Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Cocktail Curiosity

Chad White doesn’t look like what you’d probably expect from the founder of the Ohio Rum Society. He lacks the sailor’s swagger and pirate’s pedigree some mistakenly associate with the world’s most versatile and diverse distilled spirit. Also absent is the alienating ego that easily identifies pretentious experts in elixirs as unmistakably as a parrot, an eye patch, or a peg leg.

Instead, you’ll find the modest charm and Midwestern demeanor of a kid from Toledo, captured by the allure of Columbus more than a decade ago, who carved out his own corner of the local craft cocktail scene in a category that stretches far past the fabled shores of the Caribbean.

“I was the victim of really great niche marketing,” White confessed of his college years at Ohio University and an early affinity for rum. “It wasn’t until I ordered a flight of premium rums with a friend at a rum bar in Cleveland that I realized there was more out there.”

The most familiar names in American rum aren’t awful, but aren’t exactly transparent either. Adulterated by artificial flavoring and coloring, many are more like alcoholic soda pop than true spirits. Luckily, White and his future wife’s shared love of travel afforded him the opportunity to collect interesting bottles from exotic locations, a hobby that quickly escalated, perhaps out of hand.

“It wasn’t long before my suitcases were coming back filled with rum,” he chided. “My wife told me I either had to drink it or share it—not just the rum, but my passion for it.”

Columbus has a knack for finding or following the next new thing. From coffee and cocktails to breweries and barbecue, White knew he couldn’t be the only one in town experimenting at home with his spirit of choice. What started as just another Facebook group to exchange articles and opinions on the emerging rum scene didn’t stay there long.

“That online conversation soon evolved into inviting friends to my house for tastings,” he recalled. “If there were a bunch of bourbon drinkers, I’d start out with something dry and well-balanced, but with a little weight, obviously aged, with bold flavors.”

Further reinforcing the notion that everyone already seems to know everyone else in Columbus, that first formal gathering at Grass Skirt Tiki Room quickly grew to connections and subsequent soirées at Curio, Denmark on High, Blind Lady Tavern, and The Light of Seven Matchsticks. It turned out there was quite a bit of quiet dabbling behind local bars as well, substituting rum for traditional base spirits.

“It connected me with all of these underground rum geeks—bartenders, proprietors, but also curious cocktailers—people who love brown spirits like bourbon, or white spirits like tequila. People who love the craft of fermentation and distillation.”

White is a recruiter for the tech sector by day, a knack that clearly extends beyond his keyboard. Unlike similar ‘societies’ that simply need to usher a readymade community into the same room, White had to educate and elevate rum among the masses while roping everyone into the same orbit.

Two years in, there’s no slowdown in sight, with meetings nearly monthly, an updated membership program, and a new name—recognizing the greater geographic reach and influence of his growing group of self-described ‘rumheads.’

“We began as the Central Ohio Rum Society, but soon started pulling in members from around the state for our tastings. So we’re now the Ohio Rum Society, even though our interest is really international.”

Themed meetings from “January in Jamaica” to “Rum, Beer, and Revolution” tap into the convergence of history and chemistry, as well as practical and tactical conversations, like getting rum into the country a little easier by flying back through Puerto Rico for a less onerous trip through U.S. Customs.

“I have three bottles of rum I ordered from Europe that have been waiting for weeks in Customs in Chicago,” he explained. “Importers are still figuring out if there is enough interest in the States to distribute here. So that’s part of the hunt.”

Speaking of flights, no conversation about rum would be complete without one. Like most, I know what I like even if I lack the keen palette or industry jargon to put it into words. But that’s where White and his fellow rumheads earn their reputation as approachable connoisseurs, not another class of liquor snobs. Chad carefully curated a collection based on my beer and bourbon background. In fact, he could easily spot each style and brand at a glance, an impressive feat after more than an hour of cocktails and chit-chat in a deliberately dim tiki bar.

He described the origin and attributes of each as I sipped and swished, noting the time and terroir evident in the sweet heat and woody finish of the aged rums before moving up to the bright bite and botanical nuances of the rhum agricole, made from distilled cane juice, not fermented molasses. The journey from 60 proof to 120 was dangerously delicious, and it’s a flight that might require a copilot to get home.

“Rum is a shapeshifter,” he explained. “That’s what we love about it.”

Obsession over such subtleties may sound like the musings of wine wonks. But as an admitted rum amateur, the flavor profiles actually fit right in line with my inner coffee geek—sometimes spicy, earthy, or even floral, but never one note.

We wrapped up with shots from his personal stash (a rare bottle from Barbados actually signed by the distiller) and a couple more classic cocktails, further burnishing the depth and breadth the right rum can bring to nearly any glass—not just those with a garish garnish or bawdy boat drinks in your buddy’s basement.

“None of these rums were available in Ohio when I started,” he revealed, noting the reach of the Ohio Rum Society in creating demand from restaurants to retail. “It’s why rum is still so shrouded in mystery for most, past the major brands. But that’s why we’re here. Columbus is a trendsetter, and we’re fundamentally changing the way people think about rum.”

For more on the Ohio Rum Society, find them on Facebook.

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