Join the Dark Side
Rethinking rum as a standalone spirit and engine for cocktails
“I think it’s a dated thing – like very 2018 – to say, ‘I’m a whiskey guy,’” said Will Groves, sales manager at Allegheny Distilling Company. “Customers are more open-minded now, and we’re seeing increases in every market where you find Maggie’s Farm.”
Maggie’s Farm is one of a handful of brands that is forcing consumers and critics to rethink their idea of rum. Rather than a cheap distillate propped up with artificial flavors, sugar and caramel coloring, rum is a serious spirit, at least at Allegheny in Pittsburgh.
“Rum is immediately delicious in ways similar to whiskey,” Groves said. “Sweetness up front, warmth, depth of flavor, all the things that make whiskey popular – but rum comes in at a lower price point for the serious bottles.”
Rum as a broad category lacks industry standards, though. Legally, rum must only be the distillate of sugar cane juice or syrup, or a sugar cane byproduct, such as molasses. In the U.S. that is the only real regulation, except that the product must be bottled at 40 percent ABV or above. That’s it. This has led to a glut of inferior rums on shelves and back bars – and to the extent that rum lacks regulation, dark rum is even worse.
“There is no legal definition of dark rum,” Groves said. “All that’s required are the same regulations for rum in general, and then there are a multitude of ways to make it dark: caramel coloring, Pedro Ximenez sherry, raisins – so many ways.”
Allegheny founder and distiller Tim Russell makes the Maggie’s Farm 50/50 Dark Rum with his own cane distillate and combines it with a Caribbean molasses-based, extra-aged dark rum. The product is put into barrels for an additional six to nine months to allow the flavors to marry. The result is a spirit that is as sippable as good bourbon.
Part of the growth of dark rum has to be chalked up to the increasingly ludicrous prices in the secondary whiskey market, as well as the diminishing availability of popular brands caused by those secondary market economics: a buy for $50 and sell for $300 kind of thing. People are looking for substitutes. Bars around the city are seeing requests for dark rum go up, and they are meeting the demand with some of the best brands in rum: Maggie’s Farm, Hamilton, Hampden, Privateer, Black Tot, Mocambo and The Real McCoy.
The rums listed above come from distillers who are interested in crafting excellent spirits even without regulation. “We do everything the hard way to get the best liquid possible,” Groves said. It shows in everything Allegheny produces, including its spiced rum and falernum, both of which are two of the best in the world, if not the best.
“There are thought leaders in the industry trying to make changes to the perception of rum,” Groves said. “Maggie Campbell at Privateer is probably the thought leader, but Luca Gargano has contributed with his rum classifications, and Richard Seale’s work is excellent, too.”
When putting together representative cocktails to showcase these dark rums, we relied on the city’s best bartenders – and one former bartender – to guide us. One thing we all discovered quickly was the lack of classic and tiki cocktail recipes that call for dark rum. James Corley, a former bartender, asked, “Did you just try substituting dark rum for other rums?” A simple question that yielded amazing results, including the “darkiri,” as he insists on calling a classic daiquiri with dark rum.
1.5 Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva
.75 fresh lime juice
Shake, add 1.5 ounces dry sparkling wine to tin, pour over cubes in a rocks glass. Serve with fresh mint.
–Bailey Butler, Palo Santo
2 ounces dark rum
.75 fresh lime juice
.75 simple syrup or demerara syrup
Shake, serve up in a Nick and Nora glass with a lime wheel.
–James Corley, retired bartender