I formed my opinion of overproof rum while working as a waiter at a New Hampshire inn many years ago. We kept a bottle of Bacardi 151 in the kitchen for fancy flaming desserts. One night, I came upon my normally mild colleague, Cliff, standing by the dessert fridge with the bottle held over his open mouth, rum pouring out and bubbles burbling upward like in a water cooler. Cliff was having a bad night. It got worse. Sent home, he used a purloined credit card receipt to track down a customer and, at 2 a.m., he called him to express complicated and profane opinions about the character of people who leave ten percent tips.
For some time afterward, I regarded overproof rum with reverence, believing it to have occult powers that could turn normal people into superheroes. It wasn’t until much later, when I began to work with rum professionally, that I appreciated its power in another regard: how it could make a ho-hum rum drink come alive.
“Overproof rum” is a simple, if antique, term. It appears in abundance in early guides for distillation and in excise and gauging manuals for customs officers. A spirit bottled at proof, for arcane historic reasons, was half ethanol and half water, which was defined as 100 proof (that is, 50 percent alcohol). Any rum with a higher alcohol content was considered “overproof.” Today, this bold style of rum is having something of a resurgence, at least in part thanks to the second coming of tiki—whose drinks often rely on a rum that can bark at lime juice and make other ingredients do its bidding.
The history of overproof rum is indistinct around the edges and, for that matter, in the middle as well. It no doubt arose as a high-proof rum distilled for efficient shipment: One could essentially halve the cargo space if the proof was doubled, then just cut it to bottle proof at the final destination. What happened next is a bit murky. But we might surmise that, sailors being sailors, the bung in a cask or two may have accidentally loosened en route and, in the process, they developed a taste for the fiery fluid. It traveled off the ships into local taverns to satisfy the seamen’s clamoring, and landlubbers found it both efficient and tasty, as a higher proof can often serve to mask production flaws.
Two overproof amounts ultimately emerged as landmarks. Navy-strength rum, typically bottled at 57 percent alcohol, or 114 proof, and 151 rum, which is bottled at 75.5 percent alcohol, or 151 proof. Why not 148 or 156 proof? “I have always associated 151 proof rum with Canada, but I don’t have any evidence to back that up,” says noted collector of historic rums Stephen Remsberg. “The legend is that the old Hudson’s Bay Company found that Demerara rum, even at navy strength, would freeze above the Arctic Circle.”
Whatever the reason, 151 surged in popularity after the repeal of Prohibition—Havana Club, Carioca, Ron Rey and Ronrico all touted the robust taste of their 151 rums. In 1952, the New York Times wrote of Lemon Hart 151’s powerful bouquet, noting that it “enjoys its greatest popularity among lumbermen in the Far North, fishermen who sail the Grand Banks, and prospectors in Alaska.” Like many other liquors, overproof rum faded from view during the vodka interregnum of the latter half of the last century, when having a bold flavor was considered a flaw rather than a feature.
That’s over. Overproof rum is amid another golden age, cropping up in different guises, including the flourishing of naval proof and a happy return of 151. Here, an intro to overproof rum’s new wave, in four bottles.
Plantation O.F.T.D. Rum
One way to develop a flavor profile of a classic overproof rum is to bring in the experts—preferably all of them. And that’s basically what Plantation did when they recruited David Wondrich (author), Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29), Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove) and Paul McGee (Lost Lake), among others, to help formulate a blend that would make bartenders happy. The “Old Fashioned Traditional Dark” is a mix of rums from Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica that bursts with a surfeit of big pineapple-y and hogo notes, which all but mask the punch of the alcohol. Try it in classic drinks, like Daiquiris or rum Old-Fashioneds.
- Price: $32 (1L)
- ABV: 69 Percent
Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum
When this navy-style overproof rum was first released a few years ago, by Bryan Davis, it caused a bit of a stir. Why? It was “aged” in under a week using a patent-pending reactor, which gave it the color and fruity esters characteristic of a decades-aged spirit. Following shifts in Davis’ business model, it disappeared from liquor store shelves for a time. But after recently resettling in Los Angeles, he’s resumed running his distillate through his reactor at his original place in Monterey County, while gearing up to get production underway at his new LA distillery. Bottled at 122 proof, it serves up a big mouthful of round molasses flavor edged with baking spice notes. It has some of the expected flavors of a classic overproof, alongside pleasantly unexpected coffee and char notes. (It’s available now in California, with some cases being released to Boston and London markets; expect wider distribution later this year.)
- Price: $45
- ABV: 61 Percent
Lemon Hart 151
Lemon Hart is a “legacy overproof” (it’s been around since about 1800) that has undergone several changes in formulation and label in the past few years. It was owned by Pernod Ricard for a long while, but they essentially sidelined it, deciding that it was a niche product of little interest to a corporation of their magnitude. “It was so far down their list of priorities that they were willing to sell it to a Canadian company,” jokes Michael Szczepaniuk, one of three former Seagram’s executives who formed Mosaiq and acquired the brand. Once the remaining Pernod Ricard stock ran out (it had been made partly with Canadian rums for tax reasons, Szczepaniuk said), they dug up an original formulation from longtime producer Demerara Distillers in Guyana. The new-old overproof comes with a lot of the history and flavor of the original, although those who remember the “yellow-label” version of a decade ago may find it slightly sweeter and less aggressive.
- Price: $33
- ABV: 75.5 Percent
Hamilton Overproof 151
When Lemon Hart suddenly disappeared from the American market in 2014, importer and rum expert Ed Hamilton charged into the breach. He worked out a deal with Mosaiq to import the nearly 500 cases of remaining stock into the U.S., averting a short-term emergency among hard-core fans. When Lemon Hart resumed production and distribution under new owners a couple of years ago, Hamilton then went in search of his own overproof, sampling about a dozen recipes from various distilleries. In the end, he circled back to Demerara Distillers. “Nobody has that flavor profile they have in Guyana, which comes from a combination of fermentation, distillation and aging,” says Hamilton. “They bring the signature Demerara flavor.” Since he launched it in January 2015, Hamilton Overproof has become a favorite of contemporary tiki bars, with bartenders praising its brawny backbone, the tropical notes filigreed along the margins and a finish that’s somewhat drier than Lemon Hart 151. It’s now available in 35 states.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 75.5 Percent