After swimming in whiskey the last couple of days, it was a welcome change to try some new and noteworthy rum yesterday afternoon. Gary Nelthropp, master distiller of Cruzan Rum, dropped by to chat about the molasses-based spirit and the St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands-based distillery it comes from. He brought with him
mixologist bartender Jesse Card, who plied the BlackBook and VIBE staffs with a selection of inspired rum cocktails to get everybody in a summer mood. As I’ve said before, rum might be the funnest spirit to write about, because it comes from a beautiful place (the Caribbean and Central America) and elicits mental associations with beaches, palm trees, rum shacks, and the stress-free life we all aspire to.
Nelthropp didn’t disappoint with the stories. He’s a sixth generation Cruzan, which brings us to our first lesson: Cruzan (pronounced kru-zhun) is the term for a person from St. Croix, much like a Porteño lives in Buenos Aires. They’ve been making rum since 1760. I’m no expert but I do know a little bit about how rum is made, and Nelthropp brought some excellent teaching tools with him to help bring my book/bar smarts to life.
First of all, he had some black strap molasses that he swirled onto a plate, fancy dessert style, for me to taste. It was sweet, sticky, and far more pleasant than I expected it to be. Still, I probably wouldn’t find much use for it in my kitchen. Good thing they turn it into rum.
And how do they turn it into rum? By using something called a column still (as opposed to the other kind of still, a pot still). A column still is a booze-making machine that separates the different parts of the distillate (raw booze) so the best parts can be isolated and used and the nasty parts discarded. Imagine a test tube, where the bottom and top thirds contain strong, pungent, yucky-tasting liquids, and the middle third is the sweet spot everybody loves. Not to get too technical on you, but a column still lets you take the sweet spot while leaving the yucky parts behind. Nelthropp brought sample bottles of "heads" and "tails" for me to smell, and they were shockingly offensive. People reacted like passed-out sitcom characters sniffing smelling salts.
But on to the good stuff: the rum. We tried a couple of different expressions, from the Cruzan Distiller’s Collection ($20 per bottle) to the Cruzan Single Barrel ($30). I found the Distiller’s Collection flavorful and easy to drink, but, being a fancy man of discriminating tastes, the Single Barrel is what I’d sip in a wicker chair under some massive beach umbrella (I don’t do well in the sun). It’s a blend of rums aged 5 to 12 years which are then rested for another year in new oak casks. All that time spent in barrels gives it a luscious texture and smooth flavors of vanilla and honey. The experience isn’t that much different than that of sipping a quality malt whisky.
mixologist bartender Jesse Card stepped up to the cutting board and worked some serious magic, chopping lemons, zesting limes, and creating a whole range of cocktails that brought both the boys and the girls into the conference room for samples.
My personal favorite was the Cruzan Single Barrel Old Fashioned, and it goes a little something like this:
2 parts Cruzan Single Barrel Rum
1/4 part Muscavado
2:1 simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitter
2 dashes old fashioned bitters
Giant ice cube
Stir in mixing glass and strain into a old fashioned glass.
Cruzan (you are pronouncing it kru-zhun, right?) also makes a bunch of naturally-flavored rums, the kind that I pretend to be too sophisticated to like, but if you give me a drink made with the stuff and don’t say anything, I’m all "This is really good, man." Their latest flavors are Key Lime and Passion Fruit (the most passionate of all fruits). I’m particularly fond of Key Lime because that’s my favorite kind of pie. It also gives me a chance to explain to people the differences between Key limes and regular Persian limes.
It all went fast–both the rum, and our time together–but everybody had something to add. VIBE executive editor Datwon Thomas popped in to share a story about a recent trip to St. Croix, where the surprise cancellation of all their outdoor activities led to an impromptu party in the resort’s presidential suite–and a run on every single bottle of Cruzan rum from the gift shop.
And I couldn’t resist asking about what life is like living somewhere like St. Croix. As Nelthropp explained, it’s great (the "duh" is implied), and while living and working there isn’t quite the same as being on vacation all the time, their leisure time is spent doing fun beachy things, like swimming, scuba diving, and sailing. Also, it doesn’t snow very much.
Sailing in particular is a thing, and Nelthropp advises anybody with a desire to sail upon the sea to charter a catamaran and island-hop throughout the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. (Don’t tell anybody he said this, but he thinks the British Virgin Islands are a little bit better for sailing, because they have more secret coves to duck into and pretend to be a pirate.)
And so we learned a fair amount about Cruzan Rum and St. Croix, and now I want to go and visit the distillery and charter a boat and go scuba diving and drink rum punch and close my eyes and listen to the waves and work on becoming the mellowest person in the world.
Yet here I am at work. Ah well, he did leave me a bottle. Six o’clock can’t come soon enough.