Chocolate and Rum
A Common Thread
Chocolate, coffee and aged spirits share a common thread that makes them, for the most part, appealing to the same audience: many of their flavors are derived from the roasting/toasting process employed in their production. In the case of chocolate and coffee, we are referring to the roasting of the cacao nibs and the coffee beans, while in the case of aged spirits we are referring to the toasting or charring of the barrels employed during the aging.
Raw bread and steamed grains, for example, do not taste anything like their toasted counterparts: take a slice of white bread, for example, and compare its aroma and taste to an identical piece of bread that has been toasted.
The process of developing flavors during toasting or roasting has been studied for a very long time and is commonly referred to as the Maillard Reaction. Unlike straight (nonenzymatic) caramelization, which is the result of heat being applied to a sugar, the Maillard Reaction requires that a protein be combined with a sugar, in addition to heat. There are naturally occurring proteins and sugars in many organic materials, such as seeds, fruits, wood and meats. The Maillard Reaction explains why a steak can achieve an exceptionally-tasting “crust” or caramelization while being seared.
Food science professionals spend a considerable amount of time learning the organic chemistry concepts behind this phenomenon (such as Amadori re-arrangements and Strecker degradations) and then apply this knowledge to create masterpieces ranging from decadent pastries to perfectly balanced chocolates.
The Maillard Reaction is responsible for the formation of sources of color, aroma and taste, including:
• Pyridines and
As stated earlier, all distilled spirits aged in toasted or charred barrels will benefit from these by-products of the Maillard Reaction.
In the very particular case of rum, there are additional toasting and caramelization notes that come from its raw material: the sugarcane. These notes can be related to the burning of the sugarcane fields (if they are burnt as part of the harvest) and, more intensely and likely, from the boiling of the cane juice related to the process of sugar extraction.
The color of molasses, for those who have not thought about it, is obtained through the caramelization of sugars during boiling of the juice. Much like one would caramelize sugar when making a Flan or a Crème Brule, the sugar mill ends up caramelizing some sugar as part of the process of evaporating excess water from the juice (needed to force the sugar to crystalize).
Dark toasted chocolate, dark roasted coffee, rum made from the darkest (lowest grade) molasses and charred oak barrels all have similar notes. Medium toasted chocolate, medium roasted coffee, rum made from High Test (virgin) molasses and toasted (not charred) barrels also have similar notes that are different than their more intensely-heated counterparts.
Armed with this knowledge, pairing a chocolate with an aged rum (or a coffee) becomes significantly easier, as one need only ask a few questions about the way each company prepared its product, to know what type and range of flavors to expect.