Beyond Bacardi

Rum deserves more respect.

Aged rum. Click image to expand.
Aged rum

Convincing serious drinkers to try aged rum as a sipping spirit is a tough sell. The first image that comes to mind when most think of rum is probably the beach, or, more specifically, a sloppy spring break scene with frat boys passing around handles of Bacardi and Captain Morgan. Many drink rum to get drunk, or in cloying frozen concoctions, and a lot of consumers expect nothing more from it than sweetness. Bland, big-box rums dominate the market. When these companies make investments, they’re in advertising and manufacturing, not craftsmanship. They have no interest in bringing subtle, complex flavors anywhere near their product lines. (Bacardi has also spent a fortune on anti-Castro politicking, but that’s another story.)

But good rum offers much more than sugar-bomb hangovers. A number of skilled and dedicated producers in the Caribbean and Central and South America are bottling delicious counterpoints to rum’s unsophisticated image. The best of their aged rums offer a range of flavors and aromas, which could include an array of tropical fruit, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, butterscotch, nuts, spice, honey, tobacco, caramel, and many others.

The hard work of these distillers is gaining them notice, and aged rum is showing up on the menus of a growing number of restaurants, appearing alongside better-known after-dinner options like brandy and single malt scotch. At Brandy Library in Manhattan, where hundreds of rare cognacs, Armagnacs, and single malts line the shelves, French-born owner Flavien Desoblin also carries a large selection of aged rum. The Venezuelan rum Santa Teresa 1796, with its baked apple, cinnamon, and honey flavors, appears with other rums on the more than 130-page wine and spirits list at Eleven Madison Park, winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2011 Outstanding Restaurant Award. Head bartender Leo Robitschek, a Venezuela native, enjoys sipping rum with dessert, particularly those with caramel, chocolate, or nuts. He says he’s seen more interest in the beverage recently, especially in the summer months. (Aged rum is an excellent choice on a hot night, when drinking scotch or brandy can feel like donning a wool sweater by the pool.)

One of rum’s most tireless cheerleaders is Edward Hamilton, who runs the enthusiast website Ministry of Rum. Hamilton also imports a select portfolio of acclaimed spirits, mostly rhums agricoles, the French West Indian spirit with standards confirmed by an AOC, just like Champagne or cognac. I reached him in San Francisco, where he was prepping for a fall event.

“Rum is the least understood, most undervalued, and diverse of all the spirits,” he said.

He’s absolutely right. The diversity comes from both rum’s production and geographic scope. With few exceptions, like rhum agricole, rum production is unregulated and spans multiple countries with different production and aging methods. Want rich, dark chocolate flavor, with a whiff of coffee, nuts, and dark fruit? The 15-year-old El Dorado, from Guyana, delivers. Want something lighter? Doorly’s XO, from Barbados, offers a compelling mix of tropical fruit, spice, nut, and orange, enhanced by aging in oloroso sherry casks. These are just a couple examples from a long list of excellent products, most scarcely seen in America before 2000.

Beyond simple quality, one factor driving increased aged-rum interest is the more general boom in high-quality cocktails. Bartenders looking for new ingredients are discovering there’s more to rum than they thought, and whole bars are adopting rum themes, looking to cash in on the tiki-drink revival. It also helps that aged rum works nicely in bourbon-based drinks like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, though purists would rather you add nothing more than a couple of drops of water.

Yet another factor in aged rum’s emergence is tourism. Jean Georges, a master blender at Angostura (the same company that makes those legendary bitters) believes many of his new customers first taste his products on vacation. Apparently, a new breed of Caribbean vacationers expects more from their travels than reggae cover bands. They’re seeking out more “authentic” experiences and tastes, including the region’s aged rum. Visitors spend a week in the Caribbean enjoying quality rum at excellent prices and refuse to settle for Bacardi after they get home. So all those no-frills airlines targeting vacationers are helping spread interest in aged rum, a public service indeed, though it hardly excuses all the ridiculous surcharges those carriers love to pile on.

If you’re curious to try aged rum, you’ll be delighted to learn that you’ll spend a lot less for it than the typical sipping spirit. Material and labor costs are low in the producing countries, so that helps. But for the most part, prices are low because aged rums don’t have decades of hype, prestige, cachet, and exclusivity that inflate the cost of fine scotch and brandy. The relatively low prices make it hard to resist picking up several bottles to fully explore the diverse flavors. I ended up with about a dozen on my shelf at one point, though I’ve pared back recently because of tight space in my tiny New York apartment, and more importantly, my wife’s concern about bar encroachment.

Aged-rum shoppers should know the “aged” part of it works differently than other sipping spirits. It’s made primarily in warm, humid climates, so the “angel’s share,” the amount that evaporates out of the barrel during aging, is much larger than, say, that of single malt aged in Scotland’s cool mist. Many single malt fans dismiss a whiskey younger than 12 years, but rums aged at sea level can reach their full potential long before their teen years, a steamy, sun-baked precociousness. Most producers wouldn’t have anything left to bottle if they aged the rum up to the 30-to-50-year marks that the most expensive and rarest single malts reach.

It’s unclear how aged rum producers will take advantage of the rising interest in their products. Some have unfortunately embraced the worst habits of the ultra premium marketplace, jacking up prices with overdesigned, expensive (or at least expensive-looking) packaging, dubious special editions, and glossy ad campaigns. It’s quite literally old rum in new bottles. But many are building their brand by simply working to bring more attention to what they’ve done for decades: using skill and patience to create fine products that can be consumed neat, rivaling the best spirits from Scotland or France. So next time you’re contemplating a splurge on one bottle of single malt or brandy, spend the same amount and try two bottles of fine aged rum.