Five years ago Henrique Vollmer and his brother Alberto—members of one of the most influential families in Venezuela and fifth-generation proprietors of the country's Ron Santa Teresa distillery—set aside 96 barrels of their best rum. The wooden casks are stacked three high in the old brick cellar of the Vollmers' hacienda 50 miles outside Caracas. To date, more than half of them are spoken for, engraved plates revealing the names of those who've purchased the contents for $8,000 (actor and singer Rubén Blades and Shell Oil of Venezuela are two). "The barrels just sit there," Henrique explains, "until the clients ask us to send some bottles to them or their friends."
If it's hard to imagine owning an entire barrel (roughly 48 gallons), let alone spending that much money on a type of liquor most people mix with fruit juice, consider this: In the past two decades, distillers have radically improved the quality of spirits they offer the public.
Rum has come in diverse forms and from various locations for centuries, but the liquor as we know it today originated in the Caribbean during the 1600s as a by-product of the sugar-production business. The recipe is simple: Yeast is added to diluted molasses or sugarcane juice to create a mixture called mash, which is then fermented and distilled. Sometimes it is also flavored and colored with caramel. Next, the resulting alcohol is aged, often only briefly, then blended with older rums. Historically, rum has been the cheapest kind of liquor: the great, sweet salve—and bane—of New World colonists, thirsty antiprohibitionists, British sailors, and more recently, sunburned vacationers.
But along with the mass-produced stuff, the best rum makers have always brewed finer samples—rums distilled to high purity levels through painstaking effort and careful aging in wooden casks. These rich, typically dark spirits were primarily used to blend with and smooth out younger rums, but some were saved for the private consumption of the estate owners or sold in limited quantities. Now distillers such as Barbancourt, Appleton, Ron Zacapa, Bacardi, and Mount Gay have begun actively selling blends of these matured rums for sipping, not just mixing. (At the other end of the spectrum, many of these companies have also introduced flavored white rums—an obvious attempt to woo vodka drinkers.) Most sipping rums cost $30 or more for a bottle and possess characteristics similar to those of quality Scotch.
The Vollmers' rum, Bodega Privada, however, is altogether different not only for what it is today—a nuanced fusion of aged rums from 1989—but also for what it might become in 10 to 15 years. "We got the idea from my uncle, who discovered a few barrels he'd made as a young man," Henrique explains. "It was something he did when he was learning the family business, and then he forgot all about it." Those barrels collected dust in the Vollmers' warehouse for 25 years. "It was unbelievable when he opened them: very dark, woody, and exquisite." Henrique served some to a group of Caracas chefs, who were enchanted by both the rum and the story behind it. "That's when we thought, If we can have this wonderful experience—those barrels are my uncle's private property and he puts his name on the bottles—why can't we do the same thing for a few of our best clients?" he says.
Aging alcohol for long periods in wooden containers is a process usually associated with wine and fine liquors like brandy or single-malt Scotch (the rarest types can run as high as $10,000 a bottle), but it affects rum in the same way. "After several years in a cask, rum starts to take on complexity and the flavor of exotic spices," says John Hansell, publisher and editor of Malt Advocate magazine. "I've tasted aged rums that were every bit as good as a single-malt Scotch." In addition, rum distillers have a shorter wait before reaping the benefits of time. Because rum is stored in warm climates, it matures much faster than other alcohol kept in cooler regions of the world. "You actually have to be careful to not let rum get too old or else it starts to taste overly woody," Hansell says.
For the 96 barrels of Bodega Privada, the Vollmers chose a rum they created specifically for cigar smokers. "It's very robust and we knew it would age well," Henrique says. At first, to this palate at least, Bodega Privada tastes surprisingly rough around the edges. It bears little of the flowery aroma and sweetness of other aged rums. But after a few sips, the flavors begin to emerge: a waft of oak and vanilla, a taste of cinnamon and pear, the hint of potential.
Price is $8,000 per barrel. To order, contact Gisa Colasante at 58-244/302-2579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like rum, tequila has the reputation of being an inexpensive, good-time liquor. And like their tropical neighbors, tequila makers are determined to raise the status of their product. JOSE CUERVO's limited run of 1800 Colección was aged in French oak barrels for 20 to 30 years. Each bottle is signed by the distillery master and comes with a hand-inlaid crystal and silver decanter. The contents are spectacular—the pungency of agave has been transformed into a mellow note within a symphony of other flavors. $1,200 for a bottle. Skyy Spirits, 212-213-9777.
Under a Barrel
If you want to sample rare aged rum but don't necessarily want to buy an entire cask, BRISTOL SPIRITS in Gloucestershire, England, sells one-of-a-kinds by the bottle that it calls Classic Rum. The company's tasters tour the Caribbean each year, rooting through the warehouses of many of the top rum makers, hunting for an old stash like the one Henrique Vollmer's uncle put aside over 50 years ago. When they find some that they like (casks can cost as much as $125,000), they buy the whole supply, take it back to England, let the liquor mature in their cool, damp cellars, and then bottle it themselves. Bristol Spirits, $25-$225. 44-1454/299-880; www.classicrum.com.