Have We Entered a New Era for Rum?

It’s not just the big brands who want to undo its youthful missteps and drunken pirate associations, but some of the city’s best bartenders.

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The “La Chunga” cocktail at Williamsburg’s Llama Inn featuring white rum, Chica Morada, ginger, lime and saline. Photo credit: Facebook/Llama Inn

Last summer, Bacardí gathered writers and other “influencers” into a dim dining room at the Soho House. Everyone was handed an Old-Fashioned upon walking in the door, but this one was made with their prized Bacardí 8 rather than whiskey. Brand ambassador David Cid waxed charmingly about their hopes to show the serious, non-tiki side of rum ahead of the PR holiday National Rum Day that would arrive on August 16. Bars around the city would be serving these Old-Fashioneds, trying to win over reluctant hearts and minds whose good feelings about rum were drowned in Malibu-laced puke back in college.

While only the most cold-hearted among us can feel sour when presented with a tasty Jungle Bird in a whimsical cup, overflowing with fruit chunks and mint sprigs, when people want to sip a serious cocktail, they’re generally not going for rum (a spirit that runs the flavor gamut, generally speaking, from white to extremely dark and funky, with aged rums in the middle). Now, though, it’s not just the big brands who want to undo its youthful missteps and drunken pirate associations, but some of the city’s best bartenders.

Three years ago, Shannon Mustipher began re-making the drinks at Crown Heights restaurant Glady’s into a rum-focused, Caribbean menu and felt there wasn’t a lot of diversity available. “At most bars, you would have El Dorado, Brugal, Smith & Cross, Bacardí,” she tells me. “Unless you went to a specialty bar, like Maison Premiere.” Having previously worked mainly in wine, diving into rum allowed her to see that the spirit expresses its terroir in similar ways. Now Glady’s has a big, geographically organized selection by the three major approaches (English, Spanish and French) and launched the Glady’s Rum Club to promote special cocktails—and create a base of rum lovers who grasp those variations.

Lynette Marrero, the beverage director at Williamsburg’s Llama Inn who started to really delve into the category in 2008, believes the terroir angle helps shift perception, too. “Each rum is expressive of where it comes from,” she says. “It’s about the culture and the community, and it speaks to how they present things.” Ron Zacapa, she points out, is “very Guatemalan”—from its production, with barrels stored 2,300 meters above sea level, to its packaging in petate, a traditional handwoven palm leaf matting. Now that American culture has shifted in favor of the craft rather than the mass-produced, rum is uniquely situated for deeper, broader exploration.

That exploration goes deep at Battery Park bar BlackTail, from the Irish owners of the great Dead Rabbit, Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon. It’s named for the BlackRail planes on which well-to-do Americans flew down to Cuba during Prohibition to freely sip mojitos at American-style bars.

Here, they’re getting people to pay attention to rum in a new way, especially with their take on the Rum and Coke, a beautiful balance of bitter, fizzy, and sweet, made with their Puerto Rican rum blend, Champagne, Fernet and bitters. As head bartender there Jesse Vida says, “I believe we’re entering an era of understanding the complexity and nuance of the spirit as a category.”

Jane Danger, beverage director at the tiki-focused Mother of Pearl and rum bar Cienfuegos, agrees. It’s an easier and easier push now because you know you can get an Old-Fashioned with rum, you can get spirit-forward drinks,” she says. “It doesn’t just need to be a frozen strawberry daiquiri.”

There’s no doubt that Bacardí, the world’s most famous rum brand, wants to shift focus away from the super-sweet drinks it’s become known for: Everyone who attended their dinner left with a small bottle of the Paraíso blend, from the Facundo collection of sipping rums that the company now owns; the full-size retails for $250, putting it on the same price level as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old—and it’s undeniably delicious. If you’re one of those people who left rum behind, the time is right to try again.

If you want to go for local brands, try Brooklyn’s Owney’s Rum or the Long Island–based Sag Harbor Rum and Montauk Rum.

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Alicia Kennedy is a Long Island–born, Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer.