We Need to Talk About Rum

How "The Rum Tasting of the Century" and a 200-year-old rum led me to question the spirit's problematic legacy.

In the fall of 2018, I attended what was billed as “The Rum Tasting of the Century.” This event took place on a warm evening on an upper floor of the Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square, overlooking the Tower Bridge and the bulbous, shiny City Hall across the Thames. A well-dressed crowd of two dozen or so enthusiasts, mostly men — wealthy collectors from all over Europe, dealers of rare spirits from Belgium and Scandinavia, newspaper journalists from France and Italy, rum geeks from the U.S. — gathered in a private dining room to taste six rums that spanned from the 18th to early 20th centuries, including the oldest dated rum in existence.

This kind of posh affair is not uncommon in the world of high-end spirits, a realm that’s usually far removed from workaday life. But even an event like The Rum Tasting of the Century could not escape the uncomfortable, relevant questions — about history, race, poverty, and exploitation — that now demand to be asked about everything.

Our host was Luca Gargano, co-owner of the importer La Maison & Velier, a noted rum expert but also a hubristic and problematic character in the spirits community. Gargano held court in a royal blue sweater and sneakers, and for part of the evening with a lit, dangling cigarette. He had dreamed up The Rum Tasting of the Century to promote his company’s new import from Jamaica, from Hampden Estate, a 265-year-old distillery in the Trelawny Parish. Trelawny is considered by many to be the grand cru of Caribbean rum. While rum insiders knew that Hampden’s wild-fermented, pot-still rums were found in some of the finest blends in the world, from 1753 until now, Hampden had never actually put its own name on a label. “It’s as if Ferrari existed for over 200 years but only sold car parts!” Gargano bellowed. As good as Hampden happens to be, placing his new offering in a lineup that included some of the most coveted rum in the world was a pretty flamboyant marketing stunt.

The mood in the private dining room was buzzing, almost giddy, as the oldest rum, a 1780 Harewood from Barbados, was opened by a dapper man in a mauve turban named Sukhinder Singh, founder of The Whisky Exchange in London and one of the foremost rare-spirits dealers in the world. Singh slowly, carefully tapped at the seal that had covered this bottle for more than two centuries, splintering red wax all over the table. After finally plunging in the corkscrew, a sudden hissing, screeching sound emerged as he twisted. “That’s the ancient spirit coming out of the bottle!” someone exclaimed.

Once opened, we were quickly poured a sample. The rum was golden, much lighter than I figured, but to the nose, it was big, funky, and full of heat. After only moments of 21st-century air, the softer flavors and aromas emerged — floral, vegetal, molasses, with a fatty, oily texture on the palate, and something darker, like burnt sugarcane or even hot asphalt at the edges. Full-on pirate juice might be one way to describe it. “There are only 16 bottles of this left in the world,” said Gargano.

Singh told me that the stash of Harewood had been found in Yorkshire, in the cellar of Harewood House, the famous manor of an aristocratic family who’d owned plantations in colonial Barbados. London’s big auction houses, at first, had been scared about handling the rum. “There was some worry that the bottles were related to the slave trade,” Singh told me, quietly. An investigation into the rum’s provenance — similar to inquiries into the trade of questionable antiquities — turned up no direct link to the slave trade. So the rum was sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Singh told me he’d sold a bottle of Harewood two years ago for £25,000. Since then, he told me, the rum market had gone crazy. He believed the next bottle he handled would sell for at least £50,000. “Ah, to produce something and then wait whole generations,” Gargano said, wistfully. “This is one of the most proud impulses in human beings. This makes honor to the human being.”

I had more mixed emotions. Certainly, I felt honored to taste something with so much history. But as I sipped, I grew skeptical that any rum coming from Barbados in 1780 didn’t have some link, even indirectly, to the slave trade. We all learned that terrible triangle in history class: molasses went to New England, rum to Africa, and slaves to the West Indies. Even the earl who now owns Harwood House acknowledges his ancestors’ slave-owning past. Not long ago, few in the spirits business would have uttered a word about what lurked in a rum’s past. Now, it feels essential to talk about it.

The next rum opened was an 1885 Saint James from Martinique. It was nut brown in color, soft and enveloping, full of toffee and coffee flavors, and smoky. After a few minutes, the smoke evolved into dried fruit and the toffee into umami-spicy notes. Singh said it was “a little dirty,” but I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Gargano reminded us that this rum pre-dated the 1902 Mount Pelée volcanic eruption, which killed 28,000 people and destroyed Martinique’s biggest city, Saint-Pierre, then known as the “Paris of the Caribbean.”

After that, Gargano opened another Martinique rum, a 1924 Bally that is reputed to be the first official vintage of rhum agricole, the style of rum made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice that’s protected by French appellation laws and for which Martinique is famous. Finally, he opened a bottle of Skeldon, a rich Demerara rum from Guyana. The vintage was 1978, which is coincidentally the same year — in the jungles of Guyana — that American cult leader Jim Jones led his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid and commit mass suicide.

Yes, as the evening rolled on, I was realizing more and more that tasting aged rum is not exactly the same as tasting aged scotch or Cognac. Rum, made in some of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, has much more cultural baggage. Drinking old rum forces you to think about things like colonialism, slavery, American hegemony in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the significant disparity between the poverty of the workers who cut sugarcane to ferment and distill, and the wealth of those who enjoy the end product. Perhaps it’s too much to think about every time one sips a mojito or mai tai, but it’s always there. Drinks people talk a lot about terroir. We should also consider the people who struggle in that terroir.

A day of cutting sugarcane, for instance, is said to be as grueling as running a half-marathon — and most workers will do it six or seven days a week. Several years ago, some bartenders boycotted Flor de Caña rum from Nicaragua after Vice reported on the deplorable conditions faced by its sugarcane workers. In fact, in the communities surrounding Flor de Caña’s headquarters in Chichigalpa, there had been an epidemic of a chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu). After the negative coverage, conditions improved for Flor de Caña’s workers. But then, in 2018, a new boycott on Flor de Caña was called to protest the cozy relationship between the company’s owner, billionaire Carlos Pellas, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega — who over three terms has devolved from being a revolutionary hero into a corrupt authoritarian, with brutal paramilitary gangs crushing dissent. Hundreds have died in political violence. I’ll admit that, a decade ago, I used to regularly recommend Flor de Caña, which I’d fallen for as a young backpacker in Central America in the late 1990s. That relationship has changed.

Even when we genuinely love a rum, it can become complicated. Last summer, for instance, I wrote about the phenomenon of an unaged Haitian rum, made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, called clairin. As I wrote in that piece, clairin satisfies the spirits aficionado’s endless search for “authentic,” “pure,” and “rustic.” It’s made from native sugarcane, often transported on horseback and crushed by oxen, and distilled in remote villages in homemade stills, the process unchanged since the 19th century. Clairin was actually imported by Gargano’s company, La Maison & Velier, who pitched it as sort of a rum version of mezcal, the darling mark of authenticity for the cocktail crowd. It was bottled by the name of each small-village distiller who produced it.

Unfortunately, a couple of months later, one of the bottlings, Clairin Casimir, was taken off the shelves due to the presence of lead contamination. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the Food and Drug Administration decided that the elevated levels of lead could be dangerous to pregnant and nursing women. Despite being below European standards and the fact that most pregnant and nursing mothers avoid drinking rum altogether, there was a voluntary recall of Clairin Casimir.

I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the man, Faubert Casimir, who made this rum. Casimir had simply been minding his own business, distilling clairin as he had for years in a poor, remote part of Haiti — until some white Europeans arrived, fell in love with it, bottled it, labeled it with his name, and sold it overseas. In any case, Casimir did not have the resources to do expensive laboratory testing on his spirits — something his importers could have done. He used a homemade still, and perhaps the lead had come from the solder that was used to maintain it. Now, through several twists of fate, Faubert Casimir was the target of an investigation by the TTB and the FDA in the United States because of slightly elevated lead levels. It all just didn’t seem right.

At The Rum Tasting of the Century, I’d saved one last sip of the 1780 Harewood until the very end. When I came back to it after the other rums, less than an hour later, the 238-year-old rum had already begun to fade and die, dissipating into something like sugar water. Yet at the finish of this last sip, there was a sudden explosion, a small boom, a last gasp, of ancient, earthy, hard-to-place flavor. It was almost as if the old spirit in the bottle had one final word it needed to express. The finish was not necessarily sweet, but it was complex, and felt important to taste.