There’s been a lot of chat in the bar world about rum being the next big thing. Sure, everyone knows it’s great in a cocktail, but what about as a serious sipping drink? It’s not a spirit on everyone’s radar, but there is an increasing array of exceptional rums out there, packed with character and complexity, and a world away from your average supermarket bottle.
Take Colombian producer Dictador, which is about to launch a premium rum distilled in 1976, packaged in a crystal carafe from Lalique – for a cool £14,000. And Moët Hennessy – owner of top-end brands including Glenmorangie whisky, Hennessy Cognac and Belvedere vodka – is getting in on the act with the launch of Cuban rum Eminente, aged for seven years in ex-whisky barrels and presented in a stylish ‘crocodile-skin’ bottle.
I remember very clearly the first time I tried a top-end rum. It was a Demerara bottling from Guyana, distilled in the 1970s and aged for more than 30 years. It smelled of Christmas cake, winter spice and treacle toffee. I’d never tried anything quite like it, and it demonstrated perfectly that there are some seriously good rums out there – at serious prices, too.
So, what makes a top-end rum, and how do you separate the good stuff from the merely average? The first thing to bear in mind is that age is just a number, so don’t get hung up on how old a particular rum is. It’s a simple matter of ageing conditions – the tropical climate of the Caribbean is considerably hotter and more humid than your average Scottish distillery, so rum aged there will mature much more quickly – a 10-year-old rum can acquire similar characteristics to a whisky or Cognac three times the age.
Secondly, get a feel for the different styles of rum available, and by that I don’t mean white, golden, dark or spiced. Such categories don’t tell you a great deal, especially given that there are white rums out there that are more flavourful and robust than some dark rums. Better, instead, to divide the Caribbean islands up into English-, Spanish-, or French-speaking – there are notable stylistic differences between the three.
English-speaking islands typically (but not always) make heavier pot-still rums – Jamaica, in particular, is known for its full-bodied, ‘funky’ style; Spanish-speaking favour column stills, giving a lighter spirit; while French-speaking islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe specialise in agricole, a rum made in a unique way.
Agricole rum is made with sugar-cane juice, unlike virtually all other rum, which is made with molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process. If you think that rum is dark and heavy, try agricole – it’s all about pure sugar-cane flavour and fresh aromatics. It’s also a style that did particularly well in this year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition, scooping a handful of medals and trophies, with the gong for Outstanding Spirits Producer going to agricole specialist, Martinique-based Bellonnie & Bourdillon Successeurs (BBS) for its ‘very pure, delicate and elegant’ rums.
There are some seriously good rums out there – at serious prices, too
Agricole rum is bound by strict rules banning the addition of sugar and other flavours, and appeals to those looking for spirits with authenticity and craft. As such, though, it remains somewhat in the minority. And as Club Oenologique consultant editor Joel Harrison points out, rum is something of a minefield given the rather lax laws that govern how it can be made.
“There are some countries where the production of rum is bound by strict rules,” he says. “However, as a rising tide floats all boats, so that tide also brings a lot of rubbish to the surface, and in the case of rum, that comes in the form of over-sweet, often heavily coloured spirits that can still legally carry the name ‘rum’ in markets such as the UK.” A tightening of the regulations would help the top end to grow in quality and compete with such products as single malt, where no additional flavourings are allowed, he argues.
Cheaper rums that have a generous amount of sugar and colouring added don’t help rum’s cause, especially given that the best bottles don’t need extra sweetness or colour to deliver a fantastic spirit. Harrison recommends looking for premium rum brands that openly talk about their production and style, as well as distillers “who have transparency in their production and ageing”.
Walter Pingus, formerly of The Conduit Club in London’s Mayfair, speaks for many bartenders in claiming that rum is “one step ahead” of other dark spirits. “The variety of styles available makes rum like no other spirit,” he says. “It can be a fun spirit to be enjoyed in a host of cocktails, as well a ‘meditative’ spirit for those who appreciate bold and complex flavours that you would normal associate with whisky and Cognac.”
Ago Perrone, director of mixology at London’s The Connaught Hotel, agrees. He’s a huge fan of rum’s “tradition and culture”, and also believes it offers a “vast set of flavours” you simply don’t find in other spirits. His go-to bottles are “gentle and smooth” rums from Cuba and other Spanish-speaking islands, as well as those aged in sherry casks, such as Diplomatico from Venezuela.
Luca Rapetti, assistant bar manager at Shangri-La At The Shard London, believes that rum is still finding its feet among most spirits lovers, and that it’s regarded primarily as a cocktail ingredient rather than a solo spirit: “Few people order rum as they would other spirits such as whisky or Cognac. Rum has been affected by a lack of proper and defined regulation and this has led to a misunderstanding among customers.”
He believes that rum is worthy of its place at the top table, however, and says it’s up to bartenders and mixologists to get the message out there. His rum of choice is a single-vintage 2007 bottling from Foursquare in Barbados, bottled at a punchy 59% abv (“warm, mouth-filling and simply delicious”).
There are many more premium rums to discover, however, as you’ll see below. And what’s the best way to drink rum? Slow sipping rather than in a cocktail, thank you…