It’s about time for rum to shine on its own—and not just swirl in a tiki cocktail. At Solomon & Kuff in West Harlem, the liquor is front and center, meant to be sipped and savored slowly, and paired with foods that bring out its complex flavor notes.
Co-owner and head mixologist Karl Franz Williams spent many childhood summers visiting St. Vincent, where his family comes from. His Caribbean heritage got him thinking about creating a gastropub focused on the alcoholic spirit of the islands—and not a tiki-themed bar.
After all, Caribbean locals don’t have tiki drinks. “People would usually add rum to punch or sorrel,” a popular drink made from sorrel flowers (a kind of hibiscus), he said. Williams also wanted people to enjoy rum on its own; he has amassed a collection of about 80 different rums, and plans to get up to 100.
“I call up all the distributors, ‘Bring me all your rums.’ I taste them all and choose the ones I like,” he said. He also gets recommendations from friends and through researching rum-focused blogs.
The Caribbean region is well-known as a leading producer of rum, due to the legacy of sugar production and slavery under colonial rule. The spirit is either distilled from sugar cane juice or molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar.
Williams named the rum hall Solomon & Kuff after the sons of a former slave, Venture Smith, who was sold for four gallons of rum. Smith eventually bought his own freedom and became a landowner.
Williams said the “dark underside” of the sugar and rum industry can’t be ignored. “History drives a lot of meaning. I want every interaction with my places to be meaningful, from hearing the name, all the way through.” He also owns 67 Orange Street, named after one of the city’s earliest black-owned bars.
His foray into mixology happened by accident. Williams studied electrical engineering in school, but was more fascinated by the marketing world. While working at Pepsi and researching for a project, he interviewed bartenders and fell in love with the idea of “having a culinary experience in a glass,” he said.
At Solomon & Kuff, the experience starts with an aperitif, to prepare the palate for the meal ahead. Williams suggests starting with a drier cocktail, like Sorrel Is All That You Can Say ($14), made with Bacardi, a light Spanish-style rum, mezcal, and prosecco, spiced with ginger and sweetened by sorrel. Those notes complement the bright, fresh profile of the Spicy Kale and Green Papaya Salad ($10), composed of crunchy greens, radishes, sweet potato crisps, toasted pumpkin seeds, and warm orange slices, dressed in sugar cane vinaigrette.
Next, an appetizer showcases the Caribbean flavors of Solomon & Kuff’s food menu. The Escovitch ($12) is a pile of fried porgy skewers—chewy and crispy at the same time—with onions and peppers that have been cooked down in champagne vinegar. The vegetables’ intense tartness cuts through the fried fish.
Williams similarly chose the Clément Select Barrel to temper the porgy with its herbaceousness ($16). Clément is a French-style agricole rhum from Martinique, which is distilled from sugar cane juice, and thus retains grassy notes. According to the company’s website, the founder, Homère Clément, had the idea to distill the juice directly when the local sugar industry collapsed after the introduction of sugar beets and cheap South American sugar. Inspired by brandy makers in France, he began experimenting with sugar cane juice. Clément Select Barrel is aged in oak casks for at least three years, producing faint vanilla flavors.
The varieties of sugar cane rum are distinguished by whether they’ve been aged, and if so, in what kind of casks. Brazilian rum, or cachaça, is known for being aged in woods that are native to the country.
Terroir doesn’t have much influence on the flavor of rums distilled from molasses, since the sugar cane has already been broken down, said Williams. Instead, the distillation method and aging process affect the liquor’s character. Spanish-style rums, mostly produced in the Caribbean islands that were former Spanish colonies, are distilled using column stills, which removes more of the chemical compounds in the alcohol and thus produces a cleaner, drier liquor.
When pairing rum with food, Williams said the principles are similar to wine. “You’re looking for the characteristics in the rum, and then using those to balance out, contrast, or support whatever portion of the meal you’re in.”
The popular S&K Dark n Stormy ($14), for example, is blended with housemade ginger beer. To balance out the spiciness, Williams recommends pairing the cocktail with lighter dishes. The drink itself is a balanced mixture of Bacardi and Goslings, a more heavily molasses-flavored rum.
Executive chef Christopher Faulkner keeps his dishes light and subtle to complement the rums. One entree, the Curry Roasted Organic Chicken ($24), is seasoned with cinnamon, thyme, lemon, and fresh ginger, like a milder version of Jamaican jerk. The accompanying Brussels sprouts, sunchokes, and sun sprouts are soaked in reduced chicken jus, making for scrumptious forkfuls.
The muted flavors go well with a light rum, like the Brugal 1888, produced in the Dominican Republic ($20). It is first aged for six to eight years in American white oak casks, then finished in Spanish sherry barrels for two to four years. Because of the warm, damp climate in the Caribbean, the effect of fermentation is more acute. “Rum that’s 5 years old is equivalent to a 10-year-old whiskey,” Williams said. With time, the flavors in the wood seep into the spirit. Brugal takes on notes of licorice, cinnamon, and caramel.
For a digestif, a dark English-style rum will do the job. It is a higher proof spirit commonly distilled using traditional copper pot stills, which leaves behind more chemical compounds and lends a burnt sugar taste. Williams said this sweetness goes perfectly with dessert. He pairs the Rum-Brulee ($8) with the English Harbour 5 Year Old ($12) from Antigua. The soft custard—topped with an edge of bitter rum—melds beautifully with the fruit notes in the liquor (aged in old bourbon and whiskey barrels).
At the end of the meal, you’ll leave feeling that rum deserves to be celebrated and loved for its own merits.
Solomon & Kuff
2331 12th Ave.
Tuesday–Wednesday, 5 p.m.–midnight
Thursday–Friday, 5 p.m.–2 a.m.
Saturday 11 a.m.–2 a.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.–midnight
Saturday 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.–5 p.m.