Make hay while rum shines

Updated: 2014-03-23 08:09

By Kitty Go (China Daily)

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 Make hay while rum shines

Rums pick up their flavors not only from barrels but also from the soil, type of sugar cane used, the surrounding vegetation and other natural factors. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Make hay while rum shines

Aging is done in oak casks from one to 30 years.

Two long-time Hong Kong residents are bringing the premium version of the staple drink of pirate lore to Asia. Kitty Go reports.

Mention rum to the typical consumer and he will think pirates surrounded by scantily clad women in ripped clothing wandering the beach promoting cheap liquor, holiday cocktails with an umbrella or, heaven forbid, rum and Coke. Unbeknownst to many except the most educated liquor connoisseurs, premium rums costing more than $100 a bottle hardly ever left the Caribbean until about 15 years ago when Americans started importing them to satisfy a growing sophisticated cocktail culture that wanted rum that was "not just Bacardi".

But in Asia, because of rum's reputation as a cheap mixer, the idea of enjoying premium rums has yet to catch on among whiskey and cognac lovers.

Bahamians and long-time Hong Kong residents Shane Stuart and Andre Carey, co-directors of Caripelago Trading, are on a mission to change this tarnished reputation of a spirit they grew up with and know how to enjoy. The former financiers set up their company to exclusively distribute premium rums in Asia. They have distributions in Hong Kong, Taiwan of China, and South Korea.

The duo observe that most people, especially Asians, do not know much about rums beyond Bacardi. They notice that people's palates have not expanded and are geared toward wine, whiskey and cognac.

"The image of rum is it is a party drink and mixer with juice, with no history or culture. Our company's job is to change that," Stuart says. "Do you know it is the oldest distilled spirit and a hundred years ago it was preferred over whiskey?"

Rum history puts its first production sometime in the mid-1600s.

The partners blame rum's cheap reputation today on "the curse of Bacardi" but they admit that Bacardi White is not a bad mixer for its low price.

"The perception of a product is driven by the brand with the highest profile," Stuart says. "With whiskey, people know Johnny Walker Black, which is not cheap, but for rum, it is sad that the biggest name markets itself as a cheap product."

Before blaming everything on the present day marketing of Bacardi, a history of rum in the Caribbean colonies unveils the reason for low prices and their very distinct flavors.

"Rum is one of the very few products where taste and price were driven by colonisers or the mother countries. They really wanted a spirit that they could sell and distribute cheaply. Navy rum for the UK is an example," explains Stuart.

Make hay while rum shines

"Rum was always produced by colonies while whiskey, sherry and cognac were made by the colonisers on the mainland. Because the market demanded only cheap rum, the great and expensive rum stayed locally in the Caribbean until only recently."

Colonisers also discouraged the importation of quality spirits fearing the threat to their own industries.

"Aside from sugar, another product of the free trade between the Caribbean and their colonisers were old, used barrels that stored and aged sherry in Spain, cognac in France, whiskey in England and bourbon in America," Carey adds. "They were cheaper because they were used but a benefit was that they carried a lot of flavors. Certain distilleries used barrels from specific countries because of colonial ties and it has become part of their taste profiles."

Former English colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana will have a heavy molasses flavor while those from former Spanish colonies like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and parts of Central America will have a lighter molasses flavor and those known as rum agricole from French colonies like Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique will have a floral bouquet, very close to fresh sugar cane.

Rums do not only pick up their flavors from barrels but also from the soil, type of sugar cane used, the surrounding vegetation and other natural factors, such as the salt and moisture from sand and sea air. This makes them very similar to wines whose tastes are defined by the environment of their "terroirs". Rums from Antigua, the former Spanish and English colony, would have hints of vanilla and spice. Those from Barbados would have hints of orange peel and coffee.

All rums are distilled from sugar cane juice, syrup or molasses, which is merely an excess of sugar production.

Premium rums are expensive because the distilleries use only sugar cane juice and are very careful with handling plants when harvesting (cutting far enough from the soil) to extraction. They are also completely vertical (meaning they own and run the sugar plantation down to the production of the finished, bottled product).

After extracting juice from sugar canes, the liquid is fermented with yeast from one to 10 days. To concentrate the alcohol, the fermented liquid is then distilled.

Premium distilleries continue to use pot stills (a metal kettle with a long spout) to this day while modern mass producers use steel columns. Aging is done in oak casks anywhere from one to 30 years.

Although aging is not required, it adds to the smoothness of the spirit. Rum gets darker as it ages because it absorbs the flavors and colors of the casks. Caramel is sometimes added for color consistency but not as a sweetener as is commonly thought.

Carey and Stuart differ in opinion on which element of rum production is most important. For Carey, aging is the most important step and for Stuart, it is the type of yeast used in fermentation.

Blending occurs after aging and before bottling. Most rums are blended to establish a distinct taste and consistency but once it is bottled, there is little that can change its flavor and color.

So what makes a good rum? "If you acquire the taste immediately, it has to be good!" Stuart says. "A good rum is dry. A 10-year-old Saint Nicholas Abbey (from Barbados with a production of only 5000 cases a year) is almost like whiskey but not as harsh. Whiskey and cognac are seen as 'the posh drinks' but they are acquired tastes with hard flavors."

The two visual qualities to look for are "legs", which is how slow the liquid runs down the glass. (The slower the better.) Then there is color, which has nothing to do with quality but usually determines the source of the rum. Generally, those from British colonies are the darkest, followed by Spanish colonies and finally those from French colonies.

"Anything you do with whiskey, you can do with rum," Carey says. And that means mixing, enjoying it with ice, water or neat.

A good thing to remember when appreciating rum vs whiskey is that rums mature faster than whiskies because of high humidity and quicker evaporation that occurs in the tropics.

A 10-year-old rum will therefore be closer in taste to a 20-year old whiskey. But the age on the bottle is not what it seems: With rums from British colonies, the youngest age of any rum in the blend is what is on the bottle (so a 10-year-old rum may have 15- and 25-year-olds in the blend). For rums from Spanish colonies, it is the opposite.

Therefore, you can have a label that says 25 years old that is primarily younger blends and only 5 percent being 25-year-old rum.

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(China Daily 03/23/2014 page8)