There is no spirit category as globally diverse and varied as rum. Produced everywhere from Mexico to Fiji, its spectrum of flavor is unmatched, ranging from light-bodied, grassy and dry rums, to tannic, robust versions bursting with overripe tropical fruit. Precisely because of this diversity of style, rum can be as daunting as it is exciting, growing only more so with every new release.
“There is more good rum at a great value available to the average consumer than ever before,” says Kevin Beary, beverage director at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. This proliferation of new rums, however, has not directly translated into a better understanding of the nuances of the category for the average drinker. “Rum is an insanely diverse umbrella category, with myriad subcategories and appellations, DOCs and technical production variables—it makes it endlessly discoverable and interesting, but also very hard to define, communicate and pigeonhole,” says Jim Wrigley, beverage manager at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa in Grand Cayman.
The stark contrast between styles of rum is far greater than that between, say, bourbon and rye. Even from the same country of origin, there can be significant variation depending on the raw material used (sugar cane juice, molasses or both), the fermentation, distillation and aging methods, and whether or not there are additives in the bottle (e.g., caramel coloring, sugar, etc.). Beginning to understand how these variables impact a rum’s flavor makes navigating the sea of rums that much easier.
Unlike whiskey, where a single bottle can cover most classic cocktails, having only one rum stocked is akin to relying only on a paring knife in the kitchen. “When starting your home bar, I would suggest a great bottle of lightly aged rum for your Daiquiris and Mojitos, a bottle of well-aged rum [for spirit-forward serves] and a navy-strength or overproof rum [for tiki cocktails],” says Kyle Jones, owner and managing director at Bon Vivants in the Bahamas. To round up some of the essential rums for mixing in cocktails, we’ve asked an array of rum-loving bartenders from around the world to recommend their go-tos.
Lightly Aged Rums, for Daiquiris and Mojitos
Rhum J.M. Blanc
Rhum J.M Blanc 50% is an agricole-style rum produced in Martinique by distilling the juice of sugar cane via column still. This method gives the spirit a dry, grassy-peppery character with high notes of citrus, which makes it perfect in a Daiquiri, but also in the traditional Ti’ Punch cocktail.
“We work a lot with J.M rhum since the Ti’ Punch is one of our specialties,” says Thibault Massina, beverage director at Le Syndicat in Paris, which exclusively uses spirits from France and its territories. “The Rhum J.M Blanc 50% is a sure bet to bring power and the good taste of sugar cane. For other cocktails, a small dose of this bottling is a great way to add alcoholic strength and dryness.”
Such is the case at Takibi in Portland, Oregon, where bar manager Lydia McLuen infuses the rum with butterfly pea flower, mixed with riesling, aquavit, iris liqueur, umeboshi plum vinegar and lime in a cocktail called Pea Flower Power. In the category of agricole rhum, this bottle is the workhorse.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 50%
A collaboration between distiller Richard Seale of Foursquare Distillery in Barbados and renowned Italian importer Luca Gargano of Velier, Probitas was created to be the optimal lightly aged rum. Combining the best of Barbados column still rum and funky unaged Jamaican pot still rum from Hampden Estate distillery, the blend is rounded out by a dose of two-year-old aged pot still rum from Foursquare, an addition that gives Veritas a slight straw-gold hue.
“[Probitas] was a game changer for me when it was released,” says Connie Cain, director at Milk in Reading, U.K. “If I’m in the mood for that earthier, slightly saline, banana-y Daiquiri—which is usually my vibe—it’s my go-to rum. With the slightly higher ABV, it punches through to give you the fullest-bodied Daiquiri you could wish for, and the pot still comes through as a finish on your palate—it’s utterly delicious.”
- Price: $35
- From: 47%
Banks 5 Island Blend
For American bartenders, this rum is no stranger, as it’s been making its way onto back bars and into speed rails since its debut in 2010. Banks 5 Island Blend Rum is an approachable blend of 21 rums from five distilleries in Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Java and Guyana, each aged between three and 12 years, then filtered to remove the color.
“At Takibi, we only carry five rums, and one of them is Banks 5 Island rum,” says McLuen. (Jim Meehan, who consulted on the production of Banks 5 Island Blend rum, is also the beverage director of Takibi.) “We use it for mixing Mojitos or Daiquiris, as it’s a perfect workhorse lightly aged rum for cocktails,” she says, noting its bright citrus notes as well as its long, spicy finish.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 43%
Aged Rums, for Spirit-Forward Cocktails
Santa Teresa 1796
“Santa Teresa 1796 will always have a special place in my heart,” says Wrigley, who has previously worked for the Venezuelan brand. “It’s complex, dry and made by good people. It’s easily, bang for buck, one of the best sipping or stirred mixing rums on the market.”
At Marbella Club in Marbella, Spain, head of bars Nelson Gallo leans on the rich notes of toffee, vanilla and cacao exuded by Santa Teresa to serve his guests a flavorful nightcap, either on its own or in a spirit-forward serve. “We make a conscious effort to ignite curiosity in our guests who are, quite honestly, already very well-versed in spirits,” says Gallo. “Santa Teresa is a rum that we often recommend to guests who are looking for something that’s perfect on its own pre- or post-dinner, or in a simple classic cocktail.”
- Price: $45
- ABV: 40%
Black Tot Finest Caribbean
Black Tot Finest Caribbean is a rum inspired by the British navy’s blended rums of the past, recreated for the modern palate. The unadulterated blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica has become a fan favorite among the global rum community as well as tiki bartenders, who use it both as a standalone sipping rum or in a variety of cocktails, from Jungle Birds to Old-Fashioneds.
“My favorite Old-Fashioned rum is Black Tot,” says Cain. “Its slightly higher ABV makes for a peppery mouthfeel and a punchy drink. The blend of islands gives you the best all-around flavor profile.”
It’s a bottling also recommended by a handful of other bartenders, including Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa’s Wrigley as well as Timothy Falzon, general manager at London’s Trailer Happiness, who finds that its notes of cacao, coffee, raisin and zesty citrus make it the perfect versatile aged rum.
- Price: $45
- ABV: 46%
Plantation Isle of Fiji
The newest expression added to Plantation’s ever-expanding lineup of rums is the Isle of Fiji, a flavor-packed tropical molasses rum made from native Fijian sugar cane, blending pot- and column-distilled rums. The rum is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for two to three years in Fiji before being moved to France, where it is aged for an additional year in Maison Ferrand Cognac casks.
While other Fijian rums are a bit trickier to come by, this one is widely available and is akin in flavor to a Jamaican-Barbados blended rum. Aromas of stone fruit, banana, nutmeg, vanilla and a touch of petrol fill the nose. The palate offers notes of vanilla fudge, prunes, coconut, honey and zesty ginger. At 40 percent ABV, it doesn’t pack a massive punch, but it is the perfect rum to lure the rum-curious drinker. Try it in an Old-Fashioned and never look back.
- Price: $27
- ABV: 40%
Smith & Cross
Known affectionately as the tiki bartender’s ketchup, this high-ester, pot-distilled, overproof Jamaican rum clocks in at a burly 57 percent ABV. Its robust notes of molasses, orange zest, toffee and pineapple make it the perfect rum in everything from nuclear Daiquiris to Zombies and beyond. “For the hogo, I love Smith & Cross,” says Wrigley. “It’s perfect in rum Old-Fashioneds, Mai Tais, Planter’s Punches, Painkillers and all those punchy, flavor-packed libations.”
Mia Kumari, bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy and a self-proclaimed rum lover, shares a similar affinity for the funk-filled liquid. “My desert island sipping rum would be Smith & Cross,” says Kumari. “It’s so intense in flavor and has such a pleasant mouthfeel, that it does not drink like it’s 57 percent ABV. Also, if there are coconuts on this desert island, it’s also great topped with coconut water.”
- Price: $37
- ABV: 57%
Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve Rum
If you’ve never tasted Jamaican rum before, Appleton Estate is the place to start. The brand’s latest addition to its core range, the Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve is arguably one of the best rums to be released at its price point in recent years.
“If you’re looking for a rum to mix in a Mai Tai blend, or to simply mix on its own, look no further than the Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve rum,” says Falzon. “For tiki bartenders, the Mai Tai is to rum what the Martini is to gin, and in this classic, the rum needs to complement and shine with the flavor profile of this cocktail—and the Appleton 8 Year works impressively in the Mai Tai.”
With notes of flambéed orange, allspice, banana, mango and cacao, this bottling is versatile and can be mixed in an array of cocktails, ranging from sours to spirit-forward serves.
- Price: $40
- ABV: 43%
If you’ve seen tiki bars light lime husks on fire with overproof rum, odds are they were using Rum Fire. A traditional unaged, overproof Jamaican rum produced by the esteemed Hampden Estate distillery, once the cap of the bottle is off, the pungent ester-filled aromas fill a room like no other rum can.
At 63 percent ABV, Kevin Beary’s recommendation for an overproof rum isn’t one to session-drink on a Saturday night; on the contrary, anyone mixing with Rum Fire should tread lightly. It’s best used as a modifier, adding a small dose to cocktails to blast them with notes of overripe banana, allspice, grapefruit zest, plantain, pineapple and more. This rum’s flavor knows no bounds, and it’s the perfect bottle for any tiki cocktail aficionado.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 63%
Chairman’s Reserve Legacy
Chairman’s Reserve Legacy, produced by St. Lucia Distillers, is a blend of molasses rums, from both pot and column stills, and estate-grown sugar cane. It’s an homage to the late Laurie Bernard, once the brand’s chairman, whose vision helped reinvigorate Chairman’s Reserve by introducing the blending of marques and replanting old sugar cane fields to yield the company’s own estate-grown sugar.
“Chairman’s Reserve Legacy is exceptional in a Mai Tai, or a house Mai Tai blend due to its complementary flavor profile,” says Falzon, who notes that its balance of tropical fruit, brown sugar, tobacco and butterscotch make for a complex serve, adding that it’s a worthwhile sipping rum that showcases the versatility of St. Lucian rum.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 40%