Rums of Refinement

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Arum tasting is quite different from a wine tasting. I know that because a couple of weeks ago, I went to TasteDC's second annual Rum Festival, held at the Woman's National Democratic Club. That night, participants were tasting more than 60 rums from all over the Caribbean and Latin America.

So what's a rum tasting like? Let me quickly dispense with a few of your more pressing questions:

· No, neither Captain Morgan Spiced Rum nor Malibu coconut rum was being served.

· Yes, there was indeed a $279 aged rum on offer.

· No, there was not a mojito, piña colada or frozen strawberry daiquiri to be found.

· No, no one described anything as "grassy" or "fruit forward," and I did not hear the word "terroir" (even mispronounced) once.

· Yes, I saw several young women drawing smiley faces on their tasting sheets to mark the rums they liked and frowny faces to mark the ones they didn't.

· Yes, I overheard someone ask, "So, Guatemala . . . that's where, Central America, right?"

· No, there was not a lot of spitting going on.

· Yes, there were numerous middle-aged men wearing Jimmy Buffet-esque island-print shirts, including one shirt with pictures of bongos.

All of which made for a fantastic event. Much more fun than most tastings I've been to lately.

Rum is a sugar cane-based spirit, but it has many variations. Some rums are made purely with sugar cane juice (rhum agricole, for instance, from French-speaking islands), while others use more molasses in the process.

With so many nations represented in the room -- from Venezuela to Haiti to Martinique -- there were bound to be some regional rivalries. I chatted near the hors d'oeuvres table with an international couple, the wife from Trinidad and the husband from Guyana. "Have you tried some of our rums from Trinidad yet?" asked the woman, insisting I get myself a taste of 10 Cane rum.

I asked her husband what he'd tasted. "Well, since I'm from Guyana," he said, "I've been tasting mostly the rums from Guyana." At my enthusiastic prodding, he sampled one of the Guatemalan rums and told me, with a shrug, that he was unimpressed.

My own tasting began with some old favorites, to establish a baseline: Flor de Caña's Centenario 12-year-old from Nicaragua ($37) and Barbancourt's 15-year-old Reserve from Haiti ($44).

I then moved over to one of the stars of the evening, from Guyana: a 17-year-old rum, aged in syrah casks, produced by Murray McDavid ($89). I noticed the people with whom I tasted the Murray McDavid drift back to that table several times during the evening.

As the night went on, I acquired some new favorites, such as the outstanding 12-year-old Zaya ($47) from Guatemala, the Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados ($42) and the Santa Teresa Antiqua de Solera from Venezuela ($37). And, of course, the Cask 1623 rum produced by Pyrat was exceptional -- as one might hope with its outlandish $279 price tag.

All of those expensive bottles suggest that the super-premium rum category is exploding. And the rums are outstanding: complex and diverse, some of them with a fiery, smoky finish, others with more rounded hints of vanilla or molasses. My tasting companion and I joked that aged rum was the new single-malt Scotch.

We were kidding, but the more I've considered it over the past few weeks, the more I'm starting to think it might be true. I find myself turning much more often to aged rum, served neat or on the rocks, than I do to Scotch. (I realize that may be heresy in the spirits world, and I am certain I will receive venomous e-mails on this point.) After sampling the top of the line at the TasteDC event, I began looking around for bottles that might convince a rum newbie or skeptic that the spirit is sophisticated and versatile.

I found several outstanding aged rums for less than $30 to recommend. You cannot go wrong with any of these: Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7 Year Old from Nicaragua ($24), Mount Gay Eclipse from Barbados ($27) or Pampero Aniversario Anejo from Venezuela ($29).

Because these rums are slightly less aged, I decided to try mixing them with tonic and lime for a wonderfully elegant cocktail. After one rum and tonic, you might even reconsider your allegiance to the standard gin and tonic. Regardless, it will convince you that rum has come a long way from its use as just an ingredient in a silly summer drink.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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