The Six Essential Tiki Rum Categories

Newcomers to Tiki drinks quickly face an uncomfortable question: Just how many rums do I need? With so many recipes calling for Lemon Hart this, Jamaican rum that, overproof, and Puerto Rican, it quickly becomes overwhelming.

I know, because I was once live that nightmare. Luckily, I could buy all sorts of bottles and learn by trial and error. But I still find myself not having a specific rum called for in a recipe and wondering what a reasonable substitution might be.

I also have many rum bottles that stubbornly remain nearly full because I bought them for one recipe which I haven’t fallen in love with. In time, and with a lot of expense and experimentation, I figured out which end was up. I subsequently became convinced that there had to be a better way.

The primary question I wanted an answer to: What is the smallest set of rums needed to make the most classic Tiki recipes, assuming I can make reasonable substitutions?

By reasonable, I mean close enough. That is, substituting Bacardi Cuatro (4 year) for Mount Gay Eclipse will likely give decent results. But substituting Rum Fire for Lemon Hart 151? Not so much.

This isn’t to say the Bacardi and Mount Gay rums are the same. But if you encountered a recipe calling for “One ounce gold rum,” many bartenders would call them close enough in the context of all the juices, spices and syrups used.

The key to understanding the essential types of Tiki rum requires a bit of rigor and understanding up front. But it pays out in spades later on.  There are three key steps, or requirements:

1) Being fairly familiar with the taste profile of a wide variety of readily available rums

What’s does a typical, aged Jamaican rum taste like? What do Demerara and Rhum Agricole taste like? Does the Jamaican Rum Fire taste anything at all like Appleton Reserve? (Short answer: very much not.)

2) Identifying groups of rums with fairly similar tastes with regard to use in Tiki recipes

The rums in a category needn’t taste identical, but they should taste more like each other than a rum from another group. For example, consider:

  • Rum Fire
  • Worthy Park Overproof
  • Wray & Nephew Overproof.

All are from Jamaica, have a distinct funkiness, aren’t aged, and weigh in at around 63 percent ABV. They taste reasonably similar to the average person. Furthermore, there’s no way you’d mistake any of them for Lemon Hart 151.

There’s an important point to make here: When it comes to Tiki cocktails, what matters most is taste, not production methodology. There are rum categorizations like Gargano and Cate that focus heavily on production techniques — pot still vs. column still vs. a blend of both; molasses vs. cane juice; light, moderate and heavily aging, and so forth. However, in such categorizations, you can end up with two rums in the same category but with vastly different taste.

When it comes to making intelligent substitutions in a recipe, flavor profile is the overriding concern. Not how the rum was made.

3) Mapping the rums specified in classic Tiki recipes to your rum groupings

In the conclusion of our endeavor, we select a large set of classic Tiki recipes like the Mai Tai and Navy Grog and map each to the categories defined in step 2. For example, if a recipe calls for DonQ Añejo, in the categories described below, we could map it to the “Moderately Aged Rum” category.

By doing this with enough recipes we start seeing a pattern emerge — e.g. Category ‘D’ is used the most, but Categories ‘B’ and ‘G’ pop up frequently enough. Category ‘A’? Not so much.

In short, rather than staring at a store’s rum selection and guessing what rums will turn out to be most useful, we let classic Tiki recipes guide us to the categories we should focus on.

It just so happens that our book, Minimalist Tiki does all this hard work for you. Or, at a minimum show how to do this exercise on your own.

The book selects thirty classic Tiki recipes from the Golden Era of Tiki — the 1930s to 1970s. Mai Tai, Jet Pilot, Saturn — they’re all on the list.

It then systematically categorize every ingredient from each recipe, be it rums, juices, syrups, or liqueurs. For instance, one recipe might call for triple sec, another might call for Cointreau. Both of these are normalized to “orange liqueur”.

The end result is a brand-agnostic, minimal set of ingredients from which you can make all manner of classic Tiki recipes. Having something from each category is enough for you to get started on your way to classic Tiki land! The categories also provide a solid starting point for more modern Tiki recipes.

In case you were wondering, this ethos of starting with just the truly essential ingredients is where the Minimalist in Minimalist Tiki comes from. The book isn’t about making simple recipes, it’s about making drinks using ingredients you’ll use over and over.

Of course, this article is specifically about rums, so let’s see the Minimalist Tiki rum categories, adapted from the book:

Minimalist Tiki Rum Categories

AGED JAMAICAN RUM (14 out of 30 classic recipes)

Jamaican rum and tiki are joined at the hip. The pungent aroma of overripe banana and “funky” flavor make Jamaican rum instantly distinguishable from other rum styles.

After several barren decades of few choices, there’s finally a wider swath of Jamaican rums from different distilleries available to consumers. When a recipe calls for a Jamaican rum without additional guidance, something between two and five years of age is a safe bet.

Examples: Rum-Bar Gold, Plantation Xaymaca, Coruba Dark

Note: Smith & Cross is very popular in modern tiki drinks, but at 57 percent ABV, it’s technically an “overproof” rum, so shouldn’t be blindly substituted for an aged Jamaican rum without taking its higher ABV into account.

Also, for the purpose of tiki recipes, unaged Jamaican Overproof rums like Rum Fire, Wray & Nephew, Rum-Bar Overproof and Monymusk Overproof are not interchangeable with the Aged Jamaican category. See the note at the end.

Note 2: Wondering where Appleton Signature Blend is? Keep reading.

LIGHTLY AGED/FILTERED RUM (11 out of 30 classic recipes)

This category is particularly difficult to pin down, as it encompasses many rums with slight differences. One common element is that all of these rums are molasses based. This differentiates them from agricole-style rhums made from cane juice and with a very different flavor. The lightly aged rums also have just a few years of moderate aging, before being charcoal filtered. This removes most of the coloring but the remaining flavors are lighter and more subtle than unfiltered, moderately aged rums. These are the sort of rums commonly used in daiquiris.

A common but not very useful name for this category is “white rum” or “silver rum.” But it’s important to know that the flavor profiles of two uncolored rums can be wildly different: A column distilled budget rum tastes very different than a blend of aged pot still rums, despite being similarly “white.”

Choose a rum with flavor and character. Otherwise you might as well use vodka — and we won’t go there.

Examples: Plantation 3 Star, Banks 5 Island, Caña Brava, Caliche, El Dorado 3, Real McCoy 3, Havana Club 3

MODERATELY AGED RUM (5 out of 30 classic recipes)

Like the Lightly Aged selections, the Moderately Aged category comprises molasses-based rums. However, these rums have spent more time in a cask and thus have taken on more flavors from the wood. Traditionally, these would be called “gold” rums. However, “gold rum” is meaningless when it comes to recipes. Color is easily faked with spirit caramel, and a great aged rum may well be lighter in color than an inferior rum dosed with spirit caramel.

Some Jamaican rums like Appleton Signature aren’t particularly funky, so may be a better fit here than in the Aged Jamaican category.

Examples: Mount Gay Eclipse, Appleton Signature Blend, Bacardi Cuatro, Don Q Anejo, Doorly’s 5 year, Bounty Gold

AGED DEMERARA RUM (5 out of 30 classic recipes)

Aged Demerara rums are made in Guyana using molasses from locally grown sugar cane. (The Demerara name refers to a region in the country.) These moderately aged rums have a distinct, earthy, burnt sugar flavor; some could also work within the Moderately Aged category. These rums are often heavily colored with spirit caramel, which can impact flavor in higher amounts.

It’s worth noting that “navy” rums and, in particular, overproof navy rums (54.5 percent ABV or higher) typically have a dominant Demerara rum component.

Examples: El Dorado 5 Year, Lemon Hart 1804, Diamond Reserve Dark, Hamilton Guyana, Skipper, Old Sam

OVERPROOF DEMERARA RUM (4 out of 30 classic recipes)

The words “overproof Demerara” bring one rum immediately to mind: Lemon Hart 151, the Thor’s Hammer of tiki rums. These rums are essentially Aged Demerara but with nearly twice the firepower: 75.5 percent ABV, to be exact. (The “151” moniker comes from the proof — twice the ABV percentage.) These types of rums typically undergo only a year or two of aging and are often heavily colored with spirit caramel.

Examples: Lemon Hart 151, Hamilton Overproof 151, Lamb’s Navy 151

AGED AGRICOLE RHUM (3 out of 30 classic recipes)

Aged Agricole rhums are distilled on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe using fresh sugar cane juice rather than molasses. Agricole rhums (note the added “h”) used for tiki are typically between eighteen months and four years of age. The unique, grassy, vegetal notes of unaged agricole mellow substantially with a few years in wood casks. Long-aged Agricole rhums are divine to sip but aren’t used as much in tiki recipes.

Examples: Clément Select Barrel & VO, St. James Paille, Rhum J.M Gold, Duquesne ESB

BONUS Unaged Jamaican Overproof (0 out of 30 classic recipes)

Although unaged, high strength Jamaican rums weren’t used much (or perhaps at all) during the Golden Era, they find lots of use in today’s Tiki recipes. With that it mind, it’s well worth having at least one on hand.

Examples: Wray & Nephew Overproof, Worthy Park Overproof, Rum Fire, Monymusk Overproof

Just a cool rum image from the book.

Further notes

Chapter 12 of Minimalist Tiki (Rum Categorizations) goes through each of the above categories in far more detail, including mapping them to other categorization schemes, including by color and colonial history.

Chapter 14 of the book (Tiki Rum Recommendations) maps several dozens of today’s readily available rums into the categories above. A much more comprehensive set of rums than given as examples above.

Finally, some disclaimers on all the above:

Unlike other rum categorizations, the Minimalist Tiki rum categories don’t intend to encapsulate every cane spirit on the market. There are plenty of great rums out there which can work well in Tiki recipes. But within the scope of this exercise (classic Tiki recipes) the rums called for weren’t the crazy things like Haitian clairins or Overproof Jamaican rums that you see used today.

Should someone do the exercise with a different starting set of modern recipes, you’d likely get different results. For instance, unaged Jamaican Overproof would definitely get its own category. They were rarely used in Golden Era recipes, so don’t appear in the list above.

None of the above is meant to say that all rums within a category are identical, or that you shouldn’t strive to acquire more rums to build out your rum arsenal. Rather, it provides some initial structure for beginners to start out with and expand their collections when they’re ready.

Minimalist Tiki is available at the Minimalist Tiki web site.

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