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While certain spirits become more and more narrowly defined, rum remains something of a free bird. It can be made just about anywhere from just about any sort of sugar cane honey or derivative byproduct. Yet for all of its versatility, rum is curiously constrained in the minds of many drinkers—a Caribbean construct destined for beachside cocktails and motor-bound blenders.
Charles Coykendall is doing his best to beat back that stereotype. The beverage director at Benedetto, a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., is recasting rum with an Italian accent. Avoiding the typecast, he’s directing the spirit to shine in a new role.
The connection between rum and Italy, specifically, is anything but obvious. The country only counts three producers within its boundaries, two of which source juice from tropical isles. But Coykendall bridges the thematic divide deftly in a drink that has become something of an instant classic at Benedetto. The Maitalia, as its name suggests, is a Mai Tai seen through Italian eyes. It includes Borducan orange liqueur (from the Italian alps), orgeat, citrus, bitters and Galliano, an Italian liqueur that “pairs beautifully with Jamaican rum,” says Coykendall.
But before he can demonstrate the cultural flexibility of the spirit, Coykendall first has to convince his Boston-area patrons that rum is a viable spirit during the snowy months. “I think rum is a great spirit to use in all seasons,” he says. “Of course, it’s great in the summertime, when you’re thinking citrus and tropical. But aged rums are also a lot of fun to use during winter months.”
Those darker varieties, it turns out, work particularly well with Italian bitters. To wit, some drinkers find rum to be a superior substitute to gin in a Negroni variation.
“Amari can end up competing with the botanicals in gin for flavor dominance,” says Jon Lawson, who produces Batiste, an agricole-style rhum out of Northern California. “With sugar cane juice rhums, there are no added ingredients, and especially dry ones allow the amari to shine.” From this angle, the pair seem less like strange bedfellows and more like soulmates.
It’s held as self-evident at Benedetto, where Coykendall keeps finding creative ways to unite the two on the menu. “Good rums are versatile enough to pair with complex Italian spirits like amaro, as well as the sweeter herbal liqueurs, like Strega,” he says.
In his Doppio Solera, Coykendall relies on a base spirit of Santa Teresa 1796 rum to support a weighty trifecta of amari, vermouth and sherry. The name refers to the fractional blending technique used in the aging of both rum and Spanish fortified wines.
“A range of Italian spirits give this cocktail complexity and flavor while combining with the distinctive Venezuelan rum and rich sherry to create a nice ‘stirred, brown and down’ sipper that’s perfect for the colder seasons,” he says.
And Coykendall is hardly having a tough time selling it as such. After all, rum, even in an unlikely setting such as an Italian restaurant, is generally viewed as accessible, certainly more so than some of the more full-throttled amari lining the backbar. In this way, Coykendall positions rum not just as some novel addition to Italian mixology so much as a beautiful vehicle to bring you there.
For its part, the Maitalia is converting skeptics. “It has been on the menu since we opened,” says Coykendall. “The association gets people’s attention, especially when you have so many obscure Italian spirits on the menu. It helps to have something a bit familiar, to give people a comfort zone. People come back and order it again and again.”
Could it be enough to launch a broader trend of Italian rum cocktails? The folks in this part of Cambridge say so. And they’re wicked smaht.