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The Kansas City Star

High-Quality Rums Flow In The Caribbean

Doug Frost

March 31, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved.

Rum is arguably the world's oldest distilled beverage.

Earlier and different spirits used all sorts of substances — mare's milk, palm wine. But archaeology would suggest that those spirits were used topically or as preservatives. Rum was made to drink, and references to it being consumed may be more than 2,000 years old.

I had rum and rum history on my mind during a recent tour of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Grenada and Antigua.

Colonial America was lubricated with rum. Indeed, the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere is the story of sugar cane's central role in the slave trade. Sugar cane was harvested by slaves, sugar was sent back to the European powers, along with the rum that was a byproduct of sugar refinement. Often rum was traded for more slaves, and sugar cane spread, along with slavery.

George Washington, a slave owner, was a connoisseur of rum, like many of his compatriots. While his inauguration was celebrated with sherry, Madeira and countless barrels of beer and wine, he asked for only one "brand" by name: Barbados rum.

Washington insisted upon Barbados rum, as did others, because that little island produced the first rum that differentiated itself from all others. By the early 1600s, Barbados rums were aged in barrels long enough to enrich the aromas and flavors. For almost four centuries, barrel-aged Caribbean rums have been considered a benchmark among rums.

With a history this ancient, rum's tradition should make an old drink like sherry look like Red Bull. Yet rum carries none of the boring baggage of sherry, a category that deserves far better press. Rum lags behind only vodka for world popularity among spirits, a list that also includes bourbon, Scotch, brandy and tequila.

And in some parts of the Western Hemisphere, rum is the No. 1 spirit. We in the United States prefer vodka. But Canadians favor rum, and in all Latin American countries save Argentina, it's either No. 1 or No. 2.

The world's No. 1 premium brand is Bacardi Light. The style it represents — mild, white rum — fuels rum's worldwide popularity. Cocktails that continue rum's world dominance show best when concocted with white rums: daiquiris, mojitos, caipirinhas and Cuba libres.

Once upon a time all rum was white rum, but it was rough, hot, ill-tempered. Still, it had the deserved effect and it was easy to make. It was the Bacardi family that created the modern style of white rum in Cuba in the late 19th century. By distilling the rum to a higher proof, by cutting out the rough parts and especially by charcoal filtering the rum, Don Facundo Bacardi created a softer, milder drink.

Most of the new brands in the marketplace are flavored versions of this sort of clean, vodkalike spirit. There's no inherent reason that a lime-flavored rum shouldn't be as commercially successful as a citrus-flavored vodka. But most of these new brands (far too many to list) are about as interesting as CNN on a slow news day.

And what of spiced rum? Captain Morgan, for one, is skyrocketing in consumption. Certainly Captain Morgan Private Stock is a great new product. But the style is as old as rum itself. Alcohol's preservative powers were ideal for preventing the deterioration of seductive aromas and the perceived healthful benefits of spices such as nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cardamom, among others.

But it is the aged rums that most closely resemble the drink that fascinated George Washington and his contemporaries. And we can safely assume that the rums in the market today are far better made and far more elegant than those old drinks.

These barrel-aged rums are not all of a single style. The Cuban style has always been lighter and gentler. After the 1959 revolution, the Bacardi family, and others, fled to Puerto Rico and the style produced there is usually identical to Cuba's tradition.

Bacardi produces several different aged bottlings; the prettiest is the Reserva Superior 8 ($20) which is quite stylish and mellow. However, if you make it to the island, you can taste the 12-year-old, which is very smooth.

The Dominican Republic is usually associated with the elegant Cuban style. Matusalem makes very attractive rums and the Gran Reserva ($30) is quite stellar. Brugal's Anejo is a bargain at $22 and carries caramel sweetness with a touch of vegetation.

Barbados rums are still great, though brands such as Cockspur lack the character that once made them exciting. Mount Gay Extra Old ($30) is widely available and is a peppery, honeyed version of Barbados rum. But Foursquare Spiced Rum, R.L. Seale's and especially Doorly's XO are proof of Barbados brilliance.

Antigua rums are similar in richness to those from Barbados, without the pedigree or the price. English Harbour is a new-ish brand that should be showing up in this market soon. Their Five Year Rum ($30) is stylish and butterscotch-scented.

Haitian rums, like Haitian history, are loaded with drama, and Barbancourt is a great representative of the style. Indeed, Barbancourt is one of the key distilleries in the Western Hemisphere. The 15-year-old rum is spectacular, showing brilliant, rich nuttiness borne of a long sojourn in a barrel.

Jamaica is expected to carry the style of super rich rums. Brands such as Myers Dark have informed our idea of the over-the-top chocolate and fat intensity that Jamaica excels in producing. But Appleton VX and especially Appleton's will alter your preconception of Jamaican rums. They are both powerful and elegant.

The French islands of Marie Galante, Martinique and Guadeloupe have produced a unique style for nearly a century. Their best rums, called rhum agricole, have a vegetal but rich character that's really compelling. If you see virtually any bottle with that term listed, give it a try.

From the Virgin Islands, Cruzan's Dark ($40) is delicious, and its Single Barrel is a thing of beauty.

At the upper end of the richness and darkness spectrum is a singular rum from Bermuda called Gosling's Black Seal. Black in color, the name refers to a previous method of packaging in which the bottle was sealed with black wax.

While producers on each island tend to follow a similar style, it need not be so. Some producers dance to different drummers than the rest in their area. And companies such as Cadenhead's bottle rums from many islands; they offer very high quality as well as intensity. Cadenhead's purchases rums from around the Caribbean and bottles them with the name of the island and sometimes the distillery where they were produced.

Nicaragua has a pretty, honey-tinged rum called Flor de Cana, the best of which is the Gran Reserve Extra Aged ($20).

Rum is produced from the Caribbean to Australia. Australia's Bundaberg is decent rum, but its Inner Circle is far more stylish.

Many more brands are not in this marketplace. More's the pity. If you venture to larger cities, you may have the opportunity to taste some of these other gems. But the rums that are here still offer flavors of spices, island heritage and world history in a glass of chocolate richness.

Zin in the City, a ZAP event (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers), will have a public tasting of wines from that mighty grape April 26 at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. The tasting is from 6 to 8 p.m., and tickets ($44 a person for non-members) can be purchased on-line at ZAP has been celebrating America's unique success with the grape for over a decade and more than two dozen producers will be pouring their latest releases there.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City wine and spirits consultant who holds the rare dual designation of Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. His column appears in this section about monthly.

Rum: Premium picks

Bacardi Reserva Superior 8, Puerto Rico ($24)

Matusalem Gran Reserva, Dominican Republic ($32)

Brugal Anejo, Dominican Republic ($22)

Mount Gay Extra Old, Barbados ($31)

Foursquare Spiced Rum, Barbados ($22)

Doorly's XO, Barbados ($35)

English Harbour Five Year Rum, Antigua ($30)

Barbancourt 15-Year-Old Estate Reserve, Haiti ($30)

Appleton VX, Jamaica ($19)

Appleton's Extra, Jamaica ($29)

Cruzan's Dark, Virgin Islands ($14)

Gosling's Black Seal, Bermuda ($20)

Flor de Cana Gran Reserve 7, Nicaragua ($20)

Inner Circle 80, Australia ($22)

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