Text and photographs by Treve Ring
I was never much one for rum.
Too sweet. Too boozy. Too kitschy. Too much in cocktails with little umbrellas and large fruits, and marketed with little bikinis and large – melons.
So up until last year, I didn’t give too much thought to rum. Sure, I have warmed myself with a good Dark n’ Stormy, wrote (and passed) a WSET Diploma spirits exam on rum manufacturing, and could blind taste and ascertain the acute differences between rums from Jamaica, Barbados, Puerto Rico and Martinique.
But I hadn’t given this Caribbean spirit its due. Study and mimicry is one thing, but it wasn’t until I realized and understood that rum can be DRY, that the spirit took my attention. And it took winging down to Dominican Republic to realize it.
Rum is made from sugarcane byproduct molasses by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak and other barrels. Style differentiation comes through distillation method, barrel aging and blending. The grades used to describe rum depend on where it was produced. These vary from location to locations, but generally follows these categories:
Light Rums. Also known as silver rums and white rums. In general, has very little flavour aside from a general sweetness, and serves accordingly as a base for cocktails.
Gold Rums. Also known as amber rums. Medium-bodied and generally aged, these gain their dark colour from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred white oak barrels that are the byproduct of Bourbon Whiskey). They have more flavour, and are stronger tasting than Silver Rum, and can be considered a midway-point between Silver/Light Rum and the darker varieties.
Spiced Rum. These rums obtain their flavour through addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in colour, and based on gold rums.
Dark Rum. Also known as black rum. Generally aged longer, in heavily charred barrels. Dark rum has a much stronger flavor than either light or gold rum, and hints of spices can be detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone.
Premium Rum. As with other sipping spirits, a market exists for premium and super-premium boutique-branded rums. They have more character and flavour than their “mixing” counterparts, and are generally consumed without the addition of other ingredients.
PIONEERS & NATIONAL TREASURES
Brugal Rum was an anomaly to me, and apparently to me (and Canadians) only – it’s the number one rum brand in the Caribbean and Spain and the third largest international rum brand in the world.
Founded in the Dominican Republic over 125 years ago in 1888 by Don Andres Brugal Montaner, an immigrant via Sitges, Spain, the family today remains the brand’s only Maestros Roneros (Master Rum blenders), five generations strong. A member of the family must approve each blend. Even after Brugal was acquired by Scottish spirits giant The Edrington Group in 2006, it was decreed that the Brugal family would remain as shareholders, continue their active role in maintaining quality and preserving tradition, and that production would continue within the Dominican Republic. Today, the humble, close-knit family are revered almost as royalty on the Island, heralded for their commitment to the country, and of course, for the company’s large quantity of high quality rums.
When Don Andres founded the company, he broke from the traditional styles of the time to create a distinctively different rum all his own. A dry rum. Similar to single malt whisky, flavours, richness and depth come via cask aging, a process greatly expedited by the extremely hot and humid conditions in the Caribbean. The angels are happy in these warehouses; a significant portion of the liquid evaporates over time. In a hot climate like the Dominican Republic, they lose on average 9-12% of their liquid per year, which is about twice the amount lost in cooler spirit producing regions, like Scotland. The Brugal double distillation process leaves the spirit completely clear, piercingly pure (the heaviest alcohols and ugliest congeners are removed), bone dry and less sweet. Their tag line is “the refreshingly dry rum”, and their digital call #RumRedefined – tidy and tight snapshots of their message and goals.
THE DIFFERENCE IS DRY
The farm to bottle process starts 100 miles east of the massive, modern-meets-historic production and bottling facility in Puerto Plata. Here, skilled workers harvest sugarcane from an astonishing 16,000 HA farm. The plants are high, the temperature higher, yet the skilled machete-yielding workers seem cool as a cucumber as they chop, slice and stack the fibrous sweet crop. An experienced harvester can do 3 tons/day, whereas I could barely lift the sharp machete. The cut canes are transported to the La Romana sugar mill, where it is crushed, clarified, heated and centrifuged into the thick, inky, potent black molasses. From there it begins the fermentation with Brugal-developed yeast that can stand up to the black base and convert the sugar into alcohol. The vino (fermented mash) then enters the distillation columns, where the pure flema (clear liquid alcohol) comes off at 180 proof (90% abv) before being cut with water to 65% abv. This clear, hydrated alcohol is the base for every Brugal rum, and what enters directly into wood barrels in the aging warehouse. The final product is dependant on the type, toast and time commitment of the barrel regime.
It’s the aging that sets the style, and cements the commitment to quality. Aging is expensive, but there’s no substitute for it. By the distillery’s estimates, if you stack all of the rum that Brugal loses to evaporation every year in barrels, it would be 30 Empire State Buildings tall. Most of the 250,000 barrels are the traditional ex-Bourbon, American oak, though Brugal is now experimenting with aged Sherry, Whisky casks and cherry wood – a benefit of Edrington’s Scottish parentage.
The end result is a product as smooth as you’d expect a super-premium vodka, gin or tequila to be. Unfortunately, the road to recognition as a premium dry rum is not nearly as smooth. While premium vodka, gin and most recently tequila has emerged as spirits worth solo sipping and singular appreciation, rum has struggled, held back by visions of tattooed sailors, anchors and aforementioned bikini clad revelry. Brugal has embarked on a major marketing promotion in North America to show the dry depths of and quality of their Dominican rum.
They sum it up succinctly: Brugal Rum. It’s about time.
Brugal Extra Dry
For the crystal clear Brugal Extra Dry, after 2-5 years in cask, the spirit is triple filtered through activated charcoal, removing the colour but preserving the depth and intensity of time. This clean, creamy and silken spirit shows a natural skiff of sweetness for appeal, but is exceptionally dry through the persistent light citrus and subtly spiced finish. It can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or substituted for white spirits in cocktails.
This is the same as the Brugal Extra Dry, without the triple filtration to remove the colour. Light amber in hue with light wood, gentle char and delicate caramel and vanilla. Light charcoal dust before a very smooth, bone dry palate with a hint of biscuit and a fine holiday spice finish.
This is the newest product in the portfolio, showcasing two types of aging. The spirit spends time in ex-Bourbon casks and then time in ex-Pedro Ximeneth casks from Jerez, for a total of 3-8 years aging. Deeper amber in hue, with lengthy, contemplative tears. Beautiful burnished orange notes, light caramel, dried apricot and golden raisins. There are slight wood and honeyed toast picked up before a spiced peach fuzz finish. Very smooth, with light caramel biscuit sweetness and a silky, very long finish.
This premium rum is aged in medium-toast American white oak casks for up to 8 years, followed by a second maturation in ex-Oloroso barrels for 2-6 years. That’s up to 14 years of tropical double aging and cascades of complexity. Very long and lingering tears to a deep amber hue. The heady nose and full palate show honey and fine baking spices, orange peel, dried fruit and tobacco leaf. Mouth filling, with layers of orange, silken caramel, coffee, anise, faint passion fruit and dried exotic herbs. Aged, worn wood shows on the exceptionally long finish.
This newly released, exclusive bottling has been a private affair until now. Papá Andrés is the Brugal family’s personal bottling, created and enjoyed for special occasions of the family for five generations. Only 36 hand-selected casks were selected, a blend of Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez and Bourbon wood. The limited edition bottles (500 released in 2013) are $1200 USD each, with profits redirected to Brugal’s philanthropic aims in the Dominican Republic.