Rum 101 With Chicago Tiki Man Paul McGee

Since Three Dots and a Dash opened this summer, fans of tiki-style cocktails drinks have a home in Chicago. But there's more to this subterranean tropical paradise than kitschy totems, Martin Denny music and wonderful drinks. Paul McGee now has a home for his rapidly growing collection of more than 200 bottles of rum. We recently cornered McGee to tell us all about this often misunderstood spirit.

Categorizing Rum

Though there are many ways to categorize rums, McGee divides his list into three major groups based on where it's produced: English countries, Spanish countries and French countries.

English countries and colonies

This is the oldest style of rum and these are made from molasses. Jamaican and Guyanese are two prime examples of English style. They're typically full-flavored and have more body to them. They're made using both column and pot stills. And, as McGee explains, the pot stills produce some "really funky esters" that give these rums a bit more character. If an English-style rum has an age on the bottle, it's a true statement of age. It's similar to whiskey, in that the age will refer to the youngest rum in the blend. Outside of Jamaica and Guyana, most of these rums come from Antigua, Barbados, Bermuda, Fiji, Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Spanish countries and colonies

Rums in the Spanish style are typically lighter and cleaner because they only use the column stills. But there can still be a lot of variation in these rums. Cuban style (from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and US Virgin Islands) are clean and dry, while the rums from Guatemala and Panama drink more like brandy. The age statement on the bottle doesn't mean quite as much here because very often, the age on the bottle is from the oldest rum in the blend. So the Ron Zacapa 23 year will have some 23-year-old rum in it, but it might also have rums that are 8, 10 and 12 years old, too. The age designation for other distillers might be an overall average of the rums in the blend. It's difficult to know.

French countries and colonies (Rhum Agricole)

These rums have the most terroir because agricole rums are made from fresh cane juice. Everything else is made from either molasses or cane syrup. "These are some of my favorite rums because they have so much character," McGee says. "Agricoles are much different animals than the molasses-based rums." They are also highly regulated, and are a true "agricultural" product— the cane is harvested, pressed and fermented right on sight. Rums from Martinique even have an AOC designation. Because of this, they're a little more expensive. The blanc agricoles are pungent and vegetal with a floral nose to them. When aged for three or more years, they start picking up the oak and taking on more rounded flavors. Agricoles come from Martinique, Haiti and Guadeloupe.

On Buying Rum

What three rums would you suggest for a home bar?

One of the best things about rum, to me, is that it's still pretty inexpensive for the quality that you're getting. The rums from Guyana are some of my favorites. The El Dorado 5 year is awesome and it retails for under $20. It's got a drier profile and has these tea-like tannins at the end. It's great for making drinks.

For sipping, I'd probably pick the Appleton 12 year. They use a lot of pot still rums, so it's got a little more of a punch and is a little less sweet. I really like this expression a lot. And it retails for about $35 a bottle, so it's still very reasonable for something that old. On these labels, remember, it actually is 12-year-old rum and might have even older rums in it, as well. [McGee also recommends the El Dorado 15-year, which is about the same price.]

If you want drier, you definitely need an agricole rum. And to me, the best bang for the buck is Duquesene Élevé Sous Bois. [A liter bottle is about $35.] It's aged in oak for 18 months. An agricole is great to have. You can use it for something really refreshing like an agricole daquiri — just agricole rum, lime juice and a little bit of sugar.

Can you find these rums anywhere?

That's one thing that's kind of a bummer. There aren't a lot of places that stock agricoles or the expensive, special bottles. Whiskey is so hot right now that everyone just wants that. But I firmly believe that rum is going to be a very hot spirit in the coming years. Especially when people start understanding what rum and agricoles are all about. And it's still a huge value.

When did you get into rum?

It wasn't until about four years ago that I started getting into rum a bit more and understanding it — because there's a lot to know about rum but not a lot of regulations, so it's not as cut and dry as American whiskey or Scotch. It's one of the more challenging spirits to get a handle on. Rum's cool because it comes from so many different countries and islands that there's a lot of diversity in the finished product. It's one of the most diverse spirits out there and that's really cool when you're playing with cocktails. A really cool thing about [Three Dots] is that, yes, it's a tiki bar, but primarily we celebrate rum here. Most people have pre-conceived notions about rum. 'Nah, I'm not a big rum fan, I don't like mojitos,' or 'I don't like sweet things.' But once you start gaining the customers' trust and having them try different styles of rum, they'll start seeing the spirit in a different way.

Three Dots and a Dash

435 N. Clark

Chicago, IL 60654


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