For a lot of landlocked, would-be flats anglers, the last year or so has made travel to the warm, sunny places where bonefish and permit swim impossible, ill-advised, or otherwise difficult. Like most, I have only been able to fantasize about a flats trip. But, with coronavirus vaccination rates accelerating and pandemic-related restrictions easing, those dreams are inching closer to reality.
These are vivid dreams. Aside from the fishing — which is a smorgasbord of sensory recollection — I’ve been craving conch fritters, fried grouper, wild rice with jasmine, fried plantains, ceviche and … rum.
Distilled from molasses (derived from cane sugar) and the liquor of choice in the Caribbean for hundreds of years, rum has a rich history and its creation is a serious, varied and nuanced craft. Yet, most people don’t find rum to be a particularly complex drink. For your average spirit-drinker, rum is just something you mix with Coke. Maybe a squeeze of lime, a la the Cuba Libre. But rum is so much more than that.
I remember one of my first trips to the Bahamas to chase bonefish out of Dead Man’s Cay on Long Island. I and two friends of mine were lounging on a sun-soaked deck overlooking the emerald waters of the bay after a full day spent walking and wading the flats. We were exhausted and anxiously awaiting dinner from the lodge. A chilled cocktail while soaking in the Caribbean breeze seemed like a really good idea. We’d each poured a tumbler of Havana Club Añejo over ice — no Coke. No lime. Just rum.
My buddy Marc Payne, a Knoxivillian and a Tennessee bourbon whiskey guy, was a bit hesitant. Just rum? Over ice? He took a pull and stared contemplatively over the bay. Another sip. And another. Before long, he stood up from his chair on the deck and made his way back inside the lodge’s dining room, only to return a moment later with another cube of ice in the tumbler burgeoning with another generous shot of Havana Club.
“I never expected rum to be so complex,” he said.
Granted, we were enjoying real Havana Club, a perfectly reasonable middle-shelf rum available the world over but not in the U.S., thanks to the continued embargo our country has kept in place on Cuba for 70 years or so (the same embargo that makes the sale of Cuban cigars illegal in the United States). There’s more to the story here — Bacardi, the largest distiller on the planet, makes a Havana Club rum, having purchased the recipe and the rights to the name from Havana Club’s founding family, the Arechebalas, in 1995. But the Cuban government and French liquor giant Pernod Ricard both claim Havana Club as their own, and still make the Cuban rum in Cuba.
But distillers throughout the Caribbean have been crafting countless fine rums since stealing the fermenting and distilling process from the vanquished Carib tribes not long after Columbus sailed past the northern tip of Long Island after first making landfall in the New World at San Salvador in October 1492. Rum and colonialism in the Caribbean over the next 300 years go hand in hand.
As more and more European countries worked to exploit the vast resources of the New World, from coastal North America south through Caribbean and into South America, rum became increasingly important. Fresh water stored in casks aboard ships had a tendency to grow algae or attract insects. To battle this, sailing captains began to mix the water with rum to prevent toxicity. This mixture was commonly referred to as “grog,” and was a serious commodity on ocean-going vessels through the age of piracy, well into the 1700s.
These days, there’s little use for grog (why drink watered down rum when you can just drink rum?). But rum is still distilled from molasses all over the Caribbean and into central America. From Nicaragua and Guyana to Jamaica, Cuba, Barbados and Puerto Rico, rum is the regional spirit of choice.
And Marc was right. It’s more complex than most people know.
I mean, let’s face it. Most of us were introduced to rum at an early age — maybe it was that unfortunate and clandestine sip from the bottle of Ronrico carelessly stored in the parents’ liquor cabinet. Or perhaps it came in the form of Bacardi 151, lighted aflame in the center of the giant tiki bowl you and your college buddies ordered with multiple straws at the local Chinese restaurant. If that’s the case, and you’ve developed your perception of rum under these unfortunate circumstances, it’s time to start drinking rum like a grownup.
Or, rather, like a Caribbean flats fisher.
First, there are literally dozens of reasonably priced rums on the market — including some very good craft distillates made in some unlikely places (the highly regarded Montanya distillery operates on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colo., for instance). Rums today come from all over the world, but the spirit’s connection to the West Indies and the south Atlantic region of the Americas is undeniable.
Second, rum can be every bit as quixotic and flighty as good whiskey or as temperamental as tequila. If you’re a Jamaican rum fan, you’re likely a fan of funkier rum, high in esters and variable flavors ranging from green apple and caramel to less-desirable aromas, like nail polish remover. If you like a more mellow spirit, you might like Cuban rum better (not all Cuban-style rum is made in Cuba).
There are several styles of rum (just as there are several styles of just about any common spirit). Finding what’s right for you will take some tasting, even if you don’t have the luxury of doing the tasting while relaxing on the deck as the sun sets over Long Island. To help you get started, here are some solid rums of varying styles that won’t break the bank. Consider this the companion piece to this guide to drinking Irish whiskey through the ongoing pandemic.
And, if we’re lucky, we may soon begin to enjoy rum where rum belongs and when it’s best consumed — somewhere overlooking a bonefish flat after a day spent casting Gotchas into a 15-knot wind. Cheers to that notion.
Mount Gay Eclipse Barbados Rum
Mount Gay is a Bajan, or Barbados, rum, and it’s the oldest commercially available rum in the world — it was first distilled, as the name would imply, in 1703. Considered by many to be the official rum of the sailing community, there’s nothing untoward about a flats angler enjoying a sip over ice, too. Aged in former American whiskey barrels, Mount Gay isn’t terribly harsh when sipped, and is quite nice over ice. It’s not a gulping rum — very few rums would meet that definition. But, enjoyed slowly, drinkers will first notice a sweet aroma and a taste that might intone vanilla or caramel. Some think Mount Gay is kind of a pedestrian rum, but I disagree. And, at less that $25 for a fifth, it’s a solid bargain.
Myers Original Dark Rum
Myers is a signature Jamaican rum, and that means it might be a bit too lively for the rum sipper (remember those esters?). Jamaican rums tend to encourage those sometimes-random flavors that accompany the style’s kind of laissez faire fermentation process — while some rum styles are fermented for just a couple of days, Jamaican rums are often fermented for weeks. I know when I’m drinking Myers because I can really taste the molasses base. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a rum that’s good mixed. Over ice, it’s a slow sip, but some swear by it. I tend to think of Myers as an acquired taste — just a sniff of it lets you know that it’ll burn your gullet if you’re too enthusiastic with that first gulp. But over time, it’s a rum you learn to drink … and appreciate. It’s a solid middle-shelf spirit that comes in at about $23 a fifth.
Havana Club Añejo Clasico
Given that there’s the real Havana Club rum that’s still distilled in Cuba and the other Havana Club distilled by Bacardi (but using the original recipe), I’ll go with the version that’s available in the U.S. Having tried both, I can honestly say that both rums — each distilled by giant, worldwide spirit makers — are good representations of Cuban-style rum (even though the Bacardi version is distilled in Puerto Rico). They aren’t too sweet and don’t come off as cidery or overly potent thanks to rogue esters. Instead, a whiff of Havana Club kind of reminds me of my late grandfather’s den (funny how aromas channel memories, huh?). My grandfather was a cigar lover (I don’t remember him drinking rum), and the spent tobacco essence of a cigar can be found in Havana Club. Think also … dark chocolate. I dig it, and when I’m somewhere where the real deal can be found, I almost always buy it — but I’m also guilty of having the Bacardi version in the liquor cabinet as I type this. If I remember correctly, I paid about $27 for a fifth. While I can steadily sip Havana Club, I tend to think of Cuban rums as mixers — even the Cubans think so. The rum and Coke is the Cuba Libre when you add a twist of lime.
Bacardi Añejo Cuatro
As advertised, this Puerto Rican rum (which is basically distilled along the same style as Cuban rum) is aged four years. It’s a solid, affordable rum with a nice vanilla nose and a similar dark chocolate taste as it’s sister rum, Havana Club. Also, kind of like Havana Club, it’s solid as a mixer. It might be bar rum for everything from a Cuba Libre to a good, old rum punch to a piña colada. It’s sippable, but there are better choices if that’s the plan. It’s borderline cheap — depending on where you live and where you buy it, you can acquire a fifth for about $20.
The Real McCoy light rum
I’m not a big fan of light rum. My experience has taught me that it’s the rum that ends up in just about every hangover special, from the Hurricane to the Mojito, and that makes sense. Generally speaking, light rums are sweeter and softer on the palate (and it’s totally fine if you like it that way). I can’t think of a single light rum that I’d sip over rocks. But The Real McCoy Single Blended Rum would be about as close as I’d get. I honestly don’t dislike it, and that’s saying something coming from someone who appreciates the richness that comes with barrel aged spirits. Perhaps it’s because this three-year-aged rum is, indeed, barrel aged, but it incorporates a charcoal filtration system that removes the color at the end of the process. I have to wonder, of course, why? Like a lot of rums, this one has a great story — the company’s namesake, William McCoy, was one of the first rum-runners of the prohibition era, and while other bootleggers of the day were diluting their booze with everything from turpentine to prune juice, McCoy never did. Hence the phrase, “The Real McCoy.” Today, the real deal will set you back about $25 for a fifth.
Flor de Caña 7 Gran Reserva + Flor de Caña Centenario 12 Year
This Flor de Caña offering is aged in former whiskey barrels, which likely gives it its appealing copper color and full, back-of-the-tongue flavor. Distilled in Nicaragua, the rum has a really heavy nose — if you give it some time, you’ll notice a bittersweet aroma … maybe unsweetened cocoa? It’s not a rum to shoot (and unless you’re trying to impress your mates at the bar, rum, in general, isn’t a shooter’s spirit), but a rum to savor. Word to the wise: take your time. It’s a potent rum and it’s spicy on the way down. When you pour your glass, add your ice and then spend five minutes doing something else — feed the dog or sort through your mail. It needs those precious few minutes to mellow just a bit. But when it mellows … damn, it’s good. It’s not sweet, but rather kind of nutty and lively. I suppose it would be just fine in a mixer, but if you can be patient, it’s a great sipping rum, so long as you don’t try and tackle it neat. A fifth will run you about $25. And it’s so worth it.
If you're willing to drop another $10, barely sneaking into what you'd rightfully call middle-shelf is the Flor de Caña Centenario 12 Year. Like the 7 year, the 12 Year is an off-dry medium bodied rum. It has a similar flavor profile to that of its younger sister, but with richer, warmer baking spice flavors and more noticeable mandarin notes. Yet the Centenario 12 year is a far more mature, rounded spirit. This is a smoother, more developed rum that most drinkers sip, but is absolutely a star in cocktails.
El Dorado 15 yr Special Reserve
We’re breaking the rules here, a bit. If we were sticking to the middle-shelf parameters we set for ourselves, you’d be reading about the 12 year offering from rum-maker El Dorado—which has been crafting fine rums for over 300 years in the Demerara region of Guyana. Demerara, a coastal area on Guyana’s northern coast, is literally synonymous with the deep, rich, dark brown sugar from which El Dorado and other rums are distilled.
It’s the 12 year, at around $30/bottle, that fits the middle-shelf classification, though it wasn’t long ago that the 15 year El Dorado we’re recommending inexplicably did, too. Either El Dorado or retailers wised up, and the 15 year now runs around $47 a bottle. Both rums are rich and nuanced, but the 12 year is simply too sweet. That sweetness smothers El Dorado’s wonderful complexity, and you miss out on half the things that make this rum so special.
With the dominating sweetness removed (this is still a sweet rum, mind you, but the sweetness marries and complements, rather than overwhelms), the 15 yr Special Reserve’s flavors shine through: bold and dark coffee, warming orange notes, vanilla, toffee, oak, pipe tobacco.
I know we’ve been talking a lot about how rum is more than you’ve previously imagined it to be. Of all the picks listed here, the 15 yr old El Dorado Special Reserve is the best example of this reality. This is a spirit that’s every bit as complex as fine bourbons and scotches. Rest assured, if there is one bottle that will forever change the way you think about rum, this is it. You can thank me later.
The final word
There are so many other rums out there to try, and all of them have their roots in a burgeoning New World ripe for the plundering — and goodness, was it ever plundered. The injustices committed upon the native peoples of the region, and, later, the Africans captured and carted across the Atlantic like cordwood only to be sold into slavery can never be fully atoned. But the region remains a cultural petri dish where languages change the next island over, as do the people, their origins and their pastimes.
There are some constants, however, and one of them is rum. It may have been used by the pirates and the privateers and the European monarchs to grease the wheels of conquest, but in more recent times, it’s serving a higher purpose … it brings people together.
And I can’t wait to come together with my friends on family islands, coastal rivieras and tiny outpost atols again. To these folks, I tip my glass.