When most Americans think of rum drinks, what most likely comes to mind is rum & Coke, a daiquiri, or perhaps something served poolside—frozen and garnished with a miniature umbrella. These simple concoctions belie rum’s complex character and history. Rum was first produced by English planters on the island of Barbados in the 1650s. Because rum is distilled from fermented molasses, a byproduct of the sugar manufacturing process, it is thus inextricably linked with the sugar trade and the greater “triangle trade” of which sugar was a major part. As far as spirits go, rum has played a significant role in world history.
Fresh cut sugar cane stalks are pressed to extract the cane juice, which was traditionally boiled in copper pots to remove impurities. Syrupy molasses would then be separated from the crystallized sugar. Both were used for sweetening foodstuffs. Molasses for distilling would then be boiled and allowed to ferment. When the fermented liquid was boiled again, the captured vapor was the early crude rum that took the name “kill-devil.”
Before long it became apparent that rum improved greatly when aged, and in modern times most rum is aged in used oak barrels, leftover from the American bourbon industry. Aging smoothes out the harshness of fresh rum, and imparts a gold to dark brown color on the spirit.
The characteristics of rum are as different as the various tropical destinations from which they come. On the lighter side (and the style familiar to most Americans) are the highly distilled, almost vodka-like rums of Puerto Rico, Bacardi being the most ubiquitous of these. On the other end of the spectrum are the funky pot-stilled rums of Jamaica. Rums from the French West Indies, made from distilling the cane juice instead of molasses, carry the distinction of rhum agricole. The pungent rum of Java,distilled with a small portion of red rice, is called Batavia Arack.
Though rum’s popularity in America has ebbed and flowed over the last 350 years, it has never strayed far from the spotlight. Rum production was a vigorous domestic industry in colonial New England. In the 19th Century, rum figured into many classic punches, at a time when the “flowing bowl” of punch was de rigueur and most drinking was a communal effort. Rum continued to have chart-toppers in the 20th-century as well. The daiquiri, a Cuban specialty made simply of rum, sugar and lime was popularized by the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and John F. Kennedy. Of course the noble daiquiri would suffer a great insult in the latter decades of the century, as it was relegated to frozen drink machines in the party destinations of the South, and as its “virgin” format became a popular cocktail-for-kids, spiked with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. The proper Daiquiri, however, is experiencing a much-deserved revival in recent years as classic cocktails make their way back to the forefront of American culinary culture.
A survey of rum consumption in popular America would be incomplete without mentioning the Piña Colada and the pseudo-Polynesian fantasies of the tiki craze. The Piña Colada, a mixture of light rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice, was invented in the 1950’s at the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico, and by the late 1970’s was declared that country’s national drink. The tiki drinks were pioneered by Ernest “Don the Beachcomber” Gantt and Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in the 1930’s, but hit the mainstream when Americans became fascinated with the South Pacific in the decade after World War II. With names like the Zombie and the Suffering Bastard, it is no wonder that these exotic cocktails captured the imagination. While the tiki drinks encouraged rum consumption, they also did a disservice to the spirit by binding rum in the popular mind to complex potions chock full of tropical fruit juices. It is important to remember that some of the best rum cocktails are simple combinations that show off the spirit instead of obscuring it. The craft cocktail renaissance of the last few years has coincided with an explosion of great rums onto the market. There is no time like the present to be- come reacquainted with this great classic spirit.
Enjoy some rum recipes that have proven to be crowd pleasers with the guest I’ve entertained.
Treaty Oak Cocktail
The Treaty Oak Cocktail was designed to highlight local spirits and indigenous Texas flavors.It is sweetened with a subtle hint of rosemary syrup, a nod to the potent herb that grows so abundantly in Central Texas.
2 oz Treaty Oak Rum
3/4 oz Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur
1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz rosemary syrup*
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
In a saucepan, bring one cup of water and one cup of raw sugar to a simmer; turn off heat. Submerge a few sprigs of fresh rosemary into the syrup and muddle gently to initiate the infusion. Let steep five minutes. Taste. If the rosemary flavor is faint, allow to steep another five minutes. The rosemary flavor should be present but not overbearing. Strain the syrup and chill. Store in refrigerator up to two weeks.
The Mojito dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, and was a sort of country cousin to the Daiquiri. The drink experienced a burst of popularity in the last decade and as with all classic cocktails that experience renewed popularity, the Mojito proved impossibly tempting to the commercial mixer industry. Though the convenience of a Mojito mix may seem alluring, this great classic drink is best made in the classic way: from scratch.
2 or more sprigs of fresh mint
1 oz simple syrup
1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1 1⁄2 oz Treaty Oak rum
In the bottom of a mixing glass, muddle simple syrup and one sprig of mint. Add lime juice and rum. Shake to chill and strain onto fresh cracked ice in a tall glass. Top with soda and garnish with the remaining mint sprig. As is customary with all mint drinks, serve with a straw.
This is an all-Texas version of the classic Papa Doble, which is also known as the Hemmingway Daiquiri. It is a light and refreshing drink that celebrates Texas-made spirits and the fabulous grapefruits from the Rio Grande Valley. Hemming- way enjoyed his Daiquiris (and apparently all other cocktails) double-duty; this recipe serves one.
1 1/2 oz Treaty Oak Rum
1/2 oz Paula’s Texas Orange
3/4 oz fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
1/2 oz lime juice
1/4 oz simple syrup
Shake ingredients vigorously with ice and strain into a chilled champagne flute. Garnish with a lemon twist.
From the little town of Abbeville, LA comes Steen’s 100% Pure Cane Syrup, which sweetens this drink. Made by the same family since 1910, it gives a rich texture and beguiling flavor to cocktails (not to mention what it does to a biscuit…).
This cocktail pays homage to the great history of sugar cane production along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coast.
1 1/2 ounce white rum
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Steen’s 100% Pure Cane Syrup
1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
Shake and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with a mixture of cinnamon, sugar and cayenne, in a ratio of 1:1:1/2. Finish with a dash of Peychaud’s bitters.