From corsair to connoisseur
First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).
“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest-
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest-
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
This is the gung-ho opening stanza of the pirate’s anthem, as sung to us in Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’. It epitomises the rum ethos – that of hard-drinking bravado. There is simply no other drink that’s quite as synonymous with masculine adventure as rum: be it boarding a Spanish galleon, or bush-diving from a balcony, it’s more likely than not to have played a part. Whilst some of the rough edges may have been smoothed away and the fairer sex accommodated with the inception of light, spiced, and other flavoured versions, rum has nonetheless remained steadfastly raucous since its epic days of yore. In ‘The Rum Diary’, the movie based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name, one of the characters famously says to another “I think we’re drinking too much rum”, to which the other replies “there ain’t no such thing”. Indeed. Rum is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall party drink.
Or, I should way, it was. Allow me to announce, ahead of the approaching dawn, that our society’s experience of rum is set to change. In Jekyll and Hyde fashion (also Robert Louis, how droll) this is a dissociative drink. Whilst many of us in the Anglosphere – and it’s still very much the case in South Africa – have been distracted, or even misled, by its often emetic incarnation (which has somewhat tainted its image), discerning rum-lovers, in the Latin world in particular, have for many years now been charmed by a different, altogether more suave and elegant persona.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Before rum, there was the inventively named brum, a drink fermented from sugar cane juice by the Malay people of antiquity. It wasn’t until much later however, half a world away (the Caribbean of the 1600’s), that distillation was introduced into the mix. Rum quickly became a staple in the British navy, issued to sailors in rations, and from that source the habit found its way first to privateers and then to pirates, proving a hearty companion during those endless voyages on the seven seas. These chaps took their libations as grog and bumbo respectively, concoctions including any of water, weak beer, lime or lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to accompany the rum. And these unlikely forerunners of the cocktail era set the trend of mixing rum into motion. The Cuba Libre, rum mixed with coke (and lime, strictly speaking), then took the baton during the twentieth century and went on to become spectacularly popular, propelling Bacardi at one stage to the position of world’s best-selling international brand.
Despite this dubious, albeit colourful, legacy, rum, as I implied earlier, is actually a fine spirit, offering a variety and complexity of flavour to those who seek it out. It makes an effortless transition from spring break to cigar lounge. Rum is defined almost everywhere as a spirit distilled from cane sugar and its derivatives, although there has been the odd attempt, such as Sweden’s Altissima, to make “rum” from sugar beets as well. This may seem like a blandly uniform recipe but cane derivatives are surprisingly diverse, and each has a distinct impact on flavour. Rum producers in the majority use molasses, a thick, gooey by-product of the sugar refining process, as their primary ingredient, but sugar cane juice and sugar cane syrup (also known as sugar cane honey) are also frequently used. Product made from sugar cane juice, known as Rhum Agricole, is a feature of the French Caribbean islands, and also of other francophone islands such as Reunion and Mauritius. Martinique in particular has an Appellation designation (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC being the French system for regulating certain agricultural products), giving their accordingly produced rhums a special cachet. One of the world’s best rums, Ron Zacapa of Guatemala, is produced from sugar cane syrup – in fact these guys differentiate their ingredient further as first-press or virgin sugar-cane honey. I’m sold on that description alone. Most importantly though all the better rums share the same pedigree as good whisky and cognac – dictated by extensive cask maturation. New casks, bourbon casks, sherry casks, and various wine casks are employed – often, especially in Latin territories, in a Solera system (a complicated ageing method in which liquid from one cask is blended into others at intervals) – to produce exquisite, expertly blended liquid.
Rum then it appears is a spirit for all seasons. I’m partial to a Captain and Coke, with its foaming head and its promise of unruly fun, but increasingly I’d rather seek out Zacapa, or Barbancourt of Haiti, or others of their ilk whenever I can find them. Whilst the awareness and acceptance of premium rums is still unfolding over here, the signs are unmistakable. Aye me hearties, a new rum era is upon us for sure.