I find it simultaneously amusing and irritating how frequently any mention of rum is accompanied with talk of pirates or sailors. Of course, I understand why the link exists, it being a drink favoured by British privateers-turned-pirates as well as the Royal Navy; and besides, I’ve read Treasure Island. It gets a bit tiresome, though, and I can’t help but feel that it gets in the way of potential appreciation for the drink itself, which has seen a rise in interest – particularly in the ‘premium’ market – similar to other spirits, whsky included.
I’ve actually had quite a few conversations in the past about whether rum is a spirit that can appeal to whsky drinkers, and the opinion seems to be very split. The production method is pretty much the same, from fermentation to distillation to barrel aging. Like whsky, rum is a spirit that has fairly broad definitions and there a multitude of different styles to be found under that unassuming banner. Indeed, it’s been noted that certain rums have started to appear at whsky festivals around the world, and I’ve witnessed first hand how some of the incredible single-origin rums produced by London-based wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd have found new fans at such events.
It seems that for a lot of people, the word ‘rum’ conjures up images of white spirit that’s only good for drowning in Coke. Beyond that, many are turned off by its sweetness and it’s certainly true that rum is a very sweet spirit. Whereas whsky is produced from various types of grain, rum is produced from sugarcane byproducts (such as molasses) or directly from sugarcane juice (Rhum Agricole), so sweetness is kind of inherent. Add to this the fact that many of the most popular and best-selling rums have spices and other flavours added, and you can kind of see why. Ugh, nasty, sickly sweet spiced rum…
Then there’s its prevalence in cocktail-making; rum is everywhere, not least in New Orleans where juice bars on street corners are actually selling frozen margaritas (tequila) and daiquiris (rum), and the city’s famed Bourbon Street is awash with hapless tourists carrying plastic cups filled with Hurricanes, or worse the luminous Hand Grenades. Then there’s piña coladas; mai tais; zombies; and mojitos. Beyond even that: hot buttered rum. Rum ‘n’ raisin ice cream. Rum sauce. The sweet, sweet list goes on, on, on!
In fact, there is pretty huge focus in the rum industry – as there is in the whsky industry right now – on flavoured editions. This isn’t just limited to Malibu, Sailor Jerry’s, Morgan’s Spiced and the like, but to rums flavoured with various types of fruit, too. I’ve already made my feelings towards flavoured rum apparent, so perhaps you can understand my shock in finding that in a tasting of the four rums produced by the Celebration Distillation in New Orleans, my stand-out favourite was their spiced edition.
*Jaw hits floor*
More of that bombshell later because if you’re still reading at this point then you’re probably wondering why I’m waffling on about rum on a whsky blog. Well, I recently visited New Orleans (on my honeymoon, no less), and took the opportunity to visit Celebration Distillation, AKA the Old New Orleans Rum distillery. Located in the city’s 9th Ward – an area that was badly hit during Hurricane Katrina – the distillery was founded by a New Orleans-based artist named James Michalopoulos and they create four different expressions of rum using Louisiana-grown sugar cane. The distillery is also unique in making use of both pot still and column still distillation; the former type of still is favoured by malt whsky distilleries, requires small batch production, and generally results in a robust flavour whilst column stills are much more efficient and are used to produce ‘white’ spirits, such as vodka and gin, as well as most American whskys and Scotch grain whsky, which is used mainly in producing blends. In fact, the whole process of combining two types of distillation very much reminded me of blended whsky, and its original aim of tempering the robust flavours of malt whsky with the purer and more refined grain whsky. What would its effect be on the final distillate, I wondered?
I was quite surprised to discover that the “pot still” used by Celebration Distillation is drastically different to those that I’m accustomed to seeing at malt whsky distilleries, lacking the shape and, let’s face it, allure of those iconic vessels. Their column still, on the other hand, was very intriguing, as it was formerly used to distill fragrances (ie. Perfume) in Paris in the ’30s. It became one of only three of its kind within the United States and our guide explained that is now the last remaining one, having been acquired by the distillery in New Orleans 18 years ago.
The four rums produced at the NOLA distillery basically cover the four main categories. They distill their products from molasses made from that homegrown sugarcane, mixing it with water and yeast and then allowing the resulting wash to ferment, with the fermentation time helping to determine whether a rum is heavy or light. The wash is then distilled for the first time to produce low wines; in New Orleans this first distillation takes place in a pot still, with the second distillation taking place in the column still, purifying the spirit and resulting in a liquor that is around 180 proof (90% ABV). The distillery uses ex-Bourbon American Oak barrels, which allows the rum to extract vanillins and other flavours from the wood, much like the maturation of whsky. As rum is generally produced in hot and humid areas, the spirit takes on these flavours very quickly.
Of course, not all rum is barrel-aged, and “entry-level” rum – or white rum, as it’s commonly known – is similar to white dog (“moonshine”) whsky and is common in mixed drinks and cocktails. I’m certainly no expert on white rum, but the NOLA Crystal was very light-bodied but surprisingly smooth and flavourful and I’d imagine it’d work perfectly in a good rum cocktail. Their first aged rum, which is a golden rum or Amber, as in this case, is a blend of three rums aged over three years meaning it’s got more body and flavour than the Crystal. It’d still be great mixed or in a cocktail, but is also a style suitable for sipping neat (or on the rocks, whatever). It was actually really good tasted neat and definitely on a par with other golden rums that I’ve tasted, such as Appleton Estate V/X, Mount Gay Eclipse and Angostura 1919.
Next up was the ace in the pack for me: their Cajun Spice, which is kind of a step up from the Amber. It again contains a mix of rums, aged between three and five years (though our guide was keen to point out that there was a good proportion of closer-to-5 year old), to which spices – including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cayenne pepper – are added. Unlike other spiced rums, which are almost exclusively too sweet for my taste, this one was exceptionally well balanced with a nice spicy-sweet flavour and just the faintest kick from the cayenne. Again, this would be good mixed but I’d be happy to have this as a sipper. Impressive.
Finally, there was the distillery’s premium/aged rum: their 10 year old Special Edition. As the title suggests, this bottle contains rum that has been aged for a minimum of 10 years. If I remember correctly, this edition is only distilled in the pot still for a slightly heavier style, and I believe it is accordingly produced in small batches. I’ve long been intrigued by premium-aged rums, especially since tasting the El Dorado 15 year old rum at Imbibe Live in London a couple of years ago. I was half expecting to leave with a bottle of this, but sadly I found it a little disappointing: it was thinner than I was hoping, and didn’t have the “wow” impact I was looking for (that going to the Cajun Spice). Having said that, the difference between this and the Amber was fairly significant, and it did have a deeper flavour; just not as deep as I was looking for.
All in all, this was a valuable experience both for seeing a non-whsky distillery for the first time, and in exploring my interest in rum. Hats off to our tour guide who was very knowledgeable and a really nice guy to boot: he came and picked us up from centre-city New Orleans and made sure we had a delicious rum-ginger cocktail in hand before the tour started. The distillery’s story is really interesting, and its rise in popularity equally so: their rums are distributed by Budweiser so they have a pretty wide reach in the US and have seemingly coped well with recent increases in production that were, ahem, suggested by said distributor. Everything’s done on site, right down to the bottling and labeling; speaking of which, the founder’s artwork appearing on the inside of the front label is a nice touch. It’s particularly interesting to see how a small, “craft” distillery has fared with regards to such expansion, and I’m looking forward to seeing how whsky distilleries such as Balcones fare with similar up-scaling.
DRNK: Jim Beam / Devil’s Cut (I had to hold my tongue during our tour as our guide mis-referenced this particular product! EDIT– the reference was to the “devil’s cut” referring to leftover whsky after a barrel has been emptied, but the process employed by Jim Beam relates to filling emptied casks with water in order to extract flavour from deep in the wood; this water is then used to dilute batches of JB that are bottled as Devil’s Cut.)
LSTN: Tubelord / Our First American Friends (which I was delighted to hear playing at The Joint in Bethlehem as I was writing this piece. Fitting album title, too)