In preparation for the rum cocktail masterclass, the bar at 69 Colebrook Row is lined with bottles of dark and white rum, a couple emblazoned with the Gothic Barcadi bat, others bearing obscure French names, plus the iconic and ubiquitous Havana Club. The course is taught by bartender and mixologist Marcis Dzelzainis, who won first place in the 2010 Cocktail Grand Prix in Havana, Cuba. Before we were ushered to the bar to shake, stir and sample our own cocktails, Marcis introduced us to some of the flavours of the spirit, which vary according to geology and soil: passion fruit, bananas, grass and even petrol. And he also gave us a taste of rum’s tangled history.
The story of rum is essential to the story of slavery – slaves used to concoct a crude wine, known as Kill Devil, from the naturally fermented syrupy by-product of the sugar-making process. The drink is thought to have originated in Barbados, a seventeenth-century account from the island bestowing it with satanic qualities: “the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” The plantation owners realised they could make money from molasses, and mass production of rum was the result.
There are two main means of production: using a pot still, the method favoured by French colonists by which they already produced cognac, and the continuous distilling process which creates the lighter flavours of Havana Club and Bacardi. Sticking with the history of the drink, Marcis gave us a glass of grog, a lip-pursingly sour combination of two parts British Navy rum, 1 part lime and 3 parts water. Devised in the mid eighteenth century to keep sailors happy with a daily dash of alcohol while ensuring they didn’t imbibe too much, it originally combined rough-as-guts rum with stale barrelled water and citrus fruits gathered from islands passed en route. The resulting naval hangovers inspired the term “groggy”.
At this point, with a pause to praise the sublime cocktails creations of Constantino Ribalaigua, barman at La Floradita in Havana in the 30s, Marcis brought the class up to date with an introduction to the science of cocktail-making, issuing alarming warnings about exploding jars of fermented honey syrup and suggesting slapping mint for mojitos in order to break down the cell walls of the plant. Then, with his guidance, we produced our own minty and delicious mojito, a beautiful Chicago fizz with an egg-white froth top and a ruby-red dash of port, a pale pink and gently fizzing Hemingway daiquiri and a honeyed Airmail.
Actually there was more, but I abandoned my notes as the class wore on and the cocktails were passed around for sampling. For further reading, Marcis suggests David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, published in 1948. In the meantime, chin chin…
These recipes include Marcis’ suggestions for classy glasses as well as garnishes. The only essential bit of kit is a cocktail shaker.