A conversation with mixologist Jeff Rogers (about rum)

hemingway

The Whistling Bird is committed to offering alternatives for the Iron Range that go beyond expectations. Tomorrow night we invite you to join us on a culinary adventure, island-hopping across the caribbean in five delectable courses – but that’s not all. We’ve also invited guest mixologist, Jeff Rogers, to pair each course with a handcrafted, rum-based cocktail to compliment each dish.

Yes, it’s true: We aim to spoil you.

We’ve asked Jeff to give us some background on the rum basics, the cocktail renaissance that has now entered its second decade, the craft of bar tending and more. So if you’re one of those people that likes food and drink as much as we do, we think you’ll find this little Q&A interesting. Jeff will make himself available to follow up with any other questions you might have tomorrow night.

Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner bar geek!

WB: In terms of rum, how can the outsider that doesn’t know much about rum consider the varieties? Is it similar to how whisk(e)y can vary? A lot of people think rum is Bacardi and that’s it.

JR: You were right on when it comes to the whisk(e)y comparison. Because rum can be made anywhere in the world, the varieties are abundant. Caribbean rums are going to be different than South American rums, etc. The base raw material is the place to start. Rum is a distillate made from fresh pressed sugar cane juice or molasses, which is the byproduct of refining sugar. Each of these materials as a starting point will give you completely different styles.

Fermentation is a huge difference. You cannot distill a spirit until fermentation happens. The common thought is that distillation makes alcohol and that is false. Every spirit starts as a wine or beer of sorts. Not the stuff that you have in your fridge or wine rack, but a “distiller’s wine or beer”. Distillation simply separates the alcohol and concentrates it from the wine or beer. The same is true for rum. Whether you start with fresh sugar cane juice or molasses, how long you let it ferment and the type of yeast used. Different yeast equals different fermentation. There are very deep and rich rums that were fermented slowly over a couple of weeks and there are light and crisp varieties that fermented for days.

What kind of still is used, pot or column? Light rum is made using a column still that distills multiple times in one running. You end up with a high proof (generally 190 proof plus) spirit that is cut with distilled water to bring the proof down to bottling proof. What most people are unaware of is that even light rum can be aged in oak barrels and before bottling they are filtered to strip color. Light rums are crisp and clean with very little congeners (byproducts of fermentation thought of as impurities or flavor, depending on the spirit). Dark and rich rums are generally made with a pot still that has to be 100% cleaned after each distillation. This is a long process that is well worth it. This process leaves more of the congeners which give darker rums their character. Maturation is just as important. Used bourbon and French oak barrels are used for aging. Each will impart a different flavor profile. Last, is where it is aged and for how long. Different climates will allow the rum to move in and out of the barrel wood at different rates. The more movement, the more flavor is imparted into the spirit. Also, the longer it has been barreled gives it more time to impart flavor, but it is believed that every barrel has a shelf life in which there isn’t any flavors left in the wood. That is why, older is not always better.

WB: Do you have any particular favorites when it comes to rum and what is it you favor about them?

JR: Though it is not possible to get here, Cuban rum is one of my favorites. I think it is the mystic of them being taboo along with great rum. I lived in Grand Cayman awhile back and had access to Cuban rums at all times there. Oh, I miss it! I also love Tortuga, a brand in Grand Cayman that we drank a lot of. It was the everyday rum. Rhum JM, a brand of French Caribbean whisk(e)y like rums. Cachaca, a category of Brazilian made rum that is aged in exotic wood barrels.

WB: Rum seems to be experiencing a renaissance in some ways like gin did before, and the whole tiki scene seems to be enlivened in general – perhaps as a part of the gravity of the overall popularity of better drinking these days. What would you say have been the primary drivers with regard to this resurgence with respect to American style cocktail culture?

JR: Passion, hands down! It is a gigantic circle. Passionate bartenders and mixologists seeking well made products that they want to use. They preach their passion to their guests and co-workers through their cocktails and hospitality. Their guests and co-workers go and talk to their friends and their passion develops. Those friends start going to other bars and liquor stores asking for higher quality products. The distillers and suppliers start to see that the populace wants more craft and well made products, so they do. Now the bartender or mixologist has a wider variety of quality to choose from. I love the cycle started by the fire of passionate people. It also has not hurt that people, in general, are caring more about what they put in their body. We bar folk owe a great deal to the chefs that changed the eating habits of people over the last 15 years. Without them, we could be fighting a futile battle.

WB: In tiki lore, it’s said that the old bartenders like Don the Beachcomber used to code their recipes and generally stay quite secretive about their drinks recipes which led to some awful attempts to copy his drinks. It’s somehow fun, I think, to consider intrigue as a part of bar tending, but I suppose that’s the same in any industry. Does that still go on today? Or are bartenders more blatant about their recipes, depending on their personality and technique to set them apart from other bartenders?

JR: This is a very tricky one. I would say that overall the industry is very open with recipes nowadays. Since so many people make their own ingredients now, except for the spirits themselves, people don’t care about giving you the recipe. Just like giving 3 different chefs the exact same ingredients and the same recipe, there is a good chance you end up with 3 different dishes. Same rules apply here. That is where the true art is, in my opinion. Now, there will always be some trade secrets that everyone has and they may not share, but that is free enterprise. You have to keep some competitive edge. Besides, how boring would it be, if everywhere you went out it was the exact same drinks?

WB: What trends in your industry do you think are interesting and what could you do without?

JR: The best trend that I see currently is going back to hospitality. I love well-made cocktails, but not for the sake of service. Please don’t confuse the length of time to make a cocktail with bad service. If the bartender is a jerk and takes 15 minutes to make my drink, unacceptable. But, I am okay with my cocktail taking a little bit longer, emphasis on little. I do appreciate those that are taking the time to make exactly what I want, that it is up to their standards, and treat me like a guest at their home. Also, well run places that take a “little” longer will offer a glass of punch or a little beer while they are making your cocktail. Hospitality is what this business was built on and it should go hand in hand with great cocktails and food. Everyone always asks, “How do you run a successful bar?” I wish there was a formula you could follow, but this is the real world with so many x-factors, but I will swear on my career that if you offer great, well thought out food and beverage, and treat all people they way they deserve, there is a pretty good chance you will do well.

The biggest trend that I want to go away has been going on since the 50’s and that is premade mixes and juices. Fresh juice is the way to go! But, changing the stigma that it is expensive and takes too long is the challenge we have. It will happen.

We are down to our last available seating. Don’t miss your chance for a little caribbean adventure. Call Jessica at 750-1818 to reserve!