Perhaps nothing embodies a perfect South Florida afternoon more than the sip of a good rum under a table umbrella or on the beach. The distilled spirits of the sugar cane are a staple of festivities from Miami to Havana and across the Caribbean, evoking the pleasure of a good cigar, a glass to swirl, and a ceiling fan turning lazily above.
In South Miami, the local favorite Town Kitchen & Bar is a great place to sample different rums and explore this deceptively complex liquor. As is spending Thursday evenings, known as “Havana Nights,” with your elbows propped on the smooth concrete bar top at Barceloneta. When she’s not warmly greeting diners, owner Daniella Rezai can be found behind the bar, offering a tour of as many as 14 rums from around the Caribbean and Central and South America. Rezai’s preparation to be a restaurateur included extensive training in the art of mixology and gave her a deep appreciation for certain spirits, including gin and rum.
“That’s the really cool thing about rum,” Rezai says. “Depending on what region you’re in depends on the rum you get. There are British rums, South American and Central American rums, and they’re all different.”
As befitting our tropical climate, Caribbean rums are some of the most popular offerings in the area. What at first seems to be a simple spirit in fact offers a wide palette of flavors, aromas, and finishes. There is no precise definition of what constitutes rum, other than it is distilled from sugar cane, which allows for broad interpretations across the diverse culture of the islands. And as with scotch, there are singular flavors–akin to single malt–and blends. If you travel the Islands, off the paths beaten by millions of cruise ship passengers, you can have a drink with the locals in the Caribbean’s thousands of rum shops, which are small bars where politics are discussed and wayward travelers are welcomed.
In the Caribbean, rum has a nearly 500-year history, beginning with European colonization. As sugar plantations proliferated, worked by African slaves and enslaved indigenous islanders alike, the earliest rums were distilled from sugar by-products like molasses, often in pot stills. Eventually, rum began to be stored in oak casks, which mellowed the harshness of straight distillation.
Caribbean, and generally all rums, are available in light, gold, dark, spiced, and premium forms. Light rums are clear and hardly aged; gold rums are aged for a few years in oak barrels, while dark rums are aged in heavily charred casks that impart complex flavors. Premium rums are generally blended and aged for many years.
The spirit was long considered a low-brow libation best suited to a corked jug in the hands of a salty sailor until Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, who emigrated to Cuba from Spain in 1830, began filtering rum through charcoal and aging it in white oak barrels. Bacardi produced the first clear, or “white” rum to be produced. In 1862, with his brother Jose, he opened a distillery in Santiago, Cuba, that featured a still made of copper and cast iron. Fruit bats lived in the rafters of the building, which inspired the iconic Bacardi bat logo. In the late 1800s, after the Cuban War of Independence and the US occupation, both the “Cuba Libre,” (what we know today as the rum and Coke) and the daiquiri were first mixed using Bacardi rum. Bacardi’s history in Cuba came to an end in 1960 when Fidel Castro nationalized businesses and seized assets. Fortunately, the company had begun moving assets out of Cuba and already had facilities in both Mexico and Puerto Rico built after Prohibition.
Today, Bacardi remains exiled from the country where it was founded but is a heavily diversified multinational that has acquired many other premium spirits. Beneath the corporate umbrella of Bacardi Limited, the company owns Dewar’s scotch, Grey Goose vodka, and Bombay Sapphire gin, among others. And under the stewardship of Facundo Bacardi, a South Miami property owner who is the great-great grandson of the founder, the company is now a $5 billion enterprise. In an interview published in “Cigar Aficionado” earlier this year, Bacardi outlined his vision for Bacardi Limited to become the premier premium spirits brand but not necessarily the largest in terms of cases sold–despite Bacardi’s place as the best-selling rum brand in the world.
That legacy of taking rum from harsh, unrefined “hooch” into the smooth and sophisticated spirit it is today is perhaps Don Facundo Bacardi’s greatest legacy. And it’s one that lives on as rum reaches even higher levels of acceptance and refinement among those who appreciate fine vodkas or gins, or wines.
“We’ve see a sea change in the last seven to eight years,” says Rob Burr, founder of the Miami Rum Festival and publisher of the exhaustive Rob’s Rum Guide. “Today, rum is more purposely produced, such as white rums–if you tried to get good white rum 10 years ago, you couldn’t, because no one cared. Distillers all across the board are coming out with exquisite rum, and again, 10 years ago, no one would have bought it. But now, there’s an understanding of the value of a $50 to $100 rum.”
Burr equates a rum of that quality–intended to be sipped neat or over ice–to the value of a bottle of fine scotch. “People give Johnny Walker Blue Label as a gift,” he says. “There’s a purpose for it. We’re now seeing rums that have that celebratory purpose.”
Burr, who with his wife Robin published a scuba diving magazine in the 1980s and began to collect the varied rums they enjoyed across the Caribbean, sees himself as leading a movement, that of educating cocktail enthusiasts and casual imbibers about the rich history of the spirit. Today, with their son Rob V., they own the Miami Rum Festival, the largest event of its kind in the world, publish the exhaustive Rob’s Rum Guide, and host a variety of other events, such as the Rum Renaissance Caribbean Cruise, which will set sail from Puerto Rico on November 22nd. The seven-day journey will take rum enthusiasts to The British Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Martinique, and Barbados, with ample tastings aboard and shore excursions to the birthplaces of some of the Caribbean’s best offerings. The Rum Festival is Burr’s centerpiece, however. This year’s event, held for three days in April, featured nearly 170 types of rum and attracted almost 12,000 attendees, who strolled the cavernous DoubleTree Miami Airport Convention Center enjoying their favorite beverages and taking in the scene, which featured models tottering on high heels as they circulated with trays of samples, lots of tiki-themed decorations, and even a pirate or two. The glossy program offered a catalog of bottles coupled with a helpful layout to guide you to your favorites or those you may want to explore.
In the second floor conference rooms, there was also a vigorous schedule of tasting competitions, held by spirits judges from around the world. “There are six sessions over three days,” says judge Marie King, a bar owner. “We test all the categories–white, flavored, special… and there are different age groups.” The variety of judges, each with their own opinions and interests–such as a judge who really focuses on premium rums, for instance–ensures that every entrant gets a fair evaluation. “Everyone has their own viewpoints. I have to buy rum and make drinks with it, so I think I’m in touch with what the public would want,” King says.
On the Festival floor and in competition, Rob Burr is particularly excited by the increasing number of small producers introducing their rums at his event, and many of them do quite well against the biggest brands in the industry. “Suddenly, small craft rums are winning awards,” he says. “In the old town part of Key West, you’ll see Key West Legend Rum and Papa’s Pilar a block away. In five or six years, you’ll be able to visit distilleries in a variety of small towns.” Micro-brewed craft beer and small production wineries are already part of this trend, he says, “all part of enjoying the local culture.”
Over at the Papa’s Pilar booth, khaki-shirted Kyle Atherton looks like he’s waiting for Ernest Hemingway to summon him to an African hunt or grab the tackle boxes for a trip on the writer’s beloved boat, the namesake of the rum. Hanging off Atherton’s GI-issue web belt is a squat bottle of Pilar, capped by a silver-embossed compass on the cork. Pilar is offered in both a three-year blonde version and a 24-year dark, both of which are aged in Spanish Sherry casks. “(Hemingway) liked to have his favorite concoction at his hip at all times,” Atherton says. “It’s rum on the go. Take a bottle and put it in a World War II canteen holder.”
While touring the festival’s exhibit floor, other Caribbean or Caribbean-themed rums were in plentiful supply. Rum’s history in the region, with its connection to colonial sugar cane production, is honored by Plantation, an award winner at last year’s festival. “The traders brought back casks of rum to Europe, where it was finished to make it drinkable,” says the brand’s Guillaume Lamy. Some of those rums were aged in cognac barrels–just as Plantation is produced today. “We have partnerships and access to the best rums (in the Caribbean),” he says, which results in a premium aged rum made from this time-honored process that connected Caribbean rum to home ports across the Atlantic. In fact, the colonial-era Royal Navy was the largest consumer of rum in the world, as barrels were brought back to London, aged, and then rolled aboard ships. Sailors could look forward to daily rations of grog, which was typically rum mixed with water. This tradition continued until as recently as the early 1970s.
A few steps away at the festival was another recent addition that’s also establishing a history of awards: Tiburon, from Belize, which is produced by Travelers Liquors. Rick Aspen was circulating with manic energy around Tiburon’s display. After donning a carefully chosen wardrobe and makeup expertly applied by his artistic mother, the “Tiburon Pirate,” with his dreadlocks and black-accented eyes, was in constant demand for group selfies with both men and women alike. You’d never know that Aspen’s real job is as the chief of security of a Chicago hospital, but his effortless alter-ego swashbuckler persona embodies Tiburon’s advertising, which features dive masks and tiki culture, and closely targets the 25-to-40-year-old market. Tiburon is a premium rum that has won eight awards this year so far, including gold at the International Craft Spirits Awards, and silver medals at both the San Diego International Spirits Competition and the London International Wine and Spirits Competition.
“A lot of the branding of other premium rums is vintage-looking,” says Tiburon’s Chief Executive Officer Basil DeStefano. “Ours is more contemporary. Our product is very good neat, but it also blends very well–you can go both ways with it. Travelers puts a special blend together, just for us.” Tiburon is aged in Kentucky barrels, which imparts a hint of bourbon, and has a unique taste from its Belize-grown sugar cane. With Tiburon’s blends of four, six, and eight-year rums, which are then mixed and aged another year, “you get a completely different flavor,” DeStefano says. And, like Rob Burr, DeStafano focuses on introducing fine rum to consumers who may not realize it needn’t be the harsh grog of the pirate movie or sailing stereotype. “It’s an education factor,” DeStefano says. “We get people who taste it, and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had anything like this before.’”
An old spirit for a new age, Tiburon’s marketing takes great advantage of social media. “It’s changed the whole marketing strategy,” DeStefano says. “You get a fan base going; it’s not based on bar reputation anymore.” And with today’s sometimes uncertain economy, more rum enthusiasts like to do their research online, buy a bottle, and mix their drinks at home–instead of paying for a cocktail at a bar.
So, plan on an afternoon or two at next year’s Miami Rum Festival. Or, spend a few evenings at your favorite SOMI bar or get a cocktail guide and simply try some new rums offered at a well-stocked liquor store. Tropical climates ring the globe, and where there’s hot weather, there’s sugar cane. Pick a region and explore. You’ll soon discover that rum, once the grog of old, is a now a fine spirit, meant to be savored and enjoyed.