If there’s ever been a truly global spirit, it’s rum. No single country, island, or region can truly claim to “own” rum, as any part of the world that grows or processes sugar cane very likely has a centuries-long history of distilling the stuff. Its ubiquity, perhaps, has made it one of the most taken-for-granted liquors on the bar shelf.
But that’s changing as drinkers have grown more curious about what goes into their drinks. (And the tiki boom certainly hasn’t hurt.) The rum category is finally starting to catch up with the likes of whiskey and tequila, in that a super-premium, connoisseur-aimed tier is emerging in America. The Distilled Spirits Council defines super-premium by price: It includes rums priced above $265 per case. Super-premium is still a relatively small niche—546,000 cases of rum’s total 24.6 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council—but the segment grew more than 10 percent last year as overall rum volume was flat. Here’s when to use the fancy stuff, and when plain-old white rum will do:
First, we need to talk about the daiquiri. No, not the artificially flavored alcoholic slushies served poolside at your average all-inclusive paradise, but the genuine, classic daiquiri that existed for generations before its spring-break and cruise-ship corruption. The original daiquiri is perfection is in its simplicity: white rum, lime juice, and demerara syrup. And then there’s its cousin, the Cuban icon known as the mojito. It’s got a couple more ingredients, but it’s still remarkably uncomplicated: white rum, club soda (or, sometimes, plain old seltzer), simple syrup, lime juice, and mint sprigs (and ice).
When I was in Jamaica recently, I discovered a concoction that’s a favorite among mostly older locals: white rum and Ting (often called Wray & Ting). It consists of exactly that: an unaged, overproof rum (usually the Wray & Nephew brand) and Ting, a popular Jamaican grapefruit soda brand, often, but not always, with a lime-wedge garnish.
I’m a strong advocate of actually being able to taste the spirit in a cocktail, which is why I gravitate toward these classic mixtures. If you visit any historically rum-centric locations, leave the resort once in a while and find out what the townspeople are drinking. Fancy, complex cocktails at the Sandals bar are usually anything but traditional and designed primarily for tourists. Beyond neat shots, what’s likely to be filling locals’ glasses is the spirit combined with one, maybe two other ingredients, usually the juice of a fruit of some sort.
And while we’re talking about daiquiris and umbrella drinks... Malibu is not rum. It is a 21-percent ABV coconut-flavored liqueur that uses a rum base. It’s a perfectly fine ingredient to add to tropical drinks if you want to give them an extra-coconuty kick, but, I beg you, please stop calling it rum! If you want to fight me on that, or any of my other assertions for that matter, you’ll very likely find me at a corner table at Frankie’s Tiki Room (24-hour!) in Las Vegas.
We start to get more into sipping territory when we bring barrel-aging into the equation. Very broadly speaking, the longer the aging time, the less you’re going to want to adulterate that spirit with other mixers. It’s not always easy to tell exactly how old the spirit actually is, however, because there are no standard aging parameters that apply to all the rum-producing countries. If the label on a bottle of Jamaican rum says it’s 12 years old, that means the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged 12 years and there are others in it that may be much older. However, if it’s a Guatemalan rum, such as Ron Zacapa, the number on the bottle reflects the oldest in the blend. (So, a bottle of the jewel in Zacapa crown, Ron Zacapa 23, might only contain a small percentage of spirit aged for 23 years. The rest could be much younger). To complicate matters further, there are other countries that produce rum whose age statements represent an average of the barrels in the blend.
Rums that are aged in the same tropical country where they’re produced have an added bonus. For instance, Jamaican rum producers are quick to point out that the local climate causes the wood to influence the final product three times faster than it would in Scotland. Therefore, if a cask of Jamaica’s Appleton Estate 21-year-old were to be aged in a Scottish warehouse alongside some Speyside single malts, it allegedly would take 63 years to achieve the same character.
But let’s be realistic. This is all a bit inside baseball and, regardless what a number may or may not mean, they’re all fine sipping rums in their own right. And that doesn’t preclude their use in cocktails. Portland, Oregon’s Rum Club, for instance, is magnificent at incorporating rums of many different ages into its mixed drinks. The Rum Old-Fashioned there is good enough to make a person give up bourbon and rye (almost).
The French Caribbean rum tradition (spelled rhum, because France) is finally starting to get some renewed attention, thanks, in part, to the craft cocktail scene. And that’s a very good thing, as it’s one of the few rum traditions that’s distinguishable from others to the casual drinker. Most novices and moderately experienced sippers are unlikely to be able to tell the difference between a Jamaican and a Barbadian rum, and so on. But the rhum agricole flavor and aroma are unmistakable. It’s decidedly more vegetal (it reminds me of corn husks) because it’s distilled from pure cane juice, rather than molasses. Sugar cane is in the grass family and what you’re nosing is the base plant, versus a byproduct of its processing.
Like its molasses-based counterparts, there are white and aged versions and the older they get, the more you’re going to want to sip them neat versus in a cocktail. I’m also a fan of sipping the unaged stuff, usually on the rocks, because I can’t get enough of that grassiness, especially when it doesn’t have to compete with all of the usual barrel-imparted notes.
Martinique’s Rhum Clément is pretty much the gold standard in the agricole segment—its home island also happens to be the only place with an AOC for the style. When you read “Appellation D’Origine Contrôlée Martinique” on the label, you know you’re going to be in for a treat. Rhum Clément offers everything from the mixed-drink-friendly white Premier Canne to the 6-year-old X.O (borrowing a Cognac designation) and the 10 Year Grande Reserve.
If you’re into that whole faux-Polynesian kitsch scene (and if you’re not, we can’t be friends), you’ll be happy to know that rhum agricole is O.G. tiki. The earliest recorded recipes for the Mai Tai, circa 1944, call for Martinique rhum. So if you’re mixing one for your own backyard tiki party, keep it real.
I’m conflicted about including cachaça in a rum roundup, especially since Brazil worked so hard to get the U.S. government to recognize it as a distinctively Brazilian spirit, which it finally did in 2013. Up until then, cachaça was lumped in with the others in the rum category. It’s essentially a South American variation of rhum agricole, as it’s cane-juice-based, but it often contains terroir-ish elements that are unique to its home base. That’s the selling point of a brand like Novo Fogo, whose distillery is in the middle of a coastal rainforest. The spirit picks up the essences of a lot of the adjacent flora—I swear, you’ll taste banana in it.
Cachaça is best known as the star attraction in Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha, which is a close relative of the original daiquiri consisting of lime wedges that have been muddled with sugar, combined with cachaça, and poured over ice. As with all of the cocktails mentioned above, plastic parrot swizzle sticks and paper umbrellas are entirely optional.