Rum, sweet Caribbean rum

The Caribbean makes some of the world’s best rum. Where should a neophyte connoisseur start?

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

And the wise man said, “Stick to rum from the Caribbean and Latin America.”

I should have had that advice a few years ago, when, on a visit to the Rumfest in London, I decided to try rum from Down Under. When I tell the wise man — Angostura’s master distiller John Georges — about my bad Aussie rum encounter, he gives me a wry smile, as he’s far too gracious to laugh at either me or the awfulness of the rum in question. “Our blenders are better, we handle the spirit better,” he says. “Other countries don’t have the experience of developing the spirit, because they don’t have the history of rum behind them.”

Essentially, I’m a Scotch drinker. There’s nothing I love more than sipping full-flavoured Islay single malts like Laphroig or Ardbeg. And since I previously never derived that kind of enjoyment from rum, I simply ignored it as a serious drink option for many years. Then, about ten years ago, someone introduced me to Angostura 1919. I was so impressed with its smoothness and depth of flavour that it became the thing I asked friends to bring for me when they came to London from Trinidad.

With my mind now open about rum, I started exploring different styles, like Rhum Agricole from the French Caribbean, Diplomático rums from Venezuela, and even Mauritian white rum. Rum connoisseurs have been spoiled in recent times, with the expanding range of premium rums now available on the shelves at duty-free shops and upmarket specialist dealers. If you walk into a coven of rum drinkers, you’re going to hear lively discussions about the virtues of Guatemalan Zapaca or Trinidadian 1824.

I seek Georges’s advice on choosing rum because he’s probably one of the best people in the world to ask about the subject. A chemical engineer by training, he’s been making and aging Angostura rum for the better part of thirty years, and clearly his standards are impeccable. The first thing I ask him is, “What am I looking for?”

“Rum has got to satisfy all your senses,” Georges says, as we speak at Angostura’s Port of Spain headquarters. He hands me a glass of one of the company’s premium rums and urges me to take a sniff. “Good rum starts with a good spirit. It must demonstrate refinement. You have to smell evidence of it being in the cask.”

And he’s right. The rum I have in my hand is like good Scotch. It smells like rum that was given time to mature and was finished well. There’s none of the astringency you associate with harsh spirits like babash, Trinidad’s take on moonshine.

“The colour must be great, not contrived,” he continues. “And, of course, it must have spiciness, sweetness, and bite.” With that, I take a huge sip of the rum and savour the smoothness, but I also notice the caramel, the vanilla, and the herby accents. No “yo ho ho” here — this is a sophisticated taste, like you get with good cognac.

“When you’re buying rum from another island, it’s best to go premium,” Georges says. He mentions some of the Caribbean’s best rums, like Appleton’s Master Blender’s Legacy from Jamaica, Mt Gay Extra Old from Barbados, XM Ten-Year-Old from Guyana, and Zapaca 23 from Guatemala. If you’re planning on stocking up on any of these rums, then you’ll have to spend a fair bit of money. Most of the rums Georges recommends will set you back by at least US$50 per bottle, and if you want a special edition, then you can easily spend more than US$100.

Georges says that Caribbean rum makers are working to take advantage of the growing market for premium drinks all over the world. In Europe and Asia, rum sales are growing. His comments are borne out by a report on the Just Drinks website, which explains that — unlike the premium vodka market, where Grey Goose is dominant, or tequila, where Patron is the major brand — there is no dominant premium rum brand, and “many suppliers are investing in a bid to gain early leadership in this sector.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, the push for premium has largely been driven by the culture of high-end all-inclusive parties, especially at Carnival time. With tickets priced from US$100 to as high as US$500, people expect to drink top-of-the-line beverages all night long. But are there similar trends in the rest of the region?

“Bajans are real rum lovers. It’s not like Trinidad or even Venezuela, where people will pull out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black as their premium drink of choice. Bajans go for their rum. They are very patriotic that way,” Georges explains. “In Jamaica, the economic reality is different. Scotch is more expensive, so they tend to stick to rum as well.”

Georges wants more Caribbean people to start appreciating the rums we are making in the region. He believes there is something for everyone, from peppery overproof rums like Jamaica’s Wray and Nephew to versatile “mixing” rums like Angostura Royal Oak. He’s also keen to stress that we make excellent rums that are classy and live up to the premium price. “Spend the money, it’s worth it,” says Georges. “We need to start recognising that our rum is on par with other spirits.”

 


Rum for dinner?

Can we match food to rum, in the way that wine is matched to food?

“Rum isn’t like wine, you can’t force fit it,” John Georges says. “I like to think you can bracket your meal with rum — so, for example, if you wanted an aperitif, you could choose a rum like Angostura 1824, and for a digestif, you could serve 1919.” Georges says that in the Caribbean we keep our rum drinking very simple. He feels that if there is any kind of matching, then curries go best with white rum, while dishes like pelau or rice and peas are complemented by red rums.

Trinidad-born, US-based chef Renata Dos Santos says rum is a versatile ingredient, but people tend to use it in a few specific ways, like flambés and desserts. “A trick I learned is using rum to marinate tough meats. It decreases the marinating time from overnight to one or two hours.” She adds, “Of course, today, methods like sous-vide cooking” — in which food is sealed in an airtight plastic bag in a water bath for longer than normal cooking times, at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking — “the rum is used to enhance the meat’s flavour.”

Dos Santos also borrows techniques from mixologists, like using infusions. “You can infuse any ingredient you wish in the rum, and then use the ingredient in the dish. You can use cherries, apples, peppers, ginger, and even bacon.” She prefers to use dark rums in her cooking, as they lend more flavour than white rums. Among her favourites are Angostura’s Single Barrel and Royal Oak, as well as Guatemalan Zaya Gran Reserva and Ron Zacapa, Nicaraguan Flor de Cana, and El Dorado from Guyana. Those rums have more spices, have been barrel-aged, and have a smoother, deeper flavour.

Dos Santos’s advice for cooks who want to use rum more is to “understand the flavour profile of the rum . . . from white, gold, and dark . . . and then figure out if it will compliment or enhance the dish you’re making. Rum can be used in just about every dish. And depending on how long or how hot you’re cooking the dish, the alcohol cooks off, leaving the flavour profiles. I prefer not to have an ‘alcohol’ taste to my dishes.”

 


Lobster with Rum-Jerk Butter

4 lobster tails, halved and cleaned
1 tbsp melted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 tbsp jerk seasoning
1/2 cup sweet pepper, chopped
1/4 cup of your favourite gold rum
2 to 3 tbsp of butter
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped chives and parsley
1/2 cup tomato concasse for garnish

Preheat oven to 300º F. Parboil the lobster until bright red, brush with melted butter, and put in oven. Saute the onion, jerk seasoning, and sweet pepper in the remaining melted butter, and remove from heat. Over a low heat, add butter, pour in rum slowly, stirring until it has melted evenly and creamily. Add lime juice and herbs, and mix thoroughly. Add to the onion and sweet pepper mix, and serve over the lobster or in dipping bowls on a plate.