Rum's the Word

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

This is how it happened. One day, someone living a little to the south of you and a little to the north of Havana decided that if revolution was possible for coffee, bread, beer, and wine, it was also possible for rum. In other words, it was time for Americans to give up their monochromatic understanding of this sugar cane spirit, just as they had relaxed their grips on cans of instant coffee and loaves of squishy white bread.

Most of us grew up with--and threw up--rum and Cokes, rum punch, and piña coladas. Sipping rum seems just a little...wrong. But that's only because we haven't tasted rum that's been aged for a few years and distilled a couple of times. Today your chances of coming face to face with rum that's good enough to nurse like expensive Scotch are very good.

One of the standard-bearers of this rum revolution is John Mihajlov, co-owner with brother Michael of the Minneapolis downtown nightspot Tiburón Caribbean Bistro. The Mihajlovs have more than one claim to fame: Diners gawk at their 42-foot-long fish tank (complete with real sharks) and on Friday and Saturday nights the salsa crowd packs the dance floor. The brothers are also rum aficionados: Nearly 40 bottles of Caribbean and Central American rum, most of it sipping quality, line the shelf above the bar. John Mihajlov admits that part of the reason he opened Tiburón was because he enjoys rum himself. Also, he saw the future, and the future was top-shelf rums.

"It's a very new thing for the United States," he says. "It'll be the next trend. It started in Miami, and it's heading up the coast to New York and L.A."

Why rum? "It's a cycle," he posits. "For a while the trend was a lot of tequilas. [But] with tequila, people have that bad experience in college. With rum, the feelings they usually have are being on vacation and doing something exotic."

Mihajlov has toured plantations and distilleries in the Caribbean and he can give you chapter and verse about the many varieties of rum and how they come to taste so entirely different. On a recent Friday night he ignored the press of thirsty salsa dancers to take this City Pages writer and a friend on a guided tasting tour of the rum selection.


Sugar Cane Country
Rum is made from sugar cane, which is why the Caribbean is worldwide rum headquarters. Either sugar cane juice or molasses (which is what's left when sugar cane juice has been boiled and the crystallized sugar removed) is fermented with yeast and water. This step can take as little as a day for light rums, or as long as several weeks for heavier rums. The fermented mixture is then distilled. Heavy rums are usually cooked in pot stills (a copper pot that narrows into a tube at the top; the same kind used to make Scotch and cognac) and light rums in column stills (a more efficient still also used for vodka and industrial alcohol).

When rum comes out of the still, it's clear. It darkens slightly as it ages in oak barrels, although what we think of as dark rums generally get that way through the addition of caramel for color. Aging in oak also mellows the flavor.

At Tiburón, rum comes in four basic categories: flavored or mixing rums, quality rums, sipping rums, and reserve or refined rums. Flavored rums are of lesser quality; they're made to be mixed with fruit juice and the like. The rest are made to be served straight up or with water or ice.

Not all of Tiburón's rums are on the menu. In fact, some arrive in such limited quantities--one or two bottles--that they may or may not be there on a given night. That's the case with Mihajlov's favorite, a rum from the island of Anguilla called Pyrat Cask 23. It's one of the most expensive rums they have, at $40 a glass, and he says it's the best--even better than their Bacardi Millenium, which is $100 a glass.

Some of the workers at the Pyrat distillery are former Grand Marnier makers, which Mihajlov suspects might have something to do with why Pyrat Cask is exceptionally tender and buttery. "It's got the nice oak flavor, it doesn't taste burnt at all," he says. "It's very complex."

Another reason Pyrat Cask is so good, according to Mihajlov, is that it's made entirely from sugar cane grown on Anguilla, whereas most rum is made from cane grown in many different places: "They've got the best cane out there."

Just as wine grapes take on the taste of their surroundings, a rum's flavor derives from the place where the cane grows, explains Mihajlov. "Each island has different flavor characteristics: It depends on sunshine and salt content of water and things like that."  

Even wind makes a difference, he says. Cane that grows on the windward side of an island is thicker than cane grown on the leeward side, and produces rum with a woodier, more full-bodied flavor.

Age matters too, as does the number of times a rum is distilled. Mihajlov carries two versions of Flor de Caña, a Nicaraguan rum. The five-year-old rum, amber in color, smells leathery and has the bite and the burn of a good Scotch. The four-year-old Flor de Caña is pale yellow and has a sweet, fruity flavor--it purrs rather than bites. Both are distilled twice.

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.


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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