Friday, June 3, 2016

Thirst Boston: History of Caribbean Rums

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar and rum?
--William Cowper

Rum may be one of the most under appreciated spirits, something which is most likely to end up in a cocktail rather than sipped on its own. It isn't as revered as Whiskey or as popular as Vodka. You'll usually find plenty of Tequila bars but few Rum bars. In the Boston area, RumBa, located in the Intercontinental Boston, is one of the few local spots that truly showcases the diversity of Rum. At  Thirst Boston, I attended two Rum seminars, both which gave me additional reasons to embrace the category of Rum.

One of the seminars was the History of Carribean Rums, which was described as: "Join us for a history of the sugar spirit through the lens of the world’s oldest rum distillery, Mount Gay. We’ll spend the afternoon immersed in a categorical overview of r(h)um while enjoying a tasting of Mount Gay rums. Education for your palate and mind, this session will end with an interactive Q&A." I've tasted and enjoyed some of the Mount Gay Rums before so was interested in checking out more of their products.

The presenter was Duane Sylvestre, a former bartender and self-proclaimed "Thirsty Revivalist," who now is part of a team of spirit educators. He is originally from the island of Trinidad and is a passionate rum advocate, providing us information and history on rum and leading us through a tasting of four Mount Gay rums.

Duane began with a bit of history, noting that one of the important ancestors of rum was Arrack, produced on the island of Java, and which may be the first distilled spirit from sugarcane.  There was also discussion on the importance and dark history of rum and the slave trade, a topic I have addressed before in prior posts. As we know, rum was huge in New England in the early 1800s, though it wasn't officially defined until the late 1800s. It is thought that the original Old Fashioned cocktail might have been made with rum.

However, the molasses for that New England rum came from the Caribbean where black slaves toiled on sugar plantations. And profits from New England rum distilleries went to finance more ships to travel to Africa to obtain additional slaves. A vicious and exploitative triangle of trade.

Once the U.S. started favoring whiskey and began ramping up whiskey production over rum, the Caribbean began producing their own large amounts of rum. There are two main types of rum, industrial (made from molasses, which comes in different quality grades) and agricultural (Rhum Agricole, made from sugarcane juice). As Duane said, "sugar is amazing."  Rum is a loosely regulated category, which can be produced all around the world, and the primary regulations are governed by individual countries and distilleries.

There are considered to be three main rum styles: French, British and Spanish. Please note though that these are rough categories with exceptions that may not fit into these categories. If you go to a liquor shop though, you won't likely see the rum selections divided into these three different types. If anything, you'll have to ask one of the stores employees for assistance in differentiating the various ru bottles on their shelves.

Duane stated that Bacardi is the world's largest producer of rum, even larger than a company in the Philippines which also produces a huge amount of rum. This is different from what I was told in the other rum seminar, that presenter claiming the Philippines company was the largest producer. Whoever is the largest, it is fascinating to learn that Philippines produces so much rum. I don't think I've ever had any of their rum, but I'm keeping an eye out for it.

Mount Gay Rum, located on the island of Barbados, is the oldest, continuously operated rum distillery, with written evidence, concerning a deeded still, extending back to February 20, 1703, making it over 300 years old. However, even before that time, they were said to be engaged in distilling since the early 1600s. Around 1747, John Sober inherited what was then known as the Mount Gilboa Distillery. He hired Sir John Gay Alleyne to manage the distillery, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Gay improved the production process, introduced new strains of sugar cane, and improved crop yield. In addition, as Gay was antislavery, he found that he derived better rum if he paid his workers. Upon his death, Sober decided to honor all of Gay's great work by renaming the distillery after him, thus launching Mount Gay Rum.

Allen Smith is the Master Blender at Mount Gay, and has worked at the company for more than twenty years. He did leave for a short time to work at Coca Cola but returned to Mount Gay once he learned he would be unable to change the recipe for Coca Cola. Allen rarely tastes when blending rum, relying primarily on his olfactory prowess. As with a number of other spirits and wine, blending is an important art, one far too often under-appreciated.

We began our tasting component with the Mount Gay Silver (about $20). "Silver" simply refers to the fact that it has "no color," not that it isn't aged. In fact, it can aged, often up to a year, and then it is filtered to remove the color. I found the Silver to be sweet, with tropical fruit, grassy notes and a hint of mint. It is versatile, able to be used in almost any type of rum cocktail.

The Mount Gay Eclipse (about $20) is essentially the same rum as the Silver except it isn't filtered. Filtering tends to soften the alcohol as well. The Eclipse seemed more aggressive, with notes of honey, vanilla and maple, with some mild spices notes. Duane recommended that this rum would be a good match for a Rum & Tonic.

The Mount Gay Black Barrel (about $30) is an impressive rum, which is distilled in both a column and pot still. It is aged in ex-whiskey casks and later finished in deep, charred ex-bourbon casks. The "black barrel" refers to the black char in these barrels which enhances purification, allows a deeper access into the wood, and provides more spice notes. It is supposed to be the only rum that is finished in charred, ex-bourbon barrels. Some of the rum used in the final blend may have been aged for up to seven years.

The Black Barrel has a dark, amber color, like a fine whiskey, and if you tasted it blind, it would remind you far more of a rye whiskey than a rum. On the taste, there is a deep spice taste, caramel notes and a mild hint of vanilla. Layers of complexity, a lengthy finish (which has a touch of cinnamon), and a smooth, compelling taste. I could easily savor this rum on its own, though it would also do well in a craft cocktail. Duane recommended using this rum in Tiki cocktails.

The final rum was the compelling Mount Gay XO-Extra Old (about $40). Though there is the implication that the XO is older than other rums, it does not entail any specific time period. It is simply older than the other rums in the portfolio. In general, this XO contains rums that are from 8-15 years old. The XO also has the highest residual sugar of the line, about 5 grams, which still would be considered Extra Brut if it were a Champagne, and this considered very dry.

The XO is complex and intriguing, a rum to slowly sip and savor. It is silky smooth with delicious flavors of ripe pear, vanilla, toast, and subtle baking spices. It is an elegant spirit with a lengthy finish which will be sure to satisfy and tantalize. You won't be able to take just one sip as your palate will crave more. And as Duane said, one of the best parts of rum is that is it relatively inexpensive. At $40, this is an excellent value for such a complex and high quality spirit. This is a rum you should drink on its own and which you probably don't want to use in a cocktail. Highly recommended!

For food pairings for the XO, Duane recommended some desserts, from Banana Foster to Bread Pudding, Cinnamon Scones to Creme Brûlée. In addition, he noted that his favorite nightcap is the Mount Gay XO and Cashews!

What are your thoughts on Mount Gay rums?

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