Within the spirits world, many liquors highlight their particular provenance – bourbon from Kentucky, Scotch whisky from, well, Scotland, cognac and calvados from France, tequila and mezcal from Mexico, and so on. However, you rarely see bottled blends of those spirits where the components are from different countries: Picture a blend of Irish whiskey and Kentucky bourbon – a bit odd, right? Or even Peruvian pisco and Chilean pisco – they’re quite different, and the rivalry between the countries about who makes the real pisco is heated. As you can imagine, they’re unlikely to appear in the same bottle together.
The rum world, with its relaxed, laissez-faire, no-rules attitude is the outlier – French Agricole AOC regulations notwithstanding, which is a story for another day. Sure, most rums hail from a single island or country, but there are also more than a few blended, multi-heritage rums. For this list, I’m not talking about blending rums of different ages from the same distillery. Nor am I talking about rums originating from multiple stills, like Guyana’s El Dorado distillery uses for its higher end rums. The rums in this list are all a blend of rums from multiple countries.
Why blend? Well, first, the flavor profile of rums varies widely from region to region. The fruity funk of a Jamaican rum like Smith & Cross is quite different from an earthy, smoky Demerara rum from Guyana (like Lemon Hart), which is different from the vegetal characteristics of an Agricole rum from Martinique, such as Clément.
By blending rums of different national heritages, experienced blenders create gorgeous tasting rums – E&A Scheer in the Netherlands are experts at this, as I wrote in a prior post. Their experience with rum stretches back more than 300 years, and they hold enormous warehouses containing millions of liters of rum from around the world. Today companies work with E&A Scheer’s master blenders to derive a custom blend to sell under their own label – Denizen’s rums (see more below) are one example.
What about the background of the individual rums? How do you know they’re any good? Why aren’t those rums being sold under this distiller’s name? In this regard, the information available from the bottler/producer is often vague, often nothing more than a country of origin. There are numerous reasons why a distiller might not sell a rum under its own label – their output capacity may be more than they currently sell on the market, for example. Or they may need to raise some cash, selling off barrels currently aging in their warehouse.
The fact that rum distillers sell off barrels isn’t unprecedented. Whiskey distillers on both sides of the Atlantic do this as well, which is the reason you have “independent bottler” brands like Scotland’s Signatory for Scotch, and the U.S.’s High West for American whiskey. It’s worth noting that the former has been more up front than the latter in disclosing the provenance of the spirits they bottle.
But then what of the rum world? How do we know the rums they blend aren’t lesser-grade product from second-tier distillers? When I’ve been able to ascertain the particular distiller of rums used in these blends, it’s always been a reputable distillery with a solid history. For example, four of the five rums in the following list include rum from Barbados.
Having recently traveled to Barbados, I can tell you that there are only four rum distilleries currently running – Mount Gay, Foursquare, West Indies Rum Distillery, and St. Nicholas Abbey–and only the first three are currently producing enough to be selling to blenders. All three are well-known, reputable distillers, so while we don’t know exactly which distillery produced the rum in most cases, there’s little cause for concern.
Some of these multi-heritage rum blends are primarily intended for mixing in cocktails. Other blends are downright amazing sippers. Here are five of my favorite blended rums – all are readily available in the U.S market.
Denizen Merchant’s Reserve
Merchant’s Reserve is a blend of Jamaican and Martinique rums. In my review, I was fortunate enough to be able to document the exact distillery sources of all the rum components. According to Citizen Spirits owner Nick Pelis, he set out to craft a rum perfectly tailored to the Trader Vics’s 1950s era Mai Tai, and it has proven to be a big hit with the Tiki crowd. The Jamaican rum hails from four different distilleries (Worthy Park, Hampden, Clarendon, and New Yarmouth), while the Martinique rum from Le Galion S.A.E.M. distillery is unique in that it’s not the usual Agricole style produced on the island. Instead, it’s made from molasses and is highly aromatic. Merchant’s Reserve has a lower-priced stable mate, Denizen White Rum, which is also a blend (Jamaican and Trinidad), and designed to make the perfect daiquiri.
Cost: $30/750 ml
Plantation 3 Stars
Plantation is best known for adding their special cognac barrel aging magic to already aged rums from around the Caribbean, producing lush medium and dark rums. However, their 3 Stars diverges from that path. Carbon filtering strips the color and heavier flavors from a three-year Trinidad, unaged Barbados and Jamaican rums, and a twelve-year Jamaican rum. The result is a remarkably flavorful clear rum that’s inexpensive enough to mix with, but still smooth enough to drink neat or over ice. The 3 Stars and Cana Brava are my go-to white rum workhorses in my home bar, as well as some well-regarded bars that I frequent.
Banks 5 Island
Banks Rum isn’t content to source their rum from just two or three countries. For the 5 Island they blend light rum from Trinidad, high-ester Jamaican rum, quintessential Bajan flavored rum from Barbados, and Demerara rum from Guyana. And for a final touch they add Batavia Arrack, a unique tasting cousin of rum that was often called for in cocktails and punches many years ago. If the first three rum components of Banks sound familiar, that’s because the Plantation 3 Stars (above) contains rums from the same three countries. Also like the 3 Stars, Banks is a fully flavored white rum. It’s ideal for use in daiquiris and other cocktails where a flavorful white rum is called for. Banks Rum also offers another rum, “7 Golden Age,” that covers the same islands as the 5 Island but adds rum from Panama and Guatemala for good measure.
Cost: $31/750 ml
Papa’s Pilar Dark
Papa’s Pilar is a relatively new entrant to the rum world. The description of the Dark’s components from the owning company’s web site is a bit vague for my taste: “Florida, Central America & the Caribbean.” However, when I contacted the company’s PR person, I was told: “…so we tap into key relationships that allow access to special lots. We source from places like Barbados, Dominican Republic, Florida, and Panama for now.” Even better, Richard Seale of the widely revered Foursquare Distillery in Barbados is involved with the Papa’s Pilar brand, so you can bet the Bajan component is top notch.
After gathering the component rums together in the U.S., the blenders then (quoting the press release) “marry the rums in a unique solera aging and blending process, using American Oak Bourbon barrels, Port Wine casks, and Spanish Sherry casks.” The end-result is an intensely flavorful, almost chewy sipping rum – I get pleasing tobacco notes among the many flavors. There’s also a Pilar Blonde rum using a similar set of rum components as the Dark, but with presumably a less intense aging process. The Pilar Dark inspires a lot of debate – some love it, some are turned off by it. Prior to my first tasting I was skeptical – I’ve had very mixed results with products that are “inspired by” something, and the Pilar folks spend more time selling the Ernest Hemingway story than about their rum production process. Nonetheless, within a few minutes of my first sip, I was a fan.
Cost: $35/750 ml
Dos Maderas PX 5+5
The Dos Maderas PX 5+5 have one of the better rum tales that I enjoy telling to rum neophytes. The name is a bit strange at first, but makes perfect sense once you know the backstory, which begins with rums from Barbados and Guyana that have already aged for five years before producers Williams and Humbert takes ownership. The rums are shipped to Spain, where they undergo another five years of aging in sherry casks – the first three in Palo Cortado sherry casks. (Palo Cortado is between Amontillado and and Oloroso in sweetness.) For the remaining few years, the rum ages in Pedro Ximinez (aka “PX”) sherry casks. Pedro Ximinez sherry is the nuclear warhead of sweet, fruit-forward sherry – I liken it to drinking overly ripe golden raisins in liquid form. You can imagine what spending two years in a PX sherry cask will do to the flavor of a rum. With the story told, the name starts to make sense: “Dos Maderas” is Spanish for “two woods,” the “PX” is for “Pedro Ximinez,” and the “5+5” refers to the two five-year aging periods.
I use the PX 5+5 as a “gateway rum” when introducing friends to the wide world of rum beyond Bacardi silver. The PX 5+5 is an intense, sweet rum with a ton of sherry notes that can equal the rum flavor intensity. Some people aren’t particularly fond of that flavor profile (including Mrs. Wonk, who will avoid raisins at all cost), and they may instead prefer a sibling rum, Dos Maderas 5+3, which is identical save the last two years of PX sherry cask aging. I’m a huge PX sherry fan, and I have plenty of other rums that aren’t aged in sherry casks which I can enjoy, so I’m more than happy to enjoy the PX 5+5 for what it is – essentially a rum/sherry combination that’s nearly impossible to put down.
Cost: $40/750 ml