The first time I ever drank rum it came out of a white bottle decorated with twin palm trees against a setting sun. Malibu, like Southern Comfort, is something of a gateway liquor--once you've thrown it up a few times, you're ready to move on. But while SoCo might lead all the way to aged bourbons and single malts (see sidebar), Malibu took you to... pina coladas? In the world of spirits, rum has long been the poor cousin, consigned to bad fruit punches and syrupy cocktails--until now, that is.
A clutch of rum distilleries in the Caribbean have caught on to the tricks of the whiskey industry, experimenting with sherry and bourbon barrels, double aging, and triple distilling to jump onto the premium spirits bandwagon. Does it work? At $49, Brugal 1888 is the price of a good bottle of single malt, and almost tastes like it, too. It's finished in sherry casks that impart a lovely lingering flavor of raisins and toffee that would be wasted in eggnog. Like Mount Gay Extra Old, which is aged up to 15 years, Brugal 1888 has enough complexity to drink neat, although you could do worse than deploy it in the eye-wateringly good Improved, Improved Wisecracker, one of several rum-based cocktails at The Tippler, a new bar beneath New York City's Chelsea Market. They mix it with Meletti amaro, demerara sugar, lemon, and Mexican mole bitters, finished with frothy egg whites and a soft dusting of ground chili. Whatever the improvements to the Improved, Improved Wisecracker, they work. It's a perfectly balanced and silky concoction, just what you need on a long winter's evening, and a great reminder that boldness pays.