One of my earliest drinking experiences involved a dusty bottle of light rum I found in the back corner of parent's liquor cabinet. It looked harmless—more like water than whiskey. My friend and I passed the bottle back and forth, chasing each gulp with a mouthful of Italian bread, ripped directly off the loaf. It tasted the same way sunscreen smells, followed by a powerful kick in the back of my throat.
Years after that I continued to drink cheap rum with Coke or mixed with "juice" that contained more added sugar than anything else. Needless to say, these drinks were far from craft. They were simply efficient alcohol delivery systems.
As I matured and began to appreciate booze more for how it tasted rather than just how it made me feel, I said goodbye to rum. But my hiatus ended after a trip to Mexico.
I went to Tulum in 2005 (after George W. Bush was depressingly re-elected) looking for a path forward. A friend of a friend and his extended family were running a ramshackle hacienda-style inn that was about five minutes from the beach. I tasted my first Mojito on that trip and instantly loved it. I loved the fresh, vegetal notes of lime and mint. I loved the way the rum tasted of clean alcohol. And for five days, those minty rum drinks along with tacos, Mexican beer and cigarettes, were all I consumed. I returned to the States inspired.
So while it took time—and miles—for me to rediscover rum, I finally learned to love it—and you can too. Here are the lessons I learned from my journey to rum appreciation.
Don’t Relegate Rum to Summer
Years of marketing (and, to be fair, its Caribbean origins) has turned rum into a summer-only spirit. It is the drink of choice when you are partying by the beach or, more likely, on a brief tropical vacation. But you shouldn’t put rum into such a small and limiting box. It can be so much more versatile.
Take, for example, that wintertime staple and masterpiece of cocktail wizardry, the Hot Buttered Rum. The very classic concoction dates back to the early days of the American Republic, and if you ask me, topping an alcoholic drink with butter is the best idea ever. I’d dare say it is better than a Hot Toddy, and I’m downright obsessed with whiskey.
I say “boo” to seasonality when it comes to alcohol. And, since we’re on the topic, wine as well. I love a chilled white in the winter. Don’t at me.
Take a Break from Tiki
The tiki trend—with its tiny umbrellas, coconut shell receptacles, tropical flavors and rum-heavy cocktails—continues to go strong after it first returned with a vengeance about five years ago. Hell, even the much lauded Major Food Group (Carbone, The Grill, etc.) just opened an upscale tiki bar in Midtown Manhattan called The Polynesian. But I’m here to harsh your buzz: Tiki drinks are bullshit.
Let me dial that back. Tiki drinks are fun in a vibe-y sort of way, but they aren’t the way to go if you’re looking to experience rum in its purest, most authentic form. All the fruit juices and liqueurs mask its true flavor, and honestly, all too often they’re just too sweet. Instead try a Black Pearl, which is a tiki-esque drink that contains the bracingly bitter Italian digestif Fernet-Branca, or the Jungle Bird, made with pineapple juice, lime juice and Campari, which brings perfect balance to the bittersweet drink.
Don’t Just Drink the Rums You Know
I always thought of rum as sweet—especially when compared to botanical gin and smoky mezcal. But, newsflash, rum isn’t one note and there isn’t just one type of rum. There are light rums and dark rums. Young rums and aged rums. And rums taste different depending on where they are made. In Mexico, for example, some rums are distilled using wood-fueled fire, which lends a smoky note. In Martinique, on the other hand, they’re made from raw sugar cane instead of the more typical molasses, which creates a grassy, almost briny flavor. When it comes to rum, there’s a big, wide world to explore. So just because you don’t like one specific rum doesn’t mean there isn’t another one out there just for you.
Seriously, Never Drink More Than Three Rum Drinks
Hemingway, I ain’t. (And you probably aren’t either.) The thing to remember about rum is that it’s most often mixed with another sugary beverage, like juice, coconut cream or cola. That’s a surefire recipe for a hangover when consumed in large quantities. And there’s no better way to make enemies with a spirit than to have one bad night and an even worse morning. Hemingway may have been able to drink Daiquiris all day and all night, but he’s special. (And he also preferred his brand of Daiquiris to be made with a very small amount of sugar. Smart man.)
This past winter, an unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn reminded me of my Mojito obsession. So I filled a 32-ounce water bottle with light rum, sugar, muddled mint, the juice of one lime, ice and seltzer. My husband and I sipped it while taking turns helping our toddler ride her scooter on the sidewalk. Fast forward 30 minutes and my new plan was feed the child dinner, skip my own and drink more rum. See? Trouble. Even as a rum aficionado I nearly made enemies (again) with the spirit. Take caution.
Rum is like your BFF who encourages you to wile out just a little more than you should, and that’s part of the charm. But before you can control that relationship, you need to gain some appreciation. It’s worth it.