A Rum Tasting At Bargoyle’s

Last Saturday night Bargoyle threw another one of his spectacular Tiki parties, and I spent some time doing a rum tasting before the party started. Since this was a crowd used to Tiki drinks I decided to organize the session around suitable rums mixed with rum history, trivia, useless facts and other assorted nonsense.

I had spent weeks – probably in close to 100 hours – researching material for this session to ensure that I got things right. I also found myself going down deep holes because I’d research some particular aspect in a way that would leave me wondering about the details of one tiny little point. So I’d research that point until I was satisfied, but this resulted in some trivial, unanswered detail which “needed” even more investigation. And so on, and on, and on… In the end I spent far too much time and amassed far too much material.

In the end I culled things down to about 4 or 5 hours of material that I was going to attempt to pack into a 2-hour session. (I didn’t make it.) I had prepared some sheets to take pertinent tasting notes, and got permission to reprint a number of rum articles and thus had a little packet of info for each person. I also had what turned out to be a 7-page outline of things to discuss. Yeah, a little excessive.

Those Poor Bastards
I wanted to concentrate on rums important to Tiki cocktails, but first I felt that some info on the history of sugar cane would be interesting. Right before I started Bargoyle – who was going to be pouring all these shots of rum – asked how long I’d talk before the first rum would be served. I told him “10 minutes” and had every intention of hitting that mark.

Well, the sugar cane history easily rolled into the process of sugar extraction. This led into some info on molasses, which naturally led to fermentation, which led into distillation, which led into discussions about pot stills and column stills, which led into…

Jon, one of the folks who attended, constantly kept asking questions that led to the next point. It was amazing, actually, how he’d listen for 5 or 10 minutes and his mind jumped to the next step. Each of his questions led into another 5 or 10 minutes of me yapping about some part of rum or sugar or molasses or distillation.

Well, about 40 minutes later we were ready to try the first rum.

Those Poor, Poor, Sorry Bastards
Though I had designed the class to concentrate on “Tiki Rums” I felt it was important to build up the “taste knowledge” and start with simple rums and build up to more complex ones. As a result, I started with the most basic rums, the whites. And since “Puerto Rican Light Rum” is a very common phrase in tiki cocktail guides this was the first rum. I gave them all a small measure of what I think is the best white Puerto Rican rum that one can obtain on the mainland – Palo Viejo White.

These poor folks never knew what hit them. Only 1 or 2 were used to sipping rums, and generally not of the caliber of Palo Viejo. Once the coughing, wheezing, and gagging subsided I launched into a bit of a diatribe about why the original Tiki bartenders used PR rum so frequently. I recounted the stories of Jeff Berry and Wayne Curtis sampling Stephen Remsberg’s Bacardi rums from the 1920s, which were so different from the rums available today. I weeped and moaned about the present lack of such rums.

And after 20 minutes of this I gave them their next rum, the recommended modern-day white rum for Tiki drinks, Cruzan Light and a discussion of the column distillation process.

More gagging and wheezing commenced.

Mind you, these rums are the best Whites that are commonly available today, but most of these folks were not rum sippers. I could hear that folks were beginning to see some light though, as I overheard some discussing the different tastes and aromas found in the Cruzan.

Gold Rums – A Little Better
Things got moving a bit faster after this. By now we were an hour in, but I had discussed quite a bit of the entire sugar-cane-into-rum process and was left with some random discussion points. Next up was the Appleton Special, my choice for a Jamaican Gold, which is a damned fine rum for general mixing but still a tough sipper. This was the first aged rum of the night so I used it to discuss barrels and gave an intro of the aging process. Then came the Cockspur 5-Star from Barbados, and a history lesson of rum in Barbados. The Cockspur is a great mixing rum and has enough tastes to begin to appreciate when sipping. The two of these back-to-back do a good job of distinguishing the differences between Jamaican and Barbados gold rums, both of which are very important in Tiki cocktails.

Next, in an act of mercy after serving 4 mixing rums, I broke out the Cruzan Single Barrel. I distinctly heard one person say “Finally! A rum I actually like!”

By now, though, folks had a good idea of the different tastes and aromas in rum, and the Single Barrel was a welcome relief. It’s a decent sipping rum, or a damned good mixer if one would use it in a cocktail. I made this choice as a substitute for Puerto Rican Gold rums, since it’s very light like the PR ones, but also because I felt that everyone needed to taste a good sipping rum by this point of the night. People seemed to appreciate it and found a bit to discover in it.

A Tough Act – Dark Rums
This was not easy. Dark Rums are notoriously bold in taste and not very conducive to sipping. But they play an important part in tiki drinks because some cocktails are designed to utilize those bold tastes. I had a tough time deciding which rums to showcase, and finally had to settle on Myers’s Original and Appleton Extra. The Myers’s truly shows what dark rums can be like and though it’s not really the best choice I felt it important to show. But I wished that I could find Coruba somewhere in New England.

The Appleton Extra, at 12 years old, was fine enough and sippable enough to bring some folks back. Though it’s not a perfect dark rum – and I’m still not sure there is a perfect dark rum for Tiki drinks – it’s a good general substitute for darks and fine enough to drink neat. It’s also a great example of Jamaican rums, much more complex than the Appleton Special tastes earlier. The Extra also gave me a chance to explore some of Jamaica’s part in the history of rum, and discuss some of Appleton’s fermentation and distillation methods.

A Single Demerara
It seemed logical to me to try a demerara rum after the darks, and I didn’t want to go to Lemon Hart, the obvious choice for Tiki mixing. Again I felt that people would need a break from “mixing quality” and I decided to break out the El Dorado 21-year-old. This is a damned fine rum, and I love the older El Dorados quite a bit. I find the demeraras to be very interesting, and I wish that I could find more information about the methods and processes of Demerara Distillers Limited, the makers of El Dorado. Even with my limited knowledge I managed to keep folks interested by discussing their wooden pot stills and a bit of their bulk rum business.

Many may wonder why I didn’t go with the 15-year-old, which is generally considered to be better, and I won’t argue. It was just that I wanted something a little bit smoother for these non-sippers who attended, and the 21 is a bit smoother than the 15. I did have the 15 just in case, and a few of us tried that later in the night.

The Premiums
By this point we had covered most of the categories of rums used in Tiki cocktails and I figured that folks would deserve some of the premium sipping rums. The first I brought out was the Pyrat Pistol which also allowed me to discuss the Pyrat XO. I think that the XO is a bargain for a sippable rum, and still plenty cheap enough to use in cocktails. (Well, it’s cheap in any state other than Mass or New Hampshire.) This rum also shows how sweet a rum can get, and I figured that many would not like it but some would and would thus enjoy the Pyrat XO, too. Since several in the room were familiar with Pyrat XO and had heard about their 1623 Cask I used this rum family to discuss Pyrat’s blending and aging a bit. I wish that I had more details, but discussed how Pyrat makes all 3 rums with the same rums, simply blended and aged differently.

The next rum I broke out was the Doorly’s XO, which led into a discussion of tastes that can come out from aging. The Doorly’s is an extreme example of that, since it’s finished in a sherry cask, but such a rum allowed a discussion about some of the barrel tastes.

The Gosling’s Old Rum was next. This rum is the same as the rum used in their Black Seal, just aged longer, so it could have been used to highlight dark rums but at $65 a bottle this is not a mixer. This rum made for an interesting, in-depth discussion of aging, which made sense since this is the same rum as the Black Seal though aged much longer.

The last rum of the night was my personal favorite, the Ron Zacapa 23-year-old. Needless to say this rum was very well received, and allowed me to describe the Solera blending process and some about how rums age differently in the Caribbean as compared to Scotch aged in the different climate of Scotland.

A Summary
Overall I think the night went rather well, particularly since it was the first tasting I’d ever done. The entire session ran just over 2-1/2 hours, and I covered quite a bit of the history of rum, and a lot of the processing of sugar cane and rum.

It wasn’t perfect, though, and I’ve learned from some of the mistakes. The 40 minutes of blabbing before the first rum was wrong, but I’m used to giving “corporate” presentations and the lack of Powerpoint slides meant that I wasn’t focused on the flow and was easily side-tracked. Some visuals would have been better – it was quite difficult to describe column distillation without a picture! The rums might not have been absolutely perfect, but I think they were perfect for what I had at hand. But I’m not so sure I’d give this exact presentation again unless it was to a room full of bartenders who could appreciate the mixing rums.

But I think it went quite well, and it was certainly appreciated by folks. Next time, though, they get a bunch of premium sipping rums, and I’ll make sure every one is worth sipping.