“People think that rum is just sweet and sugary. That’s a myth,” Trey Litel from Louisiana Spirits says. Litel uses traditional pot stills and locally grown sugarcane to produce rum that ranges from unaged, bright and clean to aged, fuller-body rums more reminiscent of whiskey than what’s in, say, your frozen strawberry daiquiri.
Litel’s not the only one trying to clear up misconceptions about this storied spirit either. When Martin Cate set out to write Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki with his wife, Rebecca, he wanted to shed light on the “really confusing, complex category.” One look at the just-published tiki tome, and it’s clear that rum, as Cate puts it, “is the most diverse spirit in the world.” People are finally taking note.
As Maggie Campbell of Massachusetts-based Privateer distillery says, “It’s no longer what college kids are drinking out of a trash can.” (We’ll toast to that.)
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Craft distilleries have exploded across the country in recent years, and though whiskey has gotten most of the attention, the quieter but no less important story belongs to the spirits that don’t age for long. Enter rum, which can be bottled right away. Though a lot of rum ages in oak barrels for at least a few years, it requires less time to benefit from the aging process, which means distilleries can put it on the market sooner and turn a profit faster.
What’s more, bartenders love rum for its versatility. “It’s the most mixable spirit,” Litel says. Unlike Scotch or tequila, rum has no designated production method beyond that it must be made from sugarcane or sugarcane by-products, like molasses. This means flavor and quality run the gamut. And as the world of mixology continues to grow, so too does the desire for a jack-of-all-trades spirit like rum (see a rum punch recipe).
Tiki bars are back with a vengeance, and even on menus that aren’t tiki-centric, “There’s always at least one tiki variation, and that’s kind of a newer development,” Kim Roselle of San Francisco’s Trick Dog bar notes. It’s not all about cocktails either. Much of the rum coming out of these new distilleries is meant for sipping. “It’s a movement that’s just picking up now,” Roselle says.
So put your game face on, wipe away those (foggy) memories of cloying rum and Cokes, and learn a little more about this serious—and seriously complex—spirit. Here are five ways craft distilleries are elevating rum, and bottle recommendations to go along.
① Terroir: Not Just for Wine Anymore
Most rum is made with molasses, a by-product of sugar making that won’t reveal terroir. But distilleries like Louisiana Spirits and Georgia-based Richland Distilling Company ferment sugarcane itself or sugarcane syrup, which can express a sense of place. Richland is the only rum distillery that grows its own sugarcane solely to make rum on the premise, and proprietor Karin Vonk is excited for more places to hop on board, so she can compare terroirs.
Try: Richland’s Single Estate Old Georgia Rum
② Fermentation Experimentation
The majority of rum producers ferment molasses, or in some cases sugarcane, for just 24 hours before it is distilled. Distilleries like Privateer ferment its molasses for six days at a cooler temperature, which produces a more complex, dry and flavorful rum. “We’re known for the texture,” Campbell says.
Try: Privateer Amber Rum
③ Double-Cask Finishing FTW
It’s common for rum to age in oak barrels—either new ones that let the sugarcane notes really sing or used whiskey barrels that might impart different flavors. More distilleries are experimenting with double-cask finishing, aging rum in port, sherry or cognac barrels after initially aging in oak barrels. They’re usually limited editions, so keep an eye out.
Try: Foursquare Port Cask Finish
④ Hey, Sugar: Hand-Cut Sugarcane
Much sugarcane harvesting is done by machine, but hand-cut sugarcane “develops a different flavor” and leads to “a better concentration on sugars in the molasses,” Jason Kosmas from Cana Brava Rum, which uses only hand-cut sugarcane, says. This, in turn, allows for faster fermentation time, which is traditional of Cuban rum making—a method to look out for as the country opens.
Try: Cana Brava Rum
⑤ Royally Cool: The Queen’s Share Method
Spirits are typically “cut” into parts after distillation: heads, hearts and tails. The hearts usually get bottled, while the heads and tails may be discarded or blended into new batches. Mixing subpar portions with the hearts helps produce higher yields. But Privateer and award-winning, Pittsburgh-based Maggie’s Farm Rum use a method called Queen Share. They collect batches of tails only—“the really heavy, funk, oily portions,” Maggie’s Farm Rum owner Tim Russell says—and redistill them for a smooth, rich and intensely flavored rum.
Try: Maggie’s Farm Rum Queen’s Share Unaged or Queen’s Share Rye Barrel Finish