Which type of rum belongs in the tropical classic? It depends on which camp you ask.
Fans of the tropical classic the Jungle Bird tend to fall into two different camps, their preference hinging on either deep, dark blackstrap rum, or dark rum (aka black rum). Though Jungle Birds made with dark rum adhere to the original recipe, the blackstrap base has gained an unlikely popularity, at times overshadowing the recipe created in the late 1970s at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton and published in a 1989 paperback called The New American Bartender’s Guide. That build called for “dark rum”—a style so named for its caramel coloring—mixed with pineapple, lime juice, sugar and Campari.
Tiki historian and restaurateur Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who republished the New American Bartender recipe in his 2002 book Intoxica!, was faced with decoding what “dark rum” meant in the context of the recipe. “In the 1980s, that would have meant Myers’s or another dark Jamaican brand, so I tested the recipe with dark Jamaican and that worked well,” Berry says. “I never changed the recipe in my books or my Total Tiki app because I was treating it as a historical artifact.”
But an alternate camp says richer, more intense blackstrap rum is best for the drink. “They’re not interchangeable,” says Giuseppe González, who created the version featuring inky blackstrap rum in 2010. “That they fall under the same category is misleading.” Gonzalez put the drink on the menu at the now-closed urban tiki bar Painkiller/PKNY, dialing back the original’s pineapple spec from four to two ounces of juice, which spotlit Campari’s bitterness and endeared the drink to amaro-happy bartenders.
Looking back, González, who is now based at Sand Dollar and Mott 32 in Las Vegas, says he specifically selected blackstrap rum to stand up to Campari’s “overpowering” bitter orange flavors. “You need a big, harsh rum to play with Campari,” he explains. “Campari never plays nice.” For the rum, he favors Cruzan for its molasses sweetness. “Everything works off the blackstrap,” he says, explaining that its “weird coffee, umami, salty” character stands up to the red bitter, but also “makes it pop.”
Eventually, the drink found its way over to the influential speakeasy Milk & Honey, giving it a larger platform with both bartenders and consumers. Today, more than a decade later, it’s been canonized as an industry standard.
But not all roads lead to blackstrap. Fanny Chu’s deliberately dessertlike version, developed for the now-shuttered Brooklyn bar Donna, bypassed Cruzan because “everybody plays around with it.” Instead, she went with the tiki tradition of blending rums, using equal measures of funky, butterscotchy Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum, for its bananas Foster notes, and Lemon Hart Blackpool Spiced Rum, for its vanilla bean and exotic dried fruit profile.
“I know you’re supposed to have some kind of black rum to it,” Chu recalls of her decision. “So I said, why not use a spiced black rum?” To compensate for the missing sweetness that Cruzan would provide, she uses a rich Demerara syrup for “fatter, denser sugar,” and an ounce and a half of pineapple juice. She describes her finished drink as “like a juicy, tropical Negroni.”
Another Jungle Bird riff, at Seattle’s Rob Roy, centers a buttered rum (Plantation Barbados 5 Year) and pandan-infused Campari. Meanwhile, Meaghan Dorman, of Raines Law Room in New York, uses Jamaica’s Appleton Rum to fill out her chile-spiced Getaway Car, a recipe that swaps Ancho Reyes for Campari and adds a sprinkle of ancho pepper on top.
Some bartenders have even found a middle camp between dark and blackstrap. With his boozy take on the Jungle Bird, Will Elliott uses equal parts Jamaican rum, preferably Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum, and Cruzan blackstrap. Elliott’s version contains only an ounce of pineapple juice and a few drops of saline to highlight the salted-licorice character of the blackstrap.
While the blackstrap Jungle Bird may be viewed as a modern classic, the dark rum Jungle Bird still holds significant weight in the cocktail world. “You need to come to terms with what rum you want to use,” says Chu. In an ideal world, Chu says she’d like guests to sample the cocktail made with both rum styles, as well as the rums alone. “It’s a classic cocktail,” she says, “but everyone’s palate is different.”