Rums are winners in Ybor

Published April 5, 2006

Rums of many colors came to Ybor City last month, and at least 20 of them went home gold with medals from the first International Cane Spirits Festival.

For two days a panel of rum-soaked pros sorted through rums from as far away as Nepal and as near as Pasco County - white, amber and dark, flavored with peaches, coffee and too much key lime.

Whatever the judges chose, amateur rum fanciers had a number of chances to cruise the world of rum beyond Bacardi, Capt. Morgan and Malibu to make their own discoveries. These finer rums are not common, but they can be found in specialty stores and most can be ordered in Florida.

For those of us who know the Caribbean is full of great rums on nearly every island, the biggest treasures came from exploring the mainlands of Central and South America, remarkably rich in smooth, dark, aged molasses-based rums. These rons of old Spanish tradition, priced from $15 to $40, are exquisite drinks that deserve savoring neat and on the rocks.

From Guatemala, Ron Botran showed a sweet spiciness, like a silky distillation of fruitcake, that held up from a 3-year-old amber to a 12-year old reserve. Zacapa is oddly aged high in the mountains of Guatemala, where it can rest for decades. The 15-year-old version has a faint caramel nose, while the 23-year-old is as refined as a fine sherry, ancient and nutty.

Venezuela showed two elegant rums. Diplomatico is a rich reserve that mixes caramel, toffee and smoke into smooth fun. The other is a new ultra premium called Ron Macuro, which is as smooth as Cognac and will sell for $95 when introduced in the United States.

The single best drinks for my palate were the masterful blends of Panama's Ron Botran, nuts and honey in a glass in both anejo and 7-year-old versions.

Gutsy spirits are better in simple mixes with sugar syrup and lemon or lime; rhum agricole from French islands demands the likes of a ti punch, and P51 cachaca makes a mean caipirinha, actually more merry than mean.

Among the flavored rums destined for specialty drinks were U.S. products from Key Largo to Tennessee. The most intriguing was an Orangelo, a rum flavored with Temple oranges from Empire Distillery in New Port Richey.

The festival's cocktail competition mixed rum with a new flavor, guava, Ybor's fruit of choice. The winning recipe was by Don Brown of Miami.