Rum Run

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done ... Oh, mateys. Let us not lament the fall of the Captain – Morgan, that is. The spiced rum of our underage drinking days is still around, but we’ve grown up. We’ve visited the Caribbean – and Central and South America, too – and found fancier ships running sugarcane-derived spirits.

All rum is distilled from sugarcane or its byproducts (fermented molasses or cane juice), but artisanal rums are wholly different from the run-of-the-sugar-mill stuff. It’s a claim that becomes clear with one sip of an elegant Plantation rum made in Barbados, aged in bourbon casks in the humid Caribbean then shipped to France to rest a second time in oak casks under the care of famed cognac house Maisson Ferrand.

While the past five years saw stagnant waters for mainstream rums like Captain Morgan and Bacardi, artisanal rum found a tailwind. Area distributor Lohr Fine Wine & Spirits saw sales up 68 percent through the first half of the year compared to all of 2014. Lohr vice president of sales Scott Smithson said its portfolio of craft rums has doubled since 2010, now numbering nearly 20.

A big reason for the interest in craft rum is the renewed thirst for bourbon – and brown spirits in general, which surpassed domestic sales of vodka in 2014. “Since you have to age whiskey, the demand is going to outstrip the supply. Because of that shortage, we’ve seen a lot of people experiment with aged rums. They are stylistically very similar,” Smithson said.

“We see rum as still value-driven and affordable, and you can get older expressions for very good prices,” said Kyle Mathis, bar manager at Taste. Bartenders at Taste, Planter’s House, Blood & Sand and other bars known for a curated spirits selection are snatching bottles from Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Antigua and other island nations because of the many nuances between highly crafted, limited-production rums. There’s dark Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva, aged up to 12 years and laden with baking spices; dry, oaky Brugal 1888 finished in sherry casks that previously held Macallan 12-year single-malt Scotch; and even exceptional flavored rums like Rhum Clément’s Mahina Coco, a coconut rum from Martinique that Planter’s House co-owner Ted Charak deemed “one of the best new flavored products on the market.”

Initiates still slam Captain and coke, but the cocktails most often associated with rum are tiki drinks like mai tais and zombies that feature a combination of rum, fruit juices and syrups. Tropical heat waves inevitably lead us to throw on Hawaiian shirts and sip booze from a coconut. This summer, Taste offered a monthly tiki takeover that featured a special menu of nearly a dozen time-tested tiki cocktails. Since April, Mission Taco Joint has helped customers explore the wide world of rum through rotating monthly frozen drinks like a piña colada, a Miami Vice and, this month, a lava flow.

Frou-frou is fun, but rum is mixable in more than a volcano bowl made by modern Don the Beachcomber bartenders. Let a rum-based Manhattan at Taste win you over, then visit Blood & Sand to open your mind – and mouth – to what multiple rums in a cocktail can do. The Bye-bye Li’l Sebastian features two rums and Swedish Punsch, a sugarcane spirits-based liqueur. “Rums can differ quite a bit,” said Matt Osmoe, bar manager at Blood & Sand. “There’s so much variation in rum that some are going to provide vanilla, some might have funk or be bright and straightforward. You can blend them in a way that gives a really cool stack of flavors.”

Trends come and go. Barry O’Neil, Major Brands’ president of sales, said for rum to have staying power, a premium sipping brand must come to the forefront, like Tanqueray did for gin and Patron for tequila. “People have to be willing to drink the product straight. Right now, it has the image of being sweet and super syrupy,” O’Neil said.

When you sidle up to the bar at Planter’s House and start sipping from its collection of 40-plus rums, aged as many as 21 years (El Dorado), the words “sweet” and “super syrupy” are not likely to slip from your lips. “Higher-end rums are being introduced and well received,” said Charak. “I’ve been in this business over 25 years. This is as close to a rum revolution as I’ve seen.”
Ligaya Figueras