Patriots of the Caribbean: Tasting Rum and Honoring America's True Spirit

June 30, 2009

in Beery Scribblings

Recently I have learned, from several sources, that rum may be the oldest and most American of beverages. Although the Pilgrims considered beer the drink of choice for their little “Gilligan’s Island” adventure — water apparently spoiled faster on board The Mayflower than did the alcohol-based drinks — the spirit that puts the “oh” in a Mojito was flowing over these shores long before anyone landed on Plymouth Rock.

Awhile back I picked up a book at the library called, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails — really, how could I resist? (And, if you can’t resist either, you can now peruse it online, as I did, here.) According to author Wayne Curtis, Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane to the West Indies from the Canary Islands, and it was the slaves on the Caribbean plantations who eventually discovered that the byproduct of that plant — a.k.a. molasses — could be fermented into alcohol. Rum soon became the easiest to make and most accessible of drinks on the islands and eventually contributed to the settlement of the mainland colonies. As Curtis writes, “Rum is the history of America in a glass.”

Six All-Americans for a rummy 4th

Six All-Americans for a rummy 4th of July

More recently I received a packet of information, along with two small bottles, from a PR agent representing Tommy Bahama brand rum, expounding on the history of rum and and how it has helped shape the Republic as we know it. For instance, she says, Paul Revere took a swallow of rum before setting off on his famous midnight ride. Ben Franklin wrote an ode to rum punch. And George Washington celebrated July 4th in 1778 by offering his troops a double ration and a military salute. A Yankee Doodle doozy, indeed.

However, Curtis says the rum that the Founding Fathers would have poured was nothing like the smooth, sweet-smelling concoction that comes in tall, elegant bottles sold in America today. The old-fashioned rum was “made with a crude pot still” that produced a  “cloying, greasy, nasty-smelling stuff … laden with impurities, and could have been whiffed a block away.” Luckily, distilling technology continued to evolve over the past two-plus centuries, and rum continued to grow in popularity and is reportedly now the second largest spirits category behind vodka.

So the rediscovery of the book, the arrival of the free American-made rum (and accompanying factoids), and the pending Independence Day festivities all combined to convince me that this week I should review the byproducts of some native distilleries as an act of patriotism. (Last year I did my patriotic duty by writing about American-themed beers.) After doing a little research, I was surprised to discover how many American companies now make and market rum, given that the drink was invented by Europeans somewhere outside the continental United States. The “Wine Compass Blog” provides a thorough overview of the subject (available here).

Admittedly, this week’s tasting was somewhat impromptu (sadly, a growing trend for the busy Scribbleskiff staff) and involved only my brother-in-law, Steve, mainly because he contributed a bottle of handcrafted rum from the Dogfish Head brewery and was available on short notice. Also, despite the proliferation of republican rums, very few are readily available, at least where I roam. In total we tasted a half-dozen rums, dark and light — basically what I could find on the shelves of a couple of shops. It’s definitely a mixed bag of properties, personalities, and pedigrees — just like any good, red-blooded American, really.

We only had one other tasting restriction: independence. Despite the popularity of mixing rum with fruit juices, colas, or other soft drinks, I believe the best way to enjoy the flavor and quality of this particular liquor is to serve it unadorned in a glass, with a few cubes of ice and a wedge of lime. (Of course, I have been known to pour a Dark & Stormy or two, but that’s a different story entirely.) So we tried each rum with and without the juice and made only one cocktail — the distinctive Bahama Basil Smash, which calls for white rum, basil leaves, ginger, a few blackberries, lemon, and a little elbow-greased muddling.

Here are the fruits of our labor. Enjoy!

Golden Sun and White Sand, Tommy Bahama Rum. Introduced in 2007, these so-called “ultra-premium” rums are produced for the Seattle-based manufacturer by the R. L. Seale Distillery in Barbados using local ingredients, including blackstrap molasses and water filtered through coral stone. According to the press packet, both rums are fermented using yeast imported from the wine region of South Africa, aged at least two years in white oak barrels, and do not contain added sugar or artificial blenders. I preferred the Golden Sun, the darker of the pair. It pours out in an appealing amber color and is a bit sweeter than the white. Steve said he noticed a bourbon-like aroma and thought it tasted slightly fruity with hints of vanilla and roasted caramel. However, he preferred the white, saying it was smoother and cleaner than its sibling and liked it better with a splash of lime. But we both agreed that neither rum made for a particularly good solo sipper and would be better suited for mixing (a theorem we proved with the creation of the aforementioned Smash).

Pirates of the Chesapeake, Atlantic Distillers Company. I have to admit that I picked this rum nearly exclusively because of the local ties — for instance, the sparse label read  “Bottled in Baltimore” — and the fact that it cost $5.99 for a 750 ml bottle. And you know, sometimes you really do get what you pay for. I tried valiantly to enjoy this on the rocks, first adding liberal amounts of lime juice then letting the ice melt some, creating a delusion of dilution. All to no avail. After a few swigs the phrase “White Lightning” popped into my mind, and neither Steve nor I could sip it with a smile on our face. Even the parrot on the label looks disgusted by what his bandanna-clad master is serving. Because it’s nearly flavorless, this rum would mix well with just about anything and still produce the desired sun-over-the-yardarm effect that any old salt seeks.

Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum, Sailor Jerry Rum Co. Reportedly made from the personal recipe of “Sailor Jerry” Collins, a famous Honolulu-based tattoo artist from the 1930s, this musclebound rum (92 proof!) is quite tasty and a little exotic all by itself in the glass. The label says it’s “spiced with a hint of cherry,” though I thought the overriding flavors were more like cinnamon and vanilla. Steve, being a loyal Irishman, said this was his favorite, declaring it “better than Captain Morgan’s” and praising the rum’s delicate balance of sweetness and a “musty, smoky aftertaste” that reminded him of “the feeling you get when you’ve breathed in too much ink at the tattoo parlor.” And I totally agreed. (Keep in mind that this was rum number four and we were feeling a little “poetic” by this point.)

Brown Honey Rum, Dogfish Head Brewery. Several years ago, I was delighted (though not surprised) to discover, while ordering cocktails before dining at this Delaware-based brewery’s restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, that the maker of one of the most delicious (and one of my most favorite) American IPAs was capable of producing such a flavorful and drinkable non-beer drink. Several microbreweries, in fact, including Rogue and New Holland Brewing Company, have begun experimenting with “micro-rum” and other such small-batch spirits. But the Brown Honey was the first one I tried and it quickly became, and has remained, my preferred sipping rum — when I could find (and afford) it. According to the label, the rum is made with wildflower honey (applied liberally, it seems, just like the hops in their beer) in an old-fashioned pot still, double-filtered, and aged in oak barrels, which produces the dark amber color, smooth texture, and sweet flavors — we noted vanilla as well as caramel and some fruitiness. Neither Steve nor I could find fault with this pioneering spirit (and we tasted it several times, to be sure), and we both pledged to keep it independent of marauding mixers.

Whaler’s Vanille, Whaler’s Distilling Company. It’s hard to deny the American “melting pot” qualities of a drink that’s got Caribbean roots, is made using “Hawaii’s legendary recipe” (whatever that means), and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky. And yet, with it’s odd product name (pronounced “vah-nee”) and cloying vanilla, candy-like flavors — it tasted like a Goetze’s Caramel Cream — it’s hard to believe this is rum. Steve and I both agreed that though the Vanille is just too overwhelming served solo on the rocks, it would mellow a little combined with something fruity — the label suggests a “Vanille Splash,” essentially adding a 1 oz. shot to half a glass of pineapple juice and a squeeze of lime.  And with the lowest alcohol content of the bunch (just 60 proof), that’s a recipe for producing a whale of a good time.

So, there you have it — six all-American variations on a classic West Indian drink. Not exactly the ideal companions for your 4th of July barbecue — reach for a lager or pale ale to fill that role — but an American tradition nonetheless. Perhaps you should consider handing your dinner guests a glass of rum before serving the meal, to fuel their passion for patriotic (and other) gestures. After all, as the influential foodie James Beard once said, “of all the spirits in your home, [rum] is the most romantic.” God bless America.

As always, let us know what you think. Do you have a favorite rum, American-made or otherwise? Are there other spirits you like on a summer night? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

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