Rum varies in reputation depending on whom you ask. Many of us only dabble in the sugarcane spirit while on vacation, sipping a rum cocktail garnished with a paper umbrella while reclined on a lounge chair. Others associate it solely with the kitschy world of tiki bars. And then there’s a segment that won’t go near the stuff thanks to bad memories of biting rum-and-cokes from their collegiate years.
None of the experiences above would be wrong, per se, but rum, it turns out, is one of the most complex spirits around. And so is its history, parts of which aren’t pretty. Most historians trace rum’s first distillation to 17th-century Caribbean sugarcane plantations, where slaves fermented molasses — a byproduct of the sugar-refining process — into liquor. Rum soon proliferated the Caribbean and the North American colonies, and a full-fledged international trade began. And, yes, the spirit really did become the drink of choice for pirates, who would make off with barrels of the stuff while looting ships for more valuable items. The British Royal Navy even implemented daily rum rations, a practice that lasted until 1970. In the United States, rum got a boozy boost after Prohibition ended in the 1930s, when Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (better known as Donn Beach) began serving exotic rum-based drinks at his Polynesian-themed Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood.
VIDEO: Watch bar manager Tony Martinez at Bootlegger Tiki fix a signature Mai Tai cocktail.
“When Don started, he used rum because it was the cheapest alcohol you could get. He was able to buy [it] by the barrel,” says Rory Snyder, owner of The Reef, a tiki bar in South Palm Springs. “Back then it wasn’t as refined as it is today, and he realized that with fruit juices, he could cover that taste up.” It worked. Don the Beachcomber locations multiplied, stretching from Hawaii to the Midwest to Palm Springs; competitors emerged; and a tiki boom that would last decades was born. “There were Polynesian elements, Hawaiian elements,” Snyder continues. “Tiki was, and still is, all about escapism.”
These days, rum is on the rise thanks to the craft cocktail movement, an influx of new, top-shelf options, a tiki resurgence, and rum-only bars that have popped up around the country (San Francisco shrine Smuggler’s Cove, for example, offers 550 different varieties and runs a rum education club). “The rum world is so diversified now,” according to Tony Martinez, bar manager of the Uptown Design District’s Bootlegger Tiki, which sits in a space once occupied by Don the Beachcomber.“There are so many [labels] out there that it gives people a chance to experiment and find out what they like.”
Palm Springs Life talked to a few local cocktail connoisseurs about how to navigate the rum revolution. Here’s their advice.
Know the difference between light and dark. The longer the rum ages, the darker it gets. “Rum will take on flavors from the barrels it’s aged in. Anything that touches the rum is going to affect the taste,” Snyder says. That’s why light rums, like white and silver, have more subtle flavors, while gold, black, and dark rums are bolder. “The majority of tiki drinks use some kind of gold rum because they have more of a flavor profile to them,” he adds. “So, you’re really tasting your rum. The fruit juices aren’t the highlight of the drink. The rum is the highlight and meant to enhance the other flavors.”
Layer up. Because flavor profiles of different rums vary so widely — impacted by aging, the distilling process, and the terrain of where the sugar is grown (which is why Jamaican rum tastes different than Cuban rum, which tastes different from Panamanian rum) — using several in one drink can create the perfect concoction. “It’s super fun to layer rums. Think of it as a wine blend with different varietals from different vineyards all complementing each other,” says Brandon Glass, bar manager of The Reef, who points to the venue’s take on a classic Navy Grog, which incorporates a trio of rums. “We use a dark Jamaican, where you get a rich molasses; a Demerara — all Demerara rums come from the country of Guyana — where you get those maple notes; and then you add a silver rum for heat and dryness. With all of them working in conjunction with the grapefruit, lime, and honey, it’s perfect.”
Tony Martinez, bar manager at Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs.
Try a real mai tai. Those cloying drinks doused with pineapple juice, grenadine, sugar, and even (gasp!) bottled mixers tragically became the prototype for the classic drink somewhere along the line. “People have a misconception about what a mai tai is,” Martinez says. Both Bootlegger and The Reef have their own concoctions modeled after the original version from Trader Vic’s — made with a simple mix of multiple rums, orange liqueur, lime, and a bit of orgeat, an almond syrup. “It’s savory and balanced. People like hearing the history, and it’s really cool to see them transition away from what we call ‘corporate mai tais.’ ”
Or do a daiquiri. No, not the Technicolor frozen kind they serve at chain restaurants. “A true daiquiri is only rum, lime, and sugar,” Martinez explains. “It’s one of the easier drinks to have to get into drinking rum. From that point you can try things that are a little more complex.”
Think small. “A lot of those mass-produced rums kind of cheat. They don’t age for very long. They want to knock it out, so they add flavorings and additives,” Glass says. (Neither bar stocks a certain commercial brand that starts with the letter B.) Wherever you are, ask your bartender for his or her favorite rum. Chances are you probably haven’t even heard of it, and while you may pay a little more, the end result will be worth it.
Give it a straight sip. If you’re splurging on the good stuff, try it on its own. “There are high-quality rums out there meant to be sipped. Just like a good bourbon or scotch, some of these rums would be wasted in a drink,” Snyder says. He recommends tasting oak-barreled varietals neat and trying rums with natural molasses notes (again, ask your bartender) with a single ice cube to temper the sweetness.
Rock Your Own Rum Bar
Here’s what the local experts recommend:
Don Q Gold
Snyder recommends the label — a tried-and-true option birthed in the 1800s — for its versatile, entry-level rums that work well with most cocktails.
This white rum is the perfect choice for shaking up cocktails on scorching Palm Springs afternoons. According to Martinez, “It’s great for daiquiris and mojitos. Lighter spirits like white rums are perfect for the pool.”
This molasses-based blend of rums from Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados was created as part of a collaboration of rum-world big shots. The result is a classic, overproofed dark rum clocking in at a breathtaking 69 percent alcohol by volume (most rums are closer to 40 percent), great for booze-forward tiki favorites. “If you want that step up, this one is complex, and the smell is intoxicating,” Glass says.
Two James Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum
All of our rum aficionados love this unique spirit, distilled from molasses in traditional pot-stills, aged for six years in Jamaica, and then shipped to Detroit where the rum spends some time in sherry casks before getting bottled. And they all describe it the same way: funky. You’re going to have to taste it to find out what they mean.
Bootlegger Tiki gave its version of the Old Fashioned a new name — Call the Cops — because they mix it with rum instead of whiskey. The bar, tucked in the original Don the Beachcomber location in Palm Springs, serves up an impressive variety of craft cocktails that will make you rethink everything you know about rum.