Rum is too sweet. Rum is for neon-hued beachside sippers. With parasols. Rum is … making serious inroads amongst dedicated whiskey drinkers? All of these statements are factual, yet only the final one serves as a head scratcher. Disarming preconceived notions of what rum is, or ought to be (aside from a sugarcane distillate ), turns out to be a decidedly difficult task: rum, in fact, exists as one of the most conceptually-loaded liquors in all the Seven Seas. While peg-legged pirates might come to mind, the spirit has always been far more serious and complex than the major industrialized brands would lead you to believe. Verdant earth, hints of grass, and savory undertones ought to be at least as discernible as sugary sweetness. And now, a new wave of craft entities populating the category is making that known; relying upon higher-end ingredients with no byproducts (added colors or flavors), patient maturation, and carefully-selected cooperage.
While tiki’s recent resurgence has helped rum grow its audience, it turns out that the juice itself is forcing fans of other traditional spirits to take note. To wit, even the most devout whiskey enthusiasts are discovering something shockingly worthwhile in rum: drinkability—particularly in barrel-aged expressions, wherein touchstones of vanilla, cinnamon, and baking spices form a comforting familiarity. For those ready to explore beyond the brown spirit comfort zone, here are a few suitable entry points, informed by whisk(e)y style.
If You Drink American Rye
There’s a specific reason why rye is the fastest growing segment of the contemporary whiskey boom: American palates are shifting towards the savory. Those keen on such flavors should consider exploring spiced rums—commonly spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. But be forewarned—not all spices are created equal. Lax rum regulations in the States allow the use of artificial sweeteners and additives, the main culprits of crippling hangovers. So, seek out the distilleries proudly avoiding these cost-cutting techniques. Bayou Spiced Rum ($20) from Louisiana Spirits is a fine place to start, showing flavors of baking spice, sassafras, and other aromatic peculiarities of a deciduous forest in full bloom. Further to the southeast, master distiller Troy Roberts of Drum Circle distilling is crafting some of the country’s most sought-after spiced rums out of a small warehouse in Sarasota, Florida. His Siesta Key Spiced Rum ($20) is exclusively distilled from Florida sugar cane, utilizing actual spices. As in the ones you find in nature. Nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon are the most conspicuous contributors. Roberts also produces another spiced label, the Solera-blended Distiller’s Reserve ($45, next release is in September), amassing added complexity in its oak barrel system with every annual small batch release. But you’ll have to queue several hours outside the distillery predawn to snatch one. As a testament to their commitment to natural ingredients, the distillery’s sensational Toasted Coconut Rum ($25) is the only product of its kind that doesn’t reek of suntan lotion and regret.
If You Drink Bourbon
As a corn-based spirit typically noted for its vanilla, caramel, and stone fruit characteristics, bourbon draws obvious comparisons to traditional rum. Yet, the most compelling aspect of America’s best-known whiskey is oak. And so any rum echoing these flavors must have been correspondingly patient in the barrel. Enter Ron Zacapa Centenario X.O. Solera Gran Reserva Especial ($75), if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Long story short, this Guatemalan rum is a blend of juices aged between 6 years and a quarter century, employing a handful of different barrels, including some that formerly stored sherry, bourbon, and Cognac. A symphony of flavors ensues, everything from orange zest, to dried currants. Most of the rum's attributes, however—particularly the nutty, buttery mouthfeel—are indicative of a well-aged bourbon. It’s frightfully easy to fall in love with this bottle, especially given its price. For a more affordable, only slightly less convincing glimpse, seek out the Single Barrel ($30) from Cruzan. The St. Croix rum spends 5-12 years in ex-Bourbon barrels, before a finish in separate American oak casks. Butterscotch, baking spice, oak—descriptors commonly reserved for bourbon—are all present in a neat pour, making it a suitable substitute in any number of traditional whiskey drinks. As Dave Pickerell, renowned American whiskey distiller of Hill Rock (NY) and WhistlePig fame (VT) recently admitted, "I have been taken recently with the similarities between certain aged rums and whiskey, with regards to classic cocktails."
If You Drink Canadian Whisky
With broader parameters defining its production, Canadian whisky is notoriously challenging to box into a specific flavor profile. Those into the more elegant ryes redefining the Great White North’s booze reputation nowadays (Dark Batch, Crown Royal Reserve) will appreciate a rum with spice and sweetness in equal measure. Sailor Jerry’s ($16) stands as an imminently accessible example. It’s drier on the tongue than its fruity nose would suggest, accentuated by a lengthy, peppery finish. Harder to find, Old Sugar Distillery's Cane and Abe Rum ($22) out of Madison, Wisconsin relies upon brown sugar derived from beets, and maturation in heavily-charred oak. The resulting liquid is robust, rounded out by Christmas spice, capable of warming up a winter’s night in Saskatchewan.
If You Drink Irish Whiskey
Yet another broad classification, the Irish use all manner of grain—including both malted and unmalted barley, and various methods of distillation (both copper pots and column stills) to arrive at their storied national drink. Irish whiskey is very loosely defined by rounded edges; earthy, and slightly sweet in its body and finish. And those are ideal descriptors for Dunc's Mill's Backwoods Reserve Rum ($59), from another part of the world closely associated with green: Vermont. The pastoral micro-distillery is helmed by the innovative Duncan Holaday, who ferments organic, evaporated cane juice as a base for his spirits. Backwoods Reserve is aged in small casks of Hungarian oak. Its dense grain doesn’t breath as heavily as its American counterparts, revealing soft, creamy textures, without imparting too much wood. While Holaday does, indeed, bottle a rum flavored with local maple syrup, in the Reserve, these notes are merely implied in every sip.
If You Drink Japanese Whisky
Elegance, meticulous craftsmanship, superior drinkability—these are but a few of the hallmarks of Japanese whisky. And on the rum side, the 21 Year Old Rum ($92) from El Dorado is a worthy candidate. Delicately blended in Guyana to incorporate a combination of juices from several vintage stills (including the world’s only wooden column still, more than 150 years old) which each impart their own nuance, the finished product is sublimely rich; a coherent whole. And amazingly, it's still possible to score a bottle of this supremely aged spirit for under $100. "One bonus about rum is that it is generally a less expensive product," notes Los Angeles bartender Josh Suchan of FOH restaurant. "So a 12-18yr rum will often cost less than its whiskey counterpart of equal age." Does the El Dorado taste as dramatic as, say, a Yamazaki of comparable age? No. But it will cost you about two grand less per bottle. So, there’s that. If exclusivity is what you demand, make the pilgrimage to the tasting room at Prichard's Distillery in Kelso, Tennessee. It’s the only place to purchase a bottle of their finest Private Stock rum (outside of the secondary market). Gently lending fig, leather, and smoke to the palate, it’s a spirit worthy of quiet contemplation.
If You Drink Scotch
When it comes to the green, earthy sweetness of Highland and Speyside malts, rhum agricole of the French Caribbean (Martinique) is a logical alternative. Of this more vegetal subcategory, reliant upon squeezed sugar cane as opposed to molasses, Clément's Cuvée Homère ($129) is surprisingly scotch-like. After 15 years of aging in French Limousin, as well as re-charred Bourbon barrels, the distilled cane juice is imbued with herbal edges, and a peppery finish that lasts for days. Dos Maderas' PX 5+5 ($33) is another delightful expression—a blend of Barbados and Guyana rums that benefit from a triple aging process. "It mixes its time between ex-bourbon and PX sherry barrels, bringing in a lot of those sweet floral notes you get in your sherried Scotches," explains Adam George Fournier, bar manager at Areal in Santa Monica, California. "It might actually be an interesting crossover for fans of the Balvenie Caribbean Cask, just with the primary flavors reversed." For the peated Scotch connoisseur, finding a comparably smoked rum is no easy task. The closest you’ll find is Stolen, a Trinidadian rum spiced with fenugreek, Arabica coffee beans, and smoked with American hardwood.
If You Drink Tennessee Whiskey
Sharing something of a kindred soul with its Kentucky neighbor, Tennessee Whiskey is essentially bourbon, mellowed by charcoal filtration prior to barreling. The two most prominent examples, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, each possess a distinct sweetness—the former brings more banana to the party, the latter delivers vanilla. Both tonalities converge in the Novo Fogo's Tanager Cachaça ($40), a Brazilian sugarcane spirit aged in American oak, and finished in native zebrawood. For a more straight-forward (and pricier) path to a similar destination, Facundo's Exquisito ($95) is an impressively-matured Bahamian rum, finished in sherry casks—part of Bacardi’s premium line of spirits. Toffee and flambéed fruit are the stars of the show, and will resonate with brown spirit specialists from the Music City. No word yet on how well it pairs alongside hot chicken.
Editor: Kat Odell