Comfort on the Rocks
Andrew Bohrer || June/July 2021
Coca-Cola has always made me feel like an alien. I think I was three or four the first time I tried it, and the carbonic acid explosion in my mouth made me cry. Most humans enjoyed the effervescence of bubbles, but on my sensitive tongue “bubbles” felt more like “volcano lava.” I continued my borderline fear of soda until I was an adult, when flat beers were my ambassador to CO2. As carbonation became more palatable, I began tasting Coke once a year. My mouth still offers Coca-Cola an annual olive branch. I still don’t like it. And yet I’ve spent most of my career working on, toying with, and explaining all the elements of a Rum & Coke.
It’s dramatic but accurate to say that the Rum & Coke is the alpha and omega of mixology. “And” drinks are the first a bartender learns: Gin & Tonic, Vodka & Orange Juice, Whiskey & Ice. The Rum & Coke contains more complexity in its core ingredients than most anything served in a gilded coupe with a twist of lemon. Take one simple example: neroli, the distilled oil of the bitter orange blossom and a key ingredient in Coca-Cola. Neroli oil is intoxicating, one of those aromas that dances just beyond your brain’s ability to pin it down. It costs about $500 US dollars an ounce. For centuries it has been popular with perfumers, who wrest it from its tiny blossoms with the baroque method of extraction known as enfleurage — infusing delicate scents into animal fat, which is later steam-distilled. But you can taste it by just drinking Coke from a can.
If neroli is the intoxicating, classic aroma, the eponymous “kola” is the vintage jacket rediscovered by a young, beautiful person. Kola nuts, the bittersweet, caffeinated, earthy but bright dried fruit of the West African cola tree, are just one of the ways to taste the world in Coke. Nutmeg from Indonesia, cassia from China, and my favorite, coriander from we-don’t-know because humans cultivated it prior to written history. Though modern Coca-Cola seems to have replaced actual kola nuts with similar and/or artificial flavors, its inspiration remains true. These flavor patterns, along with a few other tricks like phosphoric acid and caramelized sugar, also create the basis for amari, the Italian classic bitter liqueurs and hipster bartender shibboleth.
We bought the first round.
Ready for another? Buy a little something for the table.
Instead of a dissertation on rum’s taxonomy, I’ll instead offer poetry: rum is the phoenix of the spirits world. By definition, rum is trash; it’s made from molasses, an industrial waste product of refining sugar. Before molasses-based rum became fun and profitable, excess molasses was just dumped into the ocean. After industrial rum came about, each country, island, and even distillery began to make its own unique version. The journey to love and understand rum is long yet easy, and punctuated with friendly people in floral clothing. And each of these groups of people make the “one true rum,” but will drink others in a pinch. These expressions and brands of rum are often cultural heralds. Innumerable times I’ve met someone who points to a bottle proudly: “I’m from there.”
Ignorant to the wonders of Coke and rum respectively for most of my life, I had some learning to do. Early in my bartending days, pre-mixologist if you will, I’d notice that if guests ordering a Rum & Coke were told that their brand of rum was not available or — horrors — that the soda machine was broken, they’d quickly opt for any number of light beers. This was always puzzling to me, even after I learned a deep appreciation for the Rum & Coke. Why the quick change? Why not just drink another rum? I didn’t crack this secret until a few years ago.
I know a Scotsman who owns a Scotch bar (an ideal pairing) who had a guest come in and order a widely available scotch — Oban 14. With time on his hands and guff to give, he said to the guest, “I’ll pour you that, but why not try something new? I’ve hundreds of bottles behind me that are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” The guest said, “Those all look lovely, but I just got the word that after a few years of cancer and chemotherapy, I’ve been cancer-free for a year. And the whole time I’ve been thinking about having just one Oban 14.”
Coca-Cola entered my life as an exotic elixir, too complex for my baby tongue. I grew to accept its ubiquity, as common as a cloud that looks like an ice cream sundae. Emptying rum bottles and later teaching people about rum became a pillar of my career, as did understanding the food anthropology behind the wonders of colas. But it took fifteen years before I was aware of how much comfort and relief a bartender could provide from such a “standard” drink. I think about that story each time I overhear a pedestrian drink order, a Rum & Coke, a concoction of pure sophistication and an opportunity for perfection.
Andrew Bohrer is a former bartender. He is also an author, co-founder of the Washington State Bartender’s Guild, and has worked in importing, distribution, and brand ownership in the spirits space. He tended bar at Vessel and Rob Roy and was the opening bar manager at both Naga Cocktail Lounge and Mistral Kitchen―all four bars listed in Food and Wine’s top 100 bars in the world. Andrew works as a beverage and hospitality writer and illustrator. But mostly, Andrew Bohrer is a former bartender.