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The Rum Renaissance

By Amy Cavanaugh in Food on Aug 15, 2012 4:40PM

2012_8_15_Sable3.jpeg The craft cocktail movement has turned us all into much more serious drinkers. We drink locally-made spirits and we know precisely what’s in all of our punches. The resurgence of interest in quality spirits has also meant that certain liquors are seeing a renaissance - and rum is the current spirit on the rise. Bartenders across Chicago urge customers to sip it straight or mix it up in creative cocktails. Plus, great bottles of hitherto-unavailable, unknown or new rums are showing up on liquor store shelves. Tomorrow is National Rum Day, so there’s no better time to set aside your whiskey and start exploring the sugarcane spirit.

“I think there is going to be a huge resurgence in rum, once people get past the stereotype that rum is super sweet,” says Paul McGee, who is at work on a new tiki bar set to open this fall. “The cool thing about rum is that there are so many different styles from so many different countries. There’s something for everyone.”

Sable’s Mike Ryan agrees with McGee. “What I dig about rum is the breadth of styles,” he said as he placed bottles filled with varying colors of liquid on the bar in front of me. “There are light, crisp rums like Matusalem Platino from Cuba. There are rich and heavy rums like Cruzan Blackstrap. There are light, funky rums like Banks. And there are crazy rums that have an aroma of aged meats like Smith and Cross.”

Edward Hamilton, who runs and a rum importing business, is based in Chicago. He’s been watching perceptions of the spirit evolve.

“There are bars here that are putting together pretty impressive rum collections, but more impressive than having 50 rums on your shelf is knowing something about them,” he says. “That’s what’s changing in Chicago. Sam’s and Binny’s hit 50 years ago, but the bartenders and consumers are becoming much more knowledgeable. People are looking for more information about their spirits. They’re exploring, looking, and asking more questions.”

Despite the wide range of rums available, Blackbird’s Lynn House says that in her experience, it’s still one of the least popular categories. “I believe that has to do with the plethora of bad rum cocktails we have seen in the Midwest,” she says.

But things are changing.

“There are more rums on the market to play with now,” House says. “There used to be two but more rums are being imported and it increases the potential to do things with it. And it’s breaking people’s misconceptions down. People associate rum with being super sweet and tropical, but there are different expressions and we’re all learning more.”

McGee is opening a tiki bar. Ryan’s menu has new tiki cocktails. The new South Loop restaurant City Tavern draws inspiration from 18th century America, a period when people drank tons of rum, thanks to West Indies trade routes. City Tavern has a rum list that’s 27 rums deep and a cocktail list with thoughtful, well-balanced drinks like the Lexington Sling, made with Guyana rum, sweet vermouth, lemon, bitters, and dandelion and burdock soda.

Bartenders are thinking beyond daiquiris and punches, although you can absolutely find well-made classics in town. “I am into using rums with vibrant flavors as a flavoring, not a base,” Ryan says. “I make a flip with mezcal, Cruzan, and sugar. The molasses is a counterpoint to the mezcal.”

“One of my favorite drinks is a rum old fashioned, made with rum, honey syrup, and angostura bitters,” McGee says. You stir it and hit it with orange peel.” House loves sipping on aged rums, like Old New Orleans 10 Year. “Aged rums have a cognac feel to them and are great after dinner sippers,” she says. “One of my personal favorites is Pampero. It is beautiful and really well balanced.”

McGee raves about rhum agricole, which is made from sugarcane juice. “It’s earthy and vegetal and makes for some very interesting cocktails,” he says, and also recommends lighter rums like Flor De Cana 4 Year for daiquiris. “It’s aged through charcoal and has lighter color, a more neutral flavor, and vanilla notes.”

Caribbean rums comprise the bulk of what you’ll find on the market, since there are challenges to making rum in the United States. Basically, rum matures faster in the Caribbean heat. But there are a handful of Midwestern rums that are starting to appear. I tried Journeyman Distillery Road’s End Rum out of Michigan at City Tavern and Hamilton recommends Roaring Dan’s Rum by Great Lakes Distillery out of Milwaukee.

“The distiller recognizes that making rum out of molasses is hard with the aging conditions here, so he adds maple syrup and then redistills it, and it integrates the flavors well," Hamilton says.

There’s still a long way to go for rum to reach the popularity of whiskey, vodka, and gin. But Hamilton thinks rum is just getting started. “I’m happy to see it grow slowly, as opposed to being a flash in the pan,” he says. “Rum is just starting to lose its pirate image.”

Five To Try

So how to make the leap to rum? Start drinking. Here are five bottles that were mentioned repeatedly during interviews or that I tried during my research. We’ll be back tomorrow with a recipe you can whip up at home.

1. El Dorado 12 Year “It has rums that are as old as 16 years in the bottle and it’s a really nice sipping rum,” McGee says. “There’s added sweetness from longer aging in oak barrels.”
2.Old New Orleans 10 Year “There are only a handful of bottles in the city and I scored some,” House says. “It is beautiful with hints of cedar and anise.”
3. Flor de Cana 12 Year “It’s one that whiskey drinkers like and I have them start with it,” Hamilton says.
4. Mount Gay Extra Old “It’s been aged a long time and you get wood, smoky oak, and roasted nuts,” Hamilton says.
5. Neisson Eleve Sous Bois I had it at City Tavern, and it has a rich smokiness that’s characteristic of Martinique rums.