The past decade has been transformative for rum. The cheap party drink that once fueled countless artificially flavored frozen drinks has evolved into a sipping spirit every bit the equal of fine Scotch single malts or Cognacs. Distilleries that hardly registered on most radars now make some of the most prized and sought-after bottlings in the world. And some of the most popular and ubiquitous brands are being shunned by serious rum drinkers, as many of their rums have been revealed to have added sugar and artificial flavorings and colorings after distillation. Rum drinkers now want to know not just how a rum tastes, but also how it got to taste that way and if the methods are natural or artificial. And for those who want to include it in an OG daquiri, these bottles just may make the drink.
Some of the rums on our list are venerable best-sellers, while others may be familiar only to the most devoted rum geeks. Their origins and flavor profiles run the gamut, but they all have two things in common. The first is that they’re all distilled from molasses, as opposed to pressed cane juice (as in the rhum agricole category), which tastes as different from molasses-based rum as Scotch single malts taste from bourbon. The other is honesty—none are trying to deceive the people who drink them by hiding what’s in them or how they’re made. And that’s an encouraging development for a category that is rarely united on a set of rules and regs.
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Appleton Estate 21 Year Old
Certain rums will affix numbers to their names, leading many imbibers to think the numbers are age statements. Other brands will put age statements on the bottle that don’t necessarily represent the youngest liquid inside. Not so in Jamaica, where the rules are more stringent, and not so for Appleton, Jamaica’s best-known rum distillery. The youngest rum in the bottle is in fact 21 years old; there’s even a “Certificate of Aging” that comes with each one. And age statement aside, this is a gorgeous rum, with deep, rich flavors of caramel and oak and a long, spicy finish with hints of tobacco. A perfect foil for a cigar and long contemplation.
Two James Doctor Bird
Jamaica by way of Michigan? The Detroit-based Two James distillery makes its own spirits using locally sourced ingredients, but when the team couldn’t find local sugarcane to make rum, they decided to source it straight from Jamaica’s Worthy Park distillery. A blend of Jamaican pot-still rums finished in barrels that formerly held Moscatel wine, it’s intensely funky and slightly vegetal, with the Moscatel finish providing a sweet and fruity undercurrent. Fans of pot still rum will enjoy it for sipping, while novices may prefer it in a cocktail—it makes a flavorful mai tai.
Foursquare is probably the distillery most beloved by serious rum nerds. It’s owned and run by fourth-generation master distiller Richard Seale, who not only knows how to make a delicious rum but is a tireless proselytizer for the category, and a fierce advocate of “natural” rum without sugar or other additives. His Real McCoy line is excellent and fairly easy to find, but it’s the limited edition Exceptional Cask releases, bottled under the Foursquare name, that really excite connoisseurs and collectors. Sagacity is a pair of 12-year-old rums, one aged in ex-bourbon barrels and the other in ex-Madeira casks, which are then married and blended. The rich fruitiness from the Madeira casks comes through loud and clear, along with dark chocolate, hints of tobacco and a dry finish that makes a follow-up sip imperative.
Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
Plantation’s owner, Alexandre Gabriel (of Maison Ferrand Cognac fame) is a divisive figure in the rum world for embracing the addition of sugar to rum after distillation — what he calls “dosage,” as it’s referred to in the case of Champagne or cognac. But Stiggins, named after the reverend in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers who preaches temperance between nips of pineapple rum, is an unqualified triumph. Most modern flavored rums use chemicals and other additives to achieve the desired taste. But Gabriel, in cahoots with spirits historian David Wondrich, employs the methods used to make pineapple rum in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pineapple flesh is steeped in Plantation’s Original Dark Rum, while the rinds are distilled with the brand’s 3 Star white rum. The two are then blended and barrel-aged together. The result is a rum full of fresh pineapple flavor, along with some butterscotch, oak and hints of banana, without being overly sweet. It’s an excellent addition to rum cocktails but it also shines with just a single ice cube for company.
Probitas White Blended Rum
It’s a little-known fact that the vast majority of rums are blended in the decidedly non-tropical climes of Amsterdam and Liverpool, England. What makes Probitas a history-making rum is not just that it’s a collaboration between two famed distilleries from different islands—Hampden in Jamaica and Foursquare in Barbados—but that it was blended and bottled in the Caribbean by Foursquare’s Richard Seale. A combination of aged and unaged column- and pot-still rums, it’s much more flavorful than the almost-vodka white rums most drinkers are used to. It’s said to make a daiquiri the way they used to taste in the 1930s. If so, the daiquiris were delicious back then, with the rum imparting deep molasses and banana notes to complement the bright citrus and sweetness. It’s also surprisingly pleasant on the rocks, even if it’s intended for cocktails.
Admiral Rodney HMS Formidable
Column stills are generally used for producing light, smooth, and somewhat bland spirits, while pot stills are used to make a more flavorful and substantial final product. Most highly regarded rums are either 100 percent pot still or a blend of pot and column stills (also known as Coffey still). But there are exceptions to the rule, such as Admiral Rodney. HMS Formidable, a new expression launched in 2018, is a 100 percent column-still rum aged up to nine years in ex-bourbon barrels. Dry and quite complex, its notes of oak, dark chocolate and coffee are leavened by hints of sweet apple, raisin and bright citrus. Like a fine Cognac, it keeps unfolding and revealing new elements with each sip.
Mount Gay 1703
The number in this expression’s name is the date of the founding of the Mount Gay distillery, making it the oldest continuously operated distillery in the world. A blend of pot- and column-still rums aged between 10 and 30 years, 1703 is beautifully executed, with a golden amber color, an aroma of honey and baking spices and notes of rich toffee and vanilla on the palate, all culminating in a long, dry, oaky finish. An excellent way to open whisky snobs’ eyes to rum’s appeal. Also worth tracking down if you can find it is the Master Blender Selection: Pot Still Rum, a limited-edition, 100 percent pot-still expression created by new master blender Trudiann Branker that really does have a lot in common with great Scotch whisky.
DonQ Gran Añejo
DonQ pays the bills with its flavored rums, but the brand, owned and run by the Serralles family since 1865, also makes some of Puerto Rico’s finest sipping rums. Gran Añejo is a blend of pot- and column-still rums aged in bourbon barrels between 9 and 12 years, along with some liquid aged in the solera method. Its sweet vanilla notes and dry, slightly smoky finish appeal to rum and whiskey fans alike; it’s meant to be sipped neat or on the rocks, but it also makes a brilliant rum Old Fashioned.
Martí Estate Strength
Certain countries have stricter regulations than others concerning how their rum can be made and what can be added post-distillation. In much of Latin America, pretty much anything goes—numbers on bottles may or may not be age statements, and sugar and artificial flavorings and colorings are present in many. Martí, from Panama (though confusingly named after one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution), is an exception to the rule. Distilled in a single column still, it’s aged in ex-bourbon barrels for three years without any post-distillation additives. Its heady flavors of sweet molasses, dry oak, and a touch of maple syrup make it ideal for mixing, but it’s also a fine high-octane sipper; a few drops of water smoothe out the spice and brings out notes of sweet vanilla.
Privateer True American Amber
In the 1700s, New England was the rum-producing capital of the world. The American Revolution cut off access to the British-controlled sugarcane-producing islands in the Caribbean, which brought an effective end to American rum. But in recent years, the region has once again begun producing top-notch rums, with the Ipswich-based Privateer perhaps the most acclaimed of the lot. Aged between 2 and 4 years in a variety of new and used oak barrels, it’s rich and buttery on the tongue, with notes of vanilla, caramel and oak reminiscent of a whiskey. In fact, it plays very well in traditional whiskey cocktails like a Manhattan. Privateer’s barrel-proof Navy Yard rum is also well worth checking out.
Hampden Estate 46º
Hampden Estate has been in the rum-making business since at least the late 18th century, and in the sugarcane business for even longer. It does rum the old-fashioned way, distilling entirely in double-retort pot stills using estate-sourced ingredients, with aging done on the premises. Its range encompasses exactly two rums—an overproof seven-year-old at 120 proof, and this lower-proof eight-year-old. Both are worth trying, but the 46 is easier to sip without sacrificing complexity. Sweet vanilla and caramel are followed by tropical fruit (overripe banana, pineapple, coconut) and an intense dry oak and earthiness on the finish. A most versatile rum, 46 is perfect for spirit-forward cocktails, sipping on the rocks, or unaccompanied save for a glass.
Barrell Private Release J860
The Kentucky-based Barrell Craft Spirits doesn’t distill any of what it bottles, but when it comes to sourcing top-notch spirits, Barrell has few peers. They’re best-known for their bourbons, but they have tremendous rums as well. Their Private Barrel Release series is limited to single barrels, each one released in minuscule quantities. This one, dominated by Jamaican rum (it’s 86 percent of the blend, along with rum from Barbados, Guyana, and Martinique), is Canadian rye cask-matured, and like all Barrell releases, it’s bottled at cask strength, in this case a massive 128-plus proof. Sipped neat, it’s got a bright, fruity flavor reminiscent of fresh green apples, with a dry, spicy finish thanks to the rye influence. A little water tamps down the alcoholic heat and brings up a creamy caramel sweetness. If you can’t find this particular bottling, the Private Releases mostly follow the four-rum blend pattern, usually dominated by Jamaican liquid, with various barrel finishes.
This rum is from a “ghost” distillery, meaning a distillery that is no longer operational but is still seeing “new” releases of liquid once distilled there. Opened in 1923, the Caroni facility was permanently mothballed in 2003, but its name lives on thanks to La Maison & Velier, which purchased the distillery’s entire remaining stock of aging rums. This bottling, distilled in 2000, was “tropical-aged” on the premises without climate control for 17 years, resulting in massive evaporation (about 80 percent angels’ share) and a concentrated, powerful final product. If you enjoy cask-strength whisky, you’ll find a lot to love here—big notes of oak, leather, and cinnamon spice, along with overripe banana and dried fruit. It’s an intense sipper whose flavor can stand up to food or cigars, as well as an exciting and delicious taste of rum history.
A Bajan institution for more than a century, VSOR (Very Special Old Reserve) is Cockspur’s most sophisticated expressions, a blend of pot- and column-still rums aged in ex-bourbon barrels for four years and up. Even at 80 proof, it’s still big and robust, with caramel and dark fruit on the palate, finishing with an emphasis on oak and leather. VSOR holds up well in cocktails, but it really shines as an easy, satisfying sipper.
Habitation Velier Forsyths WP 2005
The Worthy Park Estate distillery was producing rum as far back as 1741, but it ceased production in 1962. After a four decade-plus hiatus, the distillery was refurbished and returned to producing rum, as well as vodka and liqueur. This bottling, released through Habitation Velier, is the very first liquid from the refurbished Worthy Park. WP 2005 uses molasses processed at Worthy Park’s own facility, using estate-grown sugar, which is a real rarity in the modern rum trade. The rum is as delicious as it is historic, with rich cocoa notes, hints of dark fruit and a powerful, dry finish that’s a reminder of its high proof. A splash of water brings up elegant ripe berry flavors and smooths out the finish somewhat.