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A Brief History of Rum for National Rum Day

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Celebrate National Rum Day (August 16) with a little history.

Let’s talk about rum—but first we need to discuss garbage. Caribbean sugar farmers of the 17th century had a serious industrial waste problem. As Wayne Curtis recounts in his enjoyable history And a Bottle of Rum, these planters produced sugar by crushing sugar cane, boiling the resulting juices, and then leaving the boiled syrup to cure in clay pots. A viscous liquid would seep out of the pots, and sugar would be left behind.

That liquid was molasses. Today we know molasses as a delicious enabler of gingerbread and shoofly pies, but as Curtis notes, in the 17th century, planters couldn’t give away the cloying liquid. Slaves and livestock ate some of the molasses, but for the most part, it was an annoying bit of industrial waste. Production of two pounds of sugar yielded a pound of molasses, so colonial planters were swimming in the sticky trash. With no export market or practical use for it at home, planters resorted to dumping unwanted molasses into the ocean.

Luckily for the planters, someone eventually figured out a use for this molasses. By mixing it with the liquid skimmed off of cane juice during its initial boiling and fermenting it, one created a serviceable starting point for distillation. And although the exact etymology is still murky, the liquor this process yielded became known as rum.

The rum picture is obviously a little rosier today. Molasses is no longer unwanted industrial waste, and rum sales in the U.S. alone are north of $2 billion a year. Still, when I raised the idea of doing a piece on rum in the mental_floss office, the response was less than enthusiastic. Noses turned up. Eyes glazed over. The editorial team flashed back to throwing down too much rotgut rum and Coke during college.

Aged rums can be beautiful things, though. The best examples are as delightful to sip neat or over an ice cube as any whiskey. And compared to whiskey, they’re for the most part blessedly inexpensive; you can pick up quite a few world-class options for under $40. Eventually, the rest of the staff relented and agreed to taste some rums.

As we sampled more and more brands, the rest of the team seemed to slowly come around on my “Rum is delicious!” stance. Or maybe they just got tired of me yelling “Rum is delicious!” and decided to nod politely. Either way, after extensive taste testing, we narrowed in on 11 brands that would be a great addition to any summer hootenanny.

El Dorado Special Reserve 15 year old

This gem hails from Guyana, and at just $40 or so a bottle, it may be the best bargain in your liquor store. The thick body coats your mouth with strong flavors of raisin, caramel, and the hard top layer of crème brulee that’s really all anyone wants from crème brulee.

Gosling’s Old Rum

At around $65, this wax-dipped Bermuda bottle isn’t cheap. But it’s worth a splurge. It’s incredibly viscous and rich, with a ton of molasses flavor and spice. The flavor is so deep and complex that we talked about what we were tasting—Leather? Lemon? Allspice? Cheeseburger? Not cheeseburger—for a solid 10 minutes.

Ron Vizcaya VXOP

If you’re not used to drinking neat spirits, this one could be a great starting point. Very balanced and smooth enough to not overpower, there’s a nice mild sweetness backed by a pleasant lingering bit of orange.

Sugar Island Spiced Rum

If mermaids had to pick a rum of choice, it would probably be this one. Caramely sweetness is cut with natural spices and nuttiness, giving the drinker the feeling that they're enjoying a liquid slice of pecan pie. 

Brugal 1888 Gran Reserva

Dominican stalwart Brugal recently introduced this gem, which has spent part of its life aging in Spanish sherry casks. The sweet sherry influence comes through on the nose and the flavor without overpowering the cinnamon and vanilla notes. Despite the sherry aging, this one really reminds us of bourbon. If you’re a bourbon drinker looking to branch out into rum, start here.

Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 year old

If you doubt a rum can pack a lot of chocolate flavor, grab a bottle of this Guatemalan. The nose almost smells like hot cocoa mix, and the chocolate comes through in the flavor with a little maraschino cherry in the finish.

Pyrat XO

The problems with those gummy candied orange slices are that a) they don’t contain any booze and b) you can’t drink them. This squat bottle comes close to solving both issues. Strong, sweet orange flavors could almost trick you into thinking this one’s a liqueur and make it all too easy to throw back.

Mount Gay Black Barrel

The newest product from Barbados’ Mount Gay is another great introduction to rum. It’s well balanced and could easily slot into a cocktail without overpowering it. Nice little bit of mint in the finish.

Don Q Gran Anejo

If you’re looking to buy American, look no further than this treat from Puerto Rico. It’s lighter in body and more delicate than most of this list, but packs in a lot of tropical fruit flavor, a solid punch of vanilla, and a lightly smoky flavor.

Cruzan Estate Single Barrel

Another bargain at just $25, Cruzan’s single barrel is on the drier end of the spectrum, but it’s got a lot of nutmeg, clove, and spice with just a bit of raisin in the flavor.

Bacardi Anejo

Not as thick or sweet as most of this list, Bacardi’s anejo finds a nice middle ground between the familiar light rums and the richer, heavier rums. Lots of banana flavor in this one. Nice enough to sip neat, but it really shines in cocktails.

What did we miss? Tell us what other rums we should be trying in the comments. I’ll start: it’s unconscionable that I couldn’t wrangle a bottle of Appleton Estate 12 year to share.

This post originally appeared last year.

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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Food
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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