If cigars are the new smoking, is rum about to become the new vodka? It's all a matter of taste

REMEMBER DRINKING and smoking? Me neither, but some people still cannot do the first without the second. Many try to give up cigarettes, but cigars are different. Enjoying a cigar does not count as smoking.

REMEMBER DRINKING and smoking? Me neither, but some people still cannot do the first without the second. Many try to give up cigarettes, but cigars are different. Enjoying a cigar does not count as smoking.

You can be socially correct in the choice of tipple, too. Slamming back tasteless alcohol is laddish and passe. Appreciating alcohol that tastes of something is connoisseurship, rather than just drinking. This time, you may inhale, if you can find the bouquet through the wreaths of cigar smoke.

Cigars and which alcohol? I can think of several suitable drinks. (I usually can.) Micro-brewed American beers? Single malt Scotches? If we are reaching beyond connoisseurship to that impenetrable attribute, style, let us note that the new St Martins Lane hotel features a rum bar. A Havana with Cuba's other famous product? The partnership may be obvious, but it has taken a while to go public.

Christopher Columbus took sugar cane to Cuba in 1493, and distillation began soon afterwards. Today's best known Cuban rum, Havana Club, has been around since 1878, but has been somewhat more aggressively marketed since Cuba lost the political and economic support of the Soviet Union under Mr Gorbachev. If rum is "the new vodka", as some argue, that was surely not the intention of the former Russian president, who famously tried to silence the stills in his own country.

Communists used to try and nurture the political sympathies of our educated young. Now, Havana Club is marketing its new Silver Dry to student unions. This white rum is tastier than it looks, with an almost crunchy intensity. The more familiar three-year-old, with a pale golden colour, has a buttery sweetness, balanced with a surprisingly woody oakiness. For the connoisseur or the stylish, Havana Club Anejo Reserva is by no means "ancient", but its blend of rums at around five years old produces a reddish bronze colour, a richer and more-cake like palate, and a more vanilla-ish oakiness. A seven-year-old version is orangier in colour, with a rounded dryness and more length.

If you want real length of flavour, and can afford to pay £45 for a large shot, try Havana Club 15, which was distilled before the "opening" of Cuba. Some casks of this vintage rum were "liberated" to Mexico, whence a stock was acquired by the appropriately-named London bar Che. Rarity always commands a price, but there are real complexities in rums. As with most drinks, the colours, aromas and flavours derive from the combination of the raw material, method of production and style of maturation. Some rum-makers start simply by running the cane through a roller mill to extract the juice. To my palate this imparts a caney, grassy, tobacco-like character. More often, the juice is boiled several times, its initial extracts being crystallised into household sugar, syrup or treacle, with the final residue - molasses - providing the basis for rum.

Most rums are made in the modern, continuous, column still. This can produce very light-tasting, almost neutral, rums. Some distillers use the older batch process, in a vessel shaped like a kettle or cooking pot. The "pot still" is less exhaustive, and makes for complexity of flavour. Some of the darkest and heaviest rums are reinforced with residue rescued from the bottom of the still. This is called dunder. I rather like these earthier distillates, which, I guess, makes me a dunderhead.

Rum gains oaky flavours, spicy complexity and colour during ageing. Sometimes the barrels were previously used for Kentucky Bourbon, and perhaps sequently for Scotch (thus avoiding the trade embargo between the US and Cuba).

Until the Cuban revolution, Havana Club belonged to Bacardi, but then the owners left Cuba. The two companies' dispute over the name is currently before the World Trade Organisation. About 40 countries in the Caribbean and the Americas, and a good dozen in Africa and Asia make the spirit, according to Julie Arkell, in her handy book Classic Rum (Prion, £9.99). From Jamaica, even the white rums are robust. Wray and Nephew's Overproof, at 62.8 per cent, allows plenty of flavour to fight through even the most elaborate cocktail ingredients.

Barbados makes rums that are to my taste very soft and elegant. I especially enjoy the buttery delicacy in the golden version of Mount Gay. Trinidad's Vat 19 is sweeter and more caramel-ish. Guyana, with its sugar plantations on the Demerara river, produces extremely rich rums. The toffeeish Wood's Old Navy Rum is the easiest to find. The French islands tend to produce a more fragrant, tobacco-ish style of rhum. A good example, but hard to find, is La Mauny, from Martinique.

Most rums are blends, but "singles" are beginning to appear. An example is the clean and smooth but oaky Cruzan Single Barrel, from the US Virgin Islands. "Perfect with a cigar," I am assured by Nick Strangeway, of Che. And only a fiver for a double.