Rum Gets Some Respect
By Tim Padgett / Miami
Thursday, Jul. 2007
Ed Hamilton has a rough job, but somebody's gotta do it. The Florida-born chemical engineer cruises the Caribbean on his 44-ft. cutter in search of the world's best rums. He's not looking for the pale stuff you guzzle with Coca-Cola; he's out for the darker, lesser-known aged rums you sip from a snifter. That's right--rum in a snifter. Hamilton's website fans know him as the Minister of Rum, and he's issued a new decree: rum after dinner instead of the traditional brandy or single-malt scotch. "We all remember getting sick on mixed rum drinks in college," says Hamilton, 52, who imports and writes about exotic brands like Bielle Rhum Vieux (from the tiny island of Marie-Galante), Matusalem (Dominican Republic) and Ron Zacapa Centenario (Guatemala). "But when people taste an aged rum, when the tropical flavors mix with an oaky, smoky finish, it's like trying rum again for the first time."
In the premium-spirits industry, rum is the new Cognac. A drink whose reputation is usually linked with British sailors and Caribbean pirates--Blackbeard liked to mix his rum with gunpowder and light it before swilling--has suddenly risen above Captain Morgan to compete with Napoléon. U.S. sales of high-end rums shot up 45% over the past three years, to $287 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington. Gourmet restaurants are taking notice. Labels like Santa Teresa's 1796--a top Hamilton pick for its "honey smooth" finish--from Venezuela are after-dinner favorites at Cacao in Miami. "It reminds me of the global market shift to New World wines," says Cacao's chef-owner, Edgar Leal, who has begun hosting aged-rum tastings. "The same is happening with digestifs."
The New World cachet is key. "Younger drinkers seem to have decided that aged rum is a statement about their generation," says Olly Wehring, executive editor of the London-based Just-Drinks report. "Cognacs and aged whiskeys are what their parents drank." David Longfield, an editor at Drinks International in London, agrees. Aged rum "has a hip, even naughty aspect that Cognac tends to lack." Matusalem (a Spanish variation of Methuselah), for instance, uses a recipe smuggled out of Cuba after the 1959 revolution. The company's sales in Spain, one of the hottest aged-rum markets, are expected to double this year, to 660,000 bottles.
Aged rum's surprising similarity to Cognac--the complex flavors and aromas of oak, caramel and vanilla, the hints of tobacco and leather--is what first grabs most enthusiasts. But because rum is fermented from sugarcane juice, syrup or molasses, it offers a sweet bonus: tropical essences like banana, pineapple and coconut. Known as ron añejo in Spanish and rhum vieux in French, aged rums are blends of stock as old as 30 years, stored in oak. (Solera on the labels refers to the blending process.) The Caribbean climate accelerates aging, giving the rums more tannins and spice. Retail prices are usually under $40 a bottle.
François Bertrand, head sommelier at the elegant French restaurant Le Gavroche in London, jokes that he agreed to stock 1796 aged rum two years ago because of "the beautiful young Venezuelan marketing rep." But after tasting it, he decided to fool some of his patrons and pour them the rum instead of Cognac. "The cheap nightclub image of rum that had always put them off was changed immediately," says Bertrand.
Rum producers are enjoying the high. "It's taken centuries for rum to find itself in the eye of the hurricane and enjoy this kind of global respect," says Henrique Vollmer, international director at Santa Teresa, which is based on a 5,000-acre sugarcane hacienda 50 miles west of Caracas and pulled in $40 million in sales last year. "We're not going to let it go." Nor will Hamilton. His other favorites include Neisson Rhum Agricole Réserve Spéciale from Martinique and Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados. "They've brought a welcome new dimension of flavors to an old class of spirits," says the Minister. But drink them neat. No cola. And no gunpowder.