The best rums jostling for space on your bar
By Ricky Browne
Last year rum outsold gin globally for the first time in at least five years. As the world looks for greater premium products, rum was exceptional as a spirit for only really dipping its toe in that market, instead relying on its entry brands for the majority of its profits.
But increasingly rum as an industry has been waking up to the ever-expanding market for premium spirits, and has been promoting some mature rums, far from the image of partying pirates singing yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, and fighting instead with your grandfather’s whiskies for attention.
With an immense range of rums to choose from, here is our list of the top seven premium rum brands looking for space on your bar.
- RON ZACAPA
Ron Zacapa from Guatemala is extremely smooth and flavourful, with key notes of honeyed butterscotch, spiced oak and raisined fruit.
Aged in barrels at a height of more some 2300 meters, it claims to have an aging process – the solera method — that makes a more distinguished rum than its competitors. Its two most noteworthy bottles are the 23-year-old in its tall elegant bottle with thatch detail and the even more prestigious Ron Zacapa X/O, aged in brandy barrels for extra flavour. The 23-year-old is created from a range of rums from six years old to 23 years old.
Ron Zacapa is created by Rum Creation and Products, a subsidiary of Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala, and distributed and marketed by Diageo.
But perhaps even more surprisingly, Ron Zacapa is not made from molasses, but it actually made from sugar cane juice, in the rhum agricole style. The rum has been aged in barrels that previously were used for bourbons, sherries and other wines. The high altitude with the low average temperature of about 16 degrees Celsius means that Zacapa ages in a way more typical of Scotch whiskies than tropical rums.
Lorena Vasquez, the master blender for Zacapa, helps to nurture female employees – including hiring several hundred indigenous women employed in the crafting of the traditional, woven palm bands which wrap some bottles of Zacapa rum.
A bottle of Ron Zacapa 23 will cost about £50 pounds while a bottle of the Zacapa X/O can go for about twice that at £100.
- APPLETON ESTATE
Appleton Estate – owned by Campari – is the oldest rum factory in Jamaica, having started production of rum in 1749 in the Nassau Valley near the centre of the island. Unlike many Latin American rums, the age on the bottle represents the youngest – not the oldest – rum in the bottle. So the youngest rum in a bottle of Appleton Estate 21-year-old, is 21 years old – not some teenage rum trying to be older than it actually is.
Appleton rums include flavours of Christmas cake, butterscotch, nutmeg and orange peel.
And because of the island’s tropical climate the evaporation rate is much faster than in temperate climes, meaning that an Appleton 21-year-old would have a much higher level of maturation than Scotch whiskies of a similar age.
No doubt to compete head-to-head with the Ron Zacappa 23-year-old, Appleton has recently launched its own 23-year version, which by definition should be significantly older than its Guatemalan competitor, as the youngest rum in the blend will be 23 years old — not the oldest. But the rum is not yet available in the UK market.
Appleton’s master blender, Joy Spence, has become famous herself for being the first woman master blender in the global spirits industry. In fact, one of her blends has been named after her – Joy. Another of her blends which is now near impossible to find is the 50-year-old blend, created to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th year of independence in 2012.
Make do instead with the Appleton 21-year-old for £155, or the 23-year-old if you can find it. Also on offer are Appleton’s entry Signature blend for about £23, the new and highly-regarded 8-year-old blend costing £29 pounds, and the excellent 12-year-old for £40.
- HAVANA CLUB
Now partially-owned by French group Ricard, Havana Club has become one of the world’s most popular rum brands, except in the United States where it is still banned – in preference to a US-brand with the same name, but different flavour. The rum comes in many different blends, but the seven-year-old is one of the most successful.
Havana Club has the flavour of Cuban tobacco, along with tropical fruits and vanilla. Unlike most rums from the English-speaking Caribbean, Havana Club is not aged in old American bourbon barrels — thanks to the American embargo that prevents trade with the socialist island. Well, not directly anyway. The barrels are originally American bourbon barrels, but are then used in the production of Irish whiskey outside of the US, before finally making their way to Cuba.
The end result could be a difference in flavour, with less of the oaky finish found in many other rums.
As one of the younger rums in the list, Havana Club 7 is more pocket-friendly. A bottle will cost about £26 but a bottle of the rarer 15-year-old is less friendly towards the proletariat, and will cost about £150 — or about the same as a bottle of the Appleton 21-year-old.
But if you want to drink rum like a real Cuban, its better to go for ‘the plank’ a dry white rum in a little UHT box called Ron Planchao. Costing 90 CUC – less than a US dollar – it is almost as cheap as water and definitely cheaper than beer. It is the affordable rum for workers and non-workers alike, and if mixed with some Tu Cola (Cuba’s answer to Coca Cola), can make a refreshing Cuba Libre.
- WORTHY PARK SINGLE ESTATE
Worthy Park in the parish of St Catherine in Jamaica lays claim to being one of the earliest rum producers in the West Indies, having started farming in 1670 and sugar production 50 years later in 1720. But unlike Appleton it hasn’t been in constant production, and took a break after World War II until restarting with a completely new distillery in 2004.
That hasn’t held it back as it is now producing a fine rum that takes on the prestigious Single Estate mark, as everything inside the bottle originated from the Worthy Park Estate. Using only the traditional pot-still method, the rum which was launched about two years ago is in limited supply, and is presented in a beautiful Spanish-made bottle, complete with Portuguese cork.
Although relatively new to the market, the rum was selected as the Best Rum in the World 2020 by the Whiskey Exchange, and was also voted the Spirit of the Year.
The flavour profile is quite unusual and includes toasted oak and nutmeg, with a hint of black pepper, spicy tobacco and a touch of ginger with a soft, dry finish.
A bottle of this award-winning rum if you can find it can be had for about £45.
Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star is probably the best thing to come out of Haiti, at least since the idea of a revolutionary black state, with other exports including coffee, cotton clothing and mangoes. Started by a Frenchman in 1862 with roots in the cognac region of France, the rum has retained a cognac-like quality.
Unlike most of the other rums on this list, Barbancourt is made from fermented sugarcane juice as opposed to molasses, which is a by-product of the sugar-making process. Rhum agricole, which exists in the other French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, has a completely different flavour from the more globally popular molasses-based rums from the English and Spanish speaking countries.
Barbancourt may not have a woman master blender like Xacapa and Appleton — but it does go one better by having a woman as its head. Delphine Gardère, the daughter of the previous head, and a direct relation to the founding father, has regained control of the company after family members brought a court battle to oust her.
The rum with its unique double distillation process, is more like brandy or molasses-based rums than the greener taste of most other rhum agricoles. It has a flavour of oak, vanilla and citrus, with a hint of white pepper and ginger.
The fame of the rum got a boost from Wyclef Jean, the Haitian music star of The Fugees fame, who has been promoting it.
The Barbancourt 5 Star is an eight-year-old rum, but the rarer Réserve du Domaine Barbancourt rum, is aged for 15 years.
A bottle of Barbancourt 5 Star will cost a little over £30, an excellent rum at a very affordable price, while the 15-year-old Réserve is also a good deal at about £70.
Diplomatico is one of the best rums from Venezuela and has had rave-reviews for some time now. And thanks to deteriorating Venezuelan economy, it can often be bought at bargain prices.
The 12-year-old Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva is distilled in copper pot stills. Its flavour profile includes caramelized bananas and roasted tropical fruits with a hint of chocolate, vanilla and other spices.
While the rum has won several international awards, some rum aficionados may be less than diplomatic when it comes to this rum and some of its Latin American peers, calling it dishonest. That is because the rules regarding rum production are looser than in the English-speaking territories, so flavourings are more likely to be added and the assumed age of the rum is likely to be compromised. Like a fruit that is picked too early, Jamaicans may call this ‘force ripe’.
Nevertheless, the rum beckons with its smooth and sweet taste, and the price point is often lower than similar-tasting rums.
A bottle of Diplomatico Reserva Excluciva will cost about £42.
- MOUNT GAY
No list of rums of this calibre could be complete without Mount Gay from Barbados, which claims to be the oldest existing rum brand in existence, with an intact deed that dates it back to at least 1703.
Of special note is their Black Barrel blend, which contains rum as young as three-years-old, but which has been aged in heavily charred ex-bourbon barrels for the final six months. With notes of vanilla, banana, chocolate and coffee with flavours of fruit and spice, the rum has a familiarity to bourbon — sometimes called the bridge — as it is able to attract bourbon drinkers.
These flavours are intensified by the five-year-old Mount Gay XO which attracts cognac drinkers with its level of dryness.
The Mount Gay Black Barrel will go for about £37, with the XO for about £60 and the premier 10-year-old Mount Gay 1703 Master Select blend will go for about £175.
A FEW OTHER WORTHY CONTENDERS
- FLOR DE CANA
Nicaraguan rum, lighter in flavour than most of the rum from the English-speaking countries. The rum is said by some to be genetically linked to Cuba, its revolutionary brother.
The rum distinguishes itself by being fair trade certified and sustainably sourced, carbon neutral premium rum, naturally aged without any sugar or additives.
Prices range from about £27 for the five-year-old Black Label to £122 for the premier 25-year-old.
Angostura may be better known globally for its bitters, but many Trinidadians think it also produces the greatest rum. Most Jamaicans would disagree and may have put in the recesses of their collective mind that the Trinidadian company once owned Appleton, not very long ago. Fortunately for the state of Jamaican pride, Angustora got into financial difficulties and eventually sold its Jamaican rum holding to the Italian spirits giant, Campari.
But Angustora rum is the pride and joy of Trinidad’s rum industry and does have a distinct flavour. For anyone fortunate enough to go to Trinidad’s carnival, if you don’t like it now, you will learn to like it then, as it flows liberally everywhere.
A bottle of the popular Angostura 1919 containing some eight-year-old rum will cost about £33 and the more distinct 12-year-old Angustora 1824 will go for about £60.
- EL DORADO
El Dorado from Guyana may have started in 1992, but rum making has been established in the country since the earliest days of the spirit in the 1600s.
El Dorado has a range of its Demerara rums from a three-year-old, five year and the recent eight-year-old, to a 12-year, 15-year and up to a 25-year-old. The age on the bottle is the age of the youngest rum in there – not the oldest like the Latin American solera rums.
The prices range from about £26 for the five-year-old, £54 for the popular 15-year-old and about £95 for the premier 21-year-old.
A RUM PUNCH RECIPE
Meanwhile, if you still have a bottle of that cheaper entry rum rolling around, such as Appleton Special — now rebranded as Kingston 62 — here is a very old recipe for making Planter’s Punch.
1 of sour (one measure of freshly-squeezed lime juice)
2 of sweet (two measures of brown or white sugar and maybe some honey)
3 of strong (three measures of rum, preferably gold rum)
4 of weak (four measures of ice and/or water)
Mix and enjoy.
The proportions can be altered to suit your taste, so you can up the amount of strong and decrease the amount of weak, and decrease the amount of sweet to make it a little tarter.