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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

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.
Also like Tequila, the premiership of rum is happening across its product spectrum, from dark to golden and light rums. This may be something of an anomaly since many believe that much of the flavor of great spirits comes from aging in wood. But two years ago, when Moët Hennessy's newly created wine and spirits division launched its first product, it went with a light rum: 10 Cane. With it came the bold pronouncement that 10 Cane was "rum's redemption." Named for the number of stalks traditionally placed in a bundle of cane, the spirit seemed to celebrate the front end of the rum-making process, with less emphasis on the aging (about six months in French oak). It touted the sublime result of hand harvesting, use of the first pressing of Trinidadian cane and distillation in special pot stills designed after the ones Hennessy uses to make Cognac. When 10 Cane debuted, Jean Pineau, the Hennessy master distiller who was charged with creating it, explained that after sucking on a piece of cut cane, he was inspired to celebrate the raw sugar juice in his rum.

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.

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