FEAST Rum has had a rough and tumble history. It was the Royal Navy’s spirit of choice, and on a grim note, benefited from association with the slave trade. Consider the story of Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose body was preserved in a cask of rum after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar en route back to England. Upon arrival, the cask was empty of liquid, the rumor being his crew drank it in hopes of ingesting Nelson’s courageous spirit. From this comes one of rum’s many nicknames, “Nelson’s blood.” The act of imbibing it is often dubbed “tapping the admiral.”
Despite its dark days, rum thrives as the spirit of the Caribbean where, along with Latin America, the majority of the world’s supply is produced. The liquor is associated with island breezes, relaxation, the good life. From airy white rum to the sweet, spiced variety, there’s more complex rum variances than one might initially suspect.
Though no hard and fast rules apply to all rum, here’s a quick rundown of categories:
Light/silver/white rums are often smooth, sometimes sweet, mixable rums ideal for cocktails, made from both sugarcane and molasses. Typically aged briefly, they maintain a colorless look from being aged in stainless steel or neutral oak, or from having their color filtered out.
Gold/amber rums are typically medium-bodied, generally aged in wood barrels. They are the halfway point between light and dark rums.
Dark rums are molasses-based, aged in charred barrels. They are at times quite sweet and silky, at other times complex, best for mixing or sipping.
And there is a wealth of other categories. Spiced rums have, yes, spices and even caramel added. Flavored rums are infused with a wide range of tastes. Overproof rums are high proof spirits that exceed the standard 40 percent ABV. Premium rums are essentially a more refined category of sipping rums. Cachaça is, more or less, a Brazilian rum made solely from sugarcane juice.
In addition to styles, regions determine rum characteristics. The Spanish-speaking Caribbean (namely Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) and South and Central America are most highly regarded for their smooth añejo style. English-speaking islands (like Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Saint Kitts, Trinidad) are best known for full, dark rums, including demerara rums made from natural, unrefined demerara sugar. French-speaking Caribbean islands (including Haiti, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Martinique) are famed for agricultural rums (rhum agricole), produced solely from sugar cane juice, which are refined, complex, even grassy and funky.
Where to find good rum in the Bay Area? One of the greatest selections available anywhere, the standard-setting menu at Smuggler’s Cove offers over 200 rums, with flights and pours grouped by style and region. The bar even has a Rumbustion Society encouraging (and rewarding) exploration. Smuggler’s honors the roots of tiki (Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s paraphernalia abound) in its intimate, three-level layout. The cocktail menu is extensive, with sections on Cuban cocktail favorites from Havana’s glory days to modern interpretations of tiki drinks.
650 Gough, SF. (415) 869-1900, www.smugglerscovesf.com
Newly-opened Tradition offers booths (called “snugs”) with themes like New Orleans, Pre-Prohibition, and Scotland, each boasting vintage ads, signs, and barware in keeping with the motif. An artistic menu is likewise themed around each category. One theme is exotic/tiki, that page bearing mostly rum-based cocktails. For a unique rum experience, there’s an extensive house-blended and barrel-aged spirits program, including all manner of spirits finished in house barrels, like Flor de Caña rum in pinot noir or sweet vermouth barrels, imparting unexpected wine notes to the rum.
441 Jones, SF. (415) 474-2284, www.tradbar.com.
Though not a rum bar per se, Bar Agricole, with its impressive modern design and a bar flanked with dramatic photography, is named after French Caribbean rums and boasts a strong rum selection. Agricole perfects classic rum drinks — chat with bartenders about which version of the classic daiquiri you might want to try, they’re well-versed on each. Imbibe lesser-seen classics like a Martinique Crusta from Charles Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, this particular recipe dating back to 1840 of agricole, lemon, bitters, and Maraska, a Croatian maraschino liqueur.
355 11th St., SF. (415) 355-9400, www.baragricole.com.
For dive bar rum and cheap rum punch, try Hobson’s Choice in Haight-Ashbury (www.hobsonschoice.com). Other notable tiki bars include the transporting East Bay classics, Forbidden Island (www.forbiddenislandalameda.com) and Oakland’s Conga Lounge (www.congolounge.com), not to mention out-of-the-way Tiki Haven (www.tikihavensf.com) in SF’s Outer Sunset.
BEST RUM COCKTAILS THIS YEAR
Brand new to the bar’s fall menu is frothy, light beer and rum beauty, Jasper’s Rum Shaker (a cheeky reference to the 1990s rap song, “Rump Shaker”): Bacardi 8 Rum, Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, lime, pumpkin syrup, cream, egg white, and orange flower water recall a classic Ramos Gin Fizz. Also new to the menu is bartender Taylor White’s Haymaker, which allows Appleton Reserve Rum to shine in a fabulously musty, spiced way with Combier orange liqueur, chai tea infused Punt Mes vermouth, Angostura, and orange bitters.
401 Taylor, SF. (415) 775-7979, www.jasperscornertap.com
An after dinner sipper this summer was AQ’s Senegal at Dusk ($10), a mixture of Lemon Hart rum, coffee and a blissful cardamom banana cream. At Tradition, Kona Kope stands out from an entire book of cocktails. Sweet Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva rum and barrel-aged spiced rums intermingle with coffee syrup and a touch of coconut cream, evoking lively coffee-tinged tropical breezes. For a milky rum stunner, try Smuggler’s Cove’s Jamaican Milk Punch, reminiscent of traditional Brandy Milk Punch, smooth, frothy, spiced.
1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000, www.aq-sf.com
The Lower Haight joint might not be a rum bar, but Maven’s Nauti’ Mermaid is a winner, mixing Jamaican rum, lime, orange, coconut, and housemade hazelnut orgeat, substituting orgeat’s typical almond base for hazelnuts.
598 Haight, SF. (415) 829-7982, www.maven-sf.com
In downtown Berkeley, Comal’s Black Daiquiri is a refreshingly unique expression, mixing Pampero Aniversario rum, Averna, lime, sugar, and Chiapan coffee tincture for a tart, bitter, sweet, and robust imbibement. Coffee notes don’t dominate, but add a hint of earth and body.
2020 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 926-6300, www.comalberkeley.com
One of my all-around favorite rums is Brugal 1888 ($54.99), from five generations of family distillers in the Dominican Republic. First aged in American white oak barrels, then finished in Spanish oak, it’s a blend of rums aged five to 14 years that hits the nose with spice, coffee, dried fruits. Tasting it yields notes of bourbon-like caramel, wood, spice, a hint of earth, a complex finish. An affordable sipping rum is Appleton Estate Reserve 12 year ($34.99) from Jamaica, blended by female master blender Joy Spence. It’s bright and bold, but also nutty and buttery. If you can get your hands on Appleton 21 year, it’s a beauty. Fascinating grassy notes, nuts, orange blossom, molasses.
Ron Zacapa 23 year ($37) is a Guatemalan classic, smooth with toffee and spice and crafted by a female master blender Lorena Vasquez. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($35) is lushly sweet with caramelized brown sugar, a spice-redolent Venezuelan dark rum. Botran Solera 1893 Gran Reserva ($24), a Guatemalan añejo rum, is an affordable, different side of the sweet coin. A blend of five to 14 year old rums, is balanced, not cloying. It tastes of caramelized banana and coconut.
Shellback is a new release of two affordable ($17 per bottle) Barbados-blended rums, ideal for cocktails. The silver is clean, with vanilla smoothness and whispers of tropical fruit, while the spiced is medium-bodied with cinnamon bark, ginger and clove oils, nutmeg, cassia.
Possibly my top white rum, Banks Five Island ($25.99) is rife with character, funk, and elegance — a blend of rums from five islands (hence the name), it’s reminiscent of the Asian-Indonesian sugarcane spirit Batavia Arrack. Banks recently released Banks 7 Golden Age Blend ($30), 23 rums sourced from seven places. It’s a complex as that would imply, dry, nutty, tropical, and rich.
Rhum agricole is my favorite style of rum — it’s often funky, grassy, complex, elegant. I adore the floral, fresh spirit of Clement Martinique Rhum Blanc ($30) and its VSOP ($35), which exhibits spice, coconut, apple, earth. I’m already a fan of the brand’s elegant rhum agricoles from Martinique, and they just released a fresh, smoky six year old ($56), not to mention a cinnamon, wood, and vanilla-inflected 10 year ($73). For a splurge, I adore the unique, cask strength (though still reasonably under 100 proof) 10 year Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997 ($130), which unfolds with toasted nut, lemon, sage, cinnamon.
Started by rum expert and all-around great guy Ed Hamilton, Ministry of Rum is a key resource for all things rum. Find reviews and discussions on just about every rum in existence, plus glossaries, rum basics, and rum events worldwide, including the annual Ministry of Rum tasting held in the Bay Area.
Rum For All is a project started by F. Paul Pacult (publisher-editor of Spirits Journal) and industry expert Sean Ludford. Their website is an online resource of rum primers, select producer profiles, and cocktail recipes. I recently went to their touring seminar when it was in SF, which offered an impressive range of rums to sample side-by-side — which is, of course, the best way to get educated.
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