Rum: The Spirit That Used to be America's Drink

Thanks in part to a never-ending supply of molasses and cane juice imported from sugar plantations in the West Indies, rum hit its high-water mark in the Americas in 1733, when consumption reached a staggering 3.75 imperial gallons per year for every man, woman and child. That year, Parliament taxed the molasses trade in an attempt to capitalize, but it did little to slow rum's popularity in the Colonies. By 1770, more than 140 rum distilleries produced five million gallons per year on top of four million gallons imported.

Since then, the Revolutionary War, the demise of the slave trade, and Prohibition have all happened, putting a major dent in rum production and consumption, though it never totally went away in America. In Ohio, it is perhaps the second least represented major spirit after mezcal.

When Porco Lounge and Tiki Room opened on West 25th Street earlier this year, owner Stefan Was found this be a bit of a roadblock. His business, a throwback to the kitschy Polynesian-themed tiki culture of post-World War II America, is, after all, 98 percent in rum.

"I went to Three Dots and a Dash [tiki bar] in Chicago, and they had 150 rums on their back bar," Was explains. "We've got about 30, and that's everything we can get our hands on." Not surprising, the dearth of options affects Porco in a big way, not the least of which is the drinks.

"A lot of these classic tiki cocktails require ingredients like Lemon Hart 151, a true Demerara rum distilled in Guyana that's not available in Ohio," adds GM Shannon Smith. Demerara rums are distilled from molasses, and there are plenty of examples out there on the market, but none meet Smith's standards at a reasonable price point.

"I'm going after a certain flavor profile that's not available in the Jamaican rums we tend to see in the state," Smith notes. "As with wine and whiskey, terroir plays a huge part. A Demerara rum from Puerto Rico and Martinique is going to have a whole different set of characteristics than, say, 10 Cane Rum from Trinidad.”

Those characteristics are essential to the drinks at Porco. In tiki classics like the Zombie, Planet of the Apes, and Heart of Darkness, Smith uses a house-made blend of Appleton Reserve, Appleton VX and Demerara simple syrup to achieve the roundness and maltiness he's looking for. For other classics like the Painkiller, a fruit juice and coconut-forward drink that calls for Pusser's Dark Rum, the supply is there, if inconsistent. "I have to buy Pusser's in bulk when my liquor agency has it because I never know when it's going to come," Smith says.

Beyond a lack of supply, the biggest challenge Porco faces in expanding its business is a lack of selection. "Of the 30 or so rums available in Ohio, I'd say only 10 are good enough on their own to include in flights," says Was. Many of those rums -- Ron Zacapa 23, Ron Abuelo 12 and Rhum Clément, to name a few -- are cost prohibitive to include in cocktails, while others still are meant for blending or are the type of bottom shelf swill that gives college students perpetual nightmares.

Ohio's state-controlled system of liquor distribution provides recourse for bars trying to get new or otherwise unavailable spirits into the state, but these special purchase orders are dominated by rare scotches, pricey cognacs and specialty cordials, and comprise only one percent of the state's business. Beyond that, Smith worries that Porco's weekly liquor order of $800 to $1600 makes them at best a fly in the state's ointment, though he plans to persevere.

"We're a tiki bar," Smith said, "but we’re trying to become a rum bar, too. We’re trying to do things to educate people. I think we’re doing a good job, but we can do better. We can do better by getting better products. That’s my goal."

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