I have not been blogging recently, but I have had a project in mind and now is as good a time as any. Even through there are many Tiki culture and craft cocktail books out there, many of them are either extremely broad or end up being very complicated. I enjoy a good cocktail, and I especially enjoy rum. That means stumbling into one of the most confusing and dangerous sections of your local liquor store. Rum is mysterious! They said. Well, yeah, it is mysterious. The range of styles and flavors, and quality, is broader and less predictable than in any class of alcoholic beverages I can think of. Rum ranges from bone dry white liquor that compares to vodka, to dark and heady “pirate juice” with aromas that can be overpowering to the unsuspecting consumer. My plan for the next few posts is to establish a plan of attack, and look for ways to simplify while lowering the initial cost of a basic rum selection.
Clement VSOP, a very nice Martinique rum. This is not where the rest of this blog post is heading. Thanks for looking at this rather spendy rum. This is distilled from pressed cane juice, not molasses. Nerd, out.
What’ll ya have, sailor?
What kind of drinks are you interested in? Rum can play well in anything from the simplest Cuba Libre to the most devious Zombie. Narrowing your focus is a good way to get off to a good start, and making a tasty drink, without needing a shelf full of specialty rums.
- Long Drinks, aka Highballs (rum, ice, mixer)
- Cocktails (rum or rums, syrups, bitters, lime juice)
- Tiki Drinks (rum, fruit juices, syrups, ammendments)
When it comes to the rum itself, let’s keep the categories simple:
- White Spanish (dry white rum such as Bacardi, Ron Matusalem, and Ron Barrelito)
- White Jamaican/Caribbean (lighter but flavorful such as Cruzan, Don Q, Meyers White, and J.Wray)
- Gold Rums (medium bodies rums such as Bacardi 8, Appleton VX, Plantation 5, Pussers)
- Dark Rums (Meyers, Coruba, Goslings, El Dorado 12)
- Specialty Rums (Wray Overproof, Cruzan Blackstrap, Flavored Rums, Spiced Rums)
- Overproof Rums – the bad boys of the bunch. Ranging from 120 to 160+ proof, they are usually used for flaming in a tropical presentation, or as a float. Beware: the bad ones are a waste of money and the good ones will kick your ass.
Even that simple list is up for debate, especially the Gold/Dark distinction. I love El Dorado 12. It makes the best Dark & Stormy I have ever had. It is more “rum” than the vanilla, molasses, and rootbeer flavors that dominate other darks. But some rumheads will balk at calling it a true dark. Getting over the nit-picking is the best way to save time, money, and frustration. The wealth of information in books and on the internet is astonishing, but it can also be confusing. I will list some resources later, but remember that one good rum is better than a lot of bottles of “meh” rum.
The first order of business is to nail down what kind of drink you want to make, and then find a good recipe and a good rum. I have no idea what that will be, but I don’t need to know. I will pick a few examples as we go along and hopefully my reasoning will become clearer.
Obviously, the easiest route is a long drink with a prepared mixer. That is not always bad. Somewhere between getting clandestinely hammered on poorly mixed rum and RC Cola in some dimly lit parking lot, and having a Jeff Berry tattoo on your ass, is a lot of very good real estate. If you can make a well balanced Dark and Stormy or Cuba Libre you are off to a good start. So, let’s start there:
- Dark and Stormy – 1.5oz rum, 8-12oz ginger beer, ice, lime wedge optional
- Cuba Libre – 1.5oz rum, 8-12oz Coke, ice, lime wedge almost essential
Note: There is one commandment – Thou shalt always use fresh lime juice and fresh lime wedge. Any other source of lime juice is an abomination and you will have only yourself to blame for the horrid results. Amen. If you have a bottle of Rose’s and are not making a pitcher of Kamikaze’s in a frat house, you are on the wrong path. Step up thy game!
Despite the simple appearance, you have some latitude in the strength of the drink (dilution) and the acidity/complexity of the drink. Normally I wouldn’t specify a brand of soda, but Coke has that nutmeg note built in and nothing else does. That is key because someone has put that “je ne sais quoi” into a readily available and affordable mixer, and you don’t have to. As for Ginger Beer, Goslings is easy to find as is the Jamaican DG brand, or the Reed’s Extra Strong. Another option if you want to go all foodie on it is to make a ginger syrup and then top off with seltzer (more on that later). But I digress.
The question is “which rum?”. If I had to pick one rum to make these two drinks I would choose between Coruba and El Dorado 8. First off, they are very good rums. Secondly, you will be making a distinctive drink with a rum you won’t find on the line at the local bar. Lastly, those rums taste like rum. You can pick a lighter option like Cruzan Barrel Aged Silver, or a heavier rum like Kraken (which to me tastes like vanilla and little else). Or whatever you see that piques your interest. I have a bottle of spiced rum from Quebec that is actually quite good, so it isn’t just speculation.
So far all you needed was some rum, a mixer, ice, and a lime. Hardware-wize you needed a paring knife and a stirrer. You can use a pocket knife and your finger, but if you are trying to impress friends or a date, up your game just a tad. The next step up the rum ladder is to use a sweetener, usually in syrup form. They are as easy to make as a cup of tea, and they will improve your life in many ways. Flavored syrups are like moving from a tea bag to loose tea. Still very simple.
- Plain syrup – equal parts granulated syrup and water, warmed to dissolve sugar, cooled, stored in the fridge
- Rich Syrup – two parts sugar to one part water, as above
- Ginger Syrup – Peeled, sliced ginger in plain syrup, bring to barely a simmer, remove from heat and cover. Let sit for about 2 hours, cool, store.
Note: You can add a shot of rum to your syrups to prolong their life and prevent crystallization. It is a good idea.
I will end this entry with the mother of all simple drinks, the daiquiri. This is a great drink and easy to make as long as you have rum, limes, syrup, ice, and a drink shaker. Use any rum you have. Many rum drinkers use this as their reference drink when trying a new rum for the first time. My one caveat is that rums with strong flavors, or spiced rums, will be tricky to balance. But under no circumstances let that stop you. A weird daiquiri is better than no daiquiri.
- 1.5 oz rum
- 1 oz lime juice
- 0.5 oz simple syrup
- Combine in a shaker with ice, shake well
- Strain into a cocktail glass or an Old Fashioned glass
The shaker can be as simple as you want. I have made very serviceable drinks in one of those plastic shakers that come free with tequila bottles. Search the web for all kinds of nerd-lust related to drink shakers and the perceived merits of each type. I am not going to pick favorites. A metal “boston shaker” and a pint glass is what most people get by with. A two-piece metal “french shaker” is better yet. The three-piece “cobbler” shaker is very common and very useful, but usually has a limited capacity.
So that is it. Keep it simple, don’t get dragged into the weeds by mysterious rums from near and far, and don’t buy nasty bottom-shelf rum unless it is completely appropriate. Good rum is out there for not much more money. I will cover my choices for best values in good rums, as well as syrups and accoutrements in the next few entries.