For anyone looking for the antidote to an overdose of “grown-up” drinks — think rye whiskeys and gins peering down from the top shelf — here’s a clue: A shot (or three) of rum should do the trick. Just add a paper umbrella, and you can call it rehab.
“Rum is making a massive resurgence,” says Todd Thrasher, mixologist in chief at Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, the Majestic and PX. That means leggier-than-Kate-Moss martini glasses and “arm garters” are out; “lava-spewing” punch bowls and mugs stacked with angry totem faces are in.
No longer resigned to pirate theme parties and beach holidays (not that we were complaining), devil-may-care rum is having its time in the sun. And for once, this latest cocktail craze is all about loosening up. (We dare you to take yourself too seriously when sipping a fruit-rum-absinthe potable called the Zombie.)
That’s in part because rum, unlike CEO-level aged scotches, comes with entry-level price tags. “It’s inexpensive and still remains a tremendous value,” says Jill Zimorski, beverage director for Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup, which includes Cafe Atlantico (405 Eighth St. NW; 202-393-0812), a rum-heavy restaurant that’s hosting special tastings of the stuff Sept. 2-5. “Even nice aged rums are less expensive than comparably aged spirits.”
The result: From wannabe Captain Morgans to island-hopping honeymooners, rum swillers are as varied as the sweet liquid gold itself. “The reason I love rum is why some bartenders hate it,” explains Duane Sylvestre, head mixologist at Georgetown’s Bourbon Steak (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-944-2026). “It’s so hard to know what you’re drinking. Anything made from sugar can be called rum.” Sans regulations, the sugary spirit gets distilled dozens of ways in as many countries, clear to molasses dark, from Haiti and Bermuda to Jamaica, Brazil and Martinique (hint: labels call it “ron” if it’s from Spanish-speaking countries, “rhum” if it’s from French-speaking ones).
In effect, the spirit’s flavor profile skews wilder than Jack Sparrow’s swagger after, well, breakfast. “You can have something that’s light and summery, or a warm, wintry rum drink, or you can have rum in a snifter — it’s a beverage for all seasons,” says Jessica Harris, author of “Rum Drinks: 50 Caribbean Cocktails, From Cuba Libre to Rum Daisy” ($20, Chronicle). “Rum is a perfect mixer.” It’s also “history in a glass,” she says, citing slavery to privateers to Al Capone as part of the spirit’s story.
“Rum is connected in the minds of many with tropical vacations, but it’s every bit as serious of a beverage as other spirits,” Harris says. Modern-day pirates can pay their due by sending punch-like artificial mixers to the plank and opting instead for classic cocktails starring fresh fruits.
For starters, get sea legs perfecting a classic daiquiri, Sylvestre advises. His recipe: Two ounces rum, 3/4 ounce of sweetener and 1/2 ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Twists on JFK’s drink of choice are endless, he says, including, perhaps most famously, the minty mojito and the Hemingway daiquiri, which swaps sugar for maraschino liquor and pairs lime with grapefruit juice. At Cafe Atlantico, Zimorski infuses rum with hibiscus for another Papa-inspired daiquiri called Old Man at the Sea.
But the tiki cocktail is what’s giving the most wind to the rum renaissance’s mast. Home tiki masters might stick to original recipes by rum revolutionaries such as Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber, from the Scorpion (blended rum, Hennessy, lemon and orange juices, and orgeat syrup) to the Mai Tai (aged rum, orange curacao, almond syrup and fresh lime juice). Full disclosure: “A lot of times the old recipes are so boozy,” Thrasher says, who tweaks them to have a bit less kick.
The add-in that most evokes vacation, though, is coconut. Leave frothy pina coladas cabana-side, though, and instead try a rich, silky boater’s fave, the Painkiller: orange and pineapple juices, coconut milk and aged rum, shaken and topped with grated nutmeg and a mint sprig — “the hottest tiki cocktail nobody knows about,” says Jon Arroyo, the mixologist behind the tiki bar at the Georgetown waterfront’s Farmers and Fishers (3000 K St. NW; 202-298-0003).
“Contrary to popular belief, tiki cocktails are not about the paper umbrellas and funky glassware,” Arroyo says. “They’re about the actual substance — fresh juices and excellent aged rums.”
Still, Arroyo equates mixing tropical cocktails to the old maxim about playing golf. “It’s like having sex — you can still have fun and not be good at it,” he says. “If you mix fresh juices and good rum, you’re going to have a pretty decent beverage.”
MORE ON THE REINCARNATION OF RUM
» Recipe File: Three twists on classic rum cocktails
» Shots or strictly mix-ins, Express does the hard work to find the best rums around.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Lawrence Luk/Express