Popular consciousness of rum is so dominated by a few mass-produced, mass-market products that you’d almost think there’s no such thing as an artisanally-crafted fine sipping rum, but this would be a mistake. For better or worse, sugar cane spirits are inextricably bound up with Europe’s colonial past, and the blending of cultures that resulted have given rum a striking array of styles, each with its own unique story and many that can go head-to-head with the world’s greatest brandies or whiskies.
In Britain, rum historically was strongly associated with the Royal Navy, which issued a daily ration to sailors that continued until 1970. In the age of sail, space was tight, and stewards could not risk ruining precious gunpowder with accidentally spilled rum. The Navy therefore requisitioned rum that was 57% alcohol, a strength at which the spirit would still allow gunpowder to ignite after soaking. This also served as a way of testing the alcoholic strength, as a successful ignition was a guarantee that the product was “up to proof” (hence the term). That 57% benchmark carries forward to this day; In the UK “100 proof” or “Navy Strength” refers to a spirit that is 57% alcohol by volume.
Revived from dormancy under the guidance of renowned drinks historian Dave Wondrich, this blend of Jamaican pot still rums is the very definition of old school. An equal blend of two styles of heavy pot still rum, its components are shipped in barrel to England to be blended and bottled in London. No molasses or spirit caramel is added to Smith & Cross, so it has a deep amber color, lighter than some of the more familiar Jamaican rums.
The full-bodied Wedderburn rum (aged approx. 6 months) supplies some vivid floral elements and an earthy, molasses-y funk. The lighter (but still quite chunky) Plummer rum is aged for 18 to 36 months and fills in the top end with subtle barrel spice and wonderful caramel apple, mango and vanilla. Three years is about as long as you really want to age this style of rum lest the vivid, ripe tropical notes be overwhelmed by the wood.
Rum as we know it is an artifact of the sugar trade. The Portuguese brought sugar cane to the New World from the Azores in the 16th century, and before long countries from Spain to Sweden were planting it to satisfy Europe’s insatiable sweet tooth. Since rum was originally conceived as a way to use up the molasses that was left over from sugar refining, each colony developed unique styles based on the peculiarities of the home country. The French had developed a domestic sugar industry based on sugar beets, so did not need cane sugar from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique flooding the market, so these islands became known for a product distilled directly from fresh cane juice, called Rhum Agricole. Austria had no tropical colonies, but its thirst for rum was such that they were forced to develop a substitute made from grain alcohol and added flavoring. The British initially shipped cut sugar cane from the West Indies to New England to be refined. But after the revolution they were forced to relocate production closer to the source, giving rise to unique styles in Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, and, my personal favorite, Jamaica. Jamaican rum is typically the fullest, most ester-laden rum in the Caribbean and is unique in relying on spontaneous fermentation rather than the ubiquitous cultured yeasts. These have the full spectrum of sugarcane-derived aromas and express an inimitable sense of place.
To me, rum is most at home in cocktails. During the tiki bar craze, bartenders created secret drink recipes based on fruit juices, various complex flavored syrups, and rum. One of the major themes was drinks using more than one type of rum in the same drink. When was the last time you saw a drink with more than one whiskey or more than one gin? Such is the diversity of rum that the iconic rum cocktail, the Mai Tai, uses both dark (usually Jamaica) and light (usually Trinidad) rums, plus a float of overproof rum. Wonderful in egg nog or hot toddies, in planter’s punches or daiquiris, and marvelous on its own (or with a little water), Smith & Cross is a staple of my home bar, and deserves a place on yours.