Forget everything you thought you learned in college when it comes to rum because Bacardi (151 or otherwise) is not the barometer you should be using for this incredible spirit. The fermenting and distilling of sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice to create a delicious distillate liquor has been happening for more than a handful of centuries and it was never intended to be a liquor mixed with your favorite big-brand soda beverage (though there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it that way if you choose).
Rum has been a popular beverage as far back as the 1600s with the fledgling American Colonies and English Privateers using it as both drink, valuable commodity, and moral support for all of their endeavors. Despite the centuries of experience with the drink, the exact history and origin story remains quite nebulous. What we do know is, despite your preference for sailors, pirates, marauders, or the like, there are a few things that separate one rum from another.
While bourbon/whisk(e)y/Scotch seem to be the barometer that all other spirits are judged against these days, it’s a fair bet that none of them would exist without the fermentation groundwork that the rum pirates and privateers laid hundreds of years before. Quality ingredients. Authentic processes. Technical knowledge of fermentation. Time. Flavorful final products. From Barbados in the 1600s, to the Jamaican Islands, to the British Royal Navy, to pre-independence America, rum was there. Rum is the liquor that holds all the stories even before it was soaked in a ham and floated off the Jersey Shore in a raft with Danny DeVito.
Even before you get into the light/dark/spiced rum debate, this versatile spirit has it all. Now that we’ve established what makes a great rum–the ingredients/processes/technical knowhow/etc.–it’s time to get down to the business of what you can mix this incredibly versatile spirit with. If you say Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, RC, or any other sort of cola, you’re dead to us.
The Best Rum Cocktails
While we’re always onboard with the whole “you do you” sentimentality, if you have good rum, you don’t need corner store mixers. Skip the soda/pop (we’re not getting into that argument today) in favor of more elevated cocktail options like these rum-forward classics:
But even if you’re not making cocktails, there are plenty of great rums that check all the boxes for drinking/sipping/enjoying. We compiled all of them on the list below, so get to drinking.
The Best Rum
Plantation Grande Reserve Rum
Plantation Grand Reserve is an extremely versatile rum, mixing well with plenty of syrups, juices, and fruits. Its unique taste also means that however you’re drinking it, the character of the rum is going to come through. “Plantation has hints of caramel and chocolate, mixed in with a little spice,” says Brandon Lockman, Head Bartender at Red Star Tavern in Portland. That means your mojito or dark and stormy are going to lean much more toward the spicy sweetness of molasses than the sickly sweetness of some of your other rums.
Ron Zacapa “Centenario” 23 Year Old Solera Rum
“It’s like sipping a good Cognac; it’s smooth and sophisticated,” says Angel Robledo from Le Soleil d’Or in The Caymans. Robledo’s thoughts surprise us a little, if only because rum is hardly ever advertised as something you can drink by itself. It’s similar to vodka there. Mostly you find it in cocktails or mixed drinks, so if a bartender’s recommending you at least try it straight, it might be worth taking that advice.
Clement Select Barrel Rum
This rum from Martinique is funky, grassy, and delicately sweet. Julia Momose, Head Bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago, says the 3 years spent in the barrel give it spice and backbone. Spice we get, but backbone is an interesting word to describe the former drink of pirates and current stereotype of a Bahaman spring break. Scotch and bourbon have backbone, so we like finding a rum that can stand up next to our two favorite spirits.
El Dorado 15 Year Rum
We mentioned it earlier, but it’s surprising some rums are better enjoyed like an aged Scotch. Sipped straight or on the rocks rather than mixed up with a slurry of island fruit and herbs. But when someone takes the time to age something for 15 years in any kind of barrel, you better at least give it an undiluted shot. The El Dorado 15 Year Reserve deserves that shot, with a full complement of its own individual tastes and characteristics.
Cruzan Black Strap Rum
It’s a fantastic mixing rum that works well in tiki drinks and adds depth to just about any cocktail. “Delicious as a daiquiri or a buck, its rich molasses characteristics also lend well to stirred cocktails,” says Brandon Wise, Beverage Director for Sage Restaurant Group. Having a bottle of this one on hand for a summer evening’s party means everyone participating will get a healthy buzz.
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Rum
It’s rich, chocolaty, and decadent with a really round texture. “It’s perfect for sipping and enjoying after dinner (or lunch, or breakfast, or whenever), but I also really enjoy it in (strangely enough) daiquiris,” says Darwin Pornel, Lead Bartender at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles. Though, to be fair, daiquiris are delicious, so maybe that’s not all that strange. What’s strange is people not letting themselves admit that daiquiris are delicious.
Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
It’s light with brown sugar and oak notes, with a little bit of spice. “This is my go-to after a long shift or a busy day,” says Pornel. We can totally relate to that, especially with how much we like sitting on a porch or patio on a summer evening. Drinking whiskey like that is great, but sometimes–and forgive us for the sacrilege–we want something different.
This white rum has a rich history and a unique flavor profile and it’s a great testament to its creators that it does. They could have easily made an adequate, environmentally sustainable rum and called it a day, but instead decided to make something people would actually enjoy drinking. “It is slightly dry for a white rum, so it really allows for other components to blend well without being overpowered,” says Cameron Brown, lead bartender at FARM at the Carneros Inn in Napa, California.
A dark rum, Pusser’s has a rich caramel and vanilla flavor. “The sugar and sweetness is still there, but it is equally balanced with the vanilla flavor. It tastes great in cocktails or all by itself,” says Brown. From what we can tell, the darker the rum, the more likely it is to have a unique flavor. Not to put down white rums, as there is a handful on this list, but the darker it is, the more of the sugar and barrel flavors get injected into the drink.
Caña Brava Rum
Caña Brava is the ultimate bartender’s rum. “It’s a three-year aged white rum and we use it to make one of the best classic daiquiris around,” says Evan Charest, Mixologist at Patina Restaurant Group. “Although the rum is from Panama, it is made in a distinctive Cuban style.” Speaking of Cuban, we may have to redo this list when the rum finally starts making its way over here in high enough quantities.
Clément XO Rhum Agricole
Good luck finding it. This rum is no longer made, as the 1952 vintage that it got its flavor profile from has run dry. Extremely smooth, with flavors of caramel, toffee, tobacco, and spiced fruit, this one has a complexity to it that can be hard to find in other rums. Not many distillers are finding tobacco in their flavor profile, so if we can get our hands on a bottle of this, we’ll be rationing it like Prohibition Era bourbon.
Capovilla Liberation PMG Rhum
Distiller Gianni Vittorio Capovilla collaborated with Luca Gargano of the Bielle Distillery on the island of Marie Galante to make this truly special rum. Made from rare, heirloom sugarcane, this rum is aged in previously used French wine barrels, meaning an already sweet drink is getting an extra boost of sugar and color. Sweet flavors of brown sugar, orange zest and coconut are abundant, so we’ll leave it up to you how you want to enjoy them.
Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend (25 Year Old)
Jamaica’s Appleton Estate celebrated the 20-year anniversary of their master blender, Joy Spence, by launching a limited-edition, 25-year-old rum called Joy (that included rums aged up to 35 years [spirits math, oi.]) It was released in 2017 and, according to Joy herself, “includes two rum marques which are of particular sentimental significance to me: The first of these marques was laid down to age in 1981, which is the year I joined the Appleton Estate team, and the second is my favourite marque of pot still rum. The final blend is a wonderful rum that I hope will become a cornerstone of my legacy.” Having tasted it, we can tell you for sure it is absolutely wonderful, one of our favorites, and worth drinking regardless of the price tag attached to a pour… if you can find it in the wild.
Flor de Cana 25 Year Rum
If you’re anything like us–a bourbon drinker looking to expand their palate–you won’t find a more “bourbony” rum than Flor de Cana 25 Year Rum in this price bracket. This multiple award-winning rum has an incredibly rich mouthfeel with complex notes of vanilla, oak, citrus, and tropical fruit that make it nose, taste, and finish just like–if not more than–the bourbons you’re used to drinking. Just like your higher-end bourbons/ryes, it’s as delicious enjoyed straight or over the rock as it is mixed into a proper cocktail.
The Real McCoy 12 Yr Rum
The Real McCoy Rum is based on the story of Bill McCoy, the pioneer rum runner of the 1920s Prohibition era that was the first to fill a boat with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail it up to New York City, and legally act as a floating liquor store offshore. Unlike his competitors, the product was pure, unadulterated rum made with only the finest ingredients like blackstrap molasses and pure Barbados spring water. That authentic tradition continues to this day with all their aged expressions, but we’re particularly fond of the small-batch 12-year version that combines copper column and pot still Barbados rum with an added aging step in heavy-char American Oak bourbon barrels that makes this 80 proof rum drink simultaneously smoother and more powerful than bourbon in its class.