Most folks entering an unfamiliar bar find solace when they spot an array of rum bottles. Maybe it’s the memories of balmy Caribbean nights or perhaps just the easy drinking qualities that rum brings to most concoctions — whatever it is, the seductive appeal of the sugar-cane spirit is as compelling for bartenders as it is for customers.
Rum is gaining legions of fans as some distillers offer new flavors and age expressions, while others work hard at developing the United States as a market for older and more sophisticated rums. And even though rum and cola continues to be one of the leading drinks ordered at the average bar, American drinkers are broadening their horizons thanks to the expansion of offerings now available.
“With the increased interest in the rum category, consumers have a greater awareness of varieties and are able to discern differences between brands,” says New York bartender Danny Valdez, who currently represents Guatemalan rum Zacapa as brand ambassador. Widely credited with breaking open the longer-aged and super-premium rum categories in the United States, Zacapa is lauded for changing consumers’ awareness of rum’s varied qualities.
The numbers reveal rum’s popularity: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), rum case movement rose 1.4% in 2010. The value-price level, which includes brands such as Admiral Nelson and Castillo, increased 1.3% in volume; premium rums, such as Bacardi Superior, Captain Morgan and Malibu, were up 1.2%.
Case movement of high-end rums increased the most: Premium rums (Mount Gay Eclipse, Cruzan Single Barrel) are up 3.1%, while super-premium rums (10 Cane, Ron Zacapa XO, Pyrat XO) are up 2.4%, as per DISCUS.
“Consumers have come to expect that bars will carry a selection of rums with different taste profiles in the same way that they would expect to find Scotches or Bourbons from different regions,” says Valdez. “They are able to recognize that rums produced in one country will taste different than rums produced in another country, and they look for this variety in flavor.”
The impact of Zacapa has emboldened other rum producers to focus their attention on the United States: At the massive estate where Ron Abuelo, a Panamanian entry with añejo, 7-year-old and 12-year-old expressions, is produced, company execs talk about a warehouse expansion that will satisfy what they believe will be the growing demand for quality aged rums.
Numerous producers are expanding their portfolios. DonQ, from Puerto Rico, now showcases añejo and gold, along with Cristal, Gran Añejo and four flavors. Cruzan, coming out of St. Croix, boasts aged-dark and single-barrel rum, as well as Cruzan 151, Black Strap and 9 Spiced.
Back Bar Virtuoso
Rum is driving drink programs in bars across the nation, finding favor as a concept builder at every operational level. Fueled by rum drinks, a tropical and Tiki wave is washing over the nation in bars such as Painkiller, The Hurricane Club and Lani Kai, all in New York City; La Descarga in Los Angeles; and other rum-happy places: Rhumbar in Las Vegas, RumBa in Boston and Cuba Libre locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, N.J., Orlando and Washington, D.C.
Rum’s array of flavors creates delicious drinks, including the Mixed Berry Mojito, featuring DonQ, and the Abuelorita, made with Ron Abuelo. Rum cocktails, such as Lord Panama, Pomchi Smash, Smoky Rose and Pintao, made with Ron Abuelo, showcase rum’s versatility. The Del Toro, involving DonQ,is a refreshing alternative for guests thirsty for something different.
Rum’s versatility has always served it well, says Bacardi Brand Master Apprentice Juan Coronado, with styles including light, spiced, dark, flavored and aged. “Talented mixologists and barkeepers are laying eyes on rum as the main ingredient because rum is strongest right now in terms of flavors, bodies, colors and aromas,” he says. “Rum cocktails call for light-bodied and easy mixtures, all the way up to heavy and strong mixers like cola or ginger beer.”
While rum once was considered a summer spirit, Coronado points out that today’s operators are playing up rum cocktails for every season and using a wide variety of rum flavor profiles.
Another important component in the upgrading of rum’s image: Consumers and bartenders are beginning to recognize that not all rums are alike when it comes to melding flavors in a cocktail.
“Certain rums may work better when mixed with fruits, others may taste better in savory cocktails and some may be best enjoyed on their own,” Valdez notes.
That variety begs careful selection. Even though Tiki and tropical drinks seem casual and easy, for example, the rum selection makes all the difference, says Giuseppe Gonzalez, a partner in Painkiller.
“It’s not just like when you make a drink with any, say, Jamaican rum, they all turn out the same,” Gonzalez says. “We had to test our drinks with various rums to see if the recipes stay true.”
Different styles of rum drinks — blender, stirred, swizzled, shaken — require different types and ages of rums. Adding high-proof or pot-still rums, which heighten potency and flavor, also makes an impact on cocktails. For Painkiller and other bars specializing in tropical drinks, carrying many varieties of rum is essential, though few carry as many as Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen in Laguna Beach, Calif.
There, the rum collection of owner Eva Madray reflects the growth of quality rums in the United States. Brands with rich, sippable qualities (such as Zaya, J.M., Clément, Zacapa and Ron Abuelo, her most popular brands) have caught on, as have her Rum Punches and weekly drink specials, such as Martinique’s ‘Ti’ Punch. Although Eva’s has little bar space, Madray has found success offering flights: She currently offers eight, including Spiced, Central American and Caribbean Vacation groups.
“A lot more people are open to trying the rums, and, as a small restaurant, we can take the time to talk to them about the different qualities,” she says.
While flavored rums may not get as much attention among cocktail-minded bartenders as other varieties, brands such as Malibu continue to engage consumers with new flavors — Malibu’s latest is Black. Spiced rum also is being distinguished as a bar ingredient. Sailor Jerry, The Kraken and Cruzan 9 Spiced, among others, are leading the way with the help of mixologists hired to create drinks specific to a menu. At Squeaky Bean in Denver, Bar Manager Sean Kenyon pours Old Ironsides, a drink made with Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Pierre Ferrand Ambre 10 Year Old Cognac, Cherry Heering and Benedictine.
Proof yet again that whether blended in a Pina Colada, shaken in a Daiquiri, stirred in an El Presidente, swizzled in a Queen’s Park or just poured over ice and topped with cola, there’s a rum drink for every bar, mood, patron and season. These days, curious guests are enticed with many more varieties. Not a bad thing at all. NCB
For more information about why rum is rocking the nation, click here for Jack Robertiello's "Rum, Defined."
Rum Mecca: Smuggler’s Cove
Nightclub & Bar Awards Cocktail Bar of the Year
To say Martin Cate is passionate about rum is a serious understatement — he is a renown Tiki and rum expert — and to say he wants to share that passion is stating the obvious. In 2009, he opened a veritable rum Mecca in San Francisco. Smuggler’s Cove is three levels of rum selection, education, imbibing and celebration, with a treasure trove of rum, Tiki and nautical memorabilia as well as a waterfall.
Yet, the experience is never really complete, which is part of Cate’s genius. From the 200 available rums — including two exclusive expressions, Smuggler’s Cove Private Reserve and Eurydice — his team creates the menu’s 77 cocktails. However, patrons need not slog through the 12-page drink list to make a selection. The offerings are divided into five sections: Rum Through the Ages, Prohibition-Era Havana, Exotic Cocktails from Legendary Tiki Bars, Vintage Exotic Cocktails without Rum, Traditional Drinks of the Caribbean and Contemporary Rum Drinks. Cocktails are mixed with fresh-squeezed citrus as well as 15 house-made syrups, tinctures, liqueurs and the necessary premium and super-premium spirits. Still can’t make a choice? Get serious and try a flight: The well-versed barkeeps regularly walk guests through the selections with a bit of education, history and color.
The crown jewel among the bar’s rum booty is The Rumbustion Society. Free to join, members first take a journey through 20 sugar-cane spirits — agricole, Spanish, naval, Demerara, etc. — to become acquainted with regions, production and ingredients. They then work their way through tasting all of the 200 rums available at Smuggler’s Cove, receiving rewards along the way. The Rumbustion Society exemplifies Cate’s personal mission to help the masses “understand this complex spirit and learn
to make informed choices.”