So long, Piña Colada. The oft-maligned rum is stepping out from its umbrella topped past to be reborn as a rarefied spirit worth the splurge.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
For decades, rum has been the cheap floozy of the spirits world, a tacky booze to mix with cola or whir into an umbrella-topped libation. But lately rum—a grab bag of distilled spirits crafted from sugarcane and its by-products, mainly molasses—has rehabilitated its besmirched name. The white and spiced rums you pounded in college have been joined by oak-aged elixirs and artisanal spirits that are on par with, and sometimes exceed, more revered dark spirits. “Whiskey and Scotch converts are leading the way to the rum shelf,” says spirits expert Edward Hamilton, who runs the Ministry of Rum website.
Which rum is worth opening your wallet for? Look for rhum agricole—agricultural rum. Instead of molasses, the French West Indies’ specialty is made with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. The result is clean and grassy, floral and citric, making rhum agricole a great drink to sip neat or in a cocktail, such as the simple lime-and-sugar Tí Punch.
Fresh rhum agricole is aged in barrels, mainly French oak, to impart the lush notes of vanilla and wood, and has a darker tint that bourbon fans will favor. After at least three years of marinating in a barrel, the agricole is dubbed rhum vieux, or “old rum.”
When buying a rhum agricole, examine the label. Numerous Caribbean distilleries use sugarcane juice, but France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée certifies that only Martinique’s seven distilleries can lay claim to rhum agricole. Brands worth buying include Rhum J.M, Rhum Clement, Neisson, and Depaz, which specializes in aged rums.
While rhum vieux requires just three years of aging to earn its appellation, other rums are slumbering in oak for 12, 15, or even 30 years, making them as complex and nuanced as a snort of Scotland’s finest. In fact, Renegade Rum takes its super-rare, single-vintage rums and “enhances” them with oak-cask aging at Scotland’s famed Bruichladdich Distillery, resulting in snifter-worthy sensations best served straight—mixing would be blasphemy.
In Barbados, Mount Gay Rum makes two exceptional long-aged specimens. The Extra Old naps in bourbon-soaked oak for up to 15 years, and presents a nose of sweet fruit and oak and a zesty finish. By contrast, the 1703 Old Cask Selection—named after the year Mount Gay was founded—incorporates rums aged from 10 to 30 years; expect a nose of cigar-friendly leather and oak, and flavors that flit from bananas to candied fruit. From Guatemala, you’ll find the fab premium rums of Ron Zacapa. The distillery’s exquisitely nuanced Centenario line stars spirits aged up to 15 or 23 years, and the exemplary XO (extra old) is aged in bourbon, sherry, and wine barrels before being finished in cognac casks.
To splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime liquor, look toward Ron Abuelo Centuria. In honor of Varela Hermanos’s 100th anniversary, the Panamanian distillery released an extra-antiquated version of its benchmark Ron Abuelo rum. The Centuria is a select blend of privatereserve rums aged up to 30 years in oak barrels that once held bourbon. It’s equal parts familiar and unexpected, a tropical luxury worth savoring beneath, not with, an umbrella.
Life on Top
1 ounce Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc
1 ounce Maker’s Mark bourbon
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes orange bitters
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass. Strain over
a large ice cube into a rocks glass. Garnish with a
flamed orange peel.
Recipe courtesy of Michael Neff, co-owner of
New York City’s Rum House.