There is something magical about rum. All the other flavorful spirits begin to degrade when a bottle is opened and one begins to drink from it. The less whiskey in the bottle, the greater the surface to volume ratio and that means the air in the bottle has a more rapid effect on what remains. Mostly that’s bad. Wine degrades most quickly. Once opened, a dry wine will improve for a day as it breaths, but then rapidly spoiles over the next week unless one does something to preserve it. Sweet wines fare a bit better. Perhaps the sugar helps to maintain them for a month or a little longer. Rye, scotch, bourbon and the brandies all degrade but over months, even longer if they are kept fairly cool. Here it is probably the alcohol content that helps to preserve them. Rums are different. Not only do they last for months, possibly even years, but even warm temperatures don’t seem to bother them very much. Some claim that rums get better with age, and the warmer the climate around them the better.
Back in the 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th century the British navy gave every sailor a “rum ration”, I suppose as a pick-me-up and “at-a-boy” morale booster. Before they tried rum, they tried wines (spoiled rapidly) and brandy which lasted longer, but still not for the months a ship might be at sea in varying climates. Not only did rum not spoil, but sailors claimed it got better — or they got less discriminating! I have had open bottles of rum for as much as a year without noticing any degradation in the product.
Another thing about rums is how many there are. As compared to other spirits, there are few laws governing what can or cannot be called a “rum”. The French have more rules than anyone else. Rums carrying the French certification are labled “rhums” and are called “agricoles” or “agricultural rhums”. The rules govern feedstock (sugar cane or cane juice) as well as how they are blended, and aged. There are some sugar cane rums that do not meet the French standards, perhaps because something is added to the final blend, or different distillate generations are mixed together to create a final product.
But rum wasn’t originally made from sugar cane which was too valuable to ferment. Instead it was the by-product of sugar production, molasses, originally considered waste, that was first fermented and turned into rum. The great majority of rums today begin with molasses or a mix of molasses and cane juice. These are called “industrial rums” by the French, but no matter the possibly derrogatory intent of the term, most of the world’s favored rums are molasses-based.
Many of rum’s flavors come from the ageing barrels. The wood is oak, but many (if not most) rums are aged in barrels previously used for other products including wine (especially ports and sherries), bourbon, and even scotch, and there are rums aged in multiple barrels (or blended from different barrels) to add yet more layers of flavor. Sometimes the interior of the barrels is charred or roasted which adds caramel and vanilla notes to the rum. But apart from sugars that come from what the barrels previously contained (or caramelized in the wood charring process) pure rum is not particularly sweet. Despite being made from sugar or molasses, there is no sugar in the distillates that are blended and aged. The really sweet rums are sweet because sugar is added to them as a part of the blending process. Not only sugar (in greater or lesser quantities) but sometimes other flavorings (orange, vanilla), colorings, and possibly products to add creaminess to the texture. The rules do not forbid these additives but they are supposed to be noted on lables. Generally, they are not!
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention dunder pits, a flavor-enhancing technique unique (as far as I know) to rums. Many rum producers do not simply discard the wash (cane or molasses feed-stock) remaining after distillation. Instead, they throw it into a pit where it mixes with many previous wash generations. Inside these pits, the warm climate of most rum producing countries coupled with the yeasts present in all the wash generations continue to produce chemical changes. These changes produce hundreds of aromatic esters not to be found in the fermentation product of a fresh wash. Some portion of this dunder is mixed back with each fresh batch of feed-stock enriching the fermentation and the distillate! Banana and other ripe fruit notes in rums can emerge from this mix.
There has been some interesting discussion about added sugar in rum and a few sites have put up lists of rums and the extra sugar they contain. A few of them are linked here from alcademics, The Rum Project, and a good article (with more links) explaining how the tests are conducted can be found at thefatrumpirate website. To put some perspective on this however a 1 liter bottle of Coca Cola has 108 grams of sugar, 4-5 times the amount in even the most heavily sugared rums. The debate in the rum community is not so much over the presence of sugar (though other additives are more universally frowned upon) but the lack of honest labling of the final product. But good or bad, the enormous variety of rums available at all prices stems partly from the variety (and quantity) of additives added during the final blending steps. In fact, one experiment demonstrates how sugar alone, added in different quantities, completely changes a rum. Of course more sugar makes the rum smoother, but as the sugar content is increased, different flavor notes also emerge. A producer might take the same aged product, add different amounts of sugar, and come up with 4 or 5 different rums!
This variety of flavors and sweetness levels (ranging from fairly dry [Barbancourt, Old Monk] to very sweet [Diplomatico R.E. and many others]) sets the stage for hundreds of possible cigar pairings even with reasonably priced quality rums. Not all rums are inexpensive of course, but there are far more good rums at reasonable prices ($50 or less) than high-quality cognacs, scotches, bourbons, and ryes.
Apart from an occasional beer outside on a hot day, the first alcoholic drinks I paired with cigars were cognac and Irish Mist. I first paired cognac (and brandies) with cigars almost 40 years ago. In those days I wasn’t smoking very often, perhaps three or four machine-made cigars (ever try a Black Watch?) a year. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I discovered premium hand rolled cigars, but even then, and until about 5 years ago (it’s 2015 now) I wasn’t smoking very much. It wasn’t that I liked cognac so much by itself and I can remember drinking it without a cigar in my hand on only a few occasions. But cognac does go well with cigars. It pulls out sweetness in cigars as well as black coffee notes and sometimes dark fruits. The cigar seems to make the cognac a little sweeter too, But the whole effect is rather subtle. I have to think about it alot to notice what I’m getting from both the cognac and the cigar.
It was 20 or more years ago that I was introduced to Irish Mist, a liqueur composed of Irish Whiskey, honey, and some other unspecified spices. As such it is a completely artificial product. Before Irish Mist I’d tasted other liqueurs like Drambuie, Grand Marnier, and Bennedictine. They were all way too sweet for me. Irish Mist is different. It is sweet, certainly sweet enough to be a liqueur, but not as sweet as the others. I liked it right away. There is nothing subtle about the effect of Irish Mist on cigars. You can’t help tasting honey in the cigar after a sip. Other cigar flavors complimented by a honey like sweetness are also elevated, dark fruit and coffee notes among them.
After some years of smoking and pairing the two products began to get repetitive. Good cognac was expensive (I like my whiskey smooth), and Irish Mist, while inexpensive, provided no variety. I began to ask around the cigar forums for suggestions. The scotches, ryes, and bourbons came up but I’ve tried a few over the years and never developed a taste for them. Then someone suggested rums reasoning that “they come from the same part of the world as cigars…” That was enough of an idea to try them at least. Pyrat XO was a reputedly decent “premium rum” available from a small retailer nearby. I poured myself a small glass and took a sip while smoking a cigar. The Pyrat is sweet and very orangy. It is one of the “sweeter rums” and has extra sugar (24g/l)and flavoring (orange at least) But it isn’t quite as sweet as Irish Mist. The bright fruit flavors in the Pyrat didn’t do much for the cigar, but the sweetness was just right. Differences from one cigar to another stood out against the rum while the sweetness compensated for woody and earthy cigar flavors but let them come through. I was on my way to exploring rums.
I’ve since tried some 40 or more rums and one thing I’ve learned is to return to old favorites after a while. My rum taste having grown more discriminating, a few of my early favorites now taste artificial and heavily doctored. Angostura (1919 and 1824), Papa’s Pilar (light and dark), and Atlantico Private Cask are now off my list while a 20-year (if rums lables state years, they usually refer to the oldest rum in the blend) Mocambo,(very oaky and smokey) still remains one of my favorite cigar pairing rums as does Santa Teresa 1796 and Pampero Anniversario. I don’t think any of these last are pure (unsugared) but nor are they overly sweet and there doesn’t seem to be anything in them besides a little sugar. One of the more heavily sugared rums (30g/l), El Dorado 15-year (El Dorado is a rare exception listing the youngest rum in the blend on their lables) remains one of my favorites (along with everyone else). This rum has a funky background flavor (more on this below) that perfectly compensates the sweetness. El Dorado 12 year (35g/l) is likewise delicious but lacks this compensating funk. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (35g/l) is delicious but liqueur sweet, while the Reserva version (20g/l) is very dry by comparison. Dos Maderas 5×5 (36g/l), with dry coffee and tobacco notes cutting the sugar, remains a great pairing rum for my palate.
I have discovered and enjoy a few of the purer rums, though I’ve yet to try a genuinely official agricole. Barbancourt 5-star, from the French community of Haiti is a cane juice rum but lacks the official French blessing, perhaps because it contains a few grams of sugar. It is only mildly sweet with subtly balanced flavors that well compliment almost any cigar. In fact, this inexpensive rum ($25 for a 750ml bottle in the U.S.) pairs well with everything from mild to strong cigars. Old Monk, an Indian rum once (thanks to the population of India) the largest selling rum in the world, has very little added sugar (3g/l). It is still distinctly sweet and there are warm spice aromas in it that make me wonder if there is anything else there (perhaps an ageing secret, but Indian cuisine has so many spices), but it pairs very nicely bringing out a brown sugar and roasted nut quality in a cigar. Brugall 1888 is a delicious and only slightly sugared “quiet rum”, distinctly more refined than the Barbancourt, but much more expensive at near $80/bottle. Like the Barbancourt, it compliments many cigars.
Pusser’s Navy Rum, 42% ABV and 6g/l sugar deserves its own paragraph. At $25/750ml bottle it is (along with the Barbancourt 5-star) the least expensive rum in my collection. Only lightly sugared (6g/l), it has the strangest flavor of all my rums. The blending formula is supposed to be the same (secret) used by the British Navy for a century and a half. There are supposed to be rums blended together from 7 different sources. Above I mentioned a funky background flavor I find in El Dorado 15. That same flavor (thefatrumpirate suggests I am tasting the product of a wooden pot still) dominates Pusser’s. It strikes me as something of a cross between mold and rotting vegetables. Some have called it “putrid”, but it is a flavor for which one can develop a taste. As for cigar pairing, Pusser’s brings out the vegetal and earthy flavors in a strong cigar, but it washes out everything in a mild one. All of my other rums contrast and compliment cigars with sweetness, coffee, tobacco, dark fruit (bright fruit in the case of Pyrat), and oak. By comparison, the strong vegetal component in Pusser’s highlights those notes in cigars while providing dramatic contrast to any sweetness present.
There are many more rums I want to try. Many of the best are simply not available to me locally or even at all in the U.S., while many that are available are just too expensive. I keep looking though and I will keep reporting as my palate evolves. Experiment! Find rums you like and try them with different cigars. Remember, if a drink and a cigar compliment one another to your palate, then it’s a good pairing!
Salud, and may all your cigars be good ones.