Rude Boy’s Rohan and Khayla Massie talk rum versus whisky

John Georges, House of Angostura Master Distiller

Rum or whisky? These two classic spirits have become the subjects of comparison in recent times as premium rum makes it mark on the dark spirits category. They both boast centuries of tradition while also appealing to the most modern of tastes, but will rum ever shake off its less desirable past to become a true rival for Scotch?

John Georges, The House of Angostura’s master distiller, always says, “A really good, well-aged rum has many of the same characteristics as a well-aged whisky. A premium rum is similar to a premium whisky in that it has similar depths of flavour and aroma but the flavours and aromas are different.

But we spoke to the House of Angostura’s Rohan Massie and his partner in life and in their Hobart bar, Rude Boy, Khayla Massie, about what they think of the ongoing debate.

Rohan agrees with John Georges, it’s not about rum versus whisky. It’s about enjoying them both and celebrating the similarities and the differences.

Rohan & Khayla at their bar Rude Boy in Hobart

So, Rohan I guess don’t need to ask you which is better!

Ha! Well you know my answer will always be that rum’s the business and everybody should be drinking it! But seriously, why is it always about what is better? Can it not just be about trying something new? About venturing forth on a frontier of discovery.

One of my favourite aspects of rum is its diversity. It’s a chameleon spirit. It’s a spirit that is just as at home in a mixing tin as in a tasting glass. And that’s why there are two types of rum drinkers – those who mix it and those who sip it. Lovers of sipping rums tend to behave much like whisky drinkers and enjoy more of the premium styles, but also enjoy the education behind the history and production.

For me, it’s not just about loving whisky and hating rum or vice versa, it’s about a style of spirit that one enjoys. Let’s take Angostura 1824 for instance. It’s a rum with an older age statement produced in a column still with a fair portion of heavy mark left in for ageing. You could liken it to an Auchentoshan American oak; a scotch from the Lowlands of Scotland, produced in the tall pot still with drying American oak flavours complemented with some orchard fruit.

They are not exactly the same, and neither they should be, however it’s possible for a customer to see the likeness enough to take a step in a new direction and to want to try a new spirit.

Maybe all anybody needs is to see a personal bartender; someone to show them what the good stuff is. There are always links between flavours and styles in different categories and overlaps that will help someone understand the perspective of a category they may never have tried before.

How do you get a whisky drinker to try something new?

I think the issue is that people have tried a lot more whiskies than they have rums and so their knowledge of rum is lacking. Using flavour terms whisky drinkers are familiar with enables us to create an understanding about the differences between rums and helps us find one that they will enjoy.

If a guest tells me they really enjoy smooth blended whiskies for example, I would not recommend a high proofed Jamaican rum off the bat. That would just scare them into believing that rums are rough.

If they describe something dry with spiced fruits and peat, then I would guide them towards a Spanish style rum. Or if they prefer a whisky to be smooth, rich of vanilla and spices, then we could introduce them to something like the Angostura 1919. It’s not about challenging their palates and preferences, it’s about complementing them.

Why do think rum still gets such a bad rap?

I’m not sure that it does anymore thankfully. The history of distilling within every spirit category has had its ups and downs over the years. There have been gin crazes and rum revolts; there was even a time when the English Navy drank cognac on their ships. But it seems rum’s history has hung around to haunt it.

I think rum’s past is a bit sketchy and that brings mistrust and a bad rep with it. People think that the spirit’s going to be rough because its past was. But 400 years of production history has done marvels for the spirit.

As rum progressed through its youth, it became a more sophisticated drink. It became not just something that was produced from waste but rather something that sugarcane was grown for.

While some producers are advancing their spirit and are driven to create better products, others are not. This isn’t just a problem in rum though; it’s everywhere. There are always varying layers of quality throughout a category but perhaps in rum, the lines are just not as clearly drawn.

Khayla, were you worried about opening a rum bar in a whisky dominated state?

Living in a whisky state, whisky is just people’s go to. We are trained as bar leaders to guide our guests’ palates to help them find something they can truly appreciate. We knew when we opened a rum bar here, we would be met with the challenge of the majority of our market preferring whisky over rum, but we also knew it would be up to us to ask the right questions, to find a profile in rum that would be similar to that in whisky.

Have you seen a change in the bar call in recent years? Are more people coming in to sip rum and are they becoming more knowledgeable about premium rum?

I think once people realise that quality rum exist, they are surprised and become interested. In Hobart, as we have gradually introduced people to quality rum, we have seen more and more people coming back for a quality sipping style rum.

When it comes to rum, where does Australia sit comparatively to the rest of the world?

The perception of Aussie rums has had it rough in the past but we truly feel that in recent years, with a new era of new world of rums coming out of Australia, we are building a great reputation for our local rums. We don’t yet have the year statements consistent with premium rums, but we have the perfect climate and great distilleries dedicating their love for this spirit to bring Aussie rums into the future.