For many of us, rum is not our first choice for a sophisticated drink. It was, perhaps, the first hard liquor of college, swilled not long after the taillights of your parents' car faded from view. Mixed with warm Coke and tossed back with the false bravado of the uninitiated, it delivered a swift, stomach-churning buzz that, for me, demanded an Alka-Seltzer chaser.
For you, maybe it was the vacation delight of finding a bar within stumbling distance of your hotel with a wall of spigots that spewed an array of frozen daiquiris in rainbow colors. Oh, they were so refreshing after a turn on the dance floor, so sweet and fruity. But the night-of brain freeze and morning-after hangover from cheap rum was enough to make you swear you'd never touch the stuff again.
And yet, here we are with a very special, very rare rum produced in our own backyard. Thank goodness we're grownups now and can appreciate the difference between bad booze and Fair Game Beverage Company's newly introduced rum agricole. A true small-batch product (the numbered 375-milliliter bottles stop at 887), the elegant distillation converts freshly pressed cane-sugar juice into a spirit so refined that you can savor it unadorned.
"It's pretty special stuff," agrees Michael Maller, bar manager at Vin Rouge, Mateo, and Mothers and Sons in Durham.
Maller, who was among the first in the Triangle to get his hands on a bottle, confesses that he drained the first one quickly, offering tastes to colleagues and experimenting with cocktails. From a second bottle, he takes a sip of the amber-hued liquor, aerating and swishing it to capture every umami-rich nuance.
"Rum agricoles typically are made in the Caribbean, but this was made in Pittsboro," he adds, shaking his head in amazement. "I find it a very inspiring ingredient."Fair Game's distiller, Chris Jude, was hoping for just such a response when he embraced the challenge of making a uniquely Southern rum agricole. He'd already achieved success with an amber rum made from organic raw sugar and with No'Lasses, a rum-like spirit derived from local sorghum syrup.
This time, Jude drew inspiration from the liquor first made by French Caribbean distillers during a shipping embargo in the late 1800s. Unable to export sugar cane, growers forged a friendly alliance with cognac makers willing to experiment with the juice of freshly pressed stalks. The enticingly complex result, usually marketed as rhum agricole, is epitomized today by Clément of Martinique.
"The juice would ferment quickly in the heat, creating these really fresh, wild yeast flavors," Jude says. "It imparts a kind of briny, maritime edge that people have come to associate with the islands."
But, as Jude has ably demonstrated, rum agricole is not exclusive to the island experience. Several times in November 2014, he drove his pickup truck about ninety miles south, just across the state line into South Carolina, to purchase field-pressed cane juice from a grower. He carried it back in thousand-liter tanks, with the sun providing a natural start in the fermentation process. Unlike many commercial rums, which age just a few months, Fair Game stores its rum agricole in bourbon barrels for twenty months. The result is more floral and herbal than molasses-based rum, which sometimes reeks of vanilla or caramel.
"It makes me think of fresh-cut grass and a bit of funk—in a good way," says Maller. "There is funk that is off-putting and funk that is accessible. Here, it's very appealing."Maller offers a sip of rum agricole straight up, then a comparison swirled in ice. "Amazing, right?" He takes in the aroma, which has bloomed with the quick chill. "A rum and Coke would not be the fairest thing to do with something so special."
Instead, Maller created a delicious cocktail that will be served next week during the TerraVita Food & Drink Festival. Called the Two Steps South, it's a smooth nod to both Jude's short commute to South Carolina and a splash of Fair Game's sherry-style Two-Step aperitif wine."We'll make it here, too, if someone asks for it," Maller says of Vin Rouge. "But I'm already thinking about fall and how it will taste with cranberries or ginger."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rum Runners"