After working at Trader Vic's for its entire five-year run at the beautiful Hotel Valley Ho, I developed quite an appreciation for rum. Most people's familiarity with rum is limited to a mere two brands: Bacardi and Captain Morgan. Sometimes people are also familiar with Sailor Jerry. It's a crying shame that this is as far as rum goes for most people. The world of rum is one of the most vibrant in the world of spirits. Rum has a variety of styles like you wouldn't believe, and the price of entry is quite accessible. But the best part of rum... Every sip is like a trip to the Caribbean in a glass.
Rum may have its second-string reputation because it's seen as less pure than whiskey or vodka. This is somewhat deserved. The vast majority of spirits are made directly from crops such as grain, grapes, or potatoes. Meanwhile, most rum basically comes from leftovers. When people make sugar from sugarcane, they're left with molasses. When the molasses are distilled, it becomes rum. From there, different regions have their own distinctive styles, with a taste to fit anyone's palate. The rums that people are the most accustomed to are the rums of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. These ones are the most basic rums out there, often derided by rum connoisseurs as "party rums" due to their lack of character. While you won't sip it, it serves as the backbone of many rum cocktails. I keep a big bottle of Cruzan's fine silver rum for this very reason, but there's an ocean of difference between party rums and a fine sipper.
I'll make no secret that my favorite rums come from Jamaica. They tend to be smooth and rich, with notes of the vanilla and spice in those spiced party rums. Premium ones will be a little oaky and buttery from their prolonged aging. Appleton Estate's 21-year bottling is rich and complex like a really good Cognac. It is a bargain compared to a similarly aged Cognac, but still quite expensive at about $120 a bottle. Appleton's 12-year bottling still gets the job done admirably for a fraction of the price. Feel like you have something to prove? Reach for Smith & Cross. The combination of its pot still distillation and high alcohol content (a whopping 114 proof!) makes it quite the aggressive spirit. I think it's delicious, but it begs for a splash of water; when taken neat, it nearly blows your eyebrows clean across the room.
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If you want a bit more oomph than the smooth Jamaicans but aren't yet ready to take on Smith & Cross (I can't blame you), look for Demerara rums. They're hard to find, but worth the search. Demerara rums have a flavor edging more towards nuts and toffee, with a little mineral hit in there. El Dorado is the only brand available in Arizona, and is a darned fine example of a good Demerara rum. Personal request: Can a liquor distributor do something about the lack of Demerara choices and start carrying Lemon Hart in regular and the incredible 151-proof? Pretty please?
We conclude our whirlwind rum tour with the most unique: Martinique's rhum agricole. While most rums are made from molasses, rhum agricole is made directly from sugar cane juice, much like the Brazilian spirit cachaça. Rhum agricole tends to have a more complex, rougher flavor than molasses-based rums. It takes a little getting used to, but it's well worth the pursuit. Comparing rhum agricole to most any other rum is sort of like comparing a gravelly-voiced rocker to an American Idol winner; they're both great, but each in their own very different ways. Rhum Saint James is the most widely known brand, but Rhum Clément is nipping at their heels with some amazing bottlings.
Now that you're armed with all this knowledge, you should get out and taste for yourself! Keep an eye open anywhere you go with a nicely stocked bar, there's often at least one bottle of Caribbean liquid gold hiding on the back bar. The most obvious place to go in your quest for rum is Rum Bar at The Breadfruit. They have one of the finest rum selections anywhere, with over 100 bottles at your disposal (and thank goodness, no Bacardi in sight). After that, the pickings get pretty slim. A new spot that has a respectable rum selection is Casablanca Lounge, in the former Estate House space in downtown Scottsdale's SouthBridge complex. I'm crossing my fingers that the new proprietors of Bikini Lounge put a little tiki back in the old gal, and stock a couple of fine rums for the tiki tourists that I know they get in there regularly. Beyond those, Is there some hidden gem I should have known about already?