If ever I’m in the position of having to flee the country with a suitcase full of cash and law enforcement on my tail, one destination immediately comes to mind – Venezuela. Venezuela’s government famously declines to honor its extradition treaty with the United States, making it a good place to lie low. (Scoff if you will, but it never hurts to have a plan.)
However, Venezuela does not immediately come to mind when I think of rum. And that’s unfortunate, because South America produces nearly as much rum as the spirit’s ancestral home, the Caribbean. And with respect to the islands, our every-growing appreciation for high-quality spirits has led to us to seek out brands that are less ubiquitous than market-dominating behemoths like Bacardi.
Which brings us to a distillery at the foot of the Andes Mountains that’s been in operation since 1959. After a series of ownership changes, the company now known as Rum Diplomático has been producing premium rums in Venezuela since 2002. Diplomático may not have a major presence in the U.S. market just yet, but a string of accolades – most recently, a Double Gold Medal from the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition – is certain to raise the brand’s profile.
Not long ago, I received a sample bottle of Diplomático’s award-winning Reserva Exclusiva rum. Billed as a sipping rum, it’s distilled in copper pot stills and aged for 12 years in small oak casks.
Appearance and Aroma
I had a good feeling about the Reserva Exclusiva as soon as I saw its dark, amber hue and the traces it left on the side of the glass when I gave it a swirl. On the nose are rich notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, and baking spices.
The Reserva Exclusiva definitely lives up to its characterization as a sipping rum. There’s a subtle maple flavor along with notes of honey, fruit, brown sugar, and walnuts. Complex but wonderfully smooth, the experience is almost like drinking a good bourbon. The finish is soft and long, with no burn whatsoever.
Ordinarily, I’d give any rum a whirl in a daiquiri to test its mettle. But the Reserva Exclusiva’s rich flavor and complexity brought some other cocktails in mind. The original Mai Tai was supposedly made with a nicely aged rum, so I did my best Trader Vic impression and made one with the Reserva Exclusiva, fresh lime, orange liqueur, and homemade orgeat syrup. The result was a refreshing tiki drink with moderate sweetness, perfect for a hot summer night. The orgeat, in particular, served to accentuate the nutty notes in the rum.
But a big test for any sipping-quality rum (aside from it truly being sippable, I guess) is how well it can stand up in a traditional whiskey drink, like an Old Fashioned. My approach to the Old Fashioned is straightforward – whiskey, syrup, bitters, orange peel – and I didn’t modify it my much for this experiment. The only difference, aside from the Reserva Exclusiva, was that I used a blend of Angostura and black walnut bitters.
I ended up with an exquisite rum-based Old Fashioned that I would eagerly serve to guests, whether they’re rum drinkers or whiskey connoisseurs. As I’d hoped, the Angostura bitters brought out the notes of nutmeg and allspice in the rum, while the black walnut bitters played to the nuttiness. Similarly, the orange peel accentuated the rum’s fruity flavors. It’s sweeter than a traditional Old Fashioned, of course, but still eminently drinkable.
Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva is one of the best aged rums I’ve ever tasted. It possesses all the complexity and nuance of a top-flight bourbon while never losing the sweetness that is so central to rum. It’s also a versatile product; Reserva Exclusiva is satisfying in a glass, but it can take on a special quality in the right cocktail.
Reserva Exclusiva is now available in more than 50 countries, including the U.S. Still, it’s good to know that if ever you need to live out the rest of your days under the radar in Venezuela, you’ll have some quality rum to drink.
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