Five aged rums from five different countries: one from Panama aged 21 years and matured in Bourbon casks, a solera-aged 25-year-old rum from the Dominican Republic, a limited edition Puerto Rican offering from one of the biggest names in spirits, a complex Rhum Agricole from Martinique, and finally a cask-strength powerhouse from Barbados.
By Erik Calviño
1. Zafra Master Reserve Aged 21 Years
40% Alc. by Vol.
What’s in a word?
The word zafra is one of those rare, ubiquitous words that shows up in vocabularies all over the globe, and while not always spelled exactly the same, it always has the same meaning: harvest. More specifically, it refers to the sugar cane harvest or harvest time. The word comes from Arabic, although there is debate over whether it comes from zafar meaning “harvest” or sa’ifah meaning “gathering time.” Either way, the word comes to the Western languages along with the spread of sugar cane itself, thanks to the Arab conquest and influence throughout the Mediterranean. Eventually, sugar cane and the word for harvesting it make the first trip from the Canary Islands to the New World via Columbus’ second voyage to Hispaniola (Dominican Republic & Haiti). Today, the word zafra not only means harvest or harvest time, but in slang it is also synonymous with financial windfall and good times — the Spanish version of “living high on the hog.”
What’s in the bottle?
When Gardner Blandon, co-founder of Zafra Rum, set out to create this world-class spirit, he enlisted the help of a renowned Cuban “maestro ronero” who could expertly employ time-tested Cuban rum methods. This required only aging in American oak barrels and using single-aged rums as opposed to solera-aged rums. The result is that the 21-year age statement on the bottle means that the rum in the bottle is 21 years old, not a combination of ages averaged out to 21. To meet the American oak barrel requirement, Zafra selected Bourbon barrels so that the rum is aged in Bourbon casks from its first day of aging until the day it is bottled. The difference is noticeable from the moment you nose the rum. The “Bourbonesque” quality is unmistakable.
On the nose, Zafra 21 is loaded with notes of butterscotch, fruit, oak and spice. The oak and spice on the nose are like a combination of Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry and give this rum a unique and intriguing quality. In the mouth, the Sherry characteristic really kicks in, giving it a beautiful balance of dry, oaken Sherry flavors along with rich toffee, vanilla and a touch of banana.
Oliva Serie V Melanio
Zafra has a profile that lends itself to being paired with just about any medium-bodied, flavorful cigar. Having said that, the way that the rum’s butterscotch, vanilla, and oak are so elegantly amplified by the Oliva Serie V Melanio is a thing of beauty.
Fever-Tree Ginger Beer
A tasty summertime cocktail will make you look like the well-traveled, cultured, rock star of the pool party. The hack is to use a premium mixer to give your easy cocktail a pro taste. Try a simple cocktail by mixing Zafra with Fever-Tree Ginger Ale 1-to-1 on the rocks. To kick it up a notch, go with Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and Zafra, this time 2 oz of the rum to 1.5 oz of ginger beer on the rocks but squeeze the zest of an orange peel into the drink, rim the glass with the rind, then drop it into the drink. Boom.
2. OpthimuS 25 years malt whisky finish
43% Alc. by Vol.
The Origin Story
Juanillo Oliver arrived in Cuba in 1868 as a young member of the Spanish military fighting in the Ten Years’ War. By the time he had fulfilled his military service, Oliver chose to stay in Cuba, start a family, and follow his dream of getting into the sugar cane and rum business rather than go back to his native Spain. By 1874 he started OLIVER, a company dedicated to growing sugar cane and producing rum. He found success quickly, though it was short-lived. During Cuba’s War of Independence (1895-1898), Oliver’s plantation, processing plant, and distilling facilities went up in flames. Like many small sugar plantation owners at the time, the Olivers moved back into the urban areas and took jobs in larger, more stable companies. The Oliver family dream of producing world-renowned rum would lie dormant until another revolution.
After Fidel Castro and his “barbudos” forcibly took power in Cuba on January 1, 1959, and began stripping away freedoms, nationalizing businesses, and rapidly executing dissenters by firing squad, Cubans started fleeing their homeland in droves. By 1963, several members of the Oliver family sought refuge in the Dominican Republic, where they reside to this day. Juanillo Oliver’s dream, which lie dormant since 1898, was taken up by his great-great-grandson Pedro Ramón L. Oliver almost a century later. Upon unearthing documents and recipes from the original OLIVER company, Pedro Ramón started Oliver & Oliver International in 1993 with the goal of making the world’s best rum.
The nose on the Opthimus 25 Malt Whisky Finish is bold and assertive with notes of distillate accompanied by hints of maple syrup, orange peel, and subtle oak. On the palate the rum enters with a medium body and a balanced attack of oak, pepper, citrus, and sweet caramel on the long, lingering finish. There is a good bit of heat but it is offset beautifully by the rich sweetness.
The Opthimus 25 calls for a cigar that can stand up to the heat and take advantage of the sweetness. While this rum does well with some of the less peppery and earthy Nicaraguan cigars, we found the Casa Cuba by Tabacalera Arturo Fuente in the Dominican Republic to be the ideal dance partner for the Opthimus 25 Malt Whisky Finish. The cigar’s prominent cedar and cinnamon flavors are combined with the rum’s caramel and citrus in perfect harmony.
Relicario Rum Supremo
Named after an old reliquary found in the Dominican Republic containing old bottles of classic Dominican rum, Relicario Supremo is a light, flavorful rum distilled from native Dominican sugar cane. The company produces two versions, the Relicario Superior, with rums up to 10 years of age, and the Relicario Supremo, which boasts a combination of rums up to 15 years of age.
3. Bacardi Gran Reserva Limitada
40% Alc. by Vol.
The Bat Symbol
Well before the Caped Crusader started sporting a bat on his chest, Bacardí emblazoned the winged mammal on every bottle. After developing his rum recipe, technique, and equipment mastery over the course of 10 years, Don Facundo Bacardí Massó started a small rum distilling operation in Santiago de Cuba in 1862. He had figured out a way to consistently produce a light rum using a specific local yeast strain for fermentation and perfected the use of American oak barrels for aging. The technical innovations developed by Don Facundo are the stuff of legend, but it was his wife Doña Amalia who, after seeing an abundance of fruit bats in the rafters of the distillery, suggested that the company employ the bat as the logo. In the Bacardís’ native Spain, the bat was a symbol of good health, fortune, and family unity. The idea of establishing a memorable visual device to represent a brand was ahead of its time and incredibly effective as everyone in Cuba, regardless of education level, could just ask for the rum with the bat. To this day, there’s a bat on every bottle of Bacardí.
Problem Solving 101
More than a rum producing family, the Bacardí family has been most adept at solving difficult problems. From the company’s inception, when Don Facundo solved the puzzle of making rum lighter and more refined, to Emilio Bacardí Moreau using his status as a businessman during Cuba’s War of Independence to covertly liaise between the independence movement headquarters in New York and the field commanders in the hills outside of Santiago de Cuba, the family has never been afraid to push the envelope and solve problems that others could not. One of the more interesting solutions came on October 28, 1919, when the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, otherwise known as Prohibition. Famously, the act made it illegal to make, transport, import, export, or sell alcohol in the United States. Most liquor companies destroyed their inventory but not Bacardí. Enrique Schueg, Don Facundo’s son-in-law and at the time the head of the company, announced the sale of 60,000 shares of the Bacardí US Bottling Company. Immediately after the sale, he closed down the company and gave each shareholder a case of rum per share as compensation. Not a drop of Bacardí was wasted.
A boozy, floral nose complemented by more subtle notes of oak and fruit. This rum is medium bodied and brings plenty of brown sugar, cinnamon, alcohol, and dried apricot on the palate, finishing with a long, oaky finish with more of the floral characteristic from the nose.
You can apply this rule of thumb when pairing just about any alcoholic beverage and a cigar; if the spirit has an abundance of floral notes it will almost certainly enjoy the company of a Connecticut shade cigar. Beyond that, it’s a matter of finding which Connecticut shade works best with the booze. So we laid out a selection of milder Connecticut shade smokes and set about smoking and drinking. The Diamond Crown’s almond, spice, toast, and rich vanilla cream emerged as the ideal match for the Bacardi Gran Reserva Limitada. Amazingly, the smoke almost entirely eliminates the rum’s alcohol from the palate and transforms the brown sugar notes to a richer caramel. In turn, the cigar’s toast and almond are elevated to a starring role while the vanilla and spice are rendered almost undetectable.
Bacardí Añejo Cuatro Aged 4 Years
Bacardi’s recently retooled set of brands, which includes the Gran Reserva Limitada on the high end, received a new product on the introductory end, the new Añejo Cuatro (4 years old). Depending on your taste and budget, the rum sits somewhere in between sipping rum and mixing rum, easily acceptable in both.
4. Foursquare Rum 2005 Single Blended Rum
59% Alc. by Vol.
The Seale Family Business
In the early 1900s Barbados Excise Law did not allow consumers to buy directly from distillers, so Reginald Leon Seale started a rum distribution business. He would buy rum in bulk, blend it, and bottle it under his newly created R.L. Seale mark. His business thrived and when others failed, he’d scoop up their portfolios and continue growing his business. Twice the company relocated to bigger premises as the business expanded, but still only focused on blending, bottling, and distributing. That was until the mid-1990s when Richard Seale, the family’s fifth generation in the rum trade, worked with his father to purchase and renovate a bankrupt sugar factory. The 8-acre property became Foursquare Rum Distillery and today houses every facet of the business under one roof. By distilling their own rum rather than purchasing in bulk, they can ensure higher levels of quality and purity. In 2016, Foursquare Rum Distillery was named Rum Producer of the Year at the International Spirits Challenge in London.
The Foursquare Rum 2005 is bottled at cask strength, so hitting it with a couple of drops of spring water helps unlock some of the aromas and flavors. The nose presents a lovely combination of spice, nutmeg, and zest with a rich toffee and vanilla characteristic showing through. This rum is ultra-complex and full-bodied on the palate, with flavors that come in waves of spice, lemon zest, and vanilla followed by oak, chocolate, and ginger with an extremely long, spice-filled finish. It tends to be dry up front with a welcome sweetness on the finish giving it a well-balanced attack.
AJ Fernandez Bellas Artes Maduro
The balanced and complex intensity of this rum demands an equally intense and flavorful cigar; there are no two ways about it. In the process of writing this section, seven very worthy, flavorful, high-scoring cigars fell by the wayside at the hands of this spirit. Light the cigar, start enjoying it, and after a sip of the rum it was as if someone went into your flavor receptors and just turned them off. That was until we arrived at the AJ Fernandez Bellas Artes Maduro, with its strong pepper, earth, and bittersweet chocolate backbone. This dark, box-pressed cigar made in Nicaragua not only stood up to the Foursquare but also managed to complement it. After drawing on the Bellas Artes Maduro, the rum’s oak and toffee were elevated to a more prominent role and stayed on throughout the long, spicy finish. The cigar’s previously dominant bittersweet chocolate flavors were transformed to more of a caramel covered nuttiness. Finally, since the rum is bottled at cask strength, you can spend all day playing around with the dilution to change how the pairing reacts.
R.L. Seale’s Finest Barbados Rum
Don’t be off-put by this uniquely shaped and possibly gimmicky-looking bottle. This is the rum that put R.L. Seale on the map and is a serious representation of a classic Barbados rum. In the mouth the spirit is light but delivers spice, banana, and vanilla with a subtle hint of citrus.
5. Clément X.O. Rhum Agricole
42% Alc. by Vol.
Rum vs Rhum Agricole
In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, otherwise known as the TTB, defines rum quite broadly as any “spirit distilled from fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar by-products.” The majority of the rum available in the market is distilled from molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, but not rhum agricole. The term rhum agricole, which is French for ‘cane juice rum,’ originated in the French colony of Martinique but is now commonly used to identify any rum made in the same style and using free-run cane juice.
In Martinique, the term originated as a way to differentiate their agricultural rum from the by-product based industrial counterpart, rhum industriel. But they didn’t stop at just naming it different. Because Martinique is a French colony, the island’s spirits fall under the French appellation d’origine controlee or controlled designation of origin. The AOC, as it is commonly referred, started off as a way to certify French wine’s geographic designation but today it certifies and sets the rules for a number of French agricultural products including wine, cheese, meat, honey, and yes, rhum agricole. The rules for Martinique rum, as set forth by the aforementioned, dictate how and how much sugar cane can be grown, how the juice must be extracted, and how the rum must be distilled. It is a port of strict rules and regulations in an otherwise guideline-free storm of an industry.
Dr. Homère Clément
It was 1887, the peak of the sugar crisis, that brought Martinique’s once thriving sugar industry to a screeching halt. The first “non-white” graduate from medical school at the University Paris, Dr. Homère Clément purchased a 43-hectare sugar plantation that was in bankruptcy. The growth of sugar beets as a source of sugar and the increasing availability of cheaper South American sugar had brought about the widespread demise of Martinique’s sugar plantations. Clément purchased Domaine de l’Acajou with other plans. He named it Habitation Clément and put the planters back to work growing and harvesting sugar cane with the purpose of producing a refined spirit. He set about to mimic the great Armagnac distillers he admired while studying in France and in the process created the spirit that is now known globally as rhum agricole.
A unique expression with an elegant bouquet, this rhum agricole opens with a complex profile featuring refined and delicate dried fruit, vanilla, spice and a distinct vegetal note. On the palate the spirit is light but well-structured with mature flavors of raw sugar cane, caramel, and a touch of roasted nuts.
Liga Privada No. 9
AJ Fernandez Bellas Artes Maduro
A dry and refined spirit such as the Clément X.O. brings some challenges when it comes time to pair with a cigar. From an intensity and body standpoint you would think that a Connecticut shade wrapped, mild cigar would be the play but in fact it is quite the opposite. It turns out that a rich, dark cigar is the best complement to this rhum agricole. The Liga Privada No. 9 with its deep pepper and bittersweet chocolate bring out a previously subtle note of caramel and pushes it to the front in a delicious and bold way. The note lingers on your palate long enough that the next draw of the cigar brings even more caramel. When your pairing can affect both, the spirit and the cigar, you know you’ve done something right.
We partnered with Total Wine & More (totalwine.com) to put this feature together and Pablo Estades was instrumental in making it happen. Thanks, pablo.