Spirit of the tropics Yo-ho-ho! Rum, the flavorful distillation of sugarcane, is warming the taste buds of more and more Philadelphians.

Posted: August 15, 2001

When Peter Schriber began working the Old City restaurant scene five years ago, the trendy drinking crowd was lining up for designer vodkas and frequenting martini bars. Then came single-malt Scotches (and cigars), wine bars, champagne bars, sake bars, and a brief shot at tequila that, save for a few exceptional mainstays, still hasn't quite caught on.

Now Schriber is a general manager and beverage director at Cuba Libre, the Havana-fantasy restaurant/nightspot on South Second Street. And all he sees these days is rum, rumbullion, rhum and kill-devil - just different names for the same storied Caribbean liquor.

"It's the natural sweetness of [distilled] sugarcane, and the cocktails that are born of rum, that make it more approachable for people," he says.

Suddenly the mojito - rum, mint and lime juice shaken with ice and simple syrup - has become the national drink of Philadelphia.

Cuba Libre's extensive rum bar - with as many as 60 different kinds, by far the most in the region - is only one example of the growing interest in rum. With Latin-themed restaurants dominating openings here, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has seen a surge in rum sales, which increased 5 percent in the city over the last year.

Much of the increase can be pegged to the new flavored rums seasoned with citrus, banana, coconut or spice - lighter rums generally used in mixed drinks. But there also has been tremendous growth in the popularity of premium-quality rums - darker, more complex and more expensive rums destined for snifter sipping accompanied by little more than ice or a splash of water.

Mark Spillane, vice president of sales for Great Spirits in Long Island, N.Y., says that sales of premium rum have more than doubled over the last eight years, with at least 100 varieties priced at $25 or more a bottle.

All rums have that distinctive aroma of burnt sugarcane, an herbal swerve in the nose that gives the spirit its island flavor. But rum is also one of the most versatile spirits, satisfying drinkers of both milder, white alcohols and those who prefer macho, darker varieties. Styles can range from the crisp, young white rums that spike daiquiris and pina coladas to richly aged, brandyesque rums that can be amber or black.

Color is one of the most obvious differences among the three basic categories of white, gold and dark rums. The darkening of the latter two occurs during aging in charred-oak casks for as long as 15 years (though because of rapid evaporation in the Caribbean heat, most aren't aged much longer than 10.)

But more intriguing distinctions, especially among the finer rums, can be found in the diverse cultural histories of the Caribbean nations, where virtually all rum is produced.

While the birth of rum is attributed indirectly to Christopher Columbus, who first brought sugarcane to the West Indies from the Azores Islands in 1493, rums eventually took on different national identities depending on which colonial power - Spain, England or France - ruled the land.

The Spanish style, found, for example, in Puerto Rico, is generally smooth and sweet. Bacardi 8, from the world's biggest rum producer, is a fine example of this easy-drinking caramel style.

The English style tends to be more powerful and rich, with the licorice, oaky smoke and zesty lime flavors that marked British sailors' daily ration of grog. One bracing whiff of British Navy Pusser's Rum - made from the same recipe as the rum Her Majesty's sailors drank for centuries - and you'll be ready to swab a deck.

The French style, epitomized by rums from Martinique, is also rich. But unlike the other styles, which are made from dark molasses - the syrupy by-product of sugarcane production - the best Martinique rums (known as rhum agricole) are made from fresh sugarcane juice.

The result, aided by traditional techniques borrowed from France's great cognac producers, are rums that can have a fruity, almost raisiny aroma and the elegant body of a fine brandy. Rums such as Chauvet, St. James, Macouba, and Haiti's Barbancourt Estate Reserve are wonderful examples.

Since the rum revolution is still recent, many fine brews, such as the Tortuga I sampled in Grand Cayman a few years ago, are still largely unavailable in the United States.

Meanwhile, ambitious new rums are being created. Sea Wynde, developed by Great Spirits, is blended from five rums made in copper-pot stills in Jamaica and Guyana. Connoisseurs favor the flavor-rich spirits from small-batch copper stills over rums made in larger batches in stainless-steel stills.

Sea Wynde is certainly interesting, a vibrant brew that captures the gingery zest of Jamaica and the buttery-coffee richness of Guyana in the same bottle.

The thirst for rum is a wonderful trend while it lasts, especially because quality rums cost less than comparable spirits such as Scotch, topping out around $40. But Schriber has seen enough fads over the last five years to know that the next Big Trend Drink is probably already out there waiting on the rocks.

"Eventually they're going to have to come up with a new kind of liquor altogether," he says, "because we're going to run out of them soon."

Craig LaBan's e-mail address is claban@phillynews.com.

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