Spiced rum is the unsung harbinger of the holidays. The spirit quietly shows up, slipping into eggnog and toddies, its hints of vanilla and allspice and clove and cardamom like the first light before sunrise, somehow both more intense and ethereal than the breaking rays. But until recently, spiced rum garnered little respect—that is, until a fleet of Southern craft distillers began not only making it, but exalting it.
How rum originally met spice is a matter of debate. The most common story is that the spirit arose as colonists in the West Indies sought to mask the taste of miserably made liquor. Well…maybe. Truth is, the underlying honeyed notes of rum and classic baking spices work deftly together under almost any circumstance. The two were meant to be.
Flavoring rum was popular in centuries past—a dusting of nutmeg might have enlivened a Chatham Artillery Punch, or some allspice, a hot rum toddy. Commercial spiced rum, however, only arrived in the 1980s, when Captain Morgan pioneered its version and came to control the category. Around that time, the liquor also entered into an enduring if dull marriage with cola—the vanilla mingled with the sweet fizz to reach new heights in insipidness.
Thankfully, spiced rum allows plenty of latitude for experimentation, and is now enjoying a lively second act—at least a dozen craft distillers in the South offer a version. Old New Orleans, for instance, introduces a hint of cayenne heat to its Cajun Spice rum. North Carolina’s Muddy River Distillery makes a lovely rendition with robust notes of vanilla and cinnamon, while Walter Tharp at Cane Land Distilling, a new Baton Rouge producer, turns out what he calls an “older-style” rum, with Seville orange peel and earthy raw sugar from his family’s sugarcane fields.
Kellie Thorn, the bar manager at Empire State South, in Atlanta, remembers her first taste of spiced rum. “It wasn’t my thing, to be honest,” she says. “I found it to be sickly sweet.” But that was then. This new crop of spiced rums, she notes, often start with a more full-bodied, flavorful rum as a base, giving bartenders greater character with which to play. “When I first tried Old New Orleans’ spiced rum, my perception began to shift,” Thorn says. “This was something different, more nuanced—and it actually tasted of rum.”
She crafted A Night in the Ninth, named after New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, as a cocktail to be relished far into the evening, something “you would drink in a dimly lit bar in the city.” The sherry and coffee liqueur and deep tang of the Cherry Heering—an elegant Danish liqueur with roots back to 1818—add a gustatory duskiness, with the Cajun Spice rum suggesting a wisp of fire from a stone hearth.
Sip it during late twilight. I’d wager your thoughts will turn to the holidays.