On the last Tuesday of every month, downtown's Caña Rum Bar hosts Rum Society, a members-only tasting event that features a rum expert, a rum company representative, and access to some of the finest small-batch rums in the world. September's event featured two plantation rums from Cognac Ferrand, and two Cognacs: the Pierre Ferrand Ambre and the Pierre Ferrand Reserve. Cognac Ferrand West Regional Manager and Spirits Educator Jennifer Linksy and RumDood.com's Matt Robold were on hand to guide imbibers on a one-hour, interactive tasting odyssey, explaining the origin of Cognac Ferrand's Plantation Collection, and exploring the intricacies of single-plantation barrel-aged rum.
In a bull market, you could expect to pay top dollar for that kind of experience. A first-year membership at The Doheny, Caña's predecessor, ran as high as $6,125. But given the current economic climate, Caña has adopted a far more inclusionary approach. For $20, you get a one-year Rum Society membership, and access to 12 world-class rum tasting events.
One of the first things that strikes you about Rum Society is the friendliness that pervades the room. It feels less like a clique and more like a meet-up -- a hodgepodge of individuals brought together by a common interest: a desire to sample the world's best rum, and an inclination to learn something about it. And with the low price of annual membership, you find people from all walks of life -- a Downtown hospital administrator from Ventura, a caterer from Inglewood, a writer from the Miracle Mile -- all meeting for the first time, yet chatting like old friends.
Interactivity forms the backbone of Rum Society. After the experts explain the origin of the rum before the room, everyone takes it in together. They start with the nose. And one of the things you learn at Rum Society is the best way to smell a spirit: put your nose above the glass, and breathe the aroma in through your mouth (otherwise you're left with a burning sensation in your nostrils).
But rather than telling the room what the rum smells like, the experts ask the attendees to share their own sensations. There are no right or wrong answers. Everyone's sense of smell is their own, and it changes by the minute. So while one woman smells green apple, another woman smells leather; and while one man smells peat, another man smells rose petals. The same goes for taste.
But before we delved into the complex aromas and flavors of the rums and Cognacs put before us, we learned about the history of the Cognac Ferrand Plantation Collection. What's a respected French Cognac producer doing with a Caribbean rum collection anyway? As it turns out, Alexandre Gabriel, the owner of Cognac Ferrand, discovered a stash of barreled Caribbean rum in one of his cellars about 20 years ago -- just after he purchased the distillery. Confused about the rum's origin, he questioned the distiller, and learned that the rum had been shipped to France as a form of payment.
New World rum producers, we learned, regularly buy used Cognac barrels because they appreciate the qualities the barrels impart to their rum. But sometimes the rum makers don't have the cash to pay for the barrels, so instead they send rum. And the Cognac makers, not knowing what do with the rum, tend to squirrel it away in one of their many cellars, where it continues to age, often for decades.
Gabriel decided something must be done with the barreled rum. So he elected to bottle it, without label, and deliver it to a bar-owning friend in Paris. The friend declared the rum to be exquisite, and it quickly developed a cult following in Paris. That's when Gabriel realized he'd stumbled onto something special -- a way to build upon his existing relationships, and diversify his product line without besmirching the Cognac Ferrand name. So Gabriel began sending his distillers to individual Caribbean rum plantations in search of select, small-batch barrels of rum. Once the distillers found the rum they were looking for, they brought it back to France, and finished it in Cognac casks for 12 to 14 months. And that's how the Cognac Ferrand Plantation Collection was born.
So after starting with the Cognacs to get a sense for the kinds of flavors a Cognac barrel might impart on a Caribbean rum, we moved on to the main event: Plantation Trinidad 2000, followed by Plantation Overproof. The Plantation Trinidad 2000 is a molasses-based rum with a short fermentation time. But it lived for 10 years in a bourbon barrel, and spent another 14 months in a Cognac barrel. It has a funky, oaky nose. One woman described it as smelling like wood, rubber, and grass, which Robold thought to be a near perfect description (though he traded "rubber" for "peat", and added "overripe apple" and "a little banana" to the mix).
We learned that the bourbon barrel had been charred before the rum was added, which may have accounted for some of that smokiness. Many people were turned off by the smell of the rum. But one taste washed their misgivings away. It was one of the most complex and enjoyable rums many of us had tasted. It exploded with sweetness up front, transitioned to a caramelized banana flavor, and ended with a dry, lingering peatiness. Plantation Trinidad 2000 is 84 proof (42% ABV), and it retails for about $30 per 750ml bottle.
Next up was the Plantation Overproof. At the time of the tasting, it had yet to reach local liquor stores. It's a 146 proof rum (73% ABV), also from Trinidad. And unlike other plantation rums, this one's a blend. It has an aroma of butterscotch and banana, with hints of cocoa and coffee. But the flavor is more spicy and vegetal, and it comes with one hell of a kick. Unable to finish our tasters, some of us took to the bar after the event to try it in Zombie form, per Robold's recommendation.
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Caña General Manager Allan Katz was behind the bar that night mixing drinks. And he recommended chasing the 1934 Zombie with own take on the Zombie Punch tradition -- a drink aptly dubbed Twenty-Eight Days Later. But then he warned that anyone partaking in the "Zombie Comparison Test" would be in need of a cab. And before handing a 1934 Zombie to one imbiber, he paused and looked them in the eye. "Are you driving?" he asked. The imbiber said yes. "Eat something after this. It's going to fuck you up."
The next Rum Society will showcase Ron Brugal, the "pride of Puerta Plata", and will take place on Tuesday, October 25. The first fifty members who RSVP and attend will receive a pair of tickets to an advanced screening of The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp. For membership information, go to: http://213nightlife.com/canarumbar.