Perhaps you’re a drinker of bourbon, scotch, or tequila, and rum has lately piqued your interest—there’s no shortage of stories about premium rum as the hot “new” thing. Maybe you’re tempted to expand your liquor cabinet beyond the usual suspects like Bacardi Silver or Captain Morgan. Great. But where to start?
Sure, there are plenty of review sites and listicles highlighting “Ten Rums to Buy Now,” but it can still be confusing. The gamut of rum flavors is far wider than other categories. Gold, dark, overproof, Demerara, agricole, Jamaican, navy… It’s far more challenging to pick out a good rum than it is to choose from within narrower categories like bourbon.
How do you confidently buy that first bottle with a reasonable expectation you’ll enjoy it? For starters, I’ll provide concrete advice on the categories and brands to look at, based on spirits you’re already familiar with. This is by no means a comprehensive list, however, and just because I didn’t mention a rum doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile purchase.
Before jumping in, it’s important to emphasize that there are brands looking to make a quick buck, selling so-called ultra-premium rums which are nothing more than inexpensive spirits labeled with dubious age claims and laden with additives like sugar, glycerol, and wine concentrates that are used to deceive customers.
When you come across a rum with an exotic name, a lavish bottle, and more emphasis on who inspired the rum (e.g. Hemingway, Don Papa) than on production details, hold on to your wallet. Ditto for age claims, stated or implied, which sound too good to be true. Rums like Zacapa 23 and Kirk & Sweeney 23, aged for a purported 23 years and selling for less than $40 must be bargains, right? Not so fast. They may taste sweet and smooth, but they’re not representative of how authentic, additive-free rums taste. The common refrain from educated rum consumers: Drink what you like, but know what you’re drinking.
Starter Rums for Whiskey Drinkers
For fans of classic bourbons and scotches aged in oak and untouched by external flavor modifiers like peat or sherry, look to the former English colonies of Jamaica and Barbados. Contrary to popular belief, both countries have regulations preventing the worst shenanigans found elsewhere.
From Barbados, the two stalwart brands are Mount Gay and Foursquare Rum Distillery. Everything made by either distillery is solidly executed, classic rum. Mount Gay Eclipse, Black Barrel, and XO are reasonably priced and run the gamut from mixing to sipping. Foursquare offers a wide variety of products under a number of brands, but the heart of the Doorly’s lineup (5-year, 8-year, XO, and 12-year) are among the best bargains in the rum world today.
In the Jamaican corner, look to brands like Appleton Estate and Monymusk. The Appleton Estate “Rare Blend” (12 years) couldn’t be any more perfect for a Buffalo Trace or Glenlivet drinker looking to try a rum made in a very similar manner to bourbon or single malt scotch. Think vanilla and baking spices. Appleton’s lineup is more refined and less funky than other Jamaican rums, thus a great starting point. More on other Jamaican rums in a bit.
Starter Rums for Tequila Drinkers
While long aging is a central tenet of most spirit categories, tequila rarely goes beyond a few years. Its vibrant, earthy terroir is what the tequila enthusiast craves, and lengthy aging diminishes those particular flavors. Some of the most beloved tequilas have no barrel aging at all. A similar subsection of unaged goodness exists within the rum realm. While I can’t promise an agave lover will love unaged rhum agricole or cachaça, their pungent, in-your-face grassiness is much closer to blanco tequila than a heavily wood-influenced rum like Appleton or Mount Gay.
There are important differences between Brazilian cachaça and Martinique’s rhum agricole, but both originate from cane juice rather than molasses, and have reasonably similar flavor notes when unaged. If powerful blanco tequila aromas are your jam, try on some unaged cachaça or rhum agricole for size.
One pleasing result of Martinique’s AOC regulations is that anything made there is a solid product. You can’t really go wrong with any of them. Rhum Clément, Rhum J.M, and La Favorite are all reasonably available in the U.S. As for cachaça, Novo Fogo and Avua are strong contenders in the artisanal space.
Starter Rums for Sherried Single Malt Drinkers
In the Scotch whisky realm, brands like The Macallan, Glenfarclas, and Glendronach have strong sherry notes introduced by the Oloroso casks they’re aged in. In the rum world, there are a number of expensive, limited edition rums striking a similar note via a sherry cask “finish.” However, for something a bit more introductory and available, consider the Dos Maderas 5+3. A blend of aged rums from Guyana and Barbados, it spends three more years solera aging in Palo Cortado casks within the Williams & Humbert sherry bodega in Spain.
A cautionary note: The upmarket sibling of the Dos Maderas 5+3 is the 5+5, which spends two additional years in tooth-achingly sweet Pedro Ximénez (PX) casks. The resulting 5+5 is quite sweet and raisin-y. If you’re into PX sherry, certainly try the 5+5. It was one of my “gateway” rums. But if a drier, more subtle sherry influence is your thing, start with the 5+3.
Starter Rums for Peated Scotch and Mezcal Drinkers
Few spirits flavors are more polarizing then the smoky, phenolic notes of peated scotch whisky and mezcal. The pungent flavors are often an acquired taste, and some folks never learn to love them. While there’s no direct equivalent to these flavor profiles among rums, there are a few rums trafficking in similar, polarizing flavors. Unfortunately, these rums are often harder to track down and a bit more expensive.
Rums from the now defunct Caroni distillery in Trinidad, as well as some rums from St. Lucia Distillers (the only distillery on the island), exhibit pungent notes of rubber, oil, and sulfur. Pure Caroni rum is almost exclusively the province of independent bottlers like Duncan Taylor and A.D. Rattray. As for pungent St. Lucia rums, start with one of the Hamilton Saint Lucia Pot Still expressions—there are a few different ages and ABVs available. While Chairman’s Reserve and the 1931 line are also from St. Lucia, they’re much less phenolic, and easily stand alongside the Appleton and Mount Gay rums above.
Finally, fans of pungent spirits might enjoy high-ester Jamaican rums. While they’re not at all smoky, their overripe banana and oily elements are among the most sought after rum flavors of the hard-core rum crowd. Putting aside Appleton’s lineup, which is mellow and refined, the canonical, readily available, ultra-funky Jamaican rum is Smith & Cross, clocking in at 114 proof with around two years of aging—a slightly house-trained beast of a rum. If untamed and flat-out scary is your goal, the unaged, 126 proof Rum Fire from Hampden Estate showcases funky esters on overdrive.
While funky Jamaican rums, peated single malts, and mezcal are worlds apart in flavor, all three showcase the outer extremes of their respective categories, so may be up your alley.
More so than any other spirit category, rum offers an exceptionally wide range of flavor profiles, from nearly tasteless “white” rums to over the top funky Jamaicans and rhum agricoles. To the curious novice, knowing where to start can be fraught with uncertainly. The short list above represents a few onramps into the rum world, with most of the recommendations coming in at bargain prices of $40 or less.
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