Ditch the Sweet Stuff and Get Yourself Some Funky Rum
It’s official, the days of American monoculture drinking are over. Macro lagers, uniform Chardonnays and bland, blended whiskeys are out. Sour beers, funky natural wines and spirits ranging from single origin mezcals to heritage corn whiskies are in. And the latest spirit to bring the funk to American drinkers is rum. It’s not that funky rum is, itself, a new spirit—it’s been around for centuries. But its presence in cocktail bars and embrace by cocktail drinkers far from the Caribbean are. “I didn’t expect to see customers gravitating towards funkier rums as much as they are,” says Marshall Altier, the bar director of Chicha in Brooklyn. “People have been really open minded to this whole other spectrum of flavors.”
Funk is a broad term when it comes to spirits. It can refer to earthy flavors, savory ones, yeasty ones, a bevy of tastes considered out of the ordinary in most drinks—but the appreciation for funk stems from a broader acceptance of more locally driven flavors in food and wine. “The idea of terroir—which might have been an obscure thing to talk about in spirits five years ago—is something that people are finally starting to understand,” says Altier. “As drinkers we were beat over the head with smoother, longer aged spirits for such a long time. People are thirsty for something that is fresh and expressive of a [specific] place.” And many of those specific places take their rums in very different directions.
Rums from the French island of Martinique—known as rhum agricoles—are traditionally made with raw, fresh sugarcane grown specifically, and only, for the production of rum. These rums are characterized by their grassiness and bold minerality as well as their subtle notes of tropical fruit and sea salt air.
In Haiti, rum is made as it is on Martinique, albeit on a smaller scale. Very small batches are generally produced in remote villages—there are very few commercially available Haitian rums in the United States despite the fact that there are over 500 distilleries in the country. What is produced is traditionally meant for consumption amongst locals. Haitian rum is also produced from varietals of sugarcane that are indigenous to the country that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These rums differ wildly in flavor depending on which cane varietal is used and where in the country it is made. They are some of the most savory and complex rums on the market.
Mexican rums, which are also labeled as aguardiente, are primarily made from raw sugarcane, but they are produced in a way that uses less industrialized methods more similar to those used in mezcal production. These rums are abduntantly fruity and high in diesel-esque esters (especially on the nose). If they are distilled using wood fire like a mezcal, there can also be a touch of smoke on the palate.
Jamaican rums are probably the funkiest on the market. Their flavor—referred to locally as hogo, a term traditionally used to describe the flavor of decay in wild game meat (derived from the French term haut goût)—is a direct result of Jamaican rum’s unique production methods. Rum makers use wild yeast from the air and a longer slower fermentation. They also add liquid leftover from previous fermentations, called dunder, to the batch, adding an entirely new set of flavors. “Bacteria [from the dunder] converts alcohol into esters,” says Alexandre Gabriel, the Master Blender for Plantation Rum and the President and Owner of the Maison Ferrand brand. “These esters are the element that we characterize as ‘funk’ in a Jamaican rum.” According to Gabriel, the flavors the bacteria in the dunder produces are “overripe banana, overripe tropical fruit, meaty gaminess and green pineapple.”
If you are interested in trying some of these funkier rums firsthand, here are five bottles from each of these different countries to try now.
Clément Première Canne Rhum Agricole Blanc ($20) — Martinique
This is probably the easiest drinking rum on this list and will appeal to any palate. Made from 100 percent fresh pressed sugarcane juice from select varieties of cane grown at the Habitation Clément distillery, the spirit is light and floral. Unlike most rums (or most rhum agricoles even) Clément Blanc is rested in stainless steel tanks for nine months before being bottled. When it is finally ready for the bottle it is brought to proof with volcanic spring water from the island. On the palate the spirit is incredibly verdant, with notes of fresh cut grass, wildflowers, honeysuckle blossoms, yellow plums and green apple. As it opens up it gives off flavors of birthday cake and honeycomb. On the finish is where the spirit finally gives off some funk, with a hot, petrol-heavy aroma and taste.
Paranubes Oaxacan Rum ($31) — Mexico
Released in 2017, this rum is extremely special and unique. Made by Jose Luís in the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca, Paranubes uses 100 percent fresh sugarcane juice pressed from four different varietals of cane indigenous to the region. After it is fermented, the mash is distilled in a copper still over an open fire fueled by spent sugarcane fibers. Vivacious and complex, the rum has notes of rotten fruit, barbequed pineapple, cochinita pibil, dirt and green mango. “The coolest thing about [this rum] that stands out to me is that the distiller puts part of the previous fermentation into the next batch to start it—like a sourdough starter.” says Altier. “It makes it so salty and briny. We’re actually going to use it in a Bloody Mary [at the bar].”
Clarín Sajous Rum ($40) — Haiti
Only recently made available in the US, this rum from Haiti is unlike anything that you’ve ever tasted before. This particular bottling is made in the village of Saint Michel de l'Attalaye by Michel Sajous (hence the name). After an open air fermentation with wild yeast, the mash is distilled twice and bottled at still strength with no water added. Pungent and savory on both the nose and the palate, this bottling has notes of tarragon, dill and new pickles. As it opens up the spirit reveals a softer, sweeter side and flavors of mango, green apples, flambeed bananas and cinnamon. This is a rum that should be sipped straight like a mezcal.
Hampden Estate ‘Rum Fire’ White Overproof Rum ($28) — Jamaica
This uber funky white rum is made at at the Trelawny Hampden Estate—one of the oldest distilleries still in production in Jamaica. It is fermented with natural yeast in open top cedar vats and distilled on a pot still (it is one of the only single pot distilled unaged rums on the market). Bottled without any water added at a whopping 126 proof (63 percent ABV), Rum Fire is as brazenly boozy as it is flavorful. On the palate there are notes of green plantains, rotting tropical fruit, fish sauce, mango and sea salt. Incredibly layered and complex, this Jamaican rum is just as lively in a Daiquiri or a punch as it is straight.
Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry ($25) — Jamaica
This new blended rum from Plantation features spirits from two of the finest, and notoriously funky, distilleries in Jamaica: Long Pond and Clarendon. 100 percent pot distilled—on the John Dore pot still at Long Pond and the Vendome at Clarendon—the rum is bold and assertive, with layers of tropical funkiness. With an ethereal softness at the beginning, the rum opens up to reveal notes of overripe bananas, barbequed pineapples, honeysuckle, treacle and spiced coffee cake. The finish burns bright and hot. This spirit would be exceptional in cocktails—especially drinks that are especially rum-forward like the Planter’s Punch—or sipped straight. Although we raved about Plantation’s OFTD Rum in 2016, this might be our favorite spirit in their line-up now. And if you’re wondering, it’s pronounced zay-muck-uh, which is the original name of the island of Jamaica in the indigenous Arawak language.