Coruba Rum doesn’t have an official website. Its Instagram profile is unverified with only 60 followers. Its own parent company, beverage behemoth Gruppo Campari, doesn’t even highlight the brand in its portfolio among its slew of other rums, whiskeys, amari, and even Cabo Wabo, Sammy Hagar’s one-time celebrity tequila.
But despite its modest price tag and unassuming packaging, which, until recently, looked more like suntan oil, the artificially colored and perhaps even flavored rum is the secret ingredient in many tiki bartenders’ arsenals.
Richard Boccato used it when he revived the Jungle Bird at his famed New York bar PKNY.
Ivy Mix of Brooklyn’s Leyenda likes to use it as a floater atop her Piña Colada.
While Neal Hirtzel, a California-based bartender and tiki enthusiast, simply claims of Coruba:
“It tastes like the platonic ideal of rum.”
The Final ‘Dark Rum’?
So the story goes that in 1889 a Swiss merchant, after having sailed the Caribbean, returned to his hometown of Basel and founded Compagnie Rhumière de Bâle — contract that and you have CoRuBa, or Coruba. By 1929 it owned Jamaica-based The Rum Company, which was eventually sold to the J. Wray & Nephew Group in 1965.
J. Wray & Nephew has produced rum out of Kingston since the early 19th century and has owned the Appleton Estate and sold its rum since 1916. Gruppo Campari acquired the company in 2012 and, while Appleton’s aged rums and J. Wray & Nephew white overproof rum remain major players at retail, in bars, and in the home drinking and mixology scene, Coruba Rum is rarely discussed.
Except among top bartenders.
“It’s always been a staple in tropical drinks,” says Martin Cate, the renowned rum expert behind San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, where he includes Coruba as one of the initial 20 rums one needs to taste and study for the bar’s Rumbustion Society educational program.
If the Mai Tai is the potent potentate of tiki mixology, it’s literally impossible to make it as it was when “Trader” Vic Bergeron first designed it impromptu in 1944. That’s because his recipe called for J. Wray & Nephew 17-year-old, a product that no longer exists. Even as Bergeron saw his aged J. Wray & Nephew stocks dwindling in the early 1950s, he began looking for replacements for his cocktail, which had quickly become a sensation. He settled on using two lightly aged, heavily colored Jamaican rums, Red Heart and Coruba, to help stretch his supply of aged Wray & Nephew.
For what it’s worth, Cate has tried vintage Coruba of that era and says it mostly tastes like today’s version, even if it was 100 percent pot still rum until at least 1960. (There literally wasn’t a column still on the island of Jamaica before then.) Pot stills create a more flavorful, heavier-bodied rum.
“Coruba is one of the last expressions around that can legitimately be called a ‘dark rum’ of old, e.g., with tons of caramel [coloring],” says Matt Pietrek, author of “Minimalist Tiki.” Pietrek believes today’s Coruba mostly consists of column still rum, plus a bit of heavier pot still rum, aged one to three years (marketing materials claim the blend includes 30 different rums).
He’s quick to note, however, that though the term “additive” is a pejorative today, most rums would have been made with added caramel decades ago. “As rum has premiumized, the better brands have mostly moved away from that, though,” he says.
Indeed, in an era in which rum connoisseurs covet additive-free, transparently produced, “honest” offerings, Coruba remains a rare bastion of a former era. And yet, at the same time, it still retains some of that intensely aromatic Jamaican funkiness, known as hogo, that true rum fans crave and which had mostly vanished by the turn of 21st century. (It’s one reason, Pietrek claims, that the super funky Smith & Cross was such an immediate hit when it was first released in 2009.)
It’s surely why fans are able to overlook Coruba’s less-than-savory attributes in a way they simply don’t do with any other rum.
“I’d never buy Zacapa [No. 23],” says Hirtzel, referring to another rum with additives. “But I’m never without a bottle of Coruba.”
Chewy as Hell
To be clear, these Coruba enthusiasts are not decanting it into a Waterford Crystal snifter and thoughtfully enjoying it as a neat pour the way they might drink their other favorite rums.
“I would much rather sip (Foursquare Rum) by the fireplace,” jokes Boccato, referring to Richard Seale’s beloved, additive-free Bajan rum. “It’s certainly not something you put out there as a fine sipping rum,” adds Pietrek. “But it’s perfect when you’re trying to replicate an old-school cocktail with that burnt caramel note.”
In that case he means such classics as the Mai Tai, the Hurricane, and especially the Planter’s Punch. Pretty much any classic tiki recipe that asks for “dark rum” or “black rum” or “Planter’s Punch-style rum” as opposed to merely aged rum. Though Coruba is dark in color like an aged spirit, its flavor is still youthful and thus retains some punchy notes to go along with the added sweetness. It’s a style of rum Cate claims was first engineered by the more ubiquitous Myers’s Rum in the early 20th century.
“But Coruba Rum is actually quite good,” he adds. Many bartenders like Cate love Coruba for the ineffable “exotic” flavor it gives to tiki drinks, especially in creating a rich, luxurious mouthfeel.
“It’s chewy as hell, probably because of the copious amounts of glycerin,” says Hirtzel, referring to another additive known for creating more body in alcohol. Most bartenders like Cate and Hirtzel like to use Coruba as one of several rums in a cocktail, rarely letting it be a solo performer. That’s how a vaunted tiki den like Los Angeles’s Tiki-Ti will go through four liters of Coruba per night. Says Hirtzel, “Big hogo bombs or tire fire Demerara rums need backbone a lot of the time in a cocktail; Coruba is that backbone.”
One of the few other modern rums Pietrek thinks can fill a similar role in cocktails is Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum, which also has significant added caramel, though proprietor Ed Hamilton readily admits that. “And that rum is also popular with bartenders for its specific use,” adds Pietrek. The newish Worthy Park 109 is another.
On the notoriously critical rum sites and message boards that dot the internet, even anonymous rum geeks praise Coruba. Though it only scores a 5.7 out of 10 on RumRatings.com, the user reviews are knowingly friendly toward it in a way they rarely are toward other additive-filled rums. “Works wonders in any tiki drink and is great with cola,” writes one reviewer. While blogger Drunken Tiki gives it 4 stars of 5 and says:
“Coruba Dark is not intended to be sipped — it is exclusively a mixer, and a very funky one at that. Noted for its low price, incredible versatility, and predominant Jamaican funk, it is the preeminent go-to dark Jamaican mixer for many tiki aficionados and mixologists alike.”
Tiki Duct Tape
Yet, even if Coruba Rum is a secret weapon for bartenders, “duct tape” for putting together tiki cocktails (according to Hirtzel), economically priced, and something that would greatly improve life for all at-home cocktails enthusiasts, it’s not particularly easy to find, often leading to rumors that it is about to be discontinued.
As of this second, Drizly lists only one New York City retailer that claims to have a bottle, and it would cost $61 to get that delivered over to me in Brooklyn. Wine-Searcher lists the closest bottle to my apartment in upstate New York, some 200 miles away.
“It’s got a strange distribution regiment,” says Boccato, noting how it’s not even available in Jamaica where it’s made. (While, conversely, a 37.2 percent ABV version of Coruba Rum is oddly the second best-selling overall spirit in all of New Zealand.) Cate agrees, noting how even he struggles to occasionally source bottles and thus can’t reliably keep it locked into any house cocktails at Smuggler’s Cove.
“It is a bit of a mystery why it’s one of these products that really has only ever been marketed in the U.S. to the on-premise trade,” says Cate, referring to bars. “It’s true that you usually don’t see it on shelves because distributors and the brand itself aren’t interested in getting it into consumer hands.” (He advises special-ordering it from your favorite retail shop.)
Still, Cate remains optimistic about Coruba Rum’s future. Even if Gruppo Campari didn’t respond to my requests to talk about it, and even if it’s impossible for me to find a bottle these days, the fact they recently changed their suntan oil-quality packaging back to the more classic design of yore, tells Cate that someone in Jamaica (or perhaps Italy) still cares about this legendary rum.
“I took that as a good sign they aren’t giving up on the product,” he says.