On Feb. 17, Palace Cafe hosts the first in a series of rum tastings and events from its New Orleans Rum Society, a club for rum enthusiasts. Leading the event is Wayne Curtis, local rum expert and author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, who will guide the tasting and share the history of the spirit. Curtis spoke with Gambit about rum and its place in New Orleans.
What are the origins of the drink?
Curtis: Rum is the spirit of America. Bourbon has been trying to claim that for some time ... but rum has been around from the get-go. It's really the New World spirit. Contemporary rum traces its genealogy back to about 1640 in Barbados, and a lot of the reason that rum came about is because the (sugarcane industry) took off. It became a hugely profitable crop ... (and) there were massive fortunes made in the West Indies.
Once you boil down the cane sugar, you let the sugar crystallize and out of the crystals comes this dark molasses. A lot of this was discarded. But then people figured out that you could ferment it and you could distill it, and it took off.
Whiskey is really the distilled essence of beer, and brandy is the distilled essence of grapes, but rum is the distilled essence of industrial waste. It's making something from nothing, and that became a huge business. Virtually every sugarcane plantation in the West Indies also had a distillery.
Where does New Orleans fall in the rum scene?
C: New Orleans is pretty fascinating to me, because since the 1790s (there have been) sugarcane plantations, but a major rum industry never took off. It didn't really get a lot of attention; it wasn't the kind of thing that got celebrated. Everyone paid attention to bourbon and to brandy. By the time the sugar plantations took off in Louisiana, rum's day had passed. It never really popped (here) like it did in every other sugarcane-producing (area). But I think it's always been present ... and I suspect that every sugarcane plantation had a small distillery that they would use for local consumption.
(Now) there's Old New Orleans Rum, who were well ahead of the curve of craft distilling, and I think we're at eight or nine (distilleries) now. ... I think we're probably going to see another half dozen (emerge) in the next five years because it's happening nationally. We're starting to see much more of a trend towards terroir in spirits, and Louisiana is a great place to set up a rum distillery.
What are some of the most common mis-conceptions about rum?
C: Everybody thinks rum is sweet; I hear it all the time, "Oh, I can't drink rum. It's too sweet." The reason it's too sweet is likely because they're drinking it in syrupy, thick drinks. Rum is made from sugar so there is a perception that it's sweet, but through fermentation the sugar is stripped out and there's as much sugar in rum as there is in any other spirit. That being said, rum can sometimes be sweetened ... but you can find a rum that is nice and dry, as dry as a good Scotch.
I like to divide (rum) into three categories: You've got British-style rum, French-style rum and Spanish styles. The French tend to be likely from Martinique, which is the rum made from fresh pressed cane juice; it's usually distilled at a lower alcoholic percentage, and so the flavor tends to be very grassy. The Spanish style tends to be fairly dry. ... A lot of Cuban and Puerto Rican rums follow this approach to a drier style. The British style tends to be a little funkier and heavier, demerara-based and what you might find in Jamaica or Guyana. It's a really nice, dense, almost honeylike rum.