in oak to bring out its flavors, add color and mellow the taste. Unaged rum, what we call aguardiente, is too hot, too alcoholic to be appreciated on its own."

* * *

Actually, the quality of a rum is based on five factors: the grade of raw material used, type of fermentation, degree of distillation, length of aging and skill in blending. As with all spirits, rums are distilled from a fermented "beer." Since rum is based on sugar-cane by-products, it begins one step ahead of starch-based spirits, such as whiskey and vodka, where a grain or potato starch must first be transformed into sugar before fermentation can take place. The best rums are usually made from molasses, the thick residue that remains after the crystallized sugar has been removed from the cane. Cane juice, which is extracted by crushing the cane, and a syrup made from processed cane juice are also frequently used, though with a few notable exceptions they tend to produce lesser-quality rums.

What can be most confusing about rum is the fact that there are no set production standards. Unlike whiskey, for which fermentation and distillation methods are fairly uniform throughout the industry, rum production varies greatly from maker to maker, depending on the style and character each is striving to achieve. Fermentation, for example, can either be natural or controlled. With natural fermentation, the molasses or other cane derivative is mixed with water to form a "mash" and left to ferment for as long as 12 days or more. With controlled fermentation, a particular strain of yeast--usually a closely guarded secret--is added to the mash, and fermentation takes place in two days or less.

"The advantage of slow fermentation is that you get a lot more basic rum flavors in your final product," says Vice President of Marketing Richard McCarthy, who manages sales of Myers's Rum for importer Seagram. "It's traditional in Jamaica to ferment this way; Myers's has been doing it for over 100 years."

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