Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rum Comes of Age

“There’s naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum…” Lord Byron

Now that I’m past the age of 40, I’m much less thrilled with the idea of aging than I was at say, 16. However, there are notable exceptions and some things that might actually improve with the accumulation of years. Rum is one of these.

If you’ve raised an eyebrow or chuckled after reading that last bit, you’ve yet to discover one of the fastest growing, fascinating sectors in the world of spirits: aged rums.

The Original American Spirit

With the possible exception of root beer, no beverage’s history is more closely intertwined with that of the United States’ as rum. Originally distilled by New England Yankees and quaffed by colonists up and down the Eastern Seaboard, rum served as the spirit of choice long before the first grape vine had sunk its roots into Napa’s soil or corn lined Bourbon County’s hillsides. When settlers poured over the Appalachians, discovering the fertile American midlands, fields of grain flourished and corn, rye and barley-based whiskey replaced rum as our the spirit of choice. As the mid-section of the country was plowed, planted and settled, so ended America’s first love affair with rum.

A century or so later, our country’s second affair with rum began. Led by a thirsty and adventurous Hemingway, the Rat Pack and an emerging jet-set, Americans re-discovered the spirit of their colonial ancestors, this go-round imbued with a decidedly Caribbean flavor, though. Oster blenders across the country worked overtime churning up Daiquiris, Piña Coladas and Mai Tai’s—all laced with the white and dark rums of Latin America and the Caribbean—while more serious cocktail connoisseurs savored Cuba Libres, Mojitos or Zombies.

When Cuba fell under Castro’s spell and the jet-set discovered the French Riviera, however, rum went the way of the celebrated Tiki Bar. To generalize a bit, Americans turned to beer in the 70’s, wine in the 80’s, vodka in the 90’s, and seemingly, rum, tequila and bourbon in the current decade. And that brings us to America’s current passion for rums white, dark and aged. Fueled by an itch for spirits with more flavor than vodka and inspired by sun-dappled trips to the Caribbean and Latin America, Americans have again turned to the mainstay and first-born of our national liquor cabinet.

An Oldie, But Goodie

While rum may have returned Stateside, Frank, Sammy and the rest of the Pack might not recognize the rums we’re sipping today.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, rum sales bumped up a considerable 6.1% in 2004—and more noticeably, sales of premium and super premium brands (read, aged) have increased 10% in volume. Beverage behemoth Bacardi, which launched its aged Bacardi 8 right around the millennium, has recently seen a surge in sales of the brand. In this, our third love affair with rum, we’re going after those brands that offer the most distinct and complex flavors, and spending more in our pursuit of them.

While aged rums have been around for, well, ages, a mere handful of Americans, mostly spirit aficionados, adventurous travelers and distillers themselves, had sampled the stuff until a handful of years ago. In the late 90’s, José Gómez, Bacardi’s master blender, helped create one of the first mass-produced aged rums, offering with his Bacardi 8 what until that time only the Bacardi family and the company’s distillers had enjoyed.

Created by storing rums distilled from molasses or the juice from sugar cane in charred oak barrels, aged rums come to maturation from about three to twenty-four years. The longer the rum ages, of course, the more it can take on the flavor of its cask. The rums’ heady flavor profiles can be complex and creamy and redolent of vanilla, oak, caramel, or orange.

Before aged rums hit the market, the spirit’s flavor was almost consistently overwhelmed by coconut milk, pineapple juice or Coke. With the arrival of these newest, old rums, producers, bartenders and spirit aficionados were now pleading with rum drinkers to savor the flavor—not to bury it in a tidal wave of tropical fruit. Like the one-time grade school kid who’s favorite drink is no longer Kool-Aid, premium producers started sharing with consumers what they’d discovered—rum can taste damn good.

No Mix-up Here

Unlike their younger brethren, aged rums are crafted for sipping neat, with a splash of water, or an ice cube or two. As with other complex spirits such as cognac, scotch or bourbon, the flavors of aged rum are diminished—or compromised—when a beverage with any flavor is mixed with them. Unlike purveyors and connoisseurs of other aged spirits, though, rum blenders, distillers, and purveyors adopt a much more laid back attitude about mixing an aged rum. While they may not recommend that you mix an aged rum with Coke, in the words of Gómez, “People should drink rum as they like: with Coke, with juice, with whatever tastes good.” Since it’s made with quality rum, he explains, “They’re really going to enjoy that drink no matter what.”

And some restaurants even seem to encourage mixing. When I first explored aged rums in 1999, distillers, restaurateurs and bartenders alike cringed at the thought of cocktails created with aged rums. A half-dozen years later, though, a perusal of local restaurant cocktail menus tells a different story. Adopting an approach similar to bars serving premium tequila cocktails, aged rum devotees have decided that if the ballast for a cocktail is comprised of a fine aged rum, then whatever is mixed into it had better be of similar pedigree.

At Nacional 27, as at other spots around town, luxe cocktails are the latest trend. While the industrial age which generated so much wealth for Chicagoans is long over—and the dot com bubble has recently burst—diners at a handful of local restaurants think nothing of shoveling out wads of dough for cocktails that might just as well be named for Gatsby. Nacional’s Cocktails Reservado list, created by cocktail wunderkind Adam Seger, includes a Cask 23 Mojito mixed with the usual ingredients, but fueled by a decidedly tasty Pyrat 40 Year Old Rum—one of Seger’s favorites. At 25 bucks a pop, the Cask 23 gives the ubiquitous Mojito a pricey, but swanky makeover.

Further afield—and for only a short time longer—Mitchell’s Fish Market in Glenview serves a rich and traditional hot-butter rum, laced with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, and butter, of course.

Flights of Fancy

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering where to dip a toe (er, finger?) into the world of rum. Doing so has never been easier, thanks to that winning concept borrowed from the world of wine: flights. Increasingly, bars and restaurants around the city offer rum flights. The originator, Mambo Grill, still offers the most rums, seventy, and four different flights, the most expensive featuring four aged rums consisting of harder to find selections assembled during owner Susan Frasca’s travels around the Caribbean and Latin America. Some are distilled in petite batches and poured into hand-numbered bottles, while others are distilled and aged in larger batches for distribution around the world.

River North mainstay Nacional 27, which carries an impressive 21 aged rums, offers a flight of the über tasty, less common Rhum St. James distilled in Martinique. Rums from this French territory, like the spirits from its Gallic motherland, conform to stricter guidelines than others, namely that they be made directly from sugar cane and not molasses—the more common, less costly and easier production method. The flavorsome result can be savored in a flight of three different rums of varying ages or a second which features three different 15-year-olds.

Adobo Grill’s two locations also offer samples of three rums, including the stellar 23-year Ron Zacapa Centenario Reserva from Guatemala, an 8-year El Dorado and a 5-year Ten Cane Rum. Meanwhile, Sofitel Hotel guests can sip a three-rum flight consisting of plantation rums from Barbados (1991), Trinidad (1993) and Guyana (1990) at Le Bar.

A Rum of One’s Own

Finally, while hopping about the city and suburbs sampling rare and tasty rums offers satisfaction, nothing quells a thirst for premium rum like a visit to Binny’s. The liquor super store boasts enormous quantities of rums, including rare and flavor-packed selections such as a $237 Pyrat from Anguilla for subdued sipping or a bottle of a $20 Guatemalan Ron Botran, created from virgin cane honey and aged in white oak bourbon casks for twelve years. As David Soto, former Sam’s Spirits Specialist and spirit enthusiast explains, most aged rums run between $15-60, making them a far better deal than cognacs or Scotches.

“Aged rums are an excellent value,” he tells me. “You can get a wonderful bottle of aged rum like a silky, cognac-like Santa Teresa from Guatemala for under $40. For a Scotch drinker used to paying $200 or $300, aged rum is a really good deal.”

And saving money at the liquor store means you’ll have more money to spend on luxe rum cocktails. In short, you can have your aged rum and drink it, too.

Nacional 27, 325 W Huron; Chicago; 312.664.2727

Mitchell’s Fish Market, 2601 Navy Boulevard, Glenview; 847-729-3663

Mambo Grill, 412 N Clark; Chicago; 312.467.9797

Adobo Grill, 1610 N Wells; Chicago; 312.266.7999 &

2005 W Division St, Chicago; 773.252.9990

Le Bar, 20 E Chestnut; Chicago; 312.324.4000

Binny’s, 213 W Grand; Chicago; 312.332.0012


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