Over three weeks of rum chronicles and its come to this. The conclusion takes place in Central America, Nicaragua, actually, to explore the rum held there in highest regard. That would be the Flor de Caña. And when national treasures are the topic du jour for the poorest nation in Central America, and in fact, one of the poorest in the world, that treasure should be celebrated. So in this final post, it’s all about Flor de Caña.
Flor de Caña, sugarcane flower, has been produced for 122 years. They’re based in the capital city of Managua. My roommate, Colin, is an avid surfer and just returned from a trip there. His stories of deep blue oceans, good-natured people and copious levels of tranquility and fresh fish were tantalizing. Naturally, he brought back with him a bottle of Flor de Caña. With 80% of the population living on less than $2/day, it’s hard to imagine substantially aged rum making it on the table alongside the daily bread (rather, fish). But by many accounts for those who’ve visited-and especially for visitors-It is a pervasive element in the experience.
Flor de Caña is our first foray into a molasses-based rum, the style that is most commonly associated with the spirit. After all of the talk about the fine/refined qualities of Agricole, we have to suppress the instinct to characterize molasses rums as something inferior, even though they are less expensive to produce in this way. But if quality is the intent, substantial patience and fine oak barrels will eventually get you there.
Originally, in 1890, Flor de Caña was a sugarcane plantation in the town of Chicalpas, Nicaragua. It was founded by Francisco Alfredo Pellas. One of the cool things about rum is that it is seamlessly, yet defiantly associated with regional history. Terrior is a word relentlessly besieged upon emerging oenophiles, but with rum, this concept is more organic. For instance, we already know that Agricoles, made from fermentable sugarcane juice, are primarily the thing for the French-speaking Islands. We also know this is the thing in Brazil, but there they call it cachaça. English-speaking Islands drink molasses-based rum. Jamaican and Guyanese rums are famously unctuous and on the sweeter side. For Spanish-speaking islands and countries, the style is añejo, consumed younger and less demanding on the palate. This seems a reasonable path as we explore the origins of rum in Central America. It all comes back to the plantation. After harvest, the celebratory ritual was to drink the fermented molasses byproduct. This is the añejo style. The reserve stuff, the stuff that spent more time in barrel, that was reserved for the plantation owners.
In 1937 the Pallas’ wanted to get serious about the rum business and created an internal company called Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, or the CLNSA. Flor de Caña was their first product. It was the plantation owner making rum in the style of plantation owners. This style has always been their narrative, and to their credit, they’ve managed to maintain a family business while vertically integrating. In 1950, they began commercial distribution via Casa Pellas, and today, the CEO Carlos, keeps the family name at the forefront for the 5th generation. So with all that, let’s see how Yanni has employed the 3rd and final contestant in the Nopa Rum Diary.
The Dusk and The Dawn
Of the many things to really like about The Dusk and The Dawn, the names of these drinks really drive home the point of the cocktails in the Spiritual being coupled. Seeing two drinks entitled, “Dusk and Dawn” alongside one another on a cocktail list seemingly necessitates that each are ordered. Or maybe that’s me. Anyhow, let’s (naturally) begin with The Dawn.
· Flor de Caña 18 year
· Amaro Nonio
· Lillet Blanc
· Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
· Flor de Caña 18 year
· Amaro Nonio
· Lillet Blanc
· Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
How it’s Made
It’s been covered somewhat, but just want to be clear that we’re actually…clear. So, Rhum Agricole, are “agricultural rhums”. They are mainly about the getting the juice from the sugarcane and fermenting that juice directly. Molasses-based rums are a bit different. Molasses is a byproduct of boiling that sugarcane juice. There is a dense black residual deposit that emerges. That stuff is molasses. It is sweet and low in acid, which, for the most part is what producers are looking for. That molasses becomes a slurry and is fermented, then distilled. For amber and dark rums, they are aged in toasted barrels, usually for a couple years, in some extreme cases, up to 12 years. Or, if you’re Flor De Caña, you may decide that not until the lifespan of a high school graduate is your premium bottling ready for release. And if you’re Yanni, you may decide that that is exactly what’s needed in this study of rum cocktails. This Dawn has been 18 years in the making.
On to the Amaro, which deserves (and has earned) an entire Spiritual in its own right. Amaro, (Italian for “bitter”) are a category of after dinner liqueurs. It is a very similar process to vermouth, which we covered earlier. The main difference is Amari take on a sweeter profile and are more viscous than vermouth. That bittersweet quality is one of the reasons bartenders are so infatuated with it. It adds a restrained sweetness to cocktails while also bringing lots of depth. Amaro Nonino from Friuli is at the top of the list. It is made from grappa infused with herbs, bitter orange cinchona (bitters!), liquorice, quassia wood, rhubarb, saffron, sweet orange and tamarind. And probably 20 other ingredients because Amaro producers are notoriously tight-lipped about their special proprietary blends. After 5 years in barrel, Nonino is ready for market. If you’ve never tried Nonino, its worthwhile to do so on it’s own merit, accompanied perhaps, only by a single cube.
Lillet Blanc is another fashionable ingredient, though one we use far less. Lillet is a French apertif made primarily from the white grapes of Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle). It is technically a tonic since it includes a 15% infusion of a bittersweet citrus liqueurs. By now you’ve heard many times that the bitters comes from chincona. Perhaps more surprising is that citrus from Spain and Morocco are used to develop the liqueur. Though Lillet dates back to the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1986 that the current recipe took form. In an effort to modernize the drink, less sugar and less bitters were used. The current iteration is great. It’s lean and very much like drinking wine. It smells and taste of tropical fruit and has great acidity from the Sauvignon Blanc.
Rothman and Winters Apricot Liqueur
Finally, we got to Austria to round out this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, intercontinental cocktail. It’s the world we live in when it comes to wine and spirits these days. We are remarkably fortunate to live in this time of access, and not just in the way of local ingredients, but global ones. With all of the (warranted) emphasis on locality, the privilege and joy of consuming wine and spirits is that it allows us a connection to a place. And whether that place is foreign or familiar, the connection is real. Not only in the way of how things actually taste (terrior), but as we see in this Spiritual, how the same product is interpreted different ways based on its origins or lineage.
WIth that, we arrive at the Danube Valley in Austria. The Danube is perhaps the most famous river in the wine world. It is the second largest river in Europe and spans 9 countries. In Austria in particular, many of the top vineyards in the country are along the Danube River, on the north side (but facing south). The river is important in regulating vine temperatures, but apparently orchards too (though the vineyards are along the slopes and the orchards, in the flats). There is a producer called Rothman and Winter that produces really fantastic Apricot Liqueur. A local distillery called Purkhart has made famous their “Blume Marillen” eau-de-vie brandy with the fruit juice of the renowned apricots from the region. The Purkharts have been making the apricot eau-de-vie for over 40 years. The style is fairly simple and clean. I went to check it out on its own, and, well, it smells like apricots! It is highly perfumed with underlying botanical aromatics. It is sweet, but in no way cloying. It’s easy to imagine having a glass with a cheese plate adorned with seasonal fruit or marmalade. It would cut right through a rich cheese, but anything less it may show too much heat (26.2% abv). This is not to be confused with a sweet and sappy apricot liqueur. This is high proof brandy that has been flavored with apricots, not the other way around.
So those are all the elements, but where does that leave us? On a basic inspection, it seems we have a lot of sweet and bitter components. Even within the realm of this Spiritual, we are in uncharted territory.
Even with the benefit of tasting, picture taking and note taking this sequence was a challenge. What your eyes read, and what you palate tastes are not easily reconciled. The lesson: acidity. Never underestimate the crucial role of acid in the food you taste and the things you drink. This is among the most basic of concepts, but as the essential role of salt (especially with starches) never ceases to amaze, acid will completely alter the course a cocktail. On the surface, and based on everything we just explored in all of the elements, it would appear that The Dusk would be a sweeter cocktail, but it isn’t. Even with a rich molasses-based rum, with Amaro Nonino, with Lillet Blanc, with Apricot Eau-de-vie, The Dusk is ominous and billowing. It is a formidable drink that walks the spirituous line without wavering. *It is also worth mentioning that it is stirred.
And yet, The Dawn, with the same backbone and without the sweet, bright addition of Lillet, is whimsical and open. How so? Lemon juice. The addition of lemon juice and the most vigorous shaking we’ve seen thus far brings The Dawn to its apropos title. It is an awakening, plush and tart.
To Yanni, I have to offer sincere thanks for the amount of detail and craftsmanship that went into this Spiritual. Very few will ever grasp your spirituous fervor, but to work with you, and within it, is a joy. Writing about the spiritual has simultaneously reinforced and redefined my understanding of the subtleties of fine drink making. Looking forward to the next one.