Rum is one of the most nuanced spirits, both in its craft and taste. Regional differences mean there’s a bottle of rum for just about every palate. Too often, rum’s potential is restrained behind the bar, as it’s used for little more than boozing up tropical coolers best suited for cutting through triple-digit heat indexes. Those tiki-style drinks can be fun and refreshing, but they also leave the rum itself as afterthought, masked among layers of syrupy juices and sodas.
“I think a lot of spirits professionals will second me on this,” says Matt Strickland, head distiller at District Distilling on U Street. “I think the biggest problem is that rum is viewed as sweet, cheap and not very serious.”
Refusing to let rum live with this basic reputation, a growing chorus of bartenders are ditching blenders and pineapple wedges in favor of sophisticated cocktails that showcase rum’s natural flavors. Here are five cocktails in DC designed to highlight rum’s true colors.
Crown of Love at EatBar
2 oz. Plantation O.F.T.D. Rum
0.25 oz. rhum sirop
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl
lemon peel rim
This rum cocktail is based on Arcade Fire’s song “Crown of Love,” according to EatBar Spirits Manager Brian McGahey.
“‘[The song] captures the essence of crazy mad love,” he says. “It is a fitting name for this cocktail, which combines the intensity of a molasses-based dark rum that is a blend of Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados rums bottled at 69 percent alcohol, blended with a bit of rhum sirop from Martinique.”
EatBar: 415 8th St. SE, DC; www.eat-bar.com
The Migration at Kith/Kin
0.75 oz. cynar
0.75 oz. Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum
0.75 oz. Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
0.75 oz. Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino
The Kith/Kin bar team draws on two types of dark rum for its Manhattan-style riff, a recipe it originally credits to Ben Long of Reliable Tavern in DC’s Petworth neighborhood. The drink gets extra treatment here, spending two months aging in used Mount Gay Rum barrels before being served.
The result is a smooth, sippable cocktail with notes of charcoal and oak that bartender Dimitre Darrocan says imparts a whiskey-like flavor – one that’s miles away from tiki.
Kith/Kin at InterContinental Washington DC: 801 Wharf St. SW, DC ; www.kithandkindc.com
Full Moon Party at Quill
1.5 oz. Mount Gay Rum
2 oz. Thai tea apricot mix
0.25 oz. fresh lemon juice
“One of the biggest misconceptions about rum is that it’s not as versatile as other spirits, and that all rum tastes the same,” says Quill bartender Sophie Szych.
The upscale hotel bar, which also serves a Hamilton-inspired rum cocktail, takes advantage of that flexibility by using Thai tea in its Full Moon Party.
“The addition of condensed milk adds creamy roundness to the sharpness of the apricot,” Szych says.
Quill at The Jefferson: 1200 16th St. NW, DC; www.jeffersondc.com
La Fin Du Monde at District Distilling
1.5 oz. aged Buzzard Point Rum
0.75 oz. lemon juice
.075 oz. grenadine
0.25 oz. curacao
“When I approach a rum cocktail and it isn’t going to be tiki, I tend to look at classic serious cocktails in the canon, things like a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned,” Strickland says. “Subbing rum in for whiskey is the easiest thing to do, but you can get much more adventurous than that.”
Strickland is reviving this long forgotten rum cocktail (it originally appeared in the 1908 cocktail book World Drinks and How to Mix Them by William Boothby) in his distillery tasting room and using his distillery’s new barrel-aged rum as the base.
District Distilling: 1414 U St. NW, DC; www.district-distilling.com
A Spot in the Shade at Columbia Room
3 oz. clarified watermelon juice
1.5 oz. Bly Rum
0.325 oz. fresh lime
0.25 oz. Keepwell Carolina gold rice vinegar
0.5 oz. rich simple syrup
“This is a refreshing summer cocktail inspired by a picnic,” says Columbia Room Head Bartender Suzy Critchlow. “We are using Bly, a new white rum from the folks that make Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka in Pennsylvania.”
The cocktail is part of the award-winning bar’s four-course summer tasting menu. If a seat at the intimate bar is too much of a task, Critchlow says the drink can be easily made at home and even batched up into a punch for sharing.
Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.columbiaroomdc.com
These cocktails represent just a small number of bartenders in and around DC that are challenging how we drink rum and use it in cocktails. Notes of vanilla, caramel, oak, molasses and spices are being highlighted in drinks that range from from revised takes on stirred classics to light and fruity sippers that balance sour and sweet. So next time a rum craving hits, put down the umbrella drink and consider something more suitable for a dimly lit cocktail bar than a sunny beach.