Early on, rum exporters figured out a pretty brilliant way to save cargo space: simply make their bottles more alcoholic, then dilute it down once it got to its destination. Eventually drinkers developed a taste for the “uncut” product, cementing overproof rum’s place in the canon.
As it applies to cocktails, early tiki pioneers like Donn Beach took to mixing with it, noticing that its strong backbone and aggressive flavor profile could cut through citrus juices and sturdy syrups. With tiki’s recent resurgence, overproof rums are also now in the midst of a renaissance.
“The intense heat and deep funk of these fiery [overproof] spirits… gives tiki drinks their distinct character,” explains Dan Watson of Cleveland’s Porco Lounge & Tiki Room. He combines Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum from Jamaica with fino sherry in his Drunk in the August Sun, a drier riff on the Piña Colada. “Even in small doses, Wray delivers a superkick of acetate to the nose, warming up the palate.” (Ethyl acetate—which is often described as smelling “fruity” or “sweet”—is the most prominent ester found in Jamaican rums.)
At 126 proof (63 percent ABV), “Whites,” as the locals call Wray & Nephew, is a blend of un-aged, pot and column still-produced rums bottled at full-strength. But it’s not the high alcohol level that makes it a local sensation (it’s estimated that it accounts for 90 percent of all rum consumed on the island); it’s the intense flavor profile. Upon opening a bottle, you are immediately hit with an incredibly pungent smell of fruit—overripe banana, most notably, but also pineapple, oranges and even dried coconut. Sipping it unlocks a slight tartness and spicy finish. It’s a rum so expressive that it’s essentially built for mixing.
“It’s so funky and heavy… it can stand up to basically any other ingredient,” explains Dan Sabo, beverage director for the soon-to-open Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles. Sabo leans on Wray & Nephew in his Je Suis Le Tigre, a Singapore Sling variant that calls for overproof rum to bolster the savory, burnt sugar notes of Appleton Estate 12-Year.
It’s not just the uniquely funky flavor profile that makes overproof rum a standout in tiki drinks, though. Since most overproof rums are produced in a pot still, they inherently have a “heaviness” to their mouthfeel. Whereas column stills typically strip down a distillate, the pot still allows for these rums to retain a silky, almost oily texture—one that is perfect for building tropical cocktails that pull no punches.
“It is a gnarly, full-of-character and attention-demanding orchestra of funk,” says Guillermo Bravo of Brooklyn’s Featherweight. He also calls on Wray & Nephew in his thoroughly modern Dry Tongue Therapy, a mix of gin, PX sherry, overproof rum, cinnamon syrup, lime and grapefruit juices and falernum. Even with so many diverse ingredients, the overproof rum remains the star of the show, he says. “There’s something punk rock about having so much hogo (funk), bruised banana and just outright heartiness in your cocktail.”
Five Cocktails With Overproof Rum