Article By: Liza Weisstuch
Trends come and go. A new infusion will likely replace the last hot infusion. Tequila drinkers are rapidly upgrading to anejos. The Mojito craze wilts annually with the season and the Negroni is the new Dark 'n Stormy, say some trend trackers. Maybe Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost put it best when he mused that "Nothing gold can stay." Needless to say, opening a theme bar is a tricky venture. You have to draw the line between trend and transcendent, between excessive and impressive. RumBa, the rum and champagne bar that opened in November in the spanking-new InterContinental Boston on the Fort Point Channel, is not about capitalizing on The Latest Thing. The place strikes a balance: While it showcases a product that's experiencing rapid growth in the luxury sector of the spirits market, RumBa - which launched with a list featuring 85 rums - is a lively and stylish shrine to a cornerstone of our American heritage, or, to be more specific, New England heritage.
These days, rum is commonly known as the native spirit of the Caribbean and a staple of Latin American nightlife, but countless historians have documented how rum actually instigated the American Revolution that led to our independence from England. For a good part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "Medford Rum" was as implicit a term as Kentucky Bourbon is today. Between 1817 and 1893, the stretch of Riverside Avenue between Medford Square and Route 93 was known as "Distill House Lane". The Medford Historical Society's website (www.medfordhistorical.org/rum.php) chronicles the rise and fall of the prominent Hall and Lawrence families' distilleries. Medford, though, was only one of New England's rum producing hubs. In A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage writes that rum distilleries in Boston grew from eight in 1738 to 63 in 175O. But we'll get more into the history lesson a bit later.
George Wright, the Boston nightlife impresario who opened Whiskey Park and whose most recent venture was opening Foundation Lounge in Kenmore Square, was poached by the InterContinental to be Director of Outlets. One of RumBa's highlights is a champagne lounge - a private room with extravagant chandeliers made of Prague crystal, tufted leather walls and plush couches. Although the pleasure principal and luxurious aesthetic draw you in, you inevitably end up learning a thing or two about the ole' "kill-divil" (a little pet name island natives had for rum) when you belly up to the shiny pewter bar.
RumBa's barstools start filling up at 4pm and, says Wright, the spot "rocks until 2am". The staff is knowledgeable and able to recommend an aged rum that could astonish even those who wouldn't typically call themselves rum drinkers. RumBa's rum menu and cocktail list is printed on paper with faded images of antique nautical maps. Yes, you may see a shadow of a pirate ship or two, but it only takes a quick scan of the scores of rums and the elaborate flavor notes that accompany each to realize the very modern sophistication of the stuff. RumBa's rum collection is one of the largest in the country, if not the world. The list features the usual suspects, like Myers, Pyrat, Moet Hennessy's recently introduced 1O Cane (from Trinidad), a wide range of Puerto Rican Bacardi rums, and Mount Gay products spanning from the amber-colored Eclipse ($9) to the Tricentennial ($75), which is made with three of Mount Gay's finest vintages. The company only produced 3OOO bottles in honor of its 3OOth anniversary. But the menu goes on for pages and is divided up by producing countries - Guatemala, Haiti, Martinique, St. Croix, Nicaragua, Grenada, Mexico and Brazil. While most rums are listed at $9 to $15, RumBa stocks some vintage bottles, mostly collectors' items, that fetch in the quadruple digits. One afternoon in December when I met with Wright, a bottle of British Royal Navy Imperial Rum had just arrived in elaborate packaging. Within a wicker container was a wax-sealed bottle and intricately detailed instructions on how to open. The bottle was covered in hyperbolic proclamations, like "Rum without equal", "A coelacanth among spirits", "A style thought lost forever". The single bottle will run a customer $2OOO retail.
"People like to be in-the-know," says Rene van Camp, Corporate Beverage Director for InterContinental Hotels in America. He helped launch RumBa once Jean Pierre Etcheberrigaray, Vice President of Food and Beverage for the Americas, developed the concept. The hotel group has made a mark on the hospitality industry by developing theme bars for its hotels. They go all out to find the most elite items when stocking the bar and each establishment is designed to accent its specialty. Van Camp estimates that about 65 percent of the hotel bars' guests are travelers and are accustomed to seeing the same thing again and again. "People want to sit at the bar and broaden their knowledge," he says, pointing to the success of XO, the cognac bar in the IC Buckhead in Atlanta. A grappa bar is in the works for an Italian-style restaurant planned for the IC Mascone Center, slated to open in San Francisco 2OO8. When they were considering something authentic for the Boston market, rum made the most sense, said van Camp.
Being "in-the-know" implies understanding what makes a certain product or bottling so pricey, which in a broader sense means understanding an industry - how a product is made, its heritage. "If you're going to sell high end products, it's a good thing to tell a story," says van Camp. RumBa's design illustrates the story of the rum industry as it flourished in the tropics and Latin America. The space is flecked with stylishly antique accents, many of which are a nod to characteristic elements of rum-producing hubs. The dramatic lighting evokes a seaside sunset, the elaborately brocaded couch cushions have wavelike designs that suggest the ocean, and a mockup of an old rum still is on display above the beer taps. Wright says they're awaiting the arrival of an antique sugar press. Helen Douglas, the hotel's director of food and beverage director who grew up in Grenada, says she's struck by the reams of chicken wire encasing display shelves above the bar. The wiry material was ubiquitous on property in St. David's Island, where she lived as a child. Since she came to Boston from InterContinental Aphrodite Hills Hotel and Resort in Cypress to open the new outlet, she's been pushing the cocktails, which were developed with help from Francesco LaFranconi, director of mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits, the country's largest distributor. The signature drink is the Rumbullion, a tribute to the spirit's early and now obsolete moniker. The word is also defined as "a great tumult or uprising", so it also serves as an allusion to the colonialists' measures to achieve independence. The cocktail list favors smaller boutique crafted rums. The Avenida, for instance, is made with St. Clement Rhum from Martinique. And the Appleton Reserve goes into their Mai Tai. Douglas, though, is partial to the Tangerine Mojito, which is mixed with Matusalem Classico. But she also likes to brandish some hometown pride and recommend Westerhall, which is produced on St. David's. "It's fun for me to experiment - and to recommend rum from my homeland. It's fun to be in the New England area and have bottles exported from an island with a population of 1OO,OOO."
With vodka bars in so many cities and beer gardens easy to come by, some players in the global rum industry see this kind of place a long time in coming. "By having such a quality establishment, it's a test that rum is a spirit that should be taken seriously. It also provides wonderful atmosphere at which to experiment with different rums - specifically aged rums," said Malcolm Gosling, a seventh-generation rum maker and CEP of Gosling-Castle Partners, Inc. He has offices in Boston and New York as well as Bermuda, where Gosling's is produced. He says with rum being the second largest-selling spirit in the US, aged rums are attracting attention from critics and consumers. "For many years, rum was the spirit of the pirates and sailors and because a lot of rums came from countries that maybe aren't sophisticated with marketing and packaging, [rum] may not have not been conceived as the quality spirit it is," he said. "But that's changing with global companies taking over distilleries and taking over brands and putting their special touch to brands' images. It's not as though rum has gotten better. It's gotten better packaged, in many cases. The consumer who thinks he has distinctive taste and discerning palate is realizing rums deliver a tremendous tasting experience."
For those who don't already claim connoisseurship, a specialty bar is just the place to develop it. Any rum will at least draw people to the category. If consumers are younger, the hope, says Gosling, is that as their palate gets more sophisticated, they'll stay loyal to the category and experience finer aged products. "Talking about aged rums has become a focus, so it makes perfect sense to have a bar themed about. And rum fits right into [Boston's] history," says Gosling. His company is, of course, always looking forward, as well. He says they're presently in discussion with the InterContinental to use Gosling's in recipes in the kitchen.
RumBa's story starts with the its physical location, a stone's throw from where the Boston Tea Party happened in 1773. While the Tea Party may have been the final straw that led to the colonies' independence from Britain, the protest movement actually started to stir in 1733, when the British passed the Molasses Act that imposed an excessive duty on molasses that North Americans imported from foreign (read: French) islands. The colonists were forced to get molasses from British islands, since their exports were duty-free. That would grant Brits a cut of the profitable Triangular Trade that fueled rum production - and slavery. In simplified terms, slaves were taken from the West Indies to work in the sugar cane fields and produce sugar, the byproduct of which is molasses. Molasses was transported to New England to produce rum, which was then used as currency in Africa to acquire more slaves who were brought to the West Indies to start the vicious cycle again.
Needless to say, the colonists railed against the new restrictions, especially since the French molasses was more plentiful and better in quality than that from the British Isles. Smuggling became de rigueur and gave the colonists a sense that they could get away with rebellion. Forty years later when tea was taxed, the colonists took immediate action. Once Beverage Director Rene van Camp and company had conceived the idea for a rum bar, they consulted with historian Evan Diamond, a high school history teacher and PhD candidate at Harvard. He lives in Boston and specializes in the history of the rum trade. They commissioned him to write a paper summarizing how rum became a cornerstone of economic prosperity in Colonial New England. His findings flout New England's puritanical underpinnings and explain the growth of the spirit's popularity. Citing Charles Taussig's 1928 history, Rum, Romance, and Rebellion, he writes: "The thirst for rum grew quickly in New England. It rapidly replaced applejack and beer as the drink of choice by the end of the seventeenth century. 'One may assume, and with considerable authority, that rum drinking in the northern colonies was an important supplement to the general activities of the people. It provided a pleasant and convenient means of escape from the harsh realities of their existence.' Northern colonists in general lived a hard, pious and austere lifestyle although the consuming of alcohol was readily accepted by most."