Growing up in a Jamaican family, Alexander Kong learned that rum has many uses. When he had a fever, his grandmother would lay a rum-soaked rag on his forehead. To fight off a cold, the best medicine was rum mixed with honey, ginger and lime. Rum was poured on the graves of the departed, splashed in the corners of a new home to drive out bad spirits, and used to celebrate everything from Christmas to the end of a workday.
It has also provided a livelihood for Kong, who now works as export sales manager for Jamaican rum producer Worthy Park Estate. Kong was in town recently for the fifth annual Chicago Rum Festival, which brought distillers and experts from around the world to the Logan Square Auditorium to network, learn and sample more than 50 varieties of the sugar-cane based spirit. Prior to the American Revolution, rum was the most consumed liquor in the United States. American colonists drank as much as four gallons per person per year, and even Paul Revere had his own distillery. Rum later got the boot in favor whiskey, gin and other spirits, but today it’s back on the upswing thanks in part to the resurgence of cocktail culture and tiki bars.
Kong, festival organizer Federico Hernandez and many others cited Chicago’s vibrant tiki scene in particular—including bars such as Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hala Kahiki in River Grove, one of the oldest continually operated tiki bars in the nation—as an important factor in rum’s resurgence.
“What we’re doing with rum isn’t really changing, but what is changing is the consumer palate and what people are looking for,” said Kong.
While the tiki scene started in Los Angeles in the 1930s, more recently it’s been Chicago bar owners like Paul McGee who have revived and elevated the tiki concept, putting a sophisticated spin on traditionally sweet, pre-mixed cocktails like the zombie and the banana daiquiri while staying true to tiki culture’s exotic, palm-fronded allure.
“[Tiki] was an escapist ideal…the whole thing is supposed to transport you to a different time and place,” said Adrienne Stoner, a former bartender at Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash who now works for rum producer Maison Ferrand. “It was kind of dark days in the U.S. at that time, and to have this tiny bar where you can go and be in a totally different world was very special.”
Stoner became passionate about rum while working under McGee at Lost Lake, which features an extensive education program for staff, including weekly classes and regular meetings with producers. Having that wealth of knowledge elevates the customer experience, says Stoner, while also helping bartenders navigate the nearly 300 rums behind the counter.
“I think people that have these unfortunate preconceived notions because of a bad experience in college or high school, but you have to give rum a second chance,” Stoner said.
The flavor profiles of rums can vary just as much as whiskey or wines, she says, depending on factors such as climate, terroir and the aging process. A rum from Jamaica, for instance, can taste very different from one distilled in the mountains of Costa Rica.
Many producers like Maison Ferrand also use complex aging processes, sometimes finishing rums in French oak casks, a process that dates back to when Caribbean rums were brought by ship to mature in France during the seventeenth century.
“I’ve found that a lot of consumers are looking for history, they want an authentic product,” Kong said. “[Worthy Park goes] back 250 years, we have a lot of history to talk about. Our history really parallels the history of Jamaica, and the sugar industry in Jamaica.”
For many, that history and connection is what makes rum so special.
Stoner said during tastings, people’s faces will often light up when they hit on a particular rum, like an older couple who maybe went to Barbados 50 years ago and suddenly find a flavor they recognize.
“They’re like, ‘This reminds me of our honeymoon,’” she said. “You don’t really get that experience with a lot of other spirits.”
Featured photo: Tim Frisbie