Island Treasure

Rum's rewards, hidden in plain sight

What would it take to make rum respectable?

The summer mixer of choice for frozen cocktails and umbrella drinks, with its inevitable evocations of jolly rogers and steel drums and that Rupert Holmes song, the rum most of us know is at best a guilty pleasure. Even in mojitos, which at least don't come out of a blender, rum is just the muscle behind the mint and lime.

But Robert Burr has some news for you: There is more to sugar-cane liquor than Bacardi and Captain Morgan. Boy, is there ever.

"The incredible overwhelming success of things like rum and Coke have obscured that there is more range out there in rum than there is in Scotch, or cognac, or tequila, or bourbon, or any other spirit," says Burr, a rum evangelist from Florida who has been publishing his Gifted Rums Guide since 2007 and has tasting notes at giftedrums.com. "Once you try one of these great rums, you naturally say, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn't know rum could be this good. What else is out there?'"

What is out there is a broad and deep range of styles and flavors and colors, many of which evolved separately from each other over the past few hundred years.

"There are so many variables, between the type of fermentation, the yeast, the amount of time it ferments, the temperature, the location," Burr says, "and then the methods of distillation are greatly varied. And that just brings you to a clear distillate that goes into a barrel, and that's where the real magic starts to happen—in aging, and then finally blending."

Different countries across the Caribbean and Central and South America have different local preferences for lighter or darker rum, sweeter or drier, and different rules for aging requirements: a minimum of a year in Puerto Rico, two in Venezuela.

Clear rums, which constitute much of what you'll find at your average American liquor store, really are best in some kind of cocktail. But there is a tawny rainbow of rums in colors from golden to dark brown that both demand and reward individual attention. Like whiskey or brandy, they can be sipped neat or with an ice cube.

Although many of these rums have been produced for decades or longer, Burr says they have until recently been hard to find in the United States. Some of his favorite Caribbean rums still have no U.S. distributor. But Americans are waking up to the market as both consumers and producers, something reflected in the Rum Renaissance Festival that Burr has organized in Miami for the past two years. At this year's event, there was an entire exhibit devoted to U.S. distillers.

"The rum that won a recent blind tasting competition came from Colorado," Burr says. "It beat out the world's greatest white rums that have been making rum for hundreds of years. It's a little micro-distillery called Montanya." He also singles out a Tennessee rum-maker, Phil Prichard of Kelso, whose Prichard's Distillery operates out of an old schoolhouse. "His Fine Rum is a wonderful, 4- to 5-year-old rum that is aged in small white-oak charred barrels."

Here are a few of Burr's other recommendations for those interested in exploring:

— Flor de Cana 4-Year Extra Dry Rum. "It's a wonderful, dry, 4-year-old white rum from Nicaragua. You can use that to make a martini, you can use that in any drink that you would use vodka or gin."

— Zacapa 23 Solera. From Guatemala, it's made from "sugar honey"—boiled-down cane juice—rather than from the heavier molasses that is the base for most rums.

— Rhum Barbancourt 15. A Haitian rum from one of the country's most revered brands.

So, what would it take to make rum respectable? Burr's answer is pretty obvious: Forget the pirates and the parrots and the peglegs, and just take a sip.