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Drink Wed Jul 02 2008
...Um, because One Trick Pony and I drank it all. Okay, not technically true. But after sampling the spirits of 20 different distilleries, featuring over 50 different rums, cachacas and other sugar-cane based liquors, it certainly felt as if we had. This past weekend, the newly opened Bottom Lounge played host to the First Annual Chicago Rum Festival, the inauguration of what we can only hope will be a long-running addition to Chicago's venerable tradition of drinking under the el tracks. More details on what 50 tiny tiny sips of rum will do to a girl, as well as some locally available stand-outs to satiate your own inner pirate, after the fold.
For the debut event of the Volcano Room, the Bottom Lounge's designated private party room, six-foot skirted tables, arrayed with bottles, plastic shot glasses, literature and the odd knick knack (functional bottle-opening key chains from Kilo Kai, pretty but less functional key chains from Flor de Cana) crowded the tiki-themed and jewel-toned space. Calypso music poured from the sound system at a manageable volume, and Casablanca was playing on one of the bar's flat-screen tvs, setting a fairly heavy-handed but agreeable tropical tone. Navigating the sea of tables, lanky blond rum-reps, and thirsty fellow tasters was less of a challenge than one might think in a room already flooded with the heady fumes of a whole lot of booze. As event organizer, the Ministry of Rum did a great job making sure every attendee had continuing opportunities to hydrate and carb up --Lincoln Park Jamaican restaurant Ja' Grill kept everyone well supplied in both smoky jerked and sweet honey chicken wings and some outstanding tiny meat pies with a flaky turnover crust and a surprisingly tangy ground beef filling.
But of course the main event was the rum itself. From tried and true consumer favorites like Bacardi and Malibu (which, truth be told we avoided), and new standards like Moet Hennessy-produced 10 Cane, to more smaller-scale producers like Neisson and La Favorite, the full rum spectrum was well represented. Cachaca, rum's Brazilian cousin had less presence, and was best presented by the Sagatiba table, who were making cachaca mojitos and caipirinhas to order. Bless their hearts.
Like all alcohols, the character of rum changes with age -- white rums are the youngest and brightest tasting, and the darker, deeper mahogany varieties tend to be the oldest. Central American producer and local favorite Flor de Cana had one of the smoothest young rums, with their White Extra Dry. Not as blindingly hot as most of the other whites in the room, the earthy sourness of the fresh sugar cane rounded out the sweetness. The older, darker Flor de Cana offerings, verged into the metallic -- the 7 Year had a nice molasses bite to it, and a coppery after taste. The 18 Year, however, was straight up stainless steel.
El Dorado had some nice older rums, and the progression of flavors from the 12 Year (hot, vanilla notes), to the 15 Year (burnt sugar aroma with sharper, earthier flavors) and finally to the 21 Year (deep caramel flavors, warm and round tones) reminded us of the drinking progression of the average American teenager, from a sort of young, warm illicitness to a more mature calm and balance.
All rums are produced from sugar cane, but the form of the cane itself, whether just-pressed sugar cane "wine" or agricole, pancake-worthy molasses, less-refined molasses blackstrap. Most of the rums on parade touted their pure sugar cane roots. 10 Cane even brought along some cane and a presser to distribute illustrative glasses of fresh sugar cane juice. The only "traditionally-made" rum in the room, it seemed, was the Cruzan Blackstrap, which I thought was surprisingly good, all dark, bitter molasses, with almost salty notes playing against the rum sweetness.
Slightly more unexpected was the number of flavor-infused rums -- prompting my companion to note, "Apparently rum is the new vodka," and wincing at the sticky sweet concoction of the Virgin Islands' berry-blended Redrum. (Points for the name, but penalty for the pina colada aftertaste). Prichard's Cranberry Rum, made in Tennessee with table grade molasses, was sweet but tolerable, and a squeeze of lime made it even more easily drinkable. Tall blond Cruzan Rum girls were shilling for their new guava flavor, with tiny glasses of painkillers to help showcase its tropical flavors, but it tasted more like candy than anything else, and certainly didn't stand up as their pineapple or coconut varieties (neither of which, sadly, was available). My notes from Rio D's passionfruit cachaca just read, "Eeeeee," which can't be good.
A few of the more exotic options were actually rum liqueurs, and they by far carried the day for the flavor-infused category. Santa Teresa's Rhum Orange was thick and rich with deep citrus and smoke notes against the sweetness of the rum. The rest fo the Santa Teresa offerings were equally drinkable, particularly the 1796 Blend, which combines rums of several different ages and somehow manages to let all of their individual characteristics shine, and the Stroh 80, which was so hot it almost melted away on your tongue the moment you took a sip.
Our favorite rums of all, however, came from the small selection presented by distributor and small-batch producer Haus Alpenz. We started with Velvet Falernum, a rum-based liqueur that could easily replace simple syrup in any drink imaginable with its flowery sweetness and soft spice character. Then the Scarlet Ibis specialty batch rum custom blended for Death & Co. in New York City (who just recently did a bartender exchange with our own Violet Hour). Death & Co. were looking for a drier, less sweet, and higher proof rum in Scarlet Ibis, resulting in a smooth and smoky rum that's just become available in Illinois in the past week. Then on to Batavia-Arrack, a 50% alcohol pre-Prohibition classic spirit which we were only allowed to sniff neat, and tasted mixed with a lime punch base. Drunk neat, it would likely knock you on your ass, but in a punch, the exotic spiciness opens up into distinct citrus and dark notes. And finally, we tried the Jamaican St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, another rum liqueur also known as a "Pimento Dram," at the opposite end of the taste spectrum from Velvet Falernum -- all deep, sugary spices, cardamom and cloves, pepper and ... allspice. Haus Aplez was only the fourth table we visited and we could have easily wrapped up the afternoon right then and there.
But of course, we soldiered through to the very end, letting only to rums slip past us -- though really, who hasn't tried Malibu and Bacardi? If the Rum Festival is any indication of the kind of events Bottom Lounge plans to bring to West Town, I can only imagine it'll be successful. And when Rum Festival returns, I'll be more than happy to stop in again -- and maybe tear myself away from the tiny shot glasses to actually watch a cocktail mixing demonstration or listen to a lecture. There's always next year.