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Wine & Spirits

A spirit of the islands unbound

Aged rums are far too sophisticated to fuel a mojito or daiquiri. Full bodied and complex, they're better sipped.

October 12, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

THE mojito pitcher goes back into the cupboard, and the punchbowl too. With the end of summer we say adieu to the tropical rum cocktail.

But not to rum.

Show it a little respect, and this noble spirit can match fine whiskeys for sipping pleasure no matter what the season. Also like whiskeys, good aged rum offers the adventure of discovering a mind-opening range of refinement, reflecting not just the secrets of individual distillers but also the geography of the New World itself.

Rum occupies a curious place in our liquor cabinets. In his 2003 book, "Rum," author Dave Broom begins, "Rum is the forgotten spirit." Yet the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. reports that rum outsells Scotch whiskey, Canadian whiskey, Bourbon, cordials and liqueurs, gin, brandy, tequila, and Irish whiskey -- everything, in fact, except vodka.

It seems that Americans have allowed a good deal of their rum to be put out of mind and swallowed up in mixed drinks and punches -- concoctions including the daiquiri, Hemingway's choice at the Floridita in Havana; the mai tai, creation of Trader Vic's founder Victor Bergeron; and of course the mojito, today's ever-popular nightclub breath freshener.

Rums used in mixed drinks tend to be light-bodied, neutral-flavored or flavor-added. Typically, they are aged for a year or less and filtered clear. Some cocktail recipes call for the addition of more robust, darker rums, which are aged longer.

When carefully made and held in oak for many years, sometimes a decade or more, these dark rums are in a class by themselves -- blossoming into full-bodied, smooth, intensely complex spirits that are quite simply amazing in their variety.

Lately, America's appreciation for better spirits has been catching up with rum. The growth rate in sales of super-premium long-aged rums has more than doubled in the last two years.

The finest of these estate and reserve rums, those from storied distillers like Barbancourt and Cruzan and others, are enjoyed on their own, poured at cellar temperature, the powerful vapors inhaled carefully and the silky liquid sipped straight in a small glass. Sipping rums are very deliberate as well as invitingly deliberative.

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Sweet beginnings

PERHAPS this was what the poet Byron had in mind when he said "There's naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion" -- not an observation you'd hear in conversation today, although rum fanciers understand the point without taking offense.

Rum, or rhum, or ron, is distilled from the byproduct of sugar cane, molasses or sometimes from cane juice itself. Because it is produced primarily in warm, tropical latitudes, some knowledgeable consumers believe it ages more rapidly -- so that a 10-year-old rum shows the maturity of, say, a whiskey that is years older.

A few rums are bottled, like wine, from a single year's distillation, but most are blended to achieve a desired flavor and maintain consistency -- the age designation on the label is meant to signify the youngest rum in a bottling.

Taken from the cask, aged rum is pale amber in color. Darker hues are achieved by the addition of caramel, which also adds body and a touch of leveling to the blends.

Once categorized as an eau de vie, rum conveys the fiery, vaporous essence of sugar. From this common beginning, the various styles of the spirit branch out -- with some quite dry and others almost syrupy, some sharply assertive and others candy-like. Along with burnt-sugar flavors of caramel, tasters find hints of chocolate, coffee, pineapple, maple, butterscotch and even loam along with the background tastes of old oak and vanilla imparted from barrels.

In myth, memory and reality, rum holds an indelible, and entirely justifiable, association with the Caribbean islands. No place has so many distilleries producing so much rum; nowhere does the drink have a richer heritage or a more important place in the culture.

Remember this exchange between Johnny Depp's swashbuckling Jack Sparrow and Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann in the film "Pirates of the Caribbean?"

Swann: That's it, then? That's the secret, grand adventure of the infamous Jack Sparrow. You spent three days lying on a beach drinking rum.

Sparrow: Welcome to the Caribbean, luv.

Virtually every island, or group of islands, is home to an idiosyncratic rum style, with individual distillers producing their own expressions -- and usually in a variety of agings. Barely 50 miles long, Martinique has 14 distilleries, with six or more bottlings apiece.

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