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Alfresco on the Rum : The Spirit of the Buccaneers Is Still the Life of the Party


Rum as a great "outdoors" beverage has a long and illustrious history. In "Treasure Island," Robert Louis Stevenson speaks of those famous "Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest--Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!" British sailors at sea were usually issued a daily ration of low-grade dark rum, or "grog," and their captain was oftentimes served "choice dry rum from the island of Puerto Rico."

In colonial America, rum was so important that New England law demanded a rum-serving tavern in every town. In Virginia, great bowls of rum punch were a standard of Southern hospitality, and in 1773, Benjamin Franklin toasted the Boston Tea Party with a rum libation called "the flip." Perhaps it was the stories of the British sailors and their grog that inspired Don Facundo Bacardi to move from Spain to Cuba 125 years ago and set up shop with a dilapidated still, producing fine rum from sugar-cane molasses.

When Castro took over Cuba, Don Facundo's descendants relocated the family business to Puerto Rico, where rum soon became a major industry, along with tourism. And it's a happy coincidence that the domed gun turrets of Morro Castle at the entrance of San Juan Bay, a nostalgic memory in the minds of tourists, also remind of the days of grog and galleons.

Although Bacardi's is the world's largest rum distillery, with sales of 8.5 million cases, Puerto Rico also produces Don Q (for Don Quixote), Barrilito and Ronrico. Be it silvery-pale or golden amber, even aged for years in Sherry casks (in Spanish solera style), there are aged, reserved examples such as Ron Bacardi Gold Reserve or an El Dorado rum from the Serralles distillery (aged to amber gold in Duff-Gordon Sherry casks) that merit alfresco afternoon sipping.

How is rum made? Sugar cane is cut, washed and crushed. Then its juice is boiled until the water evaporates and the remainder condenses into a syrupy liquid. Put through a centrifuge, the syrup crystallizes, and the sugar is separated from the remaining liquid, which is molasses. The dark molasses is pumped into a large vat and mixed with pure mountain water. Highly sophisticated strains of yeast are added; the resulting mash ferments for about 36 hours.

After that, the now slightly alcoholic mash goes into the first column still for distillation. The first part (the head) is removed, as is the last part (the tails), for re-distillation and the removal of congeners and impurities. The now crystal-clear product is then stored in oak barrels for periods of no less than one year and sometimes as long as six years, even in Sherry casks .

After all color is removed with activated charcoal--which also takes away any tannic bitterness from the oak storage--the producer may legally add 1 1/2% of volume to the final product. That 1 1/2%, which I am told is sometimes Spanish Sherry, along with caramel for coloring uniformity, is a minimal amount, but it can determine the ultimate character of the final product. At Bacardi, that permissible 1 1/2% is an absolute secret, but at Serralles I saw the Duff-Gordon casks and heard them allow that perhaps an addition of Spanish Sherry to the aged, more amber rums might be a fine thing.

Years ago, working on my own version of the 1 1/2% addition, I spent months trying to perfect a daiquiri, resorting to Rose's lime juice, which is an import with its own intrinsic taste. Good as it was, my creations could never equal the daiquiris of the late character actress Beulah Bondi, who always made hers secretly. But one day I happened to walk in on her while she was at work at her blender, and I discovered her secret. It was a lime Lifesaver.

I don't expect you to imitate my friend Beulah, but the next time you plan to host an afternoon outdoors party, you might wish to delight your guests with one of the following rum recipes:

ORIGINAL PINA COLADA 2 ounces Coco Lopez Cream of Coconut liqueur4 ounces pineapple juice2 ounces rum2 cups crushed icePineapple chunks, maraschino cherriesMix well in blender. Garnish with pineapple and cherry. Serves 2.

STRAWBERRY DAIQUIRI 5 large fresh whole strawberries1 tablespoon lime juice1 teaspoon sugar1-1/2 ounces light rum1/2 cup crushed ice Blend ingredients 10-20 seconds. Serve in chilled cocktail glass.

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