In an increasingly crowded spirits market with no shortage of rum brands, it’s beginning to feel like we’re seeing companies innovate primarily for the sake of being able to say they have a product that is easily understood as “new and different.” This kind of product development, with a focus on novelty and marketability, is perfectly capable of producing an interesting new brand, but some of these bottles are simultaneously head scratchers that make you question the viability of trying to establish new niches between defined styles.
Case in point, the intriguing concept that is California-based Callisto Botanical Rum. This is a blend of sourced, lightly aged (possibly charcoal filtered) rums from Trinidad and Nicaragua, which are then infused with new botanical flavors in the U.S., which obviously and immediately makes the consumer think of gin. So, is this a gin-flavored rum? Or more of a rum-inflected quasi gin?
Callisto plays a bit coy when it comes to determining that philosophy, when it comes to the brand’s marketing. It is stressed that Callisto Botanical Rum is indeed “rum” first and foremost, but its label calls it “California Dry,” with the term “dry” on a label primarily being associated with gin. Likewise, the section of suggested cocktails on the brand’s website are almost exclusively riffs on cocktails that classically call for gin, rather than even white rum—there’s not a daiquiri in sight. And yet, the botanicals involved in making Callisto don’t include important additions such as juniper, which is a must in all products labeled as “gin.” Instead, they include botanicals such as rosemary, lavender, burdock root and cherry bark … several of which can contribute some of the same resinous and herbaceous notes you’d expect to get from the juniper. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect.
As it turns out, though, “botanical rum” isn’t a completely new concept. There are a number of distilleries in the U.S. experimenting with drier rum styles that are sometimes compared to unsweetened spiced rums, but others use none of the expected “baking spice” components and instead focus on fresher, grassier, floral or herbaceous/fruity influences.
As for Callisto, they make their Botanical Rum by separating their rum blend into two lots, one of which is steeped in the botanicals and then re-distilled. This creates more of a neutral spirit for the botanical-infused half of the spirit, which is then blended back in with the “untouched” base rum blend. This suggests a product where some of the original rum flavor has been stripped away in the infusing process, but some is retained. The company believes this produces a more flavorful base for the botanical flavors, which to me suggests that the true role of such a product would be as an “improved” quasi-gin, rather than thinking of it as a deeply modified rum. Regardless, I am no doubt getting excessively anal about this definition at this point, so let’s get to tasting it.
On the nose, Callisto Botanical Rum is lightly resinous and slightly savory, with hints of rosemary and sage-like herbaceousness, and something more bright like lemongrass. As stated above, the company doesn’t specifically use juniper, but some of the other botanicals more or less mimic it, achieving some of the same notes of pine and fruit. It smells fresh, lightly grassy and floral, without much suggestion of sweetness or any more estery rum character—the rums involved are likely quite light column still rums to begin with. It’s a nice nose overall, with hints of violet-like florals and red berries.
On the palate, Callisto is quite dry and herbaceous, very much defined by the character of its botanicals. There’s a slight vanilla contributed by the rum base, and a brief suggestion of buttery sweetness, but as a whole the botanicals really take charge of the profile, more than balancing whatever sweetness is present with assertive bitterness and drying astringency. This bitterness thankfully fades somewhat on repeated tastings, offering more individual notes of chamomile tea, spicy resin, peppercorns and dried herbs, but the dryness remains. Overall, it makes Callisto Botanical Rum something that, in my mind, is not particularly suited for neat drinking, but a brand that is instead destined for cocktails.
As for what kind of cocktails, that will likely take some experimentation. As mentioned above, the company’s website mostly provides riffs on cocktails that are obvious gin classics, such as the martini, but I would be curious to see how this botanical rum might stand out in a classic daiquiri—although I suspect one might need to bump up the level of simple syrup a bit. One area of particular interest, however, might be the handful of tiki-type cocktails that do traditionally call for gin, such as the Army Navy. That’s a pretty specific niche, but one that Callisto does seem like it would be tailored for.
Regardless, if you have a gin lover in your life who is rum-curious, then Callisto Botanical Rum might be of great interest.
Distillery: Callisto Botanical Rum
City: Los Angeles, CA
Style: Botanical rum
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.