Already an owner of Tribeca’s now-infamous drinker’s asylum, Ward III, Michael Neff opened The Rum House in New York City in 2011. Ask him about rum, and he’s likely to describe as nothing short of a “roller coaster of flavor.”
I recently caught up with Neff to fill in the blanks on America’s forgotten spirit. We began with a couple of his recommendations: Santa Teresa 1796, a thick, a sweet but mostly fiery Venezuelan; and Diplomatico Reserva, a rum as delicate as its name suggests, a touch richer and more even-tempered. It burns, first in the mouth and then in the throat, all but shutting me up. Now, I’m ready to listen.
Since opening The Rum House, Neff has since set himself apart as the one of city’s foremost authorities on rum. “When the original owners lost their lease, we took it over…We took a lot of time to build the program there.” The painstaking process of tasting, making lists, and then cuts led to the current selection of about 50 different kinds of rum. “[It's not] a super mighty selection,” he says. “It’s a pretty curated list. But we’re not completists. We have no desire to be completists. [Instead], we wanted to have options anywhere from $250 a shot to $9.”
Despite the availability of some remarkable rum, the spirit still lags in popularity here in the States. It’s no secret that rum suffers no small amount as a result of its own reputation. “Rum…will always suffer because it’s too cheap for its own good,” Neff says. “Fine rums don’t cost a lot of money.” A casual search for Neff’s first two recommendations — Santa Teresa 1796 and Diplomatico Reserva — turned up results topping out at $50, and others quite a bit less than that. Ask him to recommend some whiskeys to you sometime and see if you’re half as lucky…
And that’s just the point: rum is as accessible as any spirit on the planet, and more diverse. An attempt to define rum or generalize its characteristics presents more of a challenge than one might think. “They’re all different in character. Rum, probably more than any spirit I know, has thousands of variations in flavor…and it’s still growing. It doesn’t really have any limitations.” To illustrate his point, Neff says his taste in rum is just one end of the spectrum. “I’m probably a little unusual in that I look for rum that has big body, interesting characteristics and is not too sweet. The polar opposite of that would be like a white, un-aged Agricole. It tastes like you’re licking a lawnmower. It’s grassy and almost savory. It’s super interesting and delicious in its own way.”
So is rum on the rise? Neff is cautiously optimistic: “I’ve been a bartender for twenty years, and at least three different times just in my career, there’s been the ‘rum is on the rise!’ thing and ‘we’re gonna open a rum bar.’ And you’re like, ‘okay.’ And it goes up in popularity and then it comes back down.”
But there’s something else afoot in the American landscape preventing Neff from ruling out a full-blown fum revival. “We have a growing culture of distillation again,” he says. “I know one person opening a rum distillery in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. No kidding…One of the best rum producers in the United States is Pritchard’s in Tennessee. Marko at Charbay does a beautiful rum…Seventy years ago, you couldn’t make anything with alcohol in it that wasn’t a war product. So we’re just now getting back to the point where we have a culture of distillation.”
“Good rum is as good as anything else can be,” Neff proclaims. Rum is made in virtually every corner of the world, and its dedicated followers traverse the Earth looking for the next bottle. “You gotta kiss a lot of frogs, but if you really get into rum, there’s no end,” he says. “So if you want to embark on a lifetime journey,” become a rum drinker. “There’s so much to discover.”