Former Mahiki bar manager Georgi Radev founded his tiki-tastic venue Laki Kane last Spring, where his rum and cocktail selections are the culmination of many years spent mixing cocktails and pouring the sugarcane spirit.
He's proclaims it to be a great time to be a rum drinker and says the overall category is far stronger than it was when he started at Mahiki 15 years ago. Mahiki may have been the best rum bar in town, but whisky was still the most consumed spirit in the venue back then.
'The quality of rum is improving more and more,' Radev tells Imbibe. 'Of course, we know that rum is good for cocktails, but now we know that it can also be consumed neat, like cognac. Also, a lot more styles are appearing, with the use of different spices, barrels, finishes – the variety is amazing.’
The availability of quality products might well be increasing but, says Radev, the spirit's premiumisation is being held back by lack of education, both within the trade and the general public.
‘Consumers are often confused by rum labels, so they need to be educated,' he explains. 'To do this, we really need to start by training bartenders properly. I’ve been testing the spirit knowledge of all my new staff for the past 11 years and I can tell you that 90% would get the rum question wrong.’
Staff ignorance isn’t the only obstacle rum has to overcome. When compared to cognac or whisky, rum is perceived as a cheap drink, good enough as a blending ingredient, but not to drink neat. Radev is convinced that the mainstream international brands are to blame, although some of them still feature on his rum list at Laki Lane, alongside niche productions that would excite even the most demanding of the rum aficionados.
‘I need to offer the mainstream brands to make people feel comfortable when I introduce them to premium bottles, so they can trade up more easily,’ he says.
While tiki has been blamed for impinging on premium perceptions of rum, Radev remains a strenuous supporter of its culture, which he claims marks the birth of modern mixology.
‘Tiki became very misunderstood over time with things like Sex on the Beach,' he says. 'Cocktails that are too sweet, over the top, or with too much going on have affected the image of tiki, but when it was created, it was the only mixology in the world, combining fruits and spices with spirits, the same as we’re doing now.’
Instead, he believes some of the more mainstream spiced rums are more to blame for the current perception of the spirit as cheap. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with spiced rum in itself,' he says. '[But a lot of the 'spiced rums' on the market] are not even rum-based spirits. They use synthetic essences and a lot of sugar.’
The Spiced Dry Rum Club, a customer experience Radev recently launched at Laki Kane, is aimed at improving the image of spiced rum. Customers can distill the sugar-cane spirit using their own selection of spices. For Radev, ‘dry’ is the key word in the title. This means that, contrary to most commercial options, there’s no added sugar.
The method he employs to add flavours resembles that for making London Dry Gin, where botanicals are re-distilled with the spirit. Instead of macerating spices and fruits, these are distilled together with the rum. He's convinced that the flavour profile achieved through this method, combined with the rum's dry palate will help people see the sugarcane spirit under a different light.
'We just opened last week for bookings and we’re already very busy,’ he says.
While experiences like The Spiced Dry Rum Club will no doubt benefit consumer knowledge of the spirit, there's also increasing impetus within the industry for clearer classification systems to be adopted. This would see a move away from rums being distinguished primarily as 'white', 'golden' and 'dark'.
Radev’s ideal categorisation would take into account the type of still used, combined with clear age indication, provenance and, potentially, raw material used.
‘I don’t sort by colour,’ says Radev, ‘that's’s been done for too long and 90% of bars still do that, even though it doesn’t help people understand what they're drinking. So-called dark rums can be anything from three-years to over twenty-years-old, and completely different from each other.’
Unlike the robust standards required for whisky labelling, for example, there's minimal international agreement regarding labelling and age-statements for rum.
‘For example, Barbados and Jamaica go for the youngest spirit in the blend on the label, while other countries prefer the oldest,’ Radev explains. As a result, even rums that bear the same age on the label can show significantly divergent flavour profiles.
The diversity of sugarcane spirit currently on offer allows Radev to play with multiple rums in his cocktails, which he always bears in mind when selecting the labels that go on the list.
‘I don’t want to have the biggest rum list, I want the best, consistently changing the selection.’
Radev offers 20 house cocktails, most of which are made with rum, and 20 classic rum cocktails each one made with a different label. Cocktails are presented in pure tiki style, using coconout-, seashell- or pineapple-shaped cups, but without compromising on experimentation.
‘I simply want to use great rum and showcase great flavours to people, that’s why I opened Laki Kane,’ he explains. The Guinness Punch in Manhattan, for instance, combines a Jamaica Guinness Punch and a classic Manhattan by using Pusser's Gunpowder British Navy Rum, a Guinness beer and pimento reduction, all mixed with a blend of vermouths and milk.
Radev's recipe for the success of rum is that of remaining faithful to tiki culture, while avoiding any over the top expressions, allowing people to understand the potential and diversity of rum one spice at the time.