Take coconut rum. I recently did a highly unscientific survey of a few non-booze-industry chums, asking them to name a brand. Those who could name one all said Malibu, though one did offer up a hesitant “Bacardi?” as an afterthought.
With its distinctive white bottle and sunset-palm-tree icon, Malibu defines the coconut rum niche for many. Which is ironic, because at least in the United States — the brand’s biggest market, where the legal definition of rum includes that the sugarcane-based spirit must be at least 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) — Malibu isn’t technically a rum. At 21 percent ABV, it’s closer to a coconut liqueur. But as far as most consumers are concerned, Malibu is the Jaws of the coconut rum world. It doesn’t matter that Malibu is a goldfish.
It had been a long time since I tasted Malibu. It was pretty much as I recalled it from when I’d drank it in college: syrupy, perfumey, not-for-me-y. It’s impossible to drink it without thinking of the beach. For me, it called to mind a bottle of expired sunscreen that failed us on our honeymoon, leaving us crimson and blistered, but clearly, your mileage may vary — after all, Malibu sells 3.8 million cases a year. But I must not be alone in my desire for something a little more rum, a little less Yankee Candle, because there are distillers out there making delicious alternatives. That there aren’t scores more may have to do with a fact I recently discovered: Coconut — fragrant, Tom Hanks-saving coconut — is a distiller’s nightmare.
“Coconut is one of the best flavors out there and one of the rummiest,” says Jordan Cotton of D.C. rum distiller Cotton & Reed. “It’s weirdly both heavy and delicate, rich and unctuous, but it can pretty easily be dominated by whatever else is in the bottle or glass with it.”
The distillery had been wanting to make a coconut rum since it opened, Cotton says, but it didn’t feel ready until now. Filtration of its products was a challenge when it got started, and from a filtration standpoint, taking on coconut is a triple-dog dare. “The challenge of working with coconut is that it contains all that oil, which contains all the nice flavor, but that people generally don’t want to see floating around in their glass.”
The challenge: getting authentic, appealing coconut flavor into a bottle without also including the fruit’s significant fat.
The process to get the first tiny run of 340 bottles involved quite a bit of creativity as the team contemplated how to get every last drop of its white rum out of the 175 pounds of dried coconut soaking in it. “We ended up drilling a hole in the bottom of a big 55-gallon industrial drum, and then put all the soggy coconut inside, perched it on a couple of pallets with a gap between them where we had drilled the hole, and put a drip tray under that,” Cotton recalls. “Then we had a huge cooking pot that fit almost perfectly inside that drum, so we put that in there. And then our distiller John Hayes and I took turns jumping up and down on it.”
(All these years, the industry has been arguing about the definition of “craft,” and frankly, I’ve never heard a better description.)
The bottle I snagged has a significant haze to it, and I could see some minor traces of oil gathering at the neck. But it packs a lovely coconut punch.
Cotton & Reed went the distill-then-macerate route — but that’s not the only option for taming the coconut beast. One of the best, most beautifully aromatic coconut rums I’ve tried is Kōloa, out of Hawaii. The distillery makes a number of flavored rums, but the coconut “was absolutely the most difficult for us to formulate,” says President and CEO Bob Gunter.
The Kōloa team tried macerating coconuts of all ages and varieties. It tried mixing it with coconut water. It eventually found a company that was distilling fresh coconuts to a highly concentrated compound, mostly for the cosmetic industry. Kōloa began using small amounts of the compound in its rum.
“We don’t have the issue with the oils, because they have been removed through their process, but also the flavor compounds we get are consistent,” Gunter says. “When you are using the fruit itself, one may taste different than the other — one may be sweeter, one may be chalky. And then there’s availability — we have coconut all over the island, but that doesn’t mean that when you need it there’s an ample supply that is just the right age and just the right degree of maturity and flavor.”
The consistency of that ingredient has allowed Kōloa to ensure consistency in its rum, so that people who buy a bottle now or later will get the same thing. It took the company over two years to nail down the formula.
Having for years, as a bartender, longed for a coconut rum with less sugar and some ABV heft, Todd Thrasher finally made one himself when he started distilling at Thrasher’s Rum. “The first time my wife and I ever went to Barbados, we went to the Malibu rum plant, so it has kind of a special place in my heart,” Thrasher admits. “But I could never use it in a cocktail because it has so much sugar. … Part of the impetus to make a coconut rum was that I wanted to make something for a bartender to use.”
Thrasher uses actual coconut flesh, both toasted and raw, putting it into the still after the stripping run (which reduces the impurities and extracts the most alcohol from the wash created by the initial fermentation). Then, “for about 16 hours, I’m just basically macerating the coconut flesh in that distillate,” Thrasher says. After that, Thrasher and his team do the actual distillation run — during which, he says, the condenser actually throws off chunks of coconut fat. Even post-distillation, there’s oil left in the spirit, but when they chill it, the fat coagulates and is then skimmed off.
The rum has been selling well, but even now Thrasher feels the wake of the great white whale. Many consumers have a specific idea of what “coconut rum” tastes like, and when they taste Thrasher’s, they’re surprised by what they get — a crisp, clear, subtly coconutty, genuine rum.
“Bartenders really dig it,” he says, “and it’s the number one selling rum we have right now. But the public still seems to compare everything to Malibu.”
This is an easy and delicious daiquiri riff, with all the classic brightness of lime enhanced with coconut rum. Note that you want a real coconut rum here, not a coconut liqueur such as Malibu. We used Kōloa, but depending on the sweetness of the rum you select, you may opt to dial the demerara syrup up or back slightly. If you don’t have pimento bitters, Angostura makes a fine substitute.
Make ahead: The syrup needs to be prepared and thoroughly chilled before making the drink(s).
Storage: The syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.
For the demerara syrup
- 1/2 cup demerara sugar
- 1/2 cup water
For the drink
- 2 ounces coconut rum
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice (from about 1 lime)
- 1/2 ounce demerara syrup (see above)
- 2 dashes pimento bitters (may substitute with Angostura bitters)
Make the demerara syrup: In a small pan over medium heat, combine the demerara sugar with the water and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for about 30 seconds, then remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Transfer to a bottle and refrigerate until needed.
Make the drink: Chill a cocktail coupe in the freezer for at least 5 minutes, or until frosted.
When the coupe is sufficiently chilled, fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the rum, lime juice, syrup and bitters, close the shaker and shake hard for 30 seconds. Double-strain into the chilled glass and serve right away.
Based on 1 cocktail
Calories: 153; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 4 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 24 g; Protein: 0 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to email@example.com.
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