Rum is one of the fastest growing spirits categories, and it is also one of the most broad and varied in styles and flavors. There are many different types of rum based on where they are made and how they are made, and the variation in taste can be significant. The sheer number of options can be a bit intimidating, but if you dive into the category, you will be well rewarded. Rum is one of the most delicious and versatile spirits out there.
Rum Brands’ Prices
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Factors that Affect Rum Prices
As with most spirits, taxes and the cost of import/shipping have a big impact on prices. Additionally, the reputation of the distiller, style, and exclusivity play a big role in the cost of rum. There are rums produced in smaller batches by master distillers and aged for long periods of time that rival scotch or bourbon in terms of quality and price. In any spirit category, there will always be an ultra-premium level.
In general, though, rum is an affordable spirit, with many fantastic bottles available for less than $50.
How to Drink Rum?
Rum can be enjoyed neat or mixed into cocktails, and any rum that is good neat will likely make a great cocktail. As with any spirit, some of the nuances and flavors present in the highest-end rums may be lost when mixed. Many rum producing regions have their own traditional rum beverages to explore and enjoy. When making rum cocktails, tropical fruits are an easy pairing to start with.
How to Identify Good Rum?
The first and most important way to identify a good rum is by tasting it. Do you like the rum you are tasting? Then it is a good rum. This same strategy can be applied to any spirit. Don’t let articles on the internet or other people’s opinions dictate your own. When trying new rums, look for enjoyable flavors that fit the style you are trying. Consider your intentions with the rum. Will you be mixing it? With what? Will you sip it neat? What is your budget? What do you normally prefer to drink? If you usually like bourbon or whisky, then a Spanish-style rum might be up your alley. Are you a fan of mezcal and tequila? Maybe rhum agricole is your jam. Also remember that while there is nothing wrong with the heat of a high-proof spirit, make sure the rum has more redeeming flavors beyond the burn.
What Affects a Rum’s Taste?
Rum is made all over the world, often in areas where sugarcane is grown, as it is made from sugarcane byproducts. Rum is usually made from molasses, but some styles are made from raw sugarcane juice or sugarcane syrup. To make rum, molasses, sugarcane juice, or sugarcane syrup (sometimes called sugarcane honey) are fermented and then distilled into a spirit. That spirit can be aged or unaged, and the still used can be a column or pot still. Due to all these variables, plus differences in fermentation and strains of yeast, rum comes in a wide variety of styles and contains many varied flavors.
The first element that affects the taste of a rum is the base. Molasses-based rums often have more rich flavors of caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, and baking spices than their sugarcane-based relatives. When combined with barrel aging, these flavors often shine through, accompanying the fruity sweetness that rum often has. Sugarcane based rums usually have a grassy, vegetal flavor profile and are often described as funky.
The second factor determining taste is the fermentation process. Different strains of yeast impart different flavors in the rum. Yeast strains are often proprietary to rum distilleries, but in some instances, they are wild yeast strains from the local region. In both instances, this makes for some unique flavors present in the rums. The speed at which the strain of yeast ferments the sugars dictates some of the flavor profile. Faster working yeast strains usually create a less intense, lightly fruity flavor profile, while slower working yeast strains create intense, bold flavors reminiscent of rotting fruit. In addition to yeast strain, some distilleries use small portions of previous fermentation batch waste products as a starter for the next batch, which can also intensify the flavor.
The third factor is the type of still used. Some rums use a column still, while others use a pot still, and many use a combination of both. Column stills are very efficient and can output a large volume of distillate in a shorter time span than pot stills. Column stills also often strip away more of the flavor of the fermentation, creating a smoother product. Pot stills require the distillate to be run through the still multiple times, and are less efficient. Pot distilled rums retain more of the flavor from the fermentation, and this style of still is associated with funky, bold-flavored rums.
The third factor is aging. Many rums are unaged, and as such, you are only tasting the distillate when you drink them. Unaged rum can be smooth and mild in flavor, similar to vodka, or it can be bold and intense in flavor, without any of the softening that occurs during barrel aging. While many regard unaged rums as “mixing” rums, there are a number of excellent unaged rums that contain incredible flavors that are best appreciated when sipped neat.
Rums aged in barrels begin to take on the character of the wood. They often pick up notes of vanilla, oak, caramel, butter, and spice from the barrel. During barrel aging, the more intense notes of rum often soften and mellow. While many regard aged rums as something to savor neat, they are excellent in cocktails as well. You can’t dictate how a rum should be enjoyed by the way it looks.
The final factor in determining the taste of rum is additives. Those coming to rum from the world of tequila or whiskey may see additives as a dirty word, but in the rum world, adjusting the flavor of your product after distillation and aging is very common. While most unaged rums are light on additives, many aged rums include added sugars and coloring. This is both for the enhancement of flavor and to ensure a consistent appearance. The presence of additives does not indicate whether rum is a bad product. Many rum aficionados prefer rums with fewer added sugars, but depending on the style, a sweeter rum may be desirable. In addition, added sugars make many rums more approachable for people who are unfamiliar with the category.
Different Varieties of Rum
There are an incredible number of different varieties and styles of rum. Each island in the Caribbean has their own style of rum, as do many central and south American countries. There are also unique styles of rum being made in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. It would be a monumental task to adequately categorize them all, but organizing the rums by spoken language in their nation of origin often helps.
- Spanish Rum: Spanish rum is called Ron and is associated with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and even the Philippines. Former colonies of Spain often produce a style of rum that is smooth and easy to sip. Variations in style between islands abound, but they usually use a column still and fast-acting yeast. This style often has added sugars post distillation to make for a smoother drinking experience. Much of the legacy of this style of rum descends from Bacardi, who originated the style in Cuba in the 1800s. Many “white” rums in this style are actually aged, but have been filtered to remove the color.
- French Rhum: That isn’t a typo. Many rums are labeled “rhum” or “rhum agricole,” which is a French spelling of the same word. This style of rum is prominent in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Rhum Agricole is made using sugar cane juice and a column still. These rums are bold in flavor with strong grassy and vegetal notes. Sometimes these rums are said to have a cheesy funkiness to them. They are a favorite among bartenders and are often called for in tropical drink classics.
- English Rum: Rums from areas traditionally colonized by England are usually molasses-based rums. They are often full-bodied, with richer, rounder flavors that can easily be traced back to the molasses they are fermented from. Nations like Barbados, Guyana, Antigua, The Bahamas, St. Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago are examples of regions considered to fall under this category, though rum from each of these locations can differ in many ways.
- Jamaican Rum: While falling under the same umbrella of English rum as many other islands, Jamaican rum received geographical indication protection in 2016. Jamaican rum is often much more funky and intense than other rums. In Jamaica, rum producers add some of the waste from previous rum ferments, known as “dunder,” to the next ferment to start the process off. This leads to intense, overripe fruit flavors, often compared to rotting bananas. Jamaican rums are often made using a pot still.
- Haitian Clarin: This rhum falls under French rhum, but there are a few big differences that set it apart, warranting its own section in this guide. The first is fermentation. Haitian Clarin is made from either fermented sugarcane juice or fermented sugarcane syrup, whereas rhum agricole is usually fermented juice. Haitian Clarin is also usually a wild ferment, meaning that the local yeast has a huge impact on the flavors of the rhum and even two separate batches made at the same distillery could have different flavor profiles. Finally, Haitian rhum is usually made in pot stills as opposed to column stills. Clarins often have vegetal notes of olive brine, funky blue cheese, and petrol, in addition to the grassy elements and tropical fruit found in other sugarcane rhums.
- Brazilian Cachaca: This is a sugarcane distillate from Brazil that is sometimes categorized as a rum, but is considered by many to be its own spirit. It is made from fermented sugarcane juice in pot stills and has a fruity, funky, and grassy flavor.
- Overproof or Navy Strength Rum: Navy Strength is a term originating from the British Royal Navy. Sailors’ rations included rum, and in order to prove that the rum had not been watered down, quartermasters would soak a bit of gunpowder in rum and light it. If it lit, then the rum was of appropriate strength. This ended up being about 57% ABV, and rum bottled at “Navy Strength” soon became popular with dock workers and regular people all over the empire. The rest of the rum world was no stranger to high proof spirits, and many places traditionally distilled their rum to a much higher strength than we are used to now. Overproof rum generally refers to any rum over 50% ABV.
- Flavored Rum: Flavored rum is rum that has had additional flavors added to it, either through artificial or natural means. CARICOM standards limit total flavoring additives to 2.5% of volume, and the rum must be labeled as flavored. Sugar does not count as flavoring, but bananas, vanilla, spices, etc. do.
- Spiced Rum: A type of flavored rum. The original and classic versions of this were simply high-proof rum with spices such as nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla, citrus peel, and cloves infused into it. Modern mass-market spiced rums are often lower quality, unaged or lightly aged rums with added flavoring and coloring. The flavor rarely comes from direct infusion with spices and is usually extracts or artificial flavorings.
- Rum by Color: Rums are often labeled “white”, “light”, “gold”, “dark”, “black” or other descriptive terms referring to their color. Unfortunately, these terms are almost meaningless. A “light” rum from Jamaica could have far more character and intense flavor than a dark rum from Puerto Rico. A black rum could be younger than a gold or light rum. Often, the color of the rum depends more on additives than it does on aging. One thing to note is that Spanish-style white rums, while similar in appearance to unaged spirits like gin or vodka, are usually aged and then filtered to remove their color.
Are There Strong Rum Regulations?
While there aren’t many strict rules or regulations on rum internationally, there are many rules and regulations applied at the domestic level in rum producing nations. Countries such as Jamaica, Cuba, Martinique, Guyana, Dominican Republic, and Panama, as well as many others, have their own regulations which must be followed.
Additionally, there are rum regulations agreed upon by fifteen Caribbean nations called the CARICOM. The fifteen member nations of CARICOM are Antigua, Bahama, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. These nations agreed to regulations not just on rum produced in their countries but also on all rum sold in their territories. This means that even rum imported to a CARICOM nation from the USA, for example, must meet these standards. The standards set by CARICOM do not cover the addition of sweeteners, but do cover added flavorings, aging, added colors, distillation and bottling strength, and raw materials for fermentation (must be sugarcane byproduct). CARICOM standards are originally based on the domestic rum standards of Jamaica and Barbados, two of the most famous rum-producing nations on earth. Both nations had strong regulations in place, and both nations continued to go beyond CARICOM in regulating rum production.
A Brief History
The history of rum is tied to the history of slavery, imperialism, and colonization. Sugarcane was brought from Southeast Asia and the Pacific to the Americas by European colonists as part of the slave trade. In Indonesia, a traditional sugarcane spirit called Batavia Arrack was the precursor to rum. It was imported from Indonesia to Europe along with sugar, and when Europeans started sugarcane plantations in the Americas, attempts to imitate this spirit produced early rums. Slaves on these plantations began making spirits out of the waste products of sugar production and created what would become modern rum. The popularity of rum spread with the slave trade, and soon it was booming in Europe and the American colonies. While the Caribbean remained famous for its best rum, New England began to gain fame for producing large amounts of cheap rum. Rum was even used as currency in some slave trades during this time. By some estimates, American colonists drank 3 gallons of rum per person per year prior to the revolutionary war.
Ten Most Popular Cocktails with Rum
- Daiquiri- Rum of your choice, lime juice, simple syrup. The classic rum drink. Originating in Cuba, you don’t need a blender. The best way to try out a new rum.
- Mojito- Spanish style White Rum, Sugar, Mint, Lime Juice, Soda Water. Refreshing and light. This classic is best enjoyed outdoors.
- Zombie- Blend of Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and Overproof Demerara rums, lime juice, grapefruit juice, cinnamon syrup, falernum, grenadine, bitters, and herbsaint. The often mismade king of tropical cocktails. As the saying goes, What one rum can do, three rums can do better.
- Kingston Negroni- Smith and Cross Jamaican Rum, Campari, Carpano Antica A modern classic, stirred rum drink. Try to use the specific brands listed for best results.
- El Presidente- Spanish style rum, Blanc Vermouth, Dry Curacao, Grenadine. A stirred rum classic from before Cuba’s revolution. Popularized among American tourists by PanAm Airline.
- Hemingway Daiquiri- Spanish Style White Rum, Grapefruit Juice, Lime Juice, Maraschino. A dry, tart take on a daiquiri, supposedly inspired by Ernest Hemingway.
- Jungle Bird- Blackstrap Rum, Pineapple Juice, Lime Juice, Campari, demerara syrup. A modern revival of a 1970’s cocktail from a hotel in Malaysia. Like a negroni on vacation.
- Periodista- Aged Barbados Rum, lime, apricot liqueur, and dry Curacao. A Boston area favorite descended from an old Cuban classic.
- Ti Punch- Rhum Agricole, Sugarcane Syrup, Lime Flesh. The Caribbean’s answer to the old fashioned
- Wray and Ting- Wray and Nephew White Overproof Jamaican Rum, Lime, Ting Grapefruit Soda. A Jamaican favorite and cult classic among bartenders.