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 not one,or two, but three different pieces 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.
Here are five excellent (but very different) rums we’re revisiting during quarantine.
This well-known rhum agricole (made from pure sugarcane juice rather than molasses) is more or less the flagship of Martinique’s Rhum JM, one of the most famed producers of rum’s grassier, funkier, earthier cousin. Rhum agricole is often consumed in a white, unaged form, but well-aged rhums like this one (it’s 4-5 years old) essentially bridge the gap between styles, pushing the funkier, terroir-driven profile of agricole in a direction that is more likely to be recognized as similar to other classic Caribbean aged rums from islands like Barbados. The extended oak-aging has a way of dampening some of the more intensely earthy notes, adding its own vanillans and flavor compounds while leaving some of the uniquely agricole character intact.
That is indeed the case with Rhum J.M V.S.O.P, a product that is aged slightly longer (and is slightly more elegant) than the same brand’s V.O, but not quite as long as the extra-aged X.O. The V.S.O.P, though, sits in a very nice place inbetween, combining friendly sweetness, caramelization and approachability with the complexity that tiki drinkers appreciate in agricole. As I wrote when first tasting this one back in February:
On the nose, there’s more of a pure sugar cane note, along with green apples, apple pie and fennel spice. On the palate this one is quite smooth and inviting, easy to sip neat, with rounded, mildly sweet notes of pepper, toffee, apples and fennel. The expected earthiness/grassiness is there as well, but the Rhum J.M. lineup in general strikes me as a bit less expressively funky as some of the other agricoles I’ve had, and a bit more approachable and balanced. Likewise, although both the V.O and V.S.O.P are mildly sweet, neither are really anywhere close to rich or decadent. Agricoles in general have a tendency to present as less sweet than other rums because they’re balanced out by the grassiness and funk, which lends them more of a sophisticated profile for neat drinking. If you like the flavor of aged rum, but find many of them (especially sugar-added “premium” ones like Zacapa or Diplomatico) too sweet to enjoy a glass, then you may also find aged agricoles like this V.S.O.P compelling.
2019 was a year of me discovering many rums for the first time, and along with that discovery came a realization: One of my favorite substyles that nobody seems to talk about is aged white rum. I eventually wrote an entire essay about exactly that—rums that have been aged a few years and then filtered to remove their color are some of the most versatile and spectacularly flavorful for mixing/cocktail purposes. Ten to One White Rum would seem to fit in beautifully, but it’s actually an unaged white rum that instead tastes like it’s had time to mellow beautifully. I had absolutely no expectations for this one when I sampled it for the first time, at least partially because of the relatively low MSRP, but it exceeded all my expectations and then some by being far more vivacious and full of character than I thought it would be. This is now one of my go-to daiquiri rums, and if all you ever usually use is the likes of Bacardi, it represents a substantial upgrade. As I’ve written previously:
On the nose, Ten to One White Rum is immediately funkier and more interesting than expected, with prominent grassy and earthy tones, segueing into juicy pineapple. This is likewise packed with flavor on the palate, featuring notes of fresh cane, white pepper, fresh cut grass, pineapple, green bananas and marshmallow fluff, while being overall fairly dry. It reminds me favorably of one of my favorite daiquiri white rums, Denizen 3 Year, and is, I must admit, far better in general than the vast majority of unaged white rum found on store shelves in the U.S. The thing is, at an MSRP of $29.99, which is high for white rum, and without a concrete age statement to factor into the rationalization of that price, Ten to One White Rum essentially NEEDS to be great in order to justify itself. Unexpectedly, it does exactly that. This is excellent, being pleasant to drink neat, and with a complexity and assertiveness of flavor that will work wonderfully in a variety of cocktails. I simply can’t deny how good this is.
Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for very, very well-aged rum. This is one area where micro-distilleries really can’t touch the storied, historic Caribbean distillers—products like Mount Gay’s 1703 Master Select remain something you have to turn to the islands to achieve, because they’re the only ones who have stocks this old.
This is a very complex, and fittingly expensive, blend of 10 to 30-year-old rums, selected by the brand’s master distiller on a yearly basis and released once a year, bottled at a slightly elevated but still very approachable 86 proof (43% ABV). What they’re clearly going for here is refinement and elegance rather than trying to absolutely blow the doors off with flavor. This rum is an elder statesman, and is meant to be afforded the respect of one. It takes Mount Gay’s house profile and teases new flavors and richness out of it.
This is a very rich, slightly savory, somewhat decadent, although not necessarily overtly “sweet” dram, which features impressions of deep caramel, old oak, dried fruit and an absolute plethora of baking spices. I’ve had this bottle open for several years now, and those spice notes have only continued to grow, with lots and lots of candied ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and molasses cookie. The heat is beautifully integrated, making this a very easy drinker that nevertheless has a tendency to grow in the drinking. It ends in notes of dry old oak and cigar wrapper, with slight tannic dryness that counteracts its more caramelized notes. Dropping this kind of coin on a bottle of rum is something that many Americans will never do, but it’s an experience everyone should have at some point. You don’t really know what aged rum can be like until you’ve sampled something like this.
As we hinted at in the Rhum J.M entry above, many of the most notable producers of rhum agricole have unaged white rums as their flagship entries, and often offer them at several strengths and price points as well. Rhum Clément’s green-labeled Premiere Canne is typically the brand’s flagship, but they also produce the Canne Bleue, a stronger and more premium blue label variant that clocks in at 100 proof. This is a bracing, in-your-face blast of agricole funkiness that is clearly made for use in cocktails—especially in the classic ‘Ti Punch, which can be thought of as the French-speaking Caribbean’s answer to the ubiquitous daiquiri, except always made with agricole.
This stuff is truly a trip—if you’ve never sampled really funky agricole before, there’s just no way to describe it in advance or prepare for it. Rather than the molasses richness you expect even in standard, unaged white rums made from molasses, the sugarcane juice-derived agricoles taste intensely like the earth they sprang from. It’s simply an intense flavor profile: Fruity, earthy, spicy and exotic all at once. That can make agricoles like Rhum Clément Canne Bleue too intense for some folks’ neat drinking, but that’s just it—you don’t need to use them that way. Rather, try using them in small proportions in other rum drinks to infuse an X-factor of delicious complexity. As I wrote when first sampling this one:
On the nose, Canne Bleue is like few things I’ve ever smelled before. You certainly wouldn’t be mistaking this for standard, molasses-based rum, as its funky, mustier profile is a dead giveaway that something here is quite different. Light notes of grass and hints of what are reminiscent of cucumber are found on the edges, while the backbone is dominated by strong earthy/funky notes. On the palate, it has an earthiness that is not unlike mushrooms, supported by minty herbal notes, moderate levels of pineapple sweetness and dry herb/spice notes of bay leaf and pepper. The finish is still fairly dry, when all is said and done. For a white rum, this is extremely complex and unusual, but most drinkers likely would find cocktail applications for it, rather than drinking it neat—you can be certain that the distinctive varietal characteristics of Canne Bleue would be quite easy to spot shining through in a ‘Ti Punch or daiquiri.
American-made rum can have difficulty competing for share-of-attention within the rum space, as there are so many well-established rum distilleries in the Caribbean and Central America that supply most of our best-known brands. Likewise, there’s an increasing number of prominent rum blending companies in the U.S., which source sought-after Caribbean and Central American rums and blend them into unique, premiumized products for the U.S. market. Rum that is actually distilled here is somewhat less common, but it’s especially notable if it’s being distilled from American-grown sugarcane. That’s one of the handful of things that makes Colorado’s Montanya Distillers stand out—as a female-founded rum distillery making aged American rums from single origin sugar cane grown in Louisiana, its status within the micro distillery industry is a rather unique one.
All of Montanya’s products (including their white rum) see some oak aging, but the most fascinating one for me is the Montanya Exclusiva, which is aged for a few years in American oak that previously held Colorado whiskey, and then finished for six months in French oak barrels that previously held Sutcliffe Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and port. The result is uniquely fruity, herbal and slightly tannic, with a deft combination of sweetness and bitterness that has continued to remind me of Italian amaro whenever I go back and revisit it. It really is one of the most unique American rums I’ve sampled—as I wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, there’s no missing that this rum has spent some time in a unique finishing barrel. I get an immediate rush of red berries and an interesting undercurrent of herbal notes—strawberry fruitiness and the suggestion of herbaceous bitterness, to the point that it honestly reminded me of classic amaros in the vein of Montenegro or Averna. On the palate, there are some more caramelized flavors present, but this rum is by no means the molasses/caramelized sugar profile that some would no doubt expect. Rather, it’s defined by its red fruitiness, which segues into fresh, grassy notes, dried herbs and a slight bitterness and tannic dryness. At the same time, it’s noticeably rounder in texture than Montanya’s other products—the time in French oak has smoothed out some of the rougher edges and allowed a gentle, balanced sweetness to shine through at the same time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.