O Pinot Noir tumbler, Riedel ($30 for a set of two). Tiffany & Co.
While rum is the quintessential spirit of warmer climes, far too many myopic drinkers still perceive it merely as a mixing liquor—a base ingredient for Cuba libres, mojitos, sugary frozen libations, and showy tiki cocktails. But true rum lovers know that’s just one part of the story.
“We always want to try rums neat, in a fine tasting glass, when evaluating them for review,” says Robert A. Burr, editor of Rob’s Rum Guide and cohost of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. According to Burr, who has spent a lifetime “trying rums from every island, every territory, every style, every category,” they vary by type of still, the yeast used in fermentation, the techniques of the distiller, and the types and conditions of the barrels (from virgin wood to hard-charred).
“Generally, rums aged in barrels for longer periods develop characteristics that are favorable to sipping,” he says. “Also, blending rums from multiple types of stills, rums of different ages, rums from different types of barrels, and rums with compatible qualities can result in blended spirits of amazing complexity, nuance, and smoothness.”
Miami devotees flock to Rumbar at The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne to choose from a well-curated selection of 62 varieties from 18 countries, many of which are geared toward sipping. That includes Ron Zacapa Centenario, a premium rum from Guatemala with one bottle that has a blend of up to 23 years of barrel age and would easily please any Scotch or whiskey aficionado. “Most of our guests enjoy sipping on rums, especially the aged ones that have wonderful flavors absorbed from the barrels,” says bartender Josh Baez.
While aging is a key factor in creating better rums, some producers have taken it a step further and use freshly squeezed sugarcane juice rather than the usual molasses. These are called “rhum agricole” and are made in the French West Indies. “The sugarcane juice gets fermented, distilled, and then we add water to lower the alcohol content—this is as pure as it gets for the ingredients,” says Alison Bartrop, global director of brand and marketing for R. St Barth, a rhum agricole. “The taste is quite strong: Imagine cracking open a crisp piece of sugarcane with those green, earthy, vegetative flavors.”
As pointed out by Hernan Valverde, sales manager at Passion Spirits, whose portfolio includes Alma de Bohemio rum from Panama, “Rums have become more exotic and elaborate in the past 20 years,” and it’s up to the consumer to sample the many options now available. One way of doing so is to attend the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in mid-April, where more than 200 brands will be represented.
“Rum is incredibly versatile,” says Nabil Wanna, brand manager for Cruzan Rum at Beam Global Spirits & Wine. “Mixologists have relied on it for tiki drinks and other cocktails because it is highly mixable. But people are educating themselves on the quality differences and are learning how crucial details like the distillation process and the right amount of aging can greatly impact the end product.”