There’s the rum that most people think of when they hear the word—the bottom-shelf brands you’ll find in every liquor store, their large marketing budgets emphasizing beaches and bikinis over distillation techniques, pirates and parties over aging methods. Then there are the upscale sipping rums that may or may not contain sugar, coloring or various chemicals and flavorings added after distillation, all in pursuit of a sweet, smooth, approachable finished product.
And then there are the rums you’ll find here—made all over the world, distilled in myriad ways, some at distilleries that are hundreds of years old, eschewing additives, aged where they’re distilled and with flavor profiles that may not necessarily appeal to the typical Captain Morgan drinker. These are the rums that are getting people excited about the category, the ones that are slowly but surely changing perceptions of what rum is and what it’s supposed to be. These rums won’t all appeal to every taste, but taken together, they’re at least a partial snapshot of where rum is today, where it’s been and where it’s going.
Transcontinental Rum Line: Fiji 2014, Aged 5 Years
Rum is only made in one place on the island of Fiji, the venerable South Pacific Distillers. Much of its rum is sold to various independent bottlers, but logically, Fijian rum has a common flavor thread running through it—the taste, in varying degrees of intensity, of burnt rubber. It’s certainly not for everyone, but like the funky green-peppers-and-gasoline notes of many Jamaican pot still rums, it reads weirder than it tastes. The best Fijian rums are so delicious and intense that you may find yourself looking longingly at old tires. The Transcontinental Rum Line released a terrific 4-year-old Fijian bottling, distilled in 2014 and sourced from South Pacific, last year. An extra year of aging has rounded out the flavor somewhat, with the burnt rubber slightly less pungent and delightful contrasting sweet vanilla notes amped up a bit. It’s bottled at 56.9 percent ABV—not for the weak, to be sure, but it seems almost a crime to dilute it with water. Who knew burnt rubber and vanilla could taste so good?
Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum
This hardly qualifies as a new rum. The distillery which makes it was founded in 1785, and the rum has remained essentially the same since then. But 2021 marked the first time it saw release in the U.S. and if you want to know how rum tasted 200 years ago, look no further. The distillery’s 19th century water wheel is used to power the mill that crushes the sugarcane; the syrup is fermented using wild, naturally occurring yeast; and the copper stills in which it’s distilled are heated using wood fires. Smooth it ain’t—it’s bottled right off the still at a nose hair-singeing 69 percent ABV—but get past the alcoholic whomp and you’ll find it’s a glorious rum in the agricole style (distilled from cane juice rather than molasses). Grassy and slightly vegetal notes predominate, along with citrus and hints of vanilla that become more evident when water is added. It’s not for rum novices, but it’s fascinating as a liquid history lesson and a pleasure to drink, on its own or in cocktails like a ‘Ti Punch (not a native Grenadian drink, but in this case tastiness can overshadow geographical accuracy).
Mount Gay Master Blender Collection: Andean Oak Cask
The Barbados-based brand is the oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the world, having celebrated its 318th birthday in 2021. But in recent years, Mount Gay has embraced innovation as well, especially since 2018, when its Master Blender Collection was launched. It’s an annual limited-edition release that tweaks the classic Mount Gay formula, whether it’s separating the pot still rum from the column still rum that typically makes up the blend, or finishing its XO expression in peated whisky casks. For the latest edition, master blender Trudiann Branker has taken Mount Gay’s 14-year-old pot still rum and finished it for 11 months in virgin Andean oak casks. Found at higher altitudes in the mountains of Colombia and growing up to 80 feet tall, Andean oak is rarely used for aging spirits, and this is the first rum to use it. It imparts a distinct spiciness, lending an extra layer of flavor to the pot still rum. Bottled at 48 percent ABV, the nose is sweet and inviting, with strong notes of vanilla supported by butterscotch, melon and coconut. On the palate, the spice from the Andean oak comes through, along with nutmeg, apricot, toffee and vanilla. The finish is long, with notes of dried pineapple and apricot balanced out by gentle oak and spice. Only 1,042 bottles are available in the U.S. and like previous Master Blender Collection bottlings, it’s a one-time-only affair.
Long Pond 15 Year Old Impex Collection Cask #21VRW
Jamaica’s Long Pond distillery is a favorite among fans of funky and flavorful Jamaican pot still rums. Such was the state of the rum industry, however, that it was mothballed from 2011 to 2017. This single-cask beauty, part of the ImpEx Collection of rare whiskies and rums, was distilled pre-mothballing, in 2005, and tropically aged in Jamaica (most rums are “continentally aged” in the cooler climes of Amsterdam or Liverpool, where they’re blended) for 15 years. Bottled at 52.2 percent ABV, it has a lightly funky aroma, overlaid with allspice and citrus. On the palate, sweet and tart notes of marmalade are at the fore, along with ripe melon, a touch of cinnamon and a drying, moderately funky finish. It’s a complex rum that rewards repeated sipping with unfolding layers of aroma and flavor. Only 304 bottles were produced.
Holmes Cay South Africa Mhoba 2017 Single Cask Edition
Founded in 2019, Holmes Cay has already made a name for itself by sourcing superb single cask rums from around the world. One of the most exciting is the first-ever single cask offering in the U.S. from the Mhoba distillery in South Africa, which has been distilling its estate-grown sugarcane since 2013. Aged for four years, it’s intensely vegetal on the nose, but on the palate, a milder grassiness melds with a rock candy sweetness, along with hints of coconut and overripe banana. Things grow more savory on the back of the palate, with the vegetal notes making an appearance along with a bit of smoke. Bottled at 59 percent ABV, there’s a bit of an alcoholic kick on the finish, but no water is needed to tame it. It’s a fascinating journey for the taste buds and a singular introduction to South African rum.
Foursquare Exceptional Cask Mark XVII: 2009
The Barbados-based Foursquare distillery we know today, operated by the legendary Richard Seale, is only a quarter century old, but it’s already established itself as the most influential and arguably the best rum distillery in the world. It’s certainly the one over which hardcore rum fans almost universally fawn and sigh. The Exceptional Cask series, a thrice-yearly showcase of the best Foursquare has to offer, often breaks new ground, such as this year’s “Shibboleth” expression, which at 16 years old is the longest tropically-aged rum Seale has ever released. But the 2009, a blend of pot and column still rum aged for a dozen years in first-, second- and third-refill barrels and bottled at 60 percent ABV, simply tastes great, whether or not it breaks new ground. Foursquare played a huge part in popularizing rums that are aged where they’re distilled (known as tropical aging), without color, filtration, sugar or other additives. The 2009 is, simply, the unadulterated product of a distillery at the top of its game. Nutmeg, allspice, ginger, hints of citrus and surprisingly gentle oaky spice make this a beautiful cold-weather sipper and it doubtlessly tastes pretty excellent in the summer, too.
Equiano Light Rum
A list full of esoteric, often-overproof sipping rums is all well and good, but what if you just want to make a daiquiri? Well, this is the rum for you. Equiano is the first African-Caribbean rum, blending rums from Mauritius and the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. The project is overseen by Foursquare’s Richard Seale and global rum ambassador Ian Burrell. The first expression, released in 2020, is a dark aged rum intended for both sipping and mixing. This lighter version is a blend of Foursquare’s molasses-based pot and column still rums, aged in Barbados for at least three years and un-aged agricole-style sugarcane-based rum from Mauritius. The combination really clicks, with the rounder, sweeter and slightly oaky notes of the Barbadian rum complemented by the lighter, grassier and more vanilla-centric flavors of the Mauritian rum. Bottled at 43 percent ABV, it makes a stunning daiquiri, with much more depth and complexity than typical charcoal-filtered light rums. It also makes a fine sipper on the rocks, along with a squeeze of lime or grapefruit.
Diamond Reserve 151 Demerara Rum
You may know 151-proof rum best as the stuff you set on fire or float atop tiki cocktails. But it has a long and slightly convoluted history going back more than a century, and the best of it is not only drinkable, but pretty spectacular. This is a reboot of the 151 that’s been made at the Diamond distillery in Guyana, which boasts some of the oldest working stills in the world (it’s also where El Dorado, the best-known Guyanese rum, is made). The new edition, partially distilled in the only functioning double wooden pot still left on earth, has been aged longer—one to two years as opposed to six months—and its blend adds more flavor and balance to cocktails, along with its high-octane kick. The dark reddish-amber color comes largely from caramel, which is, in most cases, flavorless and used only for a spirit’s looks. But Diamond makes its own caramel, which it uses it to soften and round off the rum’s harsh boozy edges. The finished product is intense to be sure, but surprisingly sippable, with lots of nutmeg, clove, slightly bitter dark chocolate and dried berries on the palate. And of course, it will make your next Zombie or scorpion bowl really stand out. If you only have one 151-proof rum in your arsenal—and to be honest, you don’t need much more than one—this is the go-to.
Blackadder Raw Cask 15 Year Old Panama Rum
Much of the rum coming out of Panama has sugar added after distillation, which makes for a sweeter but less authentic experience. Here’s a chance to try Panamanian rum in all its glory—at cask strength (50.5 percent ABV in this case), non-chill filtered and unadulterated with sugar or other additives. Blackadder, a famed importer of single cask rums and whiskies, also bottled excellent 11-, 13- and 20-year-old expressions, but the 15 is the Goldilocks of the bunch, with a powerful oak influence that doesn’t overshadow the distillate itself. Produced at an unnamed distillery and aged both in Panama and Scotland, where it was bottled, its dark, almost coffee-like color gives a hint of what’s to come. There is indeed mocha on the palate, along with dark chocolate, dried berries, a hint of eucalyptus and a spicy finish courtesy of the oak. It’s rich, beautifully balanced, velvety on the tongue and needs no water to rein it in. Only 288 bottles are available worldwide—in each one, expect to find a bit of barrel sediment, a by-product of Blackadder’s commitment to non-filtered spirits.