At some hazy point in the past 18 months, Britons corked up the Sauvignon blanc, turned off the draught beer and became mixologists. Perhaps so much time at home had left us shaken, stirred – or simply muddled – but cocktails and aperitivos suddenly became the new national go-to comfort drink.
Reports from the spirits front-line back this up. Sales of trendy bitter orange aperitif Aperol have shot up 148 per cent compared to the same month last year, while Pimms have been boosted by more than 100 per cent. Pampelle Grapefruit Aperitif sales are up an astonishing 4,850 per cent compared to last year, with Noilly Prat Dry increasing by 64 per cent and Martini Extra Dry by 35 per cent.
But what every virgin or full strength home bartender knows is that cocktails are not worth a swizzle stick if they don’t feature rum. Indeed, there is no spirit – possibly, no liquid – that can compare.
When the sun is shining, who could resist a properly made daiquiri or an ice-cold Mai Tai? And when the sun isn’t shining, well, rum is essentially distilled sunshine, the next best thing.
It’s versatile too – no spirit has such range. “The diversity of rum is the most exciting thing about it,” says Shannon Mustipher, New York bartender and author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails which is full of fun rum ideas. Rum, she points out, is made in more than 90 countries and there are no universal rules regarding how it’s made.
“The result is there’s a flavour profile and expression to suit any palate, any taste, any occasion,” says Mustipher. “You can be a gin drinker and find a rum that works for you – and you can be a Scotch drinker and find a rum that works for you.”
Mustipher is one of many figures who have changed rum’s image in recent years, bringing a renewed appreciation for its variety and finesse, confronting the murkier areas of its history and (most importantly) using it to make fresh, delicious, creative drinks, such as the Parasol, her banana-and-pineapple spiked take on the Daiquiri.
And while craft bartending types have been banging on about rum for years, it appears that the usually gin-mad British public are cottoning on, too.
Waitrose reported a 64 per cent increase in rum sales earlier this year, while Dawn Davies, head buyer for online retailer the Whiskey Exchange, reports growth both in terms of volume (up 63 per cent in the past two years) and in value (up 120 per cent) which means customers are splashing out on more expensive rums.
“Rum has the sweetness, it has the approachability,” Davies says. “People have become much better at mixing cocktails during lockdown. People are finally bored of gin.”
Craft rums are now popping up: the number of brands has increased from 50 in 2009 to 200 this year, according to industry analysts BBB+. And many of the new-wave rums are distilled in Britain with imported molasses, such as Cabby’s Rum, an award-winning light rum made by London taxi-driver Moses Odong.
All this dovetails nicely with the great lockdown trend for homebound escapism. There is one surefire way to trump your neighbour’s hot tub and that is to buy your own hot tub and place a swim-up tiki bar next to it. And once you have invested in, say, a John Lewis Honolulu tiki bar (£575), you will want to fill it with rare rums, tropical fruits, novelty glassware, Del-Boy style garnishes and learn how to make a Jungle Bird cocktail.
Which rum is which?
The sheer range of rum styles is exciting for those with the time, cash and/or liver to invest, but it can be intimidating. Suffice to say, there is a world of overproof Demeraras, French rhums agricoles and cult sipping rums to explore if you’re so minded – but if what you want to do is make a wide range of delicious drinks, you’re looking at two basic styles: light and dark.
The light (aka “white”) stuff was typically made in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. It’s usually aged a little but then charcoal-filtered so it comes out transparent, dry-ish, fruity and playful. This is the rum that’s used in classic Cuban cocktails such as the Daiquiri and El Presidente as well as the UK’s two most Googled cocktails: the Mojito and the Piña Colada.
Then there’s dark rum, a category that spans fruity golden rums that have spent around five years in the barrel to treacly Jamaican rums and elegant blends that easily match single malts for complexity. You’ll want to mix these in funky tropical punches and potions but dark rum also makes a wonderful sub for bourbon in Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and so on.
And if I had to get one bottle of each?
When it comes to light rum, seek out Flor de Caña Extra Secco from Guatemala, El Dorado 3-year from Guyana or (top choice!) Veritas from the exemplary Barbadian distillery, Foursquare. My main advice would be to avoid the ubiquitous white Bacardi, because… drum roll. It’s not that nice! (Though many of Bacardi’s dark rums are exceptional). Havana Club is better.
For a good all-round dark rum that will be nice to sip but not too fancy to mix, Mount Gay Eclipse is a steal at around £20 and anything from Foursquare, Doorly’s, Diplomatico or Plantation is worth mainlining. The Appleton distillery in Jamaica is excellent – I find myself reaching for the eight-year-old Reserve more often than any other bottle – and Duppy Share is a pick of the new-wave blended rums and affordable, too.
What about spiced rum?
Mostly swill, I’m afraid. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of infusing rum with tropical spices and fruits. Sadly most of the commercial varieties taste of fake vanilla and little else and novelties such as Peaky Blinders rum should be approached with caution.
Still, there are great spiced rums out there. Foursquare Spiced is matchless and Spice Hunter is dry and subtle. Gin drinkers, meanwhile, may be converted by Five Rivers Indian Spiced. It’s a rare example of a spiced light rum, heady with a blend of cardamom, cassia, coriander, clove and ginger inspired by the Punjab. It makes a stellar Daiquiri and goes dandily with tonic.