So much more than a well drink or cocktail foundation, rum has come into its own as a sippable spirit. The great variety of rum available offers versatility for mixed drinks and tasting flights and as an alternative to bourbon or whiskey in classic cocktails such as the old-fashioned or Manhattan. Some varieties are excellent neat or on the rocks. With so much selection, we offer a complete guide to how to choose the right rum. We’ll begin with a brief review of where rum comes from and how it’s made.
Rum is most often associated with the Caribbean Islands and Latin America, probably because it’s distilled from molasses or sugar cane juice, which are historically linked to island and Latin American countries. But rum now comes from Europe and the U.S. as well. With a long history in the British navy, which served out grog made of rum, lime juice, and water daily to sailors all the way up to 1970, rum maintains a seagoing connection. The link with the Caribbean and West Indies also links the spirit to a history of piracy and to a sordid history of slave trading. This inspired early abolitionists, who succeeded in halting the rum-related trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 1800s.
Processing sugar cane involves peeling the leaves off the cane, pressing out the juice, and then crushing and boiling the cane. Crystallized sugar is removed, leaving molasses behind as a byproduct. Some types of rum are made from the juice or syrup of the cane, while others rely on the molasses. The juice, syrup, or molasses is then fermented with the addition of yeast, and the fermented liquid is distilled (boiled in either a pot or column still). This removes the alcohol, which will be aged in oak barrels. Depending on the variety of rum to be produced, the barrels may have previously contained whiskey, sherry, or cognac, or they may be charred to slow evaporation and lend a darker color.
All rum-makers use their own variations in what kind of yeast and how much they add, the types of barrels they use, and the amount of time they allow rum to age. Wood barrels are permeable, and some of the alcohol evaporates as it ages, creating what’s known as the “angels’ share.” Hot climates speed up evaporation, allowing the rum to mature faster. Therefore, depending on where it’s aged, the rum may sufficiently mature in a shorter amount of time than you’d expect for whiskey.
Rum is classified by its country of origin, its color and flavor, and its alcohol content. It runs the spectrum from white or silver through black, with spiced and flavored varieties expanding the flavor spectrum as new versions are introduced. For example, Captain Morgan has recently introduced Sliced Apple spiced rum. Other rums use coconut flavors. Most rum is 80-proof, or 40% alcohol by volume, but some flavored rums have a lower alcohol content. Overproof rums can have as high as 57 to 75% alcohol by volume. Among spirits, rum is subject to fewer standards or labeling regulations than other sprits, which can cause more confusion. Common rum varieties and their uses include:
White, Light, or Silver Rum
Bottled immediately or aged briefly in casks and then filtered to remove color, light or white rum is rarely imbibed straight. Rather, it forms the basis for popular cocktails such as the mojito, daquiri, Cuba libre, and piña colada. Prohibition sent many liquor-loving Americans, including Ernest Hemingway, to Cuba; his fondness for rum drinks helped popularize rum cocktails.
Aging gives gold rum a gentle caramel color and a stronger flavor than white rum. Still most often used in mojitos and other cocktails, gold rum can also be drunk straight.
Aged longer, sometimes in charred casks for a darker color and deeper flavor, dark rum can be sipped straight or used as the basis for “tiki” drinks such as mai tais.
Largely interchangeable with dark rum, black rum may contain added molasses. A true dark ’n’ stormy uses black rum, and dark rums substitute well for whiskey or bourbon in classic cocktails.
Usually a caramel color, spiced rums have added flavorings such as caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices. Makers of spiced rums guard their recipes carefully.
Cachaça is produced in Brazil from pressed sugar cane juice.
This type of rum is made from cane grown in Guyana and aged longer for a darker, richer flavor.
This style of rum is one of the few subject to strict regulations about how it’s made. It must come from fresh cane juice and be distilled to result in a spirit that’s 70% alcohol by volume. It’s produced in former French colonies and current French territories, including Martinique and Haiti, among others.
Overproof and Navy-strength rum
Overproof rum contains 75.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). The U.S. prohibits import of rum above 155 proof (77.5 ABV), so this rum is often labeled “151.” Navy-strength rum is typically 57% ABV.
Misconceptions about Rum
Because rum begins with sugar cane, many people erroneously believe that it’s always sweet or that it’s high in sugar content. All distilled spirits begin with some type of base that contains sugar to feed the yeast, but the fermentation process converts all that sugar into alcohol. The result is a liquid that contains 0% sugar.
However, for the carb-conscious, it’s important to note that some rums add sugar after distillation to modify the flavor. This is especially true of spiced rums and even high-end rums aimed at aficionados, such as Zacapa, Zaya, Diplomático, and El Dorado, to name a few. There’s nothing wrong with adding sugar to rum. These makers know what they’re doing to produce a flavorful spirit. But if you’re concerned about sugar content, read labels and do research. Because labeling regulations vary, many rums with added sugar don’t disclose how much sugar they add by volume to their spirits.
Rum is a wonderful, flavorful spirit with an ever-expanding selection of varieties. Choose based on whether you intend to mix or sip straight and on the types of cocktails you prefer. Mixologists are always finding new ways to use the many varieties of rum. We hope this guide to choosing the right rum has been helpful to your understanding of this versatile spirit.