Rum has undergone something of an image makeover in the past decade or so. Where once it was a drink seemingly tied to the high seas – be that through its association with the British Royal Navy, the ‘fifteen men on a dead man’s chest / Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’ pirate adventures from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or the island-style cocktails served in tiki bars such as Trader Vic’s – rum has evolved into a serious sipping spirit.
Much of the transformation has been inspired by the playbooks of whisky and brandy. For where the likes of Scotch and Cognac have their distinct geographical indicators of flavour, so too does the world of rum. And as with whisky, rum relies on the instruments involved in production to dictate the final flavour of the spirit. Be it copper pot stills (or even wooden stills in some cases) producing a robust note, or column stills yielding a lighter style of spirit, a kaleidoscope of flavours can come from even one distillery.
One such example is the Diamond Distillery in Guyana. Diamond is home to nine different stills, acquired from smaller distillers whose operations were coming to a close: Coffey stills from England; Savalle stills from France; and, most unusually, three wooden stills. Each of these produces a unique spirit, almost akin to having nine distilleries in one.
It’s not just the stills that have a big impact on flavours but the process that occurs beforehand, too. Fermentation can be a wild affair – literally, with the use of different strains of yeast, and the famed dunder. This leftover liquor from distilling a batch of rum is saved and used to add character to the mix. Typical in rum produced in Jamaica, it imbues the final product with valuable ‘funk’, as it is known.
Finally – and the subject of our tasting here – there are aged rums, arguably the most cerebral of all rums, thanks to a factor that adds further layers of complexity to the end result. Much of the ageing of rum occurs in the country of production, and the impact is often accelerated due to the tropical environment. Rum may also be sent away for further maturation in climates that are not quite as aggressive.
This wide variety of flavours – arising from complex production processes coupled with maturation in a variety of casks across a range of locations – means that rum is a citizen of the world, probably the most worldly spirit there is. Yet there are still plumb lines of quality to be assessed when looking at a rum, no matter where it hails from. Is it immediately identifiable as a rum? Is there balance and complexity? Are the flavours honest and up front? Does the level of sweetness overpower or support the final flavours?
I was joined by bartender Nate Brown, founder of Merchant House, one of London’s top rum bars, for a look at a global selection of aged rums – whether from independent bottlers that have discovered rare casks in far-flung warehouses, or some of the bigger brands found on the world’s back bars. Noting the key qualities of balance, flavour and personality, we rated each on its own merit.
‘It was a fascinating exercise,’ says Brown. ‘Being able to focus on each rum, understanding the context of where it came from, how it has evolved through ageing and maturation, and how that presents itself in the glass – this all reveals the depth and diversity of flavour across the aged rum category. There’s a story to discover in every glass.’ Scroll down for our selection of the pick of aged rums from our tasting.
Scores and notes by Joel Harrison and Nate Brown
This article is taken from the summer 2021 edition of our quarterly magazine. Each issue focuses on premium wine, spirits and good living, via vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to get your copy.