Dusk til Dawn: The Conclusion of the Rum Diary Spiritual
Over three weeks of rum chronicles and its come to this. The conclusion takes place in Central America, Nicaragua, actually, to explore the rum held there in highest regard. That would be the Flor de Caña. And when national treasures are the topic du jour for the poorest nation in Central America, and in fact, one of the poorest in the world, that treasure should be celebrated. So in this final post, it’s all about Flor de Caña.
Flor de Caña, sugarcane flower, has been produced for 122 years. They’re based in the capital city of Managua. My roommate, Colin, is an avid surfer and just returned from a trip there. His stories of deep blue oceans, good-natured people and copious levels of tranquility and fresh fish were tantalizing. Naturally, he brought back with him a bottle of Flor de Caña. With 80% of the population living on less than $2/day, it’s hard to imagine substantially aged rum making it on the table alongside the daily bread (rather, fish). But by many accounts for those who’ve visited-and especially for visitors-It is a pervasive element in the experience.
Flor de Caña is our first foray into a molasses-based rum, the style that is most commonly associated with the spirit. After all of the talk about the fine/refined qualities of Agricole, we have to suppress the instinct to characterize molasses rums as something inferior, even though they are less expensive to produce in this way. But if quality is the intent, substantial patience and fine oak barrels will eventually get you there.
Originally, in 1890, Flor de Caña was a sugarcane plantation in the town of Chicalpas, Nicaragua. It was founded by Francisco Alfredo Pellas. One of the cool things about rum is that it is seamlessly, yet defiantly associated with regional history. Terrior is a word relentlessly besieged upon emerging oenophiles, but with rum, this concept is more organic. For instance, we already know that Agricoles, made from fermentable sugarcane juice, are primarily the thing for the French-speaking Islands. We also know this is the thing in Brazil, but there they call it cachaça. English-speaking Islands drink molasses-based rum. Jamaican and Guyanese rums are famously unctuous and on the sweeter side. For Spanish-speaking islands and countries, the style is añejo, consumed younger and less demanding on the palate. This seems a reasonable path as we explore the origins of rum in Central America. It all comes back to the plantation. After harvest, the celebratory ritual was to drink the fermented molasses byproduct. This is the añejostyle. The reserve stuff, the stuff that spent more time in barrel, that was reserved for the plantation owners.
In 1937 the Pallas’ wanted to get serious about the rum business and created an internal company called Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, or the CLNSA. Flor de Caña was their first product. It was the plantation owner making rum in the style of plantation owners. This style has always been their narrative, and to their credit, they’ve managed to maintain a family business while vertically integrating. In 1950, they began commercial distribution via Casa Pellas, and today, the CEO Carlos, keeps the family name at the forefront for the 5th generation. So with all that, let’s see how Yanni has employed the 3rd and final contestant in the Nopa Rum Diary.
The Dusk and The Dawn
Of the many things to really like about The Dusk and The Dawn, the names of these drinks really drive home the point of the cocktails in the Spiritual being coupled. Seeing two drinks entitled, “Dusk and Dawn” alongside one another on a cocktail list seemingly necessitates that each are ordered. Or maybe that’s me. Anyhow, let’s (naturally) begin with The Dawn.
· Flor de Caña 18 year
· Amaro Nonio
· Lillet Blanc
· Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
· Flor de Caña 18 year
· Amaro Nonio
· Lillet Blanc
· Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
How it’s Made
It’s been covered somewhat, but just want to be clear that we’re actually…clear. So, Rhum Agricole, are “agricultural rhums”. They are mainly about the getting the juice from the sugarcane and fermenting that juice directly. Molasses-based rums are a bit different. Molasses is a byproduct of boiling that sugarcane juice. There is a dense black residual deposit that emerges. That stuff is molasses. It is sweet and low in acid, which, for the most part is what producers are looking for. That molasses becomes a slurry and is fermented, then distilled. For amber and dark rums, they are aged in toasted barrels, usually for a couple years, in some extreme cases, up to 12 years. Or, if you’re Flor De Caña, you may decide that not until the lifespan of a high school graduate is your premium bottling ready for release. And if you’re Yanni, you may decide that that is exactly what’s needed in this study of rum cocktails. This Dawn has been 18 years in the making.
On to the Amaro, which deserves (and has earned) an entire Spiritual in its own right. Amaro, (Italian for “bitter”) are a category of after dinner liqueurs. It is a very similar process to vermouth, which we covered earlier. The main difference is Amari take on a sweeter profile and are more viscous than vermouth. That bittersweet quality is one of the reasons bartenders are so infatuated with it. It adds a restrained sweetness to cocktails while also bringing lots of depth. Amaro Nonino from Friuli is at the top of the list. It is made from grappa infused with herbs, bitter orange cinchona (bitters!), liquorice, quassia wood, rhubarb, saffron, sweet orange and tamarind. And probably 20 other ingredients because Amaro producers are notoriously tight-lipped about their special proprietary blends. After 5 years in barrel, Nonino is ready for market. If you’ve never tried Nonino, its worthwhile to do so on it’s own merit, accompanied perhaps, only by a single cube.
Lillet Blanc is another fashionable ingredient, though one we use far less. Lillet is a French apertif made primarily from the white grapes of Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle). It is technically a tonic since it includes a 15% infusion of a bittersweet citrus liqueurs. By now you’ve heard many times that the bitters comes from chincona. Perhaps more surprising is that citrus from Spain and Morocco are used to develop the liqueur. Though Lillet dates back to the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1986 that the current recipe took form. In an effort to modernize the drink, less sugar and less bitters were used. The current iteration is great. It’s lean and very much like drinking wine. It smells and taste of tropical fruit and has great acidity from the Sauvignon Blanc.
Rothman and Winters Apricot Liqueur
Finally, we got to Austria to round out this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, intercontinental cocktail. It’s the world we live in when it comes to wine and spirits these days. We are remarkably fortunate to live in this time of access, and not just in the way of local ingredients, but global ones. With all of the (warranted) emphasis on locality, the privilege and joy of consuming wine and spirits is that it allows us a connection to a place. And whether that place is foreign or familiar, the connection is real. Not only in the way of how things actually taste (terrior), but as we see in this Spiritual, how the same product is interpreted different ways based on its origins or lineage.
WIth that, we arrive at the Danube Valley in Austria. The Danube is perhaps the most famous river in the wine world. It is the second largest river in Europe and spans 9 countries. In Austria in particular, many of the top vineyards in the country are along the Danube River, on the north side (but facing south). The river is important in regulating vine temperatures, but apparently orchards too (though the vineyards are along the slopes and the orchards, in the flats). There is a producer called Rothman and Winter that produces really fantastic Apricot Liqueur. A local distillery called Purkhart has made famous their “Blume Marillen” eau-de-vie brandy with the fruit juice of the renowned apricots from the region. The Purkharts have been making the apricot eau-de-vie for over 40 years. The style is fairly simple and clean. I went to check it out on its own, and, well, it smells like apricots! It is highly perfumed with underlying botanical aromatics. It is sweet, but in no way cloying. It’s easy to imagine having a glass with a cheese plate adorned with seasonal fruit or marmalade. It would cut right through a rich cheese, but anything less it may show too much heat (26.2% abv). This is not to be confused with a sweet and sappy apricot liqueur. This is high proof brandy that has been flavored with apricots, not the other way around.
So those are all the elements, but where does that leave us? On a basic inspection, it seems we have a lot of sweet and bitter components. Even within the realm of this Spiritual, we are in uncharted territory.
Even with the benefit of tasting, picture taking and note taking this sequence was a challenge. What your eyes read, and what you palate tastes are not easily reconciled. The lesson: acidity. Never underestimate the crucial role of acid in the food you taste and the things you drink. This is among the most basic of concepts, but as the essential role of salt (especially with starches) never ceases to amaze, acid will completely alter the course a cocktail. On the surface, and based on everything we just explored in all of the elements, it would appear that The Dusk would be a sweeter cocktail, but it isn’t. Even with a rich molasses-based rum, with Amaro Nonino, with Lillet Blanc, with Apricot Eau-de-vie, The Dusk is ominous and billowing. It is a formidable drink that walks the spirituous line without wavering. *It is also worth mentioning that it is stirred.
And yet, The Dawn, with the same backbone and without the sweet, bright addition of Lillet, is whimsical and open. How so? Lemon juice. The addition of lemon juice and the most vigorous shaking we’ve seen thus far brings The Dawn to its apropos title. It is an awakening, plush and tart.
To Yanni, I have to offer sincere thanks for the amount of detail and craftsmanship that went into this Spiritual. Very few will ever grasp your spirituous fervor, but to work with you, and within it, is a joy. Writing about the spiritual has simultaneously reinforced and redefined my understanding of the subtleties of fine drink making. Looking forward to the next one.
The Rum Diary Part 4: Classique and The Prince
Picking up from the last entry of the Rum Diary. We were just about to get into the details of The Prince, Yanni’s spirituous endeavor with Barbancourt, a Haitian Rhum. In this Spiritual, The Prince is perhaps the furthest style from its counter, Classique. For this reason, it is also best reveals the intention of the Spiritual. If you wanted to play the game, either by yourself or with a friend, these would be the two to taste side by side. Barbancourt dolled up and Barbancourt stripped down are two very different experiences.
A Bitter Diatribe: As described in the last segment of the previous post, The Princebegins in a rocks glass, with a few drops of bitters. Yes, bitters. Most people know bitters. Actually, most people are familiar with bitters.
Of all the difficult to pronounce/decipher bits on our cocktail list, bitters is actually a reprieve. Thanks largely to the Manhattan, Old Fashioned or perhaps your thrifty grandmother, (who employs it as a tonic for an upset stomach), you’ve seen bitters around. It’s typically identified as the medicinal bottle blanketed in oversized white paper and tiny font, and is a staple on just about every bar counter in America. And it definitely tastes bitter, but what the hell is it?
Bitters, according to Grossman’s Guide for Wine, Beer and Spirits is, aromatic essences and flavors incorporated into an alcohol base. The flavors come from fruit, plants, seeds, flowers, leaves, bark, roots and stems.
In simplest terms, bitters are a high proof infusion. The most common among those flavorings come from gentian (a mountain flower) root and cinchona-tree bark from the Andean forests in South America that harbor a chemical compound called quinine. It’s the quinine that contains the medicinal value (best known for malaria treatment), and is really the origins of bitters.
The big three of bitters, so to speak, is Angostura (the Lebron James of bitters), from Trinidad, Peychaud’s (of Sazerac fame, from New Orleans) and Underberg, from Germany. But as in kitchens, these days, the ante has been raised behind the bar, and many a bartender (including ours) have taken to making their own. And you can believe that when bartenders play chef, a wide range of the aforementioned ingredients are used. Pretty much, bitters can be as diverse as intricately constructed as the cocktail itself. You can even buy obscure ingredients to make your own bitters here.
The Prince & The Classique
Sugarcane at Barbancourt
Here’s where it gets fun. First, a rundown of the ingredients of these two drinks.
- Angostura bitters
- Bharbancourt 8 Year Rhum
- Velvet Falernum
- Vina AB Amontiallado Sherry
To begin, a rocks glass is gently coated with Angostura. It is used sparingly as it is quite an intense ingredient. The rest of the cocktail is built in a pint glass. The rhum, is followed by a splash of Velvet Falernum and (the wild card savory ingredient) Amontiallado.
Velvet Falernum is a syrup primarily seen in rum cocktails. This is perfectly logical since its origins (over 200 years old) are in Barbados. Imagine Falernum as simple syrup that has been infused with lime, almond, ginger and clove. It is viscous and milky, obviously sweet, but nuanced. It’s actually quite delicious.
Viña AB is a sherry from Gonzalez Byass, the 5th generation bodega in the town of Jerez. Jerez is in Andalucia, the sherry province in southwestern Spain. We use it a lot in our cocktails. The application is basically the same as vermouth, which is to say, it is a stabilizer: the brace that binds fruit, acid and/or spirit. Viña AB is typical of fine Amontialldos. It smells of roasted almonds and is bone dry. Sherry is an integral part of our beverage program, both in wine (we have 9 offerings by the glass) and behind the bar. Each have dedicated entire features to sherry and many of Yanni’s original cocktails contain sherry. Last month, New York Times Wine Editor, Eric Asimov wrote a great piece on the modern sherry industry. There’s lots of great info there. But for the purposes of this article, Viña AB is the thing separating the Prince and the Classique- The Prince has it, the Classique does not. And the separation is vast.
All the ingredients are poured into a pint glass, then topped with ice. Yanni shakes it once, maybe twice, really quickly, just to lower the temperature. The mix is poured over the bitterly calibrated rocks glass, then topped with two large ice cubes. Yanni grabs an orange and twists the peel over the drink sending a furious orange mist just over the top. This is a common bar technique utilized purely for aromatic indulgence.
The Prince smells of heavily spiced banana nut bread. It is serious. The Barbancourt reveals itself, and so do the other spicy elements. It is a slow sipper, but the cohesion is impressive. So much so, that it is hard to tell if the spice comes from the bitters, the Falernum or the rhum. Interestingly, there is no detection of sweetness. The Falernum has added weight and spice, but the sweetness has been subdued.
The Classique is fleshy, tropical and tart
With the Classique, the coin is flipped. The down tempo sherry note is replaced by high toned acidity. The offspring is a luscious kaleidoscope of tropical fruit, all bound together by fresh lime juice.
Tasting The Prince first seems like the way to go. It is the more nuanced of the two. In particular, beginning with The Prince makes the already distinctive qualities of the drinks even more apparent. This may not be the highest truth for rum, but it definitely feels authentic. It harkens the Sidecars, Punches, Runners and Daquiris. It is so evocative of all the familiar attributes of rum cocktails, without the animated sweetness and prepubescent sugar levels.
In short, Classique affords you the opportunity to order a rum cocktail without any shame. The Classique is both the gateway and epiphany, and truthfully, a rather uplifting departure from the rigidity and precision typically associated with our bar.
*For a less amped up version of the sweet-spicy-tart profile, you could also enjoy a half bottle of Huet Demi-Sec Vouvray or the delicious (off-menu) Montenegro and Lime, which has the same ingredients as the title of the drink.
The Rum Diary: The Prince (And Terrior Rum-inations)
So far most of the analysis of this Spiritual has centered on the way these cocktails drink. We’ve been looking at the dramatic variance in the profile of a cocktail where only a subtle component has changed. But this Spiritual is also organized by producers, and is in fact, very much about the producers. In the Agricole Punch, Ginger Beer and Lemon add a spicy-sweet-sour approachability to the otherwise serious La Favorite Rhum Agricole. Predictably, when tasted alongside the stripped down Creole cocktail, this is abundantly clear. But what about the producer, themselves? What are the commonalities?
As in wine, in order to gain a complete understanding of what’s being served, we have to look at origins. Wine professionals are maniacal about the role of terrior (the place) in the wine, and in serious debate, it is the center point of the discussion and ultimate assessment of quality. Evaluating beverages from this perspective is by no means definitive, but it does allow a common ground. In other words, Rhum Agricole from Martinique, should taste of…”x” (x in this case would be sweet pears, grass, salt, etc). If citrus or juice has been added to rhum, you need not be an expert to decipher the change. It is evident. But part of the exercise is (or should be) to identify which elements of the spirit clearly speak of the producer. Also, what was the method of production or the terrior? The type of thinking will serve you not only in drinking these cocktails, but in drinking wine, beer, tea or any other fine beverage. As you become more in-tune you with this process, your retention and understanding grow, and the more expansive your drinking database becomes. And don’t we all aspire to a more expansive drinking database?
Rhum By Another Name
We can begin with the clearest indicator of place-the spelling. The “h” in rhum is indicative of the French speaking Islands. That includes Martinique, the primary source source for quality rhum, and the place from which we’re granted the aforementioned La Favorite. This also includes Haiti and Guadeloupe. Trying to cover the cultural and historical breadth of Martinique Rhum in this condensed text is excessively ambitious, but, we’ll begin the conversation.
Martinique is the largest of the French West Indies Islands. La Favorite was founded there in 1842 and remains one of two family-owned distilleries there
It is important to understand Rhum Agricole as very French. Consider the serious nature with which the French approach their food and drink. From butter to Rhum (mmm…rhum butter…), there is an intervening government entity that must endorse the merit, or place of origin for these products. The agency, very well known in wine circles, is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which translates as “controlled designation of origin.” And its really that (1635) deep. Whereas the rest of the world is perfectly content to make marginal to repulsive rum and focus their energies on marketing, Martinique is the only place in the world where those 3 auspicious letters are found on a bottle of rum. And as for La Favorite, well, it’s basically the 1%. Along with Neisson they are held in the highest esteem on the island and are the only two family-owned producers that remain on the island.
On to Haiti: Rhum Barbancourt
The Prince, is cleverly named after Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. It’s been two and a half years, but whenever Port-au-Prince comes up, it is still difficult to seperate this place from the graphic images and general destruction of the 2010 earthquake. The damage of that earthquake is so strongly associated with Port-au-Prince, that the city will bear this asterisk for the rest of our lives. And that’s saying quite a lot for a nation that has endured slavery, environmental and political catastrophes for the last 200 years. But rhum, distilled from fermented sugarcane juice, and not molasses, is a part of Haitian history too. And since the mid 19th century, Bharbancourt Rhum has been the pride of Haiti. And that should also be part of the association.
Following the disastrous earthquake, Barbancourt was able to resume production in just a few months. It is a testament to the strength of the Haitians and the important role of rhum in Haitian culture. It’s important to distinguish Barbancourt, which does $12-million in annual sales, from, say, Bacardi. This isn’t some behemoth multinational company saying, “we need to recoup!” It is totally feasible that the owner of Barbancourt knows the names of his employees. The rhums that spilled into the streets were up to 15-years old. These guys are in the business of making the best rhum they possibly can. For the surrounding community, this distillery is a livelihood and source of pride.
As an homage to the producer, this is a great cocktail. We begin the Prince with a rocks glass and a dropper. The dropper goes into the bitters is gently and methodically squeezed. A thin puddle of the dark bitters barely coat the bottom of the glass despite its small circumference. Yanni grabs the glass and while slowly rolling his wrists into the shape of an o. The bitters have coaxed in all directions and now coat the floor of the glass. The Prince is primed. For now, we’ll stop here. There will soon be a sequel post, where we’ll dissect this cocktail alongside its partner, The Classique.
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