Whether you think of it as the pirate's drink of choice or the exotic liquor known as kill-devil in Barbados, there's something about rum that imparts a heady sense of dark glamour. The spicy-sweet spirit has seen a surge in popularity of late, and producers and bars alike are responding accordingly in a way that would make Captain Jack Sparrow proud.
"In the last three years, I've noticed a growing trend in rum appreciation," says Zachary Yu, Langham Place Mongkok's resident "Wine Guy".
"The trend is a budding one, but rum brands are actively promoting their products in the industry, targeting bartenders, mixologists and buyers.
We're seeing an increase in the variety as well as the quality of rum."
Until recently, rum had often been dismissed as a mere cocktail component, lacking the prestige its whisky and cognac cousins enjoy - as a spirit to be appreciated alone without the need for other ingredients. These days, however, rum is starting to come into its own, as distillers refine their production methods and ingredient choices, creating spirits of surpassing quality.
"Master distillers in the Caribbean realised that if they were treating the rums as other producers do with whiskies and cognacs, in terms of the ageing and blending processes, they could create a refined alcohol that can be enjoyed on its own," explains Herve Leroux, director of Sino Vantage Asia, which imports and distributes plantation rums to Hong Kong and Macau. "With this evolution of the quality of rums, consumption has changed, and the rum category is now the fastest growing one in Europe and the US."
Even white rums, the type of rum normally used in cocktails, are getting an upgrade. Rum cocktails are no longer limited to daïquiris and the mojitos, but are garnering the attention of molecular mixologists, the innovative minds behind the bar who specialise in creative cocktails.
"White rum is getting attention as cocktail consumption in the Asia market gets increasingly mature and consumers get more particular," says Enrico Ho, brand advocate of The Edrington Group Hong Kong, which makes some of the world's most renowned whiskies and includes the Caribbean rum Brugal in its portfolio. "Mixologists nowadays will not just play around with vodka and gin, but more flavourful, complex spirits like rum."
Leroux describes rum aficionados as a generally versatile group, connoisseurs who likely have an appreciation for spirits such as whisky and cognac already, and who "look for flavours that don't exist in other spirits". He adds that as with any spirit, there is the potential for investment in limited-edition rums, and he expects this trend to grow with time.
It's important to note, however, that unlike wine, a rum's flavour and aroma stay largely the same once bottled. As such, the value of a rum comes down to two things: rarity and quality.
Rarity, Yu explains, can be due to an old distillery shutting down, in which case the spirits created there would never be replicated again. Then there's the angel's share: "Angel's share refers to the portion of spirit that evaporates, primarily during the ageing process," he says. "Older rums - ones that have been aged for a long time - are therefore worth more because the quantity shrinks steadily over the years."
Yu attributes the increasing quality in rum to an evolution in production methods. Continuous distillation - the same method by which vodka is created - has traditionally been used in rum production. This, Yu explains, generates a very pure, clean alcohol, but without much variation in aroma and flavour. "Nowadays, it's increasingly popular to use pot stills to distil rum as well, a method that has been used for whiskies and brandies over the years," he adds. "This gives the spirit a whole new dimension of character, with a fuller body."
For rums that undergo only continuous distillation, Yu says that they derive their flavours from the maturation process. "As the rum ages in the barrel, it absorbs the flavours from the wood. This process alters the character of a spirit, transforming it from something clear, pure and relatively bland, to a beverage that has a distinct style and personality," Yu says. The wood is therefore a crucial element in determining the flavour of the rum, and some producers are willing to pay more for sherry oak casks - as opposed to the more common bourbon oak casks - for the special flavours they impart.
"Casks that have previously held bourbon cost HK$800 and give [the rum] vanilla and coconut flavours, while sherry oak, priced at HK$8,000, lend the spirit touches of sweet spices and dried fruit," Ho explains. "Brugal rums mature in both sherry and bourbon casks, which give the rum a really deep, characterful and flavourful taste profile."
With the range of production methods now employed, the variety and depth of flavour in rum have therefore grown considerably. Yu likens it to a painting. "If I only gave you one paint colour to work with, you'd be able to come up with lighter and darker shades by mixing it with varying amounts of water, but the painting would still be in one hue. If I were to give you two colours, however, you'd be able to produce a much wider range of colours," he says. "In the same way, a rum's complexity increases as you blend different distilling and ageing methods."
On the rum
If you’re still straining to see the legs on the side of the rum glass, then you should know that rum appreciation is nothing like wine tasting.
“The two are quite different,” says Zachary Yu, the “Wine Guy” at Langham Place Mongkok. “From choosing a glass to discerning the different layers of aroma, rum tasting is its own distinct experience.”
To begin with, aeration, an important part of the appreciation process with most wines, is unnecessary when it comes to rum. Once bottled, spirits retain their character, so exposure to air would make no difference to the flavour of the rum, and in fact would only speed up alcohol evaporation.
Due to the spirit’s alcohol content, choose a smaller glass than you would with wine. “Keep it tulip-shaped, but go for a smaller size about four inches in height, about half the length of a large hand,” Yu says. A big glass, he explains, prevents the aroma from rising, but don’t put your whole nose in the glass as you would with wine – all you’d get would be a burning noseful of alcohol. Instead, position your nose about an inch from the rim of the glass, the optimal distance for appreciating spirits.
The climate plays a role in rum appreciation too. “A low humidity environment is ideal, as the rum’s character is more fully expressed than it would be in damper surrounds,” Yu says, adding that this is the reason why critics often mark down the time and weather in their tasting notes and reviews.
To fully experience the different layers of the rum, use a dropper to gradually add water to the spirit, three to four drops each time. “This opens up the rum,” Yu explains. “Each time you add water, you push a different layer through.” As with wine, the older the rum and the better its quality, the more layers of aroma and flavour there are. Expect warm notes of vanilla and coconut with rums aged in bourbon oak, while sherry oak aged rums often hint at cooking spices such as cinnamon and cloves.