I was about 20 years old, chasing the live salsa music scene throughout the city of Chicago. At that time I was learning to dance salsa and I didn’t always have the courage to ask ladies out to the dance floor. This was how my first experience with rum came to be. Before a night out at Hank’s, Tania’s, Village Cafe, D’Cache, or Cairo’s, I had to have my bottle of rum to ease my nerves some. I didn’t want to catch feelings about rejection and the rum provided me with the “I don’t give a fuck attitude” I wanted. At the time I had a surfaced consciousness to buy Puerto Rican, but frankly, I cared very little about diving deeper into the process of becoming a rum aficionado. Today I’m making much more concerted efforts. For the last 5 years I’ve been trying rums from all over the Caribbean and Latin America and have started to really enjoy and recognize quality rum. Now, not all rum is created equal, and boy, there are some nasty ones too in my opinion! However, now that I have researched and understand the process and complex history of the creation of rum, I have much more respect for this staple spirit that connects our motherlands.
According to historians, within 1651-1700’s, sugar was a high commodity in Barbados (E. Matthew. “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of the West Indian Competition”. page 32). So much so, that at that time the selling of sugar could make more money than the shiny metals which were shipped off in part to decorate the embellished cathedrals we gaze at when we go to places like Spain, England and France. The Caribbean soils and slave hands provided this new product which satisfied the sweet tooth of the elite. From what I understand the production of rum as we know it came to be through the manufacturing of sugar. Within that production process, as with any, there is waste. Through that waste several things were created from it; Guarapo being one (Sugar cane juice), as well as molasses. But plantations had little use for the mass amounts of molasses being produced. It is said, that there was so much molasses left over that in many cases it was being disposed into the ocean (W. Curtis. “And a Bottle of Rum”. page 25). In the process of putting molasses in pots and barrels, fermentation happened, and the conversion of goodness began to take place. Caribbean rum was born.
Rum began being shipped in large masses to Colonial North America in the 17th and 18th Century. It was in Colonial New England where the first rum distillery came to be and was the most lucrative business of its time. Rum became so popular that in 1789 George Washington insisted on having a barrel of rum from Barbados at his inauguration. It is said that the average colonial North American drank 13.5 liters of rum annually. Eventually restrictions were created on rum from the Caribbean and whiskey grew in popularity. This contributed to the decline of rum in North America.
Today the rum business is the not doing so bad. And in a time of economic crisis, according to Business in Puerto Rico.com, 70 percent of the rum consumed in the United States is from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s rum industry generates 700 direct jobs and 4,500 indirect jobs in Puerto Rico and that has generated about $434 million annually to the Government’s General Fund. Puerto Rican distilleries make Bacardi, Don Q, Ron del Barrilito, Ron Llave and Palo Viejo. Bacardi alone boasts selling 20 million cases a year, and rum itself is the second most popular spirit behind vodka.
So what do we know about rum anyway? And why only use it in mixed drinks? There’s more to rum than the images of canned pina colada or bright red daiquiris that give you brain freeze. It is so much more than sour tasting shots at a college frat party. Rum can be enjoyed sipped, on the rocks, or neat. And although rum often gets a dismissive attitude, the sophistication of rum reaches the highest standards of any liquor on the market. Which can also make it very expensive at times. For example, Brugal Papa Andres from the Dominican Republic costs $1,200. Ron Bacardi de Maestros will set you back $2000. Appleton from Jamaica has a 50 year bottle which costs a $6,000 US dollars. And Wray and Nephew also from Jamaica has a special bottle from the 1940’s which can cost $54,000 a bottle.
The complexities of rum are varied. There is rhum agricole, a rarer prime method which uses the season’s prime cane. Agricole rum uses freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and not molasses like most rums. Examples are: Clement (Martinique), Rhum Damoiseau (Guadeloupe), and Barbancourt (Haiti).
Light Rum: Light in color and is usually lighter in flavor. Light rum is often, but not always the base for drinks such as rum and coke, mojito’s, pina coladas, etc. Popular light rums are Bacardi Superior (Puerto Rico) and Don Q (Puerto Rico).
Gold/Amber Rum: Darker in color and usually has an added layer of flavor that light rum does not have. Its amber color is usually due to the aging it has received stored in the barrel. Cheaper gold rums will be like fool’s gold and gained their color from additives and fake colorings. Thats whack!!! Good examples of gold rum are: El Dorado 5 (Guyana), Cruzan Single Barrel (St. Croix), Mount Gay Eclipse (Barbados), Barrilito (Puerto Rico) and Rum Barcelo (Dominican Republic).
Dark Rum: This rum has usually been aged for 12 plus years and the craftsmanship and patience of these rum variants should be noted and appreciated. This flavoring can many times be stronger and complex. Like a fine wine or cigar, you may find hints of dark chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla. This is the rum that you don’t take as a shot, you sip it unless you enjoy wasting your money by bypassing the flavors. Examples are Ron Abuelo 12 year (Panamá), Flor de caña Centenario (Nicaragua) Plantation XO 20th Anniversary (Barbados), Don Q gran añejo (Puerto Rico) and Havana Club añejo especial (Cuba). Many cheap dark or black rums create their color by adding heavy caramel and not by aging.
Overproof Rum: These rums have a higher alcohol content and can actually ignite flames. The standard rum in the US is bottled at 80-100 proof. Overproof rum is bottled at 120-160 proof. Popular brands are Bacardi 151(Puerto Rico) and Wray and Nephew overproof (Jamaica).
Spiced Rum: Aged rum usually with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla to create a sweeter taste. Truthfully, not many spiced rums use real spices. There are ways to spice your rum with real spices yourself. Captain Morgan (Puerto Rico) is popular spiced rum.
Perhaps, as Boricuas, we can consider the economic status of Puerto Rico and begin to support our isla by purchasing “hecho en Puerto Rico” products. We can opt to drink more Medalla as opposed to Coors Light. We have had periods in our recent past when Schaefer beer was one of Puerto Rico’s top sellers. Passoa recently made its 25 year celebration bottle thanking the people of Puerto Rico for making it the number 1 liqueur on the island. I just think it’s time to look within instead of looking out. We need take some pride in being who we are, in being Latino, Caribbean, Puerto Rican or whomever we may be and put our purchasing power to something that we do well. Like rum!!! Let’s learn about it and support it. And when you buy that well researched bottle of rum, make sure you invite me.
“Salud!!!” Let’s pour out a libation for my brother who has passed recently. Rest in power Johnny Tirado. Love you always my brother.
If you are interested in learning and want to become a rum aficionado, here are some opportunities:
Check out the event “Roots and Rum” hosted by Buya, March 26th (Saturday) 7pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center 4048 W. Armitage Ave, Chicago Ave. IL 60639. Free Admission.
Mid-West Rum Fest April 30th, 2016 in Chicago, IL Bottom Lounge. For more information visit: midwestrumfest.com
This blog’s recipe is “Platano Foster”. This is a play on a recipe which was created in New Orleans at Brennan’s Restaurant in the 1950’s. It’s a warm rum based caramelized sauce which showcases flambe poured over ice cream. Fairly simple, but delicious.