10.29.11

Lights, Camera, Cocktails

As Johnny Depp’s 'The Rum Diary' opens, Brody Brown talks to three sophisticates—including Latin pop star Enrique Iglesias—putting new twists on the pirate staple.

Not to generalize or anything, but in our very limited world, it seems like everyone drinks (or at one point has drunk) vodka. People looking for trouble drink tequila. Our grandfathers, bartenders, and those seeking to break from the mainstream drink bourbon, scotch, or whisky. Gin is left for our grannies and Snoop Dogg.

Of course these are just a few of our naive, half-baked, and dangerously broad conclusions, but we make them only to introduce a mystery: who remains to claim rum as their go-to spirit, and how exactly do they drink it?

Sure, we’ve watched Audrey Hepburn drink a planter’s punch in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Angela Lansbury serve mai tais when she threw a party for Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii. We’re also pretty sure Tom Cruise made a daiquiri for someone in Cocktail and that we heard Matt Dillon order a rum and Coke in Wild Things, though how something like that could stand out in that film’s frenzy of flashed flesh beats us.

But aside from actors downing rum drinks on the big screen, the only commonly known people that we’ve heard are devotees of the spirit are Richard Nixon, who liked his rum with Coke, and JFK and Ernest Hemingway, who were both adherents of the daiquiri.

Rum isn’t exactly a spirit that neatly fits inside a box. Fermented and distilled from sugar-cane byproducts or straight from sugar-cane juice, most rum is made on the islands of the Caribbean or elsewhere in Latin America, although Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, the Philippines, India, Reunion Island, Mauritius, and South Africa are known producers as well. It was first distilled in the Caribbean in the 17th century; soon after, distilleries popped up in Boston and the area that today is known as Staten Island.

Rum was also an integral part of the slave trade—and it was requested by George Washington at his 1789 inauguration. According to James Pack, the author of Nelson’s Blood: The Story of Naval Rum, it was given as a daily ration to soldiers in Britain’s Royal Navy from about 1655 to 1970.

“The explosion of flavored rums to try and keep up with all of the flavored vodkas—that drives me nuts.”

Today there exists a range of rum variations, including light, gold, spiced, dark, and premium. And anyone can tell we’re long past the days of waiting for a new shipment of molasses to come in for our rum-production needs when we can roll into a nearby liquor store and find a bottle with adult film star Ron Jeremy’s name on it.

In odd company with Mr. Jeremy, we discovered that another modern-day entertainer was becoming part of the rum world, as we read that Enrique Iglesias was joining forces with the team at Atlantico Rum.

“A friend of mine brought a bottle over one day and I was blown away,” Iglesias told The Daily Beast. “It was by far the best rum that I had ever tasted.”

Why did this rum appeal to Iglesias’s palate more than others, one wonders? “In terms of flavor, Atlantico is very smooth yet complex, without being overly thick and sweet like some other rums I have tried,” he explains.

Iglesias, who says he usually drinks the rum on its own, believes that “the Atlantico drinker is someone who can appreciate the quality and care that it takes to make something like Atlantico, without being overly serious.”

But aside from his own interests in Atlantico, Iglesias is hoping that people will continue to embrace and become educated about quality rums in general.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s about the Caribbean lifestyle and celebrating what that is all about. I think for a lot of people, rum is about rum and Cokes and frozen drinks. There is so much more to it, so my hope is that people will start to appreciate quality rum as much more than that.”

Someone else invested in the growing interest in rum is Martin Cate, who once trained as a bartender at the Polynesian-style Trader Vic’s flagship in San Francisco, and today has his own rum-centric bar in San Francisco. Now Cate also serves as a judge for rum competitions across the globe and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of six Bay Area bartenders “essential in defining cocktail culture here and across the country.”

Smuggler’s Cove, the bar he opened in San Francisco in 2009, welcomes “a really diverse clientele, with a pretty broad age range,” Cate says. “I think what happens is a lot of people, maybe in their early 20s, try out flavored rums, but then when they start to realize that there’s a lot of sophisticated, well-crafted, complex, interesting rums out there, we get them to graduate to the good stuff. So we see people enjoying it in cocktails, and others enjoying some premium sipping rums neat. It’s a diverse crowd, because it is such a diverse spirit. And it has got a lot of flexibility, so people tend to enjoy it in a pretty broad number of ways.”

Matt Robold, a bartender of 320 Main in Seal Beach, Calif., and author of RumDood.com, reveals that he was first drawn to rum after a trip to St. Lucia, where he tried a really good rum that he brought back to the U.S. with him. When the bottle was eventually depleted, Robold couldn’t find it anywhere back home, so he started to search for something similar. The next thing he knew he had five different rums, then 12—and today he counts 199 different rums in his collection.

In Robold’s opinion, rum drinkers today are “getting a little more sophisticated. More so than other spirits, you see people who are really into rum, they don’t take it too seriously. There’s too much out there. Every island has 12 different versions of how they make rum, and it’s too hard to be somebody who says, ‘This is the one and truly only way to drink rum.’ And rum is the thing that gave you pina coladas, mai tais, and zombies—it’s all about having fun.”

But does Robold cringe when he sees things like the celebrity-promoted rums that are on the market today, or find them symptomatic of rum producers and consumers having too much fun?

“The celebrity-endorsed rums don’t bother me; you’re trying to get a spirit out into the market to get people to react to it. Having a celebrity to endorse it or a celebrity behind it doesn’t really hurt it; as long as they’re not designing the spirit, it’s probably OK.” (For Robold’s mildly brilliant and wonderfully detailed review of Ron Jeremy’s Ron de Jeremy Rum, check this entry out.)

Instead, there are three other trends Robold identifies that are currently ailing the rum category.

“The explosion of flavored rums to try and keep up with all of the flavored vodkas, that one probably drives me the most nuts. I have yet to find one that I actually like. They’re fake, they’re not right; I’d much rather infuse my own and go from there. Another one is, I’m a big fan of spiced rums, and there’s a huge tradition of spiced rums, but the majority of spiced rums you see coming into the market today are what a lot of connoisseurs refer to as ‘vanilla bombs.’ They just taste a lot like vanilla, and maybe a little cinnamon thrown in, and that’s it. And lastly, the most recent one that I’ve seen are a lot of rums that try to come out so super-clean, super-light, to the point where they don’t taste anything like white rums. They basically chase the vodka market with their white rums. But there are lots of white rums out there that hearken back to what rum always has been, which is something with a lot of flavor, something that they should be able to taste in the drink.”

Just a few words of warning if you’re fixing to play a rum drinking game while watching The Rum Diary this weekend. Let’s say you’re pulling a pair of cargo pants with generous, deep pockets out of the back of your closet—and hopefully they are buried, deep in the very back of your closet, and not on regular rotation in the front—and planning to fill the pockets with mini-bottles of rum, so you can smuggle them into the theater. Look at you! A modern-day rum runner! Such Prohibition chic!

Well, depending on how you’re planning to play, even an amply pocketed pair of cargos might not be sufficient. Happy to serve as guinea pigs for the game, we did a little unsophisticated tabulation (unsophisticated merely because numerous sips = necessary dashes to the bathroom = a few missed moments of the movie) and figured we might be able to help with some guidelines for the game.

If you’d like to take a swig every time you get treated to the sight of Johnny Depp in his skivvies, well, we’ll save you the disappointment; it only happens once. Maybe you’d like to play things conservatively and want to take only a sip or two while you’re watching, so your memory of the film remains sharp? Count the number of times you hear Tim Gunn’s signature “Make it work” line from Project Runway uttered, and you’ll take just two sips during the movie.

But agree to take a sip every time the word “rum” is spoken, and you’ll be taking nine sips during the course of the movie. Plan on imbibing a bit of rum each time Depp smiles on screen (and our hearts melt), and you’ll be doubling that number, with 18 sips during the film. But if that’s not enough for you—really??—then add in the number of times Depp half-smiles and you’ll rack up an additional 16 sips.

Maybe you’re a glutton for punishment or only swallowing half a thimble’s worth of rum each time? Take some each time Amber Heard gives Depp her “come hither” eyes, and you’ll find yourself having 35 mini-sips in total. Count just the number of times it seems Heard is about to kiss Depp before she actually, well, makes him “come hither,” and you’ll take just 14 sips, which is three more than you would take if you were counting the number of times it looks like Aaron Eckhart is about to plant one on Depp. Sad to report, but this attraction is never consummated, though, in retrospect, the attraction we thought we glimpsed may just have been a side effect of our rum-soaked brain.

Be warned, whoever you are and however seasoned you might be, don’t plan on taking a long sip each time someone takes one on screen, or you’d be sucking down 40 gulps of rum in total, which doesn’t include the many sips of whisky, scotch, champagne, beer, coffee, tea, and goldfish-bowl water—yes, you read right—that are also imbibed throughout the course of the film. Let’s just say it’s a very wet affair, and the vices extend into liquid narcotics, a rum-based dangerously potent spirit, many cigars, and copious cigarettes.

But since nearly all the rum in the film is consumed on ice or straight out of the bottle, and we’re interested in cocktails inspired by cinema, we wanted something a bit more complicated than just rum alone in a glass, but a drink that could still provide a nice introduction for a palate unfamiliar with rum’s flavor profile.

Martin Cate believes that “the two drinks that are the best rum showcases are both really simple drinks. And that’s the daiquiri and the mai tai. The mai tai itself, the real mai tai, is a very, very simple drink that was designed to accent a good rum. Trader Vic’s vision was that the drink would be just a few elements that would dance around a great rum at the center. It only has lime juice, a touch of orange curaçao, a touch of orgeat almond syrup, a touch of simple syrup, lime juice, the rum, and that’s it. And the daiquiri is simply lime, sugar, and rum, and lime, sugar, and rum is literally bulletproof. I’ve yet to have a bad rum in a daiquiri. Lime and sugar are rum’s best friends. And as long as you keep the sweet and tart balanced in the lime and the sugar to where you’re happy with it, and don’t let either the sugar or the lime overwhelm, keep them pulled back so the rum says ‘hello,’ then you’ve got a great drink that’s pretty well bulletproof.”

Matt Robold concurs when it comes to the merits of the simple daiquiri recipe.

“The best cocktail, really, I think, for getting started with rum, and it’s the first cocktail I make with any rum I get that I’ve never had before, is a daiquiri, the real daiquiri. Not something out of a Slurpee machine but just rum, sugar, lime. It’s the simplest drink. The daiquiri’s actually Cuban, but if you look at the history of rum, every group of people that makes rum has a rum-sugar-lime drink. That’s the easiest rum. If it works in that, you’ve probably got a pretty good rum. And as you try different ones, you’ll see how they affect that drink differently. And I can do that with sipping rums, spiced rums, white rums, dark rums. It takes a little adjustment here and there, but that’s the one that really captures that sort of tropical feeling that rum typically should give you, and you can feel how it works and you can kind of build up from there.”

And thus we were given a modern spin on a classy daiquiri from the “Rum Dood” himself.

“I decided to create something that used Puerto Rican rum (for obvious reasons) and drew inspiration from a famous author that Hunter S. Thompson looked up to, Ernest Hemingway. Starting with the Hemingway Daiquiri (rum, lime, sugar, grapefruit, and maraschino), I tried to go off in a boozy, different direction and replaced the grapefruit with absinthe and the sugar with orgeat (French almond syrup).

"I agonized over the right name for the drink, which is something I tend to do for a lot of drinks. In the end I settled on a suggestion from a friend that takes a line from the movie and I think completely captures what the protagonist and Hunter S. Thompson never quite managed to do."

Look Normal

Created by Matt Robold of 320 Main and RumDood.com

2 oz. DonQ Cristal rum
¾ oz. lime juice
½ oz. orgeat (preferably B.G. Reynolds’ syrup)
2 tsp. absinthe
1 tsp. maraschino liqueur

Shake with half-crushed, half-cube ice. Strain over crushed ice and garnish with a lime wedge and maraschino cherry.