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White rum – the next tequila?

It’s long been regarded in some quarters as an uninteresting, even low-quality mixer spirit. But could white rum finally now capture the attention of flavour-loving white spirits drinkers?

Grassy and citrussy. Clean and fresh. Floral and fruity. They’re words you might associate with a characterful blanco tequila, the white spirit made with blue agave. But they’re also qualities often found in white rum – a category long underappreciated by spirits connoisseurs due to widespread preconceptions about its quality and profile.

‘Rum is the most diverse spirit category there is,’ says Lewis Hayes, owner of Black Parrot, a London specialist rum bar listing more than 700 bottles. ‘Yet inevitably in the UK, if someone is asking for a white rum, they have one expectation: a light alcohol that may as well be vodka in terms of flavour. It’s often just something to mix with cola.’

Yet despite white rum’s uninspiring image, premiumisation is slowly underway. Thanks to new producers focused on flavour and transparency, increased availability of global bottlings and wider consumer interest in traceability, there is more to draw white spirits lovers to the category than ever before. As the prices of coveted blanco tequilas soar, could quality white rum provide an affordable yet interesting alternative?

Conjuring up complexity

Renegade’s Hope sugar cane farm in the southeast of Grenada

What Hayes says is true: rum is perhaps the single most complex spirit category there is, with colour only providing a fraction of the picture. There are myriad different production methods, stylistic profiles and local regulations at play. Rum can be made from molasses, fresh sugar cane juice or sugar cane syrup – or some combination of all three – and using many different cane varieties and yeast strains. It can be distilled using both characterful pot stills and more neutral column stills, and blended across different countries as well as different age statements. And unlike, say, Scotch whisky, it can be distilled anywhere in the world. ‘I make an overproof white rum with sugar cane syrup and a long fermentation – it’s off-the-charts full in flavour,’ remarks Hayes, who distils in Britain through his brand Dropworks.

We tend to think of white rums as being unaged but that isn’t necessarily correct. While some never see cask ageing, many others are aged for short periods in wood – typically a few months – to mellow any sharp edges. Others are aged for years before being charcoal-filtered to remove traces of barrel-imparted colour, much like a cristalino tequila. And others still combine unaged rum with small quantities of darker rum to achieve a very pale tint. For example, British B-Corp brand Hattiers blends five- and eight-year-old Barbados, Australian and Trinidad rums with three unaged Jamaican rums to create its honey-hued Eminence Blended Aged White (available from Drink Finder, Hattiers, Spirits Kiosk).

However, most connoisseurs would agree that at the root of white rum premiumisation – the style that most excites spirits purists – is unaged sugar cane juice rum. Unlike molasses-based rums (which represent the majority of the market) these are true agricultural products, made seasonally with freshly harvested cane that must be processed quickly before spoilage, much like grapes for wine. Many consider unaged sugar cane juice rums as the most authentic form of the category; a true reflection of the land.

Terroir expression

La Mauny distillery in Martinique. Credit: Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

‘White rum is the purest expression of terroir you can get,’ says Devon Date, head distiller at Renegade Rum, a farm-to-bottle distillery in Grenada. ‘Then once you put it in the barrel you get all these different permutations.’ Founded by Mark Reynier, a whisky industry veteran, Renegade started out in 2020 to make aged sugar cane juice rums from half-a-dozen cane varieties specially imported and planted across the island. But the team soon realised they didn’t need to wait years for the rums to age; even pre-cask the spirits were tasting hugely characterful, with bold grassy, vegetal and tropical fruit notes.

‘Even though Grenada is small, it’s a volcanic island, where huge topographic changes are compressed; within a kilometre you can travel through almost five different climate zones going from sea all the way up to the mountains,’ says the brand’s marketing & sustainability manager Jane Nurse. ‘Because we were building everything from
scratch we had no preconceptions,’ notes Date. ‘We formed our own philosophy of production.’

The result so far has been eight incredibly characterful ‘pre-cask’ fresh sugar cane juice rums, made with single varieties of cane and both pot and column stills. For example, Renegade Cane Rum Pre-Cask Hope is a pot still rum made from Cain sugar cane grown on iron-red clay, boulders and alluvial soils in the humid southeast. Up by the mountains of St Andrew, a plot planted with Lacalome Red sugar cane is used to produce two different Dunfermline pre-casks – one column still and one pot still. ‘We wanted to compare the same terroir under different distillation expressions,’ says Nurse. ‘And interestingly, different markets prefer different profiles. The German market really enjoyed the pot still: a more intense, funky rum. But the French went for the column still: lighter and more floral. Same terroir, same sugar cane, but a different result.’

What Renegade is doing feels like a fresh take in the English-speaking rum world, and Nurse admits when first trying the range many people are ‘blown away by the richness in such a young spirit’. But a number of French overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean have been making characterful unaged sugar cane juice rums for centuries. Rhum agricole blanc, as it’s called, has strict AP protection in Martinique dictating yields, irrigation technology, planting areas and juicing methods; distilleries such as La Mauny, Neisson and Trois Rivières are lauded among Gallic enthusiasts.

Markets outside France have been slow to discover rhum agricole, but the recent rise in online spirits retail has widely increased their availability for interested audiences. Take a look at Parisian retailer Excellence Rhum, for example. Persistence Market Research in the US projects almost a 60% rise in the value of the rhum agricole market over the next 10 years to nearly $2.4m, driven by a number of factors including e-commerce. But a wider climate where consumers increasingly want to know about sourcing is also to thank. Because unlike molasses rums, which can often have opaque supply chains, sugar cane juice rums are highly traceable in nature; the cane rarely grows far from the distillery. ‘People want to know what they’re drinking, what’s in their glass,’ says Date, ‘and we believe in transparency.’

Fresh drinking horizons

Takamaka distillery in the Seychelles

As every bartender knows, if a spirit is going to get widespread attention it needs a delicious serve that captures hearts and minds. Traditionally in the Caribbean, many white rums are often drunk neat at room temperature. Renegade suggests drinking its offerings with just ice and a bit of water, like a whisky. For most drinkers – even loyal spirits fans – this can be a stretch, but the good news is that white rum already has the perfect recognisable cocktail – and it’s not so different to the trendy tequila-based Margarita…

‘The ultimate white rum serve is the Daiquiri,’ says Hayes. ‘With just rum, lime and sugar, there’s nothing to hide behind. Some people use darker rums, but to my mind this is a drink that should be fresh and crisp, so flavours from wood-ageing can clash.’ Hayes says that if someone is interested in white rum in his bar, he’ll typically serve them a little of the spirit neat alongside the Daiquiri so they can still experience its pure character.

Some quality white rums are being designed explicitly with cocktail-making in mind. Jamaica’s respected Hampden Estate, which grows its own sugar cane, sells a 63% Rum Fire white overproof to provide backbone to cocktails. Meanwhile, a blend of column and pot still rum from the Seychelles, Takamaka Rum Blanc, has bartender followers across the globe.

So, does white rum have what it takes to convert agave fans? The terroir-driven character is there and the price point is also appealing in the current economic climate; the cost of even the most artisan white rums is typically below half that of a premium blanco tequila. But education is still a barrier. ‘People know how to drink white rum on the continent, but in the UK we still struggle to even know the terminology, even within the trade,’ says Hayes. ‘But I do see more of an interest in flavour. It’s not a big leap to put an agricole in front of someone who already enjoys a fuller-flavoured white spirit such as tequila.’

So what’s needed is a drive in awareness, with more category champions to convert spirits enthusiasts. Because, as Nurse says: ‘White rums really deserve to be respected in their own right.’


Six excellent white rums to try


Hampden Estate Rum Fire

Jamaica

No shrinking violet, this punchy and aromatic Jamaican overproof rum clocks in at 63% abv – yet it still manages to have finesse. The full-flavoured and fruity profile of
overripe bananas, stone fruits and roasted pineapple makes this rum a perfect ingredient in fruity cocktails.
Alcohol 63%


Le Rhum Agricole Blanc Par Neisson

Martinique

A prime example of AP Martinique rhum agricole blanc made from fresh sugar cane juice. Light and grassy, it’ll capture the attention of drinkers of elegant tequila blanco.
Alc 52.5%


Renegade Dunfermline Column Still Rum

Grenada

If you thought rum didn’t have terroir, try this. A remarkable bottling that showcases the character of single-origin Lacalome Red canes in northeast Grenada. Citrussy and
lightly herbal.
Alc 50%


Takamaka Rum Blanc

Seychelles

A cracking, easy-drinking quality molasses rum, distilled using both column and pot stills. Clean and crisp with flavours of peaches and baked apples; great for cocktails. Takamaka also grows some of its own sugar cane, which it distils onsite.
Alc 38%


That Boutique-y Rum Company Signature Blend #1

Martinique & Jamaica Blend

Combining unaged rum from Martinique with a richer bottling from Jamaica, this enticing blend boasts freshness and depth in equal measure. Try it served with tonic to draw out the banana, pineapple, grass and caramel notes.
Alc 42%


Veritas White Rum

Barbados/Jamaica Blend

This project from rum industry legend Luca Gargano is a blend of unaged pot still rum from Jamaica’s Hampden and two-year-old from Barbados’ legendary Foursquare. Full-bodied, rich and aromatic, it’s everything you never thought white rum could be.
Alc 47%


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