Of all the spirits, my favorite is rum. I love the way they’re made in so many styles, with flavors that reflect their origins. Few other spirits have a subculture devoted to them. Rum inspired the tiki movement, which celebrates a mythical, tropical land that doesn’t exist except in the minds of expats. But mostly, I love the flavor of dark rums from the Caribbean. An old rum has all the deep, dark and delicious nutty, candied, brown sugar, spicy notes of an old whiskey, but for a fraction of the price.
So late this summer, I went to my first Rum Fest in San Francisco. It’s pretty festive with men and women in vintage tiki attire, tropical plants and leis. But it’s a serious exploration too, with seminars on rhum agricole, and creating sustainable distilleries.
But most people came for the chance to taste favorite rums from all over the world, and discover new ones. Here are my top 5 discoveries from Rum Fest 2019.
- My favorite rum discovery was Bacoo, a new range of rums from the Dominican Republic. Valerie Sansevero, who created the brand with her husband, explained that the Bacoo is a genie like spirit who lives in a bottle, according to folk tales from the Caribbean and Africa. He can grant wishes or he can be spiteful, depending on how you come at him. The line of 5-, 8- and 12-year old rums all showed delicious caramelized brown sugar and fruit aromas you might expect. But Bacoo’s new rum aged in sherry casks, with its floral character and lingering finish, was the showstopper for me.
- The most unique spirit was Boukman Botanical Rhum from Haiti. This rhum agricole (made from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses) is spiced, but with bitter orange and allspice, so it’s floral, and green like a gin. Founder Adrian Keogh says it’s modeled after the street drink clairin trempé, rhum agricole mixed with bark, citrus and spices. The name on the apothecary-inspired bottle comes from Dutty Boukman, the enslaved man who started the Haitian revolution in 1791. With its social mission–10% of proceeds support education charity Haiti Futur and reviving sugarcane–it’s an attractive alternative rum that’s winning acclaim.
- The island of Antigua (it’s pronounced Ann-tee-guh) has only one distillery called English Harbour, established in 1932. Calbert Francis, the affable brand ambassador, says their rums are made in small batches and then aged in bourbon barrels. Not surprisingly, the 5-year-old rum was sweet, spicy and lean, like whiskey. That unlabeled bottle he’s holding is their newest release, the Coeur de Sauvage, their first rum bottled at 148-proof cask strength. I found it pretty aggressive sipped neat, but rum collectors are already angling to acquire one of just 400 bottles being produced.
- I loved learning about Karen Hoskin, the chief distiller and founder of Montanya Rum in Colorado. So far she’s trained five other women as distillers, and they’re paying it forward while making fine spirits of their own. Colorado doesn’t seem like rum country. But Hoskin’s built a business that’s an expression of her commitment to environmental sustainability. Her entire operation is wind powered, plastic is forbidden and all paper is recycled or composed. And every vendor from the American sugarcane grower to the glass producer has environmental bona fides.
- Tasting Pusser’s Rum was like reminiscing with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I discovered Pusser’s in college (I think it was on sale) and fell in love with its deep caramel, vanilla and warm spice notes. Pusser’s Black Label Gunpowder Proof Rum has a similar flavor profile, but it’s more potent at 54% alcohol. Did you know that British sailors received a half pint, or tot, of Gunpowder rum every day as part of their diet? The practice ended in July 31, 1971, after someone realized that large seagoing vessels and alcohol weren’t the best combo.
Earlier that week, Pusser’s starred in a delicious cocktail called the Tropical Storm that guest bartender Gil Batzri served at a party in Alameda. It was one of those drinks that Dave Wondrich would call “more-ish,” with a beguiling balance of tangy passionfruit tempered by a bitter edge from two rums. He was nice enough to share the recipe.
Makes 1 cocktail
Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well until well chilled. Then strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
*Oleo Saccharum is a mixture of citrus peels and sugar that’s been used as a flavoring since ancient times. It means “oily sugar” in Latin. Food 52 says to make it by using a vegetable peeler to remove thin strips of skin from clean oranges and lemons. You need about a cup. Mash the peels into a cup of sugar until it becomes an oily syrup. Makes about 1/2 cup that can be bottled and refrigerated for a week. (This quickie recipe from Saveur mashes uses grapefruit peels and mashes everything together in a plastic bag.)
**Orgeat is an almond syrup with a hint of orange blossom water. It’s most often used in the Mai Tai cocktail.
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