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Rum Renaissance Revives The Spirit's Rough Reputation

Ian Burrell, a rum ambassador from the U.K., samples the liquor at the Miami Rum Festival.
Tatu Kaarlas
Courtesy of Miami Rum Festival
Ian Burrell, a rum ambassador from the U.K., samples the liquor at the Miami Rum Festival.

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.

Copyright 2014 WLRN 91.3 FM

Tim Padgett