Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rum: A Caribbean Treasure Offers the Perfect Punch

A Barbados Food and Wine Festival Special Report

By Gamal Hennessy

Along with vodka, gin, whiskey and tequila, rum is a staple of every bar well. Although it is normally thought of as the base of many summer drinks, it has a variety and depth that is similar to spirits favored by connoisseurs.

Rum is a by-product of sugar cane, which explains its distinctive sweet taste. It was discovered by African slaves, who fermented the molasses produced from sugar cane into a beverage that helped them cope with the harsh conditions they faced. Rum production originated in Barbados, but it quickly spread throughout the British Empire and subsequently, the rest of the world.

Because it comes from the Caribbean and partially because of its sweet characteristics, rum is associated with warm weather drinks. Roof top bars all over the city have free flowing rum punch, mojitos and coladas when the sun is out. Although not as common on winter menus, rum is also the basis of winter drinks such as hot buttered rum. Several cocktails lounges like Painkiller, Hurricane Club and Lana Kai feature rum prominently in their menus while venues like Cienfuegos devote most of their cocktail menu to it.

Rum is similar to tequila, whiskey and vodka in that there are different vintages and varieties based on the preparation process, place of origin and aging. Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Malibu are most well known brands in the U.S., but in Barbados Mount Gay is the main local brand. It was also the subject of one of the seminars in this year’s Barbados Food and Wine Festival. On a perfectly sunny Caribbean afternoon, wine and cocktail expert Anthony Giglio provided descriptions and samples of various Mount Gay vintages and offered cocktail mixing techniques from some of New York’s well known speakeasies in an open air restaurant overlooking the ocean.

Before we arrived, I assumed the “class” was just an excuse for vacationing foodies to sip cocktails in the sun, but these drinkers did not take their rum lightly. The level of technical input from the crowd often seemed just as high as the information offered by the speaker. You know people are serious about their cocktails when they start debating the rate of ice melt in a shaker, the virtue of fresh limes, the proper formula for simple syrup and the ratio of lime juice to water in a mojito. These were clearly professional drinkers and I was in good company. I’m sure the several glasses of premium rum we shared also helped to enhance the experience.

Vodka and tequila are the current spirits of the moment in nightlife. Whiskey and wine are the realm of the aficionado and the enthusiast. But if you have a sweet tooth and you want to go in an unusual direction, try a few rum drinks for a change of pace. You might find yourself as a regular in Painkiller and hoarding fresh limes in your house.

Have fun.

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