Rum is coming of age. Rhum agricole, made from sugarcane juice as opposed to molasses, is an essential that deserves a place on your bar and in your cocktails. I’m not talking about the one with the pirate on the label or the ubiquitous silver variety in every bartender’s well, or the daiquiri and pina coladas you imbibe at a swim-up bar on vacation. No, I’m talking about an artisanally crafted spirit with a unique and complex profile.
I recently attended a flight tasting of a handful of Chairman’s Reserve gems. The St. Lucia distillery was founded by the Barnard family 90 years ago and in 1999, Laurie Barnard launched the Chairman’s Reserve brand. Laurie grew up on the family-owned sugar/banana farm. He had wanted to become a pilot, but at 18, went to work on the estate and subsequently developed a passion for both rum and agriculture, cultivating mangoes and limes, as well as a variety of small banana that’s still exported today.
The fourth-generation Barnard inherited an operation that focused on volume and had the United Kingdom as its primary market at a time when a rum ration was still a portion of the wages British Navy paid its sailors. The business was running on imported molasses at the time, and was no longer turning a profit. And that’s probably the best thing that could have happened to the company.
Laurie had a visionary idea of rum making, that started with sugarcane and incorporated pot stills, non-traditional barrels, and proprietary yeast strains. This was not the approach of other rum distillers at the time. His philosophy was that the most sophisticated rums were a combination of various styles, ages, and finishes.
Deny Duplessis, Chairman’s Reserve’s head blender (he’s the guy in the cover photo), led the flight tasting. Duplessis is an artist in the same way that a wine or whisky blender takes a little of this and mixes it with a little of that to create something synergistic and, well, delicious. He says that as a blender, one aspires to create new flavors.
So, what are those flavors that you can look forward to in his rum blends? As you might expect, there are more tropical notes than other spirits, but if you’re a whisky or wine drinker, you’ll also discover some familiar aromas imparted by barrel-aging.
A couple of my favorites of mine include th John Dore II 8-year. Blond in color and rich in intensity, one feels as if standing in the middle of a tobacco field on a warm summer day, then the scent of a nearby oak forest, and then wafting in from somewhere distant are whiffs of Juicy Fruit. And after at least eight years mellowing in a wooden barrel, it’s as smooth as a Carribean rhythm section.
The Legacy Vendome 8-year is another barrel-aged beauty, but of an entirely different character than the Dore. You remember that smell when you were a kid and you opened the little red box of raisins with the pretty lady on the front? That’s your first sensation with this one. Deeper in, you’ll discover hints of melted caramel and ripe banana. It has a silky mouthfeel and lingers long.
Other flavors that you’re likely to encounter in Chairman’s Reserve include pear, vanilla, honey, toffee, grass, butterscotch and candied ginger. You’ll see a range of hues, from pale gold to honey to amber to mahogany, and more.
It’s a joy to sit back and sip a glass of rum neat, but if you’re up for a nice easy cocktail, pour it in a shaker of ice with a good squeeze of lime and a dash of honey syrup. Strain and garnish with a mint sprig. Or if you’re feeling indulgent, top it with a bubbly Champagne float. Now, kick off your shoes, throw on some old Calypso, and forget that it’s 3 in the afternoon and you’re supposed to be on a Zoom call.
The Time for Rum Has Come