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 lived that nightmare. Luckily, I was able to buy many bottles and learn by trial and error. But I still find myself with a specific rum called for in a recipe, wondering what a reasonable substitution might be.

I also have many nearly full rum bottles, purchased for one recipe I didn’t fall in love with. In time, and with much expense and experimentation, I figured out which end was up. I became convinced there was a better way.

The primary question I wanted to answer: What is the smallest set of rums needed to make the most classic Tiki recipes, assuming 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 consider 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 some rigor and understanding up front. But it pays back in spades.  There are three key requirements and steps:

1) Being 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, also from Jamaica? (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 alike than a rum from another group. For example, consider:

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

All are unaged Jamaican rums with a distinct funkiness, 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 how the rum was made. Rum categorizations like Gargano and Cate focus heavily on production techniques such as:

  • pot still versus column still versus a blend of both
  • molasses versus cane juice
  • light, moderate and heavily aging

However, in such categorizations, two rums in the same category cane taste vastly different. When it comes to making intelligent substitutions in a recipe, flavor profile is the overriding concern. Not how the rum was made.

We’ll get to my suggested categories in just a bit.

3) Map 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 from step 2. For example, if a recipe calls for DonQ Añejo, we could map it to my “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 perusing a store’s rum selection and guessing what rums will be most beneficial to buy, we let classic Tiki recipes guide us to the categories we should focus on.

It just so happens that our book, Minimalist Tiki takes on the task of creating these categories, working from thirty classic Tiki recipes from Tiki’s Golden Era — the 1930s to 1970s. Mai Tai, Jet Pilot, Saturn — they’re all on the list.

It then systematically categorizes every ingredient from each recipe, be they rums, juices, syrups, or liqueurs. One recipe might call for triple sec, another might call for Cointreau. Both are normalized to “orange liqueur” to give the reader maximum flexibility and understanding in making substitutions.

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 sufficient to get started on your way to classic Tiki land! The categories also provide a solid starting point for making numerous modern Tiki recipes.

The ethos of starting with just the truly essential ingredients is what the Minimalist in Minimalist Tiki refers to. The book isn’t about making simple three-ingredient recipes, it’s about making drinks using ingredients you’ll use over and over.

Of course, here were specifically concerned with rums, so let’s look at the Minimalist Tiki rum categories, which I adapted below from the book:

Minimalist Tiki Rum Categories

Aged Jamaican Rum (14 out of 30 classic recipes)

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

After several barren decades with few choices of funky Jamaican goodness, there’s finally a wider swath of Jamaican rums available. When a recipe calls for a Jamaican rum, and offers no 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 another aged Jamaican rum without taking its higher ABV into account.

Also, in 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 why Appleton rums aren’t on the list? 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 they’re all molasses-based, differentiating them from cane juice “agricole-style” rhums with a very different flavor.

Our lightly aged/filtered rums have just a few years of aging before being charcoal filtered. This removes most of the coloring, but the remaining flavors are lighter and more subtle than unfiltered aged rums.

These are the sort of rums commonly used in daiquiris. A common but unhelpful shorthand for them is “white ” or “silver” rum. It’s important to realize that two uncolored rums can taste very different: A column distilled budget rum has far less flavor than a aged/filtered pot still rums, despite both being “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/Filtered category, the Moderately Aged category comprises molasses-based rums. However, these rums have likely spent longer in a cask, taken on more flavors from the wood, and haven’t had some flavor and color removed.

Traditionally, these would be called “gold” rums. However, “gold” is meaningless when it comes to recipes. Color is easily faked with spirit caramel, and a fine aged rum may be lighter than an inferior rum colored with spirit caramel.

Some Jamaican rums like Appleton Signature aren’t particularly funky, so seem to 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 primarily molasses from locally grown sugar cane. (The Demerara name refers to a region within Guyana.) These moderately aged rums have a distinct, earthy, burnt sugar flavor; some of them could also fall into Moderately Aged category. These rums are often heavily colored with spirit caramel, enough to add a noticeable flavor note.

It’s worth noting that “navy” rums and, in particular, overproof navy rums (54.5 percent ABV or higher) typically have a strong Demerara rum component, in particular the unique note of the Port Mourant still.

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 rum. Overproof Demerara is essentially Aged Demerara with nearly twice the firepower: 75.5 percent ABV, to be exact. The “151” moniker comes from the proof — twice the ABV number. These rums are typically aged for only a year or two and are often heavily colored with spirit caramel.

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

Aged Agricole Rum (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 in tiki are typically between eighteen months and four years of age. The unique, grassy, vegetal notes of unaged agricole mellows 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 such as 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, and is a much more comprehensive list of rums you might consider.

Finally, a disclaimer: Unlike other rum categorizations, the Minimalist Tiki rum categories don’t try to encapsulate every possible cane spirit. There are plenty of great rums which might work well in Tiki recipes, but weren’t called for in classic Tiki recipes. For instance, the Haitian clairins or Overproof Jamaicans that are finding their way into modern tiki.

Should someone do the mapping exercise with a large set of modern recipes, they’d likely define more categories, for instance, unaged Jamaican Overproof.

The above doesn’t attempt to say all rums within a category are identical, or that you shouldn’t acquire more rums for your tiki arsenal. Rather, it provides some initial structure to start with, leaving more extensive purchases for later, when you’re ready.

Minimalist Tiki is available at the Minimalist Tiki web site.

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