There is no spirit that offers a greater breadth of styles than rum. Even whisky, with its many iterations, doesn’t come close to matching the huge variety of aromas, flavours and hues encompassed by sugar cane spirits. Depending on how they’re distilled, blended and aged, rums can be dry and elegant, rich and spicy, white, golden or dark. They can have the briskness of a gin martini, the indulgence of a sticky toffee pudding, or the complexity of a serious digestif.
If this comes as a surprise, blame a market long dominated by a handful of brands that are decidedly middle-of-the-road. The average supermarket drinks aisle tells you nothing about how interesting rum can be. Thankfully, this is starting to change. At the top end of the market, we’re now seeing a growing number of distillers making, and marketing, their rums more like cognac or single malts – releasing vintage, single-barrel, cask-finished, unsweetened and extra-aged expressions that are designed for sipping, rather than swilling. This more nuanced approach to rum making isn’t just confined to the dark end of the spectrum, it extends to white rums, too. The artisan Clairin range from Haiti (which are all distilled from sugar cane juice, rather than molasses like the majority of rums, giving them floral, herby and even smoky notes) is a great example.
Rum’s heartland will always be the Caribbean. But thanks to the craft distilling boom, we’re now seeing rum being made in countries round the world, from Mexico to London. While many of these distilleries use sugar cane imported from elsewhere, some are using sugar cane that’s hyper-local. The new Renegade Distillery in Grenada has planted sugar cane in different locations all over the island, with the intention of making terroir-driven rums that vary from plot to plot, like wine.
Meanwhile, the growing number of independent bottlers – companies that hand-pick and bottle unusual and rare casks from the stocks of famous distilleries – has also helped to give rum a more whisky-like cachet. Top bottlings from companies like Velier often sell out as soon as they’re released.
One of the issues that has prevented rum from being taken seriously in the past is its lack of transparency. The rules around minimum age statements and the addition of sweeteners or colouring vary wildly from country to country, with the result that labels can be confusing (and sometimes downright misleading). But this is now being tightened up. Inspired by Martinique, which has a well-established rum AOC, Jamaica recently introduced an appellation-like GI (geographical indicator) that guarantees provenance and a certain level of quality. Barbados is set to follow suit.
The rums that follow have been chosen to highlight the breadth of styles, as well as the quality, now coming to the fore. The list includes white rums, rums distilled from sugar cane, golden and Navy styles, pot still rums, column still rums and blends of the two, with strengths ranging from 40% to high-strength over-proof – so comparing like with like was not always easy. Rather than approaching what follows as a definitive league table, consider it a taster of the exciting changes now taking place in an ever-more compelling world.