It is our theory, as well as those in the know, that rum is set to be the new whiskey. Worth sipping solo, it's time that rum emerged from its hiding spot in overly sweet poolside daiquiris and outdated Mai Tai's and was enjoyed for its complexities and distiller-to-distiller uniqueness. (Note: we are authoritatively pounding a lecturn as we type this.)
In a word, rum is neat. And we wanted to drink it that way. So we headed to the simply-named, newly-opened Neat in Glendale.
Opened this past October, Neat is a dive-bar turned good. Although the exterior is unassuming, complete with a rock facade so popular in mid-century SoCal architecture, the interior has gotten a fresh, simple makeover, with classic bar stools and a fireplace over which hangs a portrait of the owner, made in jest by a friend.
Aidan Demarest, formerly at The Spare Room in the Roosevelt Hotel, opened Neat with the purpose of trying something new by sticking to basics.
"I care more about liquor than I do about cocktails," he said. It's a bold proclamation at a time when cocktail is king. "I like to get blown away by the liquor, not the mixer."
Wanting the spirit to shine, he opened a joint where the purpose was to understand the booze being sipped, instead of hiding it in a cocktail. But as a twist, each and every tumbler of straight-up spirits is served with an aptly-paired sidecar, or mocktail -- the two of which are placed side by side on a perfect little wooden tray.
Aidan had his "a-ha" straight-rum sipping moment on the patio of Hollywood's rum wonderland, La Descarga. "Sipping rum has to have texture," he advises, noting that cocktail-centric rums don't have that smooth aftertaste called "length." Heat, alcohol burn, sweetness, spices, and length were the touchstones we were to look out for.
We sipped a total of six rums -- from Spain, Ghana, Jamaica, and other far-flung once-colonized locales. "Rum has a super dark, dirty history... it's torture in a bottle," began Demarest before a quick -- equally disturbing and enthralling -- history lesson on European colonization. "Enjoy, imperialist white people!" was his jocular command. We took it.
Our favorites were the first and last of the rums we tasted. Dos Maderas, a Spanish rum, was aged ten years and boasts a cognac vibe, with molasses and a fruity finish. Zaya from Trinidad was the last of the rums we sipped, and at 12 years aged, it was also the oldest. We enjoyed the oakiness from extra aging -- in this way it had a delightfully complex, woodsy bourbon quality. These were definitely not something we wanted to mask with syrupy fruit juices or mixers, in a "nobody puts baby in a corner" kind of way.
We were also fans of Zacapa, which had a leathery finish and was less sweet than some of the others. Part of the beauty of every rum is its history and narrative, and Zacapa is one of the few rums distilled by a female. The distillery supports the local economy in its Guatemalan town by employing locals and purchasing its signature woven straw bands adorning each bottle from nearby hand-crafters. "The distillery is their lifespring," notes Demarest.
Demarest had his bar chef, the dashing Yuval Soffer, fix us a few cocktails with his approved rums so we could note the differences. First we tried a classic daiquiri using El Dorado, a totally clear, triple-distilled three-year-aged rum. Sweet, crisp, made with demerara sugar, it made sense why this would be at home in a cocktail.
Followed was a fruity minty take merging two different cocktails, with Soffer explaining it as "if a Hemingway and a mojito had a baby." He used Sailor Jerry rum, which has a fast heat and spice, and in Demarest's opinion, is somewhat sweetly cloying. "But that's the reason it makes a great cocktail," he notes.
There was only so much sipping we could get through in one afternoon, but sampling Neat's selection of spirits and sidecars might be easier during their happy hour, when every drink is half off.
"Rum is not a crazy expensive situation," says Demarest. And with that, we're convinced that rum -- served neat -- is about to have its moment.
1114 North Pacific Avenue, Glendale, CA
[Photos by Amy Tierney.]