Brugal – Rum Redefined

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For a rum that’s been around for 125 years, Brugal keeps a relatively low profile. There’s no swashbuckling ad campaign. No pirates. No glossy posters showing bikini-clad models doing shots of rum on the beach. But being the life of the party isn’t Brugal’s goal. The Dominican distiller has a far loftier mission: changing the way we think about – and drink – rum.

Such is the theme of Brugal’s “Rum Redefined” campaign, which rolled into Boston for three nights this past week and transformed the South End’s Cyclorama into something reminiscent of a distillery visitors’ center. Guests had a chance to learn about Brugal’s unique distillation process, sample three varieties of rum, and get a hands-on lesson in rum-based mixology.

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If Brugal is outwardly distinct from other distillers in that it eschews the image of rum as an island-themed party spirit, the difference in the product itself is far more profound. As a molasses-based liquor, rum is known for its inherent sweetness. Many of the cocktails it features in are likewise sweet and tend to be made with a multitude of fruit juices. Brugal’s rums, by contrast, are uncommonly dry.

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“People don’t think of drinking rum straight,” says Brian, one of the Brugal reps at the event. “We’re trying to show folks that rum isn’t something you need to cover up.”

His point is well taken – most rums aren’t made for sipping. “The difference is the way we distill our product, Brian explains. “In distillation, we remove a lot of the heavy alcohols, the banana and coconut flavors.”

But the aging process is where the real magic happens. All of Brugal’s rums are aged in white American oak casks. And Brugal takes its cask aging pretty seriously. “We use the same wood policy as the finest single malt scotch,” Brian tells me.

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But while the wood policy may the same, the wood itself behaves very differently in the Dominican Republic than it does in chilly Scotland. The heat and humidity of the Dominican climate accelerate the rum’s maturation rate, meaning you don’t have to wait quite so long for the spirit’s rich character to develop. The downside of the warm weather is that Brugal loses 9% to 12% of its annual yield to evaporation. This disappearing act is charmingly known as the “angel’s share,” but angels clearly have a taste for rum – their portion translates to a staggering 25,000 barrels’ worth of lost rum every year.

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But those exacting standards and devotion to aging result in a series of exceptional rums that are clean, dry, and surprisingly complex. The amber-hued Brugal Añejo has unexpected hints of caramel and chocolate.

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The masterful Brugal 1888 is the first rum to be aged in two different casks – six to eight years in a whiskey cask, two to four more in a sherry cask. With a heavenly aroma and notes of toffee and licorice, it’s the sort of rum that calls for a cigar. My friend Mike, who joined me for the event, put it best: “If I brought this to a whiskey tasting, no one would guess it was rum.”

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But the star of the night was Brugal’s Extra Dry offering. This triple-distilled rum is crisp, subtly fragrant, and of course, dry. And it’s still an aged rum, despite its clear complexion; charcoal filtering removes the dark color imparted by the aging process.

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Like the Añejo and the 1888, the Extra Dry is good enough to drink neat or on the rocks. But its flavor profile makes it an especially intriguing choice for cocktails. “It’s versatile,” Brian says. “The Extra Dry plays well in a clean, simple cocktail, but one that you can experiment with, too.” So after sampling a few styles, our mixology lesson began, with bartenders from Eastern Standard and Lolita showing us the finer points of mixing Brugal into one of the simplest and most traditional of rum cocktails – the daiquiri.

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The daiquiri is a Caribbean classic that’s been unfairly maligned over the years, victimized by artificially flavored sweeteners, mixers, and juices. Frozen daiquiris are fun by the pool, of course, but they aren’t what you’d consider a serious drink. So our cocktail-making session returned the daiquiri to its most basic, refreshing roots – rum, syrup, and fresh lime juice. That last ingredient is especially critical; the dryness and subtle profile of the Brugal accentuates the flavors of the mixers, so using fresh lime results in a naturally sweet, uncluttered cocktail.

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After learning about the merits of a traditional daiquiri, we were encouraged us to branch out a bit. With various garnishes and syrups at our disposal, my friend Mike whipped up a sweet, herbal daiquiri with honey and basil.

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But the pros still do it best, and the highlight of the night for me was this strawberry daiquiri with jalepeño. Along with the fresh, natural strawberry flavor was a subtle undercurrent of heat from the jalepeño, which made for a pleasant, lip-tingling finish.

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Again, it’s the dryness of the Brugal that enables the other ingredients to shine. That hint of heat, and its interplay with the strawberry, is exactly the sort of nuance that would be overpowered by a sweeter rum with its own heavier flavors.

While historically one of the top selling rums in the Caribbean, Brugal has never enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States. That’s changing, though, as mixologists experiment with different brands for an American public that increasingly appreciates complexity in its cocktails. This is the market that Brugal envisions capturing with its Extra Dry variety.

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The white rum represents a departure from Brugal’s other styles, but not from its standards. “They want to leave a legacy that, 125 years from now, they can still be proud of,” Brian tells me. A devotion to quality doesn’t always translate to longevity. But for Brugal, it’s a formula that’s worked pretty well since 1888.

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