The folks at Graham Barnes Distillery were both generous and brave enough to send us a bottle of their Treaty Oak Platinum rum. And whenever we receive spirits to try out it can only mean one thing:
(with all apologies to Mel Gibson and Warner Brothers).
When we take a spirit through thunderdome, it means taking the offered bottle (in this case the Treaty Oak rum) and-in front of a whole bunch of people-testing it against a baseline commercial standard of respectable quality (in this case, Bacardi Light rum) across a gauntlet of multiple drinks. Two bottles enter; one bottle leaves!
Bacardi Light is the Puerto Rican rum that serves as a standard in just about every cocktail in every bar and college party across the United States and possibly the world over. It's made from molasses and given a light aging in oak, then filtered to remove any color and impurities. In the first round of thunderdome, we always take the spirit neat (in a glass; no ice; no chilling; no mixers). Here, we found the Bacardi to be a nice, smooth rum with very little needle (that is, that pins and needles feeling on your tongue if you let the liquor rest there). The aroma comes in with a bit of licorice with the classic sweet smell of rum. A bit oily on the entry the finish is smooth with a bit of wood.
Treaty Oak Rum is proud of the fact that it is made exclusively in Texas from start to finish and uses only Texas ingredients in its manufacture. The name "Treaty Oak" comes from a 500yr old oak tree signifying a treaty with Native Americans and a significant state-historical artifact in its own right. The Texas sugar is processed to remove numerous insolubles and unwanted flavors. Lone Star patriots should need nothing more!
What did we find in this rum taken neat in its own unadorned glass? An absolutely outstanding, singular aroma. While the marketing brochure promises vanilla and nutmeg, we found the scent of this rum contained an extra "deliciousness" far exceeding the Bacardi that reminded everyone of warm, homemade sugar cookies. Grandma's sugar cookies! Drinking it was a great experience: even smoother than the Bacardi with a cleaner, longer, lingering finish. Where the Bacardi was good the Treaty Oak was excellent.
Round 1: Treaty Oak in a rousing victory.
The first cocktail was a classic: the Cuba Libre or, for the uninitiated and less pretentious, the Rum-and-Coke with lime. We proportioned our drink with two parts of coke to one part rum with the juice of one-half lime. Unlike the college concoctions made in garbage cans with liquid poured in by the bottle, a good Cuba Libre is perfectly balanced between the sweetness of the cola and the sour of the lime with the astringent (dry) character of the rum. (End lecture.)
Silver rums are an excellent, versatile mixer easily assimilated into most flavors and that's the reason it's so popular in so many cocktails. Bacardi is a fine mixing rum and it shows off itself in this drink. It elegantly slips into a Cuba Libre like a new bride in red satin sheets. The rum nearly vanishes in this bright cocktail with little or no aftertaste. People claimed that they could almost feel the gulf breezes and sand between the toes.
Drop Treaty Oak into this same drink and that burst of Grandma-infused Christmas sugar cookie scent rises out of the coke like children's prayers to heaven. The aroma floods the nose and mouth before the palate entry creating a wholly different experience in the drink. Once again, where the Bacardi is very good... the Treaty Oak is just that much better. It's Sean Connery Bond over Roger Moore Bond.
Round 2: Treaty Oak Rum.
The third round of drinks featured a traditional Mai Tai. No, not that weird, iced thing full of fruit and flowers in a tall glass with straws. We're talking the original Mai Tai invented by Trader Vic (Victor Jules Bergeron) for the Polynesian Islands that features equal parts light and dark rum (in this case, Meyer's Dark Jamaican Rum), the signature orgeat (almond flavored) syrup, and grenadine for sweetness and color. The Bacardi, continuing to extend its reputation as an excellent mixer came to the parade like the fourth tuba player from the left in the marching band: not drawing attention to itself but certainly helping the cause. For those who like the sweet, almond-aromatics of Mai Tais, the Bacardi is perfectly acceptable.
Treaty Oak's sugar cookie aroma was just barely discernible in this drink amongst all the competition from the Jamaican rum and the almonds. If we hadn't known what to look for, we probably wouldn't have noticed. All in all, we felt that silver rums probably weren't robust enough on their own to fully affect the flavor of this drink and a more formal aged, oaky rum would probably be necessary if some premium product is going to be used effectively. Otherwise, buying premium light rums for this drink is like using premium, organic, stone-ground flour to bake your 4yr-old's birthday cake that's going to be covered in blue, bubble-gum flavored frosting... it's just not going to matter.
Round 3: Tie - if you love tropical sweetness use silver rum; if you love rum go find an aged rum for this drink.
The fourth round of drinks took us from the world of Polynesian Islands in the Pacific to Cuba in the Atlantic. We're talking the renowned and acclaimed mojito! We accepted no substitute: we infused our own syrup with fresh, organic mint sprigs, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and topped with just a dash of club soda to drop the sweetness. Leave your lime-ade and other sickly sweet store-bought syrups and pre-made mixes behind. A well-made and well-balanced mojito is a prince of drinks and brooks no counterfeits or substitutes.
Bacardi, with its birthplace and heritage from Cuba and its current home in Puerto Rico, did its homeland proud and had probably its best showing in the mojito. That elegant, simple drink of rum, lime, sugar, and mint... in this drink they all party together like fraternity boys getting jiggy with sorority girls. Or, if you're going to school in Berkley, decriminalization of marijuana demonstrations and late-night burritos to satisfy the midnight munchies.
But the Treaty Oak... this was also its best showing of the night. Annie, get your gun and sing it out because anything Bacardi can do, Treaty Oak can do better. The superior aroma and lingering flavor permeates the mojito in joyous waves of rummy goodness that the Bacardi just can't compete with. This is the drink where the smooth profile and lingering flavor of Treaty Oak was showcased by the other ingredients and truly gives the imbiber every opportunity to savor everything good about Texas distilling.
Round 4: Treaty Oak like Green Bay Young Brett Favre over Minnesota Old Brett Favre.
The final round (drinks 9 and 10 if you're keeping score) featured a cocktail recipe recommended on the Graham Barnes literature: The Cosmic Cowboy. This was an interesting choice for a Texas rum because this is really a Cosmopolitan-in all its pink-hued glory - with rum replacing the vodka. Just can't picture good 'ol Texas boys coming out of their gun-racked pick-ups to hoist dainty martini glasses with pink cocktails garnished with a spiral lime peel. Nonetheless, we pulled out the fresh lime, the Cointreau, and the respective rums. Maybe it was because it was the end of the night... but after the glory of the prior cocktails-particularly that spectacular mojito-we just didn't feel like either rum worked particularly well in this drink. Where orange liqueurs blend very nicely with vodka, the rums just didn't seem to as readily accept the flavor to our (by this time admittedly weakening) palates. Oh, we finished them have no doubt. But we refused to award either drink the victory in this round.
Round 5: disqualification.
The final verdict is a good, firm handshake for the Bacardi - particularly for its price point and ready availability (one need have no shame in using this drink in any variety of cocktails on the beach) - but a chorus of Huzzahs! for the Treaty Oak and an escort off the field on the shoulders of a mob of adoring fans. It's a shining example of a case where one can feel truly justified and vindicated in purchasing a premium product. You can smell the difference, taste the difference, and know that the extra money was well-spent.
If you're visiting Texas or your friend is visiting Texas and will bring some back or you can manage to find it elsewhere, Treaty Oak is well worth the trial. Purchase it, smell it, take it for a test drive in a mojito... it is a credit to craft-distilling in general and Texas in particular.