Word on the street is that rum’s the next big thing here in the South. Recently, I attended a pop-up cocktail party hosted by Southern Foodways Alliance at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi that perpetuated the rumor.

{ Rum: the South’s Original Drink of Choice }

When people think of Southern spirits, a certain brown water usually comes to mind first. There’s no doubt that the South is famous for its bourbon and its whiskey. There is a long and storied history behind the South’s most famous libation, but did you know the original drink of choice in colonial America, including the South, was rum?

For centuries, rum served as a driving force for trade between the colonies, the Caribbean, and Europe. Made from the sugar cane juice or sugarcane byproducts, rum originated in the Caribbean during the early colonial era. Rum is a clear spirit, but when aged in barrels, it takes on a darker, golden hue and a more mellow flavor.

If you’re like me, your experience with rum may have been limited to sipping on Piña Coladas overflowing with syrup and tiny umbrellas while you were on Spring Break at the Gulf of Mexico. Or maybe your first rum experience hit you like a hurricane on certain gritty street in New Orleans? This is the classic Southern encounter with rum: a super sweet, boozy party. But does the party end there?

During the past few decades, most cocktail lovers failed to explore the possibilities of this spirit further than its tiki tinged past. However, thanks to the booming cocktail culture fueled by social media during the last several years, rum is ready for its closeup once again, and I am ready to move beyond the Pina Coladas of my youth.

{ Rum 101 }

Eager to expand my rum repertoire, earlier this year I attended a gathering billed as “Rum 101” at Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi. This event was hosted by Pop Up Oxford, Snackbar Restaurant, and Southern Foodways Alliance in support of its recently released book, Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails by Sara Camp Milam and Jerry Slater.

(Learn more about Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails in our Favorite Cookbooks section.)

Ms. Milam served as co-host of the event, along with Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge and local cocktail expert, Ivy McLellan. The signature cocktail of the event was a “Not-So-Old Fashioned Old Fashioned.” Made with rum, the classic cocktail takes on an entirely different personality: think of it as a warmer, friendlier version of the standard cocktail. I was hooked after one taste.

The evening was part lecture, part demonstration and part tasting.

Ivy McClellan demonstrated the correct way to prepare the Rum Old Fashioned using an aged rum by Mount Gay, while Sara Camp Milam educated the crowd on the history of rum in the South. After everyone enjoyed the Old Fashioned, we moved on to the tasting portion of the evening.

We sampled three rums: a white rum produced in Mississippi by Charboneau Rum, a blended rum by Appleton Estate and a dark rum by El Dorado. The three rums varied wildly in appearance and taste.

The first selection was the white rum by Charboneau Rum, which is produced in Natchez, Mississippi. Charboneau Rum uses raw sugar and molasses sourced from a nearby Louisiana sugar mill. White rum is the unaged version of rum. In this form, the rum appears clear and has a sharp, alcoholic taste. We learned that some white rums are rhum agricole, a type of rum produced from sugarcane juice, rather than the molasses left over from sugar processing. This type of rum evolved in the French Caribbean and is perfect to use in cocktails.

The second selection by Appleton Estates was light golden in color, smooth and complex. Produced in Jamaica, this rum is aged in oak barrels, giving it its darker color and velvety feel.

My favorite was the third rum sampled: the dark rum by El Dorado. This rum is produced in Guayana and is aged twelve years. The warm aroma of vanilla bean filled the glass. Extraordinarily smooth and rich, this rum is perfect to serve over ice or neat.

The evening ended with an informative question and answer session. This event was the perfect primer for anyone who is curious about the world of rum and also a great time if you enjoy sharing a perfectly crafted cocktail with exceptional company. Armed with this new-found knowledge, I felt more confident about choosing rum and preparing cocktails using this versatile spirit.

by Christy Graham, Managing Editor