Bat Bite, Cool Carlos, Cuba Libre, and Sunny Sour. It’s summer: rum season. Time for Mojitos — dark rum, lime juice, sugar, mint leaves, and club soda — and Rum Drinks, the practical name my family calls our favorite warm-weather cocktail — Mount Gay Eclipse (a dark rum), grapefruit juice, and ice.
The Rum Drink makes perfect sense. The sour juice cuts the sweet liquor, making a refreshing drink that can be enjoyed in quantity, unlike some gaudy, syrupy rum-based concoctions. The drink has many variations. Some have been arrived at by mistake, by drunken friends sent to the mixing station with compromised memory. Others have been blended on purpose by drinkers suspicious of its sourness — they add a splash of orange juice, perhaps, or even some grenadine. But my favorite riff on the original involves “floating” a shot or two of Myer’s dark rum on top of the base drink. Mix the original then splash the Myer’s over the back of a spoon, so it floats on top, like a bronze crown. The Myer’s float is meant to grab your attention and contrast pleasantly with the more diluted body of the Rum Drink. After two of these, you’ll probably forego the careful operation with the spoon and end up simply pouring the Myer’s liberally on top of the Mount Gay and grapefruit juice, coloring the top with a sloppy Pollock-like stroke rather than a precise application. No matter — they are designed for the same purpose.
Not to get drunk but to get drunk on rum.
Lord Byron said, “There’s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion.” Like tequila, rum’s influence is particular. It doesn’t prompt the kinetic kind of intoxication that whiskey, gin, and vodka do — the kind that helps you sharpen your discontent to the point of some regrettable action. Rum’s effect is contrary to this. It disperses and blunts worry and attaches a pleasant nonspecificity to your thoughts; it makes you lazy and elastic. It puts you at ease. Yo ho ho and all that.
Having said this, I’m sad to report that there aren’t any websites that do the beverage justice. The Mount Gay site (www.mountgay.com) has some nice graphics and greets browsers with a charming little ditty that claims rum is “about time” — about slowing it down, I presume. The only rum site with any content is the Ministry of Rum (www.ministerofrum.com), which is an offshoot of the avocation of Edward Hamilton, the world’s foremost rum aficionado.
Not surprisingly, Hamilton, the minister, is a sailor. His ministry, he explains, was launched in the spring of ’93. “I was preparing my sloop Tafia,” he says, “for the annual pilgrimage south for hurricane season. A few days before I planned to set sail, I attended the monthly full-moon party on a small island near St. Thomas. The discussion turned to the spirit in our glasses and to which island made the best rum. As the sun set and the golden moon rose over the horizon, I tipped my glass and decided to visit birthplaces of the spirit of the Caribbean on my way south. What I found was a lot more than I could have ever imagined that night in Culebra. Over 150 rums between Puerto Rico and Trinidad! Two years later, with a lot of encouragement from the distilleries and just about everyone else I had met during that initial research, the first edition of Rums of the Eastern Caribbean was published. During the research for the first book, everywhere I went people wanted me to taste some of their rum. Of course, I wanted everyone who followed in my wake to have as much fun as I was having, so over a few drinks in the cockpit one night, the Ministry of Rum was chartered.”
Rum, Hamilton explains, distinguishes itself from other spirits by the plant from which it is made. Sugar cane is a member of the grass family that originated in Papau, New Guinea. The sweet juice of the mature plant is extracted by pressing the hard stalk in mechanical mills. Some distilleries use this fresh juice to make so-called Rhum Agricole, while others use the byproduct of the sugar-refining process, molasses, as the raw material for the fermentation process. Some rum is then aged in oak barrels that once held whiskey or bourbon, a process that can last from 1 to 30 years. It is during this process that rum acquires its golden color.
“Believe it or not,” Hamilton admits, “I’ve drunk about 250 different rums. I’ve tasted another 50 or so. The difference between those two terms is important. I try to buy a bottle of each rum and consume it over a period of time and compare it to other rums that I have on board. That’s the meaning I have in mind for the term, ‘To drink a rum.’ ”
So what are the best rums? Hamilton’s partial list includes Rhum Bologne from Guadaloupe, DePaz Reserve Especial from Martinique, Barbancourt Five Star from Haiti, and Mount Gay Extra Gold from Barbados. But unlike whiskey drinking, rum drinking is not the domain of snobbish votaries eager to display a specialized knowledge. Hamilton, who’s been sailing and drinking rum for 15 years, is the first to agree that it’s “about time.”
“It’s amazing,” he says, “how many times I’ve tasted a rum at 11:00 o’clock in the morning and thought, ‘This is one of the best rums that has ever touched my tongue.’ But often when I compare that same rum to others later in the day, my opinion changes. After dinner I usually switch to an aged rum that I drink with a little water or sometimes a cube of ice, if I have one. I find that most rums benefit by the addition of a little water. If I add ice, I let it melt a little before I drink the rum. But I rarely drink the same rum three days in a row.”