Rum is often not taken as seriously as it should be. Of course, this dismissive attitude has much to do with the outmoded image of dashboard hula dancers, swimming pool-sized daiquiris, and college blunders involving a handle of Bacardi and root beer. (Elmore Leonard might also be to blame.) But revisited, rum is a truly American spirit: roguish, rascally, and surprisingly complex. It can be sipped, it can be mixed, or it can be dumped into a punch bowl. Herein, a comprehensive guide to how it’s done the right way.
What It Is (and Where It Comes From)
In his treatise And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis sums up the spirit’s carefree approach: “Rum embodies America’s laissez-faireattitude. It is whatever it wants to be.” Simply, if it’s made from sugarcane or a byproduct like molasses, it’s called rum. As for its origins, early distillers weren’t always the best record keepers, but it’s surmised that somewhere in the Caribbean (probably Barbados) the first heady dram was conceived. Today it’s produced everywhere from Panama and Trinidad to Alameda, California and Puerto Rico and exported just about everywhere else.
How to Stock the Cabinet with It
Though it’s unlikely the average guest will openly challenge his host’s knowledge in the nuances of rum production, if you find yourself in a bind, all you really need to know is that there are two overarching categories of rum: rhum industriel, a fancy way of describing any rum made from sugarcane byproducts, usually molasses — this is the majority of rum on shelves today — and rhum agricole, a rarer seasonal method using freshly harvested sugarcane, which is pressed for its juice. When the occasion calls for the latter, we like Rhum J.M. from Martinique. As for the rest, there are no hard and fast rules, but the easiest way to tell them apart is to distinguish between aged and un-aged. Within those, of course, rum can come in all kinds of colors, like these…
Light Rum: The Mild Stuff
Aged or un-aged, white rum is the clear stuff most commonly used as the base for a daiquiri or mojito, two of Papa Hemingway’s favorites. Bacardi is the most ubiquitous, but I like Cruzan Light Aged, Mount Gay Eclipse, and Flor de Caña 4 Year Extra Dry.
Gold Rum: The Complex Stuff
If it’s true gold rum, the liquid has spent some time inside a barrel lending it an amber color and usually more complexity than light rum. (Some “gold” rums aren’t actually aged but get their color from additives. Avoid them.) Gold can replace light rum in any cocktail to add another layer of depth. I recommend using El Dorado 12 Year,Appleton VX or Reserve, and Smith & Cross.
Dark Rum: The Rich Stuff
These rums have usually spent more time in wood with flavors that range from dark chocolate and coffee to tobacco and nuts. Brands like Zaya 12 Year and Zacapa 15 or 23 Year are great replacements for whiskey in Old Fashioneds or Sazeracs.
Black Rum: The Really Rich Stuff
Most noted for its syrupy molasses flavor, black rums are the perfect partners for lime and ginger beer. Goslings Black Seal or Cruzan Black Strap are your best bets.
Spiced Rum: The Other Stuff
A tricky category, spiced rums tend to be sweeter and laced with natural spices, caramel, or artificial flavors (beware in high doses). Everyone knows Captain Morgan, of course, but Cruzan 9 Spice is a great blend without being overly sweet, and Sailor Jerry works well in most tiki cocktails that call for spiced rum.