I’ve been pairing cigars with rum for about 4 years now. My selection method is haphazard but I’ve managed to hit many of the classic sipping rums along the way. I’ve probably gone through 40 bottles of 20 different rums, there being many repeats on the list. I’ve tasted a dozen others here and there, and by tasting I mean a glass or two. That’s not a lot of tasting experience by most standards around here, but I have noticed some things and the strangest of these is more about my own palate than about the rum! Before I get on with the story I note that everything described below is sipped neat, no water, no ice. I have had these drinks with a little water and on a hot summer day (when does that happen around here?) over ice, but mostly its about neat.
Before I got into rum, and besides coffee, I paired my smokes with cognac, sherry, and most often with Irish Mist, a concoction of Irish Whiskey and a honey liqueur. The effect comes out to be sweet like a liqueur, but not as sweet as many others like Drambuie, Bennedictine, or Grand Marnier. There’s the occasional beer with cigar if I’m at a HERF, and I keep a good cognac (sealed) around in the event anyone ever wants some. I also have an unopened bottle of Irish Mist around 3 years now because it seems to be all about the rum. I have ventured out of the rum world a few times. There was a bourbon I liked, a rye, and even a scotch I could almost appreciate. Almost, but I can’t drink more than a glass of bourbon without being sick of the flavor. With scotch I can’t even finish one glass. Rye is a little easier, but it also gets uninteresting fast. Years ago, before cigars, I did drink an occasional rye and bourbon. Scotch never appealed. But none of them ever became a passion or even passing interest.
I got into rum when someone on a cigar forum suggested that coming from the same part of the world, cigars and rum that is, they should go well together. I had a small bottle of Pyrat XO I used for cooking. Poured myself a glass and took a sip. Very sweet and bright with fresh orange. Almost as sweet as Irish Mist, but its bright frutiness didn’t make me think of cigars. I visited a local retailer looking for something besides the giant brands like Bacardi and Captain Morgan. I was looking for something of a higher class, but not expensive either. Just a few dollars more than the Pyrat XO there beconed a bottle of Mocambo 20 Year Rum. That was a wake-up slap in the face! Gone the alcohol-acetone aromas and bright orange of the light-colored Pyrat. Instead dark, burnt notes of wood, coffee, tobacco, hints of trecle (burnt caramel) all in a rich meld led by the wood. Compared to the Pyrat, and especially the Irish Mist the Mocambo was only slightly sweet and even that was a dark burnt sweetness. Just enough to notice, little enough that it didn’t seem to be a “sweet drink”. I liked it right away and as it turned out so did the cigars. It tasted great with everything I was smoking at the time, and the cigars in turn complimented the flavors of the rum.
Following my second bottle of Mocambo, my retailer sold out of it. Next up was the slightly more expensive Pampero “Anniversario Reserva Exclusiva”. Also very dark and a little sweeter than the Mocambo, but lacking the burnt flavors. The dark fruit like raisins and prunes came through along with hints of molasses, and some warm baking spices. It was deeper and richer than the Mocambo, without its burnt woodiness. Again I liked it and it went well with my cigars. Two bottles later, my retailer ran out of that one too! Next in line I discovered Santa Teresa 1796. The prices were inching gradually upwards. The Santa Teresa is a medium colored rum. Darker than the Pyrat but lighter than either of the other two. It was sweeter too, but not yet as sweet as the Pyrat. I liked it also. Creamier than either of the darker rums, it had a mix of fresh and dark fruit flavors, brown sugar, and caramel.
It was while I was drinking the Santa Teresa that I began tasting other rums. I was in Vegas for a week and had a couple of glassses of Zaya (horrible like someone dumped a teaspoon of sugar into every glass) and more glasses of Zacapa XO (much better, but too expensive to try again since). There followed a succession of trials and bottles, Papa’s Pilar light (very young with strong alcohol and acetone notes, and a huge hit of sugar cane sweetness in the finish) and dark (heavy molasses and caramel on the finish), Angostura 1919 (one of those that has changed much for me) and 1824 (dark, sweet, the creamiest rum I’ve tasted), El Dorado 15 (sweeter than any of the others mentioned so far but with a funky note I’ve since come to associate with pot-still rums), Dictador 20 (clean, crisp, deep in dark fruit, trecle, and bitter coffee. Only a hint of sweetness), Brugal 1888 (moderately sweet, many very subtle flavors), Flor de Cana 12 and 18 year (sweet, creamy, nice meld of bright and dark fruit with brown sugar and caramel but I had so much of this rum over 10 days in Nicaragua I got tired of it), Dos Maderas 5+5 (dark and sweet, but not overmuch. Delicious with very strong coffee and sherry notes along with a little tobacco), Old Monk (an Indian rum, moderately sweet with a rich background of baking spices and trecle), Atlantico Private Cask (apricot and bananna, too sweet, and a bit of a flat profile), Pusser’s Navy Rum (the king of pot-still funk, warm spice and molasses/caramel richness all colored by the funk), Appleton 12 year (pot-still funk a little brighter but thinner and a tad less sweet than the Pusser’s), Barbancourt 5-star (the closest I’ve come to a true “agricole rum” made from sugar cane juice and not molasses. Sweet but not too sweet, bright with a subtle mix of light fruit and brown sugar) English Harbour 5 year (glassy, crisp, with a thinner finish that reminds me of a young Dictador), Gosling’s Black Seal (black cherry and other dark fruits, moderately sweet) and Diplomatico (the “Reserva Exclusiva” being rich and very sweet, a tasty liqueur but not a rum, and the “Reserva” a less sweet version I like better).
There were more besides, but these bottles were getting expensive. There are some in the list above that were just too expensive to buy again like the Brugal, Diplomatico R.E., Angostura 1824, Atlantico, and Dictador 20 among others. Even the Santa Teresa got too expensive and dropped out of the rotation for about a year. It was during this time that a group of people I worked with began to get together at the end of the work day once a week and sample various drinks. There were other rums like the Australian Bundaberg Over-proof (the only 53% ABV rum I’ve been able to try), and also bourbons (I especially liked the Four Roses Yellow label). I also attended some tastings at a local retailer. That added some scotches, more bourbons, and ryes to the list but nothing moved me to buy a bottle. I was discovering a lot of very good rums in a price range below $40. Of those rums I now keep around (I yet have one unopened bottle of Santa Teresa), only the El Dorado 15 is more expensive. Of particular note, the Pussers, Appleton, Goslings, and Barbancourt are all $25 or less!
Now all of this history brings me to the last and sad part of my story. After a couple of years trying all of the rums listed above I bought another bottle of Angostura 1919. In my early days, just after, the Santa Teresa got too expensive, this was my favorite rum! Now, after all the rest, it tasted terrible! Much sweeter than I remembered it and laced with vanilla it just seemed very artificial. Papa’s Pilar dark was yet another. A rum I loved when I first tried it, it was way too sweet and artificial tasting when I tried it again. The same thing happened with my Santa Teresa! It went on sale so I bought a couple of bottles. Not as bad as the Angostura or Pilar dark, but still much sweeter and flatter in profile than I remembered it. Somewhere along the line I picked up another bottle of Atlantico Private Cask, and that was way to sweet. Was I just getting used-to and enjoying less sweet rums, even funky rums like Pusser’s and Appleton 12? Mocambo and the Pampero A.R.E. appeared again at my retailer and on sale too. I hadn’t tried these again in almost 3 years. Would they be terrible too? No as it turned out they were both great and pretty much as I remembered them. The Mocambo 20 in particular was an instant hit with my cigars. So it is about the sweetness. I am liking less sweet rums, or when they are somewhat sweet, rums with that funk (Pusser’s, Appleton 12, and sweetest El Dorado 15). The more sweet rums just aren’t that interesting now because the sweetness seems to dominate everything else.
English Harbor (5 year old Antigua rum) is an interesting case. Most of the rums in my open bottle rotation at the moment taste pretty much the same as I remember whenever I try them. But the English Harbour tastes different almost every time. Sometimes it’s thin, glassy I call it. Other times I can sense the cream. There’s always caramel and little hint of sugar cane, but sometimes there’s dark fruit or a little tobacco and other times not. Sometimes the finish seems too short, and then again, it can be at least medium-long. I pour a glass of this rum, let it sit for a few minutes and sip. I ask myself if I will buy this ($35) again, but by the end of every glass I know I will!
There are a few I need to try again. Dictador 20 (about $65) is too expensive for me now, but if I see it on sale I will snap it up. Same with Brugal 1888 ($65) which might be too sweet for me now. My retailer was out of Old Monk ($35) but I need to try that one too. Given my less sweet leanings I know I will like the Dictador even more than I did the first time around. I’m curious about the moderately sweet warmly spicy Old Monk, and the subtlety of complex flavors in the Brugal.
So my rum palate has definitely changed over the years, and more so than my cigar palate. Like the rums, some cigars drop out of my rotation only because they’ve become too expensive. Others drop out because I’ve found much better cigars at their otherwise low prices. I’ve gone back to some of those older lower priced cigars and none of them are as good as those in my present collection. Back to rum, it seems to be the sweetness that makes the most difference, but that doesn’t explain everything. I recently finished a last bottle of Diplomatico R.E ($65) I had around for a while, and it was still delicious even if it seems more like a liqueur than a rum. So it isn’t just sweetness alone. The Angostura, Atlantico and Pilar Dark are good examples. Not only are they too sweet, but there is an artificialness to them that is off-putting even besides their sweetness.
Here’s a few websites with lots of rum reviews and other interesting features about the world of rum.
The Rum Project
The Rum Howler Blog
The Fat Rum Pirate
The Ministry of Rum
Inu a Kena