It all started when he was living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, which he calls “the world’s rum barrel.”
As the author of The Complete Guide to Rum, Ed Hamilton has long been a sort of personal hero of mine. I finally had a chance to meet him in August, 2005, at the opening night of the Pegu Club, now one of my favorite New York watering holes. He turned out to be a good guy—not surprising, really. Most people who decide to immerse themselves in spirits are pretty amiable. We had a nice little chinwag at the bar that night. There was something I wanted to know about this man. Why did he choose to become an expert on what’s possibly the most complicated spirit in the world?
He told me it was while he was living on that sailboat that he became fascinated by the diversity of the local spirits. “I began by collecting research data for a book which I thought would never be published,” he said. “In the course of the research at the island distilleries I was introduced to some of the best spirits in the world and developed a penchant for rums I couldn’t afford. More than a decade later, I’m continuing the research.”
Yes, research. A side-by-side comparison of various rums is a much more complicated task than it is for other spirits, because production of rum is more complicated than any other spirit. Now, there are those who will tell you nothing is more complex than Cognac, others will argue for single-malt Scotch, and still others will swear that the intricacies of Tequila production make it the most difficult of the bunch to understand, but they’d all be wrong. Rum takes the cake, with good reason. The previously mentioned spirits are made in France, Scotland and Mexico, respectively, and solely. Rum, on the other hand, is made in countless countries all over the world. Why is that a problem, you ask?
Spirits that are made only in one country are governed by specific rules and regulations laid down within the laws of that country. Once you consider the fairly strict and stringent ground rules in Scotland, for example, it’s possible to take a look at half-a-dozen single-malt Scotches to see how and why they differ from one another. When differentiating between rums, though, such is not the case. The rum-producing regulations in Martinique, for instance, are unlikely to be the same as those that Trinidadian or Jamaican rum producers must follow.
There are many aspects of rum production that can vary. For instance, some rums are made from molasses, a byproduct of the sugar-making process; others are made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice, and if the word “rum” appears on a label here in the U.S., it could also have been made from sugar cane syrup. Then there’s the yeast variable: Yeast is added to the base ingredient in order for fermentation to occur. One producer might cultivate a specific strain of yeast while another will buy commercial yeast. Still others might rely on Mother Nature, and wait for airborne wild yeast to ferment their brew. And each yeast will add its own nuances to the finished product.
The fermented sugar base is then distilled in an old-fashioned pot still. Or a high-tech continuous still. In some countries, it’s permissible to use a hybrid Austrian eau-de-vie still. One way or another the low-proof fermented sugar-wine is distilled into a high-proof distilled spirit.
Finally the rum must be aged, to give it character and allow it to mellow. Will it mature in oak casks that have previously been used to age bourbon, or will brand-new barrels be chosen? A third option some distillers choose is to import barrels from Europe to age their rum. Rum producers will all tell you that this makes a difference. And they aren’t lying.
Each distiller goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that his specific brand of rum is different from everyone else’s. Being a bartender at heart, this means that I have many choices when I decide to make a simple drink such as a Daiquiri. This classic cocktail calls for just three ingredients: rum, fresh lime juice and sugar, normally in the form of simple syrup. If I make a Daiquiri with, say, 10 Cane Rum from Trinidad, the drink will have far bigger, richer vanilla notes than one made with Appleton VX rum from Jamaica; the Appleton version will be much fruitier, and a little spicier, than its Trinidadian sister.
None of these rums will be cowed by the sugar or the lime juice in the cocktail, and all of them will bring their own nuances to the party. Bacardi 8 has a distinctive nutty character, while Charbay from California will yield cocoa notes and a balanced bittersweet dimension. Inner Circle Green Spot rum, a high-proof lovable monster of a rum, will offer cream and hazelnuts.
Ultimately, then, all the considerations of barrels, base product, stills and yeasts are academic when measured against the one important consideration: How does it taste? That’s what really matters to the mixologist and to the home bartender as well.
John Hulihan is director of beverage and service for Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Restaurant Group, and Steven Izzo is sommelier for the Group’s One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. When making a classic Daiquiri, Hulihan and Izzo use Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc from Martinique as a base. They say that this bottling has a “fresher, more subtle” flavor than most others. Rhum Clement Premier Canne, another top-class white rum from Martinique, would yield similar, if not identical, results. A third great option from this island paradise is Depaz Blue Cane Amber Rhum. All three of these distilleries offer a range of great rums, and each one displays a distinct character.
Recipes for other rum-based drinks offered by the Lark Creek team call for a wide variety of bottlings, each one obviously chosen because of its individuality. Myers’ Jamaican Dark Rum is the base for a drink called Vya Con Dios, in which they marry this sturdy staple rum with a little raspberry purée and a dose of Vya sweet vermouth, an aromatized wine with enough guts to stand up to Myers’. The rum was obviously carefully chosen.
For their Pink Sands cocktail, Hulihan and Izzo go in another direction, calling for Oronoco rum from Brazil to be mixed with Pama pomegranate liqueur and a little lime and lemon juice. Oronoco is similar to 10 Cane in that vanilla is predominant, and that’s a perfect match for the rich fruity tones of the Pama liqueur.
When it comes to making Hot Buttered Rum, the Hulihan/Izzo team goes in two different directions to achieve one multi-faceted drink. They pour both Mount Gay Rum from Barbados and Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum into the mug. Mount Gay is a somewhat floral, spectacularly spicy dram whereas Gosling’s is a rich, creamy bottling with caramel and butterscotch notes, so it’s relatively easy to see how these two spirits would compliment each other in the glass. The spices in Mount Gay play nicely with the toffee notes of the Gosling’s.
As you’ll see from the recipes below, Izzo and Hulihan aren’t the only cocktail geeks out there who are fussy about which rum they use. As Ed Hamilton and any good bartender will attest, the specific ingredients used will drastically alter the character of a cocktail. Rum? It sure builds character.