If you’re new to the world of rum, then firstly welcome! Rum is one of the fastest-growing spirits categories and is responsible for a wide range of drinks, from the Mojito to Old Fashioned to Zombie.
It’s easy to get lost, however, as rum is a vast category with plenty of overlap between the various styles. It’s not helped by the lack of legislation – while ageing requirements for whisky are strictly regulated, for example, there’s no such measure in place with rum. And the widespread (but not universal) practice of adding sugar and/or colouring makes a nonsense of the, again unlegislated, colour categorisations (white, gold, dark etc).
Where rum shines, though, is in its history and diversity. While the spirit’s birthplace is in the Caribbean, you’ll find delicious examples from South America and even the United Kingdom.
Rum: A rough guide
There are few certainties when it comes to rum. The clearest distinction is between base product used: molasses or sugarcane juice. The vast majority of rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar, however a tiny proportion is made using the pressed sugarcane juice which results in a much fresher, grass-edged style…
Distinguished by the use of fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses, rhum agricole originates from the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Haiti, Marie-Galante, Martinique and Réunion. Rhum agricole from Martinique even has its own AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée). These rums are known for their grassy, slightly earthy, fresh flavours, which can work extraordinarily well in cocktails such as the Montego Bay or Ti Punch.
Brazil’s answer to rhum agricole, cachaça is also distilled from sugarcane juice. White cachaça can be aged for up to one year and is the key ingredient in a Caipirinha, while gold cachaça can be aged for much longer and is good for sipping.
You may think that all white rum is unaged, however some are moderately aged then filtered to remove colour – one of the best known examples of this is Bacardí Carta Blanca, which is a blend of one- to three-year-old rums aged separately in ex-bourbon casks then charcoal filtered. The best white rums are delicate and fragrant, however don’t drink these on the rocks – instead, use them in a variety of cocktails such as the Mojito, Daquiri, Piña Colada and the somewhat lethal Fog Cutter, where the white rum component lends bite and aromatics.
Perhaps the most confusing category, golden rums often contain artificial colouring. While some unscrupulous bottlers use this as a way of suggesting the rum has more age than it really does, it should be pointed out that many others merely add some colouring to produce a uniform-looking product for the shelves. This category is in general fuller-bodied than white rum, making it a more robust alternative that can be substituted for its lighter cousin. One of the most popular golden rums is Mount Gay Eclipse, whose components are aged for up to 24 months in ex-bourbon and ex-whisky barrels. Golden rum is an essential component in cocktails such as the Bermudan Rum Swizzle, Shark’s Tooth and Zombie.
More full-bodied than golden rums, dark rums are often aged for longer periods and develop richer, bolder flavours. Ageing in oak, combined in some cases with colouring, results in dark coloured rums of a similar shade to 12-year-plus whiskies. Dark rums may or may not have an age statement on the label. We are firmly into ‘sipping rum’ territory here; use dark rum in cocktails such as the Old Fashioned or enjoy on the rocks to make the most of their complexity.
Navy rum has a long history in the English navy, and today’s rums labelled as ‘Navy’ are mostly blends of spirits from the old British colonies of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and British Guyana, bottled at a minimum of 54.5% abv. Bold and smooth but often with a funky edge, navy rum can be sipped over ice or used in cocktails such as the Painkiller and Grog.
As the name suggests, overproof rum is high in alcohol, reaching 75.5% abv (151 proof) in some cases. Available in white and dark versions, its spiritual home is Jamaica, where J Wray & Nephew White Overproof accounts for around 90% of rum sales and is even used in a ceremonial role for funeral libations and christenings. Traditionally, overproof rum is drunk in Jamaica mixed with water or milk, although you’re more likely to find it used in a Reggae Rum Punch these days. You can also find cocktails with an overproof float, sometimes alight and sometimes not.
The best rums for beginners
Rhum agricole isn’t something a newcomer to rum would usually consider trying, but this rum from the island of Haiti, made in the agricole style from sugarcane juice, is absolutely delicious and a world away from your typical white rum. A blend of four of the distiller’s other bottlings – Cavaillon, Barraderes, Pignon and St Michel de l’Attalaye – it’s spicy and grassy with notes of green capsicum and citrus balancing natural sweetness and a touch of tanginess. Herbaceous and peachy on the finish. Alc 43%
Havana Club Añejo 3 Year Old
This Cuban bar staple has been aged in ex-bourbon casks and then filtered to remove the colour – although there is still a subtle yellow hue to it. Round and smooth with licks of citrus, cream and spice, this is a more characterful alternative to Bacardí Carta Blanca that’s ideal for using in a Daiquiri or Mojito. Alc 40%
Mad City Botanical Rum
A great introduction to white rum for gin lovers, this unique rum is distilled in the UK with 25 botanicals, including coffee, papaya, allspice, coriander seeds and vanilla pods. In the mouth it has bold flavours of clove, cinnamon, dried citrus peel, vanilla and a hint of coffee. Try in a Daiquiri or with tonic water over ice. Alc 40%
Nutty and buttery with overtones of dried orange peel, this is a smooth rum at a reasonable price. Flavours of oak, spice and a touch of coffee linger on the finish. Alc 40%
Santa Teresa 1796 Solera Aged
This rum from Venezuela is a blend of casks containing rums of different ages. The oldest rum component is around 35 years old. Santa Teresa is known to add sugar to its rums – in this case somewhere between 8 and 12g/L – which doesn’t please some rum connoisseurs but makes it an accessible, rounded style for the beginner. This is nutty, spicy, warming and smooth, with tobacco, chocolate and oak notes and dried citrus peel overtones. Alc 40%
Doorleys is owned by RL Seale and is distilled at the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, using well-aged rums that are finished in ex-Oloroso casks. In keeping with distiller Richard Seale’s ethos, this is unsweetened. Oak, nut and citrus aromas are joined in the mouth by subtle red fruits with a smooth, warming fruitcake note. An excellent introduction to dark rum. Alc 40%
Wood’s Old Navy Rum
An affordable and delicious introduction to navy rum from the Diamond Distillery (aka Demerara Distillers) in Guyana. Viscous, dark and treacly, this has rich flavours of molasses, muscovado sugar, dried fruits, tar, spice and liquorice. It lacks the complexity of pricier alternatives but you can still enjoy this bargain rum on the rocks. Alc 57%
J Wray & Nephew White Overproof
Not for the faint-hearted, but essential for some cocktails, this needs to be treated with respect. A blend of unaged pot and column distilled rum, this has potent aromas of slightly funky banana, nail varnish and herbaceous notes, joined in the mouth by a kick of hot alcohol and a weighty, oily character. Flavours of coconut, citrus, pineapple and bruised banana lead to a super-long finish. Use in cocktails such as the Zombie and Reggae Rum Punch, or even mix in a little splash to add funk and complexity to a Mojito or Mai Tai. For a more low-key drink, combine it with Ting for a Jamaican favourite. Alc 63%