There was a time when rum was considered rotgut. Blackbeard the pirate liked to mix his cane alcohol with gunpowder and light it — rum and croak.
Fast-forward a few centuries to rum respectability — specifically, to Rob Burr's patio deck in Coral Gables, in South Florida.
From the waterfall pond to the tiki bar, Burr's deck sets a mood not for swilling rum, but for tasting it. Not the way spring-breakers chug Captain Morgan, but the way cognac drinkers sip Napoleon: Not with Coke (or gunpowder) but neat, in a snifter.
Burr, his wife, Robin, and their son Rob Burr Jr. are one of the most expert teams of rum aficionados in South Florida. Their house is a virtual repository of the stuff. Says Rob Burr Sr., "There are probably a thousand or 1,200 rums sitting around here."
The Burrs appraise all of it, pouring their notes into the authoritative Rob's Rum Guide. Those tasting notes lay the groundwork for the annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, or Miami Rum Fest, which they'll host this weekend at the Doubletree Hotel near Miami International Airport.
The event, which drew 12,000 visitors last year, has become a central stage for what you might call the rum revolution — the recent ascent of high-end, premium rum. Don't let the name Rum Fest fool you. It's not a college beach bacchanal; it's rum for grown-ups, for people who know that most aged rums today are distilled as masterfully as fine cognacs and single-malt Scotches.
"We'd call it a renaissance," Burr Sr. says. As he puts it, part of the festival's mission is to "change the perception of rum. It's perceived as ordinary when in fact it's fascinating."
The trend is most of all a Caribbean coming-of-age party. There's hardly a country or island in the basin these days that doesn't produce an upmarket aged rum — whose prices can range from $25 to $250 or more per bottle.
Among some of the best: Santa Teresa 1796 from Venezuela; Matusalem from the Dominican Republic; Bielle Rhum Vieux from a speck on the map called Marie-Galante.
Many rum master blenders are now industry rock stars. Lorena Vásquez blends one of the most acclaimed rums, Zacapa, in Guatemala. "These rums," she says, "have become some of the Caribbean's most prized ambassadors. They're a marvelous reflection of our culture."
But if this is about a new boom in the spirits industry, it's also about a new bond between the Caribbean and South Florida. Very little rum is actually made in Miami. Still, as the Rum Fest suggests, rum reputations are made here. The city today is rum's premiere showcase, as evidenced by the more than 80 fine rums on the menu at Ortanique, a Caribbean restaurant in South Florida.
"It's almost a natural for Miami and South Florida to be the mecca of rums," says Joel Garcia, Ortanique's bar manager. "It's always been the depot for the Caribbean, whether it's the melding of people or the melding of spirits."
One of Garcia's favorites is "Pyrat, from the British West Indies, if you wanna try something that will blow you away in a snifter."
Despite the almost cult following these rums are building in the 21st century — reminiscent of the craze for The Glenlivet and similar silky Scotches at the end of the 20th — sales of premium rums aren't yet blowing away cognacs or single malts. But they are rising year after year. And ironically, that's partly because rum in general carries a younger, hipper cachet than those other spirits do.
That may help explain why spirits giant Bacardi of Puerto Rico released its own line of premium aged rums last year. The most expensive, called Paraíso, sells for $250 a bottle.
"This really for us was a critical move to share with the world what we believe rum can truly be," says Toby Whitmoyer, vice president for rum at Bacardi USA.
Imbibing rum the way wine connoisseurs savor Bordeaux might sound pretentious. But spend a tasting session with the Burr family, and you do realize how rich and complex the spirit's character can be when it's not tied to a mai tai or when it's liberated from a Cuba libre.
The bounty their noses and palates glean from rum — from dried fruit to cola notes, pineapple to vanilla, chocolaty port to balsamic-y wood — seems to capture all the flavors of the Caribbean.
Like the Burrs, Vásquez of Zacapa likes to point out that rum is a product of terroir — not just its prime material, sugar cane, but the soil, climate and faster barrel aging involved in the tropics. "To achieve those special aromas and flavors," Vásquez says, "we're as careful as cognac-makers are."
Makes sense. After all, many argue rum's real renaissance started in 1862, when French cognac-maker Dupré Barbancourt, heartbroken over his wife's death, emigrated to Haiti and helped refine the way rum is made.
Hence one of Rob Burr's favorite new bottles: "A special 150-year anniversary of Rhum Barbancourt," he says. "This is actually closer to cognac."
But it's rum. Vive la différence.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's raise a glass now of rum. It used to be rotgut for pirates and more recently a party drink for college kids. But today, there's hardly a Caribbean country that doesn't make high-end rum for connoisseurs. This weekend, there's even a rum renaissance festival in Miami. From member station WLRN in Miami, Tim Pageant reports.
TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: If you died and went to rum heaven, you'd eventually find your way to Rob Burr's patio deck in Coral Gables.
ROB BURR SENIOR: Well, here we have a little setting that's designed, I think, to be a reflection of how we taste rum. We have a little waterfall...
PADGETT: From the waterfall pond to the tiki bar, it sets the perfect mood for Burr's favorite spirit. Rum is a family passion for Rob Burr, his wife, Robin, and their son Rob Junior who constitute one of the most expert teams of rum aficionados in South Florida.
SENIOR: I guess there's probably a thousand or 1,200 rums sitting around here.
PADGETT: The Burrs pour their tasting notes into a publication called Rob's Rum Guide.
SENIOR: The perception of rum is wrong. It's perceived as ordinary when in fact it's fascinating.
PADGETT: Fascinating enough to draw more than 12,000 visitors to the annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, which the Burrs helped organize six years ago and will host again this weekend. This isn't a bacchanal for spring breakers. This is rum for grownups, for people who know that most aged rums these days are distilled as masterfully as the finest cognacs and single-malt Scotches. The kind you drink neat, not with Coke, and whose prices can range from 25 to $250 bottle. Lorena Vaszquez blends one of the most acclaimed rums, Zacapa, in Guatemala.
LORENA VASQUEZ: (Through Translator) These rums have become some of the Caribbean's most prized ambassadors. They're a marvelous reflection of our culture.
PADGETT: Among other top aged rums are Santa Teresa 1796 from Venezuela, Matusalem from the Dominican Republic, Bielle Rhum Vieux from a speck on the map called Marie-Galante. But if this is about a revolution in the spirits industry, it's also about the bond between the Caribbean and South Florida. Very little rum is actually made in Miami. Rum reputations are.
JOEL GARCIA: It's almost a natural for Miami and South Florida to be the Mecca of rums. It's always been the depot for the Caribbean.
PADGETT: Joel Garcia is the bar manager at Ortanique, a Caribbean restaurant in Coral Gables. He serves more than 80 fine rums. One of his favorites...
GARCIA: Pyrat from the British West Indies. You want to try something that will blow you away in a snifter?
PADGETT: Sales for premium rum still trail cognac and Scotch, but they're rising every year. And that's partly because rum carries a hipper cachet than the other spirits. That potential for capturing a younger demographic may help explain why spirits giant Bacardi finally released its own line of premium aged rums last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING)
SENIOR: It's already a big, dark, dried fruit rum.
PADGETT: Spend a tasting session with the Burr family and you realize how rich and complex rum's character can be. There are hints of pineapple and vanilla, cola notes, balsamicky wood, all the flavors of the Caribbean and, for Robin, all the colors.
ROBIN BURR: This particular rum is very golden brown.
PADGETT: Lorena Vasquez of the Guatemalan distillery Zacapa points out that rum is a product of more than just sugar cane. The tropical soil, climate and faster barrel-aging processes also matter.
VASQUEZ: (Through Translator) To achieve those special aromas and flavors, we're as careful as cognac makers are.
PADGETT: Ironically, many argue rum's real renaissance started 152 years ago in Haiti. That's where French cognac maker Dupre Barbancourt emigrated and helped refine the way rum was made, hence one of Rob Burr Junior's favorite new bottles.
ROB BURR JUNIOR: This is a special anniversary of Rhum Barbancourt. This is actually closer to cognac.
PADGETT: Rum is the new cognac. Vive la difference. For NPR News, I'm Tim Padgett in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.