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Thursday November 4, 2010

Rum: Taste of the tropics

Resisting the pre-requisite pirate joke, our columnist checks out some sugar cane-based spirits – rum and cachaça.

WHERE has all the rum gone? Beyond the usual bottles of Bacardi and Havana Club, we don’t usually see a lot of rum around Malaysian clubs and pubs.

In fact, there is very little awareness about the spirit in this country, beyond the fact that pirates drink it, and that you can make mojitos or you can mix your Bacardi with Coke. (Some people I’ve spoken to didn’t even know Bacardi was rum!) And let’s not even mention cachaça, which while technically a type of rum, is in a whole different category of its own.

Rum and cachaça (pronounced ka-sha-sa) are cane spirits derived from the by-products of sugar cane such as molasses and juice. Most of the rum in the world is made in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, while cachaça (although technically a rum) is associated most exclusively with Brazil.

Thirst quencher: Celcius Bar’s Pomegranate Caipirinha Cocktail, which uses Sagatiba cachaça, a Brazilian sugar cane-based spirit.

According to mixologist Ben Ng of Fluid Alchemy, a local beverage company, there are basically two kinds of rum: industrial and agricultural.

“Industrial rum is made from thick black sugar cane molasses. It is a cheaper way to make rum – when you plant sugar cane for sugar, you will get molasses at the end of it; and instead of throwing it away as waste, the molasses is used to make rum,” he explained. “When you use molasses to produce rum, it results in a more subtle kind of sweetness. It’s gentle, but gives you more bite in the drink itself.”

With agricultural rum, the sugar cane is actually planted specifically to make rum, and the rum is made exclusively from sugar cane juice. “When you smell agricultural rum, you get the smell of freshly pressed sugar cane. It also retains the original flavour of the sugar cane in it,” said Ng.

Rum certainly has a dark history to it. Besides being the spirit of choice for pirates of the Caribbean (and we’re not just talking about the movies here), it also used to be a precious commodity that was used as a bargaining tool in the slave trade. The British Royal Navy also used to hand out daily rations of rum to their sailors to keep them happy (the practice was only stopped in 1970).

Mixologist Ben Ng of Fluid Alchemy whipping up a cocktail using Sagatiba cachaça.

While it is hard to truly categorise rum properly (there’s light rum, gold rum, aged rum, dark rum, spiced rum and flavoured rum), it’s easier to differentiate the type of rum by the country each one is produced in. Most rum originating from Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala or Colombia tend to be light rum, while English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Bermuda and Barbados tend to make a darker, more flavourful kind of rum. Then, you have the agricultural rums that are mostly based on old French recipes and made in the French-speaking countries like Guadeloupe and Haiti.

According to Ng, light rum caters mostly to the white spirits market and is used mostly in cocktails and long drinks. Then you have the dark rums and aged rums, which are drunk almost on a connoisseur level.

“The rum market in Europe, Australia and Britain is very well-developed. People drink high-end stuff like JM or La Mauny, on the rocks or straight,” he said.

Spirit of Brazil

While technically a type of rum, cachaça has earned its right to its own category by virtue of being the only spirit that truly captures the culture and spirit of Brazil.

“Technically, cachaça is a kind of rum as well, but it has a very rich culture and heritage behind it,” said Ng.

Allegedly first produced by Portuguese colonists more than 400 years ago, cachaça is made exclusively with sugar cane juice and has a lot more sweetness and flavour to it than most rum.

What makes cachaça so special is that it is the main ingredient in Brazil’s “national cocktail” – the caipirinha (of which the basic ingredients are cachaça, brown sugar and lime).

During our interview at Celsius in Fahrenheit88 in Kuala Lumpur, Ng whipped up several cocktails using a cachaça called Sagatiba, which is one of the higher-end varieties available in the market right now. We also tried several variations of the caipirinha.

Another refreshing cocktail using cachaça.

“(The popularity of) Cachaça has grown thanks to the cocktail culture, specifically because of the caipirinha, which is very popular in Europe. It became even more popular when bartenders introduced the twisted versions of caipirinha by adding fruits and flavours to it,” said Ng. “As a result, more cachaça brands started coming into the market, including Sagatiba, which is seen as the first luxury cachaça.”

According to him, cachaça has a sweet tone, and fresh grassy taste to it. “Cachaça has a very well rounded and easily accepted flavour. It doesn’t have a dominating flavour, so can mix well with anything,” he said. “Good ones like Sagatiba go well with fruits – it has a very fresh subtle sweetness so when you add fruits, that brings out the character of the fruits in the drink. It also works well with Asian ingredients like lemongrass or ginger, or even chocolate.

“Personally, I like my Sagatiba with ginger ale and a twist of lime in it. In Malaysia, we love having a bottle at our table. So why not have a cachaça with a few mixers where you can mix your own long drinks and enjoy them all night long?” Ng concluded.

Michael Cheang still has to resist the urge to go ‘Arrrr!’ every time he drinks rum.

Quick Shots

Belgian beer

FANCY a taste of Belgian beer? Then check out Brux-ale (pronounced like Brussels) Belgian Bistro (4, Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar, KL) for authentic Belgian cuisine complete with genuine Belgian beers. On tap, they have the excellent Blanche de Bruxelles and Maniken Pils, while some of the more interesting bottled brands include a range of Floreffe Trappist beers (brewed by Belgian Trappist monks), the extra hoppy Taras Boulba, an extra strong Belgian ale with honey, Barbar, light, fruity beers like Kriek and Newton, and other beers like Zinnebir, Saison 1900. For reservations, call 03-2287 2628.

Drinkers unite!

THE recent Budget 2011 may have spared us a higher tax on alcohol, but the fact remains that Malaysia is one of the most expensive countries to have a beer, cocktail or any sort of legal alcohol, for that matter.

With that in mind, a group of consumers have formed a group called Alcohol-Consumer-Rights Group Malaysia (Alcon) to campaign for lower prices for alcoholic beverages.

“Malaysians pay the highest price for alcohol in the world, next to Norwegians who earn a lot more than we do,” said Deepak Gill, spokesman for the group. “A majority of us are just social drinkers who drink moderately, and we should not be penalised with such high prices.”

He added that the high price of legal alcohol also leads to more smuggling and related illegal activities, and could force people to turn to cheaper and more harmful alternatives like moonshine or locally made compounded hard liquor.

To join the cause, visit Alcon’s Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/bLyWrN).

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