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Rum may not always be the most trendy option on a cocktail list, but with the third highest sales in the U.S. in 2016 behind vodka and whiskey, the spirit remains a staple of the American bar.

Misconceptions about rum—that it’s only a summer drink or that its cocktails are too fruity and sweet—are part of the reason that the spirit may not be a cocktail list’s most popular choice, says Parker Boase, co-founder of Brooklyn-based cocktail catering and mixology class company Liquid Lab NYC. “I think people always think a rum cocktail is going to be sweet, fruity or too rich for their tastes,” he says, “so they tend to go for a safer bet, such as vodka or tequila.”

Rum sales in the United States

But that’s not the case behind the bar for Boase, who says rum is actually one of Liquid Lab’s favorite spirits to use. “It can actually be quite versatile,” Boase explains, noting that Liquid Lab makes a rum-based Corsairs’ Old Fashioned made with Ron Zacapa 23 dark rum, grapefruit and Angostura bitters, as well as a fruitier Black Magnolia cocktail made with white rum, grapefruit, lime, blackberries and rosemary. “You can use a spiced or anejo rum like you would use a whiskey, and do a more spirit-forward approach, or you can utilize a white rum as more of a neutral spirit by mixing it with fresh herbs and refreshing mixers.”

Black Magnolia is a modern take on a classic rum and coke
Liquid Lab NYC’s Black Magnolia

Rather go back to basics? We sought out behind-the-bar expertise for crafting the ultimate rum and Coke

Chris Perrupato, beverage director of Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, a Cuban-focused restaurant with locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Orlando and Washington, D.C. that has dedicated the month of August to celebrating rum, says the rum and Coke, or Cuba Libre, has remained a classic cocktail for a reason. “It has stood the test of time due to its refreshing, easy-drinking characteristics and historical significance,” he says. “It is an ‘inclusion cocktail,’ approachable to both men and women and every socioeconomic background. Trendy drinks will come and go but the Cuba Libre will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.”

Whether it’s the rum, the cola or another ingredient entirely, the secret to a killer classic rum and Coke depends on who you ask.

Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and Coca Cola
Station Kitchen and Cocktails’ Rum and Coke

What is rum?

Rum is an alcohol made from sugarcane that’s aged in oak barrels.  It can either be made directly from the sugarcane juice through fermanetation and distillation, or from its byproducts, like molasses or honey.  The longer the alcohol is aged in barrels, the darker it will become.

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How to find a special rum

Mexico City native Antonio Brodziak, executive chef of Florida-based Mexican restaurant chain Cabo Flats, looks to either La Gloria or Izapa Rum when making his own rum and Coke, and the latter has a special flavor profile. “Izapa is infused with chocolate,” he says. “Combine with Mexican Coke and a twist of lime—delicious.”

Use quality cola

Perrupato notes that while a change in rum, from white to dark to over-proof to aged, can transport the drink from a dive bar to a fine dining restaurant and back, the type of cola is non-negotiable. “One thing that cannot be substituted is the pop, Coca-Cola,” Perrupato says, sharing that the restaurant’s house mix consists of 2 oz. Don Q Gran Anejo Rum over ice, topped with Coca-Cola and garnished with a lime wedge. “This is a must. Regardless of the rum used, a true Cuba Libre enthusiast will spot Pepsi or another brand a mile away. Coke gives the Cuba Libre its swagger.”

Award-winning bartender Tad Carlucci, one-half of the New York-based Tippling Bros. consulting duo, would agree. He swears by Mexican Coca-Cola—in the glass bottle—for his rum and Coke, a drink he calls “rummy, zingy and super refreshing.” He builds his drink in a 13 oz. Collins glass packed with ice, using 2 oz. Diplomático Mantuano, 0.5 oz. fresh lime juice, 3 dashes of Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub, and the ice cold Coke. He finishes by stirring the drink gently until the glass frosts, then garnishing with a lime wheel.

Play with extra ingredients

Mixologist Jorge Chunga of Washington, D.C.’s Station Kitchen and Cocktails says there are four secrets to making the perfect rum and Coke: fresh lime juice, spiced rum, glass-bottled Mexican Coca-Cola, and Fernet-Branca, the mint-based cordial which he says is commonly paired with Coke in Latin countries. “It refreshes the entire palate all the way down the throat,” he says.

Chunga’s go-to recipe? Start by filling a Collins glass with ice. Pour in 1 oz. Captain Morgan spiced rum, 1 oz. Bayou spiced rum, and 1 tsp. Fernet-Branca. Top the glass with more ice and add the juice of one freshly squeezed lime wedge. Top with Mexican Coca-Cola, then stir and garnish with a lime wedge.

Don’t forget the fruit

While Cuba Libres are traditionally garnished with a lime wedge, former bartender David Tyler swears by an orange twist garnish for his drink made with Appleton Estate Rum Rare Blend, Coke and a squeeze of lime, and served in a highball glass. “Top off the glass with Coke and an orange twist,” he says. “Give it a quick turn with a spoon so the rum comes up and the orange peel goes down.”

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Meghan is an award-winning journalist and content marketing manager who lives to tell stories. Her favorites include highlighting all things restaurants, from front-of-house hospitality to back-of-house grit. When she's not writing about them, you can find her eating her way through Providence and Boston searching for inspiration with a rye Old Fashioned in hand.
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