When you think of rum, what's the first thing to come to mind? Perhaps a mojito, or a Mai Tai? Maybe a Long Island Iced Tea? If you're like us, rum is simply equated with tropical tiki drinks, and the occasional wintertime sipper (i.e. hot buttered). But this complex spirit, which comes in multiple unique forms (white, dark, aged, spiced), is more than just a sexy beachside sipper. In honor of National Rum Day today, Aug. 16, we present to you Rum for Dummies, courtesy of Michael Neff, alcohol expert and bartender at N.Y.C.'s Holiday Cocktail Lounge. Read on below for the basics of this sugarcane based beverage.
What is rum?
"You take a byproduct of sugar production, which is molasses, and then you ferment it and distill it, and that's how get rum," explains Neff. "There are other styles where they take pressed sugarcane and ferment that juice, and distill the juice—particularly rhum agricole, which is more of a French-style rum coming out of places like Martinique—but most rums will be produced from molasses."
What's so great about it?
"Rum is one of the more diverse spirits in terms of taste experience, because even though it all technically comes from the same plant, how you get what you distill, how you age it, how you produce it, makes a big difference in taste. So you your Spanish-style rum, like Bacardi ($25; wineanthology.com) and Santa Teresa ($35; b-21.com), is going to taste totally different than an un-aged rhum agricole—because it comes from sugarcane juice, it has a very earthy, grassy, funky aroma to it, and it's a really interesting taste." Rum also tends to be a great value: "You can get an aged rum that, dollar for dollar, is a really great experience but doesn't cost you an enormous amount of money," says Neff. "Flor de Cana Rum ($69; winefolder.com) is delicious, and it's usually not too high on the dollar scale."
How would you imbibe white rum versus dark rum?
"I would have white rum in a highball glass with coke or soda. A rum and soda is like vodka soda," says Neff. "It still tastes like you're drinking something, and you can understand the flavors that you're consuming, but it's not neutral." His favorite white rum cocktail? "A mojito. It's delicious, simple, and refreshing. With some good mint and good lime and good white rum ... it's gotten the status it has for a reason." When drinking dark rum, Neff suggests a rum old fashioned. "It highlights the spirit you're using, but you still get the cocktail experience. And this is something people can make very easily in their own homes without spending a lot of money and having to track down ingredients."
What's the deal with aged rum?
"Generally people use barrels from other places—like old whiskey barrels—and use it to age rum; that oak interaction mellows the spirit, gives it color, and gives it different kinds of depth," he explains. "People typically use aged rum for cocktails. And that's a very basic yardstick, but that's the rule of thumb." Neff continues, "Rum prices vary amazingly. Rums are some of the finest spirits on the planet, and can be some of the most expensive (although generally they're not). You could use an interesting aged rum in place of whiskey in a stirred whiskey cocktail—a rum old fashioned, a rum Manhattan—those kind of stirred and boozy experiences. They're delicious."
Spiced rum—love it or leave it?
"Spiced rum can be flavored with any number of things, like cinnamon or vanilla. But it's flavored separately from the production process itself," says Neff. "I like flavoring my own stuff. I encourage people to branch off of spiced rum eventually, because there are wonderful flavors in so many of these rums already, and they're not as in-your-face."
And some parting words for you newfound rum enthusiasts ...
"Spirits are culture—you're kind of exploring the culture of Venezuela when you drink Santa Teresa, and you're exploring the culture of Martinique when you drink rhum agricole. It's a fun way to experience other cultures without having to leave your house or your city," Neff says. "In honor of the Rio Olympics, I would encourage people to branch out and include cachaça ($17; wineanthology.com) in their exploration. It's a sugarcane spirit from Brazil, but for a long time it had to be labeled as rum in order to be imported to the United States."
In the mood for a rum cocktail? Below is Neff's recipe for a tea-infused tipple. Cheers!
Stars in My Eyes
1. To make the Earl Grey syrup: Steep Earl Grey tea in 4 oz hot water for 10 minutes. Mix with equal parts granulated sugar and stir until dissolved.
2. To assemble the cocktail: Combine all liquid ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until well-chilled. Serve up in a cold cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.