Tom Valdes has always enjoyed a Rum Collins, made with lemon juice and soda water. But for years, whenever the president of rum marketer Todhunter Imports ordered one on a plane, he would receive a rum and Coke. No problem: The most popular mixed drink in the U.S. is a great refresher. Yet rum's remarkable harmony with Coca-Cola (KO) has been a curse as well as a blessing, blinding drinkers to the possibilities of the tropical spirit distilled from sugar cane.
Not anymore. As with vodka a few years ago, rum is being produced in an explosion of new flavors, from raspberry to mango. And like tequila -- not long ago viewed as firewater for party animals -- rum is being offered in an expanding array of aged "sipping" varieties.
Why now? Chalk it up to several factors, from younger drinkers' preference for approachable "white" spirits in Snapple-like flavors to the boom in Latin cuisine. Thus, while the white and light rums have held steady, the flavored rums have been soaring -- and now make up one-third of sales. Aged rums are also growing, making this summer a great time to explore the superb "cognacs of the Caribbean."
Let's start with flavors. The new ones are exotic, dry, and bold, able to hold their own with fruit juices, liqueurs, and other cocktail ingredients. Valdes, who imports Cruzan Rum, has been instrumental in moving flavored rum beyond sweet, low-alcohol products such as coconut-inflected 42-proof Malibu. His latest, a delicious Cruzan Mango, joins a portfolio of orange, pineapple, coconut, and banana -- all 55 proof and $12 per 750-milliliter bottle, as well as a 70-proof citrus at $14. Even market leader Bacardi recently introduced Razz (raspberry), C?co (coconut), and Van?la (vanilla) rum, all 70 proof at $13. Bacardi has given rum a shot of tequila in 70-proof Cicl?n ($14). Allied Domecq has extended rum-based Kahl?a liqueur with Kahl?a Especial, $23, with more alcohol (70 proof), less sugar, and a more robust coffee taste. It's using the same rum in Kuya Fusion Rum, $16, a spicy, citrusy blend, aimed at the rum-and-Coke crowd.
If flavors are mainly for mixing, aged rums are often enjoyed neat. In the tropics, just a few years of aging in an oak cask can create a depth of taste that takes twice as long to create for liquors, such as cognac, in Europe's colder climates. Start out with Cruzan Estate Diamond, a blend of rums aged from 5 to 10 years ($17), or Bacardi 8 (eight years, $19). More ambitious? Try the exceptional Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum, blending rums aged up to 12 years ($30). At Cuban eatery Babalu Grill in Baltimore, diners are ordering Montecristo, a 12-year-old from Guatemala ($30), and Coyopa, a 10-year-old from Barbados ($46). The favorite of owner Steve DeCastro: Nicaragua's Flor de Ca?a ("flower of the sugar cane"). The Centenario, aged 12 years and 80 proof ($38), is a deep amber color with baked-apple overtones.
No discussion about rum is complete without mention of a rediscovered Cuban classic, the mojito. With its sparkling, light profile, "it's a modern-day mint julep," says Andrew Sachs, beverage director at Noche, a Times Square restaurant. It's easy to make mojitos from scratch (recipe below). Then just stretch out on the veranda -- or the living room sofa -- and savor a splendid but underappreciated spirit. By Gerry Khermouch