After a couple of earnest attempts, I have avoided the populated domain of the fashionable, trend-setting craft-spirit sector. And this has nothing to do with my reluctance to Instagram a photo of myself sipping a vibrantly coloured cocktail while pouting at my iPhone through RayBan aviators.
It is just that the majority of the gins, rums, and other crafted spirits around are just too, well, crafted. Style over substance, for lack of a better expression. Too much emphasis on perfume-bottle shapes and closures the size of dung-beetles. In the making thereof, craft’s focus is on de-spiriting the gin or rum with enough spices, herbs, flower petals, citrus peel, exotic root plants and fruit extract to make a botany professor burn-down a rain-forest.
When, thus, I have been confronted by one of these craft spirits I have had to use the most hidden senses of taste and the most vivid imagination to detect a gin that actually does taste like gin and a rum that does not remind me of a diluted cocktail with the flavour of lipstick and eau de cologne. To get the merest hit of spirit warmth, I’d have to drink the stuff neat or mix it at a ratio of four-to-one, four being the alcohol side.
This perception was vindicated during the tasting of last year’s Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards when German spirits expert Bernard Schäfer, who had jetted in to serve on the judging panel, told me: “These South African spirits….too much flowers and fruit-salad, not enough oemf, jawohl?”
Funny thus, that a recently released South African rum going by the name of Sugar Girl and aimed at the keen female market of spirits drinkers returned the mojo, rekindling my partiality for a bit of the elixir of pirates, renegades and warm-blooded Latinos residing on far-flung islands scented by Cuban cigars, coconut water and iced mangoes.
Sugar Girl is a crystal-clear white rum, distilled from blackstrap molasses, this being the purest residue remaining after the sugar has been removed from the cane. Those of us drinking rum before the craft hype will recall that it can be pretty rough stuff, the esters of sugar known to take on an aggressive, hot edge when distilled. Sugar Girl is distilled twice, after which it is allowed to age for two years in tank. This is unlike the majority of craft spirits which are brewed, bottled and sold in a matter of weeks. The two years’ aging allows the spirit to settle, balancing out the esters and allowing spirit and flavour to balance out and cool down.
For me, rum is best consumed neat, so my introduction to Sugar Girl was three tots poured over ice, with two slices of lemon to perk things out with that lovely citrus lift. On the side, a Partagas No. 4 Havana cigar burned slowly, with some sultry Steely Dan jazz-rock deployed to stimulate the auditory senses. Obviously, the idea was to imbibe enough rum to generate a bit of a buzz, otherwise what’s the point in going through the whole rigmarole in the first place? But before things started ticking, I noted the following of the Sugar Girl rum in my Hemingway Moleskine:
Warm tropical spirit leading to green coconut husk, granadilla flowers and hibiscus, with a slight maritime edge of sun-bleached conch shell. Colourful, vivid edges of aromatics, but all firmly harnessed by the tug of spirit.
Pure Puerto Rican in style, focus being on purity and vigour of the base spirit. The core is true to the spirited values of rum, untainted by overt influences of spice or confected fruit. Wisps of vanilla and tangerine-peel broaden the mid-palate, while the finish is clean and balanced, leaving just the right degree of agreeable warmth. A complete, harmonious and very satisfying rum with an amicable presence. Its dryness makes this an excellent sipping rum, with plenty of body and grip to present itself in a cocktail or with mixer.
Notes penned, it was downhill from there as me and Sugar Girl bonded for another few glasses, the start of a truly beautiful friendship.
Days later I tried to find out more about the rum, being led to the enchanting world of fishing ships, magnificent vessels traversing the high seas, and their wiry, leather-skinned skippers. Once accepted into this camaraderie, the story behind Sugar Girl and its origins was told to me over mugs of hot black coffee laced with rum.
Seems that during the age of American prohibition a ship called the Fabulous James would, like a few others, park-off the coast of Miami. As sun set, thirsty party-goers were taken from the shore out to this ship where for a few hours they could partake in the various alcohol beverage offerings laid on by Captain Gloria James Hughes and her crew. Rum being a favourite tipple, Gloria’s concoction – specially distilled for her in the Caribbean – simply became known as Sugar Girl, on account of Gloria’s habit of welcoming her guests on-board with the words “Hi, Sugar.”
Known to all and sundry as Gloria, the hostess and skipper offered the Fabulous James’s services to illicit American drinkers between 1921 and 1926.
All good things come to an end. And in typhoon season in 1926, Gloria got word that the authorities were onto her and floating speakeasy. Anchor was hauled, the ship hot-footed into the open ocean and was never seen or heard of again. Which has been known to happen if you are running away from the law, right into the Bermuda Triangle.
True or not, I’m drinking to that.
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