We got our tickets for London’s biggest and longest-standing rum trade fair through a competition by our much more established fellow blogger The Food Goblin (thanks, Lucy!). It’s normally not the kind of thing we’d do and the regular price of £50 would almost certainly have put us off.
However, it turned out to be a great experience. The visitors were split evenly between hard-drinking party people who tried to get 250 pounds of value out of their ticket and professionals from the hospitality, food and beverage industry, who weren’t exactly holding back on the drinking, but kept it slightly more professional, at least some of them and until later in the afternoon. It was a pleasant, fun atmosphere and we didn’t encounter anything beyond a few people being a bit loud and unsteady on their feet, which is fine in our book.
Up until today, I really only ever had had one truly great rum experience. We were celebrating the relocation of a good friend of ours from London to Sydney. Our friend who grew up in Trinidad & Tobago and considers rum to be a food staple like bread or potatoes, had opened a bottle of 25yo Barbados rum and opened a box of Cohibas he had bought dirt-cheap (well, £12 a pop or so) during his last trip to Cuba, and we (only the guys, really, the girls were eating cake at a nearby coffee shop) sat on the balcony of their new 32nd floor flat in the CBD of Sydney watching the sun go down and talking about trips we had undertaken in the past, about Buddhism, philosophy and death. That was the first and only time where I felt I could fall in love with this spirit. Rum goes so nicely with cigars, and I don’t usually even like cigars.
Neither of us had had any idea about rum, except that we weren’t much into rum, unless it was very expensive rums, in which case we’d rather spend that kind of money on expensive wine or food. We had read up a bit on rum before our visit, mainly in order to avoid making complete fools out of ourselves, but along the way we came across some fascinating facts about rum.
Rum used to have a bad reputation as a poor people’s drink and is still one of the least-regulated and wildly diverse drinks. If it’s made of sugar cane juice or by-products of sugar production in a broad sense, no matter what other ingredients are included (such as herbs, spices, aromas), you can call your drink a rum. The fermentation and distillery process is also only regulated by individual producer countries with no single common standard and varies dramatically.
In the olden days most rum was red-eye bootleg quality and the only way to drink it and live to tell was to dilute it with a lot of water and add a ton of sugar and lime. Until the early 70ies every sailor of the Royal Navy was given their daily tot of rum, two on special occasions only the Queen and a few other senior people were entitled to announce, like royal weddings and the like. Pirates, who were particularly fond of the stuff, had theirs as so-called bumbo, with nutmeg added besides the commonly added sugar and water, or as Traitor, with orange juice and honey, heated up.
George Washington loved his rum and also used it in vast amounts to buy voters. Some historians insist the American Revolution would not have happened if it weren’t for the 1764 Sugar Act which disrupted the Triangular Trade. Before the Revolution, every man, woman and child in the new colonies drank on average roughly 15 litres of rum per year.
Broadly speaking, the production method and resulting unique qualities in terms of taste and colour are determined by the geography and the language spoken in the region, Spanish vs. English, French, and Portuguese, mainly. One of the best rums we tasted today was Don Papa Rum from the Philippines (where the official languages are English and Filipino). We were told that the reason for the extremely full, smooth and pleasant taste lies mainly in the fact that the molasses used are from very old factories that were designed in the mid-1800s and built in the early 1900s, so that they are very inefficient and leave a lot of the good stuff in the molasses.
Mount Gay, the oldest existing brand of rum (oldest remaining deeds from 1703), which I had presumed would outshine most of the other rums, turned out to be just upper middle-field in our view.
We always found the oldest brown rums the best of each brand, St. Nicholas Abbey rum being the only exception, where the 15yo (£180) was significantly better than the 18yo (£192). The friendly distiller told us that he’ll stop selling 18yo and only use the 18yo in blends from some point in the near future onwards, because the 18yo – in his view – had too much of an edgy taste of wood, lacking smoothness.
Botran was watery, Don Q was lovely, Diplomatico was absolutely brilliant and incredibly smooth, Pusser’s was mainly memorable, because they still produce the very same rum (“Gunpowder Proof”, 54.5%, £32.75) that Royal Navy sailors were being given for so many years as part of their pay (it tasted surprisingly ok for a rum that must have been cheap to produce even though it now costs more than average). We tried plenty of other rums, usually just a very small sip (we stuck with our determination not to dull our senses by getting drunk), but none impressed us.
Our absolute favourite by a very far margin was Roble Viejo Ultra Añejo Rum which goes for roughly £50 and was until mid-2015 only sold at the duty-free at Simon Bolivar International airport in Maiquetía near Caracas and at the distillery, thank God they’ve now made it readily available, I’ll buy a bottle for special occasions, should have done so today. Produced in the Valles del Tuy region of Venezuela by the Rums of the Caribbean company, with distribution now handled by Oliveira House, this rum was created by award winning master rum maker, Giorgio Melis. It is aged for nine years in used 220 litre american oak bourbon barrels, before the product is then blended to 80 proof and bottled.
Paul Senft, in his 2014 review for GotRum[dot]com, wrote: “Sipping the rum reminded me briefly of one of my favorite coffee drinks: Caramel Macchiato. The coffee, caramel and vanilla notes swirl in a pleasant flavor fusion centered around a bittersweet dark cocoa core. The rum dances around the edge further focusing the enjoyable flavor and silky feel of the liquid. The finish is long with a slightly acidic charred oak note that fades with the bitter-sweet cocoa note. […] Roble Viejo Ultra Añejo is one of [my favourite] rums. I enjoyed this rum as a sipper and if it was more readily available I would experiment with it in some classic cocktail recipes. […] If you happen [to come across] this product in your travels I suggest picking it up for yourself or for the rum lover in your life.” Couldn’t have said it any better. We might be back next year. Got to have a word with Food Goblin regarding free tickets.