Story by Dave Eckert
In the forward to Fred Minnicks’s excellent book, “Rum Curious,” Martin Cate, a rum and cocktail expert, asserts “It’s hard to underestimate the importance of rum. There has scarcely been a moment in the last three centuries where rum hasn’t been at the center of commerce, nation-building, wars at sea, or wars in court.” Even now, in our so-called “modern times”, rum producers, rum sellers and marketers, and rum drinkers are fighting over rum, attacking each other with questions of rum’s authenticity, heritage, and history; its production, marketing, and distribution; and the cost, quality, and style of rum. Rum, or rhum, leads one into murky waters. I prefer the bright blue waters of the Caribbean Sea in the 16th century where rum was created in either what is now Jamaica or Barbados.
I spent some time with local rum expert Ryan Rama to learn of rum’s history, its wildly varied styles, and its consumption in cocktails and on its own. “Rum started off in connection with the sugar-cane industry, which then involved slavery. There was a trifecta of elements: the need for labor to cultivate the sugar cane, the sugar cane being turned into molasses, and the molasses being made into rum,” Rama shared. “That’s the simple version. What makes it complicated is that each country had its own post-colonial history which impacted the way the rum was distilled.” That has led to a myriad of styles of rum being produced and an equally dizzying array of laws and regulations covering said production.
Add in the United States government and its classification of what constitutes rum and you have a rabbit warren of information and disinformation covering rum. So what’s a consumer seeking authentic, delicious, affordable rum to do? According to Rama, it comes down to two things: doing your homework and trusting your local retailer. “I do a ton of research online to make sure the rums I drink have a human connection and a lot of transparency. Beyond that, going to a reputable, knowledgeable retailer reduces a lot of the risk,” Rama shared.
Rama is a big fan of the rums of Barbados, especially those from Foursquare Distillery, which his company represents. Their rums are easy sells as I quickly discovered in a tasting of some of Foursquare’s offerings. They were all very good, but I was absolutely blown away for a new bottling that was aged for 14 years in former bourbon barrels and sherry casks. It had an elegance and complexity I had never experienced in rum before along with a finish that lasted a minute or more! It is most definitely a rum to sip and savor.
No doubt, Rama enjoys a great aged rum to drink neat, but he’s a rum-based cocktail advocate too. “I’m really attracted to pre-prohibition Cuban rum cocktails. The El Presidente is one of my favorites. It’s a lightly aged rum with vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, stirred and served in a Martini-style glass. It is an elegant sipper,” Rama stated. “On the fruitier side of things, I really like classic daiquiris and mojitos. With the mojitos, I love that acidic bite.”
Rama also enjoys the resurgence of the Tiki concept but says just a couple of their rum-based cocktails sends him over a Tiki waterfall. Not one to be deterred, I headed to TikiCat, a Tiki-themed speakeasy in Westport, to try some for myself. Bar Manager Mandy Murray was more than happy to oblige, serving me the classic Mai Tai and Daiquiri and a third rum-based cocktail called a Painkiller. They were as delicious as they were potent. I can see why TikiCat puts a two-hour limit on visits to the bar! Murray, who like all the other TikiCat employees came from the beer centric HopCat upstairs from TikiCat, says she was blown away by what she saw and learned. “I had no idea. And, just like you guys came down the hallway and didn’t know this was here, we were just like that. As soon as we came in, we were like ‘What is this?’,” Murray shared. Murray and the others got three days of intense Tiki training from the very same Martin Cate quoted at the top of this article. Cate is more than just a rum and cocktail expert. He is the owner and creator of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, which features the largest rum selection in the United States and cocktails from more than three centuries of rum history. Not a bad guy to be your Tiki mentor.
TikiCat and HopCat owner and founder Mark Sellers spared no expense to curate the perfect Tiki experience, bringing in woodworking experts and other Tiki artists to create an intimate space that overwhelms the senses with Polynesian art, a tropical water fountain, thatched roofs, bamboo on the bar, intimate Tiki “huts,” and nearly two dozen Tiki cocktails. “Almost all of our cocktails are rum, or rum-based. We also have a very extensive list of sipping rums, but we’re primarily known for our Tiki cocktails,” Murray said. That and the Ohana spirit, which I heard frequently during my time at TikiCat. I knew from watching “Lilo and Stitch” with my kids that Ohana means family and no one being left behind. That feeling is palpable at TikiCat, and so is the impact of those three cocktails!
.25 oz. Orgeat syrup
.25 oz. Mai-tai rich syrup
.75 oz. Lime Juice
.5 oz Orange curacao
2 oz. Appleton Estates Reserve Blend Rum
* garnish with fresh mint and a lime husk
.5 oz Demerarra Syrup
.75 oz Lime juice
2 oz Plantation 3 Star Rum
* garnish with lime peel
1 oz Coconut Cream
1 oz. Orange Juice
2 oz. Pineapple juice
2 oz. Pussers Navy Strength Rum
* topped with fresh grated nutmeg