How This Former Barback Became LA's Authority On Rum
Photos by Javier Cabral

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How This Former Barback Became LA's Authority On Rum

Erbin Garcia of Caña Rum Bar will make you absolutely love rum, and, dare I say, even learn to prefer it over your stubborn attachments to tequila, mezcal, or whiskey.

"Do not to be afraid to ask for help. It doesn't show weakness."

These are the valuable words of wisdom that Erbin Garcia's father instilled in him during his first days of being an eager barback. It's been a long road to his current position as the general manager at Caña Rum Bar, and the most important guidance along the way has been his trust in his father, a single parent who immigrated from Oaxaca.

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When Erbin Garcia turned 21 years old, he thought his dad was going to take him out for a fancy dinner or maybe even a lap dance at the local strip club. After all, in the eyes of his dad—a lifelong barback—he was a man now and a celebration was in order.

Instead, they went straight to downtown Los Angeles, and it was there that his father revealed his birthday surprise: "Happy birthday, son! I got you a job as a barback, just like me!"

Garcia, who wasn't even a fan of hard liquor at the time, was not terribly excited with this birthday development, especially when he discovered that barbacking is no easy job. Nonetheless, that same night, Garcia jumped straight into washing glasses and cleaning bathrooms, and gave it all that he had. "I didn't drink a drop of alcohol during my first year here," he laughs now.

That moment was also when Garcia began realizing his true calling: to make anyone who steps into his bar develop a taste for rum. Six years after perhaps the worst birthday gift an excited 21-year-old can get, you will find him smiling behind that same bar. But now, he will be pouring you some of the most complex rums you've ever had in your life as Caña's general manager and resident rum expert.

Speaking from my own experience, Garcia is guaranteed to make you love rum, and, dare I say, even learn to prefer it over your stubborn attachments to tequila, mezcal, or whiskey. I am definitely not alone in my conversion. On a Tuesday night, Caña is almost at capacity, and the majority of customers are sipping on snifters of top-shelf rum, with just a few drinking cocktails—including one of simply rum and coconut water, shaken and served in a chilled young coconut.

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"This one has a lot of plantain notes, and vanilla, and is usually my secret weapon for any die-hard Scotch lovers I get in the bar," Garcia tells me, referring to the flavor of a five-year-old rum from Barbados. If that one doesn't teach you to love the stuff, he'll ask you questions to find out the qualities that you like about your usual liquor of choice and match those familiar flavors and notes in a rum. Whether it's an overproof, navy-strength rum that burns your throat (in the best way) or a funky, grassy, smoky cachaça that has been aged in barrels made from Brazilian jungle wood, something from Garcia's selection of 180 rums seems to fit any bill.

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Garcia says that he converts at least one new person a day into a rum lover. As we talk, he points to a nearby man at the bar and tells me that all he drank before visiting Caña was whiskey. (Now, all he drinks is rum.) The secret in converting people, he says, is showing people rums from both sides of the sweet and funky flavor spectrums. Rum can sometimes have a bad rap among American drinkers because like cheap tequila, rum—especially a cheap, cloyingly sweet, coconut-flavored rum—tends to conjure up memories of truly terrible hangovers.

Garcia also argues that rum is among the most sustainable of spirits, because sugarcane grows almost everywhere. And, because rum is nowhere near as popular as other trendier spirits like mezcal, he says, the price-to-complexity ratio is the best in the liquor world at the moment. For example, that funky caçhaca I mentioned earlier costs less than $50, despite only 300 bottles being made.

Garcia predicts that it's only a matter of time until rum will be as trendy as mezcal or whiskey. "It's a good time to stock up on good rums because it's insane how cheap some of the world's best rums are," he says. "They won't be this price forever. I can assure you of that."

Remembering his humble beginnings in the bar world, he tells me that he still picks up a mop to clean from time to time, and that he still washes dishes. And if he ever feels down or lazy, he just looks at the tattoo of a portrait of his dad on his arm for inspiration.

"This tattoo was out of respect and love for him. He's taught me everything I know."