If you're anything like me from fifteen years ago, it's very likely that your only major experience with rum came from that one time you had too much of it.
Sure, there's a time and a place for red solo cups filled with Coke and Captain Morgan. Sadly, a lot of spirits drinkers have concluded that rum is solidly not for them on the basis of that one monster hangover / series of embarrassing Halloween party pictures / car wrapped around a telephone pole.
If that sounds like you, hopefully this run-down will put a few pieces in place. Rum can be in many ways an equivalent to fine scotch, cognac, or bourbon in terms of its craftsmanship and distinctiveness. Yet, because the category hasn't really caught on as a sippin' drink in the same volumes, it's often surprisingly cheap when it comes to sourcing an outstanding bottle.
Let's run through some of the biggest categories, starting with what you should drink before we head into the horror stories.
So, let's start here: there are worlds upon worlds beyond Bacardi, the world's inexplicable go-to for any tropical drink. Some readers may remember I have a smoldering hatred of Bacardi's white label, which I find strangely sour and acrid.
White rums are unaged, which means that they spend very little (if any) time inside of an oak barrel. In terms of raw flavor, we're doing a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison among clear spirits, but I'll give it a whirl: in my opinion, they're going to be far more characterful than a vodka, but less flavorful than a gin. Depending on the brand, anyway. If you know a dyed-in-the-wool vodka drinker—if you're reading this site, you probably aren't one yourself—you may want to come by their house with a good white rum and see if you can turn them.
At their best, white rums can be delightful and run a gamut of flavors. Atlantico's Platino rum has a delicious marshmallow softness to it, and Plantation's Three Star rum has a beautiful combination of sweet, citrus, and grassiness that makes it fantastic on its own or as the perfect base for a daiquiri. Another plus: most white rums tend to be remarkably inexpensive (both the Atlantico and the Plantation can be sourced for less than $20).
Here's really where things begin to get interesting.
Most of the rums I cover here on the site are going to fall into this classification, as they'll have spent a decent amount of time inside some variety of oak barrel. As with other oak-aged spirits, that interaction with the wood can often add flavors of spice, vanilla, fruit, chocolate, tobacco leaf, and yes—it usually results in a smoother drinking experience.
Aged rums come from all over the world, including various islands in the Caribbean, Latin America, and even the US. Several regions tend to have their own style and production methods. Jamaican rums tend to be a little funkier, and rums from Latin America tend to be a little sweeter and caramelized, making them a supremely enjoyable after dinner drink.
As I mentioned before, many of these rums have the complexity of a fine cognac or scotch. The benefit is that while about $40 simply gets you in the door when it comes to a fine single malt scotch, that same expenditure is enough to purchase a truly top-flight rum.
If you need a recommendation here, we have quite a few of them. If you don't feel like a dig through the archives, I'd recommend El Dorado 15 or Plantation 20th Anniversary if you have a sweet tooth, and Mount Gay XO or Real McCoy 12 if you'd prefer something a little drier. Aged rum is now one of my most favorite of spirit categories, and these days I'm just as inclined to pour myself a glass of that as I am a whisky.
While most rums are typically distilled from molasses, which comes from sugar cane, rums are made from the sugar cane plants themselves. In that last sentence, I know a lot of you are going to focus on the word "sugar" when the word "plants" actually provides a better description of the drinking experience.
Agricoles are an acquired taste to be sure. They're typically very dry—i.e., not sweet—and have a very grassy, almost medicinal quality to them. Compared to a sweetened, aged rum like Zaya or Ron Zacapa, an agricole rum is on the complete other end of the spectrum.
What's the draw? There's actually an astounding variety of complexity here. A bottle like the Clement VSOP is filled with tastes of nutmeg, bamboo, and lemongrass, making it an exotic indulgence and a playful challenge for the palate of any spirit geek. You may also want to start here if you really don't care at all for sweet spirits.
Probably don't drink any of this. Spiced rums are those in which other flavors and compounds have added. In theory, this could lead to something delicious, like a cocktail in a glass. I mean, theoretically a producer could put delicious stuff like allspice and cinnamon directly into the spirit. Typically, what actually gets added in are artificial flavorings and extra sugar designed to bring a sub-par rum up to some level of passable drinkability. And if you know the stuff is just going to get thrown back by college kids anyway, why craft something good?
I review them from time to time, but as of yet I really haven't found one I'd cheerfully recommend to you without any reservations. Not saying they aren't out there, but it hasn't been an encouraging product category when it comes to finding good stuff.
Another category I think is marginalized, and not undeservedly. The implication with "dark" is that consumers are supposed to associate it with "aged," but you'd do better to read the term as "dyed to shit with food coloring." Generally, whatever a self-described dark rum can do, I'd say there's some aged rum out there that will do it better. Provided you're willing to pay marginally more for it. Say, five bucks per 750mL. If a grade school kid can afford the upgrade, I'd say it's probably within your reach.
On the whole, most of the dark rums I've had have been "not terrible," but again, it isn't a ringing endorsement. Whatever something like Meyer's Dark can do, I'd wager that an actual rum can probably do better.
Is Rum the New Scotch? Or the New Tequila?
Probably not, and I don't know why. Despite the outstanding quality of a lot of what's out there and the very limited amount of time it took me to develop a taste for drinking quality rum straight, it doesn't (now) seem to have the prestige that just about any other brown liquor enjoys. If you're not drinking just to gain cool points though, enjoy the value while it lasts! It's a great time to dive into the product category.