Distilled from fermented molasses or sugarcane juice, rum is generally associated with sun, sand, and heat — often viewed as simply a sweet, summer spirit. And while, yes, there is frequently an undertone of toasted sugar, vanilla, and the spring breaks of misspent youth, rum is a wildly diverse category of spirit that is far broader than people with seasonal forays into rum drinking ever realize. The flavor of rum can range from sweet to savory, to dry and earthy, with characteristics dependent on such variables as the type of cask used, length of the fermentation and aging processes, and exact sugarcane derivative used. Made since the 1600s when some blessed souls decided to distill the often-discarded byproduct of sugarcane production that was fermenting in the sun, rum became widely popular in The Americas. Since its creation, the spirit has been associated with everyone from sailors and soldiers to pirates and colonists.
Today, rum remains popular all over the world and has seen a spike in popularity over the past few years. With so many styles of rum made in so many places in the world, it can be difficult to select the correct bottle for the job. Light? Dark? Gold? Aged? Overproof? Which kind of rum is best in mojitos? A rum and coke (aka Cuba Libre)? On the rocks? In a Dark ‘n Stormy?
Whatever rum drink you prefer can be enhanced in different ways by your choice of rum. For some insight, I reached out to Wayne Curtis, drinks expert and author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Curtis’ book is not only one of the best books I’ve ever read about booze but also one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It’s packed with history and lore, and always witty and humorous. I tend to seize on any excuse to speak to Curtis for rum advice, and he was kind enough to offer recommendations of rums for use in specific cocktails or mixed drinks, sipping, and just drinking neat. Here are his picks, along with a few of my own.
The Best Rum for Daiquiris
Light rum is the classic choice for a daiquiri, but you can add nuance by using an aged white rum, or a Rhum Agricole made from pressed sugarcane juice.
“A perfect blend of lime, sugar, rum, and ice, the daiquiri cuts through the humidity, heat, and haze of the tropics with an uncanny precision,” writes Curtis in his chapter on the drink. He also tells the story of Hemingway’s discovery of the daiquiri at the El Floridita bar in Havana on a “writing” trip, and his subsequent popularization of the drink. Hemingway’s version calls for the addition of Maraschino Liqueur, such as Luxardo, and a splash of grapefruit juice.
The Best Rum For Mojitos
Another light-rum-driven cocktail, choosing unique blended light rums is a way to give more character and depth to this highball, which contains rum, sugar, mint, lime, and club soda.
“The mojito is a simple drink that most likely started as a rural farmworker’s favorite in the nineteenth century,” writes Curtis. He goes on to say that the mint, sugar, and lime covered for “the singular nastiness of cheap rum,” and that the drink migrated from rural farms to Havana’s blue-collar beaches. And then, “Like the daiquiri before it, the mojito set across the Straits of Florida and spread north after Repeal [of prohibition].”
Wayne’s pick for a mojito is blended in his on-and-off-again hometown of New Orleans. Marsh House rum mixes traditional rum distilled from molasses with rum made from pressed sugarcane juice, which leads to a broad palate experience with the richness of rum and the floral and citrus qualities of Rhum.
Equiano is a blend of African and Caribbean rum named for the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. It’s a well-balanced marriage of barrel-aged Barbadian rum from the Caribbean, and Mauritanian rum made from sugarcane juice. It mixes not only two styles of rum, but also two continents and two cultures together in one bottle.
The Best Rum for a Dark ‘N Stormy
Curtis refers to the Dark N’ Stormy, a combination of ginger beer, rum, and lime as “the classic Bermuda highball,” and as of 1991, it’s a trademark owned by Gosling’s Rum.
Dark rum is ideal for the cocktail. Aging in charred American oak casks gives the spirit its dark color and rich smoothness that balances perfectly with the sweet and spicy flavors of ginger beer
Wayne’s pick, “for legal reasons,” is Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. But trademark aside, Gosling’s is the quintessential rum for a Dark N’ Stormy. And for an elevated version, try it with Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum, which is aged between 16 and 19 years in charred oak barrels. That said, you’d better use a damn fine hand-crafted ginger beer with a rum that refined.
The Best Rum For a Rum and Coke & Rum Punch
There’s plenty of leeway when choosing a rum for a punch, or to mix with Coke. In his book, Curtis refers to Rum Punch as, “The most democratic beverage in colonial America,” writing that it could be found wherever rum was found, or “everywhere in America within horse cart distance of the West Indian trade.” When making RUM PUNCH, Curtis’ advice is not brand specific: “Collect all bottles in your house less than 1/4 full and add to punch.” Fair enough.
And wrapping up the mixed drinks and cocktails, if you’re making a CUBA LIBRE (i.e., rum and coke), Curtis’ advice is to use Cuban rum and Mexican Coke if you can get it.
The Best Rums for Drinking Neat
Exceptionally aged rums from Barbados or Jamaica, without any residual sugar added to sweeten them, make for amazing sipping rums with layers of flavor you’d expect from the finest old Scotch.
Wayne’s pick for sipping neat is “any of the Foursquare Exceptional Cask rums.” This series comes from the legendary rum distiller and master blender Richard Seale of the Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados. Indelible is a single blended rum –– that is, rum made in a single distillery with pot and continuous stills –– aged 11 years in ex-bourbon and ex-zinfandel barrels. It’s so dry that it’s almost like a fine scotch, and defies anyone who still thinks rum is inherently sweet.
I’ll admit that I only know about this incredibly rich and complex pot still rum because of Wayne. Hampden Estate has a legacy of rum-making that stretches back to 1753, but they only began selling their rum to the public in 2018––before that it was sold only to blenders. This single distillery rum is distilled and aged entirely at Hampden Estate in Trelawny, Jamaica. It's a bold and funky rum brimming with personality, and each glass is an experience.
The Best Rum For Drinking on the Rocks
When sipping rum on the rocks, a good Navy Strength rum with a slightly higher proof will handle ice without tasting watered down. Alternatively, a particularly rich old rum will also stand up to ice without losing its character – but I recommend going light on the ice in this case.
Wayne’s pick for drinking on the rocks was created by Ed Hamilton, who in addition to creating his own rum brand is also a rum writer and the founder of Ministry of Rum — a forum connecting (and edifying) rum lovers around the globe. Hamilton’s Navy Strength is a mixture of 60% Guyanese rum and 40% Jamaican pot still rum, blended at high proof and diluted down to a bottling proof of 114 (57% abv) with filtered well water at the Five & 20 distillery in Westfield, NY.
A dark, rich, Nicaraguan rum that is old enough to rent a car, and old enough to savor in contemplation with an ocean breeze and a fine cigar. No more than a single cube of ice, as this needs nothing to assist it, and great sipped neat in a Glencairn. This Flor De Caña derives its signature richness not only from a quarter-century in the barrel but also from the volcanic soils near the San Cristóbal Volcano.