Beginner's Guide to Rum: What Bottles You Should be Adding to Your Home Bar

Beginner's Guide to Rum: What Bottles You Should be Adding to Your Home Bar

New to Rum? Need a Hand? With the rise in Rums popularity, its highly likely that if you’re reading this, then you’re after a little advice on where to start and it’s probably worth confirming a few facts basics first up, as let’s face it – nobody wants to waste money unnecessarily whilst building the core of your Rum collection.

Sip or Mix?

…or both? If you’re looking to create a suitable cocktail collection, then you might consider a couple of angles.

  • Firstly, you’ll probably benefit from a wider range of styles. A wise man once said, “If a Rum is so poor that you can only drink it mixed, then you should be avoiding it entirely,” but the cheaper end of the market tends to be built around brands that might not present themselves in the best of ways if sipped straight up. Depends on your idea of a good sip of course.
  • Secondly, brands that are already sweetened might then give false impressions of the true style of a cocktail if you’re working with fixed ingredient recipes. You’ll need to adjust, so while hardly insurmountable, you’ll want to bear it in mind.

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Considering a sipping-only selection? Well, that's become a whole lot easier – quite a few to leave out off the bat – mostly the water-white offerings, and while that’s a sweeping generalisation, it’s a place to start.
My choices follow a system, and I think this is important, as initially, you’d want a single example that reflects each of the styles. The perfect system for this is the Gargano Classification as it makes you consider how the Rum is produced.

I might also help you avoid the ‘pretty bottle’ syndrome that so many of us suffer from when gazing at rows and rows of bottles at the store. Secure this system with consideration for regionality – yeap, different countries could be said to have production styles – and you’ll quickly find yourself fixing all points of the Rum compass.

Education, Education, Education…

The Gargano Classification breaks down Rums into distillation methods as this allows examples of each style to be compared. Classification is a means of comparison, not a production process.

1. Single Pure Rum

The first or top tier on the classification is the Pure Single Rum. In this case, single simply means that the Rum has been produced by a single producer. A blend of pot still only Rums from different producers would be Pure Rum.

This is a pot still only method of production for Rum. It’s likely to be quite flavourful in either its aged or unaged state. From a mixing point of view, it’s going to be ‘in your face’ and needs to be worked with – rather than hidden. These tend to be highly characterful sips, analogous to Single Malt Scotch.

2. Single Blended Rum

The second tier is Single Blended Rum. In this case, blended means a blend of distillate types, rather than a blend of aged marques. While a Single Blended Rum might also have a blend of aged Rums within it that’s an incidental detail.

This is a blend of pot still and spirit column still Rums. These can be quite varied in style, depending on the proportional content of pot still Rum vs. column still Rum.

Because of the way in which column stills work, the spirit collected tends to be far lighter than would normally be obtained from a pot still. Blended Rums offer great versatility in that they can be great sips and wonderful mixers.

3. Traditional Rum

The third tier is Traditional Rum. This refers to Rums produced on continuous distillation column stills, that are typically one or two (or in some cases three) columns in configuration, and while it might require a reasonably in-depth knowledge of distillation to understand why there is a fourth and final tier: Modern Rum.

4. Modern Rum

Modern Rum is produced on multi-column, continuous distillation systems. These could well utilise five or six columns in their quest for ultimate efficiency in collecting every particle of ethanol generated during fermentation possible. Maximum efficiency tends towards a clean, if not neutral Rum.

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Whilst it is horrible to generalise quite as wildly as I’m about to, Traditional and Modern Rum tends to be light in style, although you’d be pleasantly surprised by some relatively unique examples from Antigua, Creole Column Agricole Rhums from the French Caribbean, or Agricole Rum from Madeira (and to be fair there are other fine Traditional Rum producers as well).

After that, if you balance in some regionality: Cuban, which I consider to be different to light Spanish style (Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama), medium-weight Single Blended Rums (Barbados, St Lucia), heavier-weight Single Blended Rums (Guyana, Jamaica), Rhum Agricole (Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie Galante. Also, can’t forget the Indian Ocean producers) and Artisanal Cachaça then you have the opportunity to more efficiently consider all styles.

Something Light?

Light Traditional and Modern Rums tend to have very little character as distilled, relying on time in oak, (or in the case of some producers a whole load of other flavourings) to add flavour. But the young Rums are particularly easy to mix with, and the old expressions can be quite elegant depending on the company and the Master Blender in charge.

When it comes to the young see-through (white) Rums, you’re spoilt for choice – Don Q Cristal [Puerto Rico], Angostura Reserva [Trinidad], Cana Brava 3-Year-Old [Panama] to name but three. When it comes to something a little older, Angostura 7-Year-Old [Trinidad] is a particular favourite of mine. Santa Teresa 1796 [Venezuela], Brugal 1888 [Dominican Republic] also drink well enough.

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Long ageing light Rum isn’t easy as it tends to go bitter through over-extraction from the barrel, hence the prevalence of producers to either add sugar and other flavourings or blend younger Rums back in to help achieve a balance.

Again, this is why we tend to see average age statements and solera ageing being more prevalent in Modern Rum producers.

Something a Little Fuller Flavoured?

Adding a little bit of Pot Still Rum into the blend lifts the rumminess and allows producers to age their Rums for longer periods. ‘Heavy’ Pot Still Rum stands up to the barrel for a lot longer. This allows for complexity, not only from different distillate types but from differently aged marques as well.

A little Pot Still Rum can go a long way as well, and it’s the level of pot still against column still (generally a commercial secret before anyone asks) is where we get a vibe for the generally heavier styles of Jamaica and Guyana, and the medium styles of Barbados and St Lucia. There are other factors in fermentation and distillation, but we’re generalising – so let’s run with it.
If you’re after a nice, tasty example of a more full-flavoured Single Blended Rum, you’re probably going to be looking at Jamaica or Guyana, and I guess it’s here where I need to raise the notion of added sugar as a style.

As a rule, Jamaica doesn’t add sugar to its Rums, whereas the single producer in Guyana is known to do so. So, you have a choice: you can add a single expression to your collection or be resigned to the fact that you need to buy one of each.

Jamaica offers some wonderful examples of Single Blended Rums: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Reserve Blend and 12-Year-Old Rare Blend are all affordable, and for me, it’s tough to call on a fav out of the three, but I’d probably go for Reserve for the all-round balance of flavour and cost, and it’s a really versatile Rum.

The 12yo is a wonderful sip. Because of the way that they produce their Rums, Appleton Estate is able to offer genuine-long aged expressions that still have a minimum age statement; 30-Year-Old and even a 50-Year-Old release. Kinda pricey though. The other Single Blended Rum producer in Jamaica - Monymusk - isn’t so easy to source outside of Jamaica.

Appleton Estate Distillery Jamaica - Photo: Wikipedia/Acampbell3000
Guyana only has the one Rum producer, and their brand is called El Dorado. A versatile range is running from a young, mixing level 3 and 5-Year-Old, through to 21 and 25-Year-Old expressions.

The stand out in the range is the El Dorado 8-Year-Old, once again the balance of flavour vs. cost is pretty cool, but many people will have wonderful memories of their 12-Year-Old and 15-Year-Old examples.

These are noticeably sweetened, but still full of genuine Rum character balanced against time spent in oak barrels and this is in thanks to the amazing heritage stills in operation at Diamond Distillery.
A Wooden Pot Still - Photo: Wikipedia Amn22
The last fully operating wooden pot stills (the Versailles Single Wooden Pot Still, and Port Mourant Double Wooden Pot Still), along with the wooden Enmore Column Still. Distillates produced on these stills really is quite unique and their continued existence and operation is one of the good things about the Rum world.

A Little Easier Going…

Moving to a little less full-flavoured Single Blended Rums, we’ve spoilt for choice again. The island of St Lucia has one producer, and their main brand of Chairman’s Reserve proves that cost is far from a problem in the Rum world.
Barbados offers many examples of excellent Rum – Mount Gay offers something for everyone from Eclipse, to Black Barrel (a mixable favourite of mine), to XO (a wonderfully priced sipper) and 1703.

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At the other end of the island, you’ll find Foursquare Distillery, and once again you’ll see that great Rum doesn’t cost a fortune. Foursquare is particularly good at dual maturation and once again has a range that includes something for everyone. The Doorly’s XO has been a long-term fav of mine, and the RL Seale 10yo is pretty damn good, but releases like Criterion, Triptych and Destino really show how good they are.

Great Rum doesn’t cost a fortune.

Authentic and Awesome!

Sourcing Pure Single Rums tends to be a little more difficult as there really aren’t many producers making Pot Still only Rums. Jamaica is still very much the home in this regard with Hampden Estate, which produce high-ester funk bombs and Worthy Park who are starting to high the mark with some wonderful releases.

Rum Fire from Hampden Estate is not easy to source, but boy-oh-boy this is what Rum really can be. Try a daiquiri made with it. Go on – I dare you. It's going to be too much for some, but for others – it’s a game-changer.

Rum Bar 4-Year-Old ‘Gold’ Rum from Worthy Park is also not so easy to find, but absolutely key for your mixing selection. Pure Pot Still Rums lend themselves to long ageing, and you’ll surely find some exceptional options in this case.
It’s always going to be easier to source Pure Single Rum from independent bottling companies, but the price tag is going probably make you think about them in a sipping sense, rather than a mixing one. Of course, you can’t make quality cocktails with shoddy ingredients… can’t make quality cocktails with shoddy ingredients!

A Taste of Sugarcane

A few other important areas of collection consideration. Potentially worth trying before you buy, due to the pronounced flavour profile and that’s the world of sugarcane juice spirits.

Everything we’ve considered this far are Rums produced from molasses. Rhum Agricole and Cachaça might actually sound very similar when the production method is discussed, but they are sufficiently different to have space for both.

In general, you can expect a more vibrant flavour in the unaged expressions – grassy, vegetal even, but I prefer those with more of a fruity vibe. Aged stock takes this vibrant start and adds structure through contact with wood, which when carefully matured can offer a wonderful balance and a great deal of complexity.

The Spirit of Brazil

There is a lot of Cachaça produced in Brazil, and a lot of it is industrial, i.e., cheaply produced and not necessarily very good.

Avoid that and look for some of the artisanal pot still variety. You’ll need two – a prata (see-through) and an aged expression. In fact, you might need a couple of aged expressions, because for me, one of the most amazing things about Brazil is the widespread use of tropical wood varieties that can be used for barrel or vat making.

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If you want a safe first step, you might look for a brand that’s been aged in American Oak (Carvalho Americano). It’s likely to be a safer first step, as the oak will add a familiar vibe, but for my two cents I’d run straight with some amazing like Amburana, or Balsamo or Castanheira or Jequitiba-Rosa or any of the 30+ approved wood types.

It’s a whole new world to be explored, and there’s a lot of very good stuff to be tasted – just be warned – it can taste wildly different to anything you’ve been used to before now. Brands like Avuá Cachaça offer some beautiful expressions that will make you double-take. Others like Yaguara, Abelha Cachaça and Novo Fogo equally offering amazing things as well.

Rhum Français

In the case of Rhum (the French spelling of Rum) Agricole, I’m referring to Rum produced in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie Galante.

If you’re happy with this style of Rum, then you’ve got a number of brands from Madeira and the Indian Ocean to explore as well.

Distillation methods are generally different to Cachaça, and maturation is normally in French or American Oak. Where Cachaça is rarely long-aged, Agricole will often be matured for a long time, but in my experience, rarely overaged.

Cellar Masters keep tabs on their Rhums, transferring it to stainless steel containers when it’s reached its best, and for me, even the oldest Rhums still need to display a balance between the distillate and the influence of oak.

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Once again, you’ve got to find space for two as a minimum. An unaged example, then an aged option, but even then, young aged, or long aged?

For an unaged Blanc Agricole, I’d probably start with Rhum Clément’s Canne Bleue. It’s a mono-variety of sugarcane, which is super tasty and perfect for ti’punch.

Alternatively, the Black Cane release by Rhum Bologne in Guadeloupe is wonderful! Blanc Agricole Rhums can display genuine terroir, but I’d suggest that this might be something to move into, rather than chase straight away.
Thinking about aged Rhums is even more difficult. I’ve generally felt that the profile of Rhum Clément allows people new to the category an easier route in and the Clément VSOP is a great example of tasty Rhum.

That said if you’re going to do something, why make it ‘safe’? Rhum JM is a more full-flavoured Rhum, due almost entirely to growing conditions in the north of Martinique.

The qualities of the volcanic soil are present in the cane, and therefore finds their way into the Rhum. That coupled with their approach to maturation means that their aged Rhums are more distinctive and full-flavoured.

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A beautifully tasty example of wonderful Rhum-making is JM’s VSOP and XO releases. They are not the cheapest, but I’d say that you’d hardly go wrong with this one. Other brands worth keeping an eye out for are Rhum HSE (who offer some genuinely genius-level finishes), Trois Rivières and then perhaps Rhum Damoiseau from Guadeloupe.
On a personal note, I absolutely love aged Agricole Rhum. And unaged Agricole. And Cachaça… I find these to be so very interesting and different, but I full concede that these are spirits that you might want to build up to, especially if you are new to the category.

So many Rums, so little time. So, if you are just starting out, I’m damn sure you have a wonderful journey ahead of you. If you're looking for budget-friendly options browse our best Rums under $50. Cheers!

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