Thanks to its breadth of expressions and excellent price/value, rum is moving up.
Yo, ho, ho, hmm.
Rum seems perpetually on the cusp of breaking big. That piratical favorite has a lot going for it, including a wide range of styles and flavors, a repertoire of classic cocktails, aged versions meant to be sipped, great stories for hand-selling, and a tremendous price-value.
Rum also has a few challenges: Untutored customers think it’s too sweet and know it as the base for fruity, frou-frou drinks. And, of course, rum is not whiskey—that current sought-after darling of the spirits scene.
But that is precisely the point, say rum’s proponents. You can drink a 20-year-old rum for a fraction of the cost of similarly aged brown spirits. A number of operators are highlighting rum’s unique personality and carving out a prosperous niche as a destination for quality rums and exciting cocktail programs.
“Rum has a bad-boy image—that old association with pirates,” says Damian Windsor, general manager at the recently relaunched Power House, a popular Hollywood drinking establishment since 1947. “But it’s actually a very approachable spirit.”
The Power House stocks just 20 rums due to a shortage of backbar space, but the wide-ranging selection includes some rare rums from Australia. “Rum is versatile, not just from a flavor standpoint, but also from a price perspective,” Windsor says.
Indeed, “the great thing about rum is that it’s not really that expensive, especially compared with Scotch and bourbon,” points out Robert Ferrara, bar director for The Rum Line. An al fresco bar atop the Loews Miami Beach Hotel that opened this past fall, The Rum Line already boasts a selection of 136 different rums.
The spirit is actually a byproduct of the sugar-making process, distilled from molasses, which partially accounts for rum’s lower cost. “Aged rums are amazing values compared to whiskeys of similar maturity,” Ferrara says.
“There’s a dramatic discount in purchasing rum across the board; the value of the product is high compared to the cost,” says Andy Himmel, founder/co-CEO of Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar in Beachwood, OH. “By comparison, it must be hard to handle the inventory of a Scotch or tequila bar.”
Each of the upscale-casual chain’s six locations offers 60 to 80 rums. Bomba Tacos & Rum, the company’s recently opened, smaller and more casual concept, will focus on rum even more, says Himmel.
Maturity Wins Over Guests
Whiskey, of course, is hugely popular these days, both on- and off-premise. But fans say that rum can be a brown spirit, too, sharing similar characteristics that appeal to whiskey drinkers. And it is exactly those aged rums that are currently gaining in popularity, according to some operators.
When Paladar opened its first restaurant in Cleveland in 2007, customers were more interested in the spiced and flavored rums, according to Himmel. “Over the last few years as the whiskey craze has grown, people have grown comfortable drinking darker spirits, which has had a dramatic, positive impact on rum,” he says.
Paladar now sells more aged rums as sippers in logoed snifters or on the rocks, in ½-oz. tastes and 2-oz. pours. Prices range from $6.25 for a glass of spiced or light rum to as much as $30 for an aged pour.
Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar in New Haven, CT, has established itself as a destination for rum aficionados, with an inventory of nearly 300 varieties. “Our cocktail menu is rum-based, but it is the sipping rums that really get our guests excited,” says owner Dominick Splendorio.
Sippers, served in Riedel snifters, are priced $8 to $55—these latter are special-occasion pours, says Splendorio. Most popular are Diplomatico Exclusiva, Zia Gujjar, Vizcaya 12 Cask, Ron Zacapa and Rhum Clement VSOP. “People come here seeking rums they’ve never tried or even never heard of before, because we have that kind of variety,” he says.
Rum bar operators believe that whiskey drinkers can be won over to other dark liquor. “Does one bourbon really taste that different from another? It’s nuanced, and not that perceptible to the average palate,” argues Ferrara at The Rum Line.
Rums, on the other hand, range from white to dark, sweet to dry, young to aged, and familiar to funky.
The Rum Line’s sippers range from $9 to $65 for a 2-oz. pour; one-of-a-kind Black Tot sells for $300 a glass. “The high end is a hand-sell,” Ferrara adds.
At Paladar, staff will ask guests if they are typically bourbon or Scotch drinkers and then guide them to the right rum for their palates. A “Rum 101” educational pamphlet is available for guests to study and take home.
Another strategy the chain uses to snag whiskey lovers is to substitute rum in classic cocktails. For instance, Paladar’s take on the Old Fashioned uses Ron Abuelo 7-Year-Old rum ($8.95) while a Sidecar incorporates Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva 12-Year ($10.95).
Guests are requesting higher-quality rums, not only to sip but in cocktails, too, “with calls specifying Jamaican rum or rhum agricole,” notes Windsor at the Power House. Sipping rums there start at $8 and run up to $55. Mount Gay Eclipse, Appleton Estate V/X, Plantation and the Australian rum Bundaberg are some popular calls.
Windsor estimates that rum orders at the Power House run 50/50 sipping and cocktails. Daiquiris, Papa Dobles, Rum and Colas and Mojitos are big sellers among the rum drinks.
The Mojito is the number-one selling cocktail at Paladar restaurants. “We sell hundreds upon hundreds on a nightly basis; 500 on a weekend per store,” reports the founder. “That’s the number-one way we move rum.”
Paladar offers five variations on the Mojito, priced from $7.95 to $9.95 and made with its house rum from St. Lucia Distillers: Traditional with 3-year rum; Superior with 5-year rum; and three house-made flavors—strawberry, pomegranate-ginger and mango-cilantro.
Another best-seller is the Paladar Libre ($8.95), made with The Kraken black spiced rum, Licor 43, Bacardi coconut rum and Coke. “It’s a great drink to introduce people to rum,” says Himmel.
Topping Zafra’s cocktail list is a handful of Mojitos ($8), made with Cruzan light rum and available in classic as well as in mango, coconut, guava, strawberry and black cherry variations. Most of the other drinks on the Cuban restaurant’s menu are also rum-based, including a Cuba Libre, Hemingway Daiquiri, Mango Mai Tai and Dark & Stormy.
Among the more interesting drinks is the Caribbean Dream ($12). It’s a complex concoction of Cruzan guava, coconut and vanilla rums, with orange, pineapple, cranberry and grapefruit juices and grapefruit bitters topped with a froth of egg white.
A Crafty Approach
There are plenty of bars in touristy Miami Beach that serve typically fruity rum drinks, says Ferrara. “People aren’t educated yet; they think a Daiquiri is supposed to be strawberry and frozen. We are trying to change that misconception.”
The Rum Line serves a classic Daiquiri, hand-shaken with fresh lime juice and Caña Brava rum for $9. Its Mojito uses freshly squeezed juice, with mint leaves tapped to get the aromatics, and combines two rums: Bacardi Superior and Santa Teresa Claro ($10).
And not only does The Rum Line’s take on Dark & Stormy feature house-made ginger beer, the Santa Teresa Anejo rum is “blackstrapped” with an infusion of molasses, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and vanilla ($10).
Because it’s situated on the open terrace of the Loews Miami Beach, the bar can also offer a cigar with selections hand-rolled by a local producer. Staff offer pairing suggestions. “Guests can sit outside, sip some rum—say, Zacapa XO or Appleton 2—and smoke a fine cigar,” says Ferrara.
The Rum Line has two special sections on its drinks menu. Daily Rations is a selection of 2-oz. shots ($5 each): the Daiquiri Time-Out; Don Pina, which is grilled-pineapple-infused Don Q rum; Banana Boat, which is Appleton Estate rum infused with bananas; and Malibu’s Most Wanted; fat-washed coconut butter in Ron Atlantico Reserva rum.
The other is a Rum & Soda section; featuring various Latin soft drinks as well as a house-made “Koke” cola served in Mexican beer can-shaped glasses. Customers choose the rum, and the sodas are served on the side. For guests wanting to drink something other than rum cocktails, staffers can run inside the hotel to order it from Lure Fishbar—sister to the New York seafood restaurant and bar.
The power of flight
As with many spirits today, one of the best ways to persuade people of the allure and variety of rum is to offer flights. “The thrill of discovery is part of our brand,” says Himmel at Paladar. “Flights allow guests to try different rums without making a big commitment.”
During its Happy Hour, Paladar discounts its flights of three 1-oz. pours (regularly priced $14.95 to $18.95) by $5. “It’s a huge value,” Himmel notes. Flights are served on a wooden board with cut-outs for the glasses and slits in back for tasting notes.
On the Horizon
As consumers learn more about the rum category, they’ll find more to discover. Many countries make rum: “There are so many rums out there—Jamaican, Haitian, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan—it’s endless,” says Ferrara.
But he predicts that “the next big thing when it comes to rum is rhum agricole (fermented from sugarcane juice instead of molasses) because it is so unique and funky.” Ferrara offers a few rhum agricoles on his list, as do most of the other forward-thinking rum bars.
At Zafra, Splendorio is also looking toward the future. “Hopefully Cuban rums will make their way to the U.S. If that happens, it would be great for us, for business,” he says. “We’ve got our fingers crossed.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer who has visited a number of rum distilleries in Latin America.
Featured Image: The Miami Beach-based Rum Line’s cocktails include the Tye’s Revenge Daiquiri, made with Don Q rum, carrot juice, lime, Maldon sea salt, black pepper and tarragon olive oil.
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Cachaça Still Under the Radar
Cachaça, the Brazilian cousin to rum, is fermented from sugarcane juice rather than molasses. Pronounced ka-sha-sa, it bears some resemblance to rhum agricole, which is also made from cane juice. Though popular in its native country, cachaça is not well known in the U.S.—yet.
Like rum, cachaça is available in white or aged expressions. Most famously, the Brazilian liquor is found in the Caipirinha, a mixture of cachaça, lime juice and sugar.
Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar offers this classic Brazilian cocktail, made with Pirassununga cachaça, simple syrup and lime ($8). The Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar chain serves two: one with Cuca Fresca cachaça, muddled lime and sugar, served on the rocks ($7.95) and the Mixed Berry Caipirinha, which muddles limes with fresh berries and cachaça ($8.25).
In the Miami Beach Loews Hotel, The Rum Line carries eight different cachaças, and offers a classic Caipirinha on the menu ($9). The innovative Green-eyed Bandit cocktail blends cachaça with jalapeno, kale and cucumber juices. The drink is shaken and served over ice with finishing salt to bring out the spirit’s vegetal notes.
“People just know the Caipirinha,” says The Rum Line’s bar director Robert Ferrara. “But cachaça’s popularity is coming along.”—THS
Celebrity Rum Runners
While the tequila category seems to attract the most celebrities, rum has a few stars of its own. These are just a few famous folks that have recently come out with rum brands.
The country music star launched his Blue Chair Bay brand rum in 2013. Imported from Barbados and bottled by Fishbowl Spirits in Rochester, NY, Blue Chair Bay is currently available in white, coconut, coconut spiced and banana and coconut spiced rum cream expressions.
While the rocker got his start in tequila with the Cabo Wabo brand, which he sold to Campari in 2007, Hagar launched Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum in 2011. Made from Maui Gold sugar cane, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum is also available in a new Red Head expression that’s been infused with macadamia nuts and launched earlier this year.
The prolific adult film star launched his own rum in 2011 called Ron de Jeremy (ron means rum in Spanish). Owned by One Eyed Spirits and marketed as an “adult rum,” the brand is crafted from premium rums from Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and according to the founder, boasts a long and smooth finish.
The pop star, who is also a rum aficionado, teamed up with brothers Marc and Seth Gold, and Robert Herzig to launch Selvarey rum last year. Imported from Panama, Selvarey, which means “king of the jungle,” is now available in white and Cacao expressions.
New Tiki Concepts
While Tiki trends go up and down, it never really goes out of fashion. And with the current interest in classic cocktails and different rums, Tiki is hotter than ever. Here are a few of the Tiki bars that have opened in the past year.
Opened: August 2014
By: Suzanne Long
Opened: November 2014
By: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author, Tiki fan and drink-recipe preservationist
Opened: December 2014
By: Roy Guerrero
St. Petersburg, FL
Opened: December 2014
By: Seth Santiago
Opened: January 2015
By: Paul McGee of Three Dots and a Dash Tiki bar fame, and Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, with Land & Sea Dept.
Opened: April 2015
By: Noah Bush, John Gaberino and Jeremy Reed
Mother of Pearl
Opening: June 2015
By: Ravi Derossi