It used to be that Americans knew just two types of rum—white and dark—and one primary mixer: Coke. But thanks to the overall premiumization of spirits, that old truism is fading fast. High-end and small-batch rums have seized the attention of spirits connoisseurs and bartenders, displaying the kind of age-worthiness, depth and pedigree that we’ve come to expect from the most sought-after brown spirits. Whether sipped neat or mixed in elite cocktail bars around the country, rum has officially landed on the A-list.
“The variety of expressions that are out there have certainly expanded,” says Matt Pietrek, a rum expert and spirits writer who has approximately 300 rums in his personal collection. “The enthusiast market keeps growing, and we’re bringing in more and more people from the bourbon fold.”
Drinkers are increasingly realizing that rum has an almost unequaled breadth of styles and a complexity capable of rivaling the Pappy Van Winkles of the world. Jamaican rums can be fever dreams of funk, mouth-filling and packed with esters, rich with banana, vanilla, coconut, cocoa and spice. Aged Dominican rums excel as sipping spirits, smooth and supple on the palate and yielding a mix of dry and sweet notes, like toffee, exotic fruit and pepper. Fans of Puerto Rican rums boast of their balance, sleek, buttery texture and nutty finish tinged with caramel. Agricole rums alone run a wide gamut, with the best-known styles tasting grassy and herbaceous, a reflection of the fresh cane from which they are distilled. Thanks to the growing awareness of rum’s versatility, it’s showing up in drinks historically designed to showcase whiskey, like the Old-Fashioned or the Mint Julep.
Many see rum following in the steps of luxury-oriented trends that have already transformed categories like whiskey and agave spirits. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, while sales at the lower end of the rum market have been slipping by a few percentage points, rum’s super-premium category grew by nearly 30 percent last year.
“There are some rums I would never dream of adding mixers to because they’re like single-malt Scotches,” say Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails and the beverage director at Glady’s Caribbean in Brooklyn. Among her favorites of that type are rums that offer expressions of specific stills. “Across the spectrum, there’s older distilleries making a comeback and there’s mass-market brands doing limited releases that are focused on more-traditional styles of production.”
Part of the success of rum’s bid for the premium market has been its ability to attract and convert bourbon and Scotch drinkers. Various barrel-aging regimens for rum can evoke some of the same mellow, toasted notes of aged whiskey while staying true to the unique character of rum. For instance, Brugal’s 1888 release—launched in 2010, and meant to be enjoyed neat or nearly neat—is aged in ex-bourbon casks for six to eight years followed by another two to six years in ex-sherry casks. The resulting notes of candied fruit, dried wood, toffee and smoke will be familiar to fans of single-malt Scotches and Kentucky bourbon.
Conversant in brown spirits as well as rums, Pietrek has learned that bringing up certain facts can help in converting a whiskey drinker. For those interested in the heritage side, he mentions that the production of rum actually predates bourbon. When it comes to how a spirit mellows with time, Pietrek explains how in tropical climates rum essentially ages at a faster rate than Scotch. One barrel can see up to 10 percent of its volume evaporate in the course of a year, speeding up the process of evolution and flavor concentration.
“I can show people the parallels there,” says Pietrek. “In the hardcore rum-enthusiast community, we’re like, ‘We need to treat rum with the same respect in terms of how we talk about it as people afford to cognac or bourbon.’”
Another persuasive point is the price tag. The rarest rums can easily exceed $300 a bottle. But because rums are still edging their way into the high-end market, premium bottles can easily be found in the $30 to $50 range, for now. Whiskies of equal quality might cost twice as much.
This price gap has created something of an ironic situation at times, in which connoisseurs of other spirits are coming in prepared, and in some cases even wanting, to spend more than they need to in order to sample some of the better rums being made today. “We have people that come in here and go, ‘What’s new? What haven’t I had yet?’” says Jen Akin, general manager at Seattle’s Rumba, which stocks over 650 rums. “We have to constantly be on top of that. And there are a lot of people that come here and they’re like, ‘We don’t care about how much it is. We just want to drink good shit.’”
Rumba is one of a number of high-profile bars around the country that have opened in recent years to specifically showcase rum, including Portland’s Rum Club, New York City’s BlackTail and San Francisco’s Obispo. The excitement around rum gave Austin Hartman, who previously worked at Hotel Delmano and Montana’s Trail House in Brooklyn, the confidence to open the Caribbean-inspired Paradise Lounge in Queens, New York. He attributes much of the success of the spirit in bars to its malleability. “There is a rum for everybody,” says Hartman. “If you are self-described as only drinking whiskey, I have a rum you can try that you will be well beyond satisfied with.”
Rum has also taken a front-and-center spot on menus at influential bars that helped create the cocktail renaissance in the first place, like PDT and Death & Co in New York and the Violet Hour in Chicago. At Seattle’s Canon, famed for its extensive bottle list, the menu features a full six pages of rums—more than gin or agave-based spirits. It’s a testament to the new understanding that rum is not something to be hidden behind cloying ingredients or soda, but a spirit that can stand alone in the glass.
“People want the next best, cool thing,” says Akin. “I think now it’s rum’s turn, finally.”