Rum revival sparks new interest in old spirit

By Michelle Locke

Rum is making a comeback. Photo / Getty Images
Rum is making a comeback. Photo / Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO - If the huge anchor and float lights hanging from the ceiling of Martin Cate's Smuggler's Cove bar don't clue you in, the stacks of barrels and ship's figurehead mounted on the wall should get you in the spirit of things: You don't come here for a dry martini, be it ever so shaken or stirred.

Cate has a rum perspective on things - the bar features more than 200 from around the world.

There's a rum revival going on across the country as devotees spread the word that rum is about a lot more than the cheap stuff you might have got trashed on in college.

"Rum is the most diverse spirit in the world," says Cate.

"There's rich, smoky rums. There's drier, medium-bodied rums. Some have longer finishes and some short, drier finishes. There's a rum for every palate."

Rum is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane byproducts, including juice and molasses. It's usually aged in used whisky or bourbon barrels, which turns the spirit golden and, if aged long enough, brown.

Rum can be white, gold or dark (known as black). The darker coloured rums may be either due to the effect of ageing or from being darkened with an artificial caramel colour.

Perhaps most important is rum's dual personality. While it is the basis for laugh-out-loud drinks like the zombie, premium rums prefer being sipped straight or over ice, a drink that can compete with fine cognacs and brandies.

You can even get a special rum glass to imbibe from, though Ed Hamilton, who runs the Ministry of Rum website, thinks that may be a bit much.

"People ask me, 'What kind of glass do you use?' I say, 'A clean one'," he says with a laugh.

Perhaps it's not surprising that rum, and its cousin, tiki, are making a comeback now.

After all, the pioneering tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, opened in Los Angeles during the Depression.

San Francisco Bay area resident Victor Bergeron visited and became a convert, going on to start the Trader Vic's tiki temples.

Somewhere during the '60s, tiki and rum fell out of fashion.

Cate fingers one of the culprits as a "guy in a tuxedo who showed up in a secret agent movie and asked for a vodka martini".

But now it's back, beneficiary of the craze for authentic cocktails that is an offshoot of the foodie movement.

When your canapes are free-range chicken wings dusted in organic, hand-rubbed spices, a watery glass of lousy liquor and no-name soda just won't do.

"A rising tide lifts all booze," says Jeff Berry, who has written about rum and tiki culture and has a new book coming out, Beachbum Berry Remixed.

The leaders of the cocktail renaissance have done pre-Prohibition classics. They've done tequila and agave. Now, they're looking at rum, a renewed interest that comes just as tiki has started to wave its flirty palm fronds at a jaded public.

And, conveniently, you can be a complete rum snob for much less than being, say, a single-malt scotch maniac.

"It's amazing how much cheaper it is," says Berry.

"You can spend US$140 (NZ$200) for an 18-year single-malt. You can buy a 21-year aged, amazingly layered fantastic sipping rum for half that."

Figures from the Distilled Spirits Council show that premium rums, which 10 years ago weren't big enough to really exist as a category, now account for nearly 10 per cent of all spirits sold by volume and 12 per cent of revenues in the $60 billion retail market.

Smuggler's Cove, a dark, inviting space strewn with just enough nautical gear to give you the tiki vibe but a few palapas short of tipping into farce, has been drawing a regular crowd, some interested in the more than 70 rum cocktails, others looking to try the many premium sipping rums.

Cate's got something for everyone. If you smell victory, or are in need of one, there's the Three Dots and a Dash. (You know that's Morse code for "V," right?) Lime, orange, honey, falernum (a sweet spirit), allspice, bitters, aged Martinique rum, Private Reserve rum.

His zombie recipe calls for "three different rums, lime, grapefruit, fresh brains, island spices and Herbsaint (an anise-flavoured liquor)""

He may not be entirely serious about the brains.

- AP

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