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New rum cocktail drinks are being created by barkeeps these days as fast and furious as the molasses rum is created with is slow. Although rum is mostly associated with its wild and sometimes brutal British and European history, Puerto Rico the new cocktail names themselves are bouncy city fun and include the Lavender Tonic, Co-Q-Nut Sling, ManGotham with Parrot Bay Rum.
Rum is very simply fermented liquor distilled from sugarcane molasses (ah, sweet sugar high). It ranges in color from clear to dark brown, with dark rums being the most flavorful.
The juice of the fermented sugarcane was initially distilled in Ceylon and India as early as 800 B.C., with the manufacturing process as we know it today originating in the West Indies. Dutch and French colonists were the first to become manic manufacturers and money makers of the easy to produce spirit in the West Indies around 1600.
The English were not far behind as the thriving industry saturated Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The British are, in fact, credited for giving the drink its greatest boost of all in the 18th century, and also its name. The word “rum” is derived from “rumbullion,” an old Devonshire word aptly meaning “great tumult.”
The first British marketing plan was ingenious. The government decreed that each and every sailor in the royal Navy ships be given a generous daily ration of a half pint of rum or “grog” to “help keep their spirits high.” The first British marketing plan was long lasting. The custom, though slightly altered, nevertheless lasted for close to 200 years, ending in 1970!
By this time Puerto Rican rum was well on the way to its current highest quality reputation primarily because it is the only country with strict aging laws. All rum must be aged a minimum of one year in charred white oak barrels. Gold and dark “anejo” rums must be aged even longer, which brings out a rich Cognac flavor and smoother, more balanced taste. Government standards require rum to have a minimum proof of 60 (30 percent alcohol by volume), though it can rum up to a party-powerful 190 proof.
Decades earlier, in 1954, a bartender at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan created the legendary Piña Colada, adding to the natural impact of molasses, fruit juice sugar and refined sugar. My own experience proved this when I accompanied Los Angeles Chef Toribio Prado of Cha Cha Cha and the Ivy Restaurant fame to a dinner he created at the highly esteemed James Beard Foundation in New York. The chef served the then novelty Mojito with the same sugar mix at cocktail hour and fine rums during the five course dinner. No one could remember the food past the second course but everyone had a grand time. Rum does that.
Maybe that’s why today rum is the second largest spirit category in the U.S. behind vodka, with Puerto Rican rum being 75% of it, totaling over 15 million cases annually.
And so, especially during this month honoring rum, brilliant and engaging Celebrity Chef Wilo Benet, who hosted “Top Chef”TV Show at his wildly popular Pikayo restaurant in San Juan, is publicly sharing his repertoire of exquisite rum-based dishes. Typically, Bill’s Mango Gazpacho with Coconut Rum, as starter or meal, is chock full of tropical flavors with cucumber for freshness and rice vinegar and tarragon for a sweet kick. (www.pikayo.com)
At the same time proud Puerto Rican rum-meisters want innovative rum cocktails to reflect this popularity. Recently Tony Abou-Ganim, “The Modern Mixologist,” led a “Rum Academy” for bartenders and guests in Los Angeles. Tony capably whipped up new run infusion drinks created by Rums of Puerto Rico, in which the spirit is mixed with sliced fruits, spices and chilis and steeped for several days. Mr. Abou-Gamin very confidently predicts this to be the next new cocktail trend “because of the “more conscious effort to marry rum and gastronomy using fresh ingredients in creative ways,” in his words.
For a classic but light and refreshing cocktail, simply mix a white or an amber rum with fresh fruit juice and a splash of soda, or for a deeper after dinner drink, try a dusky, dark añejo sipped neat from a snifter. Actually, once we got started on our research, we found that rum is just wonderful when substituted for Southern Comfort in brioche bread pudding recipes; it’s wonderful as a topping for vanilla ice cream with toasted pistachios or pecans and it works just fine instead of wine when making any poultry or fowl recipes. Salud!
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