ShowRUM festival, the simple spirit


ROME - At university I drank gin and tonic, discerning only the drinkable from the undrinkable. Red wine was my next “passion,” I would spend summer evenings in my garden with my friends with imperial purple lips when we started feeling too old to be glued down by alco-pop to the dance floor at the Student Union. The ShowRum festival awoke a new passion in me.

 I sat through a two hour lecture in Italian and Spanish on the debut of Diplomatico’s two new rums, understanding very little. Nelson Ernadez spoke with enthusiasm and pride about Venezuela, its ideal climate for sugar cane, the environmental initiatives that benefit its environment, the community which the production of these products support, and the philosophy with which the company tries to be a positive element for the people and places it touches.

 Finally it was time to taste the rum. A writer who specialises in whiskey told me how to smell, swirl, and swig. Frankly, I never drink straight spirits. It burn as I breathed it and scolded my throat, it was pleasant but there was something I was missing. Comparing the two, it became clearer that one felt softer, a little sweeter maybe, less volatile. I was told this was because of a different treatment of molasses in the production process.

 I went up to the bar, the red light shimmering off the ice in the cocktails. An American, his gold chain flashing under a green Hawaiian shirt, stood out in the dark-suit sea of connoisseurs. "Hi, I’m Rob Burr, I’m one of the judges. Good to meet you."

 Rob and his wife took me under their wing for the night, explaining words like barbet and batch kettle, telling me about production processes, and, most importantly, how to drink rum.

 "We host a festival in Miami, similar to this one here in Rome, experts come from all over the world. It’s an interesting community that isn’t pretentious like the people that like wine or whiskey. Rum is basic, you know. Farmers harvest the cane, they leave it out in the sun, the yeast from the air that’s probably slightly different from the yeast on the other side of the hill, ferments it into sugarcane wine …"

"What does that taste like?"

"Well … no one drinks it" he laughed.

 "It’s tied to the place, that specific place. It’s in the soil and the air and the cane and the climate. I know of 110 countries make rum, at last count, all of them with their different cuisine so they pair it in different ways, drink it in different ways. Imagine if Glasgow made all the music in the world, it’d be okay but it would lack variety, that’s like scotch. People are proud of what they make, it’s always 'our rum is the best in the world, that island over there makes terrible rum.’" He leaned in like he was telling me a secret ‘that island over there makes pretty good rum too." 

 I looked over the dark panoramic over the balcony of A Roma hotel, the aroma of sweet drinks and spirits in the air. A table was laid out lovingly with about 20 bottles.

"So Rob, what should I drink?"

 "Okay, look over here, well do this one first and this one second. This one is classy; this one is a little funky, think of it like Ian Fleming and Bob Marley. Now what does it taste like to you?"

 It tasted like rum, there was a kind of spiciness to Bob Marley, Menza was the name. I struggled to describe it. Rob saw the words weren’t coming, "you know, for me its like something your grandmother makes for Christmas, cinnamon and raisons, Grandmothers are great with that kind of stuff. Now Ian Fleming over here is like Christmas at your rich aunt’s place. It’s all about relating it to what you know, one time I insulted this brand by saying that it reminded me of that glue you have in nursery school that won’t kill the stupid kid if he eats it. Try this French one now, what does it remind you of?"

 I paused, Rob told me he used to be involved in recording and I used to be a musician so I tried to relate what the rum to what we both knew, "you know, I’m thinking of it like this French one has bass and treble but nothing in the middle, Ian Fleming is around the middle somewhere."

 Rob’s eyes lit up, "you know that’s exactly it, its all about going back to what you know. This is rum, it isn’t pretentious, just take things from your life."

 The evening wound down, the jazz band packed up and walked past us with their double basses and microphones, a small group of us stood on the balcony with rum in hand. The subject of rum came in and out of the conversation, the excitement of the festival that was still to come. We poured ourselves one last small glass, “here’s to hooch!”


Rob Burr