Mike stocks your liquor cabinet, part 2: Rum
After I got my grand experiment underway (see part 1: Vodka), I was delighted to hear from so many other people who buy booze, but who are similarly interested in moving into the relatively adult practice of a liquor cabinet. It’s just so much more seemly to be buying hooch that you don’t intend to greedily consume over the course of a four-hour party, isn’t it?
There’s a certain thrill to it, like cellaring wine. It’s the difference between painting and decorating (girl metaphor), tactics and strategy (guy metaphor), or making out and making love (totally inappropriate metaphor). In other words, it’s awesome to know exactly what you’re doing, take that knowledge to rack up a big inventory of totally neat stuff, and use that stuff to make truly excellent things.
Yeah, there are still going to be Friday nights when you’re mixing Blue Curacao and Diet Sprite because you just can’t be bothered — but it’s fun to know you can do better, when you finally do find the will to crawl out from under the couch.
Like vodka, rum is another very easy place to start. It’s a familiar base to a bunch of cocktails you’ve likely had before, so you never have to be any farther out of your element than you choose to be. But once you start to branch out, it takes no time at all to discover a drink with a gruesome history and a shocking variety of products to try. Jump into rum and find yourself quickly over your head, because — and I cannot put this any more plainly — rum is the fucking Wild West of alcohol.
Or, more appropriately, it’s the High Seas. As background:
- Rum is the distilled product of fermented molasses, generally recognized as having its origin in the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean during the 17th Century. Slaves discovered it!
- By the 18th Century, rum was such a pivotal product that it joined gold as a form of currency in Europe. The massive demand for molasses contributed to the blossoming of the sugar trade, and the associated growth of slavery. Slaves made it!
- Rum became a core ration in the British Royal Navy, a tradition that lasted all the way to 1970. As British privateers strayed into buccaneering and piracy, the rum went with them — the product of a watered-down rum ration is still known as grog. Pirates loved it!
- Seafaring appetite for the drink was so strong that it inspired an apocryphal story about Admiral Nelson being embalmed in a rum barrel to preserve his body during its trip back to England, only to find that it was empty on his arrival, the sailors having drank the contents regardless of the corpse inside. Oh god that’s disgusting!
So, thanks a bundle there, slaves, pirates and disgusting sailors! I don’t feel the slightest bit queasy having all of this context. But for all the white guilt I may find crashing down upon me, at least it’s slightly mitigated by the joy of understanding why French, American and Spanish colonies all lay claim to their own types of rum, all of which are controlled by their own internal standards.
Oh, if only I were a Political Science graduate student! I’d write the ultimate socio-economic analysis of the post-colonial influence on the distilling industry, and then maybe punch myself in the face. But alas, I am a mere food blogger, and so I can only go on to provide you with a guide to this scurrilous beverage. Aren’t we both happier this way?
The key attributes to rum are its sweetness and its strength, both of which are products of the length of its aging process. As with most liquors like this, your enjoyment will depend very heavily on its intended use — those who have found themselves deeply dissatisfied by rum are often those who had the wrong liquor for the wrong situation, and suffered a sweet tongue and a burning nose as a result.
Above: A little known side-effect of drinking rum is that every bottle consumed sets back global race relations exactly 100 years. Enjoy!
Aside from its hilariously ironic name, which is probably why you also see it called “Silver” or “Light”, the most striking quality of white rum is its clarity. White rum doesn’t taste like much beyond its inherent sweetness, and even when it’s aged in a barrel, it can be filtered to remove anything beyond this most basic flavor.
This is, again, keeping in mind the most basic rules of alcoholic purity: The cheaper your liquor is, the more polluted it is likely to be, no matter how clear it looks to you. Buying gigantic jugs of truly inexpensive rum will result in a drinking experience not unlike chewing on a fully-occupied honeycomb — shock, followed by burning pain, accompanied by a bitter-sweetness that you would happily trade to shut your nervous system down for a few seconds.
But if you are going to buy any kind of inexpensive rum by the bucketful, it should be this variety. It is as close in spirit to the design of vodka as you can get: A clear, mildly-flavored but hefty liquor intended to serve as a base to more flavorful cocktails. Got a case of cola? Just mixed up a bunch of Crystal Light and you need something to nut it up? Looking to add an inexpensive kick to the punch with something that doesn’t smell like propane? White rum is your go-to.
Price range – $23-$60 (Cdn.)
Applications – Punches, soft drink cocktails, multi-booze mixers and your submission to a BYOB party.
Suggested brands – Cuban (sorry, Americans): Havana Club; American: Bacardi Superior, Captain Morgan, Rogue; Jamaican: Appleton
Gold is the “Maybe, Sure, I Guess So” of exotic rum, your first opportunity to get discerning while not having to stray too terribly far from your well-established brands. Generally dark amber in appearance, Gold Rum doesn’t taste all that different from White Rum, but permits you to tenderly step out into new ground even while totally hedging your bets.
Don’t worry. Who’s going to judge you? Any time you feel timid, just look around at the liquor store line and count the number of people who’re buying two litre plastic bottles of Old English, and remember what you’ve set out to do. We Choosy Beggars are all in this together.
What Gold Rum brings to the party is a slightly sharper sweetness, a fuller flavor of molasses and possibly hints of spice. You’re dealing with an aged liquor now, one that’s spent some time in fired oak barrels and had the chance to develop a bit of body. The longer the rum lives in the barrel, the more opportunity there is to for the wood to take away any stinky edges in the liquor, and the more color and flavor can creep in.
That said, Gold is still a very functional rum, particularly when paired in very simple cocktails. Pour this into a punch with four kinds of juices and you may find yourself surprised by what you get out of it — the sweetness will carry through, obviously you’ll get a good solid hit from the alcohol, and the earthy dark molasses flavor lends some depth. If you’re feeling creative, substituting a half or full shot of Gold rum can add zip to a cocktail that has White rum at its base, adding a twist to what might be otherwise a run-of-the-mill drink.
And you know what? Even if it doesn’t, you don’t feel like you’ve blown your liquor supply. Gold rum sells at only a slightly higher price than its White counterpart, so you won’t feel particularly disappointed if you can’t always taste the difference.
Is it worth it, when you can buy White rum and predict exactly what you’re getting? Maybe, sure, I guess so.
Price range – $25-$90 (Cdn.)
Applications – Simple cocktails, rum drink upgrades, straight drinking if you’re feeling cheeky, grogs
Suggested brands – American: Captain Morgan, Bacardi Gold; Jamaican: Appleton Special Gold, Appleton Reserve; Barbados: Cockspur, Mount Gay Extra Old
Above: Pirates discuss the merits of sharing their rum with others, prior to obtaining full consensus among the group; of particular note are their surprised expressions, as they are suddenly captured in this candid woodcut.
Ah, here’s a roll of the dice. Spiced rum is a halfway mark between the incrementally sophisticated flavor of Gold and the mature complexities of Dark, but with an absolutely random distribution of quality in-between, just to fuck you up.
Ideally, Spiced rum is the product of a slightly longer aging process, coupled with flavoring through spices and maybe a bit of caramel. The result is a rum that looks similar to Gold, but with a considerably more complex taste, full of hotspots, black and crispy notes, and all kinds of character. Spiced rum is a flavor you can’t ignore, and you will know when someone has poured it into your cola, that is for absolutely certain.
The problem is, not all Spiced rums are created equal. Any wine drinkers out there? Familiar with the issues associated with Rosé wines, by any chance? And how there’s a specific process to leech the color and flavor of pulps into a white wine to craft a proper Rosé? And how there’s a much easier process that just, you know, pours a bunch of red wine into white and then mixes it all up?
Yep, Spiced rum can be very much the same thing. Depending on what you’re willing to spend, you might very quickly find yourself with a bottle of cheap White rum that’s had caramel shot into it. The result is liquor that’s sweeter and darker, but also younger, dirtier and harsher than you might expect. You will definitely get a different flavor than the standard, but maybe not one that you actually like.
From personal experience, Spiced rum can be point at which people can be turned off of rum forever, if they get a bad one. Depending on what you get, you can end up drinking something that tastes like candy, or something that burns like fire — this really does mark the point at which you get what you pay for, so tread carefully.
Price range – $25-$60 (Cdn.)
Applications – Simple cocktails, rum drink upgrades, straight drinking if you’re feeling cheeky, grogs
Suggested brands – American: Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry; European: Stroh; Jamaican: Appleton; Barbados: Foursquare
Dark rum is all about maturity and earthy-sweetness. Aged for a relatively long time in heavily-charred barrels, it’s undeniably caramel-molasses sweet and can hold its own against whatever you decide to mix it with. At a sufficiently high quality, it’s the rum you can begin to sip on its own, neat or on the rocks.
Yep, this is where it gets serious, and a whole lot of fun. Dark rum isn’t even the expensive premium booze that it was a few years ago, so you have the chance to play a little without seriously laying out. You can if you want to, and your local liquor store rep is going to be happy to take you over to the twelve year-old and older stuff just as quick as your feet will carry you; however, you’re probably best starting modest.
It’s also worth a reminder that if you do choose to invest, rum pretty much stops aging as soon as it hits the bottle. Picking up a twelve year-old bottle and keeping it in your cellar for five years will give you… a five year-old bottle of twelve year-old rum. So if you are collecting, have the right expectations about what you’re getting into.
Once you’ve found the right place to start, though, you’ll fully appreciate the difference. Dark rum brings a wealth of flavor with it, and if you’re going to cook with rum of any kind, it should be this variety. The molasses notes are downright emphatic, and will leave behind just distinctive rum flavor (once, tragically, all the alcohol has burned off) that you’re looking for in sauces, baking or marinades.
As tickled as I am by it, I should note that Dark is definitely advanced liquor — it is Alcohol That Tastes Likes Something, which is exactly why it shouldn’t be the bottle you break out at your backyard BBQ to mix up spritzers for the timid. Anyone who drinks this in even the smallest quantity is going to taste the rum, and while that’s a delight to lushes like me, it may bring anguish to the unprepared. If you’re ready to grapple with a full-bodied liquor, though, then Dark rum is definitely the one for you.
Price range – $26-$80 (Cdn.)
Applications – Straight up sipping; cooking in sauces, marinades; baking in fillings and cakes; cocktails that will taste like booze
Suggested brands – Canadian: Newfoundland Screech, Lamb’s Navy; Trinidad & Tobago: Angostura 1824; Jamaican: Appleton; Cuba: Havana Club 7 year
There’s so much to rum that to exclude any variety from your cabinet is to cut a huge swath out of your potential — I haven’t even gotten into how any or all of these can change up and super-charge your mojitos, rum punches, buttered rums, rum balls, bundt cakes, poultry marinades, and heaven only knows what else.
The important thing with rum is to go slowly, and not get overwhelmed. All rums are not the same: they vary by their producing nation, by their age, by their color and by their individual distilling processes. There is a huge variety of product out there to try, and no end of opportunities and applications for them.
As the shithouse-rat-crazy demonstration lady at my local Costco constantly shrieks, “Don’t be shy! Have a try!” You’ll be joining a long, sordid tradition of an intricate drink, and the pirates will be proud of you.