A pirate’s drink of choice is not one to sip quietly in a wing-back chesterfield with some low-key jazz on in the background. Unlike a good whisky you have as a nightcap, or the gin you order when you’re pacing yourself, rum is a party-starter. It’s a holiday drink. It’s what your mate brings back from the bar when he’s trying to make sure you don’t call an early night.
Despite the drink’s versatility, the best rum can sometimes be hard to discern.
Of course, rum isn’t only appropriate for nights when you’re three sheets to the wind. It has the same complexities as those other spirits, there’s a similar breadth of quality on the shelves – and just as rich a history to get into as you knock them back.
Rum – a spirit both quaffable and inebriating – is the best example of alcohol pioneers’ industriousness. Sugar cane farmers in the world’s tropics in the early 17th century had a problem. To make sugar to sate the world’s growing sweet tooth, it required crushing sugar cane, boiling the resultant juices and leaving them to cure in pots. This process yielded molasses as the waste by-product and, by god, they knew what to do with it. Thus, good rum was born.
A History of Rum: What Is Rum Made From?
In its purest form, rum is made by mixing molasses with the solution skimmed off the sugar cane juice after it is boiled and fermenting it. Many twists on the process have developed in the proceeding 400 years, but in essence, this method remains.
As it was produced such a distance from the world’s key cities of consumption, to bring rum to market required sailors to get it there. While in transit, it’s fair to say that these marine men developed a taste. Safer to drink than sea water and certainly more fun, rum became synonymous with the navy, pirates and just about anyone who has ever hoisted a sail.
It wasn’t until 1970 when the Royal Navy ended its daily rum ration, when it was deemed ‘inappropriate to operate ship’s machinery’ after receiving the allowance, which equated to two double shots. Fair enough.
When you consider that Navy Strength required rum to be at least 57% ABV, it’s a good job that breathalyzers have been a relatively recent innovation.
The early sailors were a resourceful breed. The expression ‘proof’ in terms of alcohol strength came from these ships, where they would mix rum with gunpowder. If the gunpowder still ignited when lit, it was ‘proof’ that it was 57% alcohol or higher.
They also knew the value of morale in the workplace. Even Blackbeard – the most fearsome man-manager to sail the Seven Seas – knew how to keep productivity levels high in taxing times. “Such a day; rum all out,” the pirate mused in his log. “Our company somewhat sober; a damned confusion amongst us! Rogues a plotting. Talk of separation. So, I looked sharp for a prize and took one with a great deal of liquor aboard. Then all things went well again.” Middle managers, take note.
The Best Rum Brands
Sometimes, it’s better to take your purchasing advice from those who have spent a lifetime dedicating themselves to the cause.
“There’s so many good quality rum brands out there. Generally, I would look for brands that are not scared to talk about their production techniques and focus on the quality of the liquid rather than the marketing,” says says Damian Williams, manager at Opium bar in London’s Soho.
Asked about his favorite rum brands, Williams recommends, “anything from the Foursquare distillery in Barbados, particularly their FOURSQUARE branded limited editions.” Foursquare Rum Distillery is located on a former sugar plantation whose origins go all the way back to the early 1700s. For five years in a row, Foursquare won ISC Rum Producer of the Year. Their rums are aged for ten to 16+ years, and it’s no wonder they’re at the top of our list.
Of Plantation Rum, Williams says, “the barrels are hand selected from across the Caribbean and finished and bottled in Cognac. It’s a great range which showcases regionality in rum production.” With rums up to 69% proof, be sure to drink responsibly.
Another favorite of Williams’ is the El Dorado line from Diamond Distillery. “El Dorado rum from Diamond Distillers in Guyana are excellent,” he says. One of the things that makes this rum brand special is that all the rums are produced with 100% sugar from local sugar farms, giving them a unique fruity flavor.
Rhum Clement offers a lot of variety in their line, and you can enjoy it from prices between $27 and $150.”Most of the aged Agricole rums from Martinique [are excellent],” says Williams. “Particularly Rhum J.M and Clement.” For the top shelf stuff, expect ‘an exemplary degree of expertise in every stage of production,’ thanks to their AOC Martinique designation, boasts their website.
Smith & Cross
“Smith & Cross Jamaican rum is one of the absolute finest spirits in any category ever made, in my opinion.” High praise from Williams. And rightfully so. Smith & Cross makes rum the old-fashioned way: no added sugars, or chill filtration. Notes of caramelized banana, exotic fruits and spice give this rum our stamp of approval, too.
Finished in charred bourbon casks, Mount Gay rum is rich and intense, but still smooth. Founded in 1703 in Barbados, Mount Gay is one of the oldest names in the book, and in the past 300 years, they’ve mastered the craft, making some of the best dark rum. “My go-to for a decent all-rounder would be Mount Gay Black Barrel; dry but not excessively so, and it works excellently as both a mixer and a supper,” says Mihai Ostafi, head bartender at Oriole in East London.
Aged in the heart of Jamaica, Appleton Estate rum’s first distillation occurred in Nassau Valley way back in 1749. The combination of Jamaica’s lush climate and the natural springs from being in the valley give this rum its naturally sweet flavor. Appleton Estate offers rums aged between eight and 21 years, so by the time some baby reaches legal drinking age, the next batch will be ready.
Flor de Caña
You don’t have to be willing to spend the price of your monthly car insurance bill for a decent bottle of rum. Flor de Caña offers an affordable selection of rums, aged four years. Extra dry and light, it’s one of the best rums for mixing.
French rum known for being smooth and full, with aromatic notes of seawater, Trois Riveres offers a truly authentic rum-drinking experience, bringing you back to rum’s roots: the ocean. Lights went on for this rum brand in 1785, but their sugar plantation dates even further back to 1660, making it one of the oldest and most respected companies in the game.
It’s not top shelf stuff, sure. But Bacardi has earned its spot on our list nonetheless. Bacardi’s founder, for whom the brand was eponymously named, used only three ingredients in the original batch: molasses from sugarcane, a unique strain of yeast, and spring water. Founded in 1862, Bacardi is somewhat of a newcomer in the world of rum-making. Still, if you’re looking for an affordable bottle you can find pretty much anywhere, Bacardi is a solid choice.
Spanish rum brand Havana Club was born in Cuba. By 1850, the country provided a third of the world’s sugar, making it an ideal breeding ground for some of the best dark rum, too. Get a bottle of the low-shelf stuff for as low as $19, but the Maester aged rum will cost you a pretty penny ($200+).
Wray & Nephew
Jamaican rum from one of the world’s top-selling, award-winning brands doesn’t sound all that bad. Some folks say that 90% of rum sales in Jamaica are of this brand, so if you haven’t gotten your hands on a bottle, you’d better do so now. Founded in 1825 when John Wray opened up a successful bar, The Shakespeare Tavern, in Kingston, Jamaica, Wray & Nephew is a true heritage brand.
How to Tell Good Rum From Bad
Like any other spirit, the best rum has nuances that are important to understand before you take the first sip. “When tasting, you want to consider the clarity of the liquid. You want a liquid that’s bright and shiny, not cloudy,” says Ostafi.
“In terms of nose, there are lots of different types of rums: the agricoles will give you a grassy, tequila-like nose; molasses-based rums will have a nose ranging from tropical fruit to dark chocolate. When you taste it, think about the taste as a process. The complexity of rum usually increases with age, so you’re going to notice that difference if you taste a young rum before tasting an older rum.”
Then consider what style of spirit you usually enjoy, be that sweet, strong, smoky or smooth. “Sweet rums that include molasses will generally have a honey-like flavor. Zacapa is a great starting point for this,” says Ostafi. “Or for something else, the rums from French colonies are generally dominated by aromas that will remind you of tequila. These rums have a soft and complex taste with a seductive structure.”
Types of Rum
First, you need to understand the difference between white rum and dark rum. Next, the easiest way to start understanding the spirit is to look at the country where it is produced.
“They are mainly classified into English, French and Spanish styles – named for the colonial ruler of the country where they are from,” says Damian Williams, manager at Opium bar in London’s Soho. And most rums have a rather shady colonial past. Rum produced in the West Indies helped fuel the slave trade, wherein it would be exchanged for slaves in Africa, who would then be shipped back to tend plantations.
This is the one you probably first encountered, mixing it with Coke or as the base spirit for mojitos or lots of easy-pour cocktails. “White rums tend to be younger and a little brighter in flavor, whereas darker tend to be a little more cask-y, depending on aging technique,” says Christian Binders-Skagnaes, Chief Rum Seller at Burlock in Mayfair.
“Filtration can change a lot though; a dark rum can be filtered through charcoal and taste much younger though still have hints of a richer body and age.”
In the broadest possible terms, you can go by the epitaph that the darker the color, the longer the aging. However, this isn’t the case when grabbing a quick bottle at a corner shop.
“Typically, most cheap rums are not aged for any significant length of time, with cheap dark rums like Captain Morgan heavily colored with caramel. Conversely, many premium ‘white’ rums like Flor De Caña Extra Dry are aged for up to four years and then charcoal filtered to remove the color,” says Binders-Skagnaes.
The old adage of getting what you pay for rings true. If it’s a dark colored, top-shelf rum, you can generally be sure that you’re on the right track to drinking quality.
“These style rums [Agricole] use raw sugar-cane juice rather than molasses. Aged Agricole rums borrow techniques from the cognac industry and are some of the finest rums in the world,” says Williams. Excellent examples of these would include Rhum J.M, Clèment and Trois Rivieres.
“These are nearly always made from the molasses. Spanish rums are generally lighter in body due to the four-stage distillation process they go through,” says Williams. “Aged Spanish-style rums often use Solera ageing – a technique borrowed from sherry production.”
Solera means ‘on the ground’. When it comes to aging liquids, the barrels are organized in rows from the ground up, with the lowest layer of barrels containing the oldest aged liquid, which is inevitably the most expensive. Examples are Bacardi, Havana Club, Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico and Santa Teresa.
“English-style rums show a huge variety, but are generally heavier in body and richer in style,” says Williams. “Jamaican rums, Guyanese rums, Trinidadian and Bajan rums all have their own styles and a variation of this. They use pot stills and column stills, and are typically aged in American Oak former bourbon barrels. They often yield a deeper, smokier flavor.”
Some of the best examples come from Mount Gay (Barbados), Appleton (Jamaica), Wray & Nephew (Jamaica), Doorly’s (Barbados), Angostura (Barbados) and El Dorado (Guyana).