Many people visit the Dominican Republic for its beaches and all-inclusive resorts, but the true gem of this island nation is in its history and rum. The best way to experience both is in Santo Domingo.
One of the oldest cities in the Caribbean, Santo Domingo boasts two very different sides. The new part offers restaurants and ultralounges. The Zona Colonial, with its plazas, cobblestone streets, and the first cathedral in the New World, is steeped in history. Perhaps one of the most stunning views can be enjoyed while you sip a good local rum at one of the cafés lining the Plaza de España. There, you'll face the Alcázar de Colón palace, once owned by Christopher Columbus' family.
Though there are many Dominican rums, Ron Barceló has a long history with the island dating back to the 1920s, when 25-year-old Julián Barceló arrived from Spain to open a distillery in Santo Domingo. Rum has been produced on the island since the 1600s, but Barceló's rum quickly became one of the nation's standard-bearers for its adherence to the Dominican Republic's strict rum-making guidelines bearing the Ron Dominico distinction. The country states that rum producers must harvest sugarcane grown only in the Dominican Republic. The distillery must then ferment, distill, and age the alcohol in the territory of the country. Additionally, all rum must be aged in oak barrels for a at least a year.
If you can't get to Santo Domingo to sip some rum under a canopy of live oaks while ancient church bells ring, then simply head to Living Room, the cocktail lounge in the W Hotel in Miami Beach, where general manager and head mixologist Jonathan Rodriguez prepares a bevy of cocktails using Ron Barceló.
Rodriguez says rums from different countries have different styles. "Jamaican rum, for example, has more molasses and more funk. A rum from Puerto Rico is more of a lighter style for mojitos and rum and Cokes." Dominican rum, he says, is smoother. "The clear rums are aged but filtered to make them clear, so they're perfect for a high-end mojito."
Rodriguez says his favorite job is to educate guests about various rums. "I always encourage people to ask their bartender for recommendations." He says his bar, like most good ones, is happy to allow curious guests to try new spirits. "You're looking at all the products on the back bar and you're curious. Ask your bartender for recommendations. If you like an aged rum, I might recommend Ron Barceló Imperial."
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The bar professional says the best way to explore a new rum is to place a drop in your palms and rub them together gently. "Doing that, you get some subtle notes you probably won't even get on your palate. Sometimes you get lemon peel, sometimes peach fuzz, sometimes leather." Then take a sip. "Normally on the first sip, you get the alcohol, but on the second sip, you get the flavor."
Another way to find which rum you like best is to ask your bartender if you can compare your go-to brand to something new they recommend. "I give them a taste of their favorite and a taste of Barceló and tell them: 'If you like rum and Coke, you might like this rum on a big cube of ice.' As the general manager, if they don't like it, I'll give them their rum and Coke, but I want them to experience something new if they're open."
For fall, Rodriguez is making rum negronis and old-fashioneds ($18). One cocktail to look for on the menu is a plantain old-fashioned, made by infusing rum with fried plantains. "I like to pair things with the culture of the area it's from."
Living Room at the W South Beach. 2201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-938-3000; marriott.com.