Robert Burr is an affable, silver-haired Coral Gables guide-book publisher, deep-ocean diver, and all-around raconteur who leads the popular monthly "wine walks" along Miracle Mile. He also has a nascent interest in (discussing, not drinking) other types of alcohol. So he recently decided to extend his roving lecture series to the hard stuff, commencing with a September 26 rum-tasting extravaganza held at Katrine, the underpopulated restaurant at 2530 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in the Gables.
And so it came to pass that The Bitch was seated with a group of companions who provided commentary lively enough to rival Burr's (who several times had to "shhhhh!" the group). Priscilla Morales, a 23-year-old civil engineering prodigy and self-described "army brat who's lived everywhere," was joined by longtime family friend Jason Bacon, a salt-and-peppery construction supervisor and charter boat captain. Nearby was their neighbor Cynthia Phelan, a sandy-haired, Doral-based human resources expert who is a great fan of the aerobic dance classes at the Equinox Gym in the Village of Merrick Park.
Bacon recounted a high-seas escapade from the past weekend, wherein an out-of-control cigarette boat had rear-ended his yacht at the entrance to Biscayne Bay. Two passengers who'd signed on only for the "fishing" part of "deep-sea fishing" were dumped into the sea. "We hauled the clients back on board, and they said, 'Let's get 'em,' so we chased after the cigarette boat because they didn't even stop to see if we were okay," Bacon enthused. "They got away from us, but I knew the officer on duty at the Coast Guard station, and they nailed the bastards."
But that was only a distraction from the tasting, which encompassed 26 types of rum (four of which The Bitch subtracted from contention beforehand owing to hillbillyism, because, really, what business do people in Lincoln County, Tennessee, or Pasco County, Florida, have trying to make rum?). Mouthfuls of the liquor were served in groupings of three or four, separated by palate-cleansing snack plates of food made with, you guessed it, rum, by Katrine's chef.
The first course contained both Havana Club and 10 Cane, allowing for liquid-to-liquid comparison. A clear rum, Havana Club is potent and, as Barbara Wilton described the zombies in Shaun of the Dead, a "wee bit bitey." The Trini flow went down a little easier. These were followed by Barbancourt (Haiti), Matusalem 15 Gran Reserva (Puerto Rico), and Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva (Venezuela). All were consumed straight. The Bitch ended up preferring, of course, the extremely exotic Coronation Khukri, distilled in Nepal from molasses imported from India. (It's advisable to remember, though, that rum is rarely consumed straight. What difference does it make, really, how it tastes straight from the bottle when the likelihood of it being doused with club soda or cola is great?)
By the second course, the atmosphere was becoming rowdy. Morales described a drink-fueled tale involving Bacon: "I went to visit Jason's family in Ohio, near the Cuyahoga River. Imagine leaving Miami to go on vacation in Ohio! We went canoeing on the river and we were having what's called 'sticks and lube' chicken wings served in a cut-open gallon milk container, and beer in a half-gallon container. I mean, that's an industrial river. It's polluted. But people were just swimming in it, rinsing their hands, and dunking their wings in it.... Can you imagine?"
The Bitch shook her head in sympathy over the outrages committed by inbred populations.
Bacon pointed out that rum consumption seemed to be having an adverse affect on his literary abilities. "I was making notes about each serving," Bacon noted. "I started out with 'caramel, charcoal filtered, and smooth,' but I'm down to just 'Good!'"
Phelan, who up until this point had exerted a calming adult effect on the table by collecting the empty paper cups and pouring rum dregs into a larger snifter, suddenly felt the burn. Brown eyes dancing, she stood up and demonstrated the "chest shimmying" part of the Latin American dance workout called zumba. "Every time I see the membership fee $117 a month for my gym, it reminds me to get out there and dance. Plus sometimes there are guys in the class who really know how to shake it quite a motivation," Phelan admitted.
The Bitch smiled and began to reflect on her own misguided, mojito-fueled misadventures. Rum seems to inflame passions even before it's consumed, dividing supporters and detractors along class lines and magnifying political fractures among Caribbean cultures.
In Miami the sugar-cane-based drink fuels a top-shelf liquor battle. This past summer, the bullies at our own Bacardi badgered the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office into voiding the Havana Club name held by the Cuban government and French distributor Pernod Ricard. Then the company repurposed HC as a "super premium" rum.
Havana Club was actually introduced commercially a decade ago in the United States, only to be quickly pulled from shelves when Pernod complained. Owing to the U.S. embargo on Cubanalia, the French Havana Club is not available here. Ramon Arechabala, the septuagenarian rum maker from Cardenas who decamped to Miami, fortune intact, in 1960, derides the island nation's product as "undrinkable." Bacardi, of course, purchased Arechabala's rum recipe in the 1990s.
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If Bacardi is the shrieking wind in this fable, Trinidad's 10 Cane is the sun, earning fans slowly and gently by familiarizing imbibers with the buttery but light blend through sponsorship of events at galleries and lecture spots. Over the past year or so, 10 Cane has been the foundation liquor in the tasty traditional and mango-infused mojitos served during openings at ArtCenter South Florida on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
Touch Catering's bar manager Javier Pastrana has greeted visitors with minted-to-order beverages, explaining the recipe to onlookers who are often as enthralled with the drinks as the art. "It's really about the crushing of the spearmint," the black-haired, blue-eyed Pastrana confided at one such party in August. "I'd actually have to have a spearmint farm in the parking lot outside to have a totally perfect setting, because I'd prefer to keep the leaves on the plant until the moment I make the drink."
All too soon, the tasting at Katrine ended. This past week, when The Bitch checked back with Chef Iglesias, she was saddened to learn he'd decided to close Katrine. "As you know, the Gables is highly competitive in the restaurant area," Iglesias said. "We don't think we'd be able to make a go of it, even during the season."
Burr was also discouraged, since he'd ended up losing money on the rum-tasting event. But he plans to organize another: "Premium rums are gaining awareness in South Florida. A number of experts recognize the trend and expect it to catch on in other markets. I am planning more events, mostly of a more informal nature."