What comes around goes around, and many believe that it’s rum’s turn again. Specialists are working to get the word out about all the great varieties, from aged sipping rums and mixable white to spiced and flavored rums. Sipping rums may see crossover from the whiskey category, and cocktails are bolstered by the ever-popular Mojito and Tiki drinks.
“We went through the vodka phase, the tequila phase, mezcal, now it’s whiskey, and I feel like rum is coming up next,” says Larissa Wocher, bar manager for Ronería Caracas, a rum bar in the Caracas Arepa Bar in Brooklyn, NY, part of the three-unit Caracas Arepa Bar concept. “Rum is winning over people who take the time to taste and understand it.”
But rum is a mixed case, looking at category statistics. The top-10 leading brands collectively were slightly down (0.8%) last year according to the Beverage Information Group’s Handbook Advance, owned by Cheers’ parent company. The only stellar performer was Sailor Jerry, a spiced rum from William Grant & Sons, which grew 6.9% in 2013. Diageo’s Captain Morgan and Heaven Hill’s Admiral Nel son brands also saw increases.
Interestingly, rums under the “Other” category were up a healthy 4.5%. Hot brands such as The Kraken, Bacardi Oakheart and Gosling’s Black Seal—all dark or aged rums—helped propel that expansion.
Some of the stardust from the super-trendy whiskey category may rub off on rum, say proponents, pointing out a few of the parallels between whiskey and aged rums.
“I think rum will be next on the trend list because it has a lot of the same qualities as whiskey,” says Wocher. Many rums, she notes, are aged in used whiskey barrels.
Furthering that parallel, she adds, the most popular cocktails at Ronería Caracas are variations on classic whiskey drinks, such as the Rum Manhattan and Rum Old Fashioned.
Dustin Parres, corporate bar manager for St. Louis, MO-based Gamlin Restaurant Group, which operates Sub Zero Vodka Bar, Gamlin Whiskey House and Taha’a Twisted Tiki Bar, agrees. “There’s obviously flavor crossover between rum and whiskey—especially bourbon, with those big caramel and vanilla notes.”
At Cuba Libre, a four-unit, Cuban-themed concept based in Philadelphia, if a customer orders a whiskey, often the bartender will offer them a taste of an aged rum for comparison. “It’s easy to convert a bourbon drinker,” says Bob Gallo, director of operations and a founder of Cuba Libre. “Distillers are using comparable barrels for aging, and the spirits are taking on similar characteristics.”
Hawker Fare, an Oakland, CA, restaurant specializing in Thai street food, carries about a dozen rums for sipping neat or on the rocks. Popular sippers include Pampero Aniversario and Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, says general manager “A” Senamatmontry.
Sip and Savor
Aged rums demand sipping and savoring, enthusiasts say. That practice is gaining some traction.
At Cuba Libre, the most popular calls for sipping rums are Brugal Anejo and Flor de Caña 7-year-old. “People want to explore the sipping rums, go up the ladder a bit. For most, that means a 5- or 7-year olds; others with a fatter wallet will go up to 10- or 15-year-old rums,” observes Gallo.
The average rum list in Cuba Libre restaurants is about 70; the Washington, D.C., unit boasts 93 selections. Rum prices range from $8 to $91 a pour.
All the high-end rums are served in snifters at Cuba Libre, and at the $50 and above level, the rums are served with great fanfare. The beverage manager pours the bottle in front of the guest and tells the romantic story of the spirit “to intoxicate them psychologically and make the guests feel good about their purchase,” Gallo says.
Ronería Caracas stocks more than 50 rums; a number of these are Venezuelan because the two owners are from Venezuela. But others come from all over the world, including Brooklyn. Wocher estimates rum sales are divided about 50/50 between sipping and cocktails.
Served in snifters, sipping rums are priced from $10 to $14. To make its list less daunting and more approachable, each quarter Ronería Caracas spotlights four different rums under a themed category, such as “rum for whiskey lovers.”
The featured rums are thoroughly described on the drink menu and illuminated by two themed cocktails. Ronería Caracas also offers flights priced at $22 to $24. The 1-oz. pours each of the chosen four rums are served with varying garnishes designed to enhance the flavors.
Mojitos and More
“The Mojito is king at Cuba Libre,” declares Gallo. A key differentiator is these drinks are made with fresh sugarcane juice extracted with a guarapo machine in-house, just like in Cuba. “It’s the key ingredient in our Mojitos and other cocktails, along with squeezing cases and cases of fresh limes daily,” he adds.
Cuba Libre’s drinks list includes 13 variations of the cocktail; the sales leader is the Classic Mojito ($9.25), made with Don Q Cristal rum, hierba buena, guarapo, fresh lime juice and a splash of soda.
Other popular takes on the classic are the Coconut Mojito ($10), mixing Don Q Coco rum, Coco Lopez, hierba buena, guarapo, fresh lime juice and ginger beer; the Grilled Pineapple Mojito ($10.50), featuring grilled pineapple puree, white rum, hierba buena, guarapo, fresh lime juice and a splash of lemon-lime soda; the Mango Mojito ($10), made with Brinley’s Gold Shipwrecked Mango rum, hierba buena, guarapo, lime and lemon-lime soda; and the Sandito Mojito ($9.50), with Bacardi Solera Cuba Libre 10-Year Anniversary rum, fresh watermelon juice, hierba buena, guarapo, lime and lemon-lime soda.
Cuba Libre’s menu also includes an array of Tropical Cocktails priced from $9.50 to $12. One of the more popular of these is the Guantanamo Bay, which combines Kraken dark spiced rum, fresh orange juice, pineapple juice, sour mix and splash of Pom pomegranate juice, topped with a float of dark rum. “It’s kind of a rum punch that especially appeals to women,” Gallo says.
Happy Hour at Ronería Caracas features $5 specials on Dark & Stormy cocktails, which are made with fresh-pressed ginger, says Wocher. She is also on a crusade to show customers that Daiquiris are not all strawberry flavored and frozen. “The classic Daiquiri is a perfectly balanced mix of rum, lime juice and sugar, period.” For the summer, Ronería Caracas is debuting a Daiquiri Brunch on weekends, with discounted $5 Daiquiris.
“Traditionally, people in Thailand drink cocktails with food,” says Senamatmontry at Hawker Fare. “It may sound odd, but we decided to pair rum with our menu.”
Its chef Manuel Bonilla recently revamped Hawker Fare’s dinner menu and tailored the bar program with that tradition in mind. So items such as Kiep Moo (fried pork rinds) or Toasted Squid Jerky with Fish Sauce Caramel might be accompanied by a Jackfruit Daiquiri or a Tamarind Rum Honey Cooler. All cocktails are priced at $8.
Guests at Hawker Fare can also opt for a glass ($5) or 750-ml. bottle ($33) of punch. The punch recipe changes out regularly, but rum-based punch is especially popular, says Senamatmontry. The current formula employs three different rums: Rhum Clement, Hamilton and Captain Morgan.
Tiki Revival Continues
“Tiki has been trending a lot over the past few years,” Wocher says. “Concepts are funky with an interesting twist, not corny, and they are bringing Tiki cocktails to the next level.”
Indeed, “Tiki bars were about craft cocktails back in the day—those were sophisticated drinks,” says Taha’a co-owner Lukas Gamlin. “It makes sense that Tiki is enjoying a renaissance right now, as part of the classic cocktail movement.”
Taha’a Twisted, which opened in January, puts a new spin on Tiki, says Parres. The Tiki bar’s list includes nearly 300 rums, many of them spiced or flavored.
Parres has a few strategies to introduce guests to that variety and move those flavors. For instance, during Happy Hour, when regular cocktails are discounted to $5, flavored combos such as a Bacardi Torched Cherry and Sprite are priced at just $3.
The Cilantro Sunset is the best-selling cocktail, with Cruzan Passionfruit rum, cilantro syrup, lime juice and mango. Tied for second place are the Pineapple Punisher (Gold Martinique rum, Grand Marnier, Lemon Hart 151 rum, cinnamon syrup, pineapple juice, lime juice and pineapple) and the Strawberry Smash (strawberry rum, black cherry rum, gold rum, lime juice, lemonade and cranberry juice).
Classic Tiki drinks are a hit at Taha’a as well. “I expected the Mai Tai and Zombie to be popular, but the Painkiller and Missionary’s Downfall are leading the pack on the classic side,” says Parres. Cocktails are all priced at $9 each.
Taha’a offers three variations of Volcanos, those big bowls of high-octane punches erupting a flame of 151 rum in the middle. Planter’s Punch is the most popular; it’s made with El Dorado White Martinique rum, Mount Gay Gold Barbados rum, Hamilton Black Jamaican rum, lime juice, grenadine, pineapple and orange juices and soda. When the flaming volcanos are paraded through the bar, the sight generates plenty of me-too orders for the bowl drinks, which are priced at $25.
On the weekends, Taha’a’s National No Hurry Sundays brunch features breakfast tacos and coconut cocktails. Customers can build their own drinks, with a choice of any two flavored rums, which are mixed with fresh coconut water in cracked young coconuts that serve as the glass, priced $12 each. “The concept is going over well, and helping to move the flavored rums,” says Parres.
Taking your shot
Taha’a’s drinks list also includes $4 Tiki Shots, 2-oz. portions of rum and mixers. Examples are the Popped Cherry, Bacardi Torched Cherry rum with lime juice and Sprite; and the Breathalyzer, Captain Morgan White rum and peppermint schnapps.
The short drinks are a great add-on, says Parres. Big groups will order a round of $9 drinks, then a second round of the $4 shots. “We sold almost 400 Tiki Shots the first night we put them on the menu,” he notes.
Hawker Fare offers a Pineapple-Rum Jello Shot, made in-house with flavored rum, pineapple juice and plain gelatin sheets. Priced at $1.50 each, the 1-oz. shots are unmolded onto a plate and garnished with a cherry and an umbrella. The wobbly shots are so popular that some customers order them instead of appetizers before the meal or as a dessert afterwards, Senamatmontry says.
Will rum ever really catch on among the masses? It’s hard to say, as spirit fashions are cyclical.
After all, “rum was the drink of Colonial America,” says Parres. But he and several others feel that the current rum revival has serious legs.
“We see rum as an expanding category, with more and more rums coming into the market every day,” says Gallo. The rum category’s strength is good for business: The company is planning to open another Cuba Libre soon, and looking at sites in Atlanta, Chicago, Boston or Las Vegas.Ronería Caracas’ Wocher, for one, hopes to see rum develop more into the mainstream. “I put a lot of time and effort into education, and really enjoy it when people appreciate rum,” she says. “Because I love rum.”