Spirits: It's a Jungle in There
flickering firepots dot the exterior walls of Mandalay Bay’s Rumjungle. Inside the cavernous Las Vegas nightclub, the primitive, rhythmic beat of dueling conga drums is softened by a trickling waterfall, while behind the bar, a multicolored floor-to-ceiling display illuminates the essence of this endeavor: 172 varieties of rum.
Mojitos, Cuba Libres, and other cocktails made from column-distilled and flavored rums have helped make the United States the world’s largest market for the spirit, but only premium versions preserve rum in its purest form. Amber in color and rich in flavor, these aged, pot-distilled varieties are best enjoyed neat, preferably on a balmy beach with warm breezes and rustling palms. Yet Rumjungle’s fabricated Caribbean atmosphere—and incomparable selection—makes for a stimulating setting in which to sample fine rums.
One of the more popular pours at Rumjungle is Bacardi 8-year-old Reserva Superior, the original 1862 formula created by Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso and initially available only to family members. The bar also serves the spirit’s more refined sibling: the extremely limited Bacardi Millennium. Aged in sherry barrels and bottled in Baccarat crystal decanters, this finely honed version of Bacardi 8 was produced only in the year 2000. The spirit’s underlying flavor is rich in honied caramel and nuts, with hints of lemon and nutmeg.
Although Cuban rums have not been poured legally in the States for 43 years, two of the country’s most coveted brands—Matusalem and Montecristo—are available at Rumjungle. Matusalem is a rich, dark rum that dates from 1872. When Fidel Castro came to power, the family that owned the distillery fled Cuba. The country has continued to produce Matusalem but without the original recipe and, consequently, without the original taste. A recent court decision granted control of the brand name to the founder’s grandson. His Matusalem 15-year-old Gran Reserva, now made in the Dominican Republic with the family’s secret recipe, possesses the old Cubana thick, creamy texture and flavors of sweet and sour apples interwoven with cedar and oak.
Montecristo is a brand most often associated with cigars, but a rum by the same name is also popular in Old Havana. Altadis, a Spanish consortium that is partners with the Cuban government’s tobacco arm, licensed the brand to an enterprising ex-employee, who now produces a rum that can be sold in the United States. A blend of 12- and 23-year-old rums aged in bourbon barrels, the Guatemalan-made Montecristo is distinctive in its flavorful mix of thick molasses, charred oak, and sweet citrus.
Because warmer climates accelerate the aging process, many rums have the finesse of spirits that have spent more years in the barrel. Pyrat Cask 23, a blend of nine pot-distilled rums that have aged from 8 to 40 years in French oak, is a classic example—and one of the finest bottles in Rumjungle’s collection. Made on the island of Anguilla, this multihued spirit tastes of burnt cherries, milk chocolate, and apples. Each bottle comes in a cedar chest and bears a medallion representing the Zen deity Hoti, a reminder that sugarcane originally came from China. Centuries later, the plant’s amber ambrosia has found a home in Sin City.