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Toronto Star

I'm A Rum University Grad

By Susan Sampson

22 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Toronto Star. All rights reserved.

Cataño, Puerto Rico Hard liquor. Hard sell.

The Bacardi marketing machine in full gear and at top volume is a seductive force. The rum company has rolled out the PR for two busloads of food journalists from all over North America: Cocktails in the tropical heat. A rock 'n' roll chef. A mixologist. A dash of history. Waiters serving a Latin lunch in military formation. A tasting session at "Rum University."

Okay, I can't help it. I'm having fun.

Puerto Rico calls itself the rum capital of the world. There are 26 brands manufactured on the U.S. island in the Caribbean. And Bacardi is the big kid on the block.

In a western suburb of San Juan, where the land is lapped by the Atlantic Ocean, Casa Bacardi sprawls. The 17,000-square-foot visitor centre opened in 2003 and shares the green grounds with a 240-acre distillery. There are 20 rum tanks, each with a capacity of 50,000 gallons, and a factory that bottles up to 450 bottles a minute.

Into this guzzler's paradise comes the Association of Food Journalists, fanning out at the annual conference. We crowd into a hacienda-style courtyard complete with signature bat fountain.

Bacardi lays claim to being the world's largest premium rum distillery, as well as the world's largest privately held spirits company. So Tito Bacardi, great-great-grandson of the founder, is part of the welcoming committee.

In the "Bat Theatre," they warm us up with a film that filters background info through a montage of buff bodies, whispering lips and suggestive looks. The onscreen dance party, set to a Latin beat, livens up as a babe sprays rum on the writhing crowd.

Sex, parties and liquor - Bacardi has plenty of experience making rum part of that equation. In a timeline display of postcards and ads, overt sex rears its head in the 1970s. Next to a closeup of a woman in shorts, consumers are urged to "Get into Bacardi shorts."

We have already passed through replicas of the art deco, Prohibition-era bar where the likes of Errol Flynn bellied up, and the original still used by founder Don Facundo Bacardi Masso. Both were in Cuba.

La Campañia Bacardi started out in 1862 in a shed with a tin roof where fruit bats were nesting. The bat symbolized health, good fortune and family unity, so it became the firm's trademark.

Rum was "a harsh and fiery beverage," the company says, before Don Facundo tamed it. He used charcoal filtering to come up with the world's first aged white rum. He also isolated a "secret strain" of yeast that is still being used in the fermentation process.

In 1960, the family fled into exile from Cuba. Bacardi carried on in Puerto Rico, where it had opened a distillery in 1936.

Rum is made from cane juice or molasses. It gets darker and smoother as it ages. In rum tastings, like wine tastings, all five senses are used.

Brand master William Ramos (as jovial and red-faced as you'd imagine a rum taster to be) ushers us into "Rum University." We test light, 2-year-old gold, 3-to-4-year-old dark, and 8-year-old rum (sipped straight, like cognac).

The method:

Swish the glass and check the "teardrops" forming on the side. The older the rum, the thicker the teardrops. The 8-year-old coats the glass.

Rub the glass in your hand to heat it.

Take three short sniffs to detect the layers of aromas. In comparison to wine tasting, the first perception is not the most important and the aroma descriptions are simpler (like vanilla, lemon, almond, floral, banana), Ramos says. If your sense of smell becomes overwhelmed, sniff a body part (sans perfume or sunscreen), then go back to the rum.

Taste. You are seeking a sensation that lingers and is balanced. The younger rum is felt more on the roof of the mouth, the older in all parts of the mouth. The 8-year-old coats the mouth smoothly, but doesn't clear the sinuses.

"The rum tasting is better than the wine tasting because we don't spit the rum," Tito Bacardi jokes.

We have been sufficiently lubricated for an open-air lunch.

Local chef/rum industry promoter Wilo Benet is slaving over some hot drums. Bald head shining in the spotlights, he plays Wild Thing with his band in black.

Then he abandons his sunglasses and black leather jacket for chef's whites. He flambes pearl onion and shiitake salad with rum dressing. He builds a tower with circles of queso (farmer's cheese), spinach leaves and granny smith apple slices, and drizzles a vinaigrette with raisins, pine nuts and rum over it. Shrimp is mated with chorizo sausage and bathed in coconut rum sauce. Sheets of hazelnut sponge cake are rolled up with dulce de leche mousse spiked with orange rum. Finger bananas are caramelized in butter and brown sugar, flambeed with light rum and rolled up in crepes.

Each course, waiters march in to music, stop, turn and extend plates to diners, all synchronized to the beat. First round, I point out the futility of bringing food to the empty setting on my left. But they still place (then remove) a full plate at each course; it would ruin their precision otherwise.

"Rum plays an essential role, but its presence is never overwhelming, like a good movie soundtrack," Wilo writes in Puerto Rican Rum & Cooking: The Flavors And Fun Of Cooking With Rum. The book was produced for the Puerto Rican rum industry.

Benet got his start in the food business washing dishes stateside. By the time he returned to Puerto Rico in 1988, he was skilled enough to become a chef at the governor's mansion. His flagship restaurant, Pikayo, opened in 1990. It fuses Creole cuisine, international dishes (particularly from eastern Europe and Africa) and Puerto Rican flavours.

Fried plantains, for example, are paired with fresh (not canned) corned beef and daubed with Spanish tomato sauce spiked with vanilla rum.

"It doesn't get any more downhome than this," Benet says.

He calls his style Nu+Global Mix. It's not exactly fusion. It's not exactly Nuevo Latino.

"It's more about taking classical dishes and taking them a bit further," Benet says. "It's about respecting the classics."

Shiitakes & Pearl Onions With Rum Dressing

Adapted from Puerto Rican Rum & Cooking by Wilo Benet. At the Bacardi lunch, he flambeed this dish.

10 oz (280 g) package pearl onions

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup butter

1 lb (450 g) shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded

1/4 cup each: sherry vinegar, gold/amber rum

Sea salt + freshly ground pepper to taste

4 to 6 cups mixed greens

1/4 lb (120 g) goat cheese

Blanch pearl onions in small pan of boiling water 1 minute. Drain. Rinse with cold water. Trim and peel.

Heat oil in large skillet on medium-high. Add onions. Stir until browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Remove onions to bowl with slotted spoon. Stir butter in skillet until melted.

Return skillet to heat. Add mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms start to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. (Reduce heat to medium if necessary.) Add onions and their liquid. Cook 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in vinegar, then rum. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Place greens on platter or 6 individual plates. Top with warm mushroom mixture. Crumble goat cheese on top.

Makes 6 servings.

Rum Cocktails


Toronto Star

22 December 2004

The Toronto Star

Copyright (c) 2004 The Toronto Star

They speak Spanglish in Puerto Rico, but a tourist won't always need a translator. As the joke goes, some of the most commonly used phrases on the Island are Piña Colada, Mojito, Coquito, Daiquiri and Cuba Libre.

Here are two classic cocktails dear to the hearts of rum drinkers - imported from Puerto Rico just in time for all those seasonal, sparkly sweater events.

There can be no better time to try the Latin eggnog known as the Coquito. It gets its name from the coqui, a little frog that sings all night. Indeed, a little Coquito goes a long way. Don't be lulled into excess by its smoothness or alluring, coconutty scent.


The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, served a Coquito made thicker with sweet condensed milk. I developed this less filling variation.

1 cup water

Zest of 1 lime, cut in thick strips

1 cinnamon stick

3/4 cup evaporated milk

2 egg yolks

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup or more light rum

1 tbsp vanilla extract

4 to 6 tbsp granulated sugar

In small pan, bring water, lime zest and cinnamon to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes, or until reduced by half. Strain, discarding solids.

In medium pan over medium heat, whisk together evaporated milk and yolks. Cook, whisking frequently, 5 minutes, until thickened. Remove from heat. Whisk in flavoured water, coconut milk, 1/2 cup rum, vanilla, and 4 tablespoons sugar. Whisk until sugar dissolves. Taste; whisk in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and extra rum if desired.

Refrigerate until chilled. Serve in small glasses.

Makes 8 to 12 servings.

The Mojito traces its lineage back to 1586, when Sir Francis Drake attacked Cuba. His subordinate, Richard Drake, mixed aguardiente (a crude forerunner of rum), sugar, lime and mint, and served it with a wooden spoon with a cock's tail handle. This "cocktail" became known as the Draque and was mainly drunk for medicinal purposes.

In the mid-1800s, the recipe was altered to use rum and renamed the Mojito - from the African word mojo, which means to place a spell.

Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim says the Mojito is the hottest cocktail going.

"It's the simplest, most difficult drink to make perfectly," adds Abou-Ganim, the man behind the cocktail program at the Las Vegas Bellagio resort's 22 bars.

He points out mixes are the accent for the rum, not vice versa. ("You don't buy a steak for the salt and pepper.")


Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim proves his credentials with this vibrant Mojito. To make simple syrup, boil 1/4 cup each of water and granulated sugar over high heat for 2 minutes; chill in refrigerator. A muddler is a wooden paddle used to crush and/or bruise fruits, herbs and other ingredients; you can use a spoon. Good, fresh ice is a must.

12 mint leaves

1-1/4 oz fresh lime juice

1 oz simple syrup

Crushed ice

1-1/4 oz light rum

1 to 2 oz club soda

1 sprig mint

Put mint leaves in slim 8-ounce glass. Add lime juice and syrup. Muddle or stir, lightly crushing mint. Add crushed ice almost to top of glass. Pour in rum. Stir. Top with splash of club soda. Snip stalk on mint sprig to release oils; use it to garnish cocktail.

Makes 1.


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