Thunderdome: Argentina's Isla N Rum versus Cruzan

Thunderdome: Argentina's Isla N Rum versus Cruzan

Wake up, America! Craft-distilling isn't only the provenance of boutique distilleries in the United States... the love of the various waters of life unite people the world over and these handmade spirits flow in all countries. Lantrix Brands imports a global example of craft-distilling in the shape of a rum for Argentina. In a burst of Pacific Northwest generosity, they sent us not one but three rums from this label: the Isla-n-Rum Silver, the Isla-n-Rum Gold, and the Isla-n-Rum Coconut. Spirits for Proof66 to try out? That means:

(with apologies, once again, to Mel Gibson and Warner Brothers)

This was our big chance to really get after the rums. Since we had to deal with multiple samples, we decided for the first time ever that this particular thunderdome tasting will feature not one mere bottle mano-a-mano match-up but instead a veritable cage match of 6 bottles. As ever, we wanted to select a decently regarded mainstream rum to serve as a baseline and so for this event the three Isla-n-Rum bottles squared off against the similar expressions from Cruzan Distillery rums and the world famous Malibu Rum for the coconut representative. Three distilleries; six bottles; 24 cocktails. Who will emerge victorious?

So who is Isla n?

We're told that Isla-n-Rum is pronounced EES-lah EN-yah where the n character is supposed to represent the Spanish heritage and culture placed on a fictional, utopia island (Isla n represents the name of this place). In the words of the producer, Isla n, as a whole, is an island that only exists in ones imagination. It is Latin, has plenty of rum, sunshine, pristine beaches and a dreamt-of lifestyle. The distillery prides itself on slow distillation in traditional copper pot stills made with water from the Andes Mountains. The rums are aged in charred French oak but the rum itself comes from the Tucuman region of Argentina that itself claims a long tradition of sugar-making.

While not yet submitted for judging at the agencies we tend to follow, Isla-n-Rum literature claims marks of distinction from a handful of judges including Chris Carlsson of Spirits Review. Who couldn't get excited with so many accolades?

Squaring off with Isla-n in our thunderdome is the Cruzan Distillery - while a relative newcomer to the major marketing efforts under the caring hands of Beam Global - it claims a heritage on St Croix back to 1706 and is a good example of the rich tradition of Caribbean rum-making. We selected it as a baseline for its respectable scores, wide availability, and price-point.

Round 1: Neat

In round one, we took every rum - all six of them - straight and, if desired, a second time with a little ice. Right off we strip each rum down to its naked glory: it can't hide behind garnishes, colored liqueurs, fancy glasses or alluring servers.

The Cruzan rums were generally well received. The Cruzan Light rum fared the worst with a few comments claiming some sense of turpentine, paint, or rubbing alcohol. But most recognized it as a generally solid mixing rum with the oak aging giving it a nice mellow taste. In contrast, the Cruzan Dark Rum received much higher marks for a smoother, sweeter profile but with a very short finish. Again, pretty much ok.

The Malibu Coconut Rum-an extraordinarily popular rum all across the country and the forerunner of all coconut flavored rums - generated comments that it smelled so much like coconut that people wondered if they were drinking sun tan oil. There were some exclamations of pleasure around mixing it with ice. Others thought it too sweet like candy.

Now, the Isla-n rums on the other hand were quite a bit different. First, the silver and the gold both had a wisp of sediment rise from the bottom of the bottle - the coconut had a much greater volume of sediment with larger chunks. Was this intentional or a sign of faulty filtration? There was no such sediment in the Cruzan rums or the Malibu. All the Isla-n rums had a sharply distinct scent that reminded our tasters primarily of sugar and butter. There was a small (but loud!) minority that insisted they smelled hints of tequila. (This even after taking a shot of El Tesoro Anejo to compare.) All parties were in agreement that sipping the rum was a much different experience... the buttery overtones came right through the rum and everyone thought it was a bit easier going down. The coconut infused Isla-n in particular had a very nice buttery smell but a far more subtle flavor on the tongue than great wad of sugar oil and Coppertone. Just no question who won the sipping contest.

First round goes to Isla-n in all categories. No contest. Like beating a drum. Isla-n took the collective ass of Cruzan and Malibu, packaged it up, put a bow on top, and presented it for receipt right back to them.

Round 2: Cuba Libre

Yes, the Cuba Libre is back for our second rum thunderdome. This sensational and popular drink is known merely as the rum-and-coke (the addition of lime makes it a Cuba Libre) all across the country and is the old standby friend in about any situation where a person finds themselves with a bottle of rum and little other direction. Can you put coconut rums in Coke? We didn't know but we intended to find out.

The Cruzan rums fared rather well with the coke. The silver slipped into the drink very nicely and the majority thought it became pleasingly indistinguishable (the goal of many drinkers that drown their rums in coke). The Cruzan dark was even better with one enthusiast crowing: It's a perfect combination. It's like the Beatles!! The sharper flavor of the dark came through for most folks with but a few dissenters along the way.

We all expected the Isa-n to excel with coke. We're Americans, after all. We invented the Twinkie. We also invented the fried Twinkie. We invented Krispy Kreme doughnuts and then figured out you could make a bacon cheeseburger using the doughnuts in lieu of bread. We were culturally predisposed to love this stuff: who wouldn't like a buttery tasting rum with Coke? But not so. In a fascinating event that became a weather vane and recurring motif for the night, that buttery flavor - whatever it was - became almost like anti-Coke in the drink. Somehow it dampened both the sweetness and the flavor of the cola. It completely changed the drink.

Now this is interesting. Any boutique rum with a heritage of craft-distilling must have a point of view. That is to say, what is its reason for being? It can't be like other big-name rums. It has to be different. And this rum is different... everyone agreed that they could pick this rum out of a lineup of rum-and-cokes. It didn't taste bad at all but in our group, everyone ended up preferring the Cruzan a little bit better because it tasted a bit more classic (that is, except for the person who still insisted she thought we put tequila in her coke). For those who liked New Coke or other adventures, maybe this is the rum for you.

What about the coconut rums? Can you mix coconut with coke? The answer to this question is... Yes!. The Malibu and Coke version of the Cuba Libre actually tasted rather good, though most everyone agreed it was more like tasting a flavored European soda than an actual cocktail. The Isla-n coconut was deemed much better for being the less sweet of the two. A close victory for Argentina in the coconut category.

Second Round is a split. The silver and gold rums go to the Cruzan but with Isla-n sneaking out a win against Malibu. Big props for the heart shown by the Argentina boys... it's like watching Gonzaga play in the NCAA basketball tournament - you want them to win, they play the game the right way, but outside some diehard enthusiasts you just can't bring yourself to put them in the Final Four on your bracket.

Round 3: Mojito

One of the signature and favorite drinks of the official Proof66 Fan Club and Tasting Crowd is the mojito. We make our own mint-infused syrup and use only the freshest limes. We just barely christen the top with a bit of club soda to take the edge off the sweet and down these things like the world is going to end. Can you mix coconut with mojitos? Once again, Thunderdome would tell us.

The Cruzan light and dark were very good in the mojitos. By God, any and every rum should be great in a mojito! It's like young women and puppies; kids and Halloween candy; Lindsey Lohan and booze. These things just go together because they were fated to be. The Cruzan dark brought especially loud acclaim: Fabulous... it's awesome... good body (they were talking about the drink)... perfect blend... If you haven't taken an aged rum and dropped it in a mojito, you've got to try it.

Drop the Isla-n in the mojito and both the silver and gold bring that buttery flavor profile once again that acts as an anti-sweetener. Once again, it changed the entire profile of the drink. It was hard to believe that we were actually drinking mojitos. Very few people thought it was a bad drink (spotlight on tequila girl)... but no one was very clear on what exactly they were drinking. We're forced to believe that this rum is more of a specialty rum that some true patriots are going to like in their drinks but is going to be - not bad - but at least puzzling to the rest of the drinking population. It's like the Shakespearean English professor in college who kept insisting on teaching science fiction. He's too smart to dismiss but no one really understands him and they wonder what he's doing in the department.

What about coconut in mint syrup?

Well, here one can separate those with a sweet-tooth from those without. The popular consensus was that putting Malibu rum in a mojito yielded a snow cone. That's right, a snow cone: We mean exactly that sort of thing you get at a carnival with your fried Twinkie. And while the Cuba Libre with Malibu was too sweet and folks preferred the Isla-n, the even sweeter version of the mojito snow cone won the day in a close race.

Round 3 is a decisive win for Cruzan and Malibu. Sometimes, different is just not better. Mission Impossible, The Avengers, and presidents named George Bush were simply better the first time around and didn't need to be revisited.

Round 4: the Pina Colada

How can you have a thunderdome with a rum that celebrates the letter N with a tilda over the top without having a drink that uses the same character? Enter one of the most popular drinks in the history of mankind: the Pina Colada. We settled for store-bought cream of coconut but used fresh organic pineapple juice and our very own Margaritaville pilloried so famously in South Park.

Once again, the Cruzan light and dark rums proved their mixing prowess in this most famous of drinks. People were delighted with the results. Very nice... sweet without being too sweet... fresh... makes me think of a sunny day in Jamaica... wonderful. Once again, the Cruzan dark was given particularly high marks as a mixing rum in this drink. In fact, after thunderdome was over, we went back to this drink and threw in some strawberries to the drink and enjoyed it even more the second time over.

|And the Isla-n? Uh oh. The silver and gold did not fare well. That buttery point of view thing we mentioned in Round 2? And again in Round 3? Just like Ricardo Montelbaum came back after William Shatner in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Mr. Gotta-be-Different-From-Other-Rums came back in Round 3 and this time he was angry. Not just angry; he was Russians retreating to Moscow with a scorched earth policy in World War II angry.

Whatever it is that makes Isla-n different does not like to share space with cream of coconut and pineapple. Not a good mix was the nicest thing anyone had to say about it. Variants of Oh my God were more common.

However, the story changed once again with the Isla-n Coconut. That particular rum fairly handily defeated the Malibu in the same drink. Whatever essence of coconut flavor that they use in Argentina was able to beat the Malibu rum in 3 of the 4 rounds.

Round 4: Split decision - decided victory with Cruzan but a win for Isla-n over the Malibu.

In summary, it's difficult to say what we think of Isla-n rums. What we can appreciate is that a boutique distillery went out of its way to make something that was noteworthy, distinctive, and a difference maker in the lives of the customers that it serves. It's a rum that we believe a hardcore minority of rum enthusiasts will gravitate to precisely because it's different. For a great many people, having a craft-distilled rum out of a copper pot still from Argentina is worth it.

For the mainstream public, we can give a pretty hearty endorsement to the Isla-n Coconut rum. While the Malibu was competent, the Isla-n version was clearly better in the majority of cases. As an enhancer to tropical drinks that lends itself smoothly in a variety of drinks that will delight imbibers with its unique characteristics, we can give a strong recommendation.

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