The barrels survived uprisings, wars, revolutions, dynasties, dictatorships, and they did so secretly and unscathed. And since its sugar refinery re-opened after the Sandinistas were voted out in 1990, Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana has been sitting on one of the world’s largest reserves of aged rum.
Some are comparing their 18-year to a single malt. And it’s available in Manitoba, thanks to a recent push by Flor de Cana to make their award-winning rum visible on store shelves, internationally.
Nicaragua’s Sandinista Liberation Front (FLSN) seized control of the San Antonio sugar refinery in 1988 amid the nine-year civil war, from ’81-’90, that pitted the FLSN against the U.S.-backed contra rebels, abruptly ending the supply of molasses to the country’s preeminent rum distiller, Flor de Cana. This caused fears that the company itself would be overthrown or be forced to close. They began hiding their barrels in neighbouring countries and in undisclosed locations in Nicaragua.
“With that threat, we started to produce a lot of alcohol, the most possible, and we moved this alcohol to secret places just in case [the barrels] were confiscated,” Flor de Cana spokesperson Mauricio Solorzano said to local news outlets.
“Rum, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.” – Ambrose Bierce
We were told it was a rum tasting and were appropriately excited to learn. Carlos would walk us, a group of eight, through a series of rums, teaching us how to talk about them, how to taste, how to swirl, etc.
It wasn’t a rum tasting; it was a rum challenge. Someone had misinformed us. We were up for it.
Nicaragua shares a northern border with Honduras, and a southern with Costa Rica. It’s a sliver spanning the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and it’s a country known for its revolutionary politics. It’s an interesting history lesson, due in part to the Che Guevara brand of passion that is often associated with Latin American wars. The details are gruesome, and less cool than black berets and dudes standing up for what they believe in – reading, writing, and hanging out in the bush – but there are some similarities.
Nicaragua became independent in 1838, and soon after had its first dictator. The U.S. deposed General Jose Santos Zelaya, and established a controversial military presence in the country.
Augusto Cesar Sandino led the resistance against the U.S. occupation. He was assassinated in 1934, but remembered for his fight and his anti-Americanism. Soon after, in 1937, General Anastasio Somoza Garcia began his family’s 44-year dictatorship.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN), named after Sandino, was established in 1961 and led the resistance that would eventually end the Somoza dictatorship, with current President Daniel Ortega leading the revolt.
Ortega was elected president at the beginning of the Sandinista revolution, later to be voted out, then back in. The U.S. banned the import of Flor de Cana rum during the revolution as a way to fiscally stifle the Sandinista regime, which had seized and nationalized the sugar refinery. The FLSN were defeated in 1990.
We started caring about different things after the eighth or ninth shot. Notes were getting harder to detect, aromas left after the flaming shot, and topics like, say, the Nicaragua Revolution and less heady things, like, where to score more food became more interesting than the rums in front of us. We all spoke highly of the final shots, though, mostly, if not entirely, as applause to our having worked through a lineup of rums the amount of which at first seemed formidable.
The rums in Nicaragua are tasty, rich & diverse. And the opening shots reflected this. Then, it started to slip, the education element, anyway. But this regress, too, reflected a certain quality. A good drunk is something to revere. And this gave a good drunk.
Breaking up this article on rum is a shot by shot run-through of Nicaragua’s prize-winning beverage, from sober to less so, from high-end to less so. And written by those of us taking part in the challenge.
Today, the Sandinistas survive as a social democratic party some credit with instituting policy supporting mass literacy, gender equality, and improved health care. Ortega is a controversial president, but one quickly understands from spending time in Central America that revolutionary aggression is always bubbling beneath a thin skin.
But for some time now the country has been enjoying peace, a growing tourism sector, especially after the NY Times named it the third best place to go in 2013, and recognition for its coffee and rum.
“Nicaraguans celebrate the annual sugarcane harvest with rum,” Carlos told all of us, as his assistant poured us each a shot. “The Spanish brought sugarcane in the early 1800s. They let it ferment, and called it a beverage.” His English was spot on, but the group seemed unanimous in thinking he meant to say something other than, “a beverage.” It didn’t matter. Carlos was great. And we were into it.
The country’s first refinery opened its doors in 1860, and by 1890 the Pellas family started the first distillery. The family still owns Flor de Cana, and much more.
“Twenty per cent of the country’s energy is produced by the sugarcane byproduct from the distillation process,” said Carlos. He was holding a blue, ceramic bottle with Century 21 written on it. We couldn’t drink that one. Only 7,000 were bottled, and his was too valuable to crack that day.
We still hadn’t had a shot.
Shot 1: The 18 year.
This one and many other Flor de Cana rums were accidents, Carlos explained: “When the Sandinistas lost their power, they opened their barrels without knowing the quality. The first Nicaraguan aged rum was really good, they found out, and just by accident.”
Its Amber colour shows the maturity of the rum. And it has tears, Carlos told us, similar to what legs are to wine enthusiasts. Smell with your nose and open your mouth; take a little sip, he said.
We sipped, and then he refilled our shot glasses.
“Rub some rum in your hands, and if there’s no sticky sensation or yellowing, there are no preservatives.”
We shot it, in a shot glass, and then Carlos told us Flor de Cana recommends drinking it on the rocks in a highball glass to bring out its depth.
“It’s pretty smooth,” said all eight, more or less.
“I like it at the end,” said a known scotch lover and beer enthusiast in the group.
Shot 2: The 12 year.
“It finishes different. It’s more basey; it has more base,” said Mr. scotch lover.
There’s a lightness in the air at this time.
There’s sweetness to this one with hints of caramel. The colour is still amber, and no one has rubbed this one between their hands. Not yet.
Shot 3: The seven year.
The colour is no longer amber. It’s close, but the quality regress is apparent. The smell is sharp, less smooth, and it left sticky residue between the hands. The seven-year is good for mojitos, allegedly.
“Good food; good frijoles,” was uttered, and the best guess as to why was in reference to the food Carlos brought.
“When you put in a little bit of chilies, it’s good,” said Carlos of the beans.
“This is my last shot of the night,” said Steve.
One down. Now, there were seven.
Minds were starting to wander. People were joking around. The instructor, too, was distracted. We talked about Linux for a little while. Things were getting silly.
No hangover with Nicaraguan rum, Carlos claims. We shall see.
Shot 4: The five year.
The colour was lighter than the seven. The aroma, less, I think. It seemed weaker. It went down smooth; too smooth, perhaps because the affects of drinking shot after shot of strong alcohol are starting to surface.
“Nicaraguans don’t like this one,” Carlos said. “We like sour things. When we drink sour things, we feel less hot.”
This information was new to the group. Everyone nodded as though this was a fact they were going to use back home. Or, at the very least, try to retain.
People were not listening anymore. But perked up when Carlos told us that Nicaraguans believe every bottle has the Devil inside.
“Now we are going to dance with the Devil.”
We were all keen. This added new colour.
This is the biggest part of this challenge, according to Carlos: The flaming shot. It tasted a bit like chocolate, and few details of the rum itself were divulged. It was Carlos’s kind. He made it. He blended a bunch of different rums together, and added cocoa and coffee beans to the mix.
He demonstrated how this was all to work, pouring an ounce out of a hoof-like bottle into a shot glass. We were all pumped to be drinking a burning shot that came from a large animal hoof.
He lit the shot. It burned, and Carlos became something more to all of us right then. I think we all appreciated him before, but now, his ponytail, youthful spirit, and love of history, all combined, made him an icon. But hugs would have to wait until the end. He took the first one back, and we followed.
The jokes were starting to get loud, and otherwise unfunny.
The group had had enough alcohol, but it was a challenge, after all.
Shot 6: The four year.
(Others from the group wanted an opportunity to review a shot, and after five ounces of rum, felt their creative juices flow. The excerpts below were not edited so as to properly document the journey Carlos took us on.)
Adam: 4 year extra-light coming up. This rum is white. I don’t care for white liquor. How can I get drunk off something resembling pallet-cleanser? We are growing to be over-compassionate and apologetic. This rum is so white. We will be mixing it with cola. This isn’t about booze anymore, now we’re just recreational.
We are not being helpful anymore. Things are getting messy.
Nico libre’s, rum mixed with Nicaraguan coke made with sugarcane, are delicious. The taste reminds me of wrestling. That or its name reminds me of wrestling. I recall being pretentious about booze earlier in the night.
The next one we will enjoy includes lime. Sweet Susan!
Shot 7: We are into the dregs of the Country’s rum at this point. Years aren’t worth mentioning anymore.
Becky: You can’t get this one in Nicaragua. Our host had to get his friend to pick it up from Honduras. Nicaraguans don’t like it because it is too bitter.
There is a bad smell in the bar. I am not sure if it is from the street or if it comes from the foul pipes that overflowed in the kitchen. Everyone is harassing me. Everyone is stealing my limes and the bar still smells bad.
We will mix the lime rum with Fresca. Fresca. Fresca. Carol says that Fresca is a diet drink in Canada. We don’t agree. Trevor says it has aspartame. We have decided that it has cane sugar.
Tony is harassing me. I think this beverage tastes like citronella. Carol doesn’t know my name anymore, but that is not because she is drunk, but she is drunk. So is Janice, who is usually better than the rest of us. We are fighting over the food. I like this drink. Tony likes to pretend that he speaks Spanish. So does Janice.
Becky: The lady assisting our host is very lovely and very cute. I have a crush on her. Janice and I don’t wash our hair anymore. We like the beach. The playa. I think this is still the seventh shot but because we shot it and then mixed the next one with Fresca, others think that counts as shot 8. I will give this sandy computer back to Tony. Usually, I don’t drink this much rum. I don’t think that I really have had much rum.
I like whiskey and gin.
Janice: Come on, Jake, join us, says Carol, in the presence of her husband, Steve (He’s ok with it knowing what kind of drunkard she is).
Jake took the empty seat left by Steve earlier in the challenge. He had been drinking already, and was ready to finish the event with us.
“This rum is the most important thing we have,” said Carlos. “At baseball games, we have this rum. We celebrate with rum. When our girlfriends break up with us, we have rum. Rum is our best friend; it’s the only one who listens.”
“Why is everyone looking at me?” asks Jake, clearly drunk on football beers from earlier.
Tony is trying really hard to control what everyone is writing.
This rum is only a few months old; for when you want to get drunk and you want to get it done fast.
Jake munches his fried chicken and gives affirmation to the shot.
Janice: The geckos approve.
Becky is attempting to piss off the devil by creating a tornado in the bottle. Adam also attempts. Becky claims hers is the best, but no one else agrees.
Who will release the devil? It’s Tony but everyone boos him. It worked but was a mediocre try.
We should have been live-tweeting this event.
Jake: I’m not supposed to be here. I’ve somehow been adopted into this group. This last shot was fantastic. I can drink it all day, every day. Goes down easier than it should. It’s a slippery slope. Who are these people?
Trevor: For the perfect bonding moment I would suggest a rum-tasting challenge.
At this point things are starting to take a turn for the worse. Most everybody is happy; we are all drunk.
I am very appreciative of the friends we have made that are putting this on for us.
They have not been drinking.
Shot 13: Ron Plata lite and beer.
“As the deer panteth for the water,” Adam sang. It was funny.
The next shot is called “the bamba.”
Jake is fascinated, at this point.
The ratio is a litre of rum to a litre of Nicaraguran beer, Tona. It seems crazy, but no one at this point can think clearly enough to have an opinion. Jake is confused about what equal parts means. As were most of us, apparently. Someone tried pouring the rum with the lid on.
P.S. Becky: Jake wants to do more shots and then fight with Adam and Tony without shirts.
Carlos said goodbye, leaving us to our own devices. We hugged him and carried on.
Flor de Cana makes a great rum, the five and all years higher. It’s prime for sipping, and, as just read, spending an entire evening with, shared between a group of good people.
Toban Dyck is savouring the rum he brought home. To follow a sporadic Twitter account that has glints of intelligence and glints of unbridled narcissism, search for @tobandyck.