There’s no shortage of rum listicles lately. Rum is a hot topic du jour and publications push them out with abandon: “Nine Rums I Found at My Local Bar” or “Seven Rums Too Expensive for You.”
All too frequently these stories elicit groans from rum enthusiasts, because the author only dabbles in rum, thus providing well-intentioned but often misguided recommendations. Equally wince-inducing are lists without a unifying theme, or those that rely on outdated and discredited rum categories such as silver, gold, and dark.
Yes, I cast a suspicious eye toward most rum listicles, preferring a more nuanced approach to rum writing. Yet here I am with a rum list of my own. What gives? And why is my list any better?
Rum is my primary spirit focus, and I’ve written a thing or two about rum previously. Along the way I’ve assembled a collection comprising hundreds of rums from across the globe. And visiting rum distilleries to learn firsthand what makes each rum special is a bit of an obsession of mine. (Just ask Mrs. Wonk, when she’s lost track of which distillery we’re at.)
The guiding principle for the rum selections that follow: Highlighting a single, emblematic rum from each country or island in the Caribbean basin that produces a substantial amount of rum for export markets.
From Barbados to Belize, Cuba to Costa Rica, Guatemala to Guadeloupe, I’ve selected one bottle from each place that I feel truly represents the mainstream ethos of rums made there. Not necessarily the best rum made there, or the most unusual rum, but rather, a bottle showcasing the typical style of that country’s rum-making tradition. In some countries, I could have selected multiple rums, so where appropriate I’ve listed alternates.
In all cases the selected rum retails for US $45 or less. This is admittedly an arbitrary figure, but with so many exceptional bottles under $45 on the list, it highlights what a great value rum is relative to other spirits.
Another factor in my selection was identifying bottles that are reasonably available in places like Europe and the United States – my primary readership. A fantastic bottle only sold at the distillery gift shop is a great find, but if there’s little chance of obtaining it without an international flight, it doesn’t belong on this list.
Because many brands simply bottle rum produced by someone else, I biased my selection toward original producer brands, rather than independent or merchant-bottled rums. So, while Smith & Cross is a great Jamaican rum at a great price, it’s not a distillery-owned brand like Appleton, Worthy Park, Hampden, or Monymusk. Where a country has both old and new distilleries making great rum, I gave a slight preference to the older, legacy distilleries to break a tie.
Since sweetened rums are an oft-discussed topic among rum enthusiasts, the list leans to rums believed to have fewer additives. This is easier with some countries than others. If sweetened rum is a concern, there are several sites, such as Johnny Drejer’s, that illustrate the estimated sugar content of many expressions. I won’t attempt to replicate their information here.
Regarding the prices listed below, you may not find a given rum for sale at that exact price in your locale. As such, I’ve given the lowest price matched by at least a few stores. Every bottle listed below is for sale online somewhere at the time of this writing, at the price listed. Where you purchase can make a huge difference. For example, California prices for a bottle are often half the price of the same bottle in Washington state. Sites like 1000corks.com and wine-searcher.com are great resources for learning what a rum may cost in different areas.
With these qualifiers addressed, on to the list!
Jamaica: Appleton Estate Rare Blend (Appleton Estate, $32)
Jamaica has a cornucopia of good options from four major producers on the island: J. Wray & Nephew, National Rums of Jamaica, Hampden Estate, and Worthy Park. The Appleton Estate Rare Blend (12 year) isn’t considered as “funky” as some of the Jamaica’s other options, but its frequently cited as a masterpiece of good distillation, aging, and blending.
- Plantation Xaymaca (Long Pond, Clarendon, $23)
- Rum Bar Gold (Worthy Park, $23)
Worthy Park and Hampden Estate both have fantastic well-aged rums, but each costs a bit over $45, so didn’t quite meet the list criteria.
Barbados: Mount Gay XO (Mount Gay, $40)
The two large Barbados distilleries with distillery-driven brands are Mount Gay and Foursquare. Both make pot- and column-blend rums that are well-regarded by rum enthusiasts. Mount Gay has a longer history of making rum, so their XO gets the nod.
- Doorly’s 12 (Foursquare, $30)
There are several Foursquare-made expressions under $45; I went with the 12 year. Real McCoy is a partner brand of Foursquare and sells Foursquare-made rums at a good price.
Cockspur used to be owned by the same company that owned West Indies Rum Distillery. However, after West Indies was sold to Plantation Rum, the Cockspur brand was sold to a different company. As such, Cockspur’s rums don’t meet the list’s criteria.
Guyana: El Dorado 8 (Demerara Distillers Limited, $23)
Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) is Guyana’s only rum distillery, with El Dorado and Diamond Reserve as their two house brands. The El Dorado brand targets the higher end of the rum market with blends of pot- and column-distilled rum. While the El Dorado 12 is quite popular and well under $45, I picked the El Dorado 8 year, as I find it a bit drier than the 12 year.
Lots of brands purchase from DDL, but most are not as widely available; look for brands like Lemon Hart and Old Sam. Also, Pusser’s now sources their rum entirely from DDL. At $33, their Gunpowder Proof is a good way to sample Guyanese rum at a higher ABV than El Dorado’s mainline expressions.
Trinidad: Angostura 7 (Trinidad Distillers Limited, $23)
Trinidad has only one major distiller of note – Trinidad Distillers Limited, which uses column distillation exclusively; their house brand is Angostura. While their premium market targeted 1919 expression comes in at under $45, the Angostura 7 year is a bit drier than the 1919, so takes the top spot.
St Lucia: Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask (St. Lucia Distillers, $40)
Yet another single-distillery island, St. Lucia’s rum industry is St. Lucia Distillers. Working with both pot and column, they blend a wide variety of expressions across a broad price spectrum. The Chairman’s Reserve lineup is their mainstream pot/column blend. While the new, top of the line “1931” Chairman’s Reserve expression is a delight, it’s more than $45, so my pick goes to the Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask.
Cuba: Havana Club 7 (Havana Club, $30)
While Cuba has several distilleries, essentially all rum production occurs within the state-owned Cubaron, which partners with Pernod Ricard to make and sell the Havana Club brand. The Havana Club 7 year fits well within the Cuban style and is readily available where Havana Club is available–just not the United States, unfortunately.
Havana Club’s Selección de Maestros is around $45 US in Cuba and is a quite enjoyable rum. However, it’s not available everywhere Havana Club is sold, and outside of Cuba its price is a bit higher.
Puerto Rico: Don Q Single Barrel 2007 (Destilería Serrallés, $40)
Puerto Rico’s rum industry is effectively Bacardi (the Caribbean’s largest rum producer) and Destilería Serrallés, makers of Don Q rum and other brands. Both make rum in the Spanish heritage style – molasses, column stills, and carbon filtration after an initial aging period.
- Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez 10 year (Bacardi, $38)
St. Croix: Cruzan Single Barrel (Cruzan, $25)
St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is home to Cruzan rum distillery, as well as the Diageo distillery that produces the North American version of Captain Morgan rum. The Cruzan Single Barrel represents the top of Cruzan’s lineup.
Martinique: Rhum Clément VSOP (Rhumerie du Simon, $40)
Martinique is a tough island to select just one rhum to represent. With column-still distillation of cane juice and strict regulations (the Martinique AOC), all the island’s distilleries make rhums worth considering. However, not all distilleries have wide distribution. The Spiribam-owned brands (Rhum Clément and Rhum J.M) fortunately do.
- Rhum J.M VO (Rhum J.M, $40)
- Trois-Rivières Rhum Cuvee du Moulin (Trois-Rivières, $45)
Guadeloupe: Rhum Damoiseau VSOP (Damoiseau, $43)
Like its sister French island Martinique, Guadeloupe is blessed with many distilleries making mostly column-distilled, cane juice rhums. However, Guadeloupe is not subject to Martinique’s AOC. The Damoiseau distillery is the largest on the island, and the brand is the most readily available off-island, so its VSOP gets the nod.
Venezuela: Santa Teresa 1796 Rum (Santa Teresa, $41)
Venezuela’s primary export brands are Diplomatico, Santa Teresa, and Pampero. Both Santa Teresa and Diplomatico blend pot and column distillates in their various blends. The well-known top of Diplomatico’s regular line, Reserva Exclusiva, is extremely sweet so doesn’t take the honors here. In contrast, Santa Teresa’s 1796 is believed to have little or no added sugar and is generally well reviewed.
- Diplomatico Mantuano ($24)
Hydrometer tests indicates the Mantuano has far less sweetening than the Reserva Exclusiva.
Panama: Ron Abuelo Añejo 12 (Varela Hermanos, $35)
Panama’s two large distilleries are Varela Hermano (house brand: Abuelo), and Proveedora Internacional de LIcores, S.A. (PILSA), known for the Origenes line, as well as selling bulk rum to brands like Caña Brava and Panama Pacific. Even though the Abuelo is fairly sweet, given the selection criteria a case can be made for it being the most emblematic.
Guatemala: Ron Botran Añejo 12 Year (Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala, $21)
The dominant player in Guatemalan rum is Zacapa, best known for its “23” and “XO” expressions. However, Zacapa rums are known by the rum enthusiasts to be fairly sweet. The lesser known Botran line is made at the same distillery and appears to have fewer additives.
Casa Magdalena, a rum made in partnership with Portland’s House Spirits, is offering a new take on Guatemalan rum. However, it will be several years before aged stock hits peak maturity.
Antigua: English Harbour 5 Year (Antigua Distiller, $25)
Antigua has one distiller, aptly named Antigua Distillery Limited. Their house brand is English Harbour, with five and ten year expressions. The five year is well regarded and falls under of the $45 threshold.
Dominican Republic: Brugal 1888 (Brugal, $44)
The Dominican Republic rum industry is dominated by the Three Bs – Brugal, Barcelo, and Bermudez. Column-still rums rule the day in the Dominican Republic. Brugal’s 1888 is doubled aged, first in ex-bourbon casks and then in ex-sherry casks.
- Ron Barcelo Imperial (Barcelo, $25)
Haiti: Rhum Barbancourt Rum Estate Reserve 15 Year (Barbancourt, $40)
Haiti’s only large-scale rhum producer is Barbancourt. The distillery uses cane juice for its rhums, yet they don’t have the same grassy notes as Martinique rhum agricole. At only $40, the top of the line Barbancourt 15 year is a great price for a tropically aged rhum.
Another cane spirit made in Haiti is clairin, made by numerous small producers using natural yeasts. Each of the available clairins on the market have their own unique flavor profile, and all quite different than Barbancourt. Some of these clairins come in under the $45 threshold.
Nicaragua: Flor de Caña 18 (Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, $45)
Nicaragua’s large-scale rum industry is a single distillery: Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua. The house brand is Flor de Caña, a column-distilled rum with expressions ranging from an aged and carbon filtered four year white rum, up to premium expressions aged for several decades.
- Flor de Caña Rum 12 (Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, $32)
If the Flor de Caña 18 is too expensive for your wallet, the 12 is similar enough in flavor profile.
Flor de Caña’s labels previously stated minimum ages like 7, 12, or 18 years. However, recently the “years” word on the label vanished, raising questions about the true minimum age of rums in these expressions.
Costa Rica: Ron Centenario Fundacion 20 Años Reserva Especial (Centenario Internacional – $42)
Costa Rica’s primary export rum brand is Ron Centenario, made by Centenario Internacional. Information about the distillery is sparse, but it likely uses column stills. Like many brands from Spanish heritage countries, Centenario’s rums are stated as solera aged.
Belize: Travellers 1-Barrel (Travellers Liquors, $25)
When it comes to Belize, the column-distilled Travellers rum is the brand most seen on international store shelves, and the 1-Barrel is the most readily available expression. They also have 3-Barrel and 5-Barrel bottlings, but they seem to be harder to find internationally.
- Tiburon Small Batch 8 year (Sourced from Travellers Liquors, $30)
Grenada: Clarke’s Court Old Grog Rum (Clarke’s Court, $25)
Although Grenada was once a large producer of rum more than a century ago, current Grenada rum distillation is just a single large-scale rum distillery: Clarke’s Court. However, Mark Reynier, the man who brought Scotland’s Bruichladdich distillery back to life, is building an ultra-modern cane juice rum distillery in Grenada as I write this—so more intrigue to come.
The Westerhall brand doesn’t distill their own rum so was not considered. The River Antoine distillery is beloved by rum wonks, but their rums can be a challenge to obtain.
Final notes: I’ve not included Colombia on this list because very informed sources tell me that Colombia does not have any operating rum distilleries. Likewise, I’ve not included certain countries like St. Vincent and Suriname because they don’t have a significant presence in the international market.
If I’ve forgotten any significant rum exporting Caribbean basin country, do let me know and I’ll add it to the list!
A hearty thanks to Lance Surujbally for reviewing my selections for egregious missteps. All errors are my own.