Selvarey Rums-pronounced "SEL-vuh-RAY" and translated as Jungle King or King of the Jungle-is produced out of Panama in the Spanish style. (If you thought the lion was king of the jungle, Selvarey disagrees with you showing what appears to us to be a silverback gorilla.) "Spanish Style," we're told, means a light bodied but full-flavored rum. To us, this signals a highly mixable rum (though we're assured it's very suitable for sipping) with a burst of its own flavor to contribute to the drink of choice.
Even better, the rum is produced in partnership with the singer Bruno Mars, noted celebrity voice behind the Billionaire song and others. (He was born in Hawaii rather than Panama but maybe he has an affinity for the Southern countries or at least their rum.) You have to love a good product with a celebrity behind it!
We received a sample of both their silver rum, which is aged for 3-5 years and then filtered (80 proof), and a bottle of their cacao, which is infused with chocolate (70 proof). As a Spanish style rum, we thought to test the Silver against the king of all silver rums (in sales), Bacardi. It claims a Cuban background (though it's today produced in Puerto Rico) and so we pit the King of Marketing (Bacardi) against the King of the Jungle in a variety of famous cocktails.
The Cacao is a little more difficult. We decided to compare it to a combination of creme de cacao (a little problematic since it's a liqueur by definition vs the more potent and unsweetened Selvarey) and also dark rum (we used Myers) since the dark chocolate flavors to us imply a darker flavor.
Selvarey on the Rocks
Bacardi has a familiar, sweet/oak aroma. It needles a bit; it burns a bit; but it's very, very serviceable. It has a hint of pepper and a touch of grass, presumably from the molasses. In contrast, the Silver Selvarey has a sweet aroma of maple syrup and vanilla sugar cookies. A much stronger and sweeter aroma compared to the Bacardi. The taste is also very sweet but with a molasses bite; much, much sweeter (almost liqueur-like) on the tongue. Is it a sipping rum? It could be: there's a char-finish that would appeal to whiskey-drinkers who're looking for a lighter-bodied rum. "Brown sugar in a bottle," was a common chorus in our group. In Final Analysis, as silver rums go the Selvarey is quite a bit better than the Bacardi, which is a tribute. It's like comparing a cheeseburger-which everyone likes-to a steak-which everyone would probably gladly surrender those cheeseburgers to eat.
Moving to the dark side of things, we tried the Myers to baseline a darker, richer rum and a creme de cacao for a sweeter, chocolate liqueur. It has a grassy aroma with burnt molasses... some wincing around the table and some discussion of dry or harsh. "There's a reason this is an additive to a cocktail rather than a sipper," someone presciently remarked. We deem it well-executed but the flavor is difficult. In fact, someone remarked that "Drinking it is like 'storming the beach.'" The creme de cacao smells of baking chocolate or hot chocolate. But drinking, it's sickeningly sweet (it's an additive as well after all) with all of the chocolate on the finish. Mixing the Myers with the creme de cacao (heresy!) makes a kind of sweet, musty grass chocolate potion... "they're not dancing; they're separated. And not just separated, there's a looming custody battle." The aroma is particularly off-putting. "It smells like 90 degree water from Lake Michigan." So don't mix the two.
Moving to the Selvarey Cacao, the bar isn't very high but after the miserable Michigan Lake cocktail we made, it's a little scary. The chocolate aroma is much more intense and touch more bitter than the creme. Perhaps a touch of almond. The taste is loaded with chocolate but all in the finish. This is not a sipping rum... but the chocolate is rather exciting in the sense of looking forward to a mix in a cocktail.
First impressions? These rums are well-executed but neither of these seem particularly recommended for a contemplative glass in a Panamanian cafe under a darkening sunset with reclining young women in red dresses being serenaded by red-hatted guitar-strumming troubadours. That's where we like to sip liquor, anyway.
Selvarey in a Greyhound
Selvarey will have us believe this is a Reyhound cocktail, though it is in reality a classic Greyhound with the rum standing in for the vodka. Our recipe was simply 2 parts grapefruit juice to 1 part spirit served on the rocks. Using the New Amsterdam vodka as a benchmark comparative, the taste is grapefruit dominant (and it should be with vodka) but a pleasant enough drink. "I'd pay for that," was the final summation from one participant.
Moving to the Selvarey, we're expecting a more assertive taste from the rum if it can manage to find its way through the grapefruit. This is a good test for the self-proclaimed liquor that has "something more" than vodka. In the event, the front is a little bit sweeter and the grapefruit dominance is lessened. But we couldn't, for the life of us, tell you if it was rum or not. Comparing these two drinks is like comparing two different kinds of red apples... it's all still in the same family. In the Final Analysis there's little cause, in our opinion, to cause us to reach for one over the other.
Moving to a strong, martini-styled cocktail we move to the White Lily which calls for a blend of orange, anise liqueur (we used Herbsaint), and rum. This is a potent, potent cocktail with orange, licorice, and other spices served as 3 shots and some ice. Going back to the Bacardi as a benchmark, it's a sophisticated candy... sugar and spice with anise. Very, very dangerous in the drinking. Moving to the Selvarey makes for a lighter, sunnier drink. It ratchets back the Herbsaint a bit and allows the other flavors to shine through. Calls one of our participants: "I'd buy it to try it... even two if I knew I wasn't going to go home and slobber over myself." And then the response: "I'd feed them to my date!" In the Final Analysis we'd most definitely call for the Selvarey if ordering this drink at the bar and saw it was available... even at an extra cost. It made a good drink better... kinda like when a gold digger meets a man with a fat wallet and he's also good-looking; it makes him that much better. We may be reaching a position where more potent cocktails for the Selvarey.
Selvarey in a Cuba Libre
Again, Selvarey would have us believe this is a Rey 'n Coke but it's actually a classic Cuba Libre cocktail. Important, we used an all-natural cola in Joe's Cola, which is substantially different from the corn-syrup disaster that is your big-market colas that rhyme with "Roke" or "Lepsi." The recipe calls for 4 ounces cola to 2 ounces rum with the juice of one-half of a lime. Back to the benchmark Bacardi, it's nice and dangerous. But-moving to the Selvarey made a truly profound difference. This is an amazing result because Bacardi is famous and even founded on the idea of a Cuba Libre but this comparison is not even close and decided firmly in favor of Selvarey. We would order this drink and order more and find ourselves in strange situations the next morning. In the Final Analysis the Selvarey beats Bacardi in the Cuba Libre like your big brother beats you with your own hand.
The cacao version of this is a Cacao 'n Coke, which is the cacao standing in for silver rum in the Cuba Libre. In this case, we simply used garden-variety, corn-syrup disaster that is Pepsi. One expects a Cuba Libre and gets... something else. It's not good. The chocolate and cola don't exactly do well together but then the lime jumps in like the third wheel in an unwanted menage-a-trois at a wedding night. Said one, "This tastes like one of those gross recovery drinks they give you at the gym!" In the Final Analysis this is simply not recommended unless you ditch the lime.
Mojito / Chocolate Mojito
This most popular of Cuban drinks comes in two versions: one with chocolate and one without. We make it right: 2 ounces of rum, 1/2 of a lime, muddled with agave syrup and fresh mint leaves, shaken on ice and served with a splash of club soda (just a splash!). With the Bacardi, it's quite good. It's beyond serviceable even if it's perhaps "basic tasting" in the case of a good drink. We're claiming $3.50 drinks and $8 pitchers all day long at the pool. The Selvarey, as we might expect from our experience with the Cuba Libre, is amazing. We go from basic to advanced; from JV to varsity, from Jan Brady to Mila Kunis; from Justin Bieber to Antonio Banderas. Absolutely extraordinary. In the Final Analysis the Selvarey made one of the best Mojito cocktails we've ever had, period (and we've tasted a lot of rums). We would go far, far out of our way for this.
We tried the Selvarey Cacao for a chocolate mojito... is it as good as its silver cousin? Well, it's not quite as good. It's a detour. It's a road less-traveled that we're not sorry to have tried but wouldn't take again. We prefer the original quite a bit.
Cacao Old Fashioned
Wholly committing ourselves to the Cacao, they suggest letting it stand for bourbon (!!!) in an Old Fashioned cocktail. We are very skeptical of this move: we love bourbon, we love our Old Fashioned cocktails. But in the name of science, we're willing to try. We used Woodford Reserve Bourbon as our benchmark comparison. With the Woodford Reserve, as any person would reasonably expect, makes a very plausible Old Fashioned. It's good enough to satisfy any demanding connoisseur even if it's not blowing your hair back. (We don't, btw, agree at all with any amount of club soda in these cocktails.) Moving to the Selvarey in our tasting means simply this: you're moving to a different drink entirely. So here's the deal: if you agree that is' not an Old Fashioned, it's decent enough. It goes without saying it's a miserable failure as a comparison to a whiskey Old Fashioned. But if one agrees that one's drinking a chocolate rum drink with Panama spices, it's not bad. In the Final Analysis if you're looking for a chocolate drink with a little less sweet/dessert styling, then this might float your boat. But it's not a whiskey drink.
This is another classic cocktail that calls for a blend of brandy, creme de cacao (we'll use the Selvarey), and cream. We make it with 1 oz of E&J XO Brandy, 1 oz of creme de cacao, and 1 oz of half-and-half cream. Shake it on ice and serve it up with a dash of nutmeg. The original is a nice dessert drink... very smooth and pleasant. For those who like cream, it would make an excellent digestif. The Selvarey-and we should note this was not a recommended cocktail from their website-is a dusty, dry, arid sort of affair that reminds one of cooking chocolate. One wants a little sweetness here. We sweetened it with a little agave syrup and it's better; for those who like dark chocolate one would argue that it could be better. But in our trials a majority still preferred the original. In the Final Analysis the Selvarey Cacao is not a direct replacement for creme de cacao... at least not without a little sugar.
Another famous creme de cacao drink is the Grasshopper, famous for pies and desserts as well as drinks! This calls for creme de cacao, creme de menthe, and cream. It should call to mind a mint oreo cookie. Undaunted by our conclusion about anti-sweetness in the Brandy Alexander, we move forward. We tried the Selvarey first and it's a chocolate cookie with mint just like we thought. As a dessert shot for people out on the town, this would work just fine. "It's a York Peppermint patty." The creme de cacao version, in contrast, is much sweeter. Milky. Creamy. It's sweeter but better, which is odd because we generally like the less sweet drinks. In the Final Analysis we have to hold to our position that Selvarey Cacao is not a replacement for creme de cacao.
Selvarey Cacao and Horchata
There's a burst of horchata cream liqueurs coming on the market, spearheaded by the remarkable (and remarkably successful) RumChata. Many of these are, in our opinion, overly sweet... and that is the case with many modern cream liqueurs in general. Selvarey Cacao being on the astringent side of the equation with a burst of chocolate, we freelanced a little and mixed equal parts Selvarey Cacao with cream liqueur (in this case, Cruzan's Velvet Cinn). The results here were quite good: the mix made both spirits quite a bit tastier. The drink itself, with a little ice, turns into a confectionery digestif just like any good dessert drink should be rather than the milkshake that so many cream drinks can become. This proves that with a little care and forethought (or, in our case, luck) excellent cocktails can be made.
What Did We Learn
Selvarey Silver Rum is exceptional, almost peerless, as mixer in cocktails. It made a fabulous Cuba Libre and one of the finest Mojitos we've ever tried. At the price point, there's no reason whatsoever to buy anything else for your Cuban cocktails. The Selvarey Cacao is a bit more difficult. The chocolate taste is authentic and highly aromatic-almost like a chocolate bitters-but it needs the practiced hand of a good mixologist to find a use. Amateur chocaholics would do better with chocolate liqueurs.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle each of Selvarey Silver and Selvarey Cacao for review. All other brands mentioned here were acquired on our own. ]