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Friday, Sept. 25, 2009
Tokyo bars toast the sugar cane
It's got a dark past, but there's plenty to cheer about the Caribbean's tastiest export
Thank God for the Crusades, so to speak.
On their 11th-century romp through the Holy Land, the Christians came upon a fabulous new foodstuff: sugar.
A few centuries, some genocide and a slave trade later, Europe had commandeered most of the Caribbean, turned cotton and coffee fields into sugar-cane plantations, and taught the slaves to distill the molasses into rum. It's the booze with the bloodiest, most egregious history, but let's not dwell on all that.
Instead, let's hail the liquor that beguiled Blackbeard, Byron and Hemingway. Let's salute the spirit that George Washington liked so much he tried to trade one of his slaves for a hogshead of it.
Rum is the good-time liquor of tropical paradises, sipped to a soundtrack of calypso or mambo. It's the flavor of holiday puddings and punches, and it's the kick in your Daiquiri, Mojito, Zombie, Mai Tai and Pina Colada.
Yet, for all that, it's an under- appreciated beverage. Sailors and pirates drank rum because it traveled better than beer. In America's Roaring Twenties, the jazzers and flappers flouted Prohibition with rum because the Caribbean was within easy smuggling reach, and Bacardi sure tasted better than bathtub gin. As World War II drew to a close, Crosby Gaige wrote in his Standard Cocktail Guide, " . . . it behooves the prudent mixer to know his Rums. Good Whiskey is now scarce and will be scarcer for some time to come, while good Rum is in plentiful supply."
When there's nothing else on offer, try rum.
I n Tafia, a bar in Tokyo's Nishi Azabu district, there's nothing else on offer. There are more than 300 bottles and they all contain rum.
"Would you like a rum?" asked owner Chie Tato.
I told her I usually drank Ron Zacapa Centenario, a Guatemala-produced benchmark for aged rums.
Most rums mature badly; in Caribbean temperatures the liquid evaporates too fast and the angels get more than their fair share. But Zacapa is stored at around 2,300 meters above sea level, and aged in the solera-style of sherries and balsamic vinegars. Casks are never drained, only tapped for a portion of their contents, then topped up from the next-oldest barrel. The result is a blend of vintages with the scent of several barrels.
Zacapa passes through bourbon, sherry and Malaga wine casks. The youngest is labeled "15 years," but the fun starts at 23 years, when the drink takes on deep notes of oak, vanilla and fudge.
The rum gobbles up gold medals in festivals, and the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago gave it an extraordinary 98-percent rating.
It's also cheap. A bottle of the 23 costs around ¥4,500.
Last week I toured Tokyo's rum bars with the question: If Zacapa 23 is so good and cheap, what's the point of drinking anything else?
In Tafia, Tato's first reply was Diplomatico Reserva, a Venezuelan gold medalist at the 2007 International Cane Spirits Festival. Venezuelan law dictates that all its rums must be aged, and Diplomatico has developed the cacao and caramel notes of an exceptional dark rum. It could almost hold its own against Ron Zacapa.
Next: Rhum Bielle, a white rhum agricole from Marie-Galante in the French Antilles. Agricoles are distilled from fresh sugar-cane juice or syrup. Most manufacturers squeeze two industries from sugar cane, using the juice to make sugar and the byproduct, molasses, to make rum. On the French islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante, all the good stuff goes into the rum. Most French people and many rum aficionados will tell you that agricoles are superior products. They might be right.
At 118 proof, Bielle is not a sipping rum for the timid, but it rewards you with a fresh, grassy fragrance that seems straight from the plantation. It's Tato's favorite rum. I can't wait to drink it again.
Finally, Doorly's XO, aged at least six years and finished in oloroso casks. The label declares it a rum of "unparalleled excellence . . . for those who know better." You shouldn't really toot your own horn like that, but it is a great rum.
T he next day I visited Screwdriver in Kichijoji. Despite the name, it's a rum bar, stocking an estimated 300 to 400 labels.
I posed my Zacapa question and Takashi Tsuchiya lined up three shots. He explained that when the English, French and Spanish carved up the Caribbean, they brought knowledge of whisky, brandy and sherry techniques respectively. The English-island rums, French rhums and Spanish rons all still bear the traits of those techniques.
He offered an Appleton Estate from Jamaica (English influence), a J. Bally agricole from Martinique (French) and the Zacapa 23 (Spanish).
Sure enough, the Jamaican rum was dry and spicy, the Martinique rum fruity and the Guatemalan sweet.
I enjoyed the Appleton Estate most, crushing my Zacapa theory.
Tsuchiya also offered a Demerara aged for 14 years in a Laphroaig Scotch cask (which was once a sherry cask). It hits like Scotch but mellows into rum. As with Laphroaig, you'll love it or hate it.
"Rum is the most varied spirit in the world," claimed Tsuchiya. "There's no white Scotch and you can't age tequila past a few years. If you count grappa, brandy is a little diverse, but not like rum."
O n day three, in Ikejiri's Bar Julep, another oddly named rum specialist, I asked bartender Koji Yamamoto to surprise me.
He offered Old Monk, a 7-year-old from India. Don't wrinkle your snooty nose, it was great. Why shouldn't India be able to produce a good rum? There are rums from Nepal, Austria, Australia, Fiji and the Philippines. Even Japan has a couple of brands, though neither are good.
After a jaunt through some agricoles, Yamamoto produced a gem from Italian bottlers Rum Nation. The company selects single-provenance rums and releases them under its own label. Rum Nation reveals the country of origin, but not the distillery. The label said Guatemala, 23 years old. It's not hard to guess who really made the rum. But, said Yamamoto, Ron Zacapa 23 is a blend of ages up to 23 years old; Rum Nation's is pure 23-year-old rum from the Zacapa barrels. I tried them side-by-side and Rum Nation's release made the multi-award winner seem rough around the edges.
Last November, Julep, Screwdriver and Tafia teamed up with two other Tokyo rum bars to launch R.U.M. Japan with the aim of raising rum's profile here.
They may have a long road ahead.
"What kind of bourbon do you have?" asked a customer in Bar Julep last week.
"I'm afraid we don't serve bourbon, only rum," said Yamamoto.
"OK then, a strawberry margarita please."