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Rum Revival

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
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

(continued from page 1)

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.

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