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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."

"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.

"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

Appleton Estate (Jamaica): A distinctive rum with peat and exotic fruits on the nose and an herbal sweetness with echoes of eucalyptus and dried berries. Aged 12 years, it is not immediately reminiscent of rum.

Bacardi Anejo (Puerto Rico): A clean bright rum. Well balanced, with a light body. Some spiciness with citrus and oak flavors.

Bacardi Gold Reserve (Puerto Rico): A straightforward rum with a nutty, vanilla nose, and some nut and spice flavors with a dry, buttery finish.

Bermudez Aniversario (Dominican Republic): Aromas of butterscotch followed with flavors of dried orange peel and cola with a sweet, fruity finish.

Ron Botran (Guatemala): A nice, aged rum with solid, oaky aromas and smooth, clean flavors of citrus and spice.

Brugal (Dominican Republic): A golden color with strong scents of cola. Tropical fruit flavors with caramel and butterscotch notes and a short finish.

Cockspur V.S.O.R. (Barbados):An iridescent, almost Day-Glo, yellow color. Mild spice aromas and flavors, but a taste of raw sugar cane.

Cruzan Gold (Virgin Islands): A basic rum. Some woody notes on the nose, but it is light and delicate with a neutral finish.

Flor de Caña Black Label (Nicaragua): A light five-year-old rum. Round, with a vanilla nose and a long, sweet finish with some butter notes.

Flor de Caña Grand Reserve (Nicaragua): A nicely balanced seven-year-old rum with a vanilla and citrus nose. Silky flavors with tropical fruit notes.

Gosling's Black Seal (Bermuda): A distinctive, coffee color, almost black, with strong aromas of cola and coffee. Deep flavors of cocoa bean, cola and a long finish of tropical fruits.

Havana Club Extra Anejo-7 Years (Cuba): An attractive, sweet nose with strong flavors of butterscotch and cola that finishes with ripe raisins. A taster's choice.

Jumby Bay (AntiguaBarbados): A light, delicate rum with hints of butter and vanilla, but a slightly hot, herbal finish.

Mount Gay (Barbados): Unusual, iridescent yellow color. Some sweet butter notes on the nose, but ends hot and thin on the palate.

Myers's Rum (Jamaica): A deep, reddish orange, with a overpowering smoky, tobacco nose. Strong notes of clove and a lean, dry finish.

Pusser's Rum (bottled in U.S., blend of rums from Guyana, Trinidad, British Virgin Islands): Pale yellow, with clean, Chardonnay-like aromas. Light and smooth with notes of melon, toast and a soft, sweet finish.

Ron Viejo de Caldas (Colombia): Aromas of fried bananas and licorice. Anise flavors with a burnt sugar finish. Unusual complexity for a three-year-old rum.

Pampero Aniversario (Venezuela): A beautiful amber-orange. It has a wonderful Cognac-like nose with oak and vanilla notes. Allspice and sweet, caramel flavors dominate the palate. A taster's choice.

Zacapa Centenario (Guatemala): A 25-year-old rum. Marked by strong aromas and flavors of oak aging--dry walnuts and orange peel. Flavor notes of spice and brown sugar with a long, sweet finish

Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum

If you think the Boston Tea Party was about tea, then ask yourself this: Would grown men really get that worked up over a cup of tea? Actually, it's a rum story, and like much of rum's history, it is full of the fiery passion that only love or a good measure of grog can ignite.

Rum making, in one form or another, has been practiced wherever sugar cane has grown. Scribes in ancient India, writing around 800 b.c. told of a potent drink called gaudi, which was made from the brown sticky residue left after cane juice had crystallized into sugar. It was the ancient Egyptians who first distilled molasses into a crude spirit. They, in turn, passed the distiller's art on to the Moors, who took it with them across the Mediterranean to Spain, where, during their long residence, they eventually planted up to 75,000 acres to cane. After the Christians reconquered Iberia in 1492, sugar cane followed Columbus to the New World, where rum production soon became a cornerstone of the West Indies economy.

By the mid-1600s, rum making had also become one of the chief economic activities in North America, especially in staid New England. By 1700, per capita rum consumption in the 13 colonies was about four gallons a year. Yankee ingenuity led to the darkest hours in rum history when New Englanders discovered that rum was good currency along the African coast for slaves, who could then be traded in the English, French and Spanish island colonies for molasses, which went back to New England for distilling into more rum (forming the infamous Rum Triangle trade route). It was this trade with the enemy that upset the British overlords, who passed the first Molasses Act in 1733, imposing high tariffs on sugar products from non-British islands, a law that was largely ignored. It was a second law, passed in 1763, which gave the Royal Navy the right to enforce the tax, that really galled the early Americans. By 1773 they had had enough, the pints went round, and the Tea Party ensued.

Meanwhile, the British Navy was waging its own battle with "kill-devil" rum. In 1731, rum replaced beer as the official shipboard libation, with a ration of one cup of 80 proof given neat to all hands twice daily. The results were disastrous: drunken sailors were constantly falling out of high riggings or tumbling overboard to drown. By 1740, Adm. Edward Vernon, known through the West Indies fleet as "Old Grog," decided he'd had enough of such foolery. He ordered that the rum ration be mixed with a quart of water, sugar and lime, and the famous Navy Grog was born. The sailors still managed to get their fill of raw rum in seaport taverns. Many passed out in drunken stupors only to awaken on the heaving deck of an outbound ship flying the Jolly Roger. That rum and pirating went hand-in-hand is evidenced by an entry in the journal of Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch, who, worried that sobriety was making his men rebellious, wrote: "I look'd sharp for a Prize; --such a Day, took one with a great deal of Rum on board, so kept the Company hot, damn'd hot, then all Things went well again."

Rum also played an important role in keeping spirits high during Prohibition. Rum-running from the islands to the Atlantic seaboard proved impossible to control. A shipment of 5,700 cases bought in Nassau in 1925 (which also included much rye, Scotch and gin), sold to rumrunners five miles off the New Jersey coast for $342,000, was worth $684,000 by the time it reached shore and eventuallysold for about $2 million on the streets of New York--an impressive profit ratio by any measure.

Rum's future, as with all spirits in these times of New Age sobriety, may be hard to divine. One thing's for sure, the respectability of the superpremium brands does little to belie the spirit's checkered past.

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