If the award-winning Vancouver bartender known simply as H looks like a man having a good time on this golden and gorgeous presummer night, that makes complete sense, considering the spirit of the spirit he’s working with.
The Georgia Straight is sitting at the bar of Notturno (280 Carrall Street) in Gastown an hour or so before opening time, being treated to a rapid-fire impromptu cocktail class on the beauty of rum. The transplanted Englishman with the rock-star-like single name is on a roll, first whipping up a picture-perfect mojito, the presentation approaching high art thanks to the Gosling’s black rum float and the icing-sugar-dusted mini bushel of mint. Next up, limes are cut into eighths and muddled with granulated sugar, bathed with Cachaça 51 rum, and then shaken like a paint mixer with crushed ice for a simple but somehow exotic caipirinha.
“Dump the contents—you don’t need to strain it or anything—into a cup, a plastic cup or whatever you want,” H says, speaking with a charming English accent that’s part Guy Ritchie gangster film, part Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel. “The garnish is all there. Two straws because it’s quite thick, and then you’re done. That’s a caipirinha.”
By the time the Appleton 12-year-old is broken out for a daiquiri that includes honey mix, fresh lemon juice, and Spanish bitters, it’s easy to forget that you are in Vancouver, and not just because of the alcohol-induced glow that’s seemingly roared out of nowhere. If the drinks that H has just rolled out have something in common—besides being sublime—it’s that they immediately whisk you away to warmer and sunnier spots, the mojito taking you to time-warped Havana, the caipirinha plunking you right in the middle of steamy Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.
That transportive effect—even if it’s imagined—is why many consider rum the most perfect spirit for summer, especially when you live in a city where the weather in late June doesn’t always feel like Barbados at high noon. Vodka is too closely associated with the frozen tundras of Russia and Scandinavia. Gin is forever tied to rainy old England; Scotch inevitably brings to mind the mist-shrouded highlands of Scotland.
Rum, on the other hand, comes from the playgrounds of Blackbeard, Captain Jack Sparrow, and anyone who happens to be of the opinion that life is better when you’re wearing flip-flops, sunglasses, and a bathing suit.
“If you look at the big spirits, rum is the one that screams good times,” says Sean Hewlett, second bartender at Gastown’s Bambudda (99 Powell Street). “And that might also just be because of its origins. If you look at the tropical places that it comes from, when people think of a vacation, they think of rum.
“I’d say that the popularity of rum is increasing due to the tiki movement coming back in a big way,” he adds. “You’re seeing more and more tiki bars pop up because they are fun. And rum is a fun spirit, which is why they tie so well together. You don’t see the tiki movement using gin or vodka—they are using rum for a very specific reason. I think that directly correlates to the image that tiki gets across: it’s fun, it’s vibrant, and it’s exciting. And especially around summer, it just promotes a good time.”
There’s a reason for rum’s association with all places hot and sandy. The spirit is now made around the world, but most producers are concentrated in the Caribbean and Latin America, where the water is often the colour of a properly crafted Blue Hawaiian and the sand is like powdered talcum. Having producers spread out across countless countries means that there are countless varieties available to consumers. (Unless, that is, you happen to live in one of those parts of the world, like B.C., where, instead of throwing things open to free enterprise, the government militantly controls which brands are made available to consumers.)
Edward Hamilton is an American-based author, educator, and traveller who runs an essential website called Ministry of Rum. Reached via phone in California, he tells a story that illustrates how rum has come to mean much more than Bacardi white and Coke.
“In 1997, in the biggest liquor store in America, which at that time was Sam’s Wine and Spirits in Chicago, there were seven rums on the counter,” Hamilton says. “Today, most modern, self-respecting liquor stores in America will have upwards of 50 rums. I was in a store recently in Colorado, and they claimed to have 350 rums on the shelf.”
Quite differently from vodka or gin, you don’t need the palate of a sommelier to tell those brands apart.
“I didn’t understand this or appreciate this when I was in the Caribbean for 20 years, but rum is the most varied of all distilled spirits,” Hamilton says. “Scotches are all produced in Scotland. American whiskies are basically produced in half a dozen stills by half a dozen companies in the Kentucky-Tennessee area. Rum is made in more countries around the world than any other distilled spirit. It’s made from sugar-cane juice, sugar-cane syrup, molasses, or a combination of those. And when I say sugar-cane juice, there’s a vast variety of sugar-cane-juice qualities available to distillers.”
For those who are in love with the art of bartending—from professionals to at-home amateurs—that makes rum infinitely rewarding. Adventurers know full well that there are endless flavour profiles, to the point where Trois Rivières agricole rum from Martinique tastes nothing like Lemon Hart Demerara from Guyana, and Barbados-produced Mount Gay is instantly distinguishable from Cuba’s Havana Club.
Such diversity and complexity, says Shea Hogan, bartender at the Main Street rum lover’s paradise known as the Shameful Tiki Room (4362 Main Street), have fascinated mixologists for years.
“Rum allows a greater possibility for drinks. If you’re blending a few types of rums, you take on the characteristics of those different styles. Blending them together creates a whole new thing. Take a bunch of different vodkas and mix them together, and you’ve got the same thing at the end of the day. Gin, for the most part—same thing. In a lot of our drinks you’ll end up with three different rums for a totally new thing, which is what makes rum so awesome.”
Not to mention a whole lot of fun.