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What We Talk About When We Talk About Booze: Rum Edition

So in one of my more inspired moments, I decided to get a few friends together to drink with me -- and talk about what we were drinking. And these friends just happened to be some of the brightest lights in the world of booze.
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I had a problem. A problem a lot of people would be delighted to have, but a problem nonetheless. I had a whole bunch of rum sitting in my apartment, waiting to be sampled and reviewed. I adore rum, and I adore blathering about the stuff I like almost as much. But the thought of sitting at my laptop by myself, writing tasting note after tasting note with nothing but bottles and glasses for company, just didn't seem particularly appealing.

So in one of my more inspired moments, I decided to get a few friends together to drink with me -- and talk about what we were drinking. And these friends just happened to be some of the brightest lights in the world of booze: Cody Goldstein, head bartender at New York's Upholstery Store Food & Wine (and a man who has actually made a cocktail for Beyoncé); Jackie Summers, creator of the superb Sorel liqueur; and writer/bon vivant Robert Haynes-Peterson.

We gathered on a Monday afternoon at the not-yet-open Upholstery Store Food & Wine, with seven bottles of rum to try and a large loaf of challah bread to soak it all up. What follows are some of the highlights of our boozy roundtable discussion.

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Cody: I was just interviewed for a magazine about rum, asking me why people don't think of rum as one of the top, you know, spirits, and why it's sort of the underdog. I gave my opinion, but I'm really curious to hear from you guys -- like, why do you think it is?

Tony: I think it's the Bacardi factor. And the Captain Morgan factor.

Robert: Yeah, Bacardi is as far as they get. There's not really the kind of awareness.

T: With tequila, it was the Cuervo factor. And then Patron came along in the '90s and elevated the whole category.

R: I think there's still a perception that rum is too sweet, it gives you a headache....

T: It's a party drink -- you stick it in a mojito, it's $9 a bottle....

R: But I don't know why people don't know more about sipping rums. You're right, we also don't write about them very much. I've done maybe two rum stories in the last seven years. I mean, I'll write up new products, but in terms of an overall round-up....

Jackie: Rum has an image problem. When I tell my drinking friends that I'll take a great rum over a good whisky, they look at me like I'm a heretic.

C: My answer [to the magazine] was, the only time people really think to drink rum is when they're on vacation -- like piña colada, strawberry daiquiri, sweet, tropical style drinks. But when you think of the diversity in which the rums come, in terms of age, in terms of spice, in terms of light and dark, there's sugarcane and molasses....

J: I think that part of the PR problem is that people give more credit to master whiskey distillers than to rum distillers.

R: That's true too. I mean, think of the woman at Appleton, Joy Spence. She's a distilling, blending genius. She doesn't get highlighted, but she's got 50 year old expressions, and it's not in the same boat as the whisky folks.

T: It is also the rum aging thing. It's really hard to make a 20 year old rum. So if you're drinking a 6 or 8 year old rum, that's pretty damn old.

R: People don't equate a 6 year old rum with a 12 or 15 year old whisky.

T: Exactly! With age comes respect. And most rums aren't aged that much.

R: Rum ages a lot faster than whisky, because the temperature and the humidity quicken the aging process. So people don't connect in their brain that they're drinking quite a mature spirit that's 6 years old, because they think in terms of whisky maturation.

C: I'm curious -- why do you think there's more money spent towards whisky promotion in terms of getting the brands out there, versus rum? I mean, I don't know if the older generation is interested in drinking aged rum, because I don't think they grew up on it. But you could get the younger generation interested now.

J: I definitely think it has something to do with where it comes from. We're talking primarily about products that are coming from the Caribbean, South America, Central America... People think rum is a third world product. Scotch whisky? People think first world.

T: You're thinking Braveheart. You're thinking hundreds of years of tradition. But you think Jamaica, you think Bob Marley. Bob Marley's gonna make Appleton? He's too busy smoking ganja.

J: It's also a pricing problem.

R: One of the incentives for Scotch whisky and bourbon to do everything they've done in the last few years is that they became potential investments before they became super popular.

J: Macallan is the master of that. Macallan is the master of, I'm gonna sell one bottle for $600,000.

T: And then that ups the whole category. Angostura did a $20,000 rum, but I don't know how that played out.

C: I can tell you, rum right now is the only spirit that doesn't have a call-out for its brand, when you come to the bar. "Let me get a Tito's, let me get a Bulleit, let me get a Patron." Nobody calls out -- unless it's a Bacardi and blank. Bacardi and Coke, or whatever, versus a Bacardi straight. They don't do that with rum.

J: Is that because of an image problem? Or is it because there's no real leader?

T: Well, Bacardi by far is the leader, but that's really for their white rum.

C:
And people don't drink clear rum straight, necessarily.

J: In my family, they drink 151 straight, because Caribbeans are insane.

R: So what are we starting with?

T: Twenty Boat Cape Cod Amber Rum. It's a New England rum, made somewhere in New England, I forget where.

J: So just to be clear, what defines a rum? What makes a rum?

T: It has to be made from sugar. So it can be sugarcane, it can be molasses. And that's it, really. There are basically no universal rules.

J: It says it's made from molasses and cane sugar juice, and it's 42% alcohol.

T: It's not aged for very long [17-22 months], and it's not a traditional New England rum, because New England rum is very dry usually, and this is a little sweeter.

R: Yeah, it's kind of herbaceous.

J: That's gotta be the cane.

R: And you don't get the same grassy notes on the mouth that you get on the nose.

C: I got a little vanilla bean on the nose.

J: I got grass too.

T: It dries out and gets a little more herbaceous on the back. It starts out really sweet, though.

R: It's got a little banana note to it. Interesting.

J: So sipper or cocktails, what do you think?

C: I think this would play really well in a cocktail. I mean, it drinks really nice -- did they send you a price point?

T: No, but I think New England rums can be a little pricey [we later found out it's $55 for a 750 ml bottle], because they're small distilleries.

C: I think people are afraid to overprice their rum because it's not a large market, and if you're trying to sell a $60 rum, how do you justify it to your market?

J: Good texture on this, by the way. A good mouthfeel.

T: I was really pleasantly surprised.

J: Sometimes the younger rums can be grainy. This one's nice and velvety.

C: [taking a bite of challah] Man, rum and challah sounds like a great lunch.

J: I'm like a Jewish pirate!

T: "Oy, mateys!"

T: OK, so here we have Cruzan Estate Diamond Dark Rum, aged 5 years. Cruzan is from St. Croix -- I don't know if there's a real St. Croix style. I think they're pretty much the only guys making rum on the island. [I'd forgotten about Captain Morgan, but they generally make spiced rum].

J: It says it's a blend of five years and older, meaning it's a minimum of five years.

T:
They claim to be pretty much fusel oil-free [fusel oils are what make spirits taste harsh -- if you have booze that tastes like gasoline, it's the fusel oils]. So it tastes a lot smoother than most rums.

J: There's sweetness right on the nose.

R: Exactly. This is all sweet and vanilla and caramel and toast....

T: This is a simple rum. Orange on the back, and a little bit of spice. This would be a great cocktail rum, I think. Really smooth, and they say that's the lack of fusel oils that makes it so smooth.

R: It's 40% (ABV)? It tastes higher than that to me. It tastes really spicy on the front.

T: This is one of those brands -- you think Cruzan, you think crappy flavored stupid rums -- which may actually be good, I don't know. But you don't think, wow, they make a good sipper, too.

J: It's a very funny thing, because flavored vodkas absolutely had their moment in the sun. Flavored rums did not.

R: Which is weird, because there's enough coconut rum and everything else out there that you could make it a party.

T: They make their bones on their pineapple rum and their banana rum... nobody knows about this stuff. I thought it was a little simple at first, but second or third sip, it really opened up.

C: Although it's not blackstrap, it would actually be really good in a Jungle Bird. It would be a little sweeter -- it wouldn't be as caramel-y as the blackstrap -- but this is nice.

J: I know with whiskeys, sometimes you'll add a little water to open it up. Would you do the same thing with a rum? Would it change complexion?

T: It depends on the rum, I think. With this rum you don't need it.

C: I actually do enjoy this. I think it has a place on a bar.

R: So in their mind, they're billing it as a sipper.

J: This is why I keep a sippy cup by the side of my couch. [laughter] You think I'm kidding? I'm completely serious! Because the last thing you want is to spill your rum if you're looking for the remote in the middle of the night!

On the brand side, what you want is, I think you're thinking in two directions. In a bar, people will say, this will go well in a cocktail. But at home, people will say, I'll drink this straight. Because in the bar and the restaurants, you'll build consumer awareness. But in homes, you actually build volume. You can't appeal just to the bar market and you can't appeal just to the consumer market. You really do need both.

T: OK, we're changing tracks a little bit and doing a rhum agricole. Saint James is one of the oldest rum producers on Martinique -- I don't know if it's the oldest -- but it's their 250th anniversary, and I've actually seen bottles from the 1800s up for auction. This is a special bottling for the anniversary, Saint James Cuvee 1765.

R: That's another thing about the rum vs. whiskey and rum not getting any credibility. There are rum distillers that are as old as the oldest whiskey distillers.

T: Mount Gay is more than 300 years old, for God's sake. And they don't get any respect.

J: Mount Gay is actual pirate shit! It goes back that far.

C: Quick question, what justifies being a rhum agricole?

T: A rhum agricole is made from cane juice as opposed to molasses.

J: This is an awful bottle. A beautiful but awful bottle.

C: Beautiful, but awful functionally. It's just too wide. And let's open it up... it's a wide mouth. So it's not gonna fit a pour spout. So this is great, put I'm not gonna put it in my well. I'm not gonna make cocktails with this bottle, it's not happening.

J: Here's another problem that I've heard about with rums. They use cork. Cork will, over time, affect the flavor of your rum.

C: And they're all using it. Look at the top of every single bottle here.

J: And it looks great, but....

T: You could make a synthetic cork substitute that looks just as good.

C: I'm getting a lot of grassy notes from this.

R:
This stuff is tasty!

J: No age statement on it?

T: It says "Rhum Vieux," which means "old rum." [And that means more than three years of aging.]

R: It starts off all grassy and sweet, but it finishes almost like a whiskey.

C: So it's a cuvee. So are they mixing it in barrels and finding the right ... I mean, how is it done?

T: That's usually how it's done. There aren't that many single barrel rums, or even single vintage rums, compared to whisky.

J: It's got a deeper finish than the first couple.

T: To be a Martinique rhum agricole, you have to have an appellation, kind of like cognac. So Barbancourt can't be called a rhum agricole, even though it's made from cane juice. 10 Cane is mixed with molasses rum, so it can't be a rhum agricole. And they say this is a mix of six vintages. They recreate the styles and flavors of what would have been made in 1765. I don't believe that for a minute.

R: I'm sure this is way better than what they were making in 1765. It's also aged longer, probably.

T: I actually tried a rhum agricole, I don't know what brand, from the 1860s or 1870s, and it was like firewater. You had to really water it down to make it taste anything like this.

C: This I would sip, rather than using it in a cocktail.

T: OK, next we've got a Dominican rum -- Opthimus. I don't know anything about Optimus other than I tried it at a Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting -- for some reason they had it there -- and I said, man, this is phenomenal. I don't remember which expression I had, but we've got two here. This is the Opthimus 18 Year Old Ron Artesanal.

R: Wow, this is really sweet, but I like it.

C: It tastes like a liqueur.

J:
It's a little watery.

T: It's so sweet that it's almost at the point of being a little bitter.

C: Very little body to it. It almost dissipates on your tongue.

R: It finishes dry.

T: It finishes quick, too. It evaporates fast.

R: But when you inhale afterward, there's kind of a menthol thing there.

J: It's almost transparent.

C: I'm looking at the label. Limited edition, "Cum Laude." What does that mean?

T: They've got a "Cum Laude" and a "Magna Cum Laude," which is their 21 year old.

C: I'm just trying to get Tony to blush!

T: And then there's a "Cum Laud-ly...."

R: "Cum Lauder!"

C: So "ron artesanal"....

T: I think he played second base for the Mets! Actually, it just means "artisanal rum." Which could mean anything. This is my least favorite, but if we hadn't tried the others, I'd probably love it -- I think. It just seems like a lightweight, especially for an 18 year old. There's not a lot of 18 in there, I don't think.

J: Maybe we should have checked its ID!

T:
"Officer, she told me she was 18!"

C:
This rum, because it's so thin on the mouth but it has a normal proof at 40 (percent alcohol by volume, or 80 proof), I would actually infuse this with something, because I think the infusion would really pop forward, and you'd still get the back notes. I don't know what yet, but a cocoa note, maybe.

R: Selvares has got that awesome chocolate infused rum. Where are they out of... Panama. Bruno Mars is behind it....

T: And in spite of that, it's good.

J: Do you find there's a particular advantage with terroir or production methods from one country to another?

R: Well, one of the issues is that they source their cane from all over. Appleton is one of the few that does estate-grown sugarcane. Everyone else gets it from South America or wherever it's cheapest at the moment. So I think that affects it. Your style can't come from the earth that way.

I was going back and forth on this with someone today. She was like, if it tastes good it doesn't matter where it's from or how it's made, right? I think it does matter, because going back to the consumer end, if you're paying 40, 50, 60 bucks a bottle, and you find out you've been deceived, in any way, shape or form, someone ought to be accountable.

T: OK, so this is another Opthimus, Opthimus 25 Oporto. This one is aged for 25 years, it's a little bit higher proof (86 vs. 80 for the 18 year old), and it's finished -- they don't say for how long -- in port barrels, although it's got a sherry kind of flavor.

C: I thought for sure sherry. It tastes like a Manzanilla.

R: Yeah, it does. But I love that. It's gotta still be solera, right?

T: It has to be.

C: Wow, that's a very interesting rum.

J: It'd be a crime to make a cocktail out of this.

C: Agreed.

R: That oak adds just enough pepper and bite and roundness.

J: It's so night and day from the 18.

T: It needed a little more aging, a little more alcohol in there, and the finish.

J: This is the first one that I'm buying and taking home.

R: Do you know the price point on it?

T: It's expensive, but that's all I know [further research revealed that it goes for about $100 a bottle, while the 18 Year Old sells for $60-65].

J: I'm taking this bottle!

T: Let the record show, Robert's going for seconds on this. In fact, we're all topping off here.

C: This is a great after dinner drink.

R: It's almost like a coffee.

J:
You could do this hot or cold.

C: Like a hot buttered rum?

J: Yes!

T: Holy crap!

R: That would be GOOD.

J: Look at the legs on this thing, man!

R: That's amazing that just a few more years... but that's part of the challenge of aging, of course. You have to test the barrel over and over and over again, because it could start going downhill. Say it's aged 5 years, and then you taste it at 6 years and it's terrible. But at 7 years it's, you know, peaking.

C: So here's my thing, right? We've tasted this, we all love it. We know what it tastes like. How are you gonna get someone to drink this off your back bar? Unless it's on a bar menu.

R: Right, because with a whiskey, you could give this whole story, and you could say this guy used to work at this other place and then he decided to strike out on his own, and he's making it in the back of his house or whatever....

J: Who's the most famous person associated with rum? Captain Morgan. At a certain point you need a real human being.

T: You could say "The Captain drinks this...."

R: That'd be hilarious. Your marketing campaign would be that Captain Morgan drinks your rum.

J: I'll bet you that their US sales are 10,000 cases and under.

T: What are the numbers for a Don Q or a Cruzan?

R: They do well, but I think they do well on their flavored rums.

T: Cruzan is really affordable -- it's ridiculous. What is it, $20, $25 for the Diamond Estate?

C: Their price point is attractive for people to buy it and put it in their well.

T: OK, here's another Dominican rum -- Kirk & Sweeney 23 Year Old. Beautiful bottle but not very user friendly.

C: I'm not even with you on the beautiful part. I just think it looks like an apple and it's not easy to pour.

T: Yeah, but it looks like an apple with a rope tied around it!

C: This is not a great label -- it's very small, it's not brand specific.

J: The packaging is terrible.

R: That's a ton of glass... how do you even ship that?

J: Nobody can pick up that bottle!

R: That's what Jackie bench presses every day to keep in shape!

J: "Send me a case, I need 30 pounds!"

C: You have to have big hands to pour this. And the rope around the neck is getting wet when you pour it.

R: Oh yeah, it'll get all discolored and moldy.

R: This rum is a very interesting color. It's very orange compared to the others.

C: Man, we're just destroying this thing and we haven't even tasted it yet!

R: Wow, it smells like a cognac.... it's bottled in Connecticut, but it comes from the Dominican Republic. "In the spirit of the rum-running schooner...." so the Kirk & Sweeney was a ship.... OK, they're evoking pirates.

T: That's the problem with rum. The whole pirate thing.

J: Why don't Somalis make a rum!

R: That would totally change their whole image!

T:
They'd seem so much friendlier!

C: "We're taking over your boat... and we're having a PARTY!"

R:
"Looking at its deep amber and iridescent copper..." -- yeah, it's a totally different color -- "it's clear this 23 year old rum is uniquely charming." So the message I'm getting here is that there's a lot of marketing on this. They want you to think about pirates, they want you to think that it's unique and charming, which to me means there's something in the process that they don't really talk about that makes it... whatever it is.

J: It's like saying "Unique, charming, 400 square foot West Village apartment."

T: It's very pretty.

R: It's rich....

J: Great mouthfeel.

R: I'd be willing to bet that what makes it unique and charming is that they dip into another spirit a little bit, like they pour in a little bit of something.

J: With 23 year old solera, it's really hard to tell. Basically, as Tony was saying, there's no goddamn rules.

T: Man, there is something interesting in here.

C: Yeah, the finish on it is very interesting.

R: I like it a lot -- it kind of goes all over. Tobacco and coffee....

T: OK, I've never heard of the Bermudez family [which made the rum in the Kirk & Sweeney bottle], but apparently they used to distill a lot of rum. They don't anymore, but they're selling off their stocks.

R: So this is like the Pappy Van Winkle of rum?

T: Yeah, basically. But at a bargain price.

J: This is like 35 bucks a bottle.

R: Amazing.

T: "The bottle features nautical details of Long Island's South Shore, and the North Coast of the Dominican Republic...." Ooh, the rum just went to my head, just now. I felt it -- BOOM!

J: Have a little more water.

T: You're a wise man, Jackie Summers.

J: I just drink a lot.

T: Like I said, you're a wise man.

J: This is a little less sweet, but the same level of complexity as the Opthimus Oporto.

T: It's a little darker, a little coffee-ish....

R: Yeah, I get coffee notes and tobacco and smoke... it's almost like a cognac to me.

T: This would make a great Old Fashioned.

C: Now that you told me the price point, it'd be great for a cocktail. I mean, $35... you could do a cocktail for $14, $15 with that. But I mean, if you put it on your menu, you'd have to keep reaching for the bottle!

R: You know what this reminds me of a little? Ron Zacapa.

T: OK, we've still got one more. Montauk Rum. [Full disclosure: Cody works with the Montauk Rum guys. But it's a genuinely tasty rum, so I decided to include it anyway.]

C: OK, I'll tell you a little bit about this one. This guy, Lucio, from Long Island, he came to me and he said, I have this rum, and I've been helping him out with it. Originally it was called the Hampton Rum Company -- it was produced out of Westhampton, NY. And then when Hurricane Sandy came, it destroyed, unfortunately, the facility, and they had to find a new location.

R: And Montauk became trendy, so....

C: The story goes that the rum runners during Prohibition were storing their rums at the end of Montauk, basically as a place to hide it. So a lot of the rum runners were coming through Montauk in the Prohibition era.

R: Montauk is literally at the end of Long Island -- there's no reason to go there except to be in Montauk.

T: And hide your rum.

C: This is the Black Sail, which is four years aged. This rum is being produced right now in Long Island, locally. Everything about this bottle, between the label and the glass, everything is USA.

T:
Where does the molasses come from?

C: Louisiana. So this is brand new, it just started shipping in May. This is produced in seared fresh oak, brand new oak.

T:
Where do they source the oak from?

C:
The oak comes from California. The cool thing about this is that if you look at the mermaid's tail [on the label], it's actually the outline of Long Island.

R: Nice! [all of us applaud politely]

C: It's selling for around $22 a bottle.

R: Immediately I'm getting neat fruit notes, like banana, tangerine....

C: This is sort of in between a light and an aged rum. I don't want to call it amber, but it's got that in-between thing.

R: It's got some baking spices... on the nose, this is fantastic.

J: Something we didn't talk about before -- additives.

R: Yeah, what can rum do?

T: Rum, like most other spirits can have flavor or color added. I forget what percent. They can add color or flavor or sugar up to a certain percent -- I forget what, and it's important, so I should check it out -- and not have to list it on the bottle.

R: The one negative thing here is kind of a pine cleaner note, um, Pine Sol. And it's not a huge negative, but it's the one thing.

T: It's also a little drier than I remember from the last time I had it. I remember it being more Trinidadian -- more sweet, more vanilla.

R: There's a dryness on it. It's medium to light-bodied.

J:
This is a great package. It's a beautiful package, but it doesn't make me feel like I'm spending $8 of my $22 on the packaging.

R: And it comes from Montauk, and what better time to be from Montauk, from a consumer standpoint.

J: You know what surprised me? I was watching The Muppets -- The Muppets has alcohol placements!

C: You mean on the commercial breaks?

J:
No, in the show!

T: I can't handle that.

J: They have as many alcohol placements as Jessica Jones!

At this point, Jackie decided to break out a jug of homemade hooch he'd whipped up just for the occasion. The rest of the get-together was, perhaps fortunately, declared off the record.