“There is a rum for everybody,” says Justin Roberts, bar manager at La Descarga in Los Angeles. “We have rums that translate well for whiskey drinkers, rums that translate well for vodka drinkers—and everybody in between.”
The Cuban-themed speakeasy, part of the Houston Hospitality group, boasts more than 120 rums from around the world. Roberts and his team strive to create rum converts by offering tastes to the undecided. Says the bar manager, “99% of the time they say, ‘Wow.’ They have a revelation. That’s fun to witness.”
Rum’s wide range of expressions and flavors make it flexible, and it’s that adaptability that is helping the spirit carve out a place on the modern backbar.
One operator is so convinced that rum is all you need that rum is all he offers. “We have a different perspective than other places with rum in their name; rum is exclusively what we do, it is the only spirit we offer,” says Dwayne Allen, co-owner of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix.
When the Caribbean-style restaurant first opened in 2008, only about 30 varieties of rum were available in the state, The bar’s curated collection now includes over 150 examples. Every bottle is on display along a “wall of rum” and listed in the Rum Manifest. The manifesto includes The Breadfruit’s cuisine, too, with signature dishes like Appleton Rum Sea Scallops and Rum-Glazed Prawns.
Buy the Barrel
In olden days, bars purchased rum by the barrel to slake customers’ thirst. A few operators have brought back that practice.
“People have discovered that we have the best rum selection in town, as well as being the rum cocktail destination,” says Miguel Lopez, bar manager at Isla, a Caribbean Cantina, in Austin, TX. The Tiki and rum bar has more than 130 expressions, but perhaps the most prized are the two barrels it purchased, Mount Gay Black Barrel and Papa’s Pilar 24-Year-Old Solera.
To promote the barrels, bartenders offer tastes. Staves from the barrels mounted on the bar’s wall offer a conversation topic. “We even use one of the rums in our Bananas Foster for brunch,” Lopez says. He’s also developed cocktails to show off the rums’ distinctive characteristics.
“We buy barrels of whiskey all the time; since we have so many restaurants, we can spread out those purchases,” says Matt Tocco, director of beverage for Strategic Hospitality. The Nashville, TN-based restaurant group includes The Patterson House, Pinewood Social, The Catbird Seat, Merchants, Le Sel and the new bar Bastion.
Tocco loves rum, and recently obtained a single-barrel release from Richland Rum distillery in Georgia. The producer grows its own sugarcane, notes the beverage director, who toured the facility with a few of his bartenders. Tocco plans to create a rum cocktail that will be promoted across all the venues.
Sugarcane and tobacco grow together in the same climate and terroir, so pairing rum and cigars is a natural, say aficionados.
“Many cigar smokers are accustomed to enjoying a cigar with a glass of single malt Scotch, but we maintain that cigars pair better with rum,” says Allen.
Stogie connoisseurs can relax and smoke in the courtyard at The Breadfruit, where servers are ready with rum pairing suggestions, including flights. A recent Breadfruit “Flight to Jamaica” offered three tastes of different Appleton Estate rums.
Guests are welcome to bring their own, or choose from the restaurant’s humidor stocked with about 100 cigars. Former New York mayor and cigar lover Rudy Giuliani indulged in a smoke during a recent visit Allen recalls. “He said, I can’t do this in a New York restaurant anymore.”
La Descarga also celebrates rum and cigars. Getting into the speakeasy involves a secret entrance through the back of a clothes wardrobe and scaling a catwalk that looks down on the main bar area where salsa bands play, burlesque dancers strut their stuff, and bartenders shake up cocktails. “It’s like they are instantly transported to Havana,” says Roberts.
The well-ventilated cigar lounge offers a quieter experience. Guests can smoke their own or purchase hand-crafted stogies, and enjoy rum flights specially designed to pair with smokes.
“Bourbon is huge in Tennessee; it’s part of the heritage. We embrace whiskey and that dominates a lot of our programs. But we also sell a lot of rum,” says Tocco. One successful strategy he’s hit upon is to pair rum with whiskey in cocktails.
“It’s like hiding a pill in peanut butter to fool your pet into taking its medicine,” he laughs. “Seriously, the flavors of whiskey and rum complement each other and work well together.”
This tactic works especially well at Strategic Hospitality’s Pinewood Social, a hybrid cocktail bar, coffee bar, bowling alley, bocce court, swimming pool and restaurant. A prime example isThe Expense of Honesty cocktail ($13), which combines Old Forester Signature bourbon with Brugal anejo rum and Arehucas Ron Miel (from the Canary Islands) with some demerara sugar and Angostura bitters. It’s one of, if not the most-popular cocktail on the menu.
Straight rum cocktails also sell surprisingly well, says Tocco. The Patterson House has a rum section on its drinks list with five cocktails ($13 each), including the Midnight Dreary, with Appleton V/X rum, Varnelli Caffè Moka liqueur, lime juice, ginger and falernum.
Menu descriptors refer to drink names customers will be familiar with, such as a Kingston Negroni, made with rum instead of gin. Staff will refer to a cocktail as “this is a lot like a Manhattan with rum.” Another unusual but natural combination is coffee and rum. Jessie’s Girl ($8) is a cortado coffee with Diplomatico Anejo rum, Nardini Grappa and sweet orange spices.
“The rum cocktail has made a huge comeback with nods to both the classic rum drinks, as well as a resurgence of the Tiki movement, with strong drinks and loud shirts,” says Paul Yellin. The chef is slated to open his new restaurant and bar concept Cane Rhum Bar and Caribbean Kitchen this spring in the heart of the Charleston, S.C., historic district.
Yellin grew up on the island of Barbados and has a special affinity for sugarcane spirits. Cane’s bar program focuses on an extensive curated rum selection, with about 75 bottles sourced from across the Caribbean, the U.S. and more, including many bottles from Yellin’s own collection.
Tiki classic cocktails such as Zombies, Mojitos and Painkillers will appear on the drinks menu with prices ranging from $8 to $18. Cane’s Zombie is made with pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup, apricot brandy, Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still black rum, Cockspur Barbados rum and Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof rum.
Yellin and his team have also created some original cocktails featuring infused and house-made spirits. One is the Instant Vacation, made with Mount Gay rum infused with lemongrass and ginger, velvet falernum, lemon and orange juices and house-made ginger beer.
In a nod to Charleston’s humid summer weather, Cane Rhum Bar’s list includes some frozen drinks, such as the So Fresh So Clean, featuring Brugal Silver rum, mint simple syrup, fresh cucumber, coconut water and lime juice. Cane will also offer a selection of specialty punches on tap, including St. Cecilia’s Society Punch and Barbados Rum Punch.
Isla, a Carribean Cantina, uses its proprietary barrel of Mount Gay rum to create the El Doctor. Besides the rum, the drink mixes Kronan, a Swedish rum-based punsch, house-made orgeat and fresh lime juice.
The Tituba mixes Nicaraguan rum with basil, jalapeño and house-made coconut cream. There is a selection of Tiki cocktails as well. Drink prices range from $9 to $14.