Rum boasts intriguing flavors that are often masked beneath sweeteners. Here’s why the spirit, without mixer bells and whistles, deserves the spotlight
A selection of sipping rums at Cane Rhum Bar, including Black Tot (center)—a Caribbean blend and last consignment of Royal Navy Rum.
Spirits devotees typically covet aged scotch or bourbon, while their tropical cousin, rum, is often associated with kitschy cocktails such as daiquiris, zombies, or mai tais. But some liquor connoisseurs believe aged rums—each bearing its own complex, intriguing flavor—merit greater praise.
While American whiskey production is highly regulated, “rum is wide open,” says Robert Moss, culinary historian and author of Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, with Recipes. Highly varied production methods allow the taste of sipping rums to differ greatly from barrel to barrel. “Rum has an impressive range,” says Moss, “from its flavor to how it’s made.” English-style rum—commonly produced in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago—is molasses-based and heavier in body and flavor than Spanish-style rum (also known as ron). French-style rhum agricole, made from fresh sugar cane juice, is grassy and herbaceous.
Produced primarily in the Caribbean and Central and South America, rum is distilled with either old-fashioned, early-19th century pot stills or more modern, industrial-looking column stills. The latter method strips away impurities, resulting in a clear and purer rum—the kind often used for daiquiris. Pot stills are made of copper and resemble large kettles. While less efficient than column stills, leftover impurities make these rums age with character—when left to mature in a wooden barrel, magic happens.
The barrel itself makes a huge difference in the rum’s flavor. Aged rums from multiple barrels are often blended together, creating an even more nuanced taste. Ron Zacapa 23 from Guatemala, for example, contains a blend of rums, six to 23 years old, resulting in a balanced, smooth, sweet sipping drink with hints of caramel and vanilla. “This is nothing like Bacardi Silver!” Moss attests.
He has noticed a boost in rum’s popularity in recent years. Rum-centric bars like The Ordinary—which currently offers 49 sipping style options—brought the spirit to the forefront, Moss notes, and other bars such as Dalila’s and Cane Rhum followed suit, boasting as many as 40 options from Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Martinique.
“As whiskey and brown liquors became more popular, people realized there’s a large variety of rums out there,” says Moss. “It’s definitely come a long way in the last 10 years.” Cheers to that!
Mount Gay Rum 1703, made at the world’s oldest rum distillery: $25 for a two-ounce pour at Cane Rhum Bar
Tips & Tricks
Just Add Water: Some sipping rums are not for the faint of heart. Moss suggests sipping the spirit neat, and then, if you find the flavor too intense, adding a few drops of water, rather than ice cubes. “I find that when rum is served at a colder temperature, the flavors are less activated,” says Moss. “So feel free to try the rum first, get a sense of the taste, and then add a bit of water.”
Island Hop: “The nice thing about rum is that you can try a lot of different types from different places,” says Moss. ”There are so many out there.” He suggests checking out the geographic range for each rum, and trying out varieties from as many locations as possible.
Age Matters: For the most part, the more time rum spends in the barrel, the better it tastes. Moss suggests sampling different ages to experience the variations in flavor.
Standout Sippers by the Two-Ounce Pour:
Cane Rhum Bar
251 East Bay St., eatdrinkcane.com
■ Angostura No.1, Trinidad, $30
Notes of macadamia, peach, fig, and vanilla, aged in American and French oak barrels for 16 years
441 Meeting St. Suite F, dalilasonspring.com
■ Rhum JM X.O., Martinique, $14
Vegetal, lively citrus on the nose, chamomile warmth, honey, and roasted coffee on the palate
■ Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Rum, Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, $12
Aged with pineapple fruit and rind, with notes of sweet toffee, butterscotch, cinnamon, and vanilla
544 King St., eattheordinary.com
■ El Dorado 15 Year, Guyana, $15
Cognac-like, with notes of candied orange, almonds, dark chocolate, and smooth oaky spice
■ Plantation XO 20th Anniversary, Barbados, $15
Stunning floral aroma, chocolate and ripe banana with fresh mango on the palate
■ Ron Zacapa 23, Guatemala, $17
Intricate notes of honeyed butterscotch, vanilla, spiced oak, and raisined fruit, with a long, smooth finish