Why finding a good rum is harder than it should be

Rum is being talked up in bartending circles as a spirit with the potential to take on the more premium end of the market – that of the aged sipping drink. Yet for most consumers, the wide variety of styles – and quality – of rum can still make things hugely confusing, argues our spirits columnist

Words by Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison

A good rum is a mythical elixir. One of the oldest and most important distillates on the globe, rum is in many ways the perfect hedonist’s spirit. Its versatility sees it straddle white, dark, aged, spiced and flavoured renderings. As a result it is the magpie of the spirit world, nudging out and replacing other spirits in classic cocktails with ease. Try an aged rum instead of whiskey in an Old Fashioned. Enjoy a sipping rum, rather than Cognac, in a wingback armchair by a roaring fire. Fancy something a little less staid? A good rum comes into its own against the colourful backdrop of tiki-decorated beach bars, which gave birth to more playful cocktails like the Zombie.

Line up of bottles of rum
Rum's diversity should be a cause for celebration, not confusion, says Harrison. Photo: Facundo Bustamente

Yet rum’s diversity and accessibility is also what can make it utterly confusing. More than any other distillate, rum is a spirit of the world, a drink with a well-stamped passport. As such there are strict rules and regulations for its production in a number of countries across the globe, bolstered by well-established geographical indications in places such as the French island of Martinique, whose rhum agricole holds an appellation d’origine contrôlée. Yet there are also a number of other countries where rum rules aren’t as strict. And with no global body of rum producers, it is left to each individual country to develop and adopt a set of local regulations.

Pouring cocktails at a Tiki Bar
With its tiki renderings and easy-to-make cocktails, rum has a party vibe

This lack of a global classification system to separate the high-end offerings of truly good rum from the legion of poorly made, mass-produced and over-sweetened lower-shelf offerings means continued confusion on the shelves for many consumers. That’s a shame, because some of the great aged rums can stand toe-to-toe with the best Scotch and the best Cognac the world has to offer. They also boast the credentials to be taken just as seriously. Take the Hampden Estate’s Pot Still Rum from Jamaica, whose entire process is outlined on the label, from wild fermentation to the abstinence of sugar, the style of pot stills and the maturation environment. Or Plantation, which bottles rums from across the Caribbean and beyond, and is not afraid to tell the consumer exactly what is in the bottle.

Pouring a barrel of rum at Foursquare Distillery
Rum distillers are showing increased innovation and ambition when it comes to barrel ageing

But these flowers are blossoming in a field of weeds, amid a market often driven by spiced rums made, well, who knows where, and consumed in fast-made and fast-drunk cocktails in high-energy bars. Whereas other spirits, even those such as whisky, which is now produced everywhere from Teeside to Taiwan, are generally recognisable when poured into a glass, rum is too often let down by non-descript liquids not worthy of the name. Stricter, easy-to-follow global regulations would change that and help eager consumers to find the best premium rums. Yet no one seems to want to take control and create a global guide to tame this anarchist of the spirits world.

Bottle of Plantation Fiji rum
Producers such as Plantation and Brew Dog make very different rums, deserving of greater appreciation, says Harrison
Brewdog 500 Cuts rum

Personality, of which rum brands are overloaded, can only get you so far. The consumer needs to know more easily how, and why, a rum from Jamaica is different – and it is very different – to that of a rum from Cuba, the Philippines, Martinique or even, in the case of Brewdog Distilling’s Five Hundred Cuts rum, Scotland. Yes, they all start life with a sugar-derived base, yet each is fermented and distilled in a very different way, yielding a very different flavour profile. And without much global guidance, consumers are too often left perplexed.

I’m not asking for rum to shed its Hawaiian shirt and flip flops and turn up to the spirit world’s party in full white tie. It just needs to get a bit smarter. Until then, with such relaxed regulations (in some countries) and diversity of styles, finding an aged, sipping rum amid the legion of rums on the shelves is a risky business – a little like getting dressed in the dark.