Tiki drinks and tiki bars have been rising in popularity for several years now, and thanks to this trend, many cocktail lovers are becoming increasingly familiar with rum. “A fascination with cocktail history has shined a light on tiki drinks and punches, which certainly brings rum to the forefront of the conversation,” says Melissa Gallagher, bar manager at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Georgia.
Teddy Collins, lead bartender and general manager of Miami’s Radio Bar, also points to this natural correlation between the rise of tiki drinks and the increased exposure of rum. “With the recent tiki resurgence, rum is being used more often and in new ways on cocktail menus,” he says. For its weekly “Tiki Tuesdays” promotion, Radio Bar offers $8 rum cocktails, including such classics as the Daiquiri, the Mai Tai and the Zombie.
Increased familiarity with rum through tiki culture has led to experimentation and creativity among mixologists in their approaches to rum-based cocktails. While tiki-style rum drinks are still prevalent, mixologists are stepping outside the supposed boundaries of the island spirit. Going beyond the expected tropical flavors enjoyed during summer months, mixologists are creating rum drinks that run the gamut from simple and herbal to potent and spicy, offering a rum cocktail for any time of the year and for any taste preference.
Quality Over Quantity
Thanks to the rise in premium rum brands on the U.S. market, bartenders and consumers are getting excited about rum and its possibilities in complex and sophisticated tipples. “We’re seeing a huge resurgence of an all-time classic cocktail, the Daiquiri—not the kind that comes out of a slushie machine,” says Brian Avenius, brand director of Brugal rum. “It’s got three ingredients: premium rum, simple syrup and fresh lime juice. The cocktail’s simplicity makes it a great platform for personalization.” The Perks of Being an Elderflower, created for the brand by New York City mixologist Micaela Piccolo, is a creative variant on the Daiquiri featuring Brugal Extra Dry rum, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Scrappy’s Lavender bitters and fresh lime juice.
“There’s an overall movement toward more sophisticated, balanced cocktails that aren’t drowning in sugar and processed juices,” Avenius adds. “We’re seeing tremendous creativity with rum drinks featuring fresh fruit juices.” New York City mixologist John McCarthy developed the Mr. Tingles cocktail ($14 at the Manhattan bar Greenwich Project), made with Szechuan peppercorn-infused Brugal Extra Dry white rum, Regans’ Orange No. 6 bitters, Angostura bitters, pomegranate and lime juices, and simple syrup.
“We’ve seen an emergence in the use of homemade, seasonally inspired ingredients in cocktails,” says Arvind Krishnan, vice president and brand managing director for the rum category at Bacardi USA. In recent years, the brand has partnered with the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) to host the USBG Legacy Cocktail Showcase, which challenges participants to create original Bacardi cocktails. The 2014 winner, Boston bartender Naomi Levy, created the Guayaba Arabica, comprising Bacardi Superior rum, Boiron guava purée, coffee-scented simple syrup, lime juice, cilantro and grated espresso beans. “In this competition we look for drinks that embody what makes classic cocktails so revered: balance, flavor, quality of ingredients and aesthetic appeal,” Krishnan says.
Brugal’s Avenius points to the growth of premium rums as opening doors in the mixology community that were formerly closed to the spirit. “Tiki cocktails certainly enjoyed a boost recently, and the Mojito has continued to be a mainstay, but aside from that, rum didn’t receive what I would call a fair share of the classic cocktail boom at first,” he explains. “That’s in part because bartenders want to make those cocktails with premium spirits, and there was a perception that rum didn’t fit that bill.” Avenius says brands like Brugal have been making a concerted effort to educate the trade and consumers about offerings that can deliver the same credentials they expect from other premium spirits: authenticity, heritage, provenance and impressive quality stories. “We’re starting to see the fruits of that effort appear on top-shelf cocktail menus,” he adds.
Familiar Yet Unexpected
With drinks like the Daiquiri and Mojito still in high demand, consumers have become accustomed to seeing rum drinks on cocktail menus, but they may not be fully aware of the range of rum styles available and the versatility within the category. Mixologists are beginning to shed light on this aspect of rum as they explore the spirit for inspiration.
“Rum’s versatility can compare with any other spirit category,” says Jesse Card, mixologist for Cruzan rum. “It’s perfect for island-themed drinks, but it also works incredibly well in traditional cocktails. You can make a rum drink that’s simple and refreshing like a Daiquiri, or you can make the same cocktail using a bold, dark, aged rum and totally change the taste profile to create a libation with lots of depth and layers. One recipe can have multiple flavor options from the enormous variety of expressions that rum provides.” At Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, the 4-Rum Daiquiri ($11) blends Flor de Caña Extra Dry rum, Rhum J.M Agricole Blanc 40-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv) rum, El Dorado 15-year-old rum and Gosling’s 151 Proof Black Seal rum with simple syrup and lime juice. “Different regions of the world produce very different flavors of rum, and there’s a fine art to blending various rums together and seeing what flavors you can conjure,” says beverage director Pip Hanson. “That’s my favorite thing about rum.”
Though all rums have a sugar base, there’s a wide range of grades and types of sugars that can be used, including pure sugarcane, molasses and Demerara. “Agricole rhum is made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, which gives it an herbaceous and fruity terroir-driven flavor profile,” says Benjamin Mélin-Jones, Rhum J.M’s regional director for North America. Agricole rhum’s subtle sweetness from its sugarcane base works with a variety of fruits, and its earthiness can complement herbs and spices, while standing up to bold ingredients like Sherry and amaro. At Eveleigh in Los Angeles, Dave Kupchinsky’s Lucky Louie cocktail ($12) features Rhum J.M Agricole Blanc 40-percent abv rum, muddled kumquat, house-made ginger and anise syrups, and lime juice. At Sassafras Saloon in Los Angeles, Karen Grill’s Sweet Ti ($12) is made with Rhum J.M Agricole Blanc 40-percent abv, Art in the Age Sage liqueur, Montenegro amaro, lime juice and house-made blackberry lemon jam.
“There are so many styles of rum, from light and fruity to dark and spiced or smoky and citrusy,” says Gallagher at Leon’s Full Service. “It works great in all types of cocktails and can be mixed with other base spirits, which makes for really interesting drinks.” Her Resolutions Punch ($10) blends Denizen Merchant’s Reserve rum with Wathen’s Bourbon, Casa de Santa Eufemia Tawny Port, Bellafina Prosecco, black tea, simple syrup, sparkling water and lemon juice.
Even with the same style of rum, the cocktail possibilities are seemingly endless. For Afrohead Premium Aged Dark rum, brand ambassador Isaac Grillo created the fruity and refreshing Afrodite, blending Afrohead, watermelon purée, simple syrup, lime juice and basil leaves, while Robert Ferrera’s I Rock Ruff & Stuff ($12) at The Rum Line in Miami is on the bolder, spicy side. The drink features Afrohead, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, Mandarine Napoléon orange liqueur, house-made cinnamon syrup and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters. At Radio Bar, Collins uses Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7-year-old rum in the Red Ginger ($12), mixed with strawberry, lime juice, simple syrup, ginger beer and mint, and in the 12AM Call Time ($12), combined with house-made espresso and toffee-peanut extracts and an orange peel. “Tropical ingredients are great with rum, but sometimes it’s nice to divert and go in a warmer direction with caramel, maple, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey or vanilla flavors,” Collins says.
Potent And Palatable
Warmer-style rum drinks like the 12AM Call Time are gaining traction in the mixology community as bartenders explore dark styles of rum. “The rum flavor spectrum ranges from sweet to savory to earthy and everything else under the sun,” Rhum J.M’s Mélin-Jones says. “Agricole rhum is dry, grassy and aromatic and makes a bright, complex shaken cocktail with very few ingredients, whereas a Demerara rum is rich, sweet and spicy and can even be substituted for a whisk(e)y in a stirred cocktail.”
Cruzan’s Card has noticed that more mixologists are replacing whisk(e)y with rum in traditional recipes. “Strong cocktails with rich rum expressions have been taking the place of whisk(e)y and Scotch recipes,” he says. His Cruzan Estate Diamond Manhattan blends Cruzan Estate Diamond Dark rum with Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, Meletti amaro and Regans’ Orange No. 6 bitters, while Bacardi’s Rum Old Fashioned features Bacardi 8-year-old rum, Angostura bitters, sugar, water and orange zest.
“Rum isn’t just a summer staple anymore,” Card says. “The autumnal flavors of an aged rum work perfectly in winter drinks like an Old Fashioned or a Hot Toddy.” Gallagher at Leon’s Full Service created the Ski Montage cocktail, comprising Barbancourt 5 Star 8-year-old rum, Green Chartreuse liqueur, Borghetti di Vero Caffè espresso liqueur, heavy cream, hot water and butter. “There’s definitely an increase in the stirred and boozy style of rum drink,” she says. “People are sipping on it more and treating it like a whisk(e)y. There have been a lot of great riffs on drinks in the style of rum Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.” One such riff, The Rustico—created for Brugal by New York City mixologist Estelle Bossy—comprises Brugal Añejo, maple syrup, and muddled orange and lemon twists.
“Aged rum appeals to consumers who like the flavor of spirits but are maybe tired of just drinking whisk(e)y,” Marvel Bar’s Hanson says. “It’s a good choice for people who have become pretty familiar with cocktails and who want something unexpected but still recognizable,” His cocktail The Golden Age ($11) is made with Flor de Caña Gold rum, Cynar aperitif, Grant La Garrocha Fino Sherry, Licor 43 liqueur and Peychaud’s bitters. “Not too long ago, the idea of a ‘rum connoisseur’ would have been pretty funny,” Hanson adds. “Now people get as passionate about rum as they do about wine or Scotch. People are thirsty for new and unusual styles of every spirit, including rum, and producers are meeting that growing demand.”
Indeed, the rum category has prospered in the last 15 years thanks to an emphasis on premium brands that appeal to cocktail fans. “As consumers and the trade see how premium offerings and sophisticated cocktails can change any previous notions about rum, they really get into exploring different ways to use the spirit in drinks,” Brugal’s Avenius says. “We’re just at the beginning of a great future.”