Rum is making a steady comeback with liquor aficionados, craft cocktail connoisseurs and normal guys alike. That means it’s time to upgrade your home bar accordingly and find out why people are falling in love with this tropical booze.
If rum still makes you think of a drunken pirate or a college kid with some Malibu, you’re not alone. Rum has an odd rap because the stuff you typically see is heavily sweetened or flavored, and you probably wouldn’t sit back and sip it the way you would best bourbons or top whiskey brands. However, there’s a whole other side to rum that cocktail-lovers and liquor geeks get very excited about.
Along with the best tequila on the market, rum is currently giving old-school sipping liquors a run for their money. Why? The short answer is that rum is just newer and more exciting than yet another glass of bourbon or Cognac. Part of rum’s attraction is also the lawlessness of its production, as compared to the tightly-regulated processes of most spirits. This makes the rum world very fun to explore, but it also means that it’s important to understand how the stuff is made before selecting the right bottle for your home bar.
How Is Rum Produced?
Rum is made by fermenting and distilling molasses or pure sugarcane. That’s about the only criteria for making rum. Unlike most spirits, there are no territorial restrictions and very few production requirements on the creation of rum.
Still, most rums (and certainly the best bottles) come from the places where sugarcane and molasses are produced, such as the Caribbean and South American countries, as well as the Philippines and India. The key to great rum is quality sugarcane and proper aging in a warm, humid climate. These tropical areas provide both.
The first step in rum production is to mix sugarcane juice or molasses with water and yeast. This mixture is then distilled in a pot or column still. However, pot distillation usually produces fuller-tasting rums (hence the reason pot stills are also used for whiskey and Cognac).
After distillation comes aging. Although very few major rum-producing countries have requirements for aging processes, most rums are aged at least a year. This aging usually takes place in oak bourbon casks, giving rum that nice brown hue. And because rum is usually produced in warm tropical areas, it matures much faster than alcohol produced in other areas of the world.
Once properly aged, rum is usually blended to ensure the right flavor. Some lighter rums are filtered for an even lighter color, while darker rums sometimes get a dash of caramel to deepen the color.
The History of Rum
Primitive rum made from fermented sugar cane can be traced back to around 350 BC in India. However, when we talk about the origins of modern rum, we have to look to the Caribbean and South America. Rum first started to become what it is today in the 1500s when European colonists established mass sugar production, exportation (and exploitation) in island regions such as the Azores, Canary Islands and the Caribbean.
The rum distillation process was refined in the early 1600s as production shifted to Barbados, which calls itself the “birthplace of rum.” The unique soil produced sugar cane and molasses that were ideal for rum production. The alcohol, which was previously very rudimentary, gained a reputation with locals as Rumbullion or Rumbustion. Both of these names likely refer to the rambunctious effect that rum would have on the people who drank it.
Despite rum’s fun-loving reputation, it has a very dark past. Early sugarcane producers in the “new world” used slave labor forces, and many slave traders accepted alcohol as payment. As a result, slave plantation owners started fermenting the sugarcane by-product molasses to pay for the slaves used on their plantations. This so-called triangle trade had three focal points: New England traders would ship rum to West Africa to pay for slave workers; those workers would be sent to the Caribbean and sold for molasses; that molasses would be shipped to New England to make more rum.
The harsh New England climate made it difficult for early colonists to make their normal alcohol (such as beer and wine), and importation from Europe was very limited. To solve this alcohol-shortage, they turned to importing molasses and making their own rum. It was a very profitable venture, as rum quickly became the drink of choice with New Englanders. In fact, each person was consuming an average of 3.7 gallons of rum a year. As the triangle trade grew, rum was cemented as a popular American spirit.
Then King George III forbade the importation of rum with the Sugar Act of 1764. This caused major upheaval, leading to acts of protests that would foreshadow the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. Because of these restrictions on rum and subsequent increases in cost, Americans began the turn to whiskey and rum became less popular.
However, rum has always been available, and it became more popular again during prohibition days when it was served in speakeasies. Rum-smuggling between the U.S. and Caribbean or South American countries became a lucrative business. Typically, rum was served in cocktails such as Rum Punches, Flips, Sours and El Presidentes.
What Are the Types of Rum?
Rum breaks down into five main categories:
- White rum
- Gold rum
- Dark rum (also known as aged rum)
- Navy rum
- Spiced Rum
White rum is usually the simplest kind of rum with a light, crisp taste (and a low price tag). Dark or aged rum has a bit more refined flavor profile, offering some stronger spice that’s great for sipping with friends. Then there’s navy rum, the wild one of the bunch, which maintains the 57% ABV of standard-issue naval rum from back in the day. There’s also spiced rum, which brands like Malibu and Captain Morgan fall into, although there are nicer bottles of spiced rum that are great for sipping too. Finally, we have golden rum, which is a less-aged dark rum.
How to Drink Rum
Rum is a versatile spirit when it actually comes down to drinking. Because rum varies so much, the chosen method of imbibing really depends on the rum you’re drinking. Nicer rums, namely dark and golden rums, are great on the rocks or even straight. Navy rum can also be sipped by the strong-souled, but frankly, it’s just plain fun, so we recommend tipping back shots when you’re in the mood for a wild night (wild and responsible, of course).
If you don’t want to drink rum straight, there are any number of rum-based cocktails, which is by far the most popular way to enjoy rum. You have plenty of options, from the classic Rum and Coke to more tropical cocktails. White and gold rums are best for most cocktails, but aged rums can bring some sophistication to craft cocktails as well. Mix them up in a Mai Tai, a Daiquiri, a Mojito or any of the fantastic rum cocktails your mind can conjure up.
What Are The Best Rum Brands?
If you’re ready to learn more about rum, the final and most important step is to drink some of the stuff. To help you find the right bottle, we rounded up some of our favorite brands, as well as tips for how to drink each. Whatever your taste, there’s a bottle of delicious rum to match.
Check out our top picks for the best rum brands and drink like a real pirate king.
1. Diplomatico Reserva
Even if this is your first foray into rum, we think it’s OK to skip to the good stuff. This Diplomatico Reserva comes highly-recommended because it boasts a flavor profile that’s approachable enough for newbies yet complex enough for experts. The rum’s Venezuelan origin brings in a wide range of tastes from cocoa to baked bananas to sweet toffee. All of these combine for an exciting, quintessential rum experience. And while it’s certainly more expensive than a bottle of Captain Morgan, it’s not too bad at $40. If you love it, you won’t be alone: this bottle comes in at #1 on Rum Ratings.
2. BACARDI Gold Rum
Unlike some spirits, great rum can be had without spending too much. This bottle of gold rum from the powerhouse brand Bacardi is a great example of high-quality sailor juice with an affordable price tag. It’s a blend of rums between one and four years old that have been aged in toasted oak barrels. If you need a quality bottle (or a few) for, say, a party this summer, this is a great option. Although it’s best in a cocktail, this Bacardi goes down surprisingly easy on the rocks without any mixer.
3. Ron Zacapa 23 Year Centenario
BEST FOR SIPPING
If you’re looking for something to sip (maybe with a nice cigar), check out Ron Zacapa’s 23-year Centenario. The label “23” actually denotes the oldest rum used in the blended liquor, with the youngest rum being six years old. That’s still pretty impressive by rum-aging standards. The award-winning Centenario separates itself right from the get-go by using virgin sugar cane honey instead of molasses, like most rums. The result is a smooth, complex drink that’s best served over a large ice cube.
4. Mount Gay Eclipse Rum
BEST GOLDEN RUM
Golden rum is a good place to start your tasting (and future rum collection). The flavor is light and easy for newbies to love, but still complex and interesting enough to enjoy like you would a nice whiskey. Alternatively, you can throw some golden rum in a Mojito for a unique flavor. Our favorite golden rum is this one from Mount Gay, which offers a no-frills rum experience at a very affordable price point. Plus, the genuine Barbados rum is produced in one of the world’s oldest rum distilleries.
5. Real McCoy 12 Year
BEST DARK RUM
William McCoy was one of the most respected rum-smugglers during prohibition. He never cut or adulterated his goods, and he never paid off organized crime or politicians. He is now the namesake for Real McCoy rum, a brand that we think William would be proud of. This bottle is their best, and one of the most authentic dark rums on the market. It’s made in small batches using copper stills and then aged in the tropics for an impressive 12 years without any sugar, chemicals or stabilizers. Sip it straight or on the rocks — after a toast to William McCoy, of course.
6. Diplomatico Planas Rum
BEST WHITE RUM
The light crispiness of white rum makes it ideal for cocktails including Daiquiri’s, Mojitos and Dark n’ Stormys, although you can still enjoy a nice bottle on the rocks. If you really want to explore the world of rum, be sure to try out a slightly upscale white rum, such as this Diplomatico Planas. This white rum has a super robust flavor that kind of gives your tastebuds a whirl yet at the same time feels quite balanced. Take a thumb on the rocks, and then use it for an upgraded El Floridita or Daiquiri.
7. The Kraken Black Spiced Rum
BEST SPICED RUM
This Kraken might be spiced rum, but it’s certainly more ferocious than that bottle of Malibu you “borrowed” from your parents at 19. If you want to try a delicious spiced rum, put down the Captain Morgan and Malibu and try this aged rum from The Kraken. After aging for a couple of years, the liquor is blended with Kraken’s special mix of spices including clove, ginger and cinnamon. This turns up the flavor significantly and tastes like a premium drink. Enjoy the spiced specialty on the rocks for a nice happy hour or after-dinner drink.
8. Privateer Navy Yard Barrel Proof Rum
BEST NAVY RUM
Think you’ve got what it takes to drink like a 19th-century sailor? Pick up a bottle of this Privateer Navy Yard rum. It’s 56.3% ABV, which packs a serious punch — even for seasoned drinkers. This makes it fun for sipping (slowly) when the nights get colder, but it’s also great for supercharging a rum-based cocktail with some extra bite.
9. Bacardi Superior White Rum
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
If you’re just making cocktails with your rum, no need to mess around with the fancy stuff. Bacardi’s Superior white rum will get the job done in style, offering a light, fruity taste. Flavors such as citrus, coriander and ginger finish off the cocktail without overpowering the mint, lime or other ingredients.
10. Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry Rum
BEST FOR GIFTING
Know any rum-lovers? Give them a bottle of this Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry Rum. We don’t love the name, but this is still a great rum with a well-designed bottle that looks great when unwrapped or pulled out of a gift bag. But the bottle is just the beginning; inside you’ll find an award-winning dry rum that’s been pumped up with a dash of sugar. It’s very complex on the nose, hitting an aroma that marries fruit, meat and smoke together quite pleasantly upon initial sniff. Then, pastry-like flavors will hit you, merging cooked banana, orange peel and fresh pineapple. Upon tasting, you’ll realize the rum is pretty dry with a rosewater profile until you get flavors like coconut milk, balsam, bread and nuts to top it all off.
11. Angostura 1824 Premium Rum
BEST PREMIUM BOTTLE
For the real rum connoisseurs — or big spenders — we suggest this 1824 premium rum from Angostura. The liquor is aged at least 12 years in American bourbon barrels, blended and then re-casked to mature. The result is a sophisticated drink that still has some sea-side Caribbean flair. Enjoy this stuff neat or on the rocks, preferably with a nice Cuban cigar.
Some FAQs About Rum
Rum is made by fermenting and distilling molasses or pure sugarcane. That’s really the only criteria that go into making most rums. Unlike most spirits (such as Cognac and bourbon) there are no territorial restrictions and very few production requirements on the creation of rum.
You can buy rum at just about any local liquor store. Nowadays, you can even purchase your favorite rum online using services such as Drizly and ReserveBar.
Primitive rum made from fermented sugar cane can be traced back to around 350 BC in India. Although, when talking about the origins of modern rum, the Caribbean and South America are the main spots where rum was created. Rum first started to become what it is today in the 1500s when European colonists established mass sugar production, exportation (and exploitation) in island regions such as the Azores, Canary Islands and the Caribbean.