Rum deserves a break. Sure, its ubiquity spawned the nickname “demon rum” as a stand-in for the societal ills that lead to Prohibition. Yes, as a key piece of international maritime commerce in the Western Hemisphere, it was a solid leg of the nefarious slaves/rum/molasses trading triangle of the 17th and 18th centuries—and its makers were notoriously inhumane. And yes, the chemical efficiency of distilling sugar cane and its constituents led to a lot of “overproof” products that were mere expressways to sloppiness.
But you have to give props to its simplicity, and its multitude of variations—some that, at the high-end, can be sipped and appreciated like any fine liquor and, at the lower end, work magnificently with just some fresh fruit juice or, of course, with a pedestrian Coca-Cola.
Rum can be distilled from two sources: fermented sugar cane juice (from cooked and mashed cane stalks) or fermented cane molasses (a dark syrup produced as a step in sugar refining), and sometimes a combination of the two. There is much lore surrounding rum’s source material and the location of its manufacture and aging. Rum’s various “grades” are useful to know, but the lines of origin tell us more. The spirit is produced globally (in fact, the first references to distilled sugar cane appear in India in the first few centuries A.D.), but the spiritual heart of rum beats in the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern reaches of South America.
English-speaking territories (like Jamaica, Bermuda and Barbados) have tended to produce darker rums with fuller sweet flavors that retained elements of what was usually a molasses spirit source. French-speaking islands and colonies (like Haiti, Guadalupe, Martinique) favored rums derived from agricultural sugar cane juice, hence the term rhum agricole, which has now come to carry also the association of using only locally grown cane as the source of the juice. Areas of the former Spanish Empire (like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Colombia) leaned hard into barrel-aged anejo rums regardless of the base spirit’s origin.
In places where rum is made, the clear, often aged (but not barreled) version is by far the best-selling iteration of the spirit. Depending on quality, light rums may still have a basic sweetness and some spicy nose, but in large part, they are almost flavorless, like vodka. Often referred to as silver or white rums, Puerto Rico and the offerings of global leader Bacardi are most closely associated with this grade of the spirit. For an elevated light rum, look to Bacardi’s Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron or the Dominican Republic’s Brugal Especial Extra Dry. Fun fact: Brazilian cachaca, Panamanian seco and South American “true” aguardiente are all technically light rums.
Medium-bodied with a pleasant amber hue, gold rums strike a balance between light rums and dark rums; they can be enjoyed straight and also perform very well in sophisticated cocktails. The color and enhanced flavors are owing to light barrel-aging (usually in former charred oak bourbon barrels), but some “gold”-looking rums simply have some added color and flavors. Read your label. Jamaica’s Appleton Estate Rare Blend is a good sipping gold with a longer barrel-aging than most (12 years).
In general, the most flavorful dark rums originate from molasses and carry a longer barreling time than other grades, which produces a more sophisticated tongue-appeal and deep hues that can run from black, to brown, to red. As with gold rums, barrel-aging can vary from single to double-digits, with the longer waits referred to as anejos if they come from Spanish-speaking areas. Again, some “dark”-appearing rums are the product of after-the-fact coloring and flavoring additions. Martinique’s Rhum Clement is an agricole dark rum aged 6 years that has raised the tide for fine rum appreciation in general, and Panama’s Ron Abuelo 12-year-old is a terrific representation of a barrel-aged Central American anejo rum; appreciate this fine work neat. For a dark that can go both ways, Bermuda’s Gosling Black Seal, aged between 3 and 6 years, is the traditional ingredient for a Dark n’ Stormy, and the ubiquitous Myer’s Original Dark from Jamaica, barrel-aged for 4 years, also serves as a solid multipurpose dark rum.
The tradition of adding flavors to rum after the distilling process is more widely accepted (and even respected) than in other spirit categories. Many flavored rums still overdo it with dominant flavors and added sugar that mask any hint of the original spirit. But a traditional special blend rum like Jamaica’s Blackwell, started by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, actually delivers an abundance of spice elements without additives after-the-fact. A quality dark spiced rum, like Kraken, which uses Trinidadian rum as its base, imparts added Caribbean-centric flavors—like vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg—that don’t overly distract from the original spirit’s flavor.
Cigars, rum, somewhat-beneficial communism….it’s true; they just do it better in Cuba. Just as Cuban cigar makers have licensed their labels and provided seeds to tobacco growers outside of Cuba, Cuban rum brands have either collaborated or been coerced into reproducing their recipes in places that can export to the U.S. Notably, the Dominican-produced collaborative version of Matusalem and Bacardi’s Puerto Rican-made Havana Club are both perfectly good rums.
But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t pick up a bottle or two of the Cuban-made originals for personal use when you travel internationally or find yourself at an international duty-free.
That advice holds for the cigars also, by the way. They go together beautifully.