Today I finally got around to publishing an article that’s been kicking around in my head for a long time. As you can probably tell from the title, it’s an exploration of the impact of orange Curaçao and orgeat on the classic 1944 Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. I know plenty of people who have strong opinions on the rum(s) they use in the drink, but far fewer are as passionate about the orange liqueur or almond syrup they use.
As for me, I’ve tried a lot of different combinations through the years, but I never did it methodically until now. So please join me as we try fifteen different Mai Tai permutations and see what really makes the drink sing.
Many people come to rum via tiki drinks, myself included. The genre displays rum’s diversity and dynamism in a way that inspires people to break the components down and understand their individual impacts.
For a few years, I dutifully worked through Beachbum Berry’s books and the Tiki+ app (now Total Tiki) making every tiki drink I could at least once, taking copious notes and learning. Some of the best drinks in the tiki pantheon involve multitudinous ingredients including fresh tropical juices and syrup preparations. They’re culinary in nature, and let’s face it, sometimes we just don’t feel like “cooking”.
Are you going to make a Missionary’s Downfall after a long day’s work and an hour’s worth of traffic? I think not.
So on the backside of my tiki drink exploration period, I began to drink fewer tiki drinks, opting instead for more neat rum pours at home. But a man cannot survive on rum alone so nowadays I mix in a few easy rum drinks to keep things interesting, and save the complex tiki drinks for my professional bartending friends who have to batch up the Don’s Mix and Perfect Purees anyway.
Thankfully,” simple” does not have to mean “boring” in this context. There are many fantastic rum-based drinks that will at once satisfy your desire for a quality libation while not taxing you mentally or physically. Here are ten simple rum drinks you can make at home right freakin’ now:
1) Rum Old Fashioned
The Rum Old Fashioned typifies the concept we’re exploring here. Spirit, sugar, bitters, and water (ice) is the blueprint for some of our favorite drinks, and it’s with good reason. The synergistic combination is definitely more than the sum of its parts, especially when the right spirit and bitters are combined. For my rum OF’s, choosing a rum that doesn’t already have added sugar is a must. From there, I look for a bitters with a bold spice profile. Think of it as making a spiced rum for one.
Here’s one of my favorite combinations:
- 2 oz Don Q Gran Añejo
- ¼ oz simple syrup
- 2 dashes Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
- Orange twist
- Add rum, sugar and bitters to an Old Fashioned (rocks) glass, then add one large ice cube and stir for 15 seconds. Express the orange twist over the glass, then run it lightly over the rim of the glass before discarding it.
2) Rum Manhattan
I’m a huge fan of the classic Manhattan. Combine a complex vermouth like Carpano Antica and a dash of Angostura bitters with a great spicy rye whiskey, and you’ve got me (even better with a couple of Luxardo cherries!). The drink works with assertive Bourbons, but there needs to be a goodly dose of spice from the spirit to provide a proper counterpoint to the vermouth. Thus when we replace whiskey with rum, we need to be conscious not to pick a spirit that will be lost, and adjust proportions as needed. My preferred way to bump up the rum is to pick a spirit well above 40% ABV. If you don’t have a cask strength rum in your bar, pick a flavorful dry rum and change the proportions in the rum’s favor. Also, don’t stir quite as long—too much dilution will kill this drink rapidly. Here are two options that I enjoy:
Cask Strength Rum Manhattan
- 2 oz Foursquare 2004
- 1 oz Carpano Antica vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 Luxardo cherries
- Add all but cherries to a mixing glass, then add cracked ice and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with cherries.
40% ABV Rum Manhattan
- 2 oz Appleton 12
- ¾ oz Carpano Antica vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 Luxardo cherries
- Add all but cherries to a mixing glass, then add cracked ice and stir for 10-15 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with cherries.
Note: If you switch out the Angostura Aromatic Bitters for orange bitters, you have a Palmetto.
3) Rum Negroni
There is perhaps no clearer sign of our obsession with complex cocktails than the Negroni’s current ubiquity–it’s everywhere! And why not? The Negroni gives us gin’s punchy herbaceousness on one side with Campari’s bitterness on the other, while in the middle, sweet vermouth brings the two seemingly disparate elements together in perfect harmony. When we look to replace gin with rum, we need to use something that brings unique flavors that can stand up to the sweet and bitter elements. So in general, we want a dry rum with enough alcohol to punch through the Campari and vermouth, while giving us enough bottom end flavor to justify the switch. My first experience with this combination was Joaquin Simó’s “Kingston Negroni”, and it remains one of my favorites. His choice of rum is Smith & Cross (57% ABV) so it has no issues bursting through the sweet ingredients, while its uniquely “chewy” bottom end funk provides a grounding sensory experience that will stop you in your tracks.
Kingston Negroni (Joaquin Simó)
- 1 oz Smith & Cross
- 1 oz Sweet vermouth
- 1 oz Campari
- Orange twist
- Add all but orange twist to a rocks glass and fill with ice cubes. Stir for 20-30 seconds, express the orange twist over the glass, run it along the rim of the glass and drop it in.
Note: If you find this or any other Negroni recipe too sweet, add a splash of soda water and give it a gentle stir.
4) Perfect Rum Martini
When you feel you have far more white rum than you could possibly drink, you begin looking for alternative ways to use it. Many white spirits go quite well with vermouth, and fortunately for us, rum is no exception. I’ve never quite enjoyed rum with only dry or sweet vermouth, but used in equal parts (that’s what “perfect” means here) they provide a complex and balanced bass and mid-range, while the right light rum provides the treble. Here’s one of my favorite combinations:
- 2.5 oz Doorly’s white rum
- ½ oz Dolin dry vermouth
- ½ Dolin rouge vermouth
- Stir all with cracked ice for 15 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Speaking of white rum, is there a more quintessential rum drink than the Daiquiri? It follows the blueprint of so many Caribbean rum drinks, combining nothing but rum, sugar, lime, and ice, yet the right one can be absolutely transcendent. With so few levers to pull on this drink, rum choice is key. “Smooth” white rums are out, as are those with added sugar (sorry, Bacardi Maestro). Here we need a dry rum with a bit of a bite. Also worthy of note is the ratio of lime to sugar. Depending on the lime you use, you may need to adjust the sweetness, so always straw-test your Daiquiris before serving them and adjust the sweetness as needed. Here’s a good place to start:
- 2 oz Brugal Blanco
- ¾ oz lime juice
- ½ oz simple syrup
- Pour rum, lime and sugar in a shaker tin with cracked ice and shake vigorously until a frost appears on the outside of the tin, then fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. A lime wheel garnish is nice, but optional.
6) ‘Ti Punch
Another classic combination of rum, lime, and sugar is the ‘Ti Punch. Short for “petite punch” this single serving punch is THE drink of the French West Indies. As someone who recently tasted a boatload of these in rapid succession I can speak to their greatness, but again, choosing the right spirit here is of paramount importance. There are two other sticking points for the ‘Ti Punch, and while seemingly trivial to the casual observer, they can drastically affect the drink. We’re talking about the type of sugar, and whether or not to use ice. For me, I prefer cane syrup over crystalline sugar—it’s easy to dissolve, and it’s got a rich flavor that’s hard to beat. As for the ice, I used to drink mine with ice, but I eventually “graduated” to the room temperature Ti Punch. Ice allows for dilution of course, but it also dulls the taste buds, so when you remove it from the equation, subtle nuances pop up that you may not have noticed otherwise. Here’s my favorite version, but feel free to sub in your favorite rhum agricole, be it blanc or aged:
- 2 oz Damoiseau blanc 55% ABV
- ¼ oz sirop de canne
- 1 lime disc (cut the end off a lime, making sure to include a bit of the flesh)
- Pour the rum and cane syrup into a small rocks glass. Squeeze the lime disk over the glass, and drop it in. Using a boi lele or barspoon, swizzle the mixture to combine. If you’d like to add ice, do so now.
Note: If you feel the lime disc doesn’t provide enough citrus, feel free to add another (or a squeeze of lime juice).
7) Planter’s Punch
Where I grew up, the Planter’s Punch was a sticky red mixture of cheap rum and fruit juice; it was sweet and artificial, but it got the job done. Since then, I’ve learned that the Planter’s Punch is actually a respectable drink that deserves a place alongside other rum-based classics. Like the Daiquiri and the ‘Ti Punch, a good Planter’s Punch requires the right rum to make it shine, and I myself am partial to really flavorful aged rums for this one. This drink is also a great basis for experimentation—the addition of bitters makes a profound impact, for example, and if you also add mint, you’ve got a Queen’s Park Swizzle. Here’s my go-to:
- 2 oz Cadenhead’s Green Label Rum
- 1 oz simple syrup
- ¾ oz lime
- Soda water
- Pour the rum, lime juice, and simple syrup into a Collins glass, then fill the glass half-way with crushed ice. Use a bar spoon and swizzle the mixture briefly, add more crushed to fill the glass, top it with soda water, and gently stir to combine.
Note: If you can’t get your hands on Cadenhead’s Green Label, try an aged Jamaican rum like Appleton 12, or a combination of aged Jamaican rum and aged Demerara rum like El Dorado 12.
8) Rum Mule
Like with the Planter’s Punch, sometimes a fizzy highball is just what the doctor ordered, and it doesn’t get much easier than this one for a full-flavored fizzy rum conveyance. Rather than using a cheap “dark rum” like Gosling’s, true rum connoisseurs opt for a proper rum free of additives and questionable legal practices. Because we will be adding a sweet mixer to the rum, we need to use a flavorful, dry rum that will push through the ginger and the sugar and make itself known rather than simply fading into the background. A good choice for this is Appleton Signature Blend (formerly known as V/X). If you prefer a traditional “dark rum” I recommend Coruba Dark. Ginger beer selection here is also of great importance, but it’s even more subjective than the rum choice. I quite like Bundaberg, but those who find it too sweet will likely prefer Fever Tree. Reed’s also works well, as does any quality ginger beer, really.
- 2 oz Appleton Signature Blend
- Ginger Beer
- Lime slice (quarter)
- Fill a Collins glass with cracked ice, and pour in the rum. Top the glass with ginger beer, squeeze the lime into the glass and drop it in. Stir gently to combine.
Note: If ginger beer isn’t your thing, try a Rum Ting. Use an overproof white Jamaican rum like Rum Fire or J. Wray & Nephew, and Ting—the Jamaican grapefruit soda.
9) Rum & Coco
This is one of my all-time favorite ways to enjoy good rum. It’s just two ingredients built over ice, yet it’s utterly delightful: rum and coconut water. With such delicate flavors, balance is as easy to achieve as it is to destroy. You want a rum that has flavor, but is also super approachable. A little sweetness is fine from both the rum and the coconut water. I am partial to the Thai varieties of coconut water that come in a tall can. Conversely, Bacardi gold and Zico would be my definition of unbalanced, but this combination is anything but:
- 2 oz Plantation 5
- 3 oz Thai coconut water (Parrot or any other Thai brand that comes in a tall can)
- Build over cracked ice and stir gently to combine.
10) Hot Rum Toddy
While rum is often associated with cooling down in tropical climates, the noble spirit does a fantastic job of warming us up as well. If you’ve got a bit of rum, hot water, sugar and a lemon peel, you’ve got what you need to get you through even the most inhospitable winter. Many Hot Toddy recipes call for cloves or other embellishments, but this simple version will still cure what ails you:
- 1 ½ oz El Dorado 12
- 2 tsp raw/Demerara/Turbinado sugar
- 1 wide cut piece of lemon peel
- Boiling water
- Place the lemon peel and sugar in a tall glass mug (Irish coffee mug). Pour a bit of the boiling water in and gently stir to dissolve the sugar and liberate a bit of the lemon oil. Pour in the rum and top with boiling water.
Note: If you have some Allspice Dram handy, that’s a great way to take this drink to another level. Try ¼ oz to start.
So those are my top ten easy rum drinks. What are yours?
To Our Beloved Bar Community: Haiti needs you!
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake (100k dead) when Hurricane Matthew struck last week. Nearly 900 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the hurricane, and more than 350,000 people desperately need our help to meet their basic needs.
One of the island’s largest private employers is a home-grown business that many of us know and love: Rhum Barbancourt. Let’s help Haiti in a two-pronged fashion:
- Deplete every case of Rhum Barbancourt in the world
- Donate $1 of every Barbancourt drink to Haitian relief efforts
Let’s designate one week for this effort beginning tonight, October 8, 2016, and run through next Saturday night, the 15th. On Sunday, October 16, please send your donation tally along with the number of cases depleted to me for tabulation (email@example.com). Then make your donation to Haitian relief.
EDIT: A sage member of the bar community and owner/operator of one of the world’s best bars reached out and told me that for most operators, more time is needed to put together drink specials and order sufficient stock to feature Rhum Barbancourt cocktails on their menus. This person is of course correct, so let’s forgo the tally and date cutoffs in favor of a longer period of promotion. This effort is solely about getting people the help they need, so let’s all do what we can as soon as we can do it. If that means it’s today, fantastic, but if it’s a few months from now, there will still be a very critical need then, too, and the help will be no less appreciated by the people of Haiti.
Suggested groups worthy of your support:
One of the hardest hit areas was the village of Jeremie. The Haitian Health Foundation is a US-based charity with a four star rating from Charity Navigator, and their primary area of support is the village of Jeremie.
There are several other reputable organizations that are providing critical support as well, including Doctors Without Borders. Ultimately the choice is yours, but please ensure the charity is reputable and maintains a rating of 90 or above from Charity Navigator or other independent rating agency.
In the meantime, please post photos of your chalkboards and Barbancourt cocktails to social media using the hashtag #BartendersForHaiti.
If anyone has contacts at Barbancourt’s US importer (Crillon Importers) or executives at Southern Glazers, please let me know. We would love to double (triple?) our impact with matching donations from these companies. Please let me know if you are able to help in this fashion. Same goes for importers in other countries.
Individual cocktailians and rum lovers: YOU CAN HELP TOO! Simply post your photo with the #BartendersForHaiti hashtag and keep track of your own donation tally.
Please SPREAD THE WORD! Let’s make this go viral within our community and beyond.
Thank you for your support, and let’s drink with a purpose for Haiti!