I don’t know how anyone could have predicted this, but it turns out that quarantine is conducive to drinking at home.
Shocking, I know! As it turns out, when we’re all cooped up and unable to visit our favorite bars and taprooms, home consumption of beer, wine and liquor goes through the roof. It’s certainly been on my mind as I embarked on an entire series revisiting some of the whiskey bottles I pulled out of the back of my cabinet. It made all the sense in the world, given that the one thing we all tend to have during quarantine is time to reflect. And for a spirits writer, that includes reflecting on some of our favorite booze.
We’d be remiss, though, if we kept it to only whiskey. Indeed, there are only so many whiskey cocktails you can make during quarantine before you start craving the sunnier, outdoorsy disposition of classic tiki drinks. Rum cocktails may very well be my favorite cocktail genre of them all, and it’s a spirit that is tremendously versatile, being equally satisfying for neat drinking or mixing purposes. It was with that thought that I raided my liquor cabinet once again, but this time with an eye on rum. And timing is with me, as National Rum Day happens to be this very weekend, on Aug. 16.
Here are five excellent (but very different) rums I’ve been revisiting most recently.
Santa Teresa 1796 is the flagship product of its distillery in Venezuela, a solera-style ron that is bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) without a distinct age statement. Like all solera-aged rums, this is a blend of many distillates of varying ages, and the distillery notes on their website that the oldest of those rums (present in small quantities, of course) reaches 35 years old in ex-bourbon casks. The average age isn’t stated, but Santa Teresa also earns some credit in my book for not sticking any deceptive numerals on the label in an attempt to imply an age statement, as is seen on the likes of Zacapa 23.
On the nose, Santa Teresa 1796 sends off wafts of buttered toast and toffee, and an almost caramel corn-like note, along with red wine and cocoa. Cloves and slight smokiness bloom on the palate, along with ginger and plenty more cocoa. This is a fairly sweet rum, and feels like the kind of thing that is marketed as “after dinner,” but it doesn’t ring too distinctly of added sweeteners in comparison with many of the other rums marketing themselves as non-age-stated “premium” sippers. Its chocolate-forward profile gives it a pleasantly dessert-y feel, as does the red fruitiness that combines with a chest-warming alcohol presence to evoke port wine or brandy.
This would seem to be a rum tailored for neat drinking, but I also recently used it to whip up an impressively tasty, coffee-infused old fashioned cocktail riff, so it seems to have some mixology potential as well, at least when it comes to making more decadent drinks.
Mount Gay made some waves back in the spring when they announced that two of the brand’s core expressions, Black Barrel and Mount Gay XO, would be reformulated under the watchful eye of new Master Blender Trudiann Branker. For Black Barrel, a brand that has always been defined by receiving extra aging in “deeply charred bourbon casks,” the time of its secondary aging was significantly increased, from four weeks to six months. In addition, the average age of the rums in the blend was increased, from 2-7 years to 3-7 years, and it also promises to contain an unquantified “higher content of double distilled pot still rums” than before. Less reported, perhaps was the subsequent rise in the brand’s MSRP, which jumped fairly significantly from $25-30, to $45 for a 750 ml bottle. This seems to be indicative of Mount Gay’s desire to create greater distinction between Black Barrel and the brand’s entry level Eclipse aged rum, and make a case for Black Barrel as a more premium product. Befitting this, it’s bottled at a slightly elevated 43% ABV (86 proof). Note: The new version is found in a shorter, wider bottle that is the primary way to tell the difference between the two.
And tasting this new expression, I can see why they took the time to make this particular reformulation. They have absolutely widened the gulf in quality between Eclipse and Black Barrel in particular, to the point that these two Bajan rum brands can hardly be compared to one another. The Black Barrel is a much deeper, more intense and more characterful spirit, and compared to my memory of its previous incarnation, it also seems to have gained the additional complexity you would hope for when the MSRP is increasing substantially. In other words, you might miss the old Black Barrel price point, but at least the evolution of this rum justifies its premiumization.
On the nose, this is a rich Bajan rum redolent in gingerbread, cloves and ripe banana, along with molasses richness and a distinct impression of charred oak. Vanilla bean explodes on the palate, with unctuous flavors of gingerbread, brown sugar and caramelized plantains. It leads into an oak-forward, roasty finish, with moderate residual sweetness, and a kiss of smoke. It’s absolutely lovely to drink neat, but I simultaneously can’t wait to whip up a daiquiri with it just to see how it does. It makes me even more excited to revisit the reformulated version of Mount Gay XO at some point as well.
Rhum J.M products aren’t exceedingly difficult to find in the U.S., although this particular expression might be. Rhum agricole distilleries set themselves apart from most other rum producers in a number of ways—most obviously by the fact that they produce spirits from sugar cane juice rather than molasses—but also by how much they tend to focus on unaged rum/rhum. To that end, many of the classic agricole distilleries don’t just offer a single unaged rhum, but a whole line of them at various strengths. For Rhum J.M, the two most commonly found in the U.S. are 80 proof (a blue label) and 100 proof (a green label). But ah, there’s also this particular red label, clocking in at 55% ABV (110 proof), and this stuff is a beast. Powerful and aromatic, it’s also more beguiling than you might expect—a deft combination of fruity tones and “green” notes. As I wrote when first sampling it:
On the nose, it’s redolent in pineapple and fresh fruit, registering as quite sweet, but with lots of greener notes (green plantains, fresh grass) as well. On the palate, it bursts with fresh citrus (lemons?) and pineapple juice, in a way that I can only describe as “tangy,” but then segues into intense earthiness and grassy flavors, alternating between mushroom-like earthiness and green notes. Just taking a small dram, this is demonstrably powerful, and fairly sweet as well thanks to the proof. I must note, however, that although it is undeniably hot, it’s actually a bit easier to drink neat than I was expecting. Compared with the 100 proof Canne Bleue from Rhum Clément, it strikes me as perhaps a bit more easy for a beginner to pick up, thanks to the pronounced fruity notes and sweetness, which tempers the intense earthiness and spice to a more balanced level.
I can only say that should you be able to lay hands on this bottle, be careful when using it to mix cocktails. It might just get you in trouble.
Denizen is a rum buyer and blender; a company that doesn’t operate a distillery but instead acquires a wide range of rums from all over and then blends them in the Netherlands, where rum has historic roots reaching back as far as the golden age of Caribbean exploration and piracy. They’re deeply attuned to what the cocktail market desires in particular, and that seems to have been a good part of the inspiration for the brand’s Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of Jamaican and Martinique rums. Specifically, the goal here was to create, in one bottle, a blend that would replicate the flavor profile of the rum blend Trader Vic used to build his Mai Tai recipe after the original rum he used for it in 1944—Wray & Nephew 17 Year—was entirely consumed. To make that blend, Trader Vic reportedly turned to high-ester Jamaican pot still rum, and a rare molasses-based (rather than sugarcane agricole) rum from Martinique, known as Grand Arôme. And that’s what we find in Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve.
The blend of Jamaican rums here are referred to on the bottle as “Plummer-style” rums, a complex term with much history that today largely implies a high-ester Jamaican rum product. The Grand Arôme, on the other hand, hails from a single Martinique distillery, Le Galion, the last distillery left on the island still primarily making rum from molasses. The Grand Arôme, in fact, might be thought of as Le Galion’s own answer to the funk-forward rums of Jamaica, which makes them spiritual siblings.
I have tasted this particular rum blend before, and although I enjoyed it then, I have a feeling that I wasn’t ready to fully appreciate its complexities at the time. Tasting it again now, I am entranced by its aromatics of dessert banana, caramel and wet earth. On the palate, this is really delicate and lovely, with captivating flavors of toasted sugar and slight sugar caney earthiness, transitioning into mocha and marzipan. It has a pronounced chocolate-coffee combo on the palate, which makes it a joy to sip all on its own, with subtle notes of char, tobacco and cigar wrapper. The ethanol heat is well integrated and almost entirely disappears into the richer notes of this rum, and it makes a Mai Tai that is just as delicious as you would no doubt hope.
All in all, at the MSRP of around $35—and you can sometimes find this even cheaper—I have to say that this is one of the best pure values in all of rum today. If I had access to this regularly in Virginia, I would amass a stockpile.
Okay, you’ve probably noticed that MSRP is just a scootch higher than the others, right? It all comes down to two things: Rarity, and barrel proof.
Holmes Cay is a young boutique bottler that is focused entirely on sourcing exceptional, well-aged, unadulterated casks of spirit from classic rum-producing regions. That is all they do, and their releases are both small and coveted. To date, there have been only three: Barbados 2005, Fiji 2004 and Guyana 2005. Each has been fantastically different from each other; an evolving world tour of what “rum” means in different parts of the globe. All are bottled at cask strength, without any “finishing” barrels, dilution or gimmickry. It’s a philosophy that is as pure as pure can be, and I admire the hell out of that, even if it results in some very high price tags. For the true rum geeks, however, the uniqueness of these releases makes them must-gets.
This is a demerara rum from Guyana, which of course means one thing—it’s the product of Demerara Distillers Limited, the only remaining demerara distiller. This rum was specifically produced at Port Mourant, on the distillery’s completely unique, 300-year-old double wooden pot still, the only one of its kind left in existence. Its cask strength rings in at 112.8 proof, and it was aged 15 years in the U.K. in recycled rum casks. This release was extremely small, at only 180 bottles, but it was my first experience with barrel proof demerara rum, and it certainly makes an impression.
This is some unusual stuff on the nose—earthy and funky but also sort of musty or grainy, almost doughy, with notes of butter toffee, green apple and marzipan. There’s an almost sherry-like quality to this, and a vinous character that shows up on both the nose and the palate. At the same time, it’s also woodsy and almost resinous, with pine needles and a peat-like earthiness, complete with hints of smoke. It swings between its influences—at one moment, you’re thinking white grape and apple brandy, and at another you’re focused on molasses, peat and light smoke. It’s a complex head-scratcher of a rum, and if you somehow manage to run across a bottle somewhere, you should do your best to get a taste.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.