2008: THE YEAR IN RUM

hangover

If you perused these pages in 2008, you know all too well how we’ve been blathering about our favorite liquor — and the places we’ve gone, to say nothing of the lengths we’ve gone, to drink it.  Here are a few more dispatches we never got around to filing last year (hey, they don’t call us a bum for nothing).

FORT LAUDERDALE:  RAIDERS OF THE LOST RUM

The highlight of the Hukilau, Christie White’s annual Fort Lauderdale Tiki convention, is a closing-night dinner held at the Mai-Kai restaurant.  The last of the palatial Polynesian supper clubs, the Mai-Kai is a faux-Polynesian wonderland, perfectly preserved since its opening day in 1956.  From that day to 1980, the head bartender was a rum connoisseur named Mariano Licudine.  He was so well-versed in the spirit that the 48 drinks on his cocktail menu called for 43 different kinds of rum.

At the closing-night dinner, shouting above the din raised by over 700 Hukilauers, the Beachbum asked Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy about Mariano.  “Come on,” responded Dave.  “I want to show you something.”  We followed Dave and his entourage into Mariano’s inner sanctum, the service bar behind the kitchen.  High up near the ceiling, on a shelf running the length of one wall, perched Mariano’s prized collection — literally his top-shelf rums, some legendary, some obscure, all at least 40 years old.

top shelf

The shelf looked sepulchral, a necropolis of bottles, which stood sentinel like mummies in an Egyptian antiquities gallery.  We the living paid our respects in hushed silence — much to the annoyance of the Mai-Kai bartenders, in whose way we stood.  They worked with the controlled frenzy of a M.A.S.H. unit on red alert, besieged by drink orders from hundreds of thirsty tropaholics; it was quite a performance to watch, a ballet of booze, with head bartender Troy as its burly Nureyev, bobbing and weaving out of the way of his crew with a fistful of bottles in each hand, pouring and mixing and garnishing up to six drinks at a time.

The Bum’s gaze returned to the shelf. “Pick one,” Dave said.  Standing tip-toe on an upended crate, the Bum reached for a pristine, unopened bottle of Wray & Nephew Special Reserve 15-year rum.  This rum had all but disappeared by the late 1950s.  Its older sibling, Wray & Nephew’s 17-year, was the rum that inspired Trader Vic to create the Mai Tai in 1944; the bottle in our hands would no doubt have a similar flavor profile.  When everyone in the room had taken a good look at the label, the Bum moved to return it to the shelf.  “Open it,” exhorted Dave.  This was the last thing we expected, but we didn’t have to be told twice.  Uncorking it felt like letting a genie out of a bottle — a luscious, velvety, exquisitely perfumed genie, which tasted better than anything, liquid or solid, had a right to.  After experiencing it, nobody knew quite what to say.

Dave broke the silence:  “Pick another one.”  Obediently the Bum plucked down a bottle of Siegert’s Bouquet from Trinidad, another long-defunct rum.  Unlike the Wray & Nephew, this bottle had been previously opened — most of the alcohol content was gone, leaving an intriguing butterscotch flavor that hinted at why Trader Vic also prized this rum in the 1940s (when he built a drink around it called the Siegert’s Bouquet Cocktail).

At this point Troy and his embattled staff clearly wished we were somewhere else, but Dave was just getting started:  “Okay, now what?”  Happy to oblige, the Bum chose a bottle of Three-Dagger 10-year-old rum.  Another unopened bottle!  The perfectly preserved contents yielded a sandalwood nose, and an impossibly rich, smooth, layered taste redolent of apple, citrus, and charred wood.  Hard to believe that this was Mariano’s well rum — that he routinely mixed this sublime spirit with juices and syrups.  It puts the current dark Jamaican offerings on the market to shame; nothing in the Appleton or Myers’s portfolio even comes close.   We moved on to another bottle of dark Jamaican, a 1930s-era Charley’s Royal Reserve, which was even more luxe than the Dagger:  “leathery” may not be a compliment when describing a steak, but there’s no higher praise when describing the aroma of a dark rum.

old st. croix rum

Up next was a 1960s bottle from the Virgin Islands, Old St. Croix — another defunct brand that completely outclasses its current counterparts (pictured above, with Dave Levy at left).  We’re fans of Cruzan’s gold rum, but it’s strictly one-note compared to Old St. Croix’s vibrantly complex blend of ginger and lemon grass.  The label listed some “popular recipes” for mixing the rum, including a Cuba Libre.  In our book, anyone who mixes a rum this good with cola should be charged with murder.  Yet here was the manufacturer himself encouraging the crime against his own child — an indication of how much higher the standards must have been for a sipping rum 40 years ago.

Troy muttered under his breath as Dave made the Bum several more offers he couldn’t refuse, including a 1944 rhum agricole from J. Bally (surprisingly full-bodied for a Martinique rum, with a lovely oak endnote); a vintage Lemon Hart 151 Demerara (bolder than the current incarnation, with a voluptuous midpalate of burnt muscovado sugar); and a Lightbourn’s from Barbados (with an astounding array of accents, including chartreuse, anise, white pepper and vanilla; again, no extant Barbadian brand compares).

Lightbourne

Dave continued egging on the Bum, who needed little egging (Truus “Trader Dutch” DeGroot captured our increasingly unhinged enthusiasm in a slide show you can see by clicking here).  Just when the prize pickings started getting slim, we spotted the find of the evening:  half-hidden on the far right of the shelf, there sat a dusty bottle from Sloppy Joe’s fabled Havana bar.  Jose “Sloppy Joe” Abeal sold rum to his customers under his own label; this particular label said “Sloppy Joe’s 40-Year-Old Rum, bottled in 1950.”  Which means that it was first put in a cask in 1910.  Like the Siegert’s, this bottle had also been previously opened — a long time ago, judging by the sludge that dribbled out, which looked like cigarette ash and waterlogged paper.  The Bum drank it anyway.  It tasted like cigarette ash and waterlogged paper.  Clearly the gods had decided that we’d had enough for one night.  Troy finally cracked a smile as we made our exit, returning the temple to its long-suffering priest.

NEW ORLEANS:  AN APPOINTMENT WITH THE AMBASSADOR

A month after the Hukilau we were in New Orleans for Tales Of The Cocktail, Ann Rogers’ week-long international festival of drink.   Media trendwatchers had been trumpeting that Tiki was in this year, and Tales bore this out:  among the crowd of predominantly pre-Prohibition cocktail connoisseurs, a small army of Tikiphiles flew their freak flag via blindingly bright aloha shirts, Easter Island pendants, and even a vintage Alfred Shaheen cocktail dress or two; tropical headgear ranged from bush hats to pith helmets.

Tales also offered plenty of just plain pith.  Wayne Curtis, showing a slide of the cherry red Mai Tai he was served in the Havana Libre Hotel, opined:  “I don’t care what your politics are, this is not a good argument for socialism.”  After four days of drinking early and retiring late, not all attendees were as eloquent.  The Bum was barely able to speak at all by Saturday’s garnish seminar, during which host Martin Cate had audience members carve their own spiral-cut orange peels.  At the sight of one particularly long peel, the Bum, channelling Norm Crosby, remarked, “Looks like one of those Amazon condas.”  “Anacondas,” someone helpfully corrected him.

We had the good sense to keep our yap shut at the most illuminating seminar we attended, Darcy O’Neil’s “Sensory Perception In Mixology.”  Darcy is that most felicitous of hyphenates, a professional bartender who is also a professional chemist — making him uniquely qualified to explain the difference in genetic makeup between “super-tasters” (people who are hypersensitive to bitter flavors), “non-tasters” (who have a much higher tolerance for bitterness), and “normal tasters.”   Here, at last, was the answer to a question that had been nagging at us for years:   Why, after we’ve mixed a drink that tastes perfectly balanced to us, will some guests find it too sour, and others too sweet?

Stephen

Another Tales panelist, Stephen Remsberg (pictured above), has not only amassed the world’s largest private collection of rum, but a noggin full of arcane knowledge on the subject — knowledge which came in handy before the Bum’s “Potions Of The Caribbean” seminar.  While pre-batching our drink samples, we found that we were missing the gold Jamaican rum needed for a cocktail called the Jasper’s Jamaican.  With the clock ticking and no solution in sight, the Bum displayed his usual resourcefulness under pressure; mustering all his leadership skills, he informed his crew, “We’re fucked!”  Then, after calmly thinking the matter through:  “We are so totally fucked!”

“Not necessarily, Beachbum,” drawled Stephen, who had scrounged some half-empty rum bottles left over from a previous day’s seminar.  After a moment’s reflection, he mixed together 2 parts Cruzan Black Strap to 1 part each white and gold Bacardi.  The result tasted like a fabulous gold Jamaican rum — even though it was composed entirely of Virgin Islands and Puerto Rican rums.  Stephen’s hat trick not only saved our seminar, but demonstrated the kind of alchemy that Don The Beachcomber employed in the 1930s when mixing together disparate rums to create new base flavors for his cocktails.  One of the Beachcomber’s nicknames was “The Ambassador Of Rum,” a moniker which we here officially bestow on Mr. Remsberg.

BEVERLY HILLS:  A SIGN OF THE TIMES

From the 1920s, when bootleggers supplied it to scofflaws, through the 1970s, when Polynesian restaurants served it in all its varieties, rum flowed freely in Los Angeles.  Demerara rum from Guyana, sugar-cane rum from Martinique, liqueur rum from Haiti, 30-year-old punch rum from Jamaica — you name it, Tiki bartenders mixed with it.

But today, outside of the Tiki-Ti, you’d be hard pressed to find Demerara or Martinique rums in any LA bar … until last autumn, when the Luau restaurant opened on Bedford Drive.  Management not only asked your humble Bum to create the Luau’s tropical drink menu, but actually listened to him when he insisted that you can’t make a proper Jet Pilot without 151-proof Lemon Hart, or a Mai Tai without Clement VSOP.  Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times seem to have concurred; in her November Luau review, LA Times restaurant critic Irene Virbila commented on “the finest mai tais this side of Polynesia,” while a December New York Times article cited the Luau (pictured below) as one of 24 “Bars on The Cutting Edge” nationwide.

Luau

With an average price tag of $14 per drink, the Bum can’t afford to drink at the Luau, but if you’re in the neighborhood — that neighborhood being Beverly Hills — then obviously you can, and we encourage you to give it a try.

NEW YORK:  A SECLUDED RUMDEZVOUS

Secrecy may be less of a fetish in Washington now that Bush and Cheney are headed back home on the range, but it’s still all the rage in New York.  If you need proof, just try finding a cocktail bar in Manhattan.  Speakeasies have made a comeback downtown, where you have to know somebody who knows the phone number of Milk And Honey to gain admittance there; and you have to know which hot dog joint PDT is hidden behind before you can access the bar’s camouflaged entrance; and you have to be a local scenester to infiltrate several members-only watering holes (just don’t be caught wearing a Members-Only jacket, or you’ll never get past the doorman).

Through the coconut wireless, the Beachbum had heard rumors of one particular members-only bar that offered 128 different brands of rum — mixed on request into the vintage tropical drink recipe of your choice.  Supposedly the place was called the Rhum Rhum Room.  In November we made the acquaintance of two East Village residents, Jack Fetterman and Gina Haase, who assured us that the Rhum Rhum Room does indeed exist.  Not only that, they would take us there.

rhum rhu room

In a dark alley not far from St. Mark’s Place, Gina rang the buzzer next to a wrought-iron gate.  It swung open and we entered the Rhum Rhum.  Martin Denny music greeted us, with bird calls from live birds — an enormous macaw and two equally well-nourished Amazon parrots, whose cage took up half the room.  The other half looked more like a rum museum than a rum bar.  But a bar it was:  every one of the umpteen bottles lining the walls, crowding the counters, and stacked on the stairs was there to be mixed, which proprietors Joe and Nicole Desmond wasted no time doing once we’d named our poison.

Although we were curious about Old Grandfather rum from Panama and bicurious about Big Black Dick rum from Grand Cayman, we opted for a Mai Tai made with Plantation Jamaica rum and Neisson Rhum Agricole Réserve Spéciale, with house-made orgeat.  The drink was delectable.  Apparently those old American Express ads were right:  Membership really does have its privileges.

We were feeling pretty swank as we emerged back out onto the street — until someone threw a quarter into the souvenir Rhum Rhum glass Nicole had given us.  Once a bum, always a bum.

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