I have to admit, when you're used to drinking sugar-added rums, switching to a bottle that doesn't try to assault you with pure candy is a novel experience. Now having spent some time with Mount Gay's Black Barrel, I think I'm starting to put two and two together.
At present, the rest of my rum shelf includes Ron Zacapa 23, El Dorado 12, and Plantation 20th Anniversary. While all three are generally regarded as being quality-made rums with their share of fans, it's no small secret that all of these bottles are sugar bombs.
I recently read Fred Minnick's wonderful Rum Curious and took the author up on his weird suggestion: pour a small amount of the rum on your hands and rub them together. If they're sticky, guess what? Someone put sugar in your rum. (The distiller, that is. Not some goblin or neighborhood prowler. I hope.) The Mount Gay Black Barrel easily acquits itself of Minnick's sticky fingers test. Readers hoping to perform a similar test on their house rum would be warned not to conduct the experiment during work hours, lest your co-workers think you're both crazy and have a drinking problem.
There's certainly more to be said about the rum/sugar debate, but you'd be surprised how even about a third a teaspoon's worth of sugar per standard pour can impact flavor. Specifically, the absence of sugar. In the case of the Black Barrel, it's actually quite refreshing. The spirit leads with a very dry, only semi-sweet entry that begins to build into barrel spices like cinnamon and clove and interesting, somewhat exotic tastes like apricot and licorice.
And it's not like this isn't sweet. It's just that there's more natural sweetness, like the kind you'd get from molasses or a piece of fruit, rather than something like a molasses cookie or a fruit roll-up. That experience is enhanced by quite a bit of vanilla, which I imagine is a pretty big byproduct of the re-charred ex-bourbon casks Mount Gay sources for the Black Barrel. A thumbs up there.
As a guy with a pretty big sweet tooth, do I think that the Black Barrel is head-and-shoulders better than the tastes I get from the Plantation 20th or the sheer luxuriousness of something like the El Dorado 15? I'd say no, but that's a matter of personal preference. However, it does prove a point that many take in the rum industry: that sugar is too often used as a blunt instrument to pave over shortcomings and produce a relatively narrower flavor profile.
With the Black Barrel, it was nice to sip a rum—a quite affordable rum, no less—which allowed a lot of its secondary flavors to become a little more visible. The spirit is well-produced, the bourbon barrels pull their weight, and the price is right. If you're used to sugary rums like Zaya or Zacapa, the Black Barrel is a great product that shows you the other side of the coin for not very much spend.