How to Enjoy the Many Types of Rum

Here's the guide that will walk you through the different styles of rum and the best ways to enjoy them.
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

News flash: Rum isn’t just swaying palm trees and tropical breezes. Sure, the sugarcane-based spirit is often associated with the Caribbean, since it’s made in nearly every tropical and subtropical region. But it’s produced in decidedly non-tropical areas, too. We’re looking at you, New England.

Rum has no single homeland. It’s a spirit with incredible diversity and soulfulness, though it’s also one that can be confusing.

Gaze over the vast sea of rum on today’s retail shelves, and it can overwhelm. How do you decide what to do with them all?

What follows are briefs on the various types of rum, with a focus on the aromas, flavors and textures that define each overall style. It’s about how you might enjoy the rum, whether it’s clear and crisp, just right for a squeeze of lime or a barrel-aged number that’s rich with brown sugar sweetness and ideal for sipping as the sun sets.

Palm trees, of course, are optional.

White/ silver rum
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

White/Silver Rum

How It’s Made

Rum is made when fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, cane sugar or cane sugar byproducts (most commonly molasses) are fermented and distilled. Compared to other white spirits that may never see the inside of a barrel, most white rums are barrel-aged to add body and mellow character, and may then be filtered to remove the color. Depending on where it’s made, the label may say blanco, blanc or even carta blanca.

Top Producers

Banks 5 Island Rum (multiple)
Caña Brava (Panama)
Casa Magdalena (Guatemala)
Owney’s Rum (Brooklyn, NY)
Plantation 3 Stars (multiple)

What It’s Like

In general, white rum is crystal clear, although some have a yellowish tinge from contact with wood. Usually crisp and clean, these may range from floral or grassy to bright citrusy notes like lime peel or lemongrass. There can also be hints of coconut, vanilla or almond.

Best Way to Enjoy

Mix into Daiquiris, Mojitos and other cocktails, especially those where a brown, or aged, rum would create a muddy color. Jason Kosmas, co-founder of Caña Brava Rum and a former bartender at New York City’s Employees Only, says the perfect Daiquiri requires little adornment. He uses two parts rum to one part lime juice, plus just enough sugar “to take the edge off.”

Aged rum
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

Aged Rum

How It’s Made

This rum spends months or years in oak barrels, where it develops delectable layers of brown sugar and caramel. The amount of time varies, and most producers blend rums of various ages in a single bottle. Single-vintage bottlings do exist, but they’re rare. In many countries, like Barbados and Jamaica, the age statement refers to the youngest rum in the bottle, while others use an average age. Conversely, solera, or fractional blending, age statements usually refer to the oldest rum in the bottle. Some producers use vague age-statement terms (X.O., añejo, aged) that may not have a specific meaning or an aging regulation that is strictly enforced.

Top Producers

Appleton Estate (Jamaica)
Bacardí (Puerto Rico)
Diplomático (Venezuela)
Privateer (Massachusetts)
Ron Zacapa/Zacapa Rum (Guatemala)
Smith & Cross (Jamaica)

What It’s Like

Aged rum can range from golden, honeyed and delicately spiced to those with deep amber hues that are rich in butterscotch, toffee or caramel. The old rule of thumb about how provenance dictates taste has blurred in recent years, but in general, Spanish-style rums (made in the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, etc.) tend to have a light, supple style, while English-style bottlings (made in the former British Colonies of Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, etc.) are earthier and more robust.

Best Way to Enjoy

These can be delightful sippers on their own, or enjoyed with an ice cube or splash of water, similar to whiskey. If you have an aged rum that’s not too precious, try mixing into a rum-based Old Fashioned or Negroni, or lengthened with cola (a Cuba Libre) or ginger ale. They can even be used for tropical classics like the Mai Tai or Planter’s Punch.

Black/ dark rum
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

Black Rum/Dark Rum

How It’s Made

Meant to emulate the flavor and appearance of a long-aged rum, these are usually composed of an aged rum blended with dark, heavy blackstrap molasses and/or caramel. Sometimes, the blackstrap molasses is fermented and distilled into rum, like Gosling’s, and then used for blending. “The term ‘dark rum,’ while in common usage, can be vague and confusing, as it may apply to either black rum or premium aged rums,” says rum expert Martin Cate in his book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. He says that molasses or caramel added to black rums yields a finished product, “typically much darker in appearance than even 50 years in a barrel could achieve.”

Top Producers

El Dorado Rum (Guyana)
Gosling’s (Bermuda)
The Kraken Rum (Trinidad and Tobago)
Mount Gay (Barbados)

What It’s Like

This is a big, robust, molasses-forward style that’s not for everyone. Toffee, maple syrup and black licorice are among the more flattering flavor descriptors used. Espresso, smoke, fennel, black pepper or bitter chocolate can also figure in, depending on the brand or bottling.

Best Way to Enjoy

Mix these into drinks like a Dark & Stormy or Jungle Bird to add complexity and weight. Many black rums are high proof, so pour with caution.

Agricole
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

Agricole

How It’s Made

It’s distilled from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and produced largely in the French West Indies, notably Guadeloupe and Martinique, where it’s been given an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Martinique Rhum Agricole. However, agricole-style rums can be made pretty much anywhere. They may also be aged or unaged.

Top Producers

Barbancourt (Haiti)
La Favorite (Martinique)
Neisson (Martinique)
Rhum Clément (Martinique)

What It’s Like

Examples can be funky, grassy or earthy, often with a bit more acidity than other rum styles. Some have banana or tropical fruit notes, while others are lighter and more floral. Some aged versions taste like banana bread or bananas Foster, layering tropical fruit with caramel and spice from barrel time. The AOC agricoles can be remarkable in their ability to showcase rum terroir. “Just like anything else naturally grown in a specific region, cane will grow differently and exhibit different flavors depending on the cane varietal, the soil and sun conditions,” says San Francisco rum expert Suzanne Long. She says that many Caribbean agricole producers have varietal-specific bottlings.

Best Way to Enjoy

The classic way to drink rhum—particularly aged rhum, which may also be labeled as rhum vieux (meaning “old rum,” and must be aged at least three years)—is the ’Ti Punch, short for “petit punch.” It’s mixed with sugarcane syrup and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Spiced rum
Photo by Meg Baggott / Illustration by Amber Day

Spiced

How It’s Made

Quality examples start with a good rum base and are infused with spices, often some combination of cinnamon, vanilla, allspice or clove. Almost anything in the spice rack is fair game. Sometimes, flavorings like orange peel or coffee beans are added, as are sweeteners like syrups or liqueurs. Many experts advise to make your own version by steeping rum in your choice of spices for two or three days, then straining. Sweeten it with a bit of simple syrup or Demerara syrup, to taste.

Top Producers

Chairman’s Reserve (St. Lucia)
Cruzan (St. Croix)
Old New Orleans Rum (Louisiana)­
Siesta Key (Florida)

What It’s Like

Spiced rum tends to be sweeter than other rums. Vanilla often dominates the flavorings, but that’s not a rule. Flavors can be more subtle, akin to pumpkin spice lattes or gingerbread.

Best Way to Enjoy

This style of rum is great for tropical or tiki cocktails, as its flavors are comparable to the spiced syrups (falernum, allspice dram) they employ. It can also be used as an alternate to whiskey in a hot toddy.

How Haiti is Making Some of the Best Rum on Earth

Is it Rum? Maybe.

Most rum connoisseurs consider themselves to be mellow island types. But, if you want to see a rum geek’s head explode, ask about beet sugar rums: Most will insist, “That’s not rum!” While the official definition of rum points to spirits made from sugarcane, farmers in cooler climes like Canada, some regions of the U.S. and Great Britain have long grown sugar beets, which can be distilled into boozy controversy.

Try it: Stoneyard Distillery Colorado Silver

Published on July 24, 2018
Topics: Spirits
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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