Rum used to be simple. It was clear, memorable in flavor, with a tropical lilt, and famously mixable—a seasonal sensation in piña coladas and daiquiris, a bar staple in rum and Coke.
Then came the mojito, an exotic Cuban concoction of freshly muddled mint, lime, sugar, rum, and club soda over ice. A huge hit on American shores since the late ’90s, mojitos did for rum what cosmos did for vodka. And today, the mere availability of mojito mixes in supermarkets is infamous proof of the cocktail’s star power.
It’s natural that rum has ridden the mojito wave and branched out faster than you can spell f-l-a-v-o-r-s. Coconut was a natural starting point (1980) but, since 2004, Malibu has added rums infused with pineapple, mango, passion fruit, and banana. Bacardi is serving up raspberry, orange, apple, and melon. Cruzan has black-cherry and guava.
Based on sugar cane, most rum actually is distilled from fermented molasses, and ends up between 40- and 50-percent alcohol (or 80 to 100 proof). Rum has the distinction of having a popular spicy side; spiced versions, tapping into rum’s pirate mystique, include Captain Morgan, Admiral Nelson, and Sailor Jerry. And rum has a dark side, as in the amber, snifter-worthy aged versions. Like single malts or cognac? You might be shocked by the complexity of aged rums, marked by dried fruits, spices, and vanilla. Older rums from Appleton Estate, Gosling’s, Mount Gay, and many more check in under $40, standing out as values compared to many brown-spirit sippers.
As with vodka, rum has been drifting upscale, as its popularity has grown, evident in “silver and gold” bottlings from well-distributed brands. The boutique rum niche is gaining momentum as well; witness Depaz, made from 100-percent blue cane (as opposed to molasses) and boasting its own appellation in Martinique. Other specialized rums of note include El Dorado (Guyana), Santa Teresa (Venezuela), Zacapa (Guatemala), and Flor de Caña (Nicaragua).
But as the mercury starts rising, remember the mojito, whose mojo comes not just from rum’s Caribbean kick, but more so from the fact that the sugar and mint leaves are muddled quickly—just bruising the mint to release its oils—and bursting with sweet-tangy freshness.
The classic mojito sometimes is garnished with a sprig of mint and/or a lime wheel. Bars that go the extra step, however, would not think of serving without a sugar-cane swizzle stick. Two spots in Westchester at which the mojitos are definitely the real deal: Coco Rumba’s (443 Lexington Ave, Mount Kisco 914-241-2299) and Belle Havana (35 Main St, Yonkers 914-969-1006).