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When you're talking about rum, how much does the Caribbean really matter?
For the rum world, it's a more serious question than it sounds, and the answer exposes a schism in the industry, a divide between massive producers who value uniformity in a global market and smaller players and connoisseurs who prefer nuanced production that reflects the time and place a rum is made.
A walk down the rum aisle of a liquor store sees this played out. While major companies like Pernod Ricard might acknowledge that its Malibu is a "Carribean rum" and has notes of coconut flavor, you won't find specifics beyond that. Likewise, Diageo's Captain Morgan doesn't indicate which island port its jaunty pirate logo calls home.
That's because the largest liquor companies have realized it's not critical to promote their rums' origins in their global branding, says Arun Sharma, professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. That allows them flexibility to produce their spirits where they need to meet demand on the mass market.
"The brand is more important than where it's produced," Sharma said.
At Bacardi, which sells more than 18 million cases of rum worldwide each year, consistency and quality are paramount, even as it expands its offerings of flavored, spiced and premium rums.
"Our marketing approach and advertising hasn't really focused on the Caribbean. ... It's a lifestyle. It's a way of life," said Bacardi brand master David Cid.
Except that rums can vary greatly based on where and how they are produced, something aficionados have long known and smaller producers have begun promoting as a way to distinguish themselves. Cuba and Puerto Rico have lighter, more delicate rums; Jamaica veers to the full-bodied, darker liquors; and Haiti is known for the cognac-like flavor of its Rhum Barbancourt.
Blue Chair Bay Rum, which country music star Kenny Chesney is launching this spring, is a good example. Chesney chose a distiller in Barbados specifically to infuse the spirit with an authenticity he sought to represent his love for the island lifestyle, says CEO Mark Montgomery.
And as rum sales grow, you can expect to see more of that. Fueled by a cocktail revival on the food scene - as well as prominent billing on TV shows like "Mad Men" - liquors captured more than a third of the alcoholic beverage market last year, including sales of 25.5 million cases of rum in the U.S. alone, a 2.5 percent jump over the year before. Flavored and spiced rums account for more than half of that total.
"Every island in the Caribbean, every country in Central and South America makes 'the best rum in the world.' There's a lot of pride in rum," says Robert A. Burr, organizer of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival that opens to industry professionals and the public this weekend.
"Every country has some sort of different history, equipment, preference. But now we're in much more of a global world where it's easier to try other people's rum."
Of course, that information isn't always obvious. Rum can be tricky for drinkers to figure out because it can be produced anywhere, unlike Scotch whisky that by definition comes from in Scotland, says Bernhard Schafer, a professional spirits judge participating in the Miami rum festival.
At a pre-festival tasting this week, rums from Ireland, Colorado, the Philippines, Florida and New Zealand mingled with offerings from Barbados, St. Barths and Panama. Aside from noting the country of origin, none of the labels referenced the Caribbean. And the rum from Panama - called Ron de Jeremy, a play on the Spanish word for rum - had a different association in mind ... A portrait of adult film star Ron Jeremy is on the label.
The growing variety of rums in the marketplace should assuage the fears of anyone who's been avoiding rum since, perhaps, an ill-advised bender in college, said Rob V. Burr, a self-described "rum evangelist" and the son of the festival's organizer.
Burr notes, "I always like to tell people, there's a rum for that."
A growing awareness of the differences in regional rums — not to mention variances in how they are produced — opens new opportunities for appreciating each in its own way. And when it comes to cocktails, that opens fun and delicious possibilities for highlighting the nuances of each.
To get you started on an exploration of different styles of rum, we created cocktails built around a Cuban-style rum, a blended aged rum, and a vanilla rum.
—Alison Ladman, Associated Press
1 ounce Cuban-style rum
1 ounce orange liqueur
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
Orange or lemon twist
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the rum, orange liqueur, lemon juice and Lillet Blanc. Shake until well chilled, then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange or lemon twist.
2 ounces blended aged rum (such as Ron Zacapa Solera Gran Reserva)
2 ounces orange juice
2 ounces pineapple juice
1/2 teaspoon orange bitters
1/2 ounce grenadine
Dash of hot sauce
Fresh pineapple or mango, to garnish
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass, then garnish with fruit.
1 teaspoon sugar
1 sprig fresh mint, plus more to garnish
2 ounces vanilla distilled rum
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Club soda or seltzer water
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the sugar and mint sprig. Add the rum and lime juice, then shake until the sugar is dissolved. Strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with ice, then top off with club soda. Garnish with another sprig of fresh mint.