It was a Wednesday afternoon. I was taking care of my two-year-old daughter when the phone rang. It was my friend, publicist James Monahan. "How are you, my friend?
"Cut to the chase, pal," I said tersely. "The kid doesn't like it when Daddy talks on the phone."
Over her shouting and the gripping dialogue of her favorite cartoon, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, I caught only a few snippets of what James was saying. But it was enough. "Angostura... rum... expensive... limited edition... dinner...." But the snippet that most caught my ear and captured my imagination was this: "$25,000."
Now, it wasn't just that I was intrigued by the thought of drinking something that costs 1,000 times as much as an average bottle of dark sipping rum -- although of course I wasn't about to turn down such an opportunity. No, this audacious, downright ballsy product launch could represent a sea change in how rum is presented and marketed, and with any luck how it's perceived as well. Single malt Scotch whiskies that sell for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars are... well, not a dime a dozen obviously. But they're becoming more commonplace with each passing year. Along with cognac, single malts are the status symbols of the spirits world.
So what's Scotch got that rum -- namely Legacy by Angostura, as their new $25,000 super-limited edition is called -- hasn't got? After all, a really good aged sipping rum is as complex and delicious and mind-blowing as any whisky or cognac. And if there's a brand that can take rum to the next level of snob appeal, it's Angostura. They're better known for their legendary bitters, but they've also been making the best rums in Trinidad, and some of the best anywhere in the Caribbean, since the 1940s.
Angostura makes rums both for mixing and for sipping, but the flavor profile -- rich, ultra-smooth, with gobs of vanilla, toffee, honey, and varying degrees of oak depending on how long it's aged -- remains constant throughout the range. My favorite is the 12-year-old "1824" bottling, with spice and oak notes combining with the sweet flavors to form a more perfect union in your mouth. It's soothing and challenging at the same time -- and at $55, it's very reasonable compared to more glamorous top-of-the-line whiskies.
In fact, with precious few exceptions, ultra-premium rums simply don't compare, price-wise, with their single-malt counterparts. If you're into rum, of course, that's a great thing. But it also means that the marketplace perceives rum to be a lot less valuable than single malt whisky. It seems to me there are two reasons why. First, a lot of would-be connoisseurs whose disposable income exceeds their knowledge of spirits aren't buying a bottle of booze so much as they're buying an age statement. And the older the age, the sexier the contents of the bottle, regardless of what they taste like. Scotland's cool and damp climate allows for aging whiskies as long as 30, 40, 50 years or more. Rum, on the other hand, is aged in tropical climes that speed up the aging process, making a bottle of 10-year-old rum the equivalent of a single malt that's two or three times as old. And 10... well, it's just not as sexy as 18 or 21 or 30.
Then there's the Bacardi Factor. A single malt whisky, whether it's $30 or $300 or $30,000, beings to mind the same things -- class, sophistication, luxury. And rum? Yeah, it's that clear stuff you put in your mojitos and frozen strawberry daiquiris, or you can drink it with Diet Coke if you're low-carbing. Right?
Well, Legacy by Angostura, the self-proclaimed "World's Most Expensive Rum," is here to put lie to that myth. With a blend of rums aged a minimum of 17 years in once-used American bourbon oak casks, housed in an Asprey crystal decanter with a gorgeous sculpted silver stopper, limited to a minuscule 20 bottles worldwide (a mere three in the U.S.), the good folks at Angostura are pulling out all the stops with this one. Angostura's Master Distiller, John Georges, is being flown around the globe to launch Legacy and sing the praises of Angostura in general. Which is why I found myself with a small group of journalists at a swanky Upper East Side restaurant, sitting across from Mr. Georges and geeking out about the finer details of rum distillation with him while sipping our way through Angostura's line.
When our glasses of Legacy -- valued, by my reckoning, at more than $1,000 each -- were brought out, Georges was less loquacious than he'd been throughout the evening. Perhaps even a little overwhelmed. He and the other distillers and blenders at Angostura had worked for six years, he said, using some of Angostura's rarest rums, and he believed the end result was truly the greatest sipping rum ever made. I can't quote him exactly because I was too busy staring at my ounce or so of Legacy trying to figure out how much each drop was worth.
Does it taste like a $25,000 rum? Well, I'm not exactly the target audience, meaning that I look at 25 grand as, you know, money to live on for a good chunk of time. If Mariano Rivera was there to personally pour it for me while Christina Hendricks rubbed my shoulders, possibly. But Legacy is more than just a bold and audacious marketing move. I'll tell you, this rum has ... gravitas. It's big, profound, monumental, but not without a touch of lightness and a twinkle in its proverbial eye. For some reason, the image of Winston Churchill popped into my head while I took my first sip. It's recognizably Angostura, with those distinctive vanilla and honey notes, but it's deeper and richer, with more spice and wood, notes of dark fruit and nuts, and a long, oaky finish. And having been lucky enough to taste a few five-figure whiskies, I'll assert that Legacy can stand proudly alongside the best of them.
If there's one rum that can change people's perceptions about what rum is, and what it can be at its best, this is as good a candidate as any. I guess the real question is, can any one rum accomplish the monumental task of overcoming the Bacardi Factor? Perhaps not, but this is an impressive opening salvo. Remember, twenty years ago tequila suffered from the same perception -- the Cuervo Factor, if you will. Today, in addition to the margaritas-and-body-shots crowd, there's a large and growing market for ultra-premium sipping tequilas, with increasing demand to go along with improved quality. It wasn't achieved overnight, with one limited edition bottling, but it did happen. I'm guessing the same will hold true for rum over the next several years. It's been an "on the brink" spirit for ages, but its breakthrough may finally be nigh. And hopefully Legacy will help open minds as much as it opens wallets.