Rum At Its Finest | Cigar Aficionado

Cigar Aficionado

The world is waking up to the exquisite qualities that aged rum offers to connoisseurs, cocktailians and, of course, cigar smokers

Bar Centro, on the patio overlooking the sleek pool at Miami Beach’s SLS Hotel, is the kind of place that serves impeccable cocktails and fills up with an ultra-chic crowd as the night wears on. While you can get a Smoke on the Water (with Islay Scotch and liquid nitrogen), or the “ultimate Gin & Tonic” (festooned with juniper and lemongrass), what dominates the back bar is not whiskies or gin, but a selection of fine, aged rums that outnumber even the glistening vodka bottles.

The bartender allows that the cocktail of the moment is the Old Fashioned, but with a new-fashioned twist: They are ordered with aged rum in place of rye or Bourbon. A little farther south at the restaurant Prime Italian, where stars of the NBA’s Miami Heat go to eat toothsome, red-sauce fare, visitors at the bar are greeted with a tower of aged rums. The bartender says that fine rum is driving his business right now and adds, “If people call for a specific rum in a cocktail, it’s a dark rum.”

While it mightn’t come as a huge surprise that subtropical Miami should cozy up to the spirit of sugarcane so well identified with sultry climes, rum is making a stand across the country as events such as National Rum Day and Rum Month play out. The spirits industry is also getting bullish on the prospects of aged rums. While it hasn’t yet begun to boom in earnest, says Gardner Blandon, who imports both Panama’s Zafra and Guatemala’s Botran, “It is an evolution that has slowly been gaining ground and is now coming to bloom.” He compares aged rum’s current position to the one that Bourbon, now the most dynamic spirits category, occupied 15 years ago. Blandon sees rum following the American whiskey’s path to attaining connoisseurship and prominence. “What happened to Bourbon is good for rum.”

“It’s an exciting time,” says Michael Dennehy, consultant to Don Q of Puerto Rico, which has taken advantage of its 150th anniversary to release new retro packaging of its top mark Gran Añejo. Nima Ansari, who specializes in rum as a buyer for Manhattan retailer Astor Wine & Spirits, says: “Folks in the rum industry have certainly been watching closely what has been happening with other brown spirits categories benefitting from greater, as well as newfound, interest in established and emerging markets.”

“The premium rum market is the rising star,” says Joy Spence, the master blender of Jamaica’s Appleton Estate. Kirk Gaither, vice president of marketing at Infinium Spirits, which imports the Trinidadian rum Zaya, concurs, saying that the rise is driven by a sipping culture even as much as it is getting a boost from the modern cocktail crowd. It’s an ethos that already exists, he adds, in parts of Europe where drinking aperitifs like Vermouth neat or on the rocks—not part of a cocktail—is a time-honored practice.

The family-owned spirits giant William Grant & Sons recently joined the movement, adding Flor de Caña of Nicaragua, reporting that it saw the potential for growth in that market. Flor de Caña managing director Robert Collins says, “Aged premium and super-premium rums continue to be a source of innovation with today’s experimental consumers.” One of their first moves was to launch the super-aged Centenario 25 at the zooming price of $155.

Perhaps most telling of the rise of aged rum is the fact that the world’s preeminent producer, Bacardi, best known for its clear Silver version, chose to put its stamp on the luxury category last year. It introduced its Facundo Collection, named for the man who founded the company more than 150 years ago, with the aim of lifting the category. His namesake and present leader of the family-owned company, Facundo L. Bacardi, said at the time that the four-part, limited-edition series was meant to measure up with other connoisseur spirits: “We have the rums that can compete with any Cognac and Scotch.” The ultimate expression, Paraíso ($250), contains rum as old as 23 years. Even the clear rum in the collection, Neo ($45), is aged up to eight years and specially filtered to draw the color out.

Positive Pairings

The rise of aged rum should also be a welcome development for cigar lovers. In many ways the drink is perfect for smoke and spirits pairings. “Rum and cigars seem made for each other,” says Ansari. “Both are products of typically warm climes. A large ice cube is sometimes nice, watching the rum change along with the cigar as well as quelling the heat a little and cleansing the palate. But most times I prefer the rum neat and look for aromatically contrasting pairings that come together on the palate.” It is also not a stretch to imagine that the many cigarmakers who drink rum and also create blends are either consciously or unconsciously designing something that will make a good pairing.

The shared terroir argument seems cogent: there are so many places that grow the raw materials for both products—e.g., Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Cuba—that they must go together. However, the argument wouldn’t hold if it didn’t actually play out in tasting. Turns out, it does. We did an extensive pairing, with unfailing positive results (see sidebar on page 174.) Maybe more important than terroir is the sweet and well-bodied nature of aged rum. The viscous sugarcane and the caramel barrel notes conspire with the leathery, toasty aspects of a cigar’s smoke to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, sweet Bourbon has the same kind of friendly coexistence with cigars. The key to most pairings is to find a cigar that matches up well to the body of the rum. Individual flavor notes can be contrasting, complementing or competing and still create sublime pairings.

The Importance of Place

The question of terroir for rum goes beyond just cigar pairings, however, and it doesn’t have a simple answer. Gene Song, the brand manager of what is the oldest rum brand in the world, likes to say, “There is no Mount Gay without Barbados.” He points to the importance of being in the same location, using the same water source for 310 years. However, the effect of geography only goes so far.

The soil composition has its input into the quality of the sugarcane, but that component isn’t necessarily grown in the same place as the rum is distilled. Because sugarcane is often shipped around in molasses form, terroir is most telling in the Plantation selection of rums, which aims to  transparently showcase styles throughout the Caribbean. What is of paramount importance in cultivation is how quickly the cane is processed after reaping, what’s called the “kill to the mill.” The faster that happens, the more sugar flavor is retained in the cane.

Certainly specific areas show distinctly similar taste profiles. For instance, Haiti and Martinique are known for the heavy-bodied, rhum-agricole style; Barbados makes elegant, but sweet rums; Dominicans are full-bodied; while Cuban and Puerto Rican rums tend to be light. But  those distinctions are mainly the products of locally preferred production methods, not terroir. For the most part, rum makers have little restriction on how they create their product. (The French West Indies Rhum Agricole, a controlled appellation that insists on starting with cane juice, not molasses, and distilling in pot stills, is the exception.) But that is part of the charm of rum, says Ansari: “It is the only spirit to cover such a huge part of the spectrum legitimately.” There’s but one constant: All rums start as sugarcane. Then come variables. First, the cane’s juices can be fermented directly, or molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) may be used. The purer cane juice needn’t be distilled to high proof, and so retains headier, brandy-like flavors.

Even with Mount Gay’s insistence on the importance of location, there are many variables within a distillery that can change the rum. And Song happily points this out in describing Mount Gay’s newest release, Black Barrel, which is made from marrying pot-still and column-still rum, as well as aging in new, toasted barrels and heavily charred ex-Bourbon wood. Pot stills, which make small batches, have produced rum since its invention. But alcohol from efficient column stills matures faster, as the pot-still variety needs more barrel time to overcome impurities and render rich flavor. Nevertheless, column-still rums—such as the 23-year-old Ron Zacapa and Ron Matusalem, and 21-year-old Zafra—are capable of reaching a sublimely old age.

Rum makers are also varying the type of wood in which the liquor matures. Plantation uses a Cognac-cask finish for all its rum brands. Brugal 1888 spends time in Sherry casks after the typical Bourbon-barrel maturation. Papa’s Pilar blends Sherry- and Port-finished rums together. Cruzan has a single-barrel variation. Even some spice rums use barrel finishing. Ultimately, rum making is a blender’s art form and having more metaphorical colors to paint with allows for variation.

The one area where location, location, location is a steadfast truth is in the aging. (And don’t assume you’re aging where the rum is made. Zacapa is trucked into the Guatemalan mountains to mature.) Most fine, aged rums are made in the sweltering climate of the tropics. Hence, the spirit tends to age at an accelerated rate, up to three or four times quicker than Scotch whisky. This poses a big break to consumers, who can find super-premium products at a much lower price. The problem with choosing a brand solely by age statement is that labeling laws vary across the globe. Appleton uses the Scottish method by which the youngest rum in the bottle determines the age on the label. Other rums use an age average. The solera method, employed by such distinguished rums as Santa Teresa, Zacapa, Bacardi and Matusalem, stacks casks and then mixes their contents together as they mature throughout the years, making it hard to get a feel for the actual age. Appearance is not necessarily a great way to gauge maturity either, as rum makers are free to color their products. This is true of most spirits, save Bourbon, but rum in particular has a preponderance of marks that look nearly black.

In establishing its market foothold, aged rums also have to contend with another subcategory that is currently making the biggest splash: spiced rums, with such brands as Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry and The Kraken. Fine rums are appealing to the same age group, but promoting a more sophisticated palate in a younger demographic. Gaither says, “I personally believe that rum will take off much further than spice.” That depends, he says, on communicating the nuances of a refined product.
Spence agrees that the rise of high-end rums relies on an educational process. Each brand has lots to tell about itself: in her case, the unique pot still that delivers the telltale Appleton orange note, the exceptionally long (she produced a 50-year-old a couple years back) aging, and the obsessive barrel management. But nothing works as well as sampling. “The key is in the tasting. Once they do that, they are hooked for life.”