IMPORTANT: What follows has been superseded by a much more methodical and well-laid out story: The Six ssential Tiki Rum Categories.
My book, Minimalist Tiki also contains up-to-date rum background and recommendations I have left this post in place for archival completeness.
When I first fell down the Tiki rabbit hole, working my way through Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, I realized how little I knew about rums. Demerara, Jamaican, Lemon Hart, Virgin Island, Trinidad, Wray and Nephew… So many names and styles to keep track of and start acquiring! Since then my rum collection’s grown far beyond the space I set aside when designing my home bar.
By this point I’ve made enough Tiki recipes to have a good sense of what I keep coming back to over and over in my Tiki drinks. These are the bottles that I always have a backup bottle or two in reserve. Most of these rums aren’t traditionally considered “sipping” rums, so just because a superb rum like Mount Gay X0 isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I don’t consider enjoy it.
This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive and cover every rum style used in Tiki. The list is also constrained by brands available to me in the United States, which is often much different than what’s available elsewhere, especially with the more boutique brands.
Tiki Big Guns
Smith and Cross – When a recipe calls for Jamaican rum, Appleton or Myers is what many people look to. For me, Smith & Cross is a clear, obvious choice. Dark gold color, and at 114 proof qualifies as “Navy Strength”. Its strong, fruity funk immediately takes me to Jamaica and I encourage all my guest to take some time nosing a sample before using it in their drinks. The funk is much stronger than you’ll find in Appleton 12 or V/X. It’s one of several spirits that David Wondrich had a part in shaping, and at around $30, it might seem a bit spendy at first for mixing. Once hooked by its magic though, you won’t hesitate to use it again and again.
Lemon Hart 151 – A Demerara rum from Guyana. It’s dark and earthy, with moderate molasses overtones. Although frequently used as a float and/or set on fire, a better use for it is in the Jet Pilot, Zombie, and 151 swizzle cocktails. Lemon Hart 151 nearly vanished a few years ago but was brought back after ownership changes. However, just recently (May 2014) there’s word that the distillery won’t produce any more till at least mid-2015. There’s an 80 proof version of Lemon Hart as well, and while a reasonable Demerara, just isn’t the 151. The distillery (Demerara Distillers Limited) is better known for making El Dorado rums (see below).
Coruba Dark – A dark, high ester rum from Jamaica. Another Jamaican rum? Having waxed rhapsodic about Smith and Cross, why is Coruba on the list? Coruba is like a little brother – less funky, but still funkier than Appleton, its more prestigious label mate. At 80 proof it’s less potent and at $15/bottle is half the price of Smith and Cross. I use it when introducing someone to Tiki who might not love the funk the way I do. I’ve also mixed it with Smith and Cross to bring down the overall octane of a drink while still keeping a strong Jamaican flavor element.
Tiki Workhorse Rums
El Dorado 12 – My main run when a recipe calls for a Demerara style rum at 80 proof. It’s smooth enough to sip, and works well in non-Tiki drinks such as the Palmetto, a rum-based Manhattan. El Dorado rums tend to be relatively high in added sugar (the 12 is measured at 36 grams/liter) which is at least partly while people enjoy this rum served neat. At $25 bottle it’s a good value for Tiki.
Bacardi 8 – After becoming a serious rum consumer, Bacardi Select disappeared from my shelf. After all, Bacardi is rum for folks who think rum only becomes palatable with coke. Then one night at Canon in Seattle, Murray Stenson made me a Blood and Sand using Bacardi 8 instead of Scotch and I was hooked. Bacardi 8 is comprised of rum aged at least 8 years, and has a lovely dark gold hue. It’s a great selection for recipes that call for “gold rum” or “Cuban” rum. I frequently use it in other non-tiki, spirit forward drinks that call for a rum, as well as tropical drinks such as the Old Cuban or Daiquiri. At $22/750ml, it’s a bargain for a medium aged rum of this quality. I also see it at duty free shops for an even better price on a 1L bottle.
Plantation Grande Réserve 5 – The Plantation 5 is one of the best value in rum today at around $15/750ml. It holds its own against other moderately aged rums in the $25 and over category. The Plantation 5 isn’t a classic Bajan rum, as it’s got a bit of sugar in it (22 G/Liter). Most Bajan rums (Mount Gay, Foursquare) have very little added sugar – My understanding is that they’re prohibited from doing so. Plantation isn’t under this restriction, as it ships the rums from Barbados to France, where it undergoes additional aging in French Oak casks before blending, including the addition of sugar.
Doorly’s XO – A great example of a Barbados rum at a great price. It’s a blend of rums, all aged at least 6 years, a beautiful gold color, and on the dry side as it has no added sugar. It’s from Foursquare Distillery/R.L Seale, who is well respected for doing things right and not playing games with his products. If I could get this for $10/bottle like I did in Barbados, I’d use it in place of many other rums. From what I understand, Total Wine is the exclusive US distributor for Doorly’s.
Wray and Nephew White Overproof – This rum is like Smith and Cross’s rough and wild cousin. Close enough to see the relationship, but you wouldn’t confuse one for the other. For starters, it’s unaged At 126 proof, it’s a bit of an oddball to use. You don’t want to treat it like an 80 proof rum when measuring it out, but it’s also far from a 151 overproof rum. Your diligence is rewarded with a funk fairly different than Smith and Cross, less fruity, and with more “octane”, for lack of a better word. I like to use it in punches, and it’s also a favorite for making falernum. It’s relatively inexpensive In Jamaica, it’s the most commonly consumed rum by a huge margin, and often mixed with Ting, a grapefruit soda.
Bull Run Distillery Pacific Rum – Tiki recipes often call for an Agricole rum. Agricole has a very specific definition (an “AOC”), defining production techniques and where it can come from. Less formally, an agricole-style rum means it’s made from sugar cane juice, rather than molasses, and it has a more “grassy” flavor. I have several Agricole rums in my bar, but for my Tiki recipes, In frequently use Pacific Rum, made close by in Oregon from Hawaiian sugar cane. It doesn’t have the distribution of the big brands, but it’s worth tracking down.
Rum-Based Tiki liqueurs
Although you wouldn’t consider them “rum”, there are several spirits I use in Tiki drinks that are rum-based.
Clement Créole Shrubb – I use this frequently in recipes that call for Curacao, a sweet, orange flavored spirit. You can think of Créole Shrubb as a rum-based version of Cointreau or Grand Marnier. The Clement web site describes it as made from the “finest white and aged Agricole Rhums, married with macerated Créole spices and sun-bleached bitter orange peels.” At 40% ABV you’re not losing any liqueur content when using it instead of something like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, another David Wondrich wonder-spirit.
St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram – Also known as “Pimento Dram” in old recipes. This spirit is found in many Tiki recipes, and has an extremely strong allspice flavor. If a recipe calls for this, you don’t want to omit it even though a little goes a long way. Even in doses of 1/8 oz, you’ll taste its presence. The commercial version of this liqueur disappeared for a number of years. In 2008, Haus Alpenz started importing a version to the great joy of Tiki enthusiast.
The above list are my essentials, and rums that I have prolonged first-hand experience with. However, it’s also worth mentioning a few more rums that my friend Jason Alexander, Tiki Commando at Tacoma Cabana also thinks are essential, along with my commentary where applicable.
Plantation Original Dark, 80 proof – Connor O’Brien introduced me to this rum at Rumba, where he called it a “switch hitter” – It goes well nearly everywhere you use it. I agree.
Appleton 12 – The sweet spot of the Appleton line from Jamaica. A decent sipper, but inexpensive enough to mix with abandon. The Jamaican funk is more toned down than other Jamaicans like Smith & Cross and Wray & Nephew.
Plantation 3 Stars – A blend of white rums from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Just about anything Plantation does is worth buying.
Cruzan Blackstrap – A very strong molasses kick on this one, and dark as coal. Often used as a float. It makes a great Corn’n Oil and is also tasty with Ginger beer and lime, particular on those dark, stormy evenings.