Behind the Backbar at LA’s Caña Rum Bar
In this round of "Anatomy of a Backbar," Caña Rum Bar's Erbin Garcia curates a deep collection of rums that showcases the spirit's rich history and stylistic diversity.
August 29, 2017 | story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN | photography: Peter Stanislaus
Most people visit downtown LA’s Caña Rum Bar intending to order a cocktail. But if you ask bar director Erbin Garcia, that means that they’re missing out. Though his extensively researched Mojito might lead you to think otherwise, his goal (counterintuitive as it might seem) is actually to persuade a misinformed public to experience rum on its own—splash of water optional.
At a time when the industry is finally beginning to give rum its due, Caña exists as a virtual museum to this perennially misunderstood spirit. And with a library of nearly 350 references available by the glass, the bar has the means to put rum’s immense stylistic diversity and rich history on full display.
“We want people to see that rum’s not just one thing,” Garcia explains. “There’s so much more to it than they probably think. It’s about a whole spectrum of flavors and aromatics, from smooth to funky and vegetal, and it’s eye-opening for people to see all the categories and expressions.”
If some might find it odd to treat rum—a beverage that hasn’t always enjoyed the most sterling reputation—in such a sophisticated way, Garcia understands; perhaps more than any other staple of the spirits world, rum still suffers from a slew of unfortunate misconceptions. “I grew up drinking Bacardi and Coke at house parties, so I get it,” he says. “Rum is one of those spirits that people tend to leave behind as they move on to other things.”
But as spirits drinkers begin to discover rum’s complexity—to say nothing of its fascinating, politically checkered history—the beverage is undergoing a transformation similar to that which shifted perceptions of agave-based spirits just a few years ago. This involves shedding rum’s outdated “beach vacation” stereotypes and reclaiming its stature as a serious spirit worthy of contemplation.
At the vanguard of this renaissance, Caña has created a rum list that treats the category with the same depth of focus and attention to detail that you’d expect to find at any shrine to French brandy or single-malt Scotch. Organized by and further divided by country, it spans the entire rum-producing world, offering basic guidelines for navigating regional styles and contextualizing their differences.
There’s an entire section, for instance, dedicated to “Fresh Cane Rum,” including a wide selection of funky, “distinctly vegetal” agricole expressions from Martinique, as well as Brazilian cachaça. From there, it goes on to contrast the “greater weight and viscosity” of the “English style”—which includes classic iterations from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Bermuda, plus Guyanese demerara—from the “Spanish style.” Distilled “in a lighter fashion,” the latter category ranges from “crisp and dry to thick and sweet.” At the bar, it’s represented by a comprehensive survey of rums from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, among others.
Taken as a whole, the list constitutes a deeply instructive guide to a spirit that—due to its sheer variety and the lack of overarching regulations across rum-producing nations—traditionally defies easy classification.
Presented with such a dizzying range of choices, you might be forgiven for simply ordering a cocktail from the menu of time-honored staples. And if you did, you’d find the same standards of scrutiny at work.
This desire to pay tribute to the classics led Garcia’s team to Cuba, for instance, where they conducted exhaustive field research on the art of the Mojito. In the bar’s variation, which uses Puerto Rico’s Don Q Cristal as a base (for lack of a legal Cuban alternative), Garcia includes “a dash or two of Angostura bitters”—a practice he observed in and around Havana—and makes sure to muddle whole mint leaves along with the stems, another local practice. The results are “way more aromatic and intense,” as he puts it. “Just like we tasted in Cuba.”
Before he mixes one for you, though, just beware that he might try to convince you to take the rum neat.
CAÑA RUM BAR IN FIVE BOTTLES
Plantation Barbados Grande Réserve 5 Year
Distilled from molasses and aged for five years in ex-whiskey casks in Barbados, this rum is shipped to France to finish aging in Cognac casks at the iconic Pierre Ferrand cellars. “I enjoy the plantain, vanilla and walnut notes,” Garcia says. “We offer this rum to all of our newcomers. It’s a good starting point with rum.”
- ABV:40 percent
Leblon Seleção Verde Cachaça
Located in the town of Patos de Minas, Brazil, the Leblon distillery offers its most transparent take on cachaça with this limited-edition, unfiltered release distilled from hand-cut sugar cane that is pressed within three hours after harvest. “I enjoy the grassy, vegetal notes,” Garcias says, noting that it’s a good choice for tequila drinkers who “want to try something new.”
- ABV:45 percent
Smith & Cross Jamaica Rum
A PUNCH staff favorite, this traditional high-proof rum comes from Jamaica’s Hampden Distillery, and displays all the wild, earthy funk that they’re known for. Produced from a combination of molasses, cane juice and freshly pressed sugar-cane syrup, it comprises a blend of Wedderburn (aged for just six months) and Plummer (aged up to three years in bourbon barrels) pot distillates. “The high esters are wonderful in this rum,” Garcia notes, imparting “banana, cheese and leather notes.”
- ABV:57 percent
The Rum Society No. 65
A blend of unaged and aged pot still rums from Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad, “this rum is outstanding,” according to Garcia, with notes of “vanilla, marshmallow, cacao and slight oak.” Produced by Pernod Ricard’s Absolut division in Sweden, the Rum Society’s numerical releases are offered in limited quantities. Bottled without any additives, sugar syrups or coloring, they represent authentic pot-stilled rum in its most unadulterated form.
- ABV:40 percent
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva
Showcasing Venezuelan rum’s dense and fruity side, Diplomatico’s Reserva Exclusiva is the brand’s flagship expression, and reveals a touch of the sweetness that has come to define many premium examples of the Spanish style. A perennial crowd pleaser—“it’s got to be one of our guests’ all-time favorites,” Garcia says—it’s aged 12 years in copper pot and column stills. “The caramel, cinnamon and nutmeg are bright in the glass,” according to Garcia.