Thursday 28 June 2012

We do do rum, Ron

Rum-runner William McCoy with some of his contraband

Rum is a bit like chicken—everyone likes it. But most people probably regard it as a staple rather than something that has rare, high-end connoisseur-pleasing examples, like fine wine or cognac. In fact, particularly in former French colonies such as Martinique, Haiti or Gaudalupe, rum has long been crafted and matured in the same way that cognac was at home.

This weekend the Candlelight Club is all about rum, celebrating the rum-runners who used to break Prohibition by smuggling rum from the Caribbean into the US, particularly along the Florida coast, where the popular and chic resort town of Miami would have provided a ready market. Most famous of the rum-runners was William McCoy—rather a heroic figure who did it as much for the sport and the pleasure of life at sea as for the money. He had no dealings with mobsters and never bribed an official, and he was so famous for not diluting or adulterating his merchandise that he gave rise to the phrase “the real McCoy”. Off Key Biscayne there was even a collection of buildings on stilts in the sea (known as Stiltsville and originally erected to sit just outside the one-mile limit of gambling laws) which are believed to have made a handy landing spot for smugglers. Later there was even a club built out there, the Calvert Club.

Not-quite-full bottles of the Reserva and Solera
1893. As you can see I didn't like them at all
Our rum for the evening is actually a Guatemalan brand, Ron Botran. This is a good example of what careful nurturing can do for this spirit. Juice from sugar cane grown on the family's own plantation is fermented and distilled, then batches are left to mature slowly in the cool mountain town of Quetzaltenango, in barrels previously used for bourbon, sherry and port, some freshly charred on the inside. The Botran way is all about ageing and blending, and they use a “solera” system, more usually found in sherry production, where rums of different ages are constantly mixed. We’ll be presenting two rums: the Reserva is concocted from batches matured for 5 to 14 years, while the Solera 1893 is made from rums between 5 and 18 years old. We’ll be offering the latter in the classic Sazerac cocktail, or simply neat or on the rocks. It apparently makes a particularly good pairing with a fine cigar, and we have managed to acquire some Don Pancho and Don Juan cigars from Guatemala specially for the occasion.

These rums seem to evolve when you taste them. Sniffing a glass of the Reserva I first get sugar, a slightly sour element that quickly gives way to a smooth caramel smell, then a dry, polished sherry note, like varnished wood, plus vanilla and a hint of something like gunsmoke. On the palate it is sweet, but not at all cloying, smooth but with dry elements. There are chocolate and marzipan flavours in there too. Whereas as some rums seem to be just efficient alcoholic blasts and others wax over-sweet and unctuous, the Ron Botran Reserva does indeed seem to spotlight a careful blending process.

To me the Solera 1893 has a very similar character but with more of the dry sherry notes. Making a quick comparison, the Reserva seems to have more burnt sugar and raisiny fruit. On the palate the Solera is dry and woody, with lots of dark chocolate, coffee and nuts—hazelnuts, bitter almonds and even sesame. On the finish there is a hint of aniseed. Although drier than the Reserva it is somehow smoother. I tried some on the rocks too, and the slight dilution releases strong wafts of vanilla and figs, with a surprisingly earthy character in the mouth.

We’ll be offering four cocktails with Ron Botran, all of which seem to show how strongly the rum’s character comes through in cocktails. Most exotic is the Guatemalan Rickshaw, created, according to the Botrán website, by someone or something called JustTheTipple. It involves watermelon, honey, sherry and Prosecco—I can see where the honey and sherry came from, as these are both notes that are to be found in the rum itself. The overall result is pretty complex but also dangerously refreshing.

A Guatemalan Rickshaw
Guatemalan Rickshaw
2 shots Botran Reserva
3 watermelon chunks
1 barspoon honey
½ shot lemon juice
½ shot sherry
½ shot Prosecco
½ shot grenadine

Shake the first five ingredients with ice to break up the fruit then strain over ice and top with a splash of Prosecco and a dash of grenadine. (I think on the night we’ll be making a honey syrup that dissolves more quickly.)

Botran Papa Doble
1½ shots Botran Solera
¾ shot lime juice
¾ shot sugar syrup
½ shot grapefruit juice
¼ shot maraschino

The Daiquiri—rum, lime and sugar—is one of the classic rum cocktails, and the Papa Doble was invented for Ernest "Papa" Hemingway in Cuba, either by Antonio Melan or Constantino Ribalaigua. It adds grapefruit and the cherry liqueur maraschino; the original actually removed the sugar, as Hemingway liked his drinks pretty dry—allegedly because you could drink more of them that way. The name was actually the nickname given to Hemingway himself, because he always ordered doubles. I think the original was served as a frappé with crushed ice. This version comes from “Tom” of the Mondrian Hotel, South Beach, Miami. I would be inclined to add a bit more rum and grapefruit and go easy on the sugar, but it’s a matter of taste. Either way it’s a great vehicle for the rum.

A Papa Doble
Botran Sazerac
2 shots Botran Solera
1 shot lemon juice
¾ shot absinthe
1 sugar cube
Peychaud’s Bitters

Add the absinthe and lemon juice to an ice-filled glass. Swirl and discard, leaving a coating on the glass. In another glass, crush a Peychaud’s-soaked sugar cube, add the rum and stir till the sugar is dissolved. Then add ice and stir till chilled, before straining into the absinthe- and lemon-coated glass. As a garnish, flame a strip of lemon or orange peel. The ancient Sazerac cocktail, from New Orleans, was originally made with cognac, and now usually with Bourbon or rye whiskey. But it is also a great showcase for Botran's premium Solera rum. In this recipe, from Tom again, the lemon juice is an unusual touch: I’m not convinced it is necessary but it’s worth experimenting.

Small Dinger
1¼ shots Botran Reserva
1¼ shots SW4 gin
¼ shot lemon juice
¼ shot grenadine

Shake everything with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a squeezed lemon peel. This is not a prescribed Botran cocktail, but one that I spotted on the title page of Bar Florida Cocktails, 1935 Reprint—the idea of combining gin and rum intrigued me and I was delighted to find that it works rather well, with a standard sweet n’ sour component coming from lemon juice and the pomegranate syrup grenadine. The original recipe seems to have meant light rum, but I think it works better this way, with the dark, woody, smoky sugar of the rum balancing well with the bright juniper spice of the gin.

In case anyone really doesn’t like rum, I’ve included a popular gin-based cocktail from the 1920s:

Miami Beach Special
2 shots SW4 gin
2½ shots pineapple juice
½ shot Galliano

The original is actually just gin, pineapple juice and sugar (Sloppy Joe’s Bar Cocktails Manual from 1931 specifies 1 gin to 2 pineapple) but I couldn’t resist making it a bit more interesting by replacing the sugar with the Italian vanilla liqueur Galliano, a moreish flavour that married effortlessly with the pineapple.

If you'd like to buy bottles of Ron Botran but can't find it anywhere (or can't be bothered to leave your armchair), you can now buy it online via the new Candlelight Club Liquor Store.

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