Thursday, May 21, 2009
Rum Running in South Beach, Part 2
The Rum Renaissance Festival grand tasting event on Saturday was everything it promised and more: a veritable feast, nay an orgy of rum tasting galore. As a rum newbie, I learned more about the spirit in one afternoon than a lifetime of drinking could afford me, for which my liver is obviously grateful!
Robert Burr, one of the event's founders, is happy. "The festival exceeded all of our expectations," he said in a phone interview. "We had an excellent turnout. And that is an indication of my theory that rum will have a renaissance is pretty valid. Rum is not new: it's old. But it has been under-appreciated."
Held at the Shore Club hotel on Collins Avenue (which I affectionately call the Whore Club), the event also offered some prime people-gawking, South Beach's favorite pastime. My friend MKH and I, members of the American-Cuban Alliance of Honky White Folk Who Never Sunbathe, were fully clothed in pants and hats.
We stuck out like sore thumbs what with all those snowbirds traipsing half-naked through the courtyard on their way to and from the pool. I just love it how people travel hundreds of miles to be in a large tub of chlorinated water with about 500 hundred other bodies, when -- lo and behold -- a perfectly good Atlantic Ocean sits neglected nearby.
(MKH pictured here with a modestly dressed and buxom Bacardi babe.)
But I digress ... back to the rum business!
No sooner did I hobble up some stairs with my crutches (Whore Club is not handicap friendly, by the way), I was happy to see Paul Sevigny from Splash Cocktail -- my new favorite bartender -- at the first exhibitor booth. He was improvising cocktails on the fly with a French fruit concentrate product called Les Vergers Boiron, a thick fruit purée that is 100% pure, with no added sugar or artificial flavors. It's perfect for professional pastry chefs, so why not bartenders? Unfortunately, it's not yet available retail, but I hope it will be soon enough -- the intensely rich mango, passion fruit and blackberry flavors I sampled made me reconsider my usual distaste for syrupy, sweet drinks.
As for the other booths, oh my! Where do I begin? There were dozens of exhibitors, a dizzying number that made it impossible to try them all in the span of a few hours. And by dizzying I don't mean sloshed: you can't get tipsy and expect to take good notes!
Even though some exhibitors were serving cocktails, most were actually eager to supply rum enthusiasts with small portions of their spirits, which is really how you should "taste" the rum -- neat or with a single ice cube (see video below).
Among those I managed to sample: Rhum J.M from Martinique, Cruzan from St. Croix, Appleton Estate from Jamaica, Mount Gay from Barbados, Zaya from Trinidad, Oronoco from Brazil, Castries Rum Creme from Saint Lucia, Caldas from Colombia, Zacapa from Guatemala and of course, the ubiquitous Bacardi from Puerto Rico.
Do you see the variety of countries from which these spirits hail? I find the history of rum to be just as interesting as the beverage itself. For example: Zacapa is aged at one and half miles above sea level; Mount Gay is the oldest brand in the world (since 1703); and Castries Rum Cream relies on locally grown peanuts and spices.
To know the history of what you're drinking makes the beverage all the more interesting to imbibe. I encourage anyone who is new to rum to explore the history behind each distillery. You'll learn quite a bit about our little corner of the world here in the tropical western hemisphere.
I also learned much about distinguishing one brand and type from the other by color, flavor and aroma. No, they don't all taste the same, and to arrive to this conclusion you need to instruct your palette in the art of subtlety, not to mention patience!
What I loved the most from the whole festival? Hands down, the rich, dark rums that you can sip slowly like brandy. Mount Gay, J. M Rhum, Zacapa and Zaya come to mind. Zaya has some incredibly fragrant vanilla and chocolate notes; it's like drinking a rain forest full of orchids.
On the other hand, I could definitely do without Bacardi's fruit varieties. The Dragonberry (dragon fruit and strawberry) tasted more like a corn syrup pop tart than real dragon fruit, but I suppose these varieties are good for mixing.
Nowhere to be found was the chilled swill that you'd find at Wet Willie's down the street at Ocean Drive. However, a frozen nitrogen drink featuring Don Q, while impressive in its elaboration and a decidedly tasty mix of guava and mint, could not, unfortunately, hold up to the Florida humidity. A 7-11 slurpee stays colder longer.
As I suspected, after the VIP tasting during Part 1, Castries Rum Creme was absolutely yummy in the hands of a capable bartender. Rob, Paul's business partner (my second favorite bartender!), made an incredible Thai Basil drink that is even somewhat healthy: muddle some jalapeño, basil and ginger, combine with vanilla vodka (he was using Stoli), Domaine de Canton (ginger liqueur) and Castries, shake, pour over ice in a highball glass and garnish with basil leaves (see video below). Again, the savory and sweet combination really adds zing to any aperitif. Castries Rum Creme was also wonderful all on its own, over ice.
A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BURR
Burr, with whom I shared a delightful phone conversation about South Florida and Caribbean history a few days after the event, hails from a long line of South Florida pioneers and influential Miami citizens. He publishes the The Great Gables Guide and is also very involved in promoting the Redlands.
Burr used to publish a magazine about scuba diving, which led him to the islands, where he would, invariably, taste rum and collect stories about rum. "Somewhere along the way, I decided I should get every bottle of rum that exists," he said.
And that's how it all started. Burr believes that rum drinking is really a journey. "When someone begins to discover rum, there's so much variation," he explained. "Everyone will find a rum they like. It's a way to celebrate island cultures. Every island has wonderful attributes and I think we see those reflected in each rum. I know a lot about rum, but I am always discovering."
Though an expert, Burr is definitely no rum snob ready to preach some hoity-toity gospel about the spirit. He reminds me of Gary Vaynerchuck, who has done for wine nationwide what Burr is doing for rum here in Miami -- making it cool and groovy, accessible to everyone and a joy to discover.
Burr shares my taste for cocktails that have clear, defined flavors. "A true, original daiquiri is really simple -- lemon juice, sugar and rum. The simplicity of it cannot be duplicated," he claimed. "Also, ginger beer and rum were made for each other."
And clearly, rum has found a friend in Robert.
Want to learn more about rum? Grab a copy of Robert Burr's Gifted Rums Guide; this inexpensive, small booklet features a few articles and a comprehensive listing of different brands and types of rum. For tasting events in South Florida, subscribe to Robert's mailing list. Each event costs about $20 and introduce tasters to about a dozen fine rums. Expect more events as the season picks up later this fall.
Ministry of Rum is an additional online resource.
LIVE STREAMS AND MORE PHOTOS
HOW TO PROPERLY TASTE RUM (AT ORONOCO BOOTH)
SAVORY COCKTAIL: THAI BASIL BY ROBERT ORTENZIO FROM SPLASH COCKTAIL