As is the case with my Guides to Bourbon and Single Malt Scotch, I’m not going to delve into the origin and history of the spirit. It’s a fascinating story, however, and I encourage you to read a book on the subject. One I have and can personally recommend is Wayne Curtis’ And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Not read by me but receiving good reviews are Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 by Ian Williams and Rum by Dave Broom.
Instead my goal is to provide descriptions of the various categories of rum, and make some recommendations (at various price points) within each category. Rum comes in a wider variety of styles than any other type of distilled spirit, and hopefully I’ll be able to provide you with a better understanding of the variants.
A final opening comment: in the three and a half years since I moved here I’ve come to the conclusion that Oregon can be fairly described as Rum Hell. The available selection of rum is under the control of the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission), and for every decent one they've added over the last few years, there have been one or more good ones they've dropped. For someone coming from Florida (aka Rum Heaven) it’s been very frustrating.
Types of Rum
Rum is made from sugar cane, but takes three different paths from the cane itself to the distilled product. The first rums, and still the vast majority, are made from molasses, which is a by-product of the sugar production process. Although there are some uses for molasses and thus a small demand for it, that demand is not even close to equaling the supply. The resulting surplus was, in fact, a primary factor that led seventeenth century Caribbean sugar producers to begin making rum.
Other rums, particularly those from the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, are made from fresh-pressed cane juice. The white versions of these are typically more floral than a molasses-based white, with a hint of sweetness. The aged versions tend to seem drier than aged molasses-based rums, and very old ones often resemble brandy.
A very small number of rums are made from sugar (brown or refined), mixed with warm water and yeast. These tend to be closer in character to cane juice rums than to molasses-based ones.
Another way to classify rum is by color, or, more specifically, how it acquired whatever color it has. “White rum” is a straightforward concept, but the term “dark rum” is not, in that it can be applied to an amber rum that is only one year old and gets most of its color from caramel coloring (e.g., Cruzan “Dark”), to a twelve-year-old rum that gets its color from the barrel in which its aged (e.g., Appleton Reserve), or an almost black rum that gets its color from the addition of blackstrap molasses (e.g., Myers Dark). These are all very different from one another, and using the same term to describe them all is both inaccurate and confusing. I will thus use the term Gold Rum for an amber rum less than four years of age, the term Aged Rum for a amber/brown rum four-or-more years old, and Black Rum for one that is colored with blackstrap.
All rum is aged, and this is what distinguishes rum from similar products, such as Brazilian Cachaça, which is distilled from sugar cane juice but bottled immediately after distillation. Various types of barrels are used, ranging from second-hand Bourbon barrels to new barrels of French oak. Spending time in a barrel means picking up some color, and white rums are produced by filtering through charcoal prior to bottling (we’re not talking about the kind you use in your Weber grill, but about the hard gray stuff used in aquarium filters). The longer the rum is in the barrel, the smoother it becomes. Most white rums spend only a year or two in the barrel, but some spend as long as six or seven.
White Rum made from Molasses
Almost all molasses-based white rums are made in the “light and dry” Cuban style, developed by Bacardi in the latter part of the 1800s. Although most of these are not particularly interesting on their own, their main virtue is near universal mixability, working well in traditional rum based cocktails, being compatible with soft drinks such as cola, and even capable of replacing vodka in cocktails that usually call for that neutral spirit.
All the rums of this type that cost under $14 tend to suffer from the same flaw, which is that they have a strong medicinal alcohol aroma and quite a bit of burn (this is what afflicts Bacardi). Spending $15 for a bottle of Cruzan or $16 for Appleton will at least get you to the B- level. The Cruzan used to be better, being aged for two years (twice as long as Bacardi), but in 2008 this dropped to 14 months, and in 2009 to just a year. Both the Cruzan and Appleton are frequently on sale, with two or three dollars being knocked off the usual price.
Spending $19.50 on a bottle of Mt. Gay Eclipse Silver will get you a slight increase in quality (going from B- to B).
For $21-24 there are a couple of better ones (but still only B+ quality), but neither is sold in the immediate Corvallis area. Matusalem Platino ($23.50) is sold at Big Y Liquors in Eugene, and I feel it's one of the better available expressions of the "light and dry" Cuban style. I should say mine is a minority opinion, though not a minority of one, because it’s one I share with rum critic Scott Steeves (maybe it’s a Scott Thing). Some have criticized the Matusalem for being too light, saying that its flavor completely disappears in a mixed drink (that hasn't been my experience, though I must admit that I tend to make my drinks on the strong side).
There’s more consensus that Flor de Caña Extra Dry represents the high end of the good range (as in, B+), being aged four years and being a bit richer and smoother than the Matusalem, and I thus feel more comfortable recommending it than I do the Matusalem. Price in Oregon is $21 (by the way, in free enterprise states such as California, the FdC costs a lot less; during a recent trip to California, I picked up a 1.75 liter bottle of it for $22). The closest store that carries it is the Hyland Hills liquor store on Allen Boulevard in Beaverton, but if you don’t mind waiting 4-6 weeks you could probably get a local store to order some for you (OLCC Item code 7810B).
Outside of Rum Hell (aka Oregon), one can find Bacardi's "Rubi Rey", a high end white that the company claims rivals the best Cuban rums (I've never tried it and can't say) and costs about the same as the Matusalem. Worth looking for is the El Dorado white. Though best known for their rich, dark aged rums, El Dorado's three-year-old is one of the best white rums around (I give it an A-). El Dorado has just released a six year old version (El Dorado Silver), but as of this writing (May 2010) it’s not yet available in the USA. Also available, apparently in only a few areas in the USA, is Diplomatico Reserve Blanco. This is six years old, goes for about $30, and has been getting rave reviews, but I've never seen it, much less tried it.
Of course, the "holy grail" of white rums is Havana Club Añejo Blanco (the seven-year-old, not the three) from Cuba. I had a chance to try this about 15 years ago and can say it lives up to the hype (unlike Cuban cigars). WARNING: Bacardi registered the USA rights to the "Havana Club" name some years ago and sells a bottom-shelf rum under that name. Don't bother with this - it's swill.
Finally, I should mention Mt. Gay Reserve ($17). Though a white rum, it’s not made in the Cuban style, being only lightly filtered and retaining a lot of the character from the ex-Bourbon barrels in which it’s aged. Off-white, with a rich smoky character, it’s something of an acquired taste.
White Rum made from Cane Juice
Most of these are from the island of Martinique, where rums made this way are known as rhum agricole. The rum producers there have managed to get this term registered for the exclusive use of producers on that island, so rums made using identical methods (such as Barbancourt in Haiti) cannot use it. White rhum agricole producers include Clément, Depaz, J M, La Favorite and Neisson (only the last two are available in Oregon, in one liter bottles, for $31.50 and $33.50 respectively). Barbancourt makes a white (but you can’t get it in Oregon), and there is 10 Cane from Trinidad (widely available; $30 here).
As mentioned earlier, white rums made this way have a more floral, sweeter character than molasses based whites (they’ve been described as being “confected” in style). They work very well in tropical cocktails but, for the most part, do not play well with cola. A possible exception to this is the Clément, which Adrian of www.rumreviews.com claims works pretty well with Coke (I have some of the Clément on hand but haven’t tried this myself)(of course, this is academic here as the OLCC, in its vast wisdom, discontinued the Clément blanc in 2008).
10 Cane is good but in my opinion you can cross the line to excellent by picking up a bottle of Neisson at Big Y in Eugene. I get some validation from professional reviewer Paul Pacult who gives the Neisson a five star rating (equivalent to 96-100).
A variation on these is Charbay ($40) from California. Made from cane syrup (boiled down cane juice), it’s similar to a cane juice rum in style, and is very well made (it better be, for that price). I like it on the rocks, with a couple of slices of lime. It’s very aromatic, evoking visions of tropical locales (BTW, Pacult also gives this one five stars). The closest liquor store that carries it is in Eugene, the one at 2866 South Willamette Street (in front of the Market of Choice).
There always has to be something that defies categorization, and in white rum that would be Oronoco. A very different type of rum, made in Brazil from fresh pressed cane juice, with its first distillation in a pot still and two more in a column still. It’s then blended with aged Venezuelan rum and aged several more months in casks made from a Brazilian tree, Amendam. Again, more like a Martinique rum than a Cuban one and thus does not work with Coke. Nonetheless, it’s the darling of the rum cognoscenti, and demand far exceeds supply. Thus, while it is, in fact, on the OLCC list ($30), you won’t encounter it often, and when you do there will be only one or two bottles. Grab one.
The dividing line between gold Rum and aged Rum is not well-defined, but for me a gold rum is any amber rum aged less than four years, because I'm pretty confident that these get at least some of their color from caramel coloring, as opposed to an older rum which gets all of its color from the barrel in which it's aged. I need to stress that this is my own definition, and others draw the line at a different point. The Beverage Tasting Institute, for example, defines “gold rum” as those up to four years of age, and some producers (such as Flor de Caña) label their four-year-old “gold rum”.
Gold Rum made from Molasses
Of those less than four years in age, I don't feel there are any that really qualify as excellent, and believe you'd be better served by moving on to a good four or five year old rum. However, if you want something in this category, Appleton ($16), Cruzan ($15) and Mt. Gay Eclipse Dark ($19.50) are all decent choices. Perhaps the best in the category is Tony Bahama Golden Sun. Normally this goes for $30, which is too much for a rum that rates no better than a B+, but it's currently (May 2010) marked down to $20 and at that price is a good buy.
Gold Rum made from Cane Juice
There are only a few of these, none achieve excellence, and none are available in Oregon. At one time I thought that Mt. Gay Sugar Cane rum was made from cane juice, but that's not the case. The name suggest that it is, and I'm not the only one to make that mistake.
Gold Rum made from Sugar
House Spirits in Portland released one late in 2009, which quickly sold out. I sampled it at the distillery and found it to be pleasant, smooth but not what you’d call complex. It was aged 14 months in a new charred barrel, and they currently have another batch aging for two years in ex-Bourbon barrels (it will be a while before this is released).
Normally I would say, “This is where the real fun begins”, but I remind myself that I’m in Oregon. Fortunately there are enough very-good-to-excellent aged rums out there that a percentage actually make it through the OLCC sieve.
Aged Rum made from Molasses
Of those priced under $20, I recommend the Flor de Caña Gold four year old ($18). It’s good on its own but is also an excellent mixer.
In the $20-35 range, at one time I would have suggested Pyrat XO ($25.50), but its orange flavor, once a minor element, has now become dominant and I consider this a flaw.
Another one I used to recommend is Cruzan Single Barrel but the OLCC Brain Trust decided to discontinue that. The close out price is $20 (had been $30) and if you encounter any I suggest you buy at least two bottles.
There are a couple of excellent aged rums currently available for under $35, but there are still caveats. The first is Bacardi 8 year old, which is not only rates an A- but goes for only $22, which gives it a rather phenomenal QPR. For years it’s been made in the Bahamas (I don’t know if it’s a Bacardi-owned distillery or an independent one under contract), and the final stage in the aging regimen is finishing in ex-sherry barrels (something that’s done with a lot of single malt Scotch). It’s wonderful stuff, rich and smooth with elements of figs and other fruits, undoubtedly imparted by the sherry barrels. The bad new is that Bacardi has decided to shift production of this to their Puerto Rico distillery and to eliminate the sherry cask finishing. So if you try this and like it, then make it a practice to examine the back label and look for PRODUCT OF THE BAHAMAS near the bottom (Editorial Comment: for years this has been the best product in their entire lineup, but leave it to Bacardi to go and screw it up).
The other one is Zaya 12 year old. This is sold by an independent company, which for many years purchased its rum from Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala, a distillery best known for its Solera rum, Zacapa. In 2008 the distillery signed a contract with Diageo (world’s largest liquor company) which gave that company exclusive distribution rights for the distillery’s rums. Suddenly the folks who sold Zaya needed a new source, so they turned to Angostura in Trinidad. The new rum is not worse than the old, just different (though I will say that the Guatemalan stuff was unbelievably smooth and rich, and one reviewer described it as a liquid version of Werther’s Original Candy). The new version is essentially Angostura “1824” in a different bottle, which is hardly a bad thing since the Angostura is an excellent rum, one normally priced around $60, whereas the Zaya has usually been priced around $40. Apparently the new version has not sold well, so the price recently dropped (here in Oregon the OLCC reduced it from $39.95 to $29.95 on April 1, 2010). This makes it the best under $30 aged rum in Oregon (even if it’s only by five cents). I don’t know how long it will stay at that price, but any change will be listed in my “OLCC Price Changes” monthly posting. Look for the Zaya at Santiam Liquors in Albany.
If you travel beyond the boundaries of Rum Hell your under $35 options become much better. The Cruzan is readily available, plus there's 8 year old Angostura “1919”, and the 8 ("Reserva") and 12 ("Reserva Exclusiva") year old versions of Diplomatico, all of which are excellent and can be found for $35 or less.
In the above $40 range I can unhesitatingly recommend Mt. Gay Extra Old ($45). This is on nearly everybody's Top Ten list (scores typically fall in the mid 90s) and is my point-of-diminishing-returns pick in aged rums. You can spend $250 on a bottle of 23 year old Pyrat Cask 23, but any improvement you might notice is not worth the 500% increase in price. Again, look for it at Santiam Liquors in Albany or Big Y in Eugene.
In the aged-rums-made-from-molasses category, there are two additional types that merit mention. The first is Demerara rum from Guyana. There used to be several rum distilleries there, but they’ve been consolidated into a single one, Demerara Distillers Ltd. Their best known brand is El Dorado. I’ve already mentioned the ED white, but their reputation was built on their aged rums. The varieties up to the eight year old are okay, but commencing with the 12 year old they are fabulous. Dark, heavy and rich and redolent with nuts, dark fruits and oak, these are highly favored among rum aficionados. The only one available in Oregon is the 15 year old ($50; try Big Y in Eugene), which is a real shame, because most people feel the 12 year old is just as good, and it goes for $28-35 in places where you can get it.
The other is Solera rum. These are like Demerara rums, but even more so, being almost liqueur-like in character. Bacardi makes one, but trust me, you don’t want to go there. Matusalem Grand Reserva is good and goes for $30, but the standard for this type of rum has always been Zacapa 23 (the 23 signifying the number of years it takes the rum to work its way through the Solera). Although the current version is still excellent, it’s not as good as it used to be because they’ve started diverting the better stuff into an extended Solera to produce Zacapa XO 25 (not available in Oregon; goes for $60+ where you can get it). If you are traveling out of state, another one to look for is Santa Teresa 1796, which goes for about $40. The Zacapa 23 costs $45; it’s available at Santiam Liquors and several stores in Eugene.
Aged Rum made from Cane Juice
Although there are some available for under $40, I can’t really recommend them. Spending $45 on a bottle of Clément VSOP or a 15 year old Barbancourt Reserve will get you to the B+ level. If you’re willing to spend $100 however, you can get a really superlative rum, this being Clément Cuvée Homére. The closest place to find this is the liquor store in Philomath (I swear I’m not making this up). Clément makes an even more expensive one, the XO, which retails for $135-150, but most people feel it’s not really any better than the Homére. Late last year the OLCC put the XO on closeout, marking it down from $150 to $50. Again, they had this at the Philomath liquor store, and I zoomed over there and snatched up two (sorry, they’ve long since sold the rest). I guess I really can’t fault the OLCC for discontinuing this one; the concept of a rum best sipped from a crystal brandy snifter is strange enough already, and I expect you don’t need all your fingers to count the number of Oregonians who are on board with this idea.
Aged Rum made from Sugar
Don’t know of any.
My term for the very dark rum epitomized by Myers Dark is "black rum". These get this way through the addition of blackstrap molasses, not by any sort of aging process (although they are all aged at least a year, and all of them are made from molasses). Not surprisingly, the low end of the quality range is found in Bacardi “Select”. The one with the strongest molasses character is Cruzan “Black Strap” ($15), which some rum experts claim is as close as you can get to the kind of rum that was being produced in the 1700s. For a mixing rum, most rum aficionados feel Gosling's "Black Seal" is a little better than Myers. Normally (i.e., when neither is on sale), the Gosling's is $18.50 and the Myers is $20, which means you're getting a slightly better rum for a slightly better price.
I don’t have a lot of experience with these, and searching for reviews has not yielded a sufficient number to reveal any degree of consensus, other than that no flavored rums seem to warrant scores above the B range. Most of the rum cognoscenti eschew flavored rum, and it’s not unusual to find rum lovers who’ve sampled dozens of regular rums, but only one or two flavored ones. The one exception seems to be with respect to coconut flavored rums, which have developed enough of a following so that there is some agreement on which ones are best.
The whole thing started with a “spiced” rum, that being Captain Morgan, which now comes in a “reserve” version, which is presumably better. The handful of reviews I’ve seen are not very positive about either version. In fact, the only spiced rum for which I’ve seen more than one favorable review is Lamb’s “Black Sheep”, which isn’t available in Oregon (by now this shouldn’t surprise you).
My wife, Kathy, likes coconut flavored rum, and after trying a number had settled on Whaler’s “Killer” Coconut ($10.50). Reading the comments posted at the Ministry of Rum online forum revealed that this was a favorite of many others as well, with the only one favored over it being Brinley’s Gold ($22.50). I found some of that at the liquor store in Philomath and brought home a bottle, and Kathy agreed that it was a little better than the Whaler’s (whether it’s worth the 214% price increase is another matter). The Brinley's went out-of-production for a while (for reasons never fully explained) but the demand for it finally brought it back. The Philomath store has not chosen to begin carrying it again, but the store at 3530 River Road North in Keizer stocks it, as does the one at 1519 N Pacific Highway in Woodburn. If you don’t want to make the drive and are willing to wait, you could try ordering it through a local store. OLCC item code is 7686B.
As for the myriad of other flavors (mango, pineapple, guava, beetlejuice)(okay, I made up that last one), you’re pretty much on your own. Good luck.
Anyway, that’s enough on the subject. It’s a nice day, so I believe I’m going to go mix some Flor de Caña Gold with some Virgil’s Cola, toss in a couple slices of lime, and spend some time on the patio. Yo ho ho!!