There is no doubt that bourbon is the hot Southern drink of the moment. All over town, bars are lining up bottle after bottle of artisan bourbons that are 12, 18, even 23 years old — and you can easily pay two bucks or more for every one of those years. (The most expensive I found in a brief survey of local bar menus was $63 — and, yes, that's for a single glass, not a bottle). They're pouring it down ice luge runs, pairing it with desserts, and plunking it into glasses with a single hand-carved chunk of ice. At events like the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and the Southern Foodways Alliance's Potlikker Film Festival, a hip flask of Pappy Van Winkle can be the insider's ticket for making friends and influencing people.
Now I have nothing against bourbon. I am, in fact, quite easy to influence with a slug or two of Pappy from a hip flask. But I do sometimes wonder one thing: what about rum?
Rum is the forgotten liquor of the South. A good century before Scotch-Irish settlers started distilling corn liquor in the hills and hollows of Kentucky and Tennessee, Southerners were turning away from beer and ale (which was hard to brew and store in the hot, humid climate) and taking up rum.
The 1730s, Charleston's first boom decade, were fueled in large part by rum. The rice economy had just become fully established, and it created a thriving import/export trade. A tremendous amount of rum arrived in Charleston on ships from Barbados and Antigua, which would sell their cargoes of liquor and fill their holds with rice for the outbound journey to England. In 1735 alone, 134,000 gallons of rum arrived in the port, passing through the establishments of more than 60 different merchants.
Most of it never left the city, for rum was in demand by all social classes. Common sailors and laborers gathered in "punch houses" like the Two Brewers on Church Street and the Pig and Whistle on Tradd, where they ladled strong punch out of large common bowls. The city's merchants and artisans as well as the planters who came into town from the countryside preferred the public taverns, where they could eat salted fish, wild game, and rice-flour puddings while drinking their rum in the form of slings, flips, and toddies. Rum remained a local favorite until well into the 20th century as the key ingredient in secret punch recipes, which were served at everything from militia musters to the St. Cecilia's Ball.
These days, however, rum has fallen into disfavor. Brooks Reitz, the bar manager at FIG, says that bourbon and vodka are by far their most popular pours. But, he says, "we're big fans of rum," and they are making a conscious effort to promote it.
Joe Raya, co-owner of the pre-Prohibition-centric cocktail bar the Gin Joint, agrees. He's been holding rum tasting seminars lately where he makes the case that high-quality aged rums are just as suited for sipping as whiskey. "Even die-hard bourbon drinkers will find something to like in good rums," he says. Plus, he adds, "A 12-year-old bottle of Scotch can cost $40 to $50, while a 12-year-old rum will run you half the price."
While it's all well and good to sip rum straight up as a connoisseur's drink, if you treat it exactly the same way you would a barrel-aged bourbon, you're missing out on a long, rich drinking tradition. From the very beginning, rum was routinely mixed with other ingredients — particularly sour and sweet ones — for the simple reason that that was the only way an average drinker could stomach the stuff.
As David Wondrich explains in his recent book Punch, there are four ways to make raw spirits more drinkable, and it all has to do with handling the "congeners" — the impurities and other parts of the distilled spirit that aren't pure ethyl alcohol or water. You can overwhelm them with infused spice and other aromatic flavorings (like the juniper berries in gin); filter them out (as is done for vodka with charcoal); mellow them by letting the spirits age in wooden casks (as bourbon-makers do); or mix the spirits with enough sweet and sour substances (like sugar and citrus) that you can't taste the harsh stuff.
The last was exactly the strategy employed by most rum drinkers in Charleston for the first few centuries of the liquor's popularity — heating it with sugar to make flips, soaking orange and sugar in it for weeks to make shrub, or blending it with lemon, sugar, and spices in massive bowls of punch. Caribbean rum-makers later began aging their products in oak casks, but during rum's heyday in colonial Charleston, it would have been raw, white, and as harsh as moonshine.
As Raya shows during his tasting sessions, today's aged rums have many of the same subtle qualities as cask-aged bourbons. But they are splendid in more complicated mixed drinks, too. At FIG, Reitz blends Smith & Cross' Navy Strength with sloe gin and Blenheim's ginger ale in the Drunken Sailor, a regular on the specialty cocktail menu, and other rums appear frequently in the Daily Cocktail, which have in recent months included everything from a Fish House Punch (a Philadelphia specialty) to complex blends with sherry and apricot liqueur that pull the rum flavor forward but — in an almost magical combination with other liquors — still leave it highly sippable. Reitz says he likes to base his specials off the classic formula for planter's punch — one of strong, one of weak, one of sour, one of sweet — which makes the possibilities for creative cocktails almost limitless.
At the Gin Joint, Raya offers up several regular rum concoctions, too. The Knickerbocker Imperial starts with the Knickerbocker recipe from Jerry Thomas' 1862 bar manual How to Mix Drinks — light rum, Curaçao, lime juice, and raspberry syrup — and adds sparkling wine to make it an Imperial. The Queens Park Swizzle is a dramatically beautiful drink, with green, yellow, and reddish-brown layers created by muddled mint leaves that sink to the bottom of the glass, amber rum in the middle, and the reddish-brown tint of bitters at the top. Raya calls it the "grandfather of the mojito," since the Trinidad specialty is even older than its more common Cuban relative that has become so popular in recent years.
Rum even plays well with all the other liquors. The Gin Joint's Bittered Holland Sling blends three of the leading ones — Jameson Irish whiskey, Beefeater gin, Baker's bourbon —and floats 23-year-old Ron Zacapa rum over the top to finish it. There seems to be something symbolically appropriate about that.
The next time you're out on the town and in the mood for a classic tipple, push aside that big book of pricey bourbons that's almost as thick as the wine list and see if there's a rum drink on the specials board. It's the first step toward discovering the forgotten liquor of the South.
One reason that rum doesn't get the respect it deserves is that it still bears the stigma of decades worth of overly saccharine concoctions, including the once-omnipresent Cuba Libre (rum and Coca-Cola) and the blender-whipped strawberry and banana frozen daiquiris that dominated the fern bars in the 1970s.
But those daiquiris are sad bastardizations of the original, which was created in Cuba around the turn of the 20th century. Brooks Reitz recommends a classic daiquiri — with nothing more than rum, sugar, and lime juice — as the perfect way to enjoy a really good rum. This is hardly a drink for "imbibers on training wheels" (to borrow a phrase from Texas food writer Robb Walsh). Ernest Hemingway was a devoted daiquiri drinker, though he preferred the variant created for him by Constantino Ribalaigua at the Floridita bar in Havana. That version, which is aptly known as the Hemingway Daiquiri, replaces the sugar with a little grapefruit juice and Maraschino liqueur and can be pretty tart.
I prefer the version below, adapted from Dale Degroff's The Essential Cocktail, which uses a little simple syrup to sweeten things without turning it into the slurpy-like confection you might remember from your college days. It follows the classic strong-weak-sour-sweet formula and creates a balanced, easy-drinking, and — since the citrus masks the bite of the rum — a very potent drink, perfect for reintroducing cocktail fans to the glories of rum.
• 1½ oz. white rum
• 1 oz. simple syrup
• ½ oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
• ½ oz. fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
• ½ oz. of Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo and DeKuyper are popular brands)
Put ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a glass. Serve up.