AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's raise a glass now of rum. It used to be rotgut for pirates and more recently a party drink for college kids. But today, there's hardly a Caribbean country that doesn't make high-end rum for connoisseurs. This weekend, there's even a rum renaissance festival in Miami. From member station WLRN in Miami, Tim Pageant reports.
TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: If you died and went to rum heaven, you'd eventually find your way to Rob Burr's patio deck in Coral Gables.
ROB BURR SENIOR: Well, here we have a little setting that's designed, I think, to be a reflection of how we taste rum. We have a little waterfall...
PADGETT: From the waterfall pond to the tiki bar, it sets the perfect mood for Burr's favorite spirit. Rum is a family passion for Rob Burr, his wife, Robin, and their son Rob Junior who constitute one of the most expert teams of rum aficionados in South Florida.
SENIOR: I guess there's probably a thousand or 1,200 rums sitting around here.
PADGETT: The Burrs pour their tasting notes into a publication called Rob's Rum Guide.
SENIOR: The perception of rum is wrong. It's perceived as ordinary when in fact it's fascinating.
PADGETT: Fascinating enough to draw more than 12,000 visitors to the annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, which the Burrs helped organize six years ago and will host again this weekend. This isn't a bacchanal for spring breakers. This is rum for grownups, for people who know that most aged rums these days are distilled as masterfully as the finest cognacs and single-malt Scotches. The kind you drink neat, not with Coke, and whose prices can range from 25 to $250 bottle. Lorena Vaszquez blends one of the most acclaimed rums, Zacapa, in Guatemala.
LORENA VASQUEZ: (Through Translator) These rums have become some of the Caribbean's most prized ambassadors. They're a marvelous reflection of our culture.
PADGETT: Among other top aged rums are Santa Teresa 1796 from Venezuela, Matusalem from the Dominican Republic, Bielle Rhum Vieux from a speck on the map called Marie-Galante. But if this is about a revolution in the spirits industry, it's also about the bond between the Caribbean and South Florida. Very little rum is actually made in Miami. Rum reputations are.
JOEL GARCIA: It's almost a natural for Miami and South Florida to be the Mecca of rums. It's always been the depot for the Caribbean.
PADGETT: Joel Garcia is the bar manager at Ortanique, a Caribbean restaurant in Coral Gables. He serves more than 80 fine rums. One of his favorites...
GARCIA: Pyrat from the British West Indies. You want to try something that will blow you away in a snifter?
PADGETT: Sales for premium rum still trail cognac and Scotch, but they're rising every year. And that's partly because rum carries a hipper cachet than the other spirits. That potential for capturing a younger demographic may help explain why spirits giant Bacardi finally released its own line of premium aged rums last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING)
SENIOR: It's already a big, dark, dried fruit rum.
PADGETT: Spend a tasting session with the Burr family and you realize how rich and complex rum's character can be. There are hints of pineapple and vanilla, cola notes, balsamicky wood, all the flavors of the Caribbean and, for Robin, all the colors.
ROBIN BURR: This particular rum is very golden brown.
PADGETT: Lorena Vasquez of the Guatemalan distillery Zacapa points out that rum is a product of more than just sugar cane. The tropical soil, climate and faster barrel-aging processes also matter.
VASQUEZ: (Through Translator) To achieve those special aromas and flavors, we're as careful as cognac makers are.
PADGETT: Ironically, many argue rum's real renaissance started 152 years ago in Haiti. That's where French cognac maker Dupre Barbancourt emigrated and helped refine the way rum was made, hence one of Rob Burr Junior's favorite new bottles.
ROB BURR JUNIOR: This is a special anniversary of Rhum Barbancourt. This is actually closer to cognac.
PADGETT: Rum is the new cognac. Vive la difference. For NPR News, I'm Tim Padgett in Miami.
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