You know those little hexagonally packaged Tortuga rum cakes that people who get off cruise ships and airplanes tend to hand out the way fruitcakes go around at Christmastime? They're sweet and dry and taste like a distant relative to what someone's Bahamian grandmother might actually make and hand out to friends and neighbors. Well, I'm assaulted by that smell when I lift a rocks glass with a tiny pour of Cruzan Single Barrel Rum to my nose. It took me a while to place it -- I thought it had to be just coconut at first. But no, this syrupy, almond-colored aged rum smells just like Tortuga rum cake.
Not that that's a bad thing. Dark rum is a weakness of mine, and this one is especially potent. You might know Cruzan best as the name in front of the West Palm Beach amphitheater -- at least for the moment. Or as makers of those sickly sweet flavored rums infused with vanilla and banana and black cherry. But Cruzan is interested in changing its image from a partygoers drink to a fine product of some pedigree. This rum, a blend of rums aged four to 12 years in oak bourbon barrels, then another year in new American oak, is the maker's flagship in that effort.
The first question I had when I took a look at the bottle was, if this is actually a blend of rum, why is it called single barrel? In the world of scotch and whiskey, where the term single barrel is most often used, it refers to a spirit that's aged in individual oak barrels. The resulting flavor is unique to that barrel -- due to time, temperature, and other external factors, no two batches of the spirit will be exactly the same. These products are highly sought after for their unique flavors. Those deeply caramelized sugars, those esters
swirling around and forming familiar yet distance smells, all that
fermentation and time -- it's what makes booze nerds go soft and googly and spout out terms like vanilla and pine and leather and peat.
Cruzan follows the same process of aging its rum in oak barrels. Each barrel has a slightly different flavor that can vary just by where the barrel sits on the rack in the aging warehouse. So the rum maker actually blends the rum of various ages together. That's where a normal "blend" might stop, but Cruzan takes another step: It ages that blend again in American oak barrels for another six months to one year. The result is a more controlled flavor that still manages to have some unique flavor from bottle to bottle. Each bottle of the stuff is numbered and "signed" by Gary Nelthropp, the company's president and, according to Cruzan, an ancestor of the family that started using the recipe on St. Croix in the late 1700s.
So now that you know all the background, how does it taste? Well, this stuff is powerful. At 40 percent ABV, it leaves a pretty bright burn as it trails down your throat. After that clears, you'll discover it's deeply coconut-flavored, with a whole lot of orange and nutmeg. Because of its complexity, Single Barrel is more of a whiskey drinker's rum than a rum drinker's rum. It tastes great sipped neat, though my preference is one or two ice cubes, which, like a spritz of water in a scotch, awaken some slumbering, oaky flavors.
I also tested the rum out a few other ways. A splash of soda and a slice of orange really cools out some of that heat while keeping a lot of those interesting flavors intact. On the advice of the Cruzan peeps who sent the bottle over, I mixed some Single Barrel in a glass with a some Jamaican ginger beer (not ginger ale) and a wedge of lime -- essentially, a modified Moscow Mule. Now that was tasty: The soapy ginger beer paired up perfectly with the spicy notes in the rum.
For the hell of it (and just to see how it would taste), I also poured a rum and coke with the single barrel. As you might imagine, this was a no go -- the rum is just too powerful for a mix drink like that. For that application, you're better off checking out Cruzan's aged light and dark rums, which are a bit simpler in flavor. A more interesting mix drink I didn't try was a "single cider" suggested by the makers: 1 ½ oz. of Cruzan Single Barrel, 1 oz. simple syrup, ¾ oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice, 1 oz. fresh cider, and grated cinnamon on top. Sound like I have a pretty good way to kill the rest of this bottle.
By the way, that bottle will rum you about $25 to $30, which is not too much for a quality dark spirit. Pick it up at Crown, ABC, Total Wine, and other liquor stores in the area.