The 10 Best Rum Brands to Drink Now
When people think of rum, they first think of brands like Malibu and Captain Morgan—flavored and spiced spirits that are extremely sweet, and usually mixed with Coke or slowly squeezed out of a frozen daiquiri machine. Or they think of celebrity brands like Kenny Chesney’s supremely awful Blue Chair Bay, a “rum” that tastes like someone squirted a bottle of sun lotion directly into your mouth. But this is actually a really good time to be a rum drinker, with high-quality brands available from both large and small distilleries for sipping neat or mixing into a cocktail. Rum is indeed having a moment, according to Kenneth McCoy, CCO of Public House Collective and partner at New York’s The Rum House. “The popularity of whiskey has helped in this process,” he says. “But I believe there’s enough room on the playing field for both.”
People look at rum as an unregulated, duplicitous spirit. There is some truth to this, as bottles often have numbers that are mistaken for age statements, or sugar and other additives that are used to adulterate the flavor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter; some rum with added sugar is actually quite good. There are also specific regulations regarding rum production, but they vary from country to country, which can be confusing for consumers.
It’s the smoke and mirrors that are the problem. Brian Miller, beverage director and bartender at New York tiki mecca The Polynesian, sums it up succinctly: “The more transparency the better," he says. McCoy adds, “I think we should have an idea of how [rum is] made, and if it’s made with quality ingredients, not just additives, coloring, and sugar, sugar, sugar.” Salvatore Tafuri, bar director at The Times Square Edition agrees. “Because guests and bartenders alike now have access to better information,” he says, “we are learning which brands to support and which ones to drink in a much more efficient and effective way.”
Rum has been and remains an important cocktail ingredient. At the Edition, you can find the Pied a Terre, which combines Rhum JM VSOP, shochu, grapes, and lime tincture. Miller whips up drinks like Captain's Last Breath at The Polynesian, a mixture of rum, chartreuse, blue curaçao, orgeat, absinthe, and lime. In San Francisco, classic tiki joints like Trad’r Sam and the Tonga Room, along with the newer Last Rites, provide a dizzying selection of rums. Other cities like L.A., Chicago, and Austin have their share of rum-focused bars as well.
The bottom line is that there is a rum for everyone. If you are looking for something with zero additives, you are in luck. And if you prefer something sweeter to use for your Dark ‘n Stormy (more on that below), there’s a rum for that, too. Here are 10 of the best rum brands, in all styles, to drink this summer.
Barbados’s Mount Gay has been around in one form or another for about 300 years (Remy Cointreau has owned the distillery since 1989). There are five main expressions in the portfolio, including: Black Barrel, finished in heavily charred bourbon barrels after initial maturation; XO, which the distillery says is aged from eight to 15 years; and 1703, a blend of 10- to 30-year-old rums selected by master blender Allen Smith. Last fall, Mount Gay released XO The Peat Smoke Expression, the first entry in its Master Blender Collection, which is a cask-strength rum finished for six months in Islay whisky casks. It's a solid option all around.
The Real McCoy
Foursquare is another Barbados distillery known for making great rum, some of which is sold under other brand names. The Real McCoy is one of those, and founder Bailey Pryor was drawn to master distiller Richard Seale’s no-bullshit approach—no sugar or flavor added. There are currently three main expressions, aged three years, five years, and 12 years in bourbon barrels. Most recently, a 14-year-old rum joined the family in a release of just 6,000 bottles. The Real McCoy and Foursquare’s commitment to transparency appeals to many dedicated drinkers.
Appleton Estate master blender Joy Spence, the first woman to hold that job title, believes there should be two categories of rum: flavored rum (with sugar) and true rum (no sugar added). In Fred Minnick’s book Rum Curious, she is quoted as saying, “You want to add sugar? You can, but the two should be separated.” By law, Jamaican rum is not allowed to have sugar added, and that shows in Appleton Estate’s signature earthy flavors. The 12- and 21-year-old rums are excellent, and there are even older expressions like the 25-year-old Joy Anniversary Blend created to commemorate Spence’s 20 years at the distillery. This is high-quality rum for both serious sippers and people who want to make a good cocktail.
Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Maison Ferrand, takes a cue from his native France for his Plantation Rum brand. Sugar is sometimes added to the rum, and Gabriel compares this to the dosage used in champagne production. The company is upfront about it (the website contains detailed information), which goes a long way in the spirits industry. There are various bottlings sourced from countries around the Caribbean, most of which are aged again in French cognac casks. The most recent additions to the Plantation lineup include two cask-strength Jamaican rums and Xaymaca Special Dry, a blend of pot still rums from Jamaica aged for one to three years in bourbon casks and one year in Ferrand cognac casks.
Bacardi is known for making light and flavored party rums—spring break spirits for people who just want something to mix with Coke. The Facundo collection is something very different, focusing on sipping rums distilled and aged in the Bahamas (up to 23 years old) and blended in Puerto Rico. The two expressions at the top of the lineup are Exquisito, a blend of 7- and 23-year-old rums that is finished for a month in sherry casks, and Paraiso, a blend of rums aged up to 23 years that is finished for a month in cognac casks. If you’re thinking about Bacardi Pineapple right now and rolling your eyes, give these rums a taste.
Diplomático is produced in the troubled country of Venezuela. The rum is distilled using molasses and sugarcane honey, which the distillery describes as “the syrup left over after the first boiling of sugarcane,” with a higher sugar content than molasses. Reserva Exclusiva is a dependable spirit to have in your home bar, made in a variety of still types and aged for up to 12 years in oak casks. The higher-end Ambassador is also quite good, a rum aged for a minimum of 12 years in white oak before being finished for two years in PX sherry casks. The latest release, Pot Still Rum, is the third in Diplomático’s Distillery Collection. The trilogy is meant to showcase the different methods of distillation, so this one focuses singularly on copper pot stills. As permitted by Venezuelan law, there is some sugar added to the rum during aging.
In this time of conflict in its country, Diplomático has stored "large stocks of finished products in warehouses outside of Venezuela, should it face production difficulties in the future," it told Esquire in a statement. "This will enable the company to continue to supply its international markets appropriately. While we are facing extraordinarily difficult times, DUSA [which owns and produces the rum] believes in the future of Venezuela and will do everything in its power to continue its operation and continue to support its employees and their families."
Santa Teresa is another rum from Venezuela, made at the oldest licensed distillery in the country. Both the Gran Reserva and Claro expressions are available here in the U.S., but the standout rum is 1796, created a few decades ago to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the estate. According to a distillery representative, no sugar is added to the spirit, even though that's allowed in Venezuela. With rums between four and 35 years old, it is aged and blended using the solera method. This is a sophisticated sipping rum with a nice, fresh citrus burst on the nose.
However, the Venezuelan conflict complicates this distillery's story. According to The New York Times, Alberto Vollmer, the CEO of Santa Teresa, is seen by some as having a warm relationship with the Maduro regime, causing calls for a boycott of the rum. Vollmer provided the following statement to Esquire: “Since 1796, Santa Teresa has stood for Venezuela. We pride ourselves on working hard for the future of our nation. At this critical moment, the country has reached a mutually destructive stalemate that is negatively impacting every Venezuelan. Santa Teresa and myself will remain as consistently and unconditionally constructive as we’ve ever been. The republic must be refounded [sic]; for that to happen, key players must agree upon a vision, shared values and basic rules for a functioning democracy.”
Bacardi is the biggest rum distillery in Puerto Rico, but Destileria Serralles makes what might be the most popular as far as the locals are concerned: Don Q. This inexpensive rum is named after Don Quixote and has been around since the end of Prohibition. The brand has a slew of different expressions, including an añejo aged for three to ten years, a couple of single barrel releases, and an interesting Vermouth Cask Finish that spends four to six weeks in Italian oak vermouth barrels after aging in American oak for five to eight years. And look out for the new Double Aged Sherry Cask Finished rum from Don Q later this month.
When you think of a Dark ‘n Stormy, Goslings would like you to think of its rum and its rum alone. In fact, the brand has trademarked the cocktail’s name, insisting that it must be made with Goslings Black Seal rum and Goslings ginger beer. Of course, you’ll (probably) be safe making it with whatever rum you fancy at home. There is a reason Goslings is as popular as it is: It’s cheap and it goes down easy. Goslings doesn't have a distillery; instead, the Bermuda-based company sources barrels from other countries, ages and blends in Bermuda, and ships the rum to Kentucky for bottling. The rum in Black Seal is aged in bourbon barrels for several years, but that dark color is amplified by the addition of molasses from one of the distillates in the final blend, according to Malcolm Gosling. If you’re looking for something more complex, check out Papa Seal Single Barrel, a 15-year-old rum bottled from just 12 barrels that was released last fall.
There are a number of quality American rums being produced all around the country by small craft distilleries. One of the most interesting is Privateer Rum, a small operation located in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The philosophy behind the brand is “one of honesty and purity”—a heavy-handed way of saying it doesn’t add any sugar and doesn’t filter the rum. The range runs the gamut from True American Amber Rum (aged for two to four years in new oak and used rum, bourbon, and brandy barrels), to the barrel-proof Navy Yard Rum and the single cask Distiller’s Draw series. The latter of these includes a bottled-in-bond release, which is an uncommon designation in the world of rum.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.