This article first appeared in Skyways (SA Airlink) inflight magazine in November 2016
Lord Byron once said, “There’s naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion”. The latter we shall omit from this article but Rum on the other hand deserves a delve because it’s on the comeback trail at a bar near you.
A recent trip to Mauritius off Africa’s East coast revealed that the island paradise is more than just a magnet for honeymooners heading to beautiful resorts. It turns out that Ile Maurice is also a big player in the global rum game. Who knew?
The Dutch are the first we need to thank for this. A year after colonising Mauritius in 1638, they planted sugar cane imported from Java, taking advantage of the tropical conditions so perfectly conducive to a thriving crop. The French arrived in 1710 and the British followed next, all adding to the plantations and using slave labour to boost the turnover of sugar production for export to the Empire. The making of rum though wasn’t a thing until a century or so later.
Sugar cane, of which there are twelve varieties, announces its maturity with the appearance of a single feathery flower on the tip of the plant. In Mauritius producers tend to use only the red and yellow cane, the colour of which can be seen once the cane is cut and stripped. Harvesting is still done by hand, at the start of each summer. Once felled, the sugar cane is crushed and the juice, known as fangourin, is placed into open vats to interact with yeasts that convert the sugars into alcohol. The fermentation and distillation processes differ by distillery and the type and strength of the drink that can have an alcoholic content of up to 60%. At the Rhumerie de Chamarel distillery situated in a fertile valley high above sea level, rum rests in French or American oak barrels, maturing for anything from twenty four hours to eighteen months and up to six years. Interaction with the wood affects the colour of the liquid and the longer it is left to age, the more complex the rum profile. Their double distillation rum (XO) is matured in copper stills, following the cognac method. The exceptional end product is the result of fastidious care and attention to detail by master blenders. Connoisseurs say that Mauritian rum stands out from the crowd by virtue of its fresh infusions and aromatic bouquets. Locally grown exotic island fruits and spices like pineapple, passion fruit, coconut and vanilla are frequently used in Mauritian white rum and contribute to the flavourful taste.
These days rum is a favoured ingredient with mixologists the world over. The cocktail has reached new heights with top bar tenders shaking up the most sublime combinations that leave the humble rum-and-coke in the shade. At Operation Dagger in Singapore, voted Best New Bar at the Singapore Bar Awards in 2015, one of the most sought after cocktails is ‘The Egg’ that combined egg yolks cured for 24 hours with dark rum, sugar, salt, caramel and vanilla, shaken up with ice and strained into a custom made ceramic ‘egg’ cup. As a final touch, smoked star anise and hay is placed in a bell jar with the drink and served to the guest. This is bar theatre at its finest.
Says Operation Dagger owner Luke Whearty, “Not many people realise how many different rum styles there are and how rich in history it is as a spirit category…white rums can be un-aged, or barrel-aged like dark rum. Rhum agricole is rum in its purest form and has a very raw profile which I love!” Unlike most spirits, rum has stayed very close to its genesis, never far removed from a base flavour of molasses or sugar cane juice. Its origins of production have stemmed from exotic, tropical locations, where this ‘sugar grass’ grows abundantly. However Rum does not have a distinct standard of production, varying between traditional styles of country, distiller and local legislation. As a general rule, Spanish-speaking countries produce lighter rums, English speaking darker rums, and the French speaking more agricole, the superior quality rum.
Whether a fan of the cleaner, lighter rums or more heavy bodied darker rums, age and blending generally allow this spirit to be enjoyed by both entry level and high end consumers. “The drink has seen a resurgence in the global spirit markets, where the craft of cocktail making is reaching unprecedented heights”, says Drew Madacsi, world traveller and owner of The House of Machines and Outrage of Modesty, two popular bars located in Shortmarket Street, Cape Town. The need for a stable cocktail base, and a relatively safe taste profile, has seen this spirit generally overlooked but the renewed focus on old world spirits has shown that good Rum has a level of complexity and refinement not previously acknowledged. As for drinking, a Rum purist will always say ‘straight or on the rocks’ but quality matters with all things, Madacsi concluded.
Rum even has its own global ambassador, one Ian Burrell, owner of Cottons in Camden in London, a Caribbean restaurant and bar. Jamaican by birth, he travels the world promoting rum as a lifestyle drink and in 2013 launched the first Mauritian Rum Festival held at the appropriately named Sugar Beach Hotel in Flic en Flac, aimed at showcasing local rum brands to tourists and local communities.
Rum is making strong inroads into world markets and has gained significant ground with a more sophisticated audience. Taken neat or enjoyed in a fancy cocktail, Rum is back in the game.
Until next time,