Rum has spent much of the new millennium waiting in the wings, eagerly anticipating its breakout moment while other spirits had their turn in the spotlight. Tequila, single malts, bourbon, rye, mezcal, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky . . . all ascended on sales graphs and in the estimation of the boozy cognoscenti. Rum sales stayed flat, and even a lot of experts on the subject didn’t know quite how their favorite expressions were made or what went into them, citing the “Wild West” rules, or lack thereof, by which the stuff was produced. Starting around 2009 or so, I would predict that the coming year would mark rum’s big breakthrough, and the fact that I repeated that prediction multiple times illustrates how wrong I was.
But sometime in the last five years or so, that prediction came true . . . kind of. Rum sales in general are still in a slow growth pattern, but the high-end expressions have taken off. Jamaica and Barbados are still the capitals of the rum world, but rum enthusiasts are discovering great distilleries, both new and old, everywhere from New England to Haiti to Fiji. Rum enthusiasts demanded—and in many cases found out themselves through sleuthing and hydrometers—more transparency on what exactly is in a given bottle. Rum on the secondary market doesn’t see the stratospheric prices that are accorded to rare Japanese whiskies or bourbons, but they’re catching up fast, so there’s no time like the present to start snagging some noteworthy bottles.
And to give you some idea of which bottles they might be, we present this list of 21 of the best rums introduced in this tumultuous century (so far). They’re not all rare, and they’re not all expensive. But they are all delicious, and taken as a whole they illustrate just what an exciting and diverse category rum is, more so than just about any other spirit. The difference between, say, an un-aged clairin from Haiti, with strong grassy, vegetal and mineral notes, and an aged rum from Barbados, with elegant flavors of smoke and wood that resemble a whiskey, is colossal. Not all of it is going to appeal to everyone. But there’s something here for just about anyone who’s interested in going a little bit below the tip of the rummy iceberg. Happy exploring.
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21. Denizen Merchant’s Reserve
The holy grail for tiki-cocktail nerds is the original Mai Tai made by “Trader Vic” Bergeron. It was first mixed with 17-year-old Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum; when supplies of it and its 15-year-old sibling ran dry, Bergeron switched to a blend of aged rums from Jamaica and Martinique. It was this formula that Denizen founder Nick Pelis sought to replicate. The key was finding out that the Martinique rum wasn’t a cane-based rhum agricole, for which the island is famous today, but a molasses-based rhum grand arome. Pelis blends it with pot still rums from four different Jamaican distilleries, aged up to eight years—more time in the barrel can dim its distinct funkiness, and less time can make it a little too in-your-face. For fans of the funk, it’s an excellent sipper, but it really stands out in a mai tai.
20. Bacardi Limited Edition Heritage Pack
A limited-edition throwback to how Bacardi looked and tasted back in 1909, when it was still made in Cuba and the Daiquiri was first making inroads in the States. Bottled at the original strength of 44.5 percent ABV, it uses aged distillates from the brand’s oldest operating distillery in Mexico (most of their rum is currently made in Puerto Rico). The result is recognizably Bacardi, but thanks to the higher proof, the vanilla, cantaloupe and lemon peel notes are amplified, while the harshness that can turn people off the flagship Ron Superior is toned down. It’s a reminder of why Bacardi became so popular in the first place. It’s superb in a Daiquiri—and, of course, the Bacardi Cocktail (essentially a daiquiri with a couple dashes of grenadine added), which was so popular in the 1930s that Bacardi went to court to ensure drinks using the name could only be made with its product.
19. Plantation Xaymaca
Alexandre Gabriel is lionized by rum lovers for his popular Plantation line, which bottles rums sourced from all over the world and finished in France for an extra year in Maison Ferrand cognac casks (also owned by Gabriel). But he’s also harshly criticized by many in the industry, not just for adding sugar to many Plantation bottlings post-distillation, but for seeking to do so with rums from countries that traditionally don’t, including Barbados and Jamaica. Xaymaca is a youngish, no-sugar-added blend of pot still rums from Jamaica’s Long Pond and Clarendon distilleries, both of which have been partially acquired by Ferrand. “Pot still” plus “Jamaica” usually equals a rum-heavy on earthy, vegetal funk, or “hogo,” as it’s known locally. Xaymaca is rather light on the hogo, but thanks to the cognac-cask influence, it’s rich and full-bodied even at a fairly mild 43 percent ABV. Tropical fruit (especially pineapple) predominates, along with oak and hints of ginger and leather. It’s flavorful enough to mix in any cocktail but gentle enough to sip all evening.
18. Clairin Sajous 2016
At the dawn of the millennium, the only Haitian rum most non-natives knew was the aged Barbancourt brand. But in the last decade or so, the curtain has been pulled back to reveal hundreds of tiny distilleries on the island crafting a sugarcane spirit pretty close to the way it was made 200 years ago. Produced using hand-pressed local sugarcane juice, natural fermentation with wild yeast strains and distillation in small, old-school pot stills, it’s an authentic piece of Haitian culture. And it’s delicious. A few years ago, La Maison & Velier started importing the clairin of three noteworthy Haitian distillers. They’re wildly different from each other, but Sajous (clairins are named after their distillers; Michel Sajous makes this one) is a great place to start. Grassy with a heavy minerality and notes of eucalyptus, beeswax and ripe olives, Sajous is reminiscent of rhum agricole, but distinct from what’s produced on Martinique and Guadeloupe. There are some terrific aged clairins available, but the un-aged expressions are the way to try clairin in all its glory.
17. Barrell Tale of Two Islands
Kentucky-based Barrell is known for its award-winning sourced bourbons (they blend what they bottle, but they don’t distill it), but they also hunt down some pretty amazing rums—all of which are bottled, like their whiskeys, at cask strength. A Tale of Two Islands brings together two far-flung locales and their distinctive flavors to make a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts. An eight-year-old Jamaican pot still rum was aged on the island before being brought to Kentucky, where it was finished for an undisclosed length of time in casks that formerly held Islay whisky. Bottled at a whopping cask strength of 66.4 percent ABV, it’s surprisingly mellow considering how powerful both the rum and the whisky can get. Earthiness, baking spices and tropical fruit linger long after sipping, while subtle but distinctive peat and smoke notes from the whisky casks make their presence felt. This is up there with chocolate and peanut butter as one of the great taste combinations of our time.
16. Neisson Organic Rum
Aged rhum agricole can be refined, even subdued. But un-aged, cane-based rum tends be wild and unbridled. Neisson is one of the only family-owned distilleries on Martinique, and Neisson Organic is the first organic rum made on the island. Bottled at a bold 52.5 percent ABV, it fairly explodes with grassy and vegetal aromas before it’s even poured. On the palate, soft vanilla quickly gives way to notes of grass, licorice and hints of citrus. It makes a weird but wonderful Daiquiri, and it makes its presence known in any rum cocktail in the canon. Not necessarily an everyday rum, but there are few better for the occasional walk on the wild side.
15. Flor de Caña V Generations
Based in Nicaragua, Flor de Caña has long been one of the most acclaimed Latin American rums, and it’s one of the most eco-conscious as well, using 100 percent renewable energy to power the distillery. Like so many rums from the region, they can play fast and loose with the facts—the numbers on the bottles, for instance, aren’t actually age statements, though they make very little effort to try to alert consumers otherwise. But this rum, limited to 411 bottles worldwide, is certifiably 30 years old—the oldest Flor de Caña ever released—having come from a single barrel laid down in 1988. Three decades of tropical aging gives it an oaky bite, but it’s not overly tannic, and rich, sumptuous notes of dark chocolate, coffee and caramel give it a beautiful balance. Whiskey snobs would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with this one. The package looks as good as rum tastes, with a stopper made from actual volcanic rock from nearby San Cristóbal.
14. Worthy Park Single Estate 2006
Jamaica’s Worthy Park Estate has been producing sugarcane for three centuries, and rum has been made there since at least 1741, making it the oldest Jamaican distillery still in existence. The distillery was shut down in the 1960s due to a glut of Jamaican rum on the market, but it was revived in 2004 at the site of the former sugar factory with all new equipment. After years of selling its product to independent bottlers, and building an outsized reputation in the process, this is the first cask-strength vintage rum to be bottled under the Worthy Park Single Estate name. Distilled from estate-produced molasses, aged for 12 years in Jamaica and bottled at 56 percent ABV, it’s a rum that does the name justice. Complex yet harmonious, its notes of overripe banana, oak, fresh fruit and dark chocolate (to name a few) form a more perfect union of flavor. If you can’t track down one of the 8,000 bottles released, Habitation Velier’s bottlings of Worthy Park are also pretty spectacular, and there are more WP Single Estate Reserve rums coming this year.
13. Saint Lucia Distillers Chairman’s Reserve 1931
St. Lucia Distillers, which has been the only distillery on the island since 1972, has seen its profile and its reputation increase quite a bit in the last decade. That’s due in part to this complex and refined rum, first released as a limited edition in 2011 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the distillery. Since then it’s been reworked to become a perennial part of the range. The 1931 has a lot of moving parts—a blend of molasses and sugarcane rums, distilled in a variety of pot and column stills, and aged between 6-11 years in ex-bourbon and (in a very small amount) ex-port casks. It’s a testament to the blenders that it works so seamlessly. Butterscotch, ripe peach and melon predominate on the nose. The palate is drier, herbaceous with an oaky spice, along with hints of dark chocolate and menthol. The finish is long and dry and makes a follow-up sip almost inevitable. A unique one, even within the Chairman’s Reserve portfolio.
12. Rum Fire
Overproof white (un-aged) rum is a staple of tiki bars, and for Jamaicans it’s a mainstay as well; Wray & Nephew Overproof with Ting grapefruit soda is the best-known combination. Rum Fire, made at Jamaica’s venerable Hampden Estate distillery, elevates and intensifies all the great things about overproof rum. A long fermentation time and heaping helpings of muck and dunder (think of them as the rum equivalent of stillage and the sour-mash method in bourbon making) creates a fruity, wildly funky and flavorful rum. And, at 126 proof, it’s not for the faint of heart nor the weak of liver. Tiki mixologists tend to use it sparingly, so as not to overwhelm the other ingredients in their cocktails. It’s worth sipping on its own, however, just to get a taste of the essence of Jamaican rum.
11. Hamilton Demerara Overproof
Demerara rum refers not to the sugar of the same name but to the river in Guyana where the sugarcane is sourced. For decades, until the recent ascendance of El Dorado, the best-known Demerara rum was Lemon Hart’s titanic 151 proof (75.5 percent ABV) expression. But though there are advantages to over-overproof rum for importers (it’s easier to ship more concentrated rum, and then dilute it for bottling upon arrival) and bartenders (who like to use it in flaming cocktails, or as a potent float), its audience is decidedly limited. By the end of the 20th century, Bacardi’s inferior (and now discontinued) 151 expression was the go-to for the micro-category, while Lemon Hart flickered in and out of availability in the States. Enter Ed Hamilton, founder of the Ministry of Rum and one of the seminal figures in bringing high-quality, formerly obscure rums to a wider audience. His Demerara Overproof isn’t just a great 151-proofer, it’s a great rum, period. Surprisingly drinkable neat, its distinctly Demerara meatiness is overlaid with sweet notes of brown sugar, accentuated with a bit of smoke. It’s a beautiful addition to cocktails when used judiciously. And while Hamilton also sells a 43 percent ABV version of the same rum, you can create that yourself simply by adding some water to this one.
10. Kō Hana Koho
Despite its history cultivating sugar, Hawaii has never been much of a rum producer. Kō Hana is changing the situation in a big way. The brand doesn’t just use native Hawaiian sugarcane for their agricole-style rums: They use fifty different varieties of the stuff. And what’s even better, they do single-varietal bottlings, so you can drink your way through a primer on Hawaiian cane juice. Koho is barrel-aged for two years in American oak and bottled at 45 percent ABV. It’s dry and lightly grassy, as befits an agricole-style rum, but it’s complemented by sumptuous notes of vanilla, caramel and banana, reminiscent of a molasses-based rum. Plus the square 375 ml bottle is as gorgeous as the liquid.
9. Holmes Cay Single Cask Fiji 2004
Based in New York, Holmes Cay’s mission is to seek out the best rums in the world and bottle them, cask by cask, completely unadulterated. It’s a noble effort, and it started paying dividends immediately with their first release in 2019, sourced from the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. For a follow-up, they went to the South Pacific distillery in Fiji—the only active distillery on the island. Fiji has long been below the radar of most rum aficionados, in part because most of the best ones are one-offs from independent bottlers like Holmes Cay. But Fijian rum is rapidly gaining attention, and this bottling is proof of just how good it is. Aged in American oak for 12 years in Fiji and four years in the UK, it’s bottled at a hefty cask strength of 58 percent ABV. A gently creamy vanilla nose gives way on the palate to bright fruit, oak and cinnamon spice, with just a hint of the smoke and burnt rubber that characterizes Fijian rum. The long, dry, lingering finish begs a repeat sip, and a glass of this rum begs a longer look into what the island has to offer.
8. Rhum Clément Cuvée Homère
In the liquor cabinet, this bottle stands out for its unusual shape, which resembles nothing so much as an oversized cologne bottle. In the glass, the hors d’age (“beyond age”) expression from Martinique’s premier distillery stands out as one of the finest examples of aged rhum agricole (distilled from pressed sugarcane juice rather than molasses). Cuvée Homère, named after the brand’s founder who bought the land on which the distillery stands in 1887, is a specially selected blend of rhums aged up to 15 years in French Limousin oak and ex-bourbon barrels. It mingles surprisingly light, almost airy notes of vanilla and dark fruit with the grassiness that’s a hallmark of rhum agricole, with a finish redolent of aged tobacco and leather. Elegant, surprising and distinctive, it’s a rum (or rhum) to sip and savor.
7. Smith & Cross Pure Pot Still
Trying to figure out the story behind Smith & Cross can lead down a lot of rabbit holes. The name purportedly dates back to the 18th century, but this rum is a creation of the 2000s. For years it was said to have been a product of the famed Hampden Estate distillery, but in fact it’s a blend from several different distilleries. Which ones? We don’t quite know. It claims to be “navy strength” at 57 percent ABV, but research has shown that genuine navy strength rum is actually 54.5 percent. But what is indisputable is that Smith & Cross has established itself as the entry point to old-school Jamaican pot still rum, which is to the rum world what Islay is to Scotch whisky—intensely flavorful, funky and weird (it’s been likened to “green peppers and gasoline”). It’s not for everyone, but for those who love it, the first sip almost a life-changing experience. There are more sought-after Jamaican pot still expressions, but Smith & Cross remains both a great place to start and a most enjoyable rum for those already in the know.
6. Privateer Distiller’s Drawer Bottled In Bond
New England was, in colonial times, the global epicenter of the rum trade, and plenty of distilleries survived there into the mid-20th century. In the new millennium, the region is once again a rum hotbed, and at the forefront is Massachusetts-based Privateer. Founded by a sixth-generation descendant of a Revolutionary War privateer and helmed by distiller extraordinaire Maggie Campbell, Privateer makes classic American molasses-based rums. The brand’s growing fanbase clamors for its limited-edition Distiller’s Drawer releases, now numbering over 100. Bottled-in-bond has made a big comeback among American whiskeys in recent years, but Campbell is one of the few distillers doing the same with rum. To earn the B-in-B designation, a spirit must be distilled entirely at one distillery during a single six-month distilling season; it must be aged at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse; and it must be bottled at exactly 50 percent ABV. When the designation was adopted in 1897, it was to prevent charlatans from making false-age statements and adulterating their booze. Privateer does it today both for tradition’s sake and because bottling at four years old and 100 proof happens to result in a terrific rum. Oak and hints of tobacco are balanced by sweeter notes of vanilla, caramel, tropical fruit and a bit of citrus. Distiller’s Drawer releases are only made available a couple hundred bottles of a time, but Campbell produces Bottled-in-Bond on a fairly regular basis, so it’s not impossible to find.
5. Appleton Estate Jamaican Independence Reserve
Appleton is Jamaica’s best-known distillery, having been in business continuously since 1749. This rum was laid down in 1962, the year Jamaica became independent from Great Britain, by then-master blender Owen Tulloch. His successor, Joy Spence (the rum industry’s first female master blender), bottled it in 2012 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence. Left untouched in Jamaica’s tropical climate, evaporation would have left the barrels virtually empty after half a century. What Appleton did (and what other distilleries do) to mitigate evaporation was “top off”—consolidating barrels from the same batch, which slows down the angels’ share but keeps the flavor profile intact. The result is an elder statesman of a rum, with an elegant oakiness complemented by notes of orange peel, clove, vanilla and cinnamon. Of course, given its rarity and significance, a lot of rum fans may choose to hold on to it as an heirloom of sorts. But it’s noteworthy as both a sipping rum and a piece of history.
4. Foursquare Exceptional Cask Criterion
Richard Seale’s influence on the rum industry can’t be overstated. He was an early and vocal “guardian” of rum, as he puts it, exposing the fact that age statements on bottles can often be wishful thinking, and that many of the most popular rums were frequently marred by the addition of sugar, glycerin, vanillin and countless other artificial colors and flavors. He also happened to make rum—he owns the Foursquare distillery in Barbados—that was untainted by additives, aged entirely in the tropics and often bottled at cask strength. Seale wants rum to be treated with the same respect as whiskey, and in the last few years it seems like he’s finally succeeded. With his Exceptional Cask Series, Seale embraced double cask maturation, in this case aging it for three years in ex-bourbon casks followed by seven years in very old Madeira casks. Bottled at 56 percent ABV, it’s quite sweet on first blush thanks to the Madeira cask, with raisin notes reminiscent of a sherry, but it’s beautifully balanced by the spice of the bourbon and the dryness of the oak. Foursquare has made enough great rums to have a top 21 list of its own, but this one gets the nod in part for historical significance—limited to 2,000 bottles worldwide, Criterion helped kick off a Foursquare mania in the States that has led some to call it “the Pappy Van Winkle of rum.”
3. Black Tot Last Consignment
It’s not just a great rum, it’s a piece of history—and it can’t be replicated. From the 18th century until 1970, British Royal Navy sailors were given a daily ration, or “tot,” of rum blended and aged specifically for the purpose. The blend was generally sourced from various British rum-making colonies, most notably the Port Mourant distillery in Guyana, though the blend changed frequently based on what was available. July 31, 1970, also known as Black Tot Day, marked the end of the daily rum ration. But plenty of ceramic flagons containing the historic liquid survived. Some are used to this day at British royal functions. Some others found their way into the hands of Sukhinder Singh, founder of the Whisky Exchange, who began bottling and selling authentic Royal Navy rum in 2010. The blend, bottled at 54.5 percent ABV (true “navy strength”), consists of roughly 60 percent Demerara rum; 30 percent Trinidadian rum; and 10 percent from various other sources, according to rum historian Matt Pietrek. It’s not subtle or particularly refined, but it is delicious, with powerful dark chocolate, molasses, caramel and hints of tobacco along with the meatiness that’s the hallmark of Guyanese rum. It’s almost worth joining the navy to get some of this every day.
2. 2000 Velier Caroni 17 Year Old High Proof
Caroni is rum’s equivalent of Port Ellen on Islay or Stitzel-Weller in Kentucky—a distillery whose legend grew exponentially after it was mothballed. One of the most sought-after rums by collectors and connoisseurs, Trinidad’s Caroni distillery closed in 2002, having made rum for almost 80 years. It gained traction outside Trinidad when Luca Gargano, of Italian spirits distributor Velier (now La Maison & Velier), visited the site in 2004. He wound up buying up all the remaining rum stocks, some of which had been aging for 30 years. Velier’s aren’t the only independently bottled Caronis out there, but they’re the most desirable and among the most remarkable. The 2000, aged entirely in Trinidad (where the “angel’s share” was up to 80 percent) and bottled at 55 percent ABV, was the first Velier Caroni released in the US. Dry, almost savory notes of oak and leather mingle with funky overripe banana, dried fruit and tingly cinnamon. It’s a rum like no other and it’s spectacular. Sadly, the distillery has been dismantled, so there’s no chance of a resurrection, but there’s still a lot of Caroni to be found—at ever-rising prices—on the secondary market, including this one.
1. Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask/Master Select
The oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the world, Barbados’s Mount Gay celebrated its 300th anniversary as a going concern in 2003. Back in the 20th century, the brand was known for its light, mixable Eclipse expression. But in the new millennium, on the watch of master blender Allen Smith, they started bottling older rums meant for sipping. The oldest and rarest of the bunch is 1703 Old Cask Selection (now known as 1703 Master Select), a blend of rums aged from 10 to 30 years and bottled at 43 percent ABV. It’s an annual limited edition so the flavor changes a wee bit from year to year, but its dry elegance, with oak char balanced out by brown sugar, baking spices and smoky grilled fruit, remains constant. This is a classic, a rum that feels like it’s been around forever. There may be sexier, more attention-grabbing rums out there, but this is sheer perfection in a glass—so beautifully crafted and such a pleasure to drink that it gets our nod as rum of the century (so far).