Last Calls

photo/Sarah Bouchard

Rum Riot

A friend and I were drinking in Monument Square, on the patio of Shays Grill Pub, during a picturesque June day. I remarked how nice it was to enjoy a cold beverage in the sun again. The simple pleasures of a Mojito in a Mason jar slick with condensation inspire idle conversation when it’s too hot for talk of serious matters and too lovely to be locked inside alone.

The menu at this moderately upscale pub has food from Italy to Mexico to Buffalo — pizza and panini, salads and wraps, quesadillas, steak, a steak-and-portabello quesadilla. Proprietor Brian Brenerman has an attention to detail that you appreciate, and that extends to the drink menu. Shays offers $4 martinis on Tuesdays, $4 sangria on Saturdays, and beer specials the other four days they’re open (closed Sundays).

I’d passed over a few of my favorites, including the Downhome Tini (bourbon and cran and pink lemonade) and the house-infused Pineapple Martini, because I was in a rum mood. Rum over ice is the quintessential summer drink, in my book. Why do you think Pirates of the Caribbean sequels are always released in the summer? Yar.

The Mojitos at Shays are an absolute joy; crisp initially, but mellowing as the ice melts in the drink. Like a classic Mojito should be, Shays’ is made by muddling three lime wedges with an ample helping of mint in a Mason jar splashed with simple syrup, then adding a measure of light rum and topping with club soda. The result is a refined classic, simple refreshment done right. It’s a far cry from the rum drinks of old that had to be doused with lime just so a fellow could get his “medicine” down.

As is the case with most liquors, the origin of rum can’t be pin-pointed. Variations have been made around the globe for centuries, even before Europeans discovered the New World. But what the world now recognizes as rum is a product of the Americas. It was the commodity of choice for the exchange of slaves, and for a brief period it was considered as reliable as gold for currency.

Modern rum was born in the castaway barrels of molasses, where slaves discovered that a byproduct of sugar refining could be fermented. The discovery rapidly spread through the Caribbean, starting in or around Barbados in the 1670s, and then jumped across the sea along the long leg of that infamous triangle trade.

In the earliest years, rum was a dank and low-brow libation worthy of its nickname: Kill-devil. Hardly refined at all, it was singular in purpose and considered too sharp and vile to be a sipping drink, though that did nothing to diminish its popularity. Rum was cheap to make and profoundly intoxicating. Such was rum’s standing that it became synonymous with alcohol in general. On a June day in 1855, when brief rioting here in Portland against Maine temperance laws was reported nationally, they called the fracas the Portland Rum Riot.

In the 1860s, Don Facundo Bacardi Masso begin refining rum further, using a small still and oak casks to perfect his blend.  The Bacardi brand was born and promptly set the mark for smoothness. Countless variations have arisen since. These days, rum is a confusing and convoluted family of potables, though for the  casual drinker, there are only a few styles.

Light rum is the clearest and sweetest variety. It’s refined to such a degree that most of the unique molasses or sugar-cane base is removed. For sampling light rum, Bacardi is the overwhelming favorite, although Myers Platinum is also highly regarded.

Gold rum is named for its amber color and carries the heavier flavor characteristics of the charred oak casks in which it is typically aged. Good representatives of this style include Mount Gay, Cruzan and Bacardi Gold.

Dark rums are heavier still, and often retain subtle spice flavors from their aging barrels. For dark rum, Goslings or Screech make an impact. Myers is strong bodied and can be found at bars throughout the peninsula.

The fourth type of rum that casual cocktaillians might concern themselves with is spiced rums. With its heavy marketing campaigns, Captain Morgan has had a stranglehold on these infused rums over the years, but higher quality and more uniquely flavored rums are starting to chip out more than a niche. Sailor Jerry, with its slightly higher proof and strong vanilla overtones, mixes well with Pepsi, which seems to be Portland’s soda-on-the-gun of choice. And I insist that each and every reader tangle with The Kracken. This Caribbean rum, bottled in Indiana, is a deep, heavy, and spicy delight. Its nose is round and thick, and it offers to the rum connoisseur all the complexities of a peaty Scotch.

Rum can confound the home/hobbyist bartender. Its variations are arguably more numerous than whiskey’s. Where to start when considering your stock?

Any gracious host would keep a bottle of Bacardi Silver on their bar. It’s just good manners. The gold and dark rums mentioned above should be represented. You’ll need a dark rum for a Dark & Stormy (half rum, half ginger beer, served in a pint glass loaded with crushed ice). And for a spiced rum, don’t be afraid to go with the crowd. Captain Morgan is on every bar in the northeast for two reasons: it’s a dependable companion to Coke and easy to enjoy straight. For less than $100, your cupboard or sea chest will be well stocked.

— Carl Currie