Friday, December 02, 2011

Rum's Inferiority Complex

Check out the fun Flash segment on the home page of Appleton Estates Jamaican Rum.

Here's a synopsis, for those of you on iPads or too busy to fill out the mini-customs form required to access the site (what's with liquor sites making you enter your birthdate--does the law require them to do that, or just their lawyers?): It's a clever little bit showing a glass of dark rum over ice with a paper umbrella in it.  Along comes a stream of red fruity-looking liquid.  The umbrella spins into action, sending the juice flying in all directions and keeping the glass of rum pure and pristine.  "The Rum That Needs Nothing" is the punchline.

It's a clever bit, but it's also a little sad, for it shows how much the recent fetishization of bourbon and Scotch is spilling over into other realms.  You know the drill: the connoisseur who would pay $60 not for a bottle but for a single glass of whiskey with a lone sculpted cube of ice in the middle--unless, of course, they are the purist sort who would threaten to shoot you in the face if you even think about bringing a scoop of ice within ten yards of their drink.

I can hardly blame the rum guys for trying to keep up with the Joneses (and Beams and the Van Winkles).  If I were them I would do whatever I could, too, to be able to slap three digit price tags on bottles of "limited reserve" products.

But, this elevation of rum to a sip-it-slow-on-the-rocks connoisseur drink is a little depressing.  From the very beginning--when it was blended with sugar and citrus into punches--rum has been the consummate joiner, always playing well with others.

Yes, I know its reputation has been tarnished by two generations of frozen banana daiquiris and sugar-soaked pina coladas.  But, from the purity of an original daiquiri to the exquisite muddled mint of the mojito, there are any number of rum concoctions that are subtle mixtures suitable for grown ups. As classic tiki drinks like the Zombie illustrate, rum is alone among the liquors in that it can be mixed with other varieties--letting you blend a light rum and a dark rum and finish the drink off with an overproof rum float.

A while back, I was given a bottle of Ron Zacapa Centenario, a 23-year-old, barrel-aged rum. It's rich, mellow, and warm, absolutely perfect for sipping on the rocks and every bit the peer of a fine bourbon. I quite am sure that, using the proper subtle recipes, it could be incorporated into a splendid cocktail--perhaps something as simple as a little lime and sugar, or perhaps something more complex that builds in a couple of liqueurs and maybe even an overproof-rum kicker.

But, every time I've pulled out that brown, rattan-wrapped bottle with the intention of shaking up a cocktail, I hear the voices of the brown-liquor snobs whispering in my ear, "You can't do that, you philistine!  It would be a sacrilege."  And the 23-year-old rum ends up cold and alone in a rocks glass with just a chunk of ice to keep it company.

But, would it really be a sacrilege to let such a rum mingle with a few close friend? As Jeff "Beachbum" Berry relates, Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron developed one of the classics of tiki bar culture because he had received a bottle of 17-year old J. Wray and Nephew rum and believed, "the flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings."

Did he serve it in a stylish glass with a single orb of handcrafted ice in the middle?

Hardly.  He blended it with orange curacao, rock candy syrup, orgeat syrup, and the juice of one lime.   And thus was born the legendary Mai Tai.

So, my plea to the premium rum distillers is this: don't try to compete head-to-head with bourbon and Scotch as a sipping liquor.  You can't win a me-too game.  (Did pork gain anything over chicken by branding itself "the other white meat?" The answer is an emphatic no!)

Instead, change the playing field and take the game to a place where bourbon and Scotch can't follow.  Don't make rum aficionados feel guilty about mixing in a little lime juice or simple syrup. Encourage them to experiment.  Hell, if you invent some fancy enough formulas with fine cognacs and multiple aged rums, you might be able to come up with single-glass cocktails whose price tags make single-malt Scotches look like house brands.

There's about two ounces of Ron Zacapa Centenario left in that bottle in my liquor cabinet, which I've been saving for a special occasion.  Perhaps tonight I'll use it in a mai tai.

And I won't feel guilty about it at all.

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