Rum is the quintessential tropical lubricant, born of the sugarcane widely cultivated in the Caribbean islands. Sugarcane was introduced to the West Indies by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Once established, the sugar industry breathed economic life into the islands, as well as, horrifically, the slave trade. Most rum is nowadays produced from molasses, the icky-sticky, dark brown, sweet syrup that's left behind after sugarcane juice is boiled, clarified and passed through centrifuges. The molasses is then fermented, setting the stage for distillation.
Most rums are unaged, colorless and bottled immediately after distilling. Some are flavored with ingredients such as citrus, coconut or spices. Small lots are pumped into wooden barrels, usually oak, for further maturation. Unless one travels regularly to the Caribbean, where rums span the style gamut from teeth-curlingly potent to strikingly brandy-like, this spirit is largely viewed as being a white, mixable and utterly forgettable spirit.
For virtually all of the 20th century, most worldwide consumers, except for the most fervent lovers of rare spirits, viewed rum as plonk. Then came the late 1980s and 1990s when the search for idiosyncratic and elite alcoholic beverages reached new heights. Though oak-aged and flavored rums have existed for at least a couple of centuries, suddenly they were "discovered." Are the rums worthy of the recent wave of consumer interest? Like all categories of spirits, some are and others aren't. Here are a few of the more intriguing brands of the "Cognac of the Caribbean."
SUPERB (90-95) Highly Recommended
Bacardi 8 Year Old Rum (Puerto Rico; Bacardi-Martini USA, Miami, FL) 40% abv $27. The highly aromatic nose offers rich waves of cocoa bean, vanilla extract, molasses and dark caramel and old oak. Truckloads of sugarcane sweetness generously but gently blanket the tastebuds. The aftertaste is medium-long, luscious and full of caramel. While not quite in the stratospheric realm of oak-aged superstars like Clement from Martinique and Barbancourt from Haiti, this is a beautifully crafted Bacardi all the same. Best Buy.
Cadenhead's 12 Year Old Green Label Barbados Rum (Barbados; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 46% abv $69. The intriguing opening aroma is almost briny; later nosings see the alcohol emerge, with nuanced hints of green apple and mint. In the mouth, this nimble rum is acidic at entry, then goes benignly sweet, yet spiced, at midpalate. The finish is greyhound lean and muscular, as spice, apple and mint meld in an understated finale that's both elegant and subtle. An idiosyncratic, highly stylized designer rum.
Cadenhead's 12 Year Old Pot Still Cask Strength Rum (Blackrock Distillery, Barbados; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 74.1% abv $105. The extremely potent nose owns spice, oak, vanilla and oil in the first pass; with aeration, vanilla/oak, caramel corn and sweet cane sugar emerge. Ideally diluted by a ratio of 3-to-1, rum to mineral water, this fiery, white hot beauty exhibits remarkably deep notes of light caramel, new oak and spirit. The finish is acceptably hot and rich.
Flor de Cana Centenario 12 Year Old Rum (Nicaragua; Shaw Ross International Importers, Miami, FL) 40% abv $25. A cascade of sweet fragrances, from vanilla frosting to old wood to light toffee to subtler notes of dried fruit. The taste is equal parts sweet richness and firm spirit; at midpalate the silky texture totally beguiles the tastebuds with a blanket of molasses. The aftertaste is balanced and full-weighted. An ideal after-dinner sipping rum.
Rhum J. M Rum 1982 (Martinique; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA) 50% abv $150. The initial pour reveals aromas that are piquant, gloriously zesty, dry, peppery and spicy; air contact turns it nutty and nougaty. Final nosing reveals traces of vanilla, old oak, bacon fat and molasses. In the mouth, it starts out dry, then shifts into high gear, with enchanting waves of biscuity sweetness. The finish is clean, crisp, medium-bodied and loaded with flavors of bacon fat, vanilla extract, molasses, oak and nuts. A decadent treat.
Saint James Hors d'Age Rum Rhum Agricole des Plantations (Martinique; International Beverage Company, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA) 43% abv $30. Matured for 15 years. Aromas of cocoa, bittersweet chocolate and tea; later passes add dark caramel, molasses and dark honey. On the palate, this rum really shows its stuff, with flavors of honey, molasses, roasted nuts and caramel. The finish is long and properly sweet. A voluptuous, richly styled rum that upholds the tradition of Martinique rums with great panache. Best Buy.
Westerhall Plantation Rum (Grenada; International Beverage Company, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA) 43% abv $20. Double-distilled in copper pot stills, made from crushed sugarcane juice, then aged for six years in used Bourbon barrels. An ethereal, graceful bouquet opens with a soft, delicate, smoky sweetness that develops into a holiday spice aroma. First sip offers moderate bite; then it turns buttery smooth, honey sweet and mildly spicy. The finish shows great finesse. In an era when over-oaked rums with the grace of sledgehammers are in vogue, it's refreshing to enjoy one that offers elegance and balance. Bravo! Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85—89) Recommended
Flor de Cana Limon Rum (Shaw-Ross International Importers, Miami, FL) 35% abv $10. Clear as rain water. The high-flying, lemony nose recalls lemon meringue pie. On palate, the citrus tones down slightly, making room for some acid tartness to muzzle the sugary sweetness; the midpalate turns pleasant, as the alcohol-lemon-acid trio gains balance. The finish is lean and medium long. An excellent mixer. Best Buy.
Redrum Rum (U.S. Virgin Islands; Three-D Spirits, San Jose, CA) 35% abv $15. Spicy/peppery and mildly fruity/ripe aromas with notes of coconut and pineapple. Palate entry is sweet on the surface but tart underneath, while the midpalate tastes of coconut, pineapple and zesty spice. The aftertaste is long, more tart than sweet. A good-time mixing rum.
Saint James Extra Old Rum Rhum Agricole des Plantations (Martinique; International Beverage Company, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA) 42% abv $25. A blend of rums between two and 12 years old. Opening whiff shows slight prickliness, and a soft, underlying sweetness. Surprisingly light-bodied on first sip. At midpalate there's sugarcane sweetness, vanilla and cake frosting. The finish is brief, moderately sweet and perhaps a little too timid for a rum labeled "Extra Old."
Saint James Royal Ambre Rum Rhum Agricole des Plantations (Martinique; International Beverage Company, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA) 45% abv $18. Matured for two years in French Limousin oak casks. The nose offers atypically vegetal, slightly salty, almost agave-like aromas. On palate, it starts out prickly, then turns molasses-sweet and then vegetal. The aftertaste is potent, long and savory. A curious beast that bends the rules; yet somehow it performs.
Rhum Baita Rum Traditionnel (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 40% abv $18/L. Stone dry in the initial nosing; later passes unveil some fruitiness. In the mouth, there's a mild sweetness at entry that turns spicy, clean and piquant. The finish is clean, off-dry and candied. A decent mixing rum.
Rhum J. M Rum 1987 (Martinique; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA) 50% abv $85. First taste is surprisingly tame and ethereal; by the midpalate, the alcohol returns, imparting much-needed structure and texture. Best is the aftertaste, which offers sugarcane sweetness, mild oaky vanilla and green-apple tartness.
Rhum Mangoustan's Rhum d'Origine Carte Grise Antillies Rum (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 42% abv $20/1 L. The opening aroma shows spiced notes followed by a prickliness and a fabric scent that's dry and unusual. The entry is dry, almost bitter, giving way to a charred, medicinal flavor and moderate sugary sweetness. The aftertaste is medicinal, metallic and redolent of wet fabric. A mixing rum.