Nils Westlind knew the first time he had a taste of alcohol distilled from sugar cane that it wouldn’t be his last. Westlind, whose social worker parents moved the family from California to Colombia when he was just a year old, was at a quincea?era in Cartagena, Colombia, when he was 15. One of the uncles offered him a bit of aguardiente, Colombia’s moderately proofed drink derived from sugar cane and mixed with aniseed and water. It’s a moment that stuck with him.
“You always remember your first beer or alcoholic beverage,” says Westlind, who owns rum-focused, 1920s Art Deco–inspired restaurant Ronero (Spanish for “master distiller of rum”) and its upstairs nightclub, Esco Bar, in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood. “I loved it, and we danced and had a great time. At that moment, I felt like there was a whole new world to discover.”
Later that same year, the Westlinds moved the family to Chicago, where Nils would finish high school and attend college. That’s when he fell in love with the hospitality industry. He knew this was his calling, and after working in a variety of bars and restaurants in almost every role possible, he tapped into memories of his Colombian childhood and wanted to deliver a piece of that world to Chicago.
No matter if his patrons are Midwesterners or Latin Americans, he wants to introduce them to the food, drink and culture prevalent throughout South America and the Caribbean, and that includes opening people’s minds to the idea that rum is more than Captain Morgan or Malibu.
“A fun thing for me has been to open up people to good rum when their experiences can be pretty limited,” he says.
A case in point, says Westlind, is the guest who comes in thinking rum is only for sweeter cocktails like a Pi?a Colada or Frozen Daiquiri, or the scotch or whiskey drinker who needs to be convinced to try a 23-year-old rum neat. He can change their minds with just a few sips. And Ronero also has a rum cart where they make Rum Old Fashioneds and Manhattans tableside.
Of course, rum is produced all over the globe, but Westlind is partial to products coming out of Latin America and the Caribbean. The bar at Ronero stocks 100-plus bottles of rum, including more accessible bottles of Flor de Ca?a, Plantation, Don Q, Brugal and Ca?a Brava.
But there’s also a reserve list with rare vintage rums like Don Q Reserva de la Familia Serrallés 20-year-old, which Westlind sells for $260 a shot, and Brugal Papá Andrés, which until 2013 had been enjoyed by the family for five generations but the family recently released a limited amount to the public for $1,500 a bottle.
Westlind admits his tastes lean more toward dark, aged rums over the grassier and herbaceous rhum agricoles produced in the French West Indies, but at the end of the day, he says, there’s a rum for every person and every season.
“It can be light and refreshing in a summer cocktail or robust with caramel and coffee notes in a winter drink,” says Westlind. “There’s so much to be discovered. It’s a very universal spirit. You don’t have to limit yourself to one season, one type of cocktail or one region. It’s all over the world. That’s what I enjoy about it.”
Westlind’s Favorite Bottles of Rum
1. Don Q Reserva de la Familia Serrallés 20 Year (Puerto Rico, $1,900)
“This is one of the most classic-tasting dark aged rums from Puerto Rico. The amount of work that goes into getting just one of these 20-year-old bottles is incredible. From my conversations with Roberto Serrallés from the Don Q family, I’ve learned they lose so much rum due to evaporation because of the heat and humidity, but the final result is well worth the process.”
2. Legend of Cuban Pre-1962 Valdespino (Cuba, $535 auction bottle)
“There are maybe just a few of these rare bottles floating around the world. It’s one of the last chances to taste rum dating back from before the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro. Distilled in Cuba during the 1940s, this rum was then imported in Spain, where it slept in old oloroso sherry casks by Valdespino. What I enjoy most about this rum is opening it up. At first, it smells like an old sock or wet basement, then I decant only a small amount. In such a short time, all the aromas and flavors begin to surface, like with an old wine. Some of the tasting notes I get: robust caramel, chocolate and coffee with the classic oloroso sherry tasting finish.”
3. Brugal Papá Andrés (Dominican Republic, $1,400)
“The Brugal family has served Papá Andrés rum, named after the company’s founding father, Don Andrés Brugal Montaner, for more than a century at family celebrations but only made it publicly available for sale in 2013. It’s the family’s most expensive and most aged bottle available. We have gone through two bottles and have one left; there are a total of eight in the Chicago area. It’s one of the smoothest rums I have ever tasted.”
4. Havana Club Máximo Extra A?ejo (Cuba, $1,410)
“Scotch or whiskey drinkers may just love this. My discovery of the Havana Club/Cohiba union was completely organic. One of my investors brought the bottle for me recently from Cuba, as you can’t get it in the U.S. They were out of what I had asked him to get, and naturally he just went for an even rarer bottle. This is a spectacularly smoky scotch-like rum that pairs incredibly well with a nice cigar, preferably a Cuban handmade Cohiba.”
5. Zacapa XO (Guatemala, $125)
“I don’t know if there is a sweeter, more incredibly well-balanced XO than Zacapa’s. It’s much more available and popular than some of the above and rightfully so. This is something we blow through at Ronero. It’s made in Guatemala and probably one of the best rums out there. Whenever I’m trying to convince anyone who enjoys smoother spirits to try rum, this is the one to break the ice.”
6. Parce 12 Year?(Colombia, $65)
“I’ve recently dived into Parce rum, and the name alone takes me back to my childhood. Parce is a Colombian term for “very good friend.” This rum is fantastically unique and amazing. It goes well in cocktails or on the rocks. It’s right where you need to be on a Saturday night after dinner—rich and buttery with subtle heat. This is one you’ll want to get into!”