The island party drink is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
By Jennifer Walker-Journey
Charlie Shed was sitting at a bayside bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, smoking a local cigar and sipping a glass of Havana Club Rum—not Bacardi’s version, but rather the coveted brand created in Cuba and unattainable in the U.S.—when it hit him: He was living the iconic image that people conjure when they sip and savor each note of a well-aged rum.
“The stories of sitting in a portico at the Hotel National and the experience of being in Rio de Janeiro, or at the Ritz in Naples—you put a nice rum with it and it’s just romantic and fun,” says Shed, director of food and beverage at NOPSI Hotel, New Orleans.
Rum hasn’t always been considered a refined libation. It has a longtime reputation as the booze that spikes piña coladas from poolside Tiki bars or the principal ingredient in the old college standby rum-and-Coke. But rum has hit a renaissance of sorts. The trend of critically tasting a spirit that has hit just about every liquor from bourbon to whiskey to gin, has finally fallen upon the island party beverage, and it’s about time.
The story of rum begins with an unwanted waste product that plagued 17th-century Caribbean sugar cane plantation farmers. Producing sugar involved crushing the sugar cane, boiling the residual juices and then pouring it into clay pots to cure. Gooey liquid would seep out of the pots and leave behind sugar. No one knew what to do with that viscous byproduct, which we now call molasses, so for years it was often dumped into the sea.
Eventually, someone discovered that molasses could be fermented and it was no longer tossed out as trash, but distilled. Through the years, the process was refined in distilleries that sprang up throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
Today, the clear liquid distillate is either filtered to remove impurities, creating a light rum with sweet but subtle flavor. Or, it is aged in charred oak or wooden barrels, creating a golden or dark rum with a bolder taste. Typically, the longer the rum has aged, the darker the color.
Lighter rums are usually mixed into cocktails, with the darker, more distinctive rums served straight up or on the rocks so that notes like espresso, vanilla or burnt orange can be discerned. But blending a dark rum into a cocktail or even adding it to a marinade or dessert isn’t frowned upon. That’s because, generally speaking, Americans love rum. More rum is sold in the U.S. than bourbon, scotch, gin or tequila, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Yet, only a fraction of rum that is sold falls into the “high-end premium” or “super premium” categories compared to other spirits. But the perception of rum is changing as premium and craft versions have come into favor in recent years.
Rum relies on sugar cane, which is also the most successful crop in Louisiana’s history, according to the American Sugar Cane League. The plant was brought there as a gamble in the late 1700s to replace blighted indigo crops. To everyone’s delight, sugar cane grew like wildfire in the state’s warm climate and alluvial soil.
Louisiana’s abundance of sugar cane was the impetus for accomplished artist James Michalopoulos to invest in his own New Orleans-based craft rum distillery in 1995, a time when no one else in the continental U.S. was making rum. His distillery, Celebration Distillation, produces a variety of Old New Orleans Rum using locally sourced Louisiana sugar cane. They are the highest rated rums produced in America. Michalopoulos says he’s not surprised about the growing interest in premium rum.
“I’ve always known about the possibility of great rum, that it could be something that you can actually taste and drink that has a refined profile,” Michalopoulos says. “ … I’ve had a sense it was headed for a renaissance. Like fashion—one spirit rises and another takes a rest.”
As interest in rum increases, more people are eager to learn about what they are tasting. As a result, tours of Celebration Distillation are in high demand. The distillery provides several daily shuttles from the French Market to its distillery on Frenchmen Street about 2.5 miles away. Here, visitors can see, smell and taste how Celebration Distillation makes its premium rum.
Old New Orleans Rum is also poured at Above the Grid, the rooftop bar at NOPSI Hotel, where Shed says his bartenders and mixologists are required to be knowledgeable about the liquor they recommend to customers.
“There are so many great aged rums out there and they’re all very intricate in their flavors,” he says. “It’s nice to put glasses in front of people and give them a taste of something they wouldn’t normally try. They say, ‘Oh, I like this,’ and start experimenting with more upgraded ones. It ends up being a lot of fun.”
Small slice of butter
1 packet of brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice
Splash of vanilla
2 ounces dark rum
Mix all ingredients together and serve in an Irish coffee mug.
Recipe courtesy of Charlie Shed, director of food and beverage at NOPSI Hotel, New Orleans