The Sugarcane Spotlight
Trends often seem to come out of nowhere. All of the sudden you look around and a new obsession is all over the place, and everyone is an expert. This can mean a lot of different things depending on what you pay attention to, but if you are into the world of spirits you know that one phenomenon has taken all the focus over the last few years: American Whiskey. For those of us that dove deep into the world of Bourbon and American Rye, the “Bourbon Boom” meant a substantial amount of competition for rare releases and outrages secondary market prices for bottles that were easy to find on the shelves not long ago. This trend has dominated the market resulting in the launch of hundreds of new craft distilleries, increased production and sales of Bourbon-related merchandise, and huge online communities based around whiskey podcasts and blogs.
Now, however, it seems that the tide may be shifting. A new spirit is creeping in on the edge of the spotlight and with it often comes a culture easily identified by chiseled-face stoneware: Rum.
Rum is distilled from molasses, the sweet syrup that is left after boiling pressed sugarcane juice to produce crystallized sugar. After the sugar production, this molasses would mix with rain water and ferment with natural yeast and be consumed as is by field workers, slaves, and sugar producers. Once it was distilled, however, it became Rum. After its birth in the 17th century Rum quickly became popular both in the Caribbean and United States due to its sweet flavor and cheaper cost relative to brandy and whiskey, being that it was produced from a byproduct of the booming sugar industry. The spirit can be sold as new make, meaning it’s unaged, or aged in oak barrels which adds complexity to the flavor profile due to characteristics imparted to the juice from the wood.
While aging impacts the color and profile of Rum, it’s post-distillation additives that have become the center of a heated debate among Rum producers and enthusiasts alike. Some producers such as Plantation, Zacapa, and El Dorado add sweeteners such as wine, honey, or sugar to Rum in order to reduce any potential bitterness from the barrel, making the beverage more appealing to many. Self proclaimed purists and producers regulated by law, such as those in Jamaica and Barbados, avoid additives. Rums from distilleries like Appleton Estates and Mount Gay allow the spirit to stand on its own, with all the complexity in the flavor profile coming from the distillate itself as well as the barrels it was aged in. While there isn’t a correct answer on which is the best method, I would suggest exploring offerings from both side of the fence to see where your preference lies.
Due to the differences in aging and additives, the world of Rum offers a huge spectrum of products. The sugar-based spirit has become incredibly popular in the cocktail scene as different expressions can lend different flavor profiles and levels of complexity to a drink. Rum even played a part in creating a new American culture not long after the end of prohibition. In the early 1930’s a bar and restaurant called Don the Beachcomber opened in Hollywood introducing America, and the world, to ornately decorated Rum-based drinks with a tropical flair. This theme was called Tiki and while inspired by polynesian culture, its over the top concoctions and flair are uniquely American. After a similar restaurant called Trader Vic began introducing Tiki to a broader audience the culture took off and has inspired decades of punches with crazy straws and tropical fruit, and zany ceramic drinkware.
So where might one go to experience fantastic Tiki standards here in Oklahoma City? Look no further than R&J Lounge and Supper Club. Located near 10th and Hudson, R&J has a dedicated Tiki section on its cocktail menu and their drinks never disappoint. Served in traditional stoneware Tiki mugs, which are utilized to obscure the often unfavorable color of a Tiki drink due to the mix of juices and rums, these cocktails are spot on and invoke the feeling of the tropics in the dark red and plush setting of the bar. If you want to go straight for a classic, order a Painkiller which features unaged rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, coconut puree, and nutmeg. The drink is bright and tropical with surprising balance without being too sweet. Even on a cool fall evening in Oklahoma City you’ll feel like you’re sipping on sunshine.
While you’re at R&J you might as well explore their menu a bit and try one of their original cocktails, most of which feature Rum as the base spirit. For something unique and delicious I recommend their Rum Me the Right Way, an interesting play on a Manhattan featuring Plantation Rum, Fernet Branca Menta, and sweet vermouth. The Fernet Branca Menta adds some interesting herbal complexity to the cocktail with strong notes of sweet peppermint and chamomile which compliment the sweet vermouth. The bitterness is in nice contrast with the sweet and oaky Rum. Complex and comforting, this drink fits in perfectly with what R&J has going on.
Now that you are nice and warmed up, it’s time to take a trip Uptown to experience what may be my favorite cocktail in the city, The Bunker Club’s JFK. Located on NW 23rd Street just east of Walker, the Cold War themed high dive known as The Bunker is doing some fun things for Oklahoma City’s craft cocktail scene. The JFK is a highlight for me, using avocado-infused silver Rum as its base then adding lime juice and Velvet Falernum, a sweet liqueur made with clove, ginger, almond and lime zest. Served with a salted rim, the drink has an incredible texture and the salt does wonders for bringing out the body of the avocado and richness of the Rum and Velvet Falernum. Savory and smooth, the JFK is a cocktail I often crave, and if you are feeling a bit feisty you can request a spicy version of it complete with jalapeño simple syrup and chili salt on the rim.
It will be interesting to see what comes of this potential new boom. On one hand I’m looking forward to exploring more Rum expressions and cocktails, but with that comes harder to find bottles and rising prices. Either way we are lucky to be in Oklahoma City for it with so many great bars and mixologists to show us the way and guide us to innovative and delicious drinks.