Bottom Line Right at the Top: Oh no… not a sipping rum, this! Monkey is a spiced rum that by itself comes off a little syrupy; a little sweet; a little—it must be said—puzzling. Yet ask yourself: who buys spiced rum to drink straight? No one we know. In cocktails, the Monkey springs to life elevating the flavors in a variety of cocktails much better than its peers. While we expect it won’t fare well in tastings and competitions, it should be eagerly embraced by hosts who are proud of the table they keep. Mix it confidently in anything that requires 2 or 3 ingredients by the pitcher instead of the tincture… cola, coconut, tiki drinks… it dazzles in them all. In company, Monkey Spiced Rum is the life of the party.
Monkey Spiced Rum is entering a market utterly dominated by the pirate-themed Captain Morgan, whose recent encroachments into new flavors and special editions have pillaged ever more retail shelf space. Perhaps because of the Captain and his marketing efforts, spiced rum (and indeed, rum in general) is associated not only with pirates but beaches, frivolity, music… all of those things Baptists and college deans hate most in life. It is not a snobbish spirit in that it is meant to be sipped and contemplated. Rather, it is intended to be mixed and, we'll face it squarely and unflinchingly, swilled.
Onto this stage steps Zane Lamprey, self-proclaimed world-traveler and television personality who—at the time of this writing—claims host to 10 seasons of drinking/traveling shows (Drinking Made Easy being one famous example) and now owner of Monkey Rum. This particular rum uses an aged rum from Angostura in Trinidad (a well-regarded rum producer), genuine spices, and a specific goal of less sugars to compete in the corn syrup-fraught market. This is welcome news to pseudo-snobs like us, who like to swill but like to swill with a little sophistication.
We sought to test Lamprey’s rum against the Rum-That-All-Must-Answer-To (the Captain) but also, for you Costco Enthusiasts of the world, Kirkland’s signature spiced rum. As ever, we test in a variety of party-tested cocktails with a bent towards easy-to-make mixers, eschewing the exotica that are unlikely to make their way via cooler to the sandy beaches at sunset. Can the Monkey catch the eye of the party-goer on the retail shelf? At the twice the price it should! Let us test and see…
The Monkey vs The Captain and The Kirkland Straight Up
First, we try the spirits neat to tease out their soul. Who are they trying to be? What will they reveal?
The Captain has a pretty weak aroma dominated by alcohol and sugar. Maybe a dash of maple syrup on the nose if you’re feeling very generous. Some pick up clove. On the palate, brown sugar, a bit of rum taste, and an unpleasant burning finish (at only 70 proof!) with a surprisingly bitter fade. Weak spices. Mixing rum indeed! No one would think to sip a second time after sampling a first. This is not a liquor that looks good naked and needs to be dressed up for the night out.
The Kirkland smells much hotter and it should because it’s bottled at 92 proof. That’s a LOT for a spiced rum, almost 30% more than its peers (see, for example, the relative weakling bottling proof of 70 offered by the Captain). One can tease out a little maple here and we’re finding that spiced rum means maple syrup flavors. Also cinnamon. The taste is brown sugar and heat but not a decidedly greater heat than the Captain, which we take to mean a better executed distillation. A bitterness on the finish, probably from any aging that’s going on for Kirkland at St Croix. Some menthol as well. The heavier alcohol content does an excellent job of reducing the sweetness. This rum is not a sipper…. Too bitter and hot for that but it’s not terrifically. You'd think about it but you wouldn't actually do it. This, we imagine, is what is leading to the generous scores for Kirkland Spiced at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition of late. You're curious about this spirit naked but not enough to do anything about it once you see it.
Now... the Monkey has a much more exciting aroma… we get much more intense maple and banana. It’s breakfast on the nose! Orange and cinnamon as well. There’s also a sting of alcohol on the nose and maybe a touch of oak. This does taste less sweet than the Captain, though not by much. It’s much lighter, much smoother, and a lot more flavor. Oddly, the rum still has a syrupy, liqueur-like consistency. It has less of a burn on the finish (another 70 proof spirit) but has an oak char/bitterness. Not the awful bitterness of the Captain but a bitterness that is familiar to bourbon drinkers. This spirit looks good in the nude with dim, generous lighting.
In the end, the nod for a more exciting date goes to Mr. Lamprey. If you’re going to go skinny dipping with one of these rums, it should be with the Monkey and leave the others for your wingman/wingwoman. Now, to the cocktails!
The Monkey vs The Captain and The Kirkland (and Bacardi) in Cola
All rum seems to automatically mix with cola. Per the instructions from the Monkey website, we added a bit of lime juice to dry out the flavors a touch, officially turning the Rum-and-Coke into a Cube Libre (which, pro tip!, is way better). We were more generous than is customary for your beach bartenders but less so than your ever-hopeful frat-house maître d’: 2 parts cola, 1 part rum, twist of lime.
The Captain turns out a nice drink and one can almost guess that there’s spiced rum in it if tasted blind. Blissfully not too sweet with the lime (for those who haven’t discovered the Cuba Libre, you should try it). Not a fancy drink, though… it classifies easily and automatically as a well drink. With Captain, both the cola flavor and rum flavor is lessened. Turning to the Kirkland for the same drink, we were really worried about a well drink taste because of the high proof. In the event, cola and lime do a good job of washing out the Kirkland high-alcohol but the bitterness is present on the back. Still, greatly superior to the Captain and will certainly do the job a lot faster with the higher proof.
Predictably after our experience with it neat, the Monkey gives off a crazy interesting aroma even immersed in cola… banana and cherry dominate. Smoother, nicer, it’s beguiling with the lime in the way that moonlight goes with romance on a beach. One of our number claims it reminisces of Trader Vic’s. Another proclaims great sweetness, which isn’t all bad. This is exceptional when touched with lime.
Mixed in cola with lime (Cuba Libre!), this is an easy victory for Lamprey and his Monkey.
The Monkey vs Bacardi and Captain in a Mai Tai
Parties that dare to serve cocktails made by Trader Vic's must have a little civility and class. No corn-syrup, ready-to-drink bottles her! We go all the way: fresh lime juice, orgeat (almond) syrup, some genuine grenadine, curacao, and the rum. Shake on ice and serve. This is an exotic and delicious drink that will get the most insular of agoraphobes capering on the dance floor.
We used the Bacardi Light as the classic ingredient for the base… our mix might’ve been a little heavy on the curacao and grenadine (we tried to mix by hand). It’s very sweet and the light rum is, well, too light to even that sweetness out… diluting on ice (or shaved ice, yum!) helps a great deal and would be sure to make the party hop on a sugar craze. The Captain, on the other hand, smelled better and the spices cut back the sweetness a bit. Bummer for the Captain, a minority thought it finished like dentist fluoride. In this setting where the sugar flavors are so heavy, the spices ultimately help. This will come as a great heresy to classic cocktail enthusiasts but the spiced rum was a better fit for Trader Vic's.
The Monkey, that funky monkey, brought out elevated the aromas of spice and orange liqueur. Pay close attention: not allowed those flavors through but elevated those flavors, which is a huge difference from its peers. Would it be too sweet for the already sweet drink? No! It blends nicely. We’re finding over and over that Monkey spices makes drinks better. “This is one where you need to tip the waiter” announced one of our number on the first sip and, it should be noted, for the first time that night.
In the end, and striking for its ability to mix with a classic cocktail and bigger flavors, another easy victory for the Monkey.
The Monkey vs the Captain and Bacardi in Fizzy Designer Drinks
Exotic fizzy drinks are all of those strange things in bottles that cost 3x to 4x more than cola and usually sits with the specialty organic foods. They're flavored with things you've barely heard of and may not have known were edible. Exotic fizzy drinks are fun because they’re usually very tasty and, because they’re tasty, accept all kinds of liquor gladly, easily, and willingly (just how we like ‘em!). We used Bai 5 Jamaica Blood Orange as our representative Exotic Fizzy: antioxidants and low calorie for the win! Really, any fizzy exotica would do but we liked it because Bai 5, being low-calorie, has a significant stevia taste to it, which is really foul tasting to many people (those people being us). So a good test here is whether or not the rum could overcome the stevia.
The Captain ends up accentuating the stevia. Yuck! That is precisely the opposite of what we'd hoped. The blood orange came out as transmogrified and horrifying strawberry. The good news is that there’s no alcohol taste whatsoever. This is a drink of mutated tastes but despite that the beachgoers of our party declared that they could drink it and drink it in volume without knowing that they were drinking anything. Sometimes, that's what the Captain's good for. Turning to the Kirkland for solace and salvation, it did better but didn’t mask the stevia… it just burned it out. And now we definitely could taste the alcohol. It appears stevia and alcohol do not mix.
Thank God for the Monkey! Here is where the liqueur-like flavors we noted neat rescues a diet drink and the stevia almost vanishes in a fusion of orange, banana, and brown sugar. It turned a diet drink into something that actually tastes good. One of our number declares: “That funky monkey brings the good stuff.”
One of the things we like to see in mixing liquors is their ability to make a bad drink better. That's certainly the case here. Another victory to the Monkey.
The Monkey vs The Captain in a Bastardized Piña Colada
At any party, one is constantly confronted with a field of bottles and ingredients deficit to the task of ideal mixing. Therefore, one must constantly improvise, adapt, and overcome. Here we are confronted with rum, Malibu Coconut liqueur, and some other stuff, none of it, sadly, being or even resembling pineapple. Like many a party, we are now in no fit place to run to the story and remedy the deficit. Nonetheless, can we make a Pina Colada? Let’s try.
After our experiences above, the results are perfectly predictable. First, this is not a clean, elegant Pina Colada that accompanies any sort of walk in the run. Rather, it's a drink for those who stumble around the beach. With the Captain and Kirkland it's not bad but it tastes exactly like what it is: someone raided the refrigerator and then poured in some alcohol. You drink it with a light grimace and move on with the party pleased in that the drink allows the party to continue.
Once again, the Monkey is special! It's better array of forward flavors eradicates the grimace-worthy moments. We still raided the refrigerator. But now someone tastes it and, instead of the grimace and the resigned thanks, one instead receives a surprised, "This actually tastes pretty good." This makes a clean sweep for the Monkey over its competitors in all the party settings we could reasonably think of.
by Neal MacDonald, Editor
[Disclaimer: we were provided a 750ml bottle of Monkey Spiced Rum for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]