Liquids: Sipping Rum

Given the crushing dominance of vodka in bars around this town, it’s easy to forget about rum. And no wonder. All summer it’s dumped into the blender with sugar, tropical juices, and ice until its flavor all but disappears. But rum’s time playing second fiddle to its James Bond–backed cocktail competitor may be coming to an end, and here’s why: It can age beautifully. Unlike vodka—that one-dimensional nemesis that actually aims to be tasteless—rum has character. It gets better and better as it sits, all the while being ignored by the cosmo klatch.

Intrigued? You should be. These rums are not the clear spirits you pour into mojitos and daiquiris. They’re not clear at all—they’re dark, ranging from golden amber to caramel-coffee. They’re not mixed, either (or at least they shouldn’t be), because they’re too delicious to dilute. That’s right, I’m talking sipping rums, which are turning up in the after-dinner snifters of people who typically wouldn’t drink a nightcap more daring than a Baileys or a Tia Maria.

It all makes perfect sense. If you think about how other booze—single-malt scotch, small-batch bourbon, super-premium vodka—has been marketed to urban sophisticates, it follows that premium aged rum would get its turn. And great rums have amazing depth, with layers of fruit (think dried figs, dates, plums) plus a touch of vanilla and toast (from being aged in used bourbon barrels made of American white oak). Most interesting, they’re not too hot (most are 80 proof) or too sweet.

But why now? Probably because it’s taken rum a while to shake off its image as a ubiquitous umbrella-drink base, a reputation that began here in New England back in the 17th century. Later on, rum surpassed all other exports from New England. Yes, I said exports, meaning we made rum and sold it abroad.

You see, after Columbus brought sugar cane to the Caribbean on his second rape-and-pillage—I mean “discovery”—mission, people all over the Western Hemisphere began making rum, according to Dale DeGroff in The Craft of the Cocktail, including our ever-industrious forefathers, who used molasses left over from sugar production. To keep up with demand, New England distillers bought up the cheapest molasses possible from French and Portuguese traders in the Caribbean.

This, of course, made our British masters’ stiff upper lips curl into frowns, as His Majesty’s rum distillers didn’t care much for competition from we miscreant colonists. What to do? Tax the bastards! First came the Molasses Act of 1733, followed by the Sugar Act in 1764, and, finally, the Stamp Act in 1765, which taxed just about everything. All of which led to the Revolutionary War. It could be said that our break with Great Britain had more to do with rum than tea.

We won our freedom, but war debt warranted a federal excise tax on rum in 1791. Then, about two decades later, came the final blow: During the War of 1812 the Brits blockaded our coastline, choking off the molasses supply and in turn wiping out our production. Domestic rum from New England was no more.

Today, rum is made mostly in the Caribbean, though it’s also a favorite in Central America and elsewhere. It comes to our shores in three basic types: At the entry level is light rum, sometimes called “white” or “silver,” which is the type most of us know best and is used in tropical cocktails. Medium rums, sometimes called “gold” or “amber,” are a little more complex—but not much. Heavy rums encompass blended and dark rums. But what you want are the heaviest of the heavies, the full-bodied, well-aged, “brandy-style” sipping rums. The rums to which all other rums aspire. These are the rums to which we should aspire.

Tracking them down might take a little work. (Warning: This may involve educating/humiliating the bartender or salesclerk who tries to sell you a bottle of Malibu for sipping.) If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pro like chef Robert Fathman at Azure, who knows as much about aged rum as he does about food. Two of his—and my—favorites on his bar hail from Guatemala: Aged in bourbon barrels for 23 years, Ron Zacapa Centenario is a viscous nectar reminiscent of toasted hazelnut, vanilla, and a touch of caramel and nutmeg that’s hard to put down. (The secret? It’s distilled at sea level but aged at an altitude of 7,650 feet.) Ron Zaya Gran Reserva is just 12 years old, but the elixir tastes like tropical fruit dipped in caramel.

If you can’t find these, don’t worry. At left you’ll find a cheat sheet that will help you start making demands around town. If your favorite boîte balks, just do what we Yanks do best: revolt!