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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 2)

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.

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