By Lyn Farmer
Rum has come a long way from its 17th-century beginnings, a time when it was nicknamed “kill-devil” because, as an anonymous traveler in the West Indies declared in 1651, it was a “hot, hellish and terrible liquor” that could, presumably, drive out the devil himself. Rum prospered through the age of pirates; it fueled the Colonies’ battle for independence (Paul Revere had a fortifying mug on his ride); it was smugglers’ plunder during Prohibition boat rides from Havana to Key West; and now, rum is the upscale darling of bartenders who admire its versatility as a convivial mixer and an elegant sipping spirit.
“It’s the most versatile spirit at any bar,” says rum expert and blender Toby Tyler, noting it is the only spirit that comes in white, brown and black versions. Tyler is one of the owners of Afrohead, a rum he began blending a decade ago for him and customers of his boutique hotel, The Landing, on Harbour Island, Bahamas. In an accent that still hints at his native Australia, he says, “I had been drinking cognac and Calvados, but when I moved to the islands, I found that a lot of spirits were too hot for my taste. Rum, in its many styles and colors, is the real taste of the tropics.”
That taste begins with sugar cane and little else. Most regulations throughout the world (including the United States) vaguely state that rum is any spirit made from sugar cane and its derivatives. In many cases, that means molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining and a clue to rum’s beginnings—a way for plantation owners to stretch their income by repurposing what was basically industrial waste from processing sugar. Fortunately for consumers, there are many possible nuances in how rum is made, including adding sugar back into the spirit. “All rums have some sugar added,” says Tyler, “and just how much helps determine the style.”
Cris Srokowski, global ambassador for Panama’s Ron Abuelo and an internationally acclaimed mixologist, says, “Some rums are so sweet, they are technically liqueurs; that gives them a rich texture, but they are hard to mix.” Srokowski makes stunning riffs on classic cocktails by emphasizing the nuance that comes with well-aged and drier styles of rum, like Ron Abuelo. “You can use rum in place of whiskey, rye and especially cognac in drinks like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sidecar. And rum marries better with fruit juice than any other spirit.”
Sitting at the bar at Burlock Coast, the new restaurant and market at The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, a gentle breeze blows in off the ocean, emphasizing the tropical feel of a drinks menu that reads like an encyclopedia of rum. More than two dozen rums are readily available for sipping, and a small room off the main dining area is a rum library that doubles as a private dining space. This is where you really get a feel for sipping-friendly rums; they can be mixed if you want, but they shine brightest on their own with a single cube of ice. Here thrive the craft rums made in small batches in out-of-the-way places, from tiny distilleries on St. Lucia and Jamaica to a warehouse on a side street in Fort Lauderdale, where South Florida Distillers is making an acclaimed rum called Fwaygo and dressing it up with grilled pineapple.
Down the street at the speak-easy-style bar Stache 1920s Drinking Den, owner Brian Freed reminisces about falling in love with rum. “Going to the Mai-Kai for 35 years, I’ve seen amazing rum drinks,” he says of the nearby temple of Tiki. “Right now, bourbon remains supreme, but Tiki drinks are my happy place. Nothing beats a classic hand-shaken daiquiri in my opinion. It is the perfect rum drink.”
Fort Lauderdale is in a bit of a time warp, where one of the world’s last remaining bastions of Tiki culture thrives alongside contemporary bars that prosper by sharing craft rums from the West Indies. Here, rum is the new, as well as the historical, spirit of the Caribbean, the taste of the tropics in all its diversity.
FIVE MUST-TRY RUMS
Afrohead XO: Toby Tyler’s 15- year-old blend of rums is made on Trinidad from Dominican molasses. It’s elegant and smooth on its own and makes a killer Old Fashioned.
Centuria by Ron Abuelo: A blend of rums between 18 and 30 years old, it’s aged in barrels first used for Jack Daniels.This dry, spicy and elegant rum from Panama is the epitome of the blender’s craft.
Fwaygo Handcrafted Rum: A white rum that’s made from Florida sugar cane in“Fort Lauderdale’s oldest distillery” (technically true, though it was only founded in 2014),Fwaygo has a limited release flavored with grilled pineapple that is especially intriguing.
Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask Selection: Most historians agree rum was first commercially produced on Barbados,and this blend of aged rums celebrates that spirit in a slightly sweet style.
Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum: This rum is made in small pot stills on Jamaica and bottled in London at “Navy Strength,”a palate-numbing 57 percent alcohol.Aged only three years, it preserves all its fruit and spice notes.
Originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue.