Soaring above Jamaica’s central Dry Harbour Mountains, the sun shining so brightly that our small plane casts a clear shadow on the carpet of green below, it’s possible from the window to spy the occasional shack almost, but not quite, camouflaged by dense forest. Evidence, I think, of the island’s other important cash crop.
But it’s not herb that’s led to this aerial shortcut from the hustle of Kingston to the idyll of Negril, it’s cane. More specifically, it’s the fermented and distilled nectar of sugarcane more commonly known as rum.
Appleton Estate distillery lies a short, if rather challenging, drive from the all-inclusives of Negril, nestled amid acre after acre of Appleton-owned-and-managed cane fields in the fertile Nassau Valley. In this regard, it’s the rum equivalent of an estate winery, since Appleton and a handful of other rum producers are among the few distillers to bother with such tight control of their raw-material farming.
The reason for this strategy, says Joy Spence, master distiller, is that the quality and variety of cane used affects the rum’s flavor. By growing its own, she continues, Appleton is able to exercise maximum control over the character of its rums.
William Ramos, brand master for Bacardi, disagrees. Weeks later, during a session of his traveling “Bacardi University,” Ramos tells me the cane’s brix, or sugar content, is everything. Variety and source mean nothing.
But perhaps this is going too far too fast. It’s best to begin with a quick view of what rum really is, and how one differs from another.
Like pretty much every other spirit, rum is at its heart a simple liquid. To make it, distillers just mash sugar cane, extract and ferment the liquid sugars, and distill the resulting low-alcohol “beer” until you have a much higher-alcohol spirit.
In its soul, however, rum is a much different creature. First, there’s the cane, which—depending on whether you subscribe to the Spence or Ramos school of thought—is either important or not. (For the record, I’m inclined to side with Spence, since flavors remaining in the rum post-distillation should reflect the nature of the cane itself.) After that, the cane must be pressed and the choice made to distill either pure cane juice or cane syrup, or the molasses byproduct of the cane juice’s conversion into sugar—the latter being the norm in most larger distilleries.
Next, there’s the matter of water and yeast, since each has an impact on the distilled spirit’s non-alcohol part—the flavorful “impurities” known as congeners. And speaking of distillation, another important decision is whether to use a modern, commercial column still for a purer, leaner rum and/or a pot still (the type used by single-malt-whisky producers), which generally leave more congeners in the spirit.
Finally, there’s the wood, since pretty much all rum is aged, usually in American white oak sourced from bourbon producers. Like other wood-seasoned spirits, rum gets its color and a large amount of flavor from its interaction with the wood. And although clear rums like Bacardi White are filtered free of color before bottling, even these spend a cask-confined year mellowing.
MORE AGE FOR MORE ENJOYMENT
Luxury rums, of course, are aged significantly longer, and in so doing sacrifice a great deal of their volume for your pleasure. The reason for this is a phenomenon known as “tropical aging,” in which the hot days and cool nights of the Caribbean cause the interaction between rum and wood, as well as the spirit’s natural evaporation, to occur at almost three times the rate it does in cooler climates like Scotland.
So whether it’s Mount Gay Extra Old, Matusalem Gran Reserva or Appleton Estate 21 Year Old, you can rest assured that there’s been plenty of flavor development and concentration going on in the barrel before the resident master blender deems the rum fit for sale. And the only thing asked of you is that you take the time to properly appreciate such a beautifully crafted spirit on its own, or perhaps with an ice cube or splash of mixer.
In other words, when approaching rums of distinction, there’s no need to drown them in cola or fruit juice. This ain’t your college buddy’s rum, so don’t treat it as such.
A TASTING OF SELECT PREMIUM RUMS
In promoting their highest-end brands, some distillers will suggest these spirits can pass for cognacs. Don’t believe them. Regardless of how it’s managed, rum tastes like rum, not cognac. This is nothing to apologize for, because excellence in rum is distinguished by the same traits as excellence in any other spirit: elegance, complexity and perfection in the expression of the spirit’s soul.
• Bacardi 8-Year-Old (Puerto Rico)
This is a lightly sugary amber rum with caramelly, spicy notes set against a backdrop of vanilla and overripe fruit. It’s not overly complex and is best suited to mixing.
• Mount Gay Extra Old (Barbados)
Boasting a rich, vanilla-tinged aroma that speaks to its time in oak, this rum has an almost nectar-like body showing a honeyed balance of fruity toffee and soft herbals. Serve as an aperitif, either on the rocks or with a splash of soda.
• Cruzan Estate Diamond 5-Year-Old (St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands)
More copper than amber in color, this rum shows fruitiness and notes of fragrant citrus peel on the nose, plus a soft, lightly sweet and floral body. Try sipping with soda.
• Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva (Dominican Republic)
With a sweetish, almost bubblegummy aroma, this light-amber rum offers huge oak character in its robust vanilla and woody spice notes, and is suitable for almost any occasion.
• Zaya 12-Year-Old (Guatemala)
Distilled from cane syrup rather than molasses, Zaya offers a remarkably full, spicy aroma backed by notes of raisins and dates, and a thick, sweet and roasty flavor. Drink this after dinner or pour some on your ice cream.
• Ron Zacapa Centenario 23-Year-Old (Guatemala)
The “port wine” of Caribbean rums, this big, intense, robustly fruity and sweet spirit shows overripe tropical fruit in the aroma and offers an impressively rich, rounded body and finish. Serve alongside a cheese plate.
• Cruzan Single Barrel (St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands)
A most dignified rum, with restrained red apple, pear and vanilla notes on the nose, the Cruzan has a gently sweet, slightly toasty and spicy body. Fine as an aperitif, or pair it with a blue cheese.
• Appleton 21-Year-Old (Jamaica)
If there was ever a rum that approaches the “cognac” tag, this is it. Complex and not overly sweet spice on the nose and ample fruity, spicy, cocoa-ish notes in the body and finish. Definitely for after dinner.
• El Dorado 15-Year-Old (Guyana)
Plummy and raisiny on the nose, this deep-copper rum is medium-bodied and fruity on the front of the palate, with a decidedly spicy kick in the second half. Serve on its own or with a splash of cola.