One of the great debates over the past decade or so has been which rums make the best Mai Tai. This comes out of research by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry that when the supply of Jamaican 17 year old Dagger rum that had been the original choice for Trader Vic's Mai Tai, first turned to a 15 year old Jamaican, then when that ran out he reformulate the drink with a blend of aged Jamaican and Martinique rums to create a profile that was more sustainable. For many years it was supposed that the Martinique rum meant a rhum agricole, the grassy cane juice based rums of that island.
There is a competing theory from Martin Cate of Smuggler's Cove that the Martinique component was a Grand Arôme rather than an agricole. Rhum grand arôme is a high-ester molasses-based rum - much like Jamaican rums that use dunder, grand arôme rums are made from 'vinasse', the leftovers in the pot after a distillation, and molasses that is allowed to ferment for a very long time before it is distilled. This creates a very high ester rum that has primarily been used for baking or as a flavoring agent in other rums.
By sourcing Jamaican and grand arôme rums through E.A. Scheer in the Netherlands, Denizen Merchant's Reserve sought to create an all-in-one blend built specifically for Mai Tais.
60% of the rums in this blend are aged for at least 8 years, 20% are aged for four years in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, and 20% is unaged rum. After blending it is bottled at 43% ABV, probably with chill filtration and possibly with coloring.
Denizen Merchant's Reserve
Nose: strong but not overwhelming dry esters, black pepper, overripe fruit (pineapple), plastic, matchsticks, slightly sharp oak and softer cedar in the background. After adding a few drops of water it becomes a bit more mellow with a less dry/assertive character and the earthy notes become stronger, but the overall structure remains the same.
Taste: sugar cane/molasses sweetness throughout, a little hollow/thin up front, vague/ethereal fruitiness in the background, sliding into dry esters with an oak backbone. After dilution the body becomes a bit thicker and the sweetness dominates throughout, with the esters and oak pushed a bit into the background.
Finish: layered sweetness, dry esters, and oak
While not a world-beater, this is an extremely competent rum. It doesn't have the brash intensity of something like Smith & Cross, but it has far more hogo than Appleton V/X. For me its major deficiency is that the spirit doesn't have the body I want, though there's only so much one can hope for at this price point. So while it gets the job done, I'm not sure it's what I would reach for again.
As this is a rum designed for Mai Tais, I feel obligated to give it a go in that form.
Mai Tai (1944)
2 oz rum
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.75 oz lime juice
0.25 oz orgeat
0.25 oz simple syrup
Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with mint.
There's a decent amount of hogo on the nose, even going so far as something I would liken to smoked salmon. The sip opens with a perfect balance between the rum's hogo with just a touch of bitterness, the lime, orange, and almond. However it all seems to quickly fade, leaving an almost clean palate after the swallow.
While this is a perfectly competent Mai Tai, I feel like it's lacking a solid core. Admittedly, my ideal Mai Tai is made with a mix of Smith & Cross and St. James Ambre, which are both very deeply flavored, funky rums, so something at 43% isn't likely to hold my attention. At the same time, I feel like even an Appleton V/X and Clément split would give me a drink with more body than this. I think it would make for a solid choice at a bar that doesn't traditionally do tiki drinks and wants to ease their customers into the field as this is a very approachable version that ticks all the boxes. But at more established spots, I'm just not sure it has everything that the dedicated tiki drinker expects.