My rum explorations started out, over 25 years ago, with the basics:
- Meyers Original Dark
Yep, the classic upgrade to a Bacardi and coke. I don’t even remember if I had a lime wedge handy. If I had acquired a Bacardi silver, I used that. and so on… Occasionally I would mix it up with a pineapple juice faux tropical. Very stylish!
At some point I found out about the “tiki resurgence”, probably a few years after it happened. But as a wannabee mixologist I am enchanted by weird drinks. It helps if they are tasty. I’m sure I read an article on tiki in an issue of Saveur magazine, and it no-doubt featured Jeff Berry. And it was a smart move to feature him. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is probably the foremost popularizer, with his books Sippin’ Safari, The Grog Log, Intoxica, and Potions of the Caribbean, among others. His works are essential because he has done the groundwork that many others skipped over. He names names, names ingredients, spills secrets.
One thing that is immediately apparent: If you want to make one authentic tiki drink, it might involve a lot of work and sourcing of ingredients. It might involve finding two or three rums. It might mean making a syrup or two, or three. It will mean squeezing fruits. Crushing of ice… etc… if you want to be a tiki-naut, you will be both poor and smell like nutmeg. The array of liquors, fruits, syrups, bitters, and accoutrement is staggering.
Yeesh! I wanted a drink to chill out with, not a fugazi chem lab in my kitchen. Initially I probably wanted no more than a tasty rum drink to round out my summer rotation. I probably did want a fugazi chem lab, but that is beside the point. A fully stocked tiki bar is not simple nor is it inexpensive. But… if you want a tropical and tasty experience and don’t mind a little time in the kitchen, there is a solution… make your own rum punch mix!
Here is a scalable version of Jasper’s Secret Mix:
- 1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
- 1 cup turbinado/raw sugar
- 1 oz Angostura Bitters
- 1/2 small nutmeg, grated
Combine and stir until sugar dissolves. Bottle! Refrigerate!
Like any syrup or mix this can be stabilized with a small dose of silver rum, or better yet, Wray Overproof or another overproof/151.
Now you have an easy way to knock out an above-average tropical drink in a below-average amount of time. My personal ratio is 2:3. Two parts Jasper’s Secret Mix and three parts Plantation 5, stir with crushed ice, and you can even lengthen with seltzer, ginger beer, or ginger ale if you so desire. You can use whatever rum you have on hand, but bad rum will not help any drink.
Speaking of which, we have tripped over a deep and treacherous subject:
Really, no rum is worst of all. And most rums can produce a palatable result, if not especially delicious. What I am really on about here is better rum, occasionally excellent rum. One thing that might pop up if you rev up the Google and start looking for this kind of info is that Bacardi has many detractors. Not that it is horrible, but the dry, vodka-esque character will add precious little to the taste of a tropical drink. In fact it can be downright nasty. I absolve Bacardi 8 because it is a little heavier and has a little more of the buccaneer under the hood. That is a great choice in a Bacardi product. If you want to know why “the bat” is omnipresent, ask the same question about any giant american yellow-beer brand.
Good Rum, A Sensible Approach:
The key here is to find the sweet spot between availability, affordability, versatility, and quality. This is the “sweet, sour, strong, weak” of the smart rum shopper. I could rattle off a few good rums that you might not find, or might need to go far afield for. I hate when people do that and then say that you are a horrible person if you substitute anything for their precious HeathCliff Unobtanium 18. Pay that no heed. You want to avoid straying too high or low, too strong or too weird.
If I had to stock up on a few decent rums on the cheap I would stick with Cruzan, Mount Gay, and Coruba.
- Cruzan Aged Light Rum is a steal at under $14/750ml, even here in the expensive northeastern USA. Mount Gay Silver is a good equivalent. Meyer’s Silver is a respectable 3rd place.
- The same logic goes for Cruzan Aged Dark Rum and Mount Gay Eclipse. Both are a good choice for a versatile gold rum. To go off that simple script for a second, If you find Plantation 5 in good supply you should go that way.
- Now, hold on to your wallet. None of the good dark rums are cheap, but I prefer Coruba if I can find it. Coruba has the best balance of the dark rums I have tried, but it is not especially cheap, it is not always easy to find, and for some reason there is often only one bottle hanging around longingly in even the better shops. One. Not sure why. Meyers Original Dark is readily available but seems overpriced, and Goslings is the darling of the Dark and Stormy crowd, though I don’t like it in any other drink.
For somewhere in the area of $50 you will now have a light rum, a gold rum, and a dark rum and can get a general feel for what the rum-gods are offering. As always, buy the smallest bottle you can find and don’t be shy about asking the shopkeep. They know what they have.
(In a future post I plan on creating a simple style/rating grid for rums I have tasted/purchased)
If you feel an overwhelming desire to branch out, do so cautiously.
HERE BE DRAGONS
If you do not choose wisely you will either be holding your nose or giving a partial bottle away to a friend (maybe a stranger). I will hit a few highlights and you can search out more on your own:
Martinique Rhum Agricole: These are rums made from pressed cane juice, not molasses, and they can have a grassy, earthy character. I especially love this style. Rhum Barbancourt is an easy find and while the 3-star is more affordable (and good), the 5-star is worth the upcharge. These are not especially expensive or challenging, and can be mixed in place of other rums. Another distiller, Rhum JM, makes a wide range of rhums and the top of the line are very pricey. Also in this category are La Favorite and Clement. Clement VSOP is pricey but very good, and that seems to apply to all the Clement variations I have tried. Not cheep, but very good. BONUS INFOooooo… if you like a mojito or a caipirinha you should try using a white rhum agricole such as Clement Canne Bleu, or their Platinum. It is a match made in Martinique. Bonus Bonus: the mother of all applications for rhum agricole is the ‘Ti Punch: Squeeze a lime wedge into a smallish old-fashioned glass, dose with some simple syrup, and add rhum agricole to your taste. Ice cube optional. Very austere and not easy to find that good balance right away, so start small.
Overproof Rums: These are typically in the 115-160 proof range and vary wildly in character and drinkability. Wray Overproof is the rum that Jamaica runs on. I have likened it to “what if you could turn bananas into gasoline”, but it has a special charm. You will get seriously damaged on this so go lightly. As well as being the true flavor of the islands (not the cruise ships) it is also essential to making a good falernum… but I digress. Unless you are lucky enough to find the Hamilton 151 (successor to Lemon Hart 151), you are on your own. Most are suitable as a float or to flambe some bananas. The worst are a crime against humanity.
Flavored Rum: A bottomless pit of pain lies beneath the label! I am not much of a fan or consumer, and most of them taste very bad or one-note to me. Showing up at a buffet bar and finding Malibu as the only rum choice is a panic-trigger akin to my abhorrence of McDonalds coffee… it brings back nothing but memories of deep despair and broken dreams. That said, I would be very sure I was going to like a spiced rum before purchasing it. The cost of one drink at a bar is worth the effort. As I mentioned previously, I bought a bottle of Quebecois spiced rum last year, in Quebec, and it is decidedly not horrid. It is made entirely in Quebec, so go figure how they pulled that off. Original Captain Morgan is not the worst. How is that for faint praise?
Weirdo Rums:CruzanBlackstrap is probably the easiest to call “weirdo”. It is overpowering in any dose, but does make for a full-flavored experience. Still, you can live without it. Even if I am using theCruzanBlackstrap as a little kick or a float, it dominates. The flavor is like vanilla meets off-brand root beer. One bottle could last two people a good long time. I think I only paid $11 for it, so there is some price relief to buffer the regret. Stroh might be a stretch to call “rum”. Nuff said. I see Kraken in many shops and in many bars. I had a Kraken dark and stormy, and one with coke. All I could taste was vanilla. I liken it to a less-complex, less funky Cruzan Blackstrap. Not my choice.
I will end with a suggestion that you keep an eye on the bottle selection (or ask) at the bar, or seek out rum-friendly bars. You can try a new rum in a cocktail and get a feel for it without buying a whole bottle.
Next up, a quick survey of syrup technology, and a small glossary of my favorite web resources on the subject of rum and cocktail chemistry.