Sugar and spice

The Alchemist tasting panel gathers for a round of Caribbean aged rums

The lineup featured aged and some spiced rums from Jamaica, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guyana, Bermuda and the United States. Dan Toulgoet photo

Nothing says “tropical getaway” like the sweetly spiced flavour of rum. Although it is made all over the world, the sugar-cane spirit originated in the Caribbean islands, where we’re seeing a surge of richly complex aged rums. So when The Alchemist decided to dive into tiki culture, it made sense for our tasting panel to sample as many aged rums as possible.

Just how sweet can rum be? To find out, we gathered at Tableau Bar Bistro with some of the city’s top barkeeps: Alex Black, bar manager of Wildebeest; Max Borrowman, bar manager at Juniper Kitchen; Amber Bruce of The Keefer Bar; Sabrine Dhaliwal, cocktail consultant and Pourhouse bartender; Adam Domet, bar manager of Pourhouse; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Ryan Johnson, bar manager of Tuc Craft Kitchen; and Olivia Povarchook, bar manager of Juke Fried Chicken.

The panel tasted 10 different rums; here’s what they had to say about them.

The tasting panel gathered at Tableau Bar Bistro: standing, from left, Robyn Gray, J-S Dupuis, Amber Bruce, Max Borrowman, Sabrine Dhaliwal and Ryan Johnson; seated, from left, Adam Domet, Olivia Povarchook and Alex Black. Dab Toulgoet photo
Appleton Estate Signature Blend Rum

$23.99, 40% ABV

Like all the rums from this Jamaican distillery, Appleton Estate’s original blend is a blend of pot- and column-distilled rums, aged for a variety of years; in this case, it comprises 15 select rums that have been aged for an average of four years.

“She does a great job,” Dupuis said, referring to Appleton’s legendary master blender Joy Spence. “And you can trust their laws,” Black added, referring to the fact that Jamaica is one of the few rum-producing nations to clearly define its rules around age statements. That said, this is the entry level of the brand’s lineup, with a bit of heat, a touch of fruit and a dash of spice. “It’s a bit rustic,” said Borrowman.

Cocktail: The panel felt that this would work well in a Mai Tai or rum and Coke. But Domet also felt it would be good in a Hotel Nacional, while Johnson suggested: “What about a Three Dots and Dash, with the fruitiness of it?”

As the tasters were poured, the sweet, spicy, nutty and fruity aromas of rum
filled the tasting room. Dan Toulgoet photo
Appleton Estate Reserve Blend Rum

$30.49, 40% ABV

The Appleton Reserve is a blend of 20 select pot- and column-distilled rums, aged for an average of six years. “It’s so good,” said Borrowman. “It’s like molasses. I know that’s a weird thing to say,” added Black. “Candied orange peel,” Dhaliwal chimed in. “That fruitiness is very Appleton,” agreed Johnson.

Cocktail: Most felt that this would be a perfect rum for classic tiki drinks such as the Mai Tai. Povarchook suggested a rum Manhattan, while Bruce said: “If I were to put this in a cocktail, it would be a rum punch.”

Sabrine Dhaliwal inhales the toffee and spice aromas of aged rum. Dan Toulgoet photo
Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old Rum

$41.49, 43% ABV

The Rare Blend is a “minimum age” rum: the number 12 on the bottle means every rum in the blend has been matured at least 12 years.

“It’s got way more aromas coming off it right away,” said Bruce. Added Dupuis: “It goes from the immature world to the more aged.” The panel detected a huge range of flavours in this rum. Black sensed “dried fruit, pineapple and that smell when you open a Ziploc bag of brown sugar.” For Johnson, it was fresh figs and “a nice long pepper finish.” Dhaliwal detected “toasted coconut, nice and dry on the finish.” Domet noted: “The fruit is quite stewed and rich like a cognac, but it finishes quite dry like an American rye.”

Cocktail: “I think a Sazerac with this,” said Domet. Gray agreed: “Mmm, yes, a Sazerac.”

Wentworth Hospitality’s J-S Dupuis demonstrates the proper way to nose a spirit without being overwhelmed by its alcohol burn. Dan Toulgoet photo
Appleton Estate 15 Year Old Rum

$64.99, 43% ABV

This is a limited-release rum that is exclusive to Canada, which is Appleton’s largest export market. That is too bad for the rest of the world as this was the overall favourite of the tasting. Like the rest of the Appleton lineup, it is a blend of column and pot-distilled rums, with a slightly heavier emphasis on the column distillate for a lighter rum despite the additional age.

There were murmurs of “Different.” “Totally different.” “I smell the alcohol, but on the palate, it’s really smooth,” said Gray. “The 15 is pretty. It’s really pretty,” said Dhaliwal. “It’s pretty delicious,” Dupuis agreed.

Cocktails: “This would be a great Daiquiri, though it would be an expensive Daiquiri,” said Borrowman, adding, “If you want to be mixological with this, you could mix it with a fino sherry. Or you could just drink it by itself.” Black agreed: “I wouldn’t mess around with it.”

Flor de Cana 5 Añejo Classico

$26.49, 40% ABV

This is a classic, medium-bodied mixing rum from the 125-year-old Nicaraguan rum distillery.

“That’s a nice, light rum. It’s perfect for what it’s supposed to be,” said Black. “It’s very linear. It’s a well rum,” added Dhaliwal. “Super versatile,” Gray agreed. However, Domet pointed out, “It’s not a spirit lovers rum.”

Cocktail: The bartenders agreed that this was an ideal rum for classic Cuban cocktails such as the Cuba Libre, Hotel Nacional, Mojito and, as Black said, “This is going to make the truest-tasting Daiquiri of anything we’re going to taste today.”

Max Borrowman offers his take on “mixological” suggestions for rum cocktails. Dan Toulgoet photo
Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez

$39.99, 40% ABV

Cuba’s Bacardi, the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world, is a behemoth when it comes to rum. It’s best known for its ubiquitous white rum. But here the panel tasted its premium blend of rums that have been barrel-aged for a minimum of 10 years.

Despite its age, the panel found this rum to be sweet rather than complex. “It tastes like honey,” Dhaliwal said. “There’s fresh apple and pineapple in the nose. It’s a lighter, sweeter style,” said Dupuis, adding, “We’re drinking this and thinking it’s really sweet, but the consumer might just think its’s really smooth.” Gray concurred: “It’s very Bacardi.”

Cocktail: “If you put some bitters with this on ice, it’s like a sugar-free Old Fashioned,” Dupuis said, adding, “It would work in any rum cocktail, but just dial back the sugar and balance it out.” Bruce agreed: “Anything that would dry it out: bitters, dry sherry dry vermouth, tonic.”

Lemon Hart 1804 Original

$26.99, 40% ABV

A British-style, single-estate rum distilled, blended and aged in Guyana, Lemon Hart doesn’t have an age statement, but its rich complexity suggests substantial time spent in the barrel.

The panel detected loads of caramel, butterscotch and toffee in this rum. “This is like Werther’s Original on the nose,” said Johnson. “You can smell the texture,” said Domet. Dhaliwal agreed: “It kind of has that Werther’s texture, mouth-coating and rich.”

Cocktail: The bartenders could think of myriad uses for this rum, from a rum and Coke to a heavily bittered Old fashioned. “Bananas Foster,” suggested Bruce. “A banana Daiquiri or a milk punch,” said Domet. “Or a rum sour,” Borrowman said. “It would be a great dessert cocktail,” added Dupuis.

Olivia Povarchook enjoys the baking spice notes of the rums. Dan Toulgoet photo
Goslings Black Seal Rum

$31.99, 40% ABV

This dark rum from Bermuda is a blend of distillates from both pot and column stills. It is best known as the foundation of the classic cocktail created for it, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

“It tastes gingery. It has a lot of ginger in it,” said Dupuis. Povarchook agreed: “Clove and ginger. It’s like when you’re baking and you’re using cloves and the lid falls off and your kitchen smells like cloves.” Despite its dark colour, the rum was surprisingly light. “It’s a super light finish. It drops right off,” Domet said. “It’s never as good as I think it’s going to be.” “But,” Dhaliwal noted, “with ginger beer…”

Cocktail: The Dark ‘n’ Stormy, of course.

Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum

$29.99, 46% ABV

Paying homage to a storied history is this sweetly spiced, high-proof, made-in-America blend of Caribbean rums named for a legendary tattoo artist.

For the bartenders, this rum tasted of vanilla and nostalgia, its sweet baking-spice notes whisking them back to childhood treats. (And perhaps even further back: Gray pointed out that vanilla is said to remind us of mother’s milk.) They also noted that it is targeted at a younger market. As Domet said, “It does what it’s supposed to.”

Cocktail: They agreed that this would be ideal in hot drinks like apple cider, hot chocolate or a toddy. “Eggnog hands on,” Povarchook suggested. “It’s a great shot,” Borrowman added. “I know everyone here does Jameson shots, but this is a great shot. Boom.”

Tasters of rum provide inspiration for myriad cocktails.
Lemon Hart Blackpool Spiced Rum

$29.99, 43% ABV

This spiced rum is a new release from Lemon Hart. Like the original, it is made from single-estate rums aged in Guyana, then infused with natural spices. It was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tasting.

“It’s spicy. It’s nutty. It’s vanilla-y. It’s delicious,” said Dupuis. It reminded several of the bartenders of creamy, rich pudding. “This is rum-and-raisin ice cream,” said Dhaliwal. “I’m not mad at it,” added Bruce. “I think it would be delicious in lots of applications. It’s not a cool bartender’s rum, but fuck it, it’s good, I like it.”

Cocktail: Suggestions ranged from “tiki all the way” to sours to a classic Old Fashioned to simply drinking it on its own with just a bit of ice. As Dupuis said, “It’s the first spiced rum I’ve tried that didn’t taste like stripper’s sweat.” 

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