Rum's the Word

High-quality sipping rum is coming soon to a glass near you

Prepare to be happily shocked by the intense aromas of quality rums. If identifying the scents in a given wine can be compared to a game of chess, where each scent is woven with many others and naming them requires thoughtful consideration, identifying the scents in sipping rum is like a game of tag. When you give the glass or snifter a little swirl and a sniff--which is, Mihajlov says, the right way to go about it--the scent reaches out and slaps you. For instance, ginger perfume hovers over a glass of Möet Hennessey's 10 Cane, a sugar cane juice rum from Jamaica, aged only six months.

Mihajlov claims he can identify by smell which island a rum came from.


Rum guys have all the luck: Tiburón's John Mihajlov
Jana Freiband
Rum guys have all the luck: Tiburón's John Mihajlov

There's No Turning Back
After we sampled the good stuff, we turned back to more familiar territory. Banana rum, from Virgin Islands producer Cruzan--the label that Tiburón uses for rail drinks--is clear and light, with no bite and no body, but a bouquet of banana strong enough to catch at a wedding. Mihajlov explains that flavored or mixing rums are fermented in stainless steel containers, whereas almost all of the higher quality rums are aged in oak barrels. A dark rum, also from Cruzan, smelled like molasses candy but lacked the silkiness of the aged rums.

Finally, we tried to sip regular old Bacardi. We couldn't drink it. It smelled and tasted like medicinal alcohol; there was no other aroma or flavor. After all the good rum we'd tasted, it felt unnatural--like when you go back to work after vacation.

Mihajlov smiled at our wrinkled noses. He told us he always gives people a glass of standard Bacardi last, after they've tasted the finer rums, and the reaction is always the same. This type of Bacardi (there are more expensive kinds) is distilled once and aged one year or less.

It was obvious that we still didn't understand the extent to which our taste buds had been reeducated, because we proceeded to order a rumrunner. Again, we couldn't drink it. The tall, frosty, pink glass looked candylike--just the right thing to wrap up a night of serious learning--but to our disappointment, even the sugary froth of crème de banana, lime juice, grenadine, and pineapple juice couldn't hide the thin, sharp taste of Meyer's and Cruzan rums. It's no small thing to find the flavors of a tropical drink coming apart on your tongue--and to realize the tongue is unhappy about it.


Could Castro Have the Last Word?
As we sat there at the bar, trying to make sense of the rum dregs in our sipping glasses, a woman leaned over and confided: "Unfortunately, the best rum in the world is illegal here and you can't try it."

We stopped. We listened.

Her name was Susan Valdés. She was there for the salsa. She has family in Cuba, and she claimed that that island's Havana Club is the best rum made anywhere on the planet.

Mihajlov agrees--sort of. "If it's not at the top, it's in the top three or four," he says, insisting that his Pyrat Cask could go up against Havana Club any day.

Forget about doing a taste test, though. The most inveterate rummy would be hard put to find Havana Club in Minneapolis because of the U.S. embargo. The feds aren't kidding around on this topic, as Mihajlov can attest. For a little while Tiburón was buying Cuban chocolate from France to use in cooking. After only three months, he said, they got a phone call from the State Department, telling them to cut it out. "So we switched to Dominican chocolate," he laughs.

Somewhere a little to the south of you, someone is chuckling at the irony: At long last, Americans embrace fine rums, only to find that their own laws have put the finest rum of all beyond their reach.

Then again, perhaps this is the kind of injustice that leads to a popular uprising. Forget about tax cuts for the wealthy, forget about privacy invasions, forget about environmental degradation--but drop that embargo, and do it now.

In the meantime, if you want to further your education on legal sipping rums, Mihajlov suggests browsing the selections at Haskell's and Surdyk's.


Tiburón Caribbean Bistro; 1201 Harmon Pl., Mpls; 612.604.0585;

Dara Moskowitz is enjoying some well-deserved vacation; her byline will reappear in this space soon.

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