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It’s the latest spirit to have bartenders and drinkers excited and rum may even give vodka a run for its money, says Ben McCormack
In bar terms, the search for ‘the new vodka’ is the equivalent of the fashion world’s perennial quest for ‘the new black’: a drink that will rival the popularity of the world’s best-selling spirit. Now, it seems, the search may be over: since last November, four high-profile bars specialising in rum have opened in London and each of them is packed to the rafters.
Of course, there have always been a handful of rum bars in the capital, but they have tended to be tiki bars, the sort of Polynesian-themed places popularised by American GIs, who wanted to recreate their R&R paradises after they demobbed. Since 1963, Trader Vic’s has ensured that there’s always been a corner of the London Hilton that forever looks like a set from South Pacific, while Trailer Happiness, a tiki offshoot of the Match bar chain, opened in Notting Hill four years ago.
But it’s at new Mayfair bar Mahiki that the trend for all things tiki has broken into the mainstream, not least because it has become the bar du jour for the young royals, whose bleary-eyed photos are splashed across the gossip pages of the papers most mornings.
Bar manager Jules Gualdoni admits that it was tiki rather than rum that was the driving force behind entertainment entrepreneurs Piers Adam and Nick House’s decision to open Mahiki, but since you can’t have one without the other, the bar is currently reviving a taste for the sort of retro rum drinks last seen in the 1970s: pina coladas served with a cocktail umbrella in a hollowed-out pineapple, voodoo skulls containing zombies so potent they’re limited to two per person, or Prince William’s favourite, the Pieces of Eight, a treasure chest filled to the brim with rum, brandy, peach liqueur and Champagne. ‘I’ve always loved those drinks,’ says Gualdoni. ‘They’re old-school classics that are retro and funny.’
But despite the kitsch – staff dressed in garish Hawaiian shirts and hula skirts, walls covered with two miles’ worth of bamboo – Gualdoni and his team are serious about rum. Mahiki serves 100 different types and, although Jamaica’s Appleton is the house spirit, ‘rum runners’ circulate around the bar to advise customers which is the right rum for them, while different cocktails use different rums according to the flavour required. Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados is used in the Bajun Peach Smash, for instance, while a Ti Punch is made with Gualdoni’s favourite rum, La Mauny, an agricole rum.
‘Agricole rums come from the former French colonies of Martinique and Guadaloupe,’ Gualdoni explains. ‘I’m French myself and I love them. Because they’re made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses, you get more of a raw sugar flavour, a more vegetal flavour. It tastes a bit like Tequila or cachaça.’
Gualdoni ran a rum club when he worked at Trailer Happiness and thinks that rum’s time has definitely come. ‘Bartenders like rum because it has a lot of flavour. And because of rum’s exotic history, there’s more for customers to get involved with as rums from English, French and Spanish-speaking countries all have different characters. Rum is a spirit that has a lot of authenticity.’
Someone else who is keen to emphasise the heritage aspect of rum is Simon Drummond Brady, who together with Boisdale owner Ranald Macdonald opened La Bodeguita del Medio in Kensington last November, a tribute to the legendary Havana bar of the same name. Despite the incongruity of bringing an import from one of the last bastions of communism to one of London’s most affluent areas, the new arrival does a decent impression of the Havana original, from the 1940s-style design to the selection of Cuban cigars on offer and the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack.
Drummond Brady believes that rum’s associations with the stereotypically carefree Caribbean lifestyle lie behind its current revival. ‘Rum is fun. It’s made in sunny places and is ideal mixed with fruit, all of which makes it sexy and moreish. And, of course, it has a wonderful connection with music such as calypso and salsa. Vodka, in contrast, comes from cold climates and makes you think of snow and severe people who don’t smile.’
In its heyday, the original La Bodeguita attracted jet-set A-listers such as Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, though it’s most famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s favourite place to have a mojito, which was invented there. The London outpost sells 10 mojitos and, due to Cubans’ restricted access to fresh ingredients, they currently taste a lot better here than in Havana.
Drummond Brady stocks 17 rums, unsurprisingly Havana Club being the house spirit. Its seven-year-old is a particular favourite. ‘It’s perfect for everyday drinking. It doesn’t burn your throat and it’s brilliant on its own or in a mix. It’s even outstanding in place of pudding wine with a mango mousse.’
He clearly doesn’t think you need to be muddling sugar and mint to enjoy a well-made rum drink. ‘Mount Gay with tonic water is delicious. All you need to add is a squeeze of lime. It’s a civilised and classic drink that used to be served in the 1930s at the American Bar at the Savoy to Humphrey Bogart. It has more flavour than a vodka and tonic, which is usually drowned by ice and overpowered by lemon.’
While Hemingway took his mojitos at La Bodeguita, he preferred to have his daiquiris at Havana’s Floridita bar, of which there has also been a franchise in London since 2004. To capitalise on rum’s new-found popularity, part of Floridita’s huge Soho site has been given over to the Salon Rojo, a speciality daiquiri bar that sells 30 types of the cocktail to a backbeat of live Cuban music.
Interestingly, despite Hemingway’s reputation as one of the hardest of hard drinkers, London barflies tend to associate daiquiris with women, according to bar manager Richard Woods. ‘We’ve recently released a macho menu in the Salon Roja, which has been created to be more male-friendly after we noticed that many men avoid drinks that look or sound feminine. The macho drinks come in over-sized stemless glasses that are held like a brandy balloon in the palm of the hand and contain a double-serving of daiquiri, so you get two drinks in one.’
With over 200 rums available behind the bar, plus a reserve list of one-off bottlings and discontinued stock, including pre-Castro-era Havana Club and rums that date back to the 19th century, Floridita is probably the best place in London for rum virgins to start investigating the spirit. Woods, who has worked at Floridita since it opened, has plenty of advice.
‘I would start vodka drinkers off on a lighter rum such as Havana Club three-year-old. It’s the quintessential mojito rum: light straw in colour with a hint of vanilla on the palate. For someone used to whisky, I’d lean towards industrial rums, which are made with molasses rather than cane juice and aged in barrels previously used for ageing bourbon. Plantation Grande Reserve would be a good start. And for a brandy drinker, I’d suggest a rum from an agricole-producing country, where the rum is made with fermented cane juice, as these are aged in barrels previously used for ageing Cognac. Try Clément XO or 1976, if you’re a brandy drinker.’
Woods’s own favourite rum brands include Appleton, Diplomático, Plantation, Ron Zacapa, Wray and Nephew, XM and a newcomer called Elements Eight. ‘It’s a relatively new brand that is gaining in popularity among the bar fraternity. It’s a premium aged rum from St Lucia that has an eye-catching bottle design that proudly stands out on the back bar.’
Whether rum will ever be able to rival the popularity of vodka will be partly down to whether products are developed that have the same designer pulling power as brands such as Belvedere and Grey Goose. Already Moët-Hennessy, the company behind Belvedere, has launched 10 Cane, made from Trinidadian sugar cane and marketed as ‘the redemption of rum’, while Diageo has launched Oronoco, made from Brazilian mountain cane juice, on the west coast of America.
And there’s no reason why these rums shouldn’t approach the same status as premium vodka labels, thinks David Paskins, a director of bar consultancy the Gorgeous Group. ‘A lot of people who bought into the high-end vodka trend are looking for the next big thing,’ he says.
One venue that clearly believes in the potential of rum is The Langham Hotel, which opened the glamorous Artesian bar in January. ‘It’s a big symbol of how much things have changed that a hotel would say “we’re going to get David Collins to design a rum bar”,’ thinks Paskins, who helped assemble Artesian’s cocktail list and its collection of 26 rums, which includes two blends that are exclusive to the bar.
‘We wanted drinks that weren’t just another flavour of daiquiri or had 101 different fusion ingredients,’ explains Paskins, describing the thinking behind Artesian’s cocktail list. ‘The drinks have an element of classicism about them and reflect the ingredients and history of the islands they’ve come from.’
Paskins, however, isn’t convinced that rum is likely to completely eclipse vodka any time soon. ‘I can see rum mounting a challenge, but I don’t think it will overtake vodka. There are too many people out there for whom taste and flavour are hurdles.’
Nevertheless, the future looks rosy for rum: Mahiki is currently London’s hottest bar and Drummond Brady hopes to open another 15 Bodeguitas around the UK. Moreover, if there’s one spirit that has a feel-good quality about it, it’s rum.
‘It’s a drink for people who have a taste for adventure and have a hedonisitic side,’ says Paskins. ‘It’s been my favourite spirit for the last 10 years because it’s the one that has the most sense of fun and happiness about it. Whisky can be gruff and harsh, brandy is elitist, vodka is a bit melancholic. But the essence of rum is light-hearted and happy.’ What more could you want from a drink?
These are young rums such as Appleton White, Bacardi Superior and Havana Club Añejo Blanco that can be mixed with a range of flavours in much the same way as vodka.
This is rum that has been aged in oak barrels for, generally, between three to 10 years. The wood gives the rum its golden colour, while the ageing adds an extra depth of flavour to a daiquiri or mojito, say. Examples include Appleton Special, Cockspur Five Star, Havana Club Añejo 7 Años and Matusalem Clásico.
Rums that usually get their deeper colour because they have been aged for longer than golden rums and sometimes because caramel has been added. This makes the rum more syrupy and adds an extra dimension to cocktails because the caramel gives the rum a different texture as well as flavour. They also make good sipping rums all on their own. Try Ron Zapaca Centenario, Cockspur 12 year old and Myers’s.
Langham Hotel, 1 Portland Place, Regent Street, W1. Tel: 020 7636 1000
47 Kensington Court, W8. Tel: 020 7938 4147
100 Wardour Street, W1. Tel: 020 7314 4000
1 Dover Street, W1. Tel: 020 7493 9529
London Hilton, 22 Park Lane, W1. Tel: 020 7208 4113
177 Portobello Road, W11. Tel: 020 7727 2700
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007