Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
What are the best values in rum today? It’s a simple question, and every tiki-inclined drinker would like to know the answer, if only to save on their next trip to the package store. But it’s also something of a complicated topic, as any query about “value” ultimately tends to be.
“Value” is notoriously hard to define, given that every consumer has their own idea of what constitutes good value, and what they’re willing to pay for various products. Rum is further stratified into different categories that each require separate consideration in terms of “value”—rhum agricole, for example, almost invariably costs more on average than other Caribbean rum styles. Therefore, comparing the “value” of a blanc agricole to an unaged Jamaican rum is a more complicated matter than simply comparing two dollar values.
Premium rum, meanwhile, is a beast unto itself—it’s very, very easy to spend more than $100 (and far beyond) on various bottles as soon as large age statements and vintage years come into play. With that in mind, for the purposes of this piece we’re going to focus entirely on the best values in rum you can find for less than $50. We’ve further subdivided this list into two categories: rums under $25, and rums under $50.
Allow us to empower your perfect daiquiri, mai tai and far more with the following rums.
The category here is “under $25,” but in all honesty you can find quality rum for $15 or less, as evidenced by our blind tasting of cheap white rums. Most of the rums that cheap are likely to be unaged, or artificially flavored or colored, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t many quality products available in this range.
For this list, though, we’ll be focusing on quality rums that avoid artificial flavoring and deliver superlative bang for your buck.
Distillery: House of Angostura
Country: Trinidad and Tobago
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
In terms of serious value, it’s hard to beat what you’re getting in this aged product, the top-selling rum in Trinidad and Tobago. This is a “white” rum aged three years but then charcoal filtered to remove its color, resulting in a more nuanced but still crisp profile that can run laps around most of the unaged white rums available at the same price point. Too many of those rums read to the palate like distant cousins of vodka, but not this one—it was the winner of our cheap white rum blind tasting for a reason, and it makes an excellent budget-conscious daiquiri. As we wrote previously:
On the palate, Angostura White Oak possesses a friendly sweetness and lightly creamy texture, with a noticeably spicy profile that hints at black and pink peppercorn. Ethanol is present but not overbearing, being incorporated into the profile in a way that feels more like a welcome, chest-warming sensation rather than the solventy burn of many of the other bottom shelf entries. These are shades of grey, of course, but the cohesion of White Oak was apparent to pretty much every taster in this blind tasting, which implies it will probably shine through in your mixed drinks as well.
Distillery: J. Wray & Nephew Ltd.
ABV: 63% (126 proof)
An indispensable tiki staple, J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof rum is beloved for several obvious reasons. First, you’ve got the price point—roughly $20 for quality overproof rum is something almost impossible to match, and many lesser brands charge far more. Then of course, you have the iconic appeal of Jamaica’s most widely consumed overproof rum, and all the character that implies—the intense, overripe hogo character, the fruity and spicy notes that shine through in any cocktail, no matter how strongly flavored. It’s unsurprisingly a rum that will put you on your ass if you’re not careful, but that should be fairly obvious.
There are other Jamaican overproofs that can almost match this one for value, such as Rum Fire Overproof (which is also significantly more funky), but you’re just not going to find them for as low as $20, so this one reigns as the absolute value champion. Whether you’re adding it in small quantities to classic tiki cocktails to add complexity and heft, or mixing up the most dangerous planter’s punch this side of Kingston, it’s the obvious brand to turn to.
Distillery: Société du Rhum Barbancourt
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Haiti’s Rhum Barbancourt is an odd duck among Caribbean rum/rhum producers, with a product that technically has more in common with the traditional rhum agricoles of Martinique and Guadeloupe than it does with the molasses-based rums of other countries, but often tastes more like the latter regardless. There are a few reasons for this, including the distillery’s unusually higher distillation proof and their style of aging in European oak, but suffice to say, these are rums distilled from sugar cane juice, ‘ala agricole, but they don’t actually bear the word “agricole” and fall outside the French-style AOC designation. Haitian rum, therefore, is avowedly its own thing.
Rhum Barbancourt 3 Star is more or less the distillery’s flagship, and is a relatively lightly aged rum/rhum that spends four years in French oak. As a result, you can sub it into recipes that call for “amber” or lightly aged agricoles, although in terms of profile it doesn’t have the intense earthiness/funkiness that many other agricoles will have. Instead, 3 Star is gentler and sweeter, with light notes of caramel apple, toasted sugar, stem ginger, white pepper, citrus and white grape. It’s a versatile, high-value rum that can be subbed into cocktails that call for either molasses or cane juice rums.
Distillery: Denizen Rum
Countries: Trinidad, Jamaica
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
One of the best stand-alone daiquiri rums out there today, Denizen Aged White Rum is a nifty little blend of aged white rums from Trinidad and Jamaica, contributing funk and smoothness in equal measure. Like other aged white rums, these have been charcoal filtered to remove whatever coloration they picked up in the oak. These rums consist of some column still product from Angostura, as in the previously mentioned White Oak, along with some high-ester pot still rum from Jamaica’s Hampden Estates, which you might consider the “spice” of the blend. What you’re left with is a wonderfully complex “white” rum that begs to be used in a classic daiquiri or mojito. As we’ve written about it in the past:
On the nose, Denizen Aged White rum contains hints of vanilla, marshmallow and coconut, with sawdust woodiness, grassiness and a hint of pineapple. It smells considerably more tame than entries we tasted in the $15 and under blind tasting, as if all its rough edges have been sanded and smoothed away. On the palate, this is essentially confirmed. This is a lovely little spirit that is just complex enough, just assertive enough and a near-perfect example of what it is intended to be. Green sugar cane impressions and hints of banana bread, coconut and slight oak tannin lend it complexity not seen in other examples of unaged white rum.
Distillery: Hamilton Rum (Demerara Distillers Limited)
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
No rum lineup would be complete without a versatile bottle of high-value demerara rum, which means something from Guyana’s prolific Demerara Distillers Limited. And in terms of value under $25, you won’t go wrong with the company’s own El Dorado lineup, although we’re also partial to Ed Hamilton’s flagship demerara rum seen here. The full name is actually “Hamilton 86 Ministry of Rum Collection Demerara River,” but all you need to know is that this is some Guyanese rum at 86 proof, with all the punchy flavor that you expect from Guyana.
This is an essential and very versatile cocktail rum that brings big, bold sweetness and spice to a wide variety of drinks, and can be subbed into many other recipes that call for Jamaican or Bajan rum, if you feel so inclined. Very dark in color, it may have some added coloration, but thankfully no added sweeteners. Instead, you’re free to enjoy a toasty, dark fruity rum with big flavors of molasses and brown spices. It’s guaranteed to poke its head out appreciably from even the most assertive cocktails. And of course, if you need even more extra oomph, you can reach for the 151 proof variant to deliver the thunder.
Rum has a somewhat less defined “mid-shelf” and “top shelf” than we typically assign to spirits like bourbon, or perhaps that’s just my own perception. Regardless, it seems to me that there’s more a matter of personal perspective here—some drinkers would look at these selections and define them as part of the rum mid-shelf, while others (especially those who want to spend less) might see them as splurgy treats for special occasions. Regardless, we’re again focusing solely on value here, answering the following question: What rums are providing you with the best experience for the price, for less than $50?
Here are some more of the value all-stars, primarily from the lower end of the price range … for even more value!
Distillery: Real McCoy (Foursquare Rum Distillery)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Barbados’ Foursquare Rum Distillery isn’t exactly known for the affordability of their core releases, but they are known for producing some of the Caribbean’s most lovely, balanced aged rums for neat drinking. And thankfully, those rums are available from a handful of more affordable, high-value producers, most notably in the Doorly’s and The Real McCoy brands. Both of them are extremely high-value ways to get coveted Bajan rum from Foursquare at cheaper prices, but we’ll give The Real McCoy a slight nod for the fact that their releases tend to present the rum in the most traditional way possible, without any additional barrel finishes.
The Real McCoy 5 Year is a basic, accessible, wonderful introduction into the world of aged rums from Barbados. Nicely blended between notes of sweet citrus, caramel, light vanilla and dried fruit, it drinks very easily on its own and is happy to make an extra-characterful daiquiri at a moment’s notice. If you’re looking to explore why people enjoy sipping aged rum, this is a very inviting place to start.
Distillery: Demerara Distillers Limited
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Everything we wrote in the previous section about the Hamilton 86 demerara rum also applies to this selection, which comes straight from Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) rather than going through an independent bottler. The El Dorado lineup of rums from DDL is both beloved and oft-criticized by rum geeks for the fact that its age-stated rums have been valuable “gateway” products for many exploring aged rum, but also contain significant amounts of added sugar in the higher age-stated bottles. Specifically, the El Dorado rums tend to contain significant added sugars from El Dorado 12 Year onward, but the younger bottles (the 5 and 8 Year) thankfully do not, allowing consumers to choose what kind of experience they really desire. Personally, we gravitate toward the unadulterated rums that offer a pure expression of the distilling art from Guyana.
El Dorado 8 Year is a lower strength but still very characterful demerara rum, as most in the style typically are. It’s far lighter in shade than many of the demeraras that feature added color, but packs assertive notes that range from dark chocolate and dark dried fruit, to smoke and even more complex florals. It’s a classic of the style that is a steal at $25, where it can often still be found. No, it’s not as sweet as the El Dorado 12 Year, but it’s a lovely dram all the same, and a go-to for tiki drinks that specifically call for demerara rum.
Distillery: Worthy Park Estate
ABV: 63% (126 proof)
I’ll once again add that Hampden Estate’s Rum Fire Overproof is another excellent option here with a similar price point and no shortage of Jamaican estery funkiness, but I feel like Worthy Park’s Rum-Bar strikes a nice balance between the (relatively) lower ester count in something like Appleton or J. Wray and the intensity of Rum Fire. Rest assured, though, if you’re venturing into these waters, you’re going to get an understanding of the funky, fruity flavors we call hogo.
Rum-Bar Overproof can boast the exact same overproof strength as J. Wray’s entry, and is often used in much the same way—portioned out in small bits in order to add complexity to classic tiki cocktails, or mixed with wild abandon to create extremely strong and flavorful mixed drinks by those with a zest for life and a strong liver. Flavor-wise, Rum-Bar Overproof provides wave after wave of overripe banana on the nose, along with more delicate fruitiness and impressions of earth, grass and almost wild, “barnyard” notes. It’s a style of rum where you always need at least one in your collection at any given time.
Country: Puerto Rico
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
As one of the world’s giant rum companies, Bacardi isn’t afforded a lot of respect from rum geeks who are into more obscure bottles, but that doesn’t mean you should write off the company’s core lineup of aged releases. In particular, the flagship Reserva Ocho has always been a rather fantastic value—its MSRP usually sits around $30, but if you’re lucky you might find it for $25 or less, which is great value for a quality, 8-year-old Puerto Rican aged rum. It’s a common bottle to see in restaurant and bar programs for a reason—it’s widely available, adaptable and delivers both quality and value. It’s a solid cocktail rum that also makes for pleasant neat drinking if you want a lower proof point. As we wrote when tasting it previously:
On the nose, there’s thankfully less of an overt ethanol presence here than in the Bacardi Anejo Cuatro, with more caramel apple in its place, and an inviting waft of baking spices and seasoned oak. There’s slightly more oak and fruit (apricot, plum) on the palate, but the most surprising aspect is just how spicy this rum is—full of sweet cloves, candied ginger, allspice and cinnamon. It’s much more characterful than the Anejo Cuatro, and nicely fills in some of its gaps, with an alcohol presence that is mellowed considerably. It’s still unfortunately thin at the palate at this proof point, and its residual sweetness is beginning to push into syrupy territory, but at $25 or less it’s a pretty outstanding value compared to the valuations on most similarly aged-stated bottles.
Distillery: Appleton Estate
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Jamaica’s iconic Appleton Estate distillery decided to refresh its core lineup from top to bottom in 2020, condensing some of their brands and making their distinctions more easily understood at a glance. It was a sensible move, as the lineup had become a bit confusing in recent years, with the average consumer likely to be confused if releases like “Signature” or “Reserve” were meant to be the more premium product. Now, the lineup flows in a more logical way, and with a new cornerstone at its center: Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve Rum.
This is a truly new product, in the sense that it’s a new blend from legendary master blender Joy Spence, replacing the previous mid-tier Appleton Reserve Blend. As with all rum blends, the 8-year age statement means that the rums involved are at least 8 years old, and may include significant portions of older rum as well. This one is presented at a slightly elevated 43% ABV (86 proof), and is positioned to work as an easy sipper and cocktail mainstay that represents an upgrade in assertiveness and complexity from the flagship Applestone Estate Signature Blend. This it does with aplomb—when tasting the entire new lineup, the 8 Year Old Reserve quickly became our new favorite of the group, even in comparison to the reliable 12 Year Old Rare Casks. As we wrote then:
On the nose, the 8 Year Old Reserve is markedly more expressive and mature than the Signature, with notes of grilled pineapple, banana and ginger. There’s a more savory and slightly more wild dimension to this dram, with a greater oak presence and considerably more spice—the slight bump in proof makes itself felt in an appreciable way, lending heft to these flavors. This one also strikes me as particularly fruity, with lots of pineapple, citrus and passionfruit notes, closing with a bit of supporting oak tannin. Ultimately, the 8 Year Old Reserve actually proved to be my favorite of this lineup, and I think it’s the star of the newly revamped line—especially if it’s available to you near the MSRP. It’s perhaps the most balanced synthesis of all the Appleton notes, bringing plenty of fruitiness and spice to play, amplified by the bump in proof and balanced by subtle oakiness. Whereas the 12 Year Rare Cask ultimately leans more toward influence from the barrel, the 8 Year Old Reserve strikes me as a very skillful balancing act.
Distillery: St. Lucia Distillers
Country: Saint Lucia
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Saint Lucia is a rum region with a single, influential distillery, but one that can be overlooked by drinkers focusing solely on big-name distillers in places like Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Martinique. Saint Lucian rum, meanwhile, provides a nice middle ground, echoing some of the same techniques seen in other English-style rum producers in the Caribbean while inflecting a bit of their own local terroir into their premium brands, such as Chairman’s Reserve 1931. The flagship Chairman’s Reserve Rum Original, meanwhile, is the company’s best overall value, being a blend of column and pot still rums aged for an average of five years.
This rum provides a well-balanced flavor profile, touching on roasted/caramelized fruits and vanilla, along with dried fruit and more savory (tobacco) and spicy (cloves) notes. It’s not a brand with as much cache or devotees in the American market, but you can easily swap it into many other recipes calling for aged Caribbean rum and be very pleasantly surprised with the results.
Distillery: Denizen Rum
Country: Jamaica, Martinique
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
I went out of my way to keep this list from having multiple entries from most companies, but I think Denizen in particular demands a shout-out for the value of their sourced rum blends. I particularly love the concept of this one, which was specifically designed in an effort to approximate the blend that would have originally been used in Trader Vic’s first Mai Tai recipe in 1944—a blend of aged Jamaican pot still rum and rare, molasses-based (rather than cane juice) rum from Martinique, known as Grand Arôme. There’s only one distillery on Martinique even making primarily molasses-based rum, Le Galion, which makes this one an interesting oddity right out of the gate. As you would no doubt expect, it’s been designed with the Mai Tai in mind, and I can confirm that few rums make a Mai Tai I like more than this one. As I wrote previously:
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.
Distillery: Rhum J.M
ABV: 55% (110 proof)
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.
Distillery: Rhum Clément
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Aged agricoles simply cost more on average than molasses-based rums, but there are still some flagships out there that represent solid values. Clément’s V.S.O.P. is one of them, being aged a minimum of four years in a combination of French and American oak. Like other agricoles with relatively lower age statements, it functions like something of a bridge between the brighty, punchy, earthy intensity of unaged agricoles and the greater richness and oak inflection of longer-aged versions, retaining some more of the terroir of the island while also smoothing out its rougher edges. As a result, its uses are nearly limitless—you can sub it into just about any aged rum cocktail for an agricole twist, or drink it neat just as easily. It’s an obvious entry point for someone exploring aged agricoles as well. As we wrote previously:
On the nose, the V.S.O.P. is notable for its toasty nuttiness, presenting clear notes of almond, banana and light oakiness. There are hints of caramel here, but it’s not nearly as focused on that dimension of caramelized sugar as many aged molasses rums in the same relative age bracket. Rather, it retains some of the funk and undercurrent of mushroom earthiness on the palate, which is met with pleasant fruit notes of red berries, nutmeg spice and something that reminds me quite a bit of holiday wassail. Much of the sting of the proof and vegetal notes has been removed in the course of the four years of aging, leaving a smoother, gentler product.
Distillery: Mount Gay
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Mount Gay made some waves back in the spring of 2020 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. The MSRP of the brand subsequently jumped up in the process, but this is one of those cases where the improvement to the product manages to offset and justify the price increase. Note: The new version is found in a shorter, wider bottle that is the primary way to tell the difference between the two. As we wrote previously:
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. The reformulated version of Black Barrel makes itself a much more clear upgrade from the brand’s flagship Eclipse rum.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.