For bars that are serious about rum, a flagon is the thing. Detroit’s Bad Luck Bar, with its 70-bottle-strong rum collection, has one of these large, porous stoneware vessels once used by the British Navy to store and transport rum.
In fact, Bad Luck is already onto its third flagon, filled with vintage rum from 1952, poured for $120 per two-ounce serving. When the bar’s first two flagons, from 1970, were empty, partner Yani Frye decided to fill them with something almost as special as midcentury overproof rum: a rum he blended himself. Frye’s six-rum blend, a custom mix of different commercial rums, will age in the flagons for the next year.
“We love rum more than anything else,” says Frye. “It’s the spirit with the widest range of flavors, styles, regions.”
Among his favorites is Cruzan black strap, a dark, rich spirit with maple and molasses notes. In his opinion, however, it’s a little too sweet to enjoy on its own. He decided to make a black-strap-style rum he could drink neat.
Frye is among several bartenders around the country experimenting with blending their own rums. Using existing products, they create customized flavor profiles to suit their menus and personal tastes.
After tasting dozens of rums, Frye decided on a six-rum blend that used Angostura seven-year-old as the base, Cruzan black strap for richness, a dose of Lemon Hart 151 for heat, Appleton Estate and Smith & Cross for Jamaican sweetness and rusticity, and J.M Blanc for the vegetal freshness of unaged rhum agricole.
“Rum has come a long way over the past few years,” says Sam Ehrlich, the wine director at Blue Ribbon in New York, whose house blend is made of Bacardi eight-year-old añejo, Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple and Smith & Cross Navy strength.
“It’s been embraced by the new generation of bartenders and restaurant beverage buyers who recognize what amazing value older rums can provide,” says Ehrlich. “We wanted something that would make our drinks unique without breaking the bank.”
As Ehrlich points out, Plantation Pineapple is itself a blend of rums from Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad. Even rums made by a single distillery are almost always blended to achieve balance and consistency.
In that sense, what these establishments are doing just takes conventional rum production to the next level.
Jesse Vida of New York’s BlackTail, the new Cuban-inspired bar by the team behind The Dead Rabbit, wanted to make a rum based on a Cuban style that no longer exists. He researched old menus and styles from the early 1900s before settling on a blend of Caña Brava, Plantation, Barbancourt and El Dorado—all white rums aged up to three years. The result works in both shaken and stirred drinks but can also be sipped neat.
“People’s perceptions of rum range,” says Vida. “A lot of people only know it for Mojitos and Mai Tais. That said, at BlackTail, people do order a lot of rum neat or on the rocks, definitely way more than in any other bar I’ve worked at.”
Kate Perry, the self-proclaimed “rumtender” at Seattle’s Rumba, designed her house blend for the perfect Daiquiri after finding everything else on the market either too sweet or too rich. Her five-rum blend is spirit-forward, crisp and dry with a touch of funk.
“I’m fairly certain that our rum blend offers guests the best ‘well rum’ they’ve ever had,” she says. Perry also created a Tiki blend for Tiki drinks, which are often comprised of multiple rums anyway. A third blend is a combination of the other two plus a Barbados rum for a total of 13 different rums in the bottle.
“This isn’t something we invented,” says Perry. “The early pioneers of Tiki were quite secretive with their ingredients, and blending ingredients in mysteriously labeled bottles was part of the allure and mystique of these places. People have been blending rums for a really long time!”