Rum's road to the dark side

Rum stirs up more than just flavours. Lucy Britner finds out what’s happening in cocktail culture

Rum’s journey into the hearts, minds and mouths of consumers is a well-rehearsed one. You look at the origin and history of the spirit, you find the classic cocktails that stem from this history and then you… what?

Rum is arguably ready for the next phase. We enjoyed the fun thing and the Sailors, Bats and Captains that went with it. Then many of the ad campaigns changed tack. Less emphasis was on parties and more was on the liquid and its – cue buzzword – heritage. The tiki drinks and the bars that go along with that theme are well known. Their classic counterparts are as well documented as the Hemingways who enjoyed them. 

Of course there’s still a place for all of this but what’s next? What else has rum got to offer the cocktail world? In a word: lots.

Logic and taste tell us many rums are dark spirits and therefore should be interchangeable with cocktails that err on the dark side.

Martin Cate from San Francisco’s seminal rum haunt Smuggler’s Cove – which placed at number 30 in The World’s 50 Best Bars 2013 – says this will be one of the next big drivers for rum cocktails.

“Rum Old Fashioneds and rum Manhattans for example are an excellent platform to introduce people to premium aged rum in particular as a complex and satisfying spirit. It also helps showcase the diversity of rum and all the directions you can take a classic such as a Manhattan when you choose, for example, a Barbados, Puerto Rican, or Martinique rum. 

“Making classics like this is a huge lure to traditionally Scotch or bourbon drinkers.”

Bar manager at Skylon London Nebojsa Kutlesic agrees. He serves up rum Manhattans to customers who don’t like bourbon.

He says: “From our perspective, people are a bit more about trying something new. So we make our own creations. We do sell classics such as Daiquiris but they are not bestsellers. Manhattan-style drinks and Old Fashioneds are popular – generally people go for them because they don’t like bourbon but they want a strong drink.”

It’s surprising to note Kutlesic doesn’t list rum’s most popular - and one of the world’s most popular – cocktails. Though it’s no secret that bartenders are not wild about concocting it. “We don’t have Mojitos,” he says. “It’s the number one in the world so we don’t put in on the menu.

“If customers really want it they will come and ask for it but we want people to try other classics. You can do great twists on Mojitos – you can play around with them quite a lot. People are comfortable with the taste and flavour of a Mojito. If you order one you play safe and drink it all night long. In my opinion you should try something different.

“Rum can take gin’s place in a Negroni, for example.”

Kutlesic has created what he claims is an interesting twist on the Negroni – he calls it Timber: 40ml Fair rum, which he says is quite light, 15ml of Campari, 15ml of byrrh, the juice of half a lime and two barspoons of caster sugar.

The drink is shaken and finished with grapefruit zest.

Timber is also set to evolve. “I’m planning to introduce aged cocktails,” says Kutlesic. “That includes a plan to age Timber for a couple of weeks in a barrel.” Kutlesic will age all the boozy ingredients then shake with sugar and lime before serving. “The wood-ageing will connect better with the name of the cocktail, too,” he adds.

For premium Guatemalan producer Botran, high-end tipples are the name of the game.

Botran’s global commercial director Frank Quinones says: “Rum has become more sophisticated. We are now at a point where quality has raised the bar. People appreciate the actual liquid is important – when you drink Cognac or Scotch, for example, you appreciate the value of it. Now people are appreciating rum.”

It’s not surprising then that both Quinones and Isabel Molina-Botran – one of the family – agree that their rum can be used in dark spirits cocktails. But they are keen not to rule out fruity numbers.

“Different people have different tastes and people will still drink fruity rum drinks but, as they get to know rum better, we would love to see people appreciate the spirit.” The fact that the company recently earned a GI status shows its dedication to producing a spirit of Guatemala.

Botran also has the benefit of expertise from the best bar in the world. Alex Kratena from Artesian is described by the company as a kind of ambassador and Botran is the house pour at the Langham.

Spiced rum

Spiced rum has long been making inroads in cocktail culture and, though Botran doesn’t currently offer a spiced rum, never say never. “We’ll see,” says Isabel Molina-Botran. “You have to be very careful because part of the essence and beauty of our product is that it is very high quality. It is hard to create a very good quality spiced rum.”

However, she did point out that there are a plethora of spices native to Guatemala. Watch this space...

In the tattoo-covered Sailor Jerry camp, the second half of 2013 has been about ramping up the serve strategy and working more closely with the on-trade around the spiced rum brand and its various serves.

Enda O’Sullivan, global brand director for Sailor Jerry says: “We have three approaches depending on the outlet and what it wants to achieve. The first is around simple serves, such as Jerry & ginger beer. The second is about heritage drinks – think 1950’s American dive bars.” He says the third is about more interesting and difficult cocktails, such as the Heavy Punch (see below left).

“Spiced rums are growing and they have sourced a lot of growth from dark spirits and also from beer,” says O’Sullivan.

Sailor Jerry’s three-line whip when it comes to cocktails is not shared by all producers. For Martin Cate, many rum producers think more with consumers in mind than bartenders.

He says: “Most brands tend to push their products for consumers and they want to express to their buyers that their product has easy and versatile applications. So they tend to promote straightforward recipes. Nothing wrong with that – it’s unlikely most consumers will take a month in advance to custom-make and infuse an ingredient, so they want drinks that are easy and fast to make.”

At Smuggler’s Cove, good drinks take time and the minutes and hours pass not only behind the bar but also in the prep. Cate prides himself on attention to detail – vintage detail. The 80-strong drinks list makes use of 29 rums, selected for their historic accuracy, regionality, age or body differences to suit each cocktail.

“Our most popular drinks are the ones from either the tiki section of the menu or the modern section. One of the things that has made Smuggler’s Cove so well recognised has been the effort in faithfully reproducing vintage exotic cocktails using a fresh juice, in-house syrups and carefully selected blends of rums that most closely replicate the ones used historically. 

“This creates balanced drinks that are complex, engaging and just really enjoyable. The rums are never hidden in the mix. Most of our guests not only really enjoy these drinks, but find them the most appropriate for enjoying in our space – they most fit the décor and atmosphere.

“We see bends towards seasonal specials but otherwise most favourites have been pretty consistent.”

Seasonal influences are also apparent in London’s Skylon and, with the weather there turning to winter, Kutlesic has introduced a flaming rum Blazer. “We do interesting warmers and Blazers and in winter we go heavier on the flavour to warm people up. It is very seasonal. We have made a Blazer with Fair rum, Fair coffee liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino, blazed with cinnamon stick, cloves and orange peel, with orange zest through the flames.”

Fair rum launched in September to the UK and US and it is aged in oak for five years. It hails from Belize. 

In Greece, at Baba Au Rum – another of this year’s 50 Best Bars – top man Thanos Prunarus says a straight-up drink with tiki influence takes top billing at his bar. The Ray Barientos is made with Zacapa 23, homemade cinnamon syrup, cherry brandy, fresh lime juice, fresh orange juice and grapefruit bitters. “New flavour trends, at least here in the Mediterrenean/Athens are about the combination of aged rums with rich red wines, chocolate and olives.”

Despite the popularity of Prunarus’s fruity little number, he swears by one classic in particular. “When it comes to the future, experimentation will show us the way but, after tasting fine rum cocktails at bars all over the world, I believe a pure classic Daiquiri is the best rum cocktail I’ve ever tasted.”

Whether you’re erring towards the dark side or you simply want to try rum in your whisk(e)y drink – rum consumers’ hearts, minds and mouths are open to anything.