Smashing the stereotype of rum as fit mainly for mixing sweet-and-simple tropical drinks, some restaurant and bar operators are crafting it into serious cocktails and pouring it neat as an eminently sippable spirit.
There's no denying that rum's association with exotic travel destinations and fun in the sun have helped sell oceans of daiquiris and pina coladas. But in a day when customers increasingly are interested in sophisticated, hand-crafted cocktails, those simplistic images actually may be limiting their interest in better rums. "People tend to pigeonhole it," said H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner-operator of Elixir, a neighborhood bar in San Francisco with a spirits collection that includes 30 fine rums. "They think, 'I only drink rum on the beach or on vacation.' "
To help the public look beyond the umbrella drink, Ehrmann came up with Autumnal Punch, a creation he said was inspired by the account of classic punches in "Imbibe!," a history of American mixology by David Wondrich. The decidedly non-tropical libation is made from Rhum Clement VSOP rum, pear liqueur, fresh lemon juice, allspice liqueur and orgeat syrup, shaken and strained over ice and garnished with yellow raisins, priced at $10.
As Wondrich's book recounts, punch was the predominant mixed drink in the nation's watering holes from the 1670s to the 1850s. Saloons kept a big bowl of strong spirits, citrus, sugar, water and spices upon the bar to parcel out to patrons by the ladleful.
"I like that communal aspect," Ehrmann said. He is planning a weekly Punch Happy Hour at Elixir that will feature old-fashioned and newfangled recipes. "We would basically make up a batch of rum punch and serve it until it is gone," he said. "I even went out and bought the punch bowl and cups."
Well-made cocktails — many of them based on rum — and sophisticated atmosphere are the hallmarks of Commander's Palace and The On the Rocks Bar in Destin, Fla., according to Ti Adelaide Martin, co-proprietor of the new establishment in the Florida panhandle as well as the legendary original Commander's in New Orleans. "What it's all about is making a perfect daiquiri," said Martin. "It's my favorite drink when it's done right, which it almost never is. It's just rum, lime and sugar — fresh lime and not too much sugar."
Other specialties include Papa Doble ($9.50), an Ernest Hemingway favorite, made with light rum, maraschino liqueur, lime and grapefruit juice, the simple but flavorful Dark and Stormy ($7.50), made with dark rum and ginger beer, and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club ($9.75), a combo of Mt. Gay Rum, fresh lime juice, Falernum syrup and orange liqueur. "These are not overly sweet kiddie drinks," said Martin. "They don't taste like dessert or a fruit bomb."
Amore sophisticated rum palate is evident at the new Miss Pearl's Jam House in Oakland, Calif., which boasts a 78-item rum selection, including more than two dozen sipping rums. Geoffrey Perry, beverage director of the island-themed casual eatery, which is part of San Francisco-based Joie de Vivre Hospitality group, favors rum cocktails made with "an island sensibility and a lighter style" over "sweet, heavy and rich tiki-style drinks."
Miss Pearl's popular Old Cuban ($10) sports Montecristo 12 year-old Guatemalan rum, fresh lime, Falernum syrup, fresh muddled mint and bitters, plus a finishing spritz of house Champagne. The ever-popular Mojito ($9) is topped with a float of Coruba dark rum "that adds a nice earthiness to it," said Perry.
Headlining the sippable choices is the rare British Royal Navy Imperial Rum, priced at $80 per shot. It's from the stores of spirits that the British Navy parceled out to its sailors as a daily "tot" or ration, a custom that lasted some 300 years until 1970. "When I first cracked open the demijohn, I got an intense whiff of cocoa and chocolate and coffee," said Perry. "It's a rum that stays with you, so chewy and rich."
At Pacific Time restaurant in Miami, general manager and cocktail guru Ben Koufopoulos showcases top-shelf rums in two popular specialty drinks, each priced at $11. The overall best seller is the Blood Orange Mojito, made with Flor de Cana Gran Reserva 7-year-old rum, high-quality blood orange puree, muddled mint and soda. Also a favorite is the signature Pacific Time Punch, which features Barbancourt 3-Star and Tommy Bahama White rums, plus peach brandy, orange juice and house-filtered seltzer water. "You can always tell when customers react positively to a rum drink — they order another one," said Koufopoulos.