Rum Style Guide: Navigating the Caribbean Through Your Sipping Glass
I’m a rum drinker. I think we should all be rum drinkers. More and more people are becoming rum drinkers every day. As one of my favorite bottles, Skipper Rum, says right on the label, “It’s a rum world wherever you look”. However, there is still a lot of trepidation and misunderstanding about this impending new rum order.
There seem to be two camps on either side of the happy Rum world I live in, one saying “Rum is a confusing category and I don’t know where to get started, so I’ll just stick to my Whiskey”, the other saying “Rum is nothing but cleaning fluid Bacardi that you drink on disappointing vacations, drowned in artificial juices and sweeteners”. Hopefully this can serve as a kind of guide that will help make both of those sentiments distant memories. Sure, Rum is fun, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. And yes, there are a lot of different kinds of rum, a lot of different kinds of places that make it, and a lot of rum jargon that gets thrown around. But understanding just a few things about the way different rums are produced and where those production styles flourish can help you navigate the seemingly murky waters of this Rum world.
Unfortunately, there are no universal governing laws when it comes to Rum, so it can be jolly hard to know what you are getting yourself into. For instance, with Scotch Whisky, if there is an age statement on the bottle, you know that means that all the whisky is at least that old. There is often even much older whisky in the bottle along with that youngest whisky. Some rums follow this rule as well, but then some give an average age, and some simply state the age of the oldest rum in the blend, even if there is only a drop of it.
Further still, some rums simply have numbers on the bottle that have nothing to do with years or aging in any way, just to mislead you. It’s the Caribbean after all... the rules are more what you'd call "guidelines". There are also many rums with added sugar, and most of the producers who make these rums are less than forthright about this practice. Fortunately for you, all the rums we are featuring here have no added sugar or flavor additives of any kind (a couple of them do contain added coloring).
In tackling the categorization issue, many people tend to group rum based on color (white, gold, dark). This seems like a straightforward idea, but it tells you almost nothing of what the rum in the bottle is really like. There are many white rums out there that are aged several years, they are simply charcoal filtered to remove color. Likewise, many producers add lots of caramel coloring to very young rums to give the appearance of age.
A much better way to categorize this incredibly diverse spirit is by understanding the historic colonial styles and production methods. Basically, even though rum is made in all parts of the world, rum styles can generally be split into three broad categories based on the old colonial rule of the Caribbean: British, Spanish, or French. The basic breakdown is as follows:
British Style: Barbados, Jamaica, Bermuda, Guyana, St. Lucia, Bahamas, among others
Spanish Style: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, among others
French Style: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti
What makes these styles unique is the different ways in which they deal with the raw material and the stills and methods of distillation they use. In the simplest terms, rum is either made from fresh sugarcane juice or from the byproducts of sugar production (mostly molasses).
English and Spanish styles both use molasses, as sugar production was central to those colonies’ economy. The French colonies got out of the sugar industry after some struggles with profitability in the 18th and 19th centuries and the rum (or Rhum) they began to make is set apart for being distilled from fresh pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses. This produces a grassier, “greener”, very fresh tasting spirit.
Whether these materials are distilled in pot or column stills is the other major factor in the final product. The pot still is a squat looking, round still with a swan-like neck coming out of the top. These distill in batches and produce a very intense, high ester (the flavor compounds that make spirits especially tasty), full bodied spirit. Before the middle of the 19th century, everything was made using pot stills.
Column stills are tall, thin cylinders that distill continuously rather than in batches. They generally distill to a much higher proof, creating a smoother, less full bodied spirit that is a bit drier and spicier.
All this is to say, when talking about rum, what we want to know is what the raw material is (Molasses or Cane Juice), whether it’s a pot still rum, column still rum, or a blend of the two, and how old it is (very few rums are completely unaged).
Now, let’s get down to the regional styles, drink some rum, and make some damn cocktails. There are classic recipes included featuring each kind of rum style, but I also recommend trying each rum in a simple Daiquiri as well as in an Old Fashioned. There are hardly two better ways to drink rum, save from straight from the bottle.
ENGLISH STYLES - BARBADOS
We start in Barbados, which was settled by the English in 1627. As far as historians can tell, Barbados is where Rum making began, or at least began in earnest. By 1637, wild local sugar cane was being harvested for use in a crude spirit known as “Kill-Devil”, which was fermented and distilled from fresh pressed sugar cane juice. Sugar cane from Brazil was soon brought in and planted across the island for the purpose of sugar production, and it didn’t take long for this major commercial enterprise to supplant Kill-Devil as the primary use of sugar cane. This also marked the arrival of African slaves in the Caribbean as well as the real beginning of Rum production, two histories that are inextricably tied.
With an enormous amount of sugar production comes an enormous amount of molasses, which was eventually used to distill rum in place of fresh cane juice. By 1703, what is now Mt. Gay Rum Distillery was producing molasses based pot still rum, making it the oldest rum distillery still in operation.
The 19th century saw the advent of the column still, which contributed to the development of the Barbados rum style as we know it today. Pot stills produce heavy, full-bodied, and full-flavored rums, while column stills produce a lighter, drier, often lightly spicy rum. It became the style to blend these two kinds of rum together, making an elegantly balanced spirit.
The two most influential extant distilleries on the island are Mount Gay Distillery and Foursquare Rum Distillery, the former’s products more widely known and available while the latter has become a real spirit critics’ darling.
Mount Gay’s Black Barrel is perhaps that distillery’s finest offering, featuring a much higher percentage of pot still distillate than their other rums as well as an aging in “deeply toasted and charred” ex-bourbon barrels. This lends the spirit a wonderfully spicy and well oaked flavor that makes it a perfect gateway rum for bourbon or rye drinkers. Though it has no age statement (unfortunately), it’s certainly mature enough to serve as an elegant sipper, while still feisty enough to shine in cocktails (coming in at a not-too-light 43%).
For a deeper look into Barbados rum, any product of Foursquare Rum Distillery is well worth your time and sipping. Many private labels source from the distillery, including The Real McCoy, Doorly’s, R.L. Seale, as well as the Foursquare label, featured here. Their 2004 Cask Strength rum is 11 years old, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and bottled at a full 59% abv. It’s a dynamite sipper, and makes any rum cocktail jump from a whisper to a shout.
Both of these Barbados beauties can be found here:
The Cocktail: Corn and Oil
This cocktail is an updated version of the Barbados classic, which is traditionally just rum and Velvet Falernum, a sweetened and spiced rum based Liqueur that is just as ubiquitous on the island as rum itself. Corn refers to the sweet Falernum, and oil to a dark, aged rum. This recipe, taken from B.T. Parson’s Bitters, adds lime juice and Angostura bitters, balancing out the Falernum and turning it into a kind of simplified Tiki drink.
2 oz Mt. Gay Black Barrel Rum
1/2 oz Velvet Falernum
1/2 oz Lime Juice
5 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients in mixing tin and shake well with plenty of ice. Pour over ice into whatever clean drinking vessel you have on hand.
ENGLISH STYLES - JAMAICA
Jamaica was first colonized by the Spanish, but was taken over by the English not too long after they set up shop in Barbados, around 1670. Sugar production was much the same in Jamaica as it was in Barbados, and again, lots of molasses meant lots of rum.
There are some blended rums as is the style in Barbados (Appleton Estate is a great example) but the classic style of Jamaican Rum is 100% pot still and is defined by what you’ll hear people call “funk”, or sometimes “Hogo” (from the French “haut gout”, or “high taste”). Funk refers to the pungent, fruity aroma and taste that these rums have. Think over-ripe (read rotten) bananas, mangoes, and pineapples, but in a good way. In a very good way. In a sense, these wild funky Jamaican rums are to rum what wild, smoky, heavily peated Islay scotches are to whisky. They can be divisive, but many people go nuts for them, the funkier the better.
So what gives Jamaican Rum such an intense kick? Where does the funk come from? First of all, being 100% pot still automatically delivers a very intense, full-flavored rum. Often, this style also gets extra oomph from an unusually long fermentation period, sometimes 10 days (in the hot climate of the Caribbean, fermentation generally lasts only a few days). But the biggest and oddest funk factor is the addition of a couple things to the mash, which is what gets fermented and distilled.
The first is something the Jamaicans call “dunder”, more commonly known as "stillage" in the rest of the world. Dunder is what is left at the bottom of a pot still after a batch is done being distilled. It is kept and added to subsequent batches as they ferment. In the American whiskey tradition, this process is known as sour mash.
The second and perhaps more interesting addition is called “muck”, basically a bubbling bacterial soup of all kinds of acids. The smell of this muck is apparently vile. But when it’s added to the mash during fermentation, it supercharges the creation of esters, those wonderful flavor making compounds of alcohol and acids. Think of it as a kind of sourdough starter for funky rum. It should be noted that not all Jamaican distilleries use this technique, but many do, and their rum is all the more interesting for it.
Two of the most important distilleries in Jamaica (excluding Appleton Estate for our purposes here) are Hampden Estate and Worthy Park Estate. Both of them produce a number of rums for national brands and for independent bottlers.
Hamilton Jamaica Pot Still Gold, from Worthy Park, is a blend of pot-still rums aged 2-5 years old and bottled at a lively 46.5% ABV. It’s a perfect introduction to this funky style, giving you a textbook example of Jamaican rum without scaring you away on your first rodeo. Hamilton rums are collected and bottled by Ed Hamilton, a kind of Rum historian/custodian/collector that, luckily for us, shares his rums and knowledge with the world.
Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum is from Hampden Estate and is a great example of a knock-you-on-the-floor kind of Jamaican Rum, both for its deep funk and it’s high ABV, clocking in at 57% (Navy Strength refers to the practice of the British Royal Navy of bottling rum for sailors at a high enough proof that if it spilled on gunpowder, the gunpowder could still be lit). Hampden is known to use “muck” in their rum, and that difference of taste is quite evident here. More muck please! (Another fantastic muck-filled Hampden rum to try is their traditional un-aged overproof, Rum Fire).
Come aboard with your tickets to Jamaica-in-a-bottle:
The Cocktail: Planter’s Punch
Planter’s punch in its various guises was and is popular across the Caribbean, but is most closely associated with Jamaica, where it is often remembered using a rhyming formula: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, and a little spice to make it nice”. This basic formula is what almost all classic Tiki drinks are based on, and for good reason. It works every time. This interpretation is taken from Martin Cate’s tiki bible, Smuggler’s Cove, and is the version served at his now legendary San Francisco bar of the same name.
3 oz Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Gold
1/4 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Demerara syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin and shake well with a boatload of crushed ice. Open pour (with ice) into a Highball glass and garnish with a sprig of mint.
The early history of rum in the Spanish colonies is one of prohibition. The Spanish worried about a threat to the popularity and profitability of Spanish wine and brandy, so rum production was officially illegal until 1746. After legalization, Cuba was the big success story, and by 1780 was the main supplier of Sugar, Molasses, and Rum to the United States.
Other Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic made similar rum (at the time, pot still), but didn’t have the kind of commercial success that Cuba did. The invention of the column still in the 1830’s cemented a true Spanish style. The ability to produce a lighter bodied, dry, crisp spirit appealed to the tastes of the Spanish colonies, and by the 20th century, the pot still had all but died out in the Spanish Caribbean, Cuba in particular.
They also began to charcoal filter some rums, removing the color from them, creating an even lighter, clear spirit. Bacardi, based in the far eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, had been the most significant Cuban distiller for some time, but became a household name outside of Cuba when Prohibition hit America in 1920. Americans flocked to Havana to drink, and what they found waiting for them was a delightful, refreshing, light (and colorless) spirit that made revelatory cocktails like the Daiquiri and the Mojito.
Now, this divine sounding Bacardi is not at all the swill you find at the grocery store today. Unfortunately when Bacardi left Cuba after Castro’s Revolution in 1959 they began rectifying their rum to such a neutral flavor (by distilling to very high proofs, then diluting down to 40%) that it became hardly any different from vodka.
However there are many Spanish style rums that come close to capturing this legendary taste profile (including some limited releases put out by Bacardi over the years to pay homage to their old formula). Havana Club is the national rum of Cuba, and the 3 year is maybe the purest torch bearer of this style of rum, but alas the embargo against Cuba prohibits us Yanks from importing it or selling it in the US. However, Flor de Caña 4 (just a number, not an age statement) from Nicaragua is a fine example of the style, dry and crisp, an absolutely perfect white rum for making classic Cuban cocktails.
While the younger, clear rums of the Spanish style have been so lauded for their dryness, there is an unfortunate trend among producers of this style to add staggering amounts of sugar and coloring to many of their older “luxury” rums. This is done to impart a sense of smoothness and sweetness that people have come to associate with age (and in so many consumers’ minds, age equals quality).
What is so unfortunate about this is that it either means the underlying spirit is of an inferior quality or it’s a fine spirit that none of us are able to ever taste because the producers are covering it up with heaps and heaps of sugar. Additionally, it is causing the consumer tastes to expect this intensely sweet, masked flavor in aged rums, which makes it harder to turn people on to unadulterated rum.
Luckily, there are some good people out there doing their best to liberate this style of rum and to showcase a well made, raw spirit. One of the brave few is Panama-Pacific, an independent label based in San Francisco. They are bottling some of the best spicy, dry, column still rum out of Panama, in both 9 and 23 year expressions. The 9 year is bottled at 47.3%, giving enough heat to cut through beautifully in any number of spirit-driven cocktails, but it holds its own quite handily as a luxury “sipper” as well.
Be prepared, Spanish waters await!:
The Cocktail: El Presidente
Cuba is most famous in the drinking community primarily for two drinks: The Daiquiri and the Mojito. These are both fantastic drinks, and you've probably had both of them. People make good versions of these at any decent bar. What Cuba is rarely associated with is strong, stirred cocktails, although the El Presidente was a hugely popular drink from the early 19-teens into the 50's. It's what one drank late into the night, after they had consumed their share of Daiquiris throughout the heat of the Havana afternoon.
Sadly, it may have been kept from becoming a true classic because of one huge misunderstanding: most recipes that made it to the United States simply called for "French Vermouth", which in most old cocktail writing, denotes a dry vermouth. However, if one consults the 1924 Cuban Bar Manual "Manual del Cantineros", as well as 1928's official Cuban bartender's association manual (both actually penned by Cubans, rather than American bartenders in Cuba, and both now available in various corners of the internet in PDF form), one finds that the original drink was made with Vermouth De Chambery, or Blanc Vermouth, which is closer to a sweet vermouth than a dry.
Making that essential change, and tweaking the proportions a bit, reveals a truly marvelous cocktail. I like to think of this as Cuba's Manhattan: Sleek and Sophisticated, but with all of the cool refreshment required to really work in the Caribbean. This slightly tweaked version (upping the amount of Rum and cutting back on Blanc Vermouth) comes from Bar Agricole and Trou Normand owner Thad Vogler, and features the very wise addition of Orange bitters.
2 oz Flor De Caña 4 Year
1/2 oz Blanc Vermouth
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Combine ingredients and stir well with plenty of ice. Garnish with a long Lemon twist, a brandied cherry, or better yet, both.
FRENCH STYLE: Rhum Agricole
French style rum is in almost all cases made from fresh pressed cane juice. Molasses based rum was often produced when Martinique and Guadeloupe were still active in the sugar industry, but by 1870 they were thoroughly pushed out of the business. Plantation owners had to figure out how to profit from all the sugar cane that seemingly no longer had a use. So they began to make rum from fresh pressed cane juice, as many had done in the early days of rum making. Only they did it better than had been done before and they used the thoroughly modern column still.
Martinique is the most famous island for this kind of rum, and even has a designation of Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for it, much like Cognac or Armagnac. When this kind of rum is made in Martinique, following these guidelines, it can properly be called Rhum Agricole, though many use that term to refer to any rum made in this style. Rhum Agricole is one of the more distinctive rum styles, and when tasted side-by-side with another style like a Barbados rum, you’d hardly guess they were both in the same spirit category. The taste is complex, generally with grassy and fresh cane notes.
Both of the rums featured here are proper Agricole rums from Martinique, although there are many fine rums produced in Guadeloupe, and Haiti has its own distinct spin on the style, in some ways bridging the gap between true Agricole flavor and that of molasses rum. Clement Canne Bleu is an unaged Agricole Blanc, and as such has no oak influence at all. Fresh flavors abound, with plenty of light grassy fruitiness and some heat at 50% abv. Clement is one of the oldest producers of Rhum Agricole, having been established at the height of the Martinique sugar crisis in 1887. The entire line is worth drinking a lot of, including their lovely Agricole based liqueurs.
Rhum Agricole Vieux must be aged at least 3 years, and is one of three categories of age for Agricole (the other two being Blanc, or unaged, and Élevé Sous Bois, aged at least one year). Rhum JM VSOP, bottled at 43% abv, is an especially lush rum, featuring deep orange and chocolate notes and a beautiful, long finish. If you want an Old Fashioned that will change your life, JM VSOP is a sure bet.
Voila! And here's the rum!:
The Cocktail: Ti’ Punch
Ti’ Punch is the national drink of Martinique, and a wonderfully simple way to drink Agricole. Just Blanc Rhum (or Vieux Rhum for a Ti Punch Vieux), sugar cane syrup, and a pinch of lime, traditionally served at room temperature, but is also lovely served cold.
2 oz Rhum Agricole Blanc
Barspoon Cane Syrup
Pinch of lime
Combine the rum and syrup in a glass. Cut a small, quarter sized chunk of lime off the side of the lime and squeeze over the drink. Drop in the drink and stir either neat or over ice.
Happy sipping, and remember: It’s a rum world out there, everywhere you look.