“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Rum has a storied history that dates from early pours in the Fertile Crescent, to southeastern Asia, to the home of its undisputed perfection in the Caribbean islands. It played a part in fueling the flames of the American Revolution when colonial Americans, who drank an average of three gallons of the stuff every year, found it hard to come by due to the British parliament’s Sugar Act of 1764. It was involved in the massive triangle of the slave trade, made its way into the daily rations of several national navies, and was featured prominently in the sweating glass of one Ernest Miller Hemingway.
Now, restaurant manager Kate Perry and owner Travis Rosenthal have made Seattle part of rum’s chronicle with Rumba, a new bar on the corner of Pike and Boren.
Rumba is an intimate space in the busy, revived Melrose mini-district. It’s adorned with a restrained palette of dark wood and low light. Occasional pops of color come in the form of turquoise, high-back bar stools and a stuffed marlin that hangs above the lounge booths. Of course, the main attraction is the wall of bottles sporting the caramel-colored concoction that has been delighting seafaring people for millennia. Rumba had around 270 unique rums in-house at the soft opening on Sept. 13, but the spirits list is set to top 300 before long.
“It’s easier now that the state doesn’t, you know…” winks bartender Nabil. He’s talking to a patron about the recent privatization of the liquor trade in Washington. The price of many bottles may have gone up for both consumers and bars like Rumba, but there are fewer hurdles between dispensaries and distributors now. Rumba brings its bottles in from all over the world. Its staff has traveled to the likes of Barbados, Martinique, and other rum-producing paradises to acquire an unparalleled collection for their specialty bar.
The most unique item on the slate at Rumba is the Black Tot rum. This is among the rarest and most peculiar rums in the world. From the time it took Jamaica in 1655 to 1970, the British Royal Navy gave out a daily ration of rum to its sailors. In time, the recipe became standardized to include a blend of rums that represented several places around the world conquered by the British Empire. When the rum ration was discontinued in July of 1970, the last consignment of the stuff sat in barrels, untouched and almost forgotten. Today, after mellowing for 40 years, the Royal Navy rum is bottled as Black Tot and sold for a king’s ransom. When Rumba gets its bottle, it will sell a one-ounce shot for 300 dollars.
There are many more affordable rums on the menu at Rumba. The bar list comes in a hand-held book that separates the cocktails into distinct styles and historical periods. Among the most popular are the Old Havana cocktails like the Daiquiri #3, a mix of rum, maraschino liqueur, lime, grapefruit, and simple syrup. Such drinks were standard issue at La Florida Hotel in pre-revolution Havana, Cuba. Rumba’s Classics trot out resuscitated ingredients like Chartreuse and bitters, while their Tiki Explosion and Punch menus would have looked familiar in a theme bar back in the 1970s when the Hurricane and the Singapore Sling were still in vogue.
Because it’s practically mandatory in Seattle’s current bar scene, Rumba also has a Cocktail Revival menu where Campari and Lillet have dominion. The more interesting side of things is toward the back of the menu with the Island Drinks and Ti’ Punch. The Corn ‘n’ Oil cocktail, for instance, sports house-made falernum syrup with almonds. It’s a great lesson in why sweet drinks need citrus for balance (and at a rum bar, they’re almost all sweet drinks). Without some mitigating lemon or lime, the drink is just cloying.
One of Rumba’s draws is its hands-on education in sipping rum. Most shelves today sport mixing rum like Bacardi almost exclusively, leaving the more complex and expensive stuff to the purview of enthusiasts. It might only run around $25 for a flight of sipping rums at Rumba to get a good idea of what the drink can really do. A variety flight will include a shot of straightforward, vanilla-tinged rum like the Zaya 12-year out of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a smooth start with a fiery finish, like a very grown-up spiced rum. The next step is to try a dark rum like the Venezuelan Diplomatico. It has more of a butterscotch nose with subtle warmth throughout. It never really burns and when added to a good ginger beer, it’s dangerously easy to drink.
Those who want to try something from the weird end of the spectrum should start with Jamaican rum like the current king, Plantation. It’s reminiscent of 151′s chemical intensity, but it behaves like whiskey on the tongue. In short, there’s a learning curve to Jamaican rum, but it’s worth a few ounces of tutorial. Bottles like Rhum J.M. out of Martinique will be more divisive. It’s a white rum made from sugarcane, not molasses like most modern rums. It has a harsh, dirty flavor full of esters – a flavor any local liquor geek will recognize from the intentionally unfiltered craft vodkas from the Northwest’s super-small distilleries.
For those who fear getting truly tanked at Rumba, the bar has a modest menu to soak up the sugar-juice. There are several island-themed salads and spiced nuts, and popular baked empanadas in chorizo, chicken, and vegetable varieties. Like any good bar food, the empanadas at Rumba exist to sit well in the stomach and feed alcohol-fueled cravings for protein and salt. They’re not too heavy and nicely savory. They’re also more pie-like than the usual fried version of the empanada most know and many love.
Rumba is open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.