Once overlooked by connoisseurs, rum has been revitalized by quality craftsmanship and superpremium brands that have put the sugary spirit back on the top shelf
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007
It takes only about three swings with a machete to recognize that I have no future as a harvester of sugarcane. I'm too tall, too fragile of back and too soft to last long in the cane fields of Guatemala, unlike the squat Mayan experts around me this morning, who can hack through 40 acres a day, 100 tons in an hour, to feed the inexhaustible sugar needs of the exploding rum market. I've come to the hilly spine of Central America to witness the process of rum making, from cane to case, with Rones de Guatemala, the maker of the hot superpremium brand Ron Zacapa, as well as other rums, as my guide.
Happily, this journey has taught me about more than just my level of ineptitude. I reached this field by helicopter, viewing from above the lava flows that carve out the earth and bring rich volcanic soil to the sugarcane fields below. Harvesting sugarcane is the all-important first step in rum making and one that is essential to understanding what is behind the current resurrection of the rum market, which has lifted the once ill-considered spirit to a choice position among connoisseurs of fine spirits and esteemed mixologists alike. The public is taking notice as well, as domestic rum consumption almost doubled from 1995 to 2006, from 12 million cases to an estimated 23 million. Per capita consumption also leapt, from 0.6 liters a person to 0.9.
During harvest, from late winter through spring, it's easy to spot the cane fields among the crops of Guatemala. Just look for smoke and birds circling overhead. The harvest starts when a man with a flamethrower walks through the fields, burning the foliage off the cane and leaving nothing but the stalks filled with sweet sap. Hawks soar above, making easy prey of the mice and other vermin that inevitably flee the fire. The reapers make quick work of what still stands, slicing the stalks with special machetes that have their blades angled at 90 degrees from the handle to make it easier to cut from ground level. It's dirty work and everyone is soon covered in soot.
I wipe my hands with a moist towelette and inquire if some kind of machine couldn't do this more easily. The answer is it could, but the rum would suffer. That explanation becomes a lot clearer only a few miles away at Ingenio Tululó, the sugar mill owned by Ron Zacapa's parent company. Huge trucks are dumping the cane into a series of machines that chop it up with blades and press it with rollers until an amber juice is expressed. Put a magnifying glass to that liquid and you can see tiny white crystals floating in it. This is the sugary essence of rum—74 percent virgin sugar juice, to be exact. Cutting the cane by hand is an important part of that outcome as it allows for chopping close to the ground, where much the of sugar concentrates, while avoiding picking up soil and other impurities that would adulterate the juice.
See this process or talk to any of the top rum makers and you understand the passion that is making the world take another look at a liquor that was once widely dismissed. In years gone by, rum was, at best, a drink you enjoyed on a Caribbean vacation, served in a fruity punch with an umbrella. At worst, it was disparaged with terms such as rotgut, kill devil or grog. Only a few recognized the level of connoisseurship that rum could reach when treated with respect.
That perception is changing with the emergence of superquality spirits that emphasize fine raw materials and artisanal processes. Rums with cane pedigrees, super aging, unusual maturation processes, special bottlings and artful distillation processes are now making their way to the top shelves of better bars and liquor stores. It's a process that mirrors the leap that Tequila has made in recent years, and just as the Margarita has driven that drink, so too does rum have its cocktail of the moment: the Mojito.
|Like Tequila, the premiership of rum is happening across its product spectrum, from dark to golden and light rums.|
It is not the only rum to take a lighter approach to the spirit recently. After Bacardi struggled for years in court for the right to bottle a rum under the name Havana Club, which had been expropriated from the Arechabala family during the Cuban revolution, it chose to market the brand as a light rum. While the Cuban Havana Club familiar to shoppers in duty-free stores may be amber, Bacardi went with a perfectly clear Puerto Rican version for the U.S. market, says vice president John H. Gomez, because "premium white spirits are on trend with consumers for their mixability and chicness." The aim for the new product, according to Gomez, is to provide "the best of both worlds"—the mixability of white rum and the body and rounded characteristics of aged rum.
Montecristo, which debuted in 2002 with a 12-year-old "super-aged" rum seemingly aimed at pairing with cigars, introduced its Platinum blend last year (both blends are made by Rones de Guatemala.) The Tommy Bahama brand, so emblematic of the tropics, is now on statuesque rum bottles—both light and gold—imported by the company that drove Grey Goose to the top of the vodka shelf. Michael Frey, of Montecristo, and Olivier Bugat, of Tommy Bahama, concur with Gomez: the high end of the market demands light rum.
One renowned brand, Bermuda's Gosling's, has gone in two directions from its signature blackstrap molasses rum, the main ingredient in a Dark 'n' Stormy cocktail. It released a golden rum as a nod to the public's taste for lighter spirit, as well as Gosling's Old Rum.
Another recent light rum comes from beverage giant Diageo, which also imports Pampero, one of the best aged rums in the spirits firmament. Oronoco is made by the Bastos Ribeiro brothers, Vicente and Roberto. They also make cachaça, a Brazilian sugar spirit that is developing some currency. In developing rum aimed at mixability and not intended for great age, Vicente considered two important aspects: the location of the sugarcane fields and the freshness of the juice. He sourced his cane from the slopes of Brazil's mountains, he says, where dry soil with good drainage creates low yields but intense flavor, much the same as the conditions that affect wine-grape growers. While high-altitude growing may not be universally adored (Zacapa and Flor de Caña of Nicaragua swear by volcanic soil), the proximity of the fields to milling facilities—or "kill to mill"—is a common strategy. Vicente points out that waiting more than 24 hours to crush the cane invites bacteria and unwanted volunteer yeast that comes from the air.
Yeast is the microscopic fungal organism that devours sugars and expels them as alcohol. It is responsible for starting the fermentation process used in making every alcoholic beverage, from beer and wine to distilled spirits. While the carbohydrates found in starchy grain beverages are more complex, the simple sugars in cane offer themselves up readily to yeast. A few rums are allowed to ferment in wild yeast, but most modern distillers prefer rigid control and have developed proprietary yeasts to that end. The strain used in Ron Zacapa has been the same for 45 years, being regenerated every six months.
Jorge Marcano, Bacardi's vice president of operations, stresses the importance of its yeast strains to the world's largest rum producer and its ability to create a consistent product. Don Facundo Bacardi Massó, who founded the company in 1862, is credited with making great strides in taming the volatility of rum and creating a mellow, smooth light rum worth drinking. His son Facundo applied modern science to the process, and one of his important innovations was the isolation of yeast strains specific to his style of rum.
Joy Spence, the master blender of Appleton Estate Rum, feels that faster working yeast is better for light rums and that slower acting yeast is more appropriate for the more full-bodied rums that she makes in Jamaica. The specially cultured yeast that Appleton uses contributes particularly to the top notes of the rum, she says. Appleton makes a spectrum of rums, the oldest being a 21-year-old, and it is telling to hear Spence wax forth about the critical importance of the yeast and the spring water, which passes through the limestone hills of the estate. "We don't wait until the end and say something went wrong here."
A by-product of fermentation is carbon dioxide, which the Zacapa mill captures and uses for soda drinks. The rum industry may be one of the greenest in the spirits world. Not much goes to waste here. The sawdust from the crushed cane is used to power a generator that runs the plant. The muddy residue left after the sugar juice is extracted is used for fertilizer in local farms. Ron Zacapa is not alone. Bacardi captures methane to help run its distillery. Four Square in Barbados, which makes the Tommy Bahama rums, and the Flor de Caña distillery also recycle CO2 for soda as well as dry ice.
Fermentation for Ron Zacapa takes place over a period of five days, in 40,000-gallon tanks that yield a low-proof liquid called a wash, or wine. Appleton ferments in 36 hours, using molasses as a base rather than sugar juice. Rums can be fermented in as little as 24 hours. As a rule, the longer the fermentation, the fuller the body of the rum.
Zacapa's use of sugar juice, or honey, is a rum-making technique that is currently very popular. Oronoco and 10 Cane, as well as cachaça, are made in the same way, but molasses, a by-product of making crystallized sugar, is the traditional base for rum and by far the better represented. In the days of the infamous triangle trade routes of the eighteenth century, molasses was shipped from Caribbean sugar mills to New England, where it was made into rum that was sent to Africa and traded for slaves, who were then sold in the Caribbean. The use of crushed cane juice was pioneered in the French islands, particularly Martinique, where there is a prescribed appellation system for this rhum agricole, or agricultural rum. Rhum Barbancourt is a well-known example. Another is Rhum Clement, which seems to nod to its French roots with designations such as VSOP and XO and a bottle design that seems to be straight out of Cognac.
Of course, not everyone agrees that forgoing molasses is an improvement. Mount Gay, having celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003, is the world's oldest rum and has always been made with molasses. Todd Schuessler, the brand manager, looks at rhum agricole as something of a trend and points to the long tradition of celebrating the sugarcane crop in Barbados, where Mount Gay is made, as proof of the legitimacy of molasses as a rum base. "We stand by our laurels as far as taste and quality." Robert Collins, who represents Flor de Caña in the United States, is similarly unapologetic about the use of molasses: "There is an obsession for quality that is coming out of that distillery [in Nicaraga] and molassses is part of it."
Schuessler, however, says he applauds the rum variants and the new high-end entries that are helping the rum market as a whole, by drawing attention to it. "It's very exciting for all the players because for years rum had a sort of commodity rap. Now, you're seeing the same things you saw with Tequila."
In Puerto Rico, which produces 70 percent of all the rum sold in the United States, all the brands are molasses based. Among them are Castillo, Ron del Barrilito, Captain Morgan and, of course, Bacardi, which was a product of Cuba until that country's revolution forced the company to relocate.
Marcano says that Bacardi's position as the world's biggest customer of molasses for premium rum production—it buys 200,000 tons a year—puts the company in a position to demand very high standards of purity and sugar concentration. "The better the molasses is," he says, "the easier it is to work with." Bacardi buys from a coterie of longtime suppliers throughout the sugarcane region of the Caribbean and South America. To ensure a minimum of impurities, called ash, the cane from which Bacardi's molasses is made is often cut by hand and milled within 24 hours to avoid wild yeast. Bacardi aims for a sugar content of 54 percent, although rum can be fermented from a 52 percent concentration.
The result of fermenting sugar juice or molasses is a low-proof wine, typically between 8 and 12 percent alcohol. The next step is to distill it to concentrate the alcohol. Distillation is basically a process of steaming off the alcohol from the watery wash, at a temperature below the boiling point of water. For Ron Zacapa, this is done in a column still, a huge, towering contraption that distills very efficiently, leaving very little impurity in the form of fusel oils. A column still, which was first used in making British Isle whiskies, was one of the innovations that the elder Bacardi first used in purifying his rum.
As with all things rum, disagreement exists here. Because rum is made throughout the world—in Europe, Asia, Australia, even Tennessee—there are no production standards other than the loose dictum that it be made from some sugar product. This laissez-faire attitude extends to distillation, which may include different types of column stills, pot stills and combinations thereof. While the pot type is the simplest of stills and renders the most impurities, it is still highly prized for some of the flavor notes comprised within its walls. The trick is to capture the center slice of the batch as it comes off the still. The first and last parts of the rum contain the most impurities, some of which not only taste bad but cause hangovers and worse.
Sea Wynde, a rum from Jamaica and Guyana, is made entirely in pot stills. Barbancourt uses a French alembic similar to a pot still. Mount Gay and Appleton both use column and pot stills and then blend the results after aging. While full body in rum is often listed as a result of the use of pot stills, that notion is belied by rich rums like Zacapa, Venezuela's Pampero, Nicaragua's Flor de Caña and Bacardi 8, all pure column-stilled rums.
To understand why that happens, it is necessary to consider rum's aging. If you were to generalize about rum at all, it might be said that rum is aged in hot climes that cause it to mature very quickly. Some say that a year of rum aging in the sultry Caribbean is equal to four to six years for malt in chilly Scotland. The superheat causes the rum to expand into the barrel staves during the day and steal their flavor when it returns inside during cool nights. A similar process happens to Bourbon aged in Kentucky, where the summers are torrid and the winters cool.
Further, because the barrels used for aging are typically salvaged from the Bourbon industry, where they are legally only allowed to be used once, the rum often borrows the rounded vanilla and maple notes of the whiskey that once occupied the containers. Hence, even column-stilled rum can become very full-bodied in a short amount of time.
But what of Ron Zacapa? Wouldn't its average of 23 years of aging make it the equivalent of something like 100 years old in rum years? To understand why drinking it isn't like sucking on wood chips, I went to Quetzaltenango, at an elevation of some 7,650 feet, to see it being aged. At that altitude, Guatemala is no longer stuck in a tropical heat wave, but feels more like a spring day and a world away from the hurry-up-and-get-old temperatures that age many a Caribbean rum. Again, rum resists absolutes: Flor de Caña, also of Central America, manages to age some rum for 18 years at sea level.
At least one employee at the aging plant must be very thankful to be in this setting. He is the cooper whose job it is to assemble barrels shipped from Kentucky and other locations. The barrels come as a package of staves that are puzzled back together and made watertight with tule, a lake-growing bulrush, stuffed between them. (That plant is also used in the distinctive weave decoration on Zacapa bottles.) The cooper, wearing something akin to a fire-retardant spacesuit, blasts the insides with flames. It's hot work even at this altitude.
The rum ages here by the solera method, in which the spirits are transitioned through a series of barrels, allowing different ages to meld together. Ron Matusalem, a Cuban-style rum from the Dominican Republic, also uses the solera method, although for a shorter period, because of the hotter climes in which it rests. Every premium has its own unique aging methods that set it apart from the rest. Flor de Caña fills smallish (180-liter) barrels that have only been used once. French wood is used for 10 Cane. When Bacardi did a Millennium edition of Bacardi 8, it finished the rum for six months in sherry barrels, following a practice that has become quite popular with single-malt Scotches. Cruzan, of Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, makes what it calls Single Barrel Estate Rum. Not the product of spirit from only one barrel, rather it marries different rums to be further matured in a single barrel, from which it is bottled at cask strength.
After aging, the final process before the rum goes into the bottle is to blend it. This is a daunting art in itself, as the blenders must nail the same flavor profile from batch to batch. Claiming age designations after blending is not as strict as in the Scotch and Bourbon worlds, where the youngest whiskey in the bottle marks its maturity. Rum makers typically average the ages of the rum. They also are allowed to color the spirit, which Scotch makers can do, but Bourbon makers cannot. This can be confusing, as dark color is by no means an indication of age. It is, however, something of a cosmetic necessity as the spirit doesn't color consistently on its own very well. As mentioned earlier, many light rums have had the benefit of barrel age, but they don't show it particularly well.
Rum, much like vodka, may also be flavored, and that has become a thrust in the market as well, one in which Bacardi has become a major player. But even as it pursues the fashions of taste, it perseveres in its commitment to premium quaffs. That is one of the aspects setting rum apart from many spirits: the spectrums of tastes and quality levels span from fun, light spirits to the now more appreciated connoisseur rums.
"It's become sophisticated," says Mount Gay's Schuessler. "People see it doesn't just belong in a drink with an umbrella. It's a bigger world of possibilities in a glass."
All Mixed Up
What do you do after you've savored some of the world's best sipping rum? Make cocktails!
Ignore the convention for white rum and make this classic sing with rich flavor.
1 1/2 oz. Ron Zacapa 21-year-old
1/2 oz. lime juice
2 tbsp. simple syrup
Slice of lime
Shake ingredients over ice, strain and serve straight up with a lime garnish.
Havana Club adds glycerin to the mint and lime.
1 1/2 oz. Havana Club
12 fresh spearmint leaves
2 tbsp. simple syrup
Muddle mint leaves and lime in a tall glass. Cover with simple syrup and fill glass with ice. Add rum and club soda; stir well. Garnish with lime wedge and mint sprigs.
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