As the cocktail challenges escalate in bars from Bangkok to Bahia and San Francisco to South Beach, legendary bartenders (mixologists) and their followers, spend endless hours pouring and sipping up on new concoctions. Now in the mix, rum, long the spirit of choice throughout the West Indies, is being served in upscale bars and restaurants around the world. But limin’ is certifiably the best way to drink rum. Liming or Limin’ is a way of life centered on relaxation, which in the Caribbean includes drinking rum, sharing the news of the day and telling tales rich with hyperbole.
Living in the Bay Area, a region where vineyards pop up from urban backyards to acres by the sea, it’s sacrilegious not to be a regular consumer of fine wines. While I enjoy a riveting red, I became a connoisseur of rum, when I was introduced to Angostura in Trinidad back in 1970. Smooth with a rich, memorable nose it is light years beyond the Barcardi I first drank in a Daiquiri. That introduction was followed by Demarara, the “Grande Dame of Rums.” It was first offered up at a Kwey Kwey—three day wedding celebration in Guyana—I attended in 1970. Folks partied 24/7 like that rum was encoded in their DNA.
Guyana’s Demerara has one of the most distinctive tastes in the world and was my early introduction to the world of premium rums. Demerara Rums can be aged for extended periods, with 25-year-old varieties occasionally found in US stores. They are frequently used for blending with lighter rums from other regions including French Guyana and Surinam, a country I also traveled to in 1970. I spent time up in the bush with the Djukas, who were brought over from Ghana as slaves the 16th century. When I was in Surinam, the Djukas were living in ways very reflective of pre-colonial Africa.
In early December, I went online in search of Damoiseau Rum from Guadeloupe. That’s when I stumbled up on the Ministry of Rum. The concept was brilliant and after navigating the website I knew I’d come upon something rather unique. I began corresponding with Ed Hamilton and his partner in matters rum related Dori Bryant. While Ed is the self-appointed “Minister of Rum,” Dori is referred to as the Queen. Hamilton a former Tampa resident has spent more than a decade sailing the Caribbean. Based in Puerto Rico, he created the Ministry of Rum in 1993. Bryant, a former New Yorker with a gracious demeanor and quixotic smile, moved to Clearwater a few years ago. Now, I’ve really limed with some fabulous rum royalty in my day from throughout the Caribbean, who hold generational legacies in the world of libations and are descendants of those who made limin’ an embedded cultural tradition.
During the course of the correspondence, I noted the fact that I savor the flavor of fine rums and use it in my culinary creations which now include rum smoothies, a Mojito pound cake and Madelines, Six Month Black Rhum Cake, Rhumtoff, Cock and Bull Ginger Brew and Lemonade Rum Summer Sip and now a Cocurrumba. The correspondence led to an invitation from the Ministry of Rum to serve as a judge for the first US International Cane Spirits Festival and Tasting Competition.
Twenty-eight of us gathered in March and spent two days as judges for the Festival in Ybor City, Florida. While Barbados is the undisputed birthplace of rum, this festival was held in Florida. With several boarded up and empty buildings lining its quaint downtown, Ybor City is clearly a place struggling to regain its economic legs. Adjacent to Tampa, and renowned for its world class cigar rollers, legend has it that the Cuba Libre (rum and coke–a drink that can bring down the wrath of the Goddess of Libations) originated in Ybor City.
From Australia, St. Maarten, Panama, Brazil, England and the United States came distillers, writers, food critics, mixologists and modern day sailors constantly in search of the next adventure, often initiated and celebrated with a bottle of rum. Ian Williams, quite the rascal and a writer for the Nation was amongst us. In his new book Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, he documents how rum shaped the modern world, noting it was to the 18th century what oil is now to the global economy. Wayne Curtis tells a raucous and entertaining story of America through the bottom of a drinking glass, in his new book and a Bottle of RUM—A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Crown 2006).
Ian A.V. Burrell, owner of Cotton’s Caribbean Restaurant in London (www.l-town.com), lays claim to the largest collection of rums in the United Kingdom. Ian is the rum expert for “Taste & Flavour” School for Spirits. He also works as a mixologist and serves as the Rum Brand Ambassador for J Wray & Nephew. Burrell, who was my seatmate, had an engaging smile that stretched across the big pond back into his ancestral home of Jamaica.
According to Hamilton, there are some 1500-2000 rums around the world. There are rums that sip so smoothly they slip down the throat coating it lusciously. There are others that marry ever so well with fruit juice or lend themselves to be fancied up in cocktails like a Caipirissima, poured over colored ice cubes and served in sexy glasses, seductively positioned on some hip bar in London, New York or Calcutta.
I personally like the aged añejos, amber, gold or dark mahogany rums; although the crispness of fine white rum can grab my spirit and alter my consciousness quite deliciously. Rhum vieux (aged rums) tend to have more aroma and flavor, and I like the way the finish lingers graciously on my palate. While each island or country varies in their traditions of distilling and aging the rum, the methods are as varied as well. Rums from Barbados (Mount Gay), Jamaica (Appleton) and Guyana (Demerara) are distilled from molasses, which can have many different flavors. There is rum agricole (made from sugar cane juice) and rum industriel (made from molasses). Some of these rums, mainly from Guadeloupe and Martinique, are often aged in used French brandy casks for a minimum of three years.
After missing the pouring of libations prior to the first round of blind tasting, a voice from inside reminded me that the Ancestors were awaiting recognition. From then on, I started each session acknowledging them and all who slaved and labored so I could indulge in this pleasure. We started off the first day tasting flavored, spiced and cream rums including St. Maarten Guava Berry Rum Liqueur and Prichard’s Cranberry Rum, which much to my surprise I enjoyed. This round also included Pirates Choice Key Lime Rum which grabbed my tongue with a very acidic, Sprite tasting finish. What I realize is that while lime and rum marry well, it is not a lasting marriage for being bottled does not allow that marriage to prosper. My palate also did not take to Vodkane, sugar cane vodka, which for me represented both a cultural and “spiritual” clash.
We also tasted a series Cachaças. Literally thousands of these rums are distilled in Brazil. Of the six Cachaças we tasted, one stood out for me—Agua Luca. All of the Cachaças were un-aged and according to those with the experience, the aged ones are far better. The other five had a medicinal bite and aftertaste, much like moonshine, that did not sit well on my palate. At one of the many post-tasting events, I got to sample Cachaça José Junqueira Guapiara Ouro and found it to unfold easily on the tongue.
When it came time for the over proof rums, I recused myself. That category included Cannes Royale and Inner Circle Black Dot. My palate cannot get beyond the bite of an over proof rum to appreciate its depth or flavor and I simply can’t get to the finish. I remember a horrifying experience some two decades ago with Stroh, a volatile spiced, cherry colored Austrian rum that has all the qualities of terrapentine. I could barely get the 160 proof (80% alcohol) spirits up to my lip, before violently rejecting it.
But day two was pure bliss, for with it came the tasting of the dark and premium rums. As fine as some of the best Cognacs, Sauternes and ports, these premium rums are a class apart. Cartavio 1929 Ron Añejo Reserva 7 years (Aruba) and Maui Reserve Gold Rum (Hawaii) were exciting and memorable for all the right reasons. My first experience with Hawaiian rum, more than a decade ago, did not impress me. But there was a rum to which I gave the highest points in each category—aroma, initial taste, body and finish: Ron Macuro Ron Añejo Ultra Premium from Venezuela. It was simply exquisite, so well balanced and memorable for all the right reasons.
While some of the rums had the hallmarks of a fine Cognac or blissful brandy, others had great aroma but a rocky finish. Of the 64 rums we tasted over the course of the two days, I’d only had two before and none of my strong standards including Babancourt (Haiti) were amongst them. Mount Gay and Appleton are great rums for the novice and of course, there is nothing like the fine Havana Club Añejo 7 years for transitioning to the next level. Mahogany and complex with a fine nose, Havana Club works well as both a sipping and mixing rum.
But it was exciting to be introduced to an entirely new world of rums including a rather respectable offering from Nepal. Coronation Khukri Rum, referred to as a taste of the Himalayas, comes in a bottle fashioned after an ancient Nepalese knife of the same name. My former mechanic introduced me to Old Monk, a silky smooth dark nectar of the gods, distilled from sugar cane grown in the lush green fields alongside India’s Ganges River.
While some rums should be sipped solo, others begged to be paired with a condiment laden curried goat or chicken. We also vetted a rum with the distinct aroma and taste of Bourbon; turns out Prichard’s Fine Rum was distilled in Tennessee. I kept two sets of tracking sheets and entered notes into my rum journal during the two days of blind tasting, so that I could figure out and remember specifics about what rang my chime and what caused me to pause and question what I’d just tasted.
One of the dark rums was so incredibly smooth I just had to let it glide right on down my throat. For all the rest I put the glass to my nose inhaled deeply, removed the glass and then returned it to my nose for a second journey into the aroma. I then tasted the rum by allowing my tongue to engage with it for at least a minute, before releasing it and then cleansing my palate with water. There were times I actually caught hints of hibiscus or passion fruit and noted overtones of vanilla bean and oak. There were others when the taste of alcohol or caramel overrode the subtle, natural flavors that flowed through and punctuated the rum. I gravitate towards rums that offer hints of flowers, fruit, chocolate, honey and spices, and with a long finish.
I was stunned by my stamina for the tasting, for while rum is my spirit of choice, I usually only drink it in August and December. By the end of the second and final day, many of us were suffering from palate fatigue and eager to know what all we’d tasted. Although I got a light buzz after the first session, lunch at the Good Luck Café got me over the hump. A brother back in the kitchen turned out some crab cakes that almost made me hallucinate, they were so mystically succulent.
On the second evening, my dear friend with whom I stayed joined me and we ventured into Columbia, a Cuban restaurant with the capacity to seat 1400 people. The black beans, plantains and pork were quite good. But I was absolutely mortified to discover that the Mojito was made with Captain Morgan. Holy Ancestors! That’s comparable to drinking Ripple, the infamous 20th Century fortified wine made by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo and cousin to the equally notorious Thunder Bird. While Sharon politely sipped at the drink, I knew my rum “cred” was seriously undermined.
Along with the competition, the Ministry of Rum and several distillers joined with Ybor City restaurants to host the tasting of various rums. Participants were issued Rum Trail Passports and got to sample some of what the judges vetted. The festival closed with a rum ball at which Millie Puente, niece of legendary King of Mambo, percussionist and arranger Tito Puente, played a mean set that made me forget my arthritic knee and boogie on down with the beat.
With the top down on her new convertible, my friend Sharon and I drove over to Sarasota on Saturday, where we spotted a hot pink sign just off the highway, with “Estate Sale” on it. The sale was filled with fine Japanese furniture and art at very good prices. I left behind a mid-twentieth century, $20.00 Chinese oil painting that’s stayed on my mind since. We drove another twenty miles or so and went to Santa Maria Island and hung out on the beach watching the sun Samba into setting. It was cold, slightly cloudy and the ocean felt magical and reassuring. Highlights of the two days of tasting circled my memory, as I longed to return to that rain forest where David and I were in awe of some incredibly sensuous moments in nature, while honeymooning in Guadeloupe in 1986.
Serving as a judge for the First US International Cane Spirits Festival Competition took my rum world to new heights. I got to taste some magnificent new spirits and meet some interesting one’s as well, several of whom are engaging with the world on absolutely fascinating terms. I’m just thrilled that more people in the United States are getting to experience what people in the West Indies and Central and Latin America have for years; the pleasure of a remarkable and distinctive libation, whose history, legacy and pleasures many of us work hard to reconcile.
From the 2006 Rum Chronicles of Daphne Muse
Cocurrumba (Coconut, Curry, Rum, Banana)
While day dreaming of returning to the lush rain forest of Guadeloupe, the idea for a drink popped into my mind. Thus was born the Cocurrumba. I hope this puts you in the frame of mind to chillax and get into a limin’ state of mind.
Two to three ounces of amber or mahogany rum (I tend to pour heavily, so you can cut it back to 1.5 ounces if that suits you better.)
4 ounces of Coconut milk
Generous splash of a lime
Add the coconut milk to the rum
Then add a generous splash of lime
Next, add crushed ice and shake vigorously again
Remove the ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass
with a wide rim eager to receive the rum
Grate a hit of nutmeg over the drink
Top with a thin slice of banana and finish with a pinch of curry
My Top Twelve Rums
While rums are now being distilled in Arizona, Australia, Austria and California, my preferences steer me towards offerings from the Caribbean, epicenter of the rum world.
Five Star Babancourt (Haiti), truly the Cognac of rums
Angostura 1824 Rum (Trinidad)
Cartavio 1929 Ron Anejo Reserva (Aruba)
Havana Club Añejo 7yo (Cuba)
Rhum Clément Tres Vieux (Martinique)
Appleton Estate 21 Years Old (Jamaica)
Mount Gay (Barbados)
10 Cane, 80 Proof (Trinidad)
Flor de Caña Centenario 21 (Art made into rum from Nicaragua)
Reserva Añeja (Puerto Rico)
St. James Royal Amber Rum (Martinique)
Longueteau Rhum Blanc (Guadeloupe)
Ron Macuro Ron Añejo Ultra Premium (Venezuela)
What I long to taste
El Dorado 25 Year Old rum (Guyana)
Plantation Rum Jamaica – 1983 Vintage (Jamaica)
Fernandes Black Label Rum (Trinidad & Tobago)
Ron Coba 12 yr Rum (Guatemala)
Angostura 1824 Limited Reserve (Trinidad)
Seventh Heaven Ginger and Bois Bandé Rum (St. Lucia)
Ron Liberación 15 Años (Cuba)
Mekhong Special Thai Rum (Thailand)
Sunset Light Rum (St. Vincent)
Clarke’s Court Original White Rum (Grenada)
Cockspur 1639 (Barbados)
Rhum Martinique Chauvet (Martinique)
For the names of the rums tasted and prizes awarded at the festival, go to www.minstryofrum.com [http://www.minstryofrum.com]. For an overview of the judges and their backgrounds go to:
Daphne Muse is “boomin” as a social commentator and the author of The Entrance Place of Wonders—Poems of the Harlem Renaissance (Abrams 2006).