Probably the best way to explain how I feel about rum is to say that last week, when a bartender served me a rum cocktail in a glass rimmed with bright green candy sugar, I drank it. Now, if the drink had been made with whiskey or gin, I would have demanded something a little more dignified. But rum can make you relax your aesthetic standards. Drinking it is kind of like taking a trip to a tropical resort where you suddenly feel compelled to dress up in hideous polychromatic shirts printed with palm trees and hula girls. As it happens, I have a lot of shirts like that, and sometimes I'll wear them when I drink rum at home.
Something about rum makes you feel like you're on vacation. America must need a vacation pretty badly right now because we're drinking more rum than we have in years. It goes along with our current obsession with all things Latin, from singers such as Marc Anthony to the Latin-influenced cuisine at restaurants like Chicama, where I had that green drink. The Manhattan hot spot is one in a whole conga line of new Latin places across the city. But there's more to the current vogue than restaurants serving rum cocktails to wash down plantains and seviche. When mojitos start outselling martinis at Chinese, Japanese and even Italian restaurants (the mojito revival in San Francisco began at an Italian place in North Beach called Enrico's), you know that rum's appeal goes beyond a momentary national fixation on Ricky Martin's hips.
One explanation may be that rum is made from sugar, which hits us on the deep, irrational level where all first loves hold sway. That's not to say that rum is simple; it's a spirit of some complexity, as more and more people are discovering. Andrew DiCataldo, the new chef at Patria in Manhattan, recently devised a tasting menu that paired his Nuevo Latino cooking with fine old rums such as Pampero Aniversario and Barrilito. It was a great success; the rums had more than enough character to stand up to his sophisticated, spicy food. And the latest rums on the market, like Gran Blasón Añejo Especial from Costa Rica and Bacardi 8-year-old from Puerto Rico, are as nuanced as a Antonio Carlos Jobim chord. Still, their tonic note is sugar; the other notes--salty, sour or bitter--are harmonics.
Rum's sweet appeal can undo even the most tightly wound cases. In the movie Guys and Dolls, when ladykiller Marlon Brando wants to seduce Jean Simmons, the hymn-belting, Bible-toting sergeant of the Save-A-Soul Mission, he flies her to Havana and buys her a soothing glass of milk. "At night they put a kind of preservative in it," he tells her, adding that the beneficial additive is called Bacardi. After downing a few, she bursts into song, which is inevitable since the film is a musical, but first she gushes her approval of the Cuban version of milk punch. "That Bacardi flavoring certainly does make a difference," she observes. (Brando, by the way, never trades in his gangster threads for a Hawaiian shirt or even loosens his tie, for that matter. But by the end of the scene, he looks very much at ease with seven empty coconut shells lined up on the table in front of him.)
Another reason for rum's power to turn missionaries into tipplers may have to do with the islands where most rums are made. After all, islands have lots of pleasant associations, and rum somehow manages to embody the promise of all of them. Have a martini at lunch and it means you need help facing the rest of the afternoon at the office. Have a piña colada and it means you're thinking about canceling your meetings and hopping on the next plane to Honolulu.
This was the secret to the success of places like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's. Don Beach opened his tropical-themed watering hole in Hollywood in the 1930s, and it became the template for a thousand tiki bars across the country. Beach evoked an island ambience without worrying too much about which island he intended to evoke. While the decor was patched together from Polynesian motifs, the drink of choice was Caribbean rum, a geographic incongruity that seemed lost on most of his customers. (Don the Beachcomber's signature cocktail was the Zombie, a treacherous mixture of three different kinds of rum; Trader Vic's was the Mai Tai.) But then, authenticity was hardly the point of such places. What these bars offered was relief from the hard facts of Depression-era America, and it just so happened that the most effective form of relief came in a ceramic goblet shaped like a tiki god and decorated with an orchid.
While today's props may be different--rum cocktails, like most drinks these days, usually turn up in martini glasses--rum is popular again for more or less the same reasons it was when Don the Beachcomber was serving up gallons of Zombies. We may be working harder than ever, generating more wealth than at any other time in our country's history, but we still yearn to slip away to the islands, a cold daiquiri in hand.