Most honest Americans of drinking age know bourbon as the national spirit. There are artisans restoring applejack and moonshine to their proper renown, but American whiskey aged in charred new white oak barrels is surely our drink, codified by rules of origin, trade laws, government declarations and the very existence of a bacon-infused Old Fashioned. Right?
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It’s good: I like it almost as much as I like Scotch. But, like Scotch, the culture of bourbon drinking has been overrun by know-it-alls and connoisseurs who won’t pour two fingers without dangling a pinky and reading you the mash bill. Look, I like to curl up on the leather sofa with a tumbler of barrel-proof and As I Lay Dying as much as the next guy, but I once spent a summer with some fellas in the Mississippi Delta who drank Old Grand-Dad from the bottle with one lip packed and the other hanging on to a cigarette. The dogs howling when Jack played harmonica was how the jam always ended. We cooked the steaks that customers wouldn’t buy because they were starting to turn and we liked the funk.
When in San Juan…
We spent a long weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico, visiting Bacardi’s largest distillery and exploring the port city. If you find yourself on a rum pilgrimage, here are a few noteworthy places to check out.
DRINK: CASA BACARDI
Just outside (and visible from) San Juan, in Cataño, is Bacardi’s largest distillery and the largest premium rum distillery in the world. The actual distillery tour provides limited access, but the room dedicated to Bacardi family history — paintings, awards, relics — makes the trip well worth a quick morning stop-in. casabacardi.org
EAT: MI CASA
Chef José Andrés, known for his DC spots minibar and barmini, opened a new restaurant in late 2012 at the Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton, just west of San Juan. If you’re looking for an elegant meal after drinking beer and eating alcapurrias all day, get the tasting menu at Mi Casa, which includes chicken and béchamel croquettes that will ruin you for chicken nuggets forever. ritzcarlton.com
SEE: EL MORRO
Those of us who live inland will never understand the precariousness of island life. Standing by the lighthouse at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century citadel named after King Philip II of Spain, one gets the sense that you really have to watch your ass if you’re going to live on a tiny island. nps.gov
– Jeremy Berger
It’s almost summer again. While I can’t relive my halcyon days in the South — matter of fact I lost most of those memories in percussive bouts of drinking — there’s another spirit for us to enjoy in the warm weather that, like bourbon, has a uniquely American story: rum. We’ve overlooked it for some time; meanwhile, there’s plenty of new, excellent, American and Caribbean rum coming to market, and rum-specific bars are opening in cities across the country. Rum, for now, is a little less serious than Scotch or bourbon, but what it brings to the table is no laughing matter — unless you’ve got your pinky dangling.
A Dram of History
Now this is no inquiry into who made booze first on our continent. In pre-Columbian America, Native Americans up and down the continent were making alcoholic beverages: pulque in Mesoamerica, tepache in Mexico, fermented sap in New York. Early European colonists in New England brought beer with them and later brewed their own. They also made rum, a spirit distilled from sugarcane juice or molasses, the byproduct of refining sugarcane. While they weren’t the first to make rum (that topic is subject to debate), it was being produced all over Colonial New England by the end of the 17th century, thanks to abundant raw materials coming from sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
This early rum wasn’t the easy-drinking Captain Morgan we’re accustomed to today. According to Wayne Curtis, author of And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, “The old-fashioned rum Jefferson and Adams ordered would have been cloying, greasy, nasty-smelling stuff. Colonial rum, made with a crude pot still and seat-of-the-pants technology, would have been laden with impurities, and could have been whiffed a block away.”
To counteract the rough character of early rum, drinkers made cocktails like grog, flip and punch. Of no small significance in Curtis’s book is Bacardi, the brand he credits with reinventing rum beginning in 1862, transforming what was once a coarse spirit into something much lighter and smoother — something sippable — by removing impurities with charcoal filtration and aging the rum in white oak barrels.
Strictly speaking, Don Facundo Bacardí Massó’s revelations happened in Cuba, not America, but before 1958 (and even today) the two countries had a strong interest in each other. Today, Bacardi’s largest rum distillery is in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the U.S. The rum produced here has the largest market share in the States, and while greasy, nasty-smelling stuff is certainly out, the rum we’re drinking today comes with a variety of influences and in a handful of styles.
Not Your Great, Great, Great Grandfather’s Rum
Most rum today is made from molasses. (Less common is rhum agricole, made from sugarcane juice.) The clear stuff might be unaged or aged and then filtered again; gold rum usually has more years on it and takes its color from charred oak barrels (or additives, at the low end); spiced rum and black rum get their character from spices and the addition of molasses before bottling, respectively; and then there’s a whole category of excellent rums that are simply made with more care and aged for a longer period of time, like Ron Zapaca XO and Angostura 1824, that’ll stand up to any bourbon you could sip on a wrap-around porch in La Grange, KY.
Perhaps more interesting for American history buffs is the resurgence of rum production in what used to be Colonial New England. In the North Shore of Massachusetts, Ryan & Wood, Privateer, and Turkey Shore distilleries are all producing craft rum that would make their forebears blush like a sailor after too many rations of grog. Ryan & Wood markets its Folly Cove Rum with the story of smugglers and shipwrecks off the coast of Gloucester, but it would be a mistake to think their rum, too, is a relic. It’s made in a custom copper pot still in small batches — exactly the type of language that makes bourbon and Scotch drinkers swoon. Rum has also seen a resurgence in recent years at rum-focused cocktail bars like Cienfuegos in New York, Rum Club in Portland and The Kill Devil Club in Kansas City.
All the evidence suggests that now is the time to drink rum, before things get too heady, while we’re all still just having fun. I’m not suggesting that you box up the bourbon collection or even stop reading Faulkner. But I am making a bit more room in my liquor cabinet for rum — it’s earned it — and if you need me I’ll be over here in a creaky wooden chair, drinking a daiquiri and reading The Count of Monte Cristo.