The Secret to Paulina Konja’s Rum Old-Fashioned? It’s In the “50-50.”

The bar manager at San Diego’s Kettner Exchange shares her trick to perfecting the rum Old-Fashioned.

Around San Diego, the Old-Fashioned is still pretty simple and by-the-book, according to Paulina Konja. That means: bourbon, bitters and white sugar—full stop. Maybe (maybe) someone “uses demerara sugar in place of simple syrup,” she jokes. As bar manager at San Diego’s Kettner Exchange, however, Konja prefers to put her own spin on the classic. For one thing, rather than bourbon, she’s partial to rum. And instead of leaning on the traditional sweet syrup, she amps up the flavor with her own special bitter blends.

“There is such a variety of [bitter liqueurs and fortified wines] that I think they can work with any spirit,” says Konja. But while they can work with any spirit, she’s noticed, over the years, that they work especially well with rum. The vast complexity of the category means modifiers and liqueurs, especially bitter ones, can tease out different aspects of a particular rum’s flavor profile, she explains. “It just takes a little practice in blending the flavors.”

Brugal 1888, for instance, is packed with cinnamon on the nose, with a palate that tilts more toward chocolate, dried fruit and caramel. She leans into those flavors with her blend, finding modifiers that both enhance and contrast. “My idea was to complement the baking spice aromatics from the 1888 with orange flavors and use them in place of a sweetener,” she says.

Since no single bitter checked all the boxes for her, she created a 50-50 blend of CioCiaro, a central Italian amaro known for its burnt orange and herbal flavors, and Byrrh Grand Quinquina, a French aperitif wine that drinks like a brighter, slightly more bitter vermouth.

“It’s used in place of a [simple syrup] and meant to act as a bridge between the 1888 and CioCiaro, creating a smooth transition between flavors,” Konja says of the Byrrh. Both parts of her blend are assertive enough to hold their own against the robust, sherry-finished qualities of the Dominican rum without stealing the spotlight. As it should be in an Old-Fashioned, the rum is the star of the show.

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