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Bartenders Name The Perfect Rums For Anyone Obsessed With Vanilla

Most aged spirits feature vanilla flavor notes, to some degree or another. As spirits rest in oak barrels, the cell walls of the oak release flavor compounds — the most notable of which is vanillin, also found in vanilla beans. So it should come as no surprise that bourbon, which is aged in New American Oak, can be incredibly vanilla-forward.

Now combine that vanillin note with the generally sweeter flavor profile of aged rum, and you have the potential for a vanilla bomb. Certain barrelling techniques can amplify this effect even more — time in the barrel, heat in the rickhouse, choice of finishing barrels, etc. All to the joy of the vanilla-obsessives (and rum cake bakers) out there.

This week, we asked the experts behind the bar to pick their favorite rums for fans of vanilla. Check their recommendations below!

Zacapa 23

Zacapa

Joan Percival, bartender at Proof Whiskey Bar & Craft Cocktails in Omaha, Nebraska

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $50

Why This Bottle?

Zacapa 23 is a solera-aged rum that has tons of barrel character. The solera aging system is unique in the way it allows a range of ages to meld with each other in the barrel. A solera system is particularly suited to rum production because the angel’s share can take a much heavier toll on spirits aged in warmer climates. The constant addition of new rum keeps the barrel full, improving the surface area available to interact with the liquid and extract those yummy vanillins.

The result is a sweet, rich, vanilla bomb that needs no mixer.

Foursquare 2008 Exceptional Cask Edition Mark XIII

Foursquare

Mike Reisman, bartender at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia

ABV: 60%
Average Price: $90

Why This Bottle?

Foursquare 2008 Exceptional Cask Edition Mark XIII’s price point is admittedly squarely in the “treat yourself” category, but it’s well worth every penny. This Barbados rum is sought after for good reason. It’s aged in ex-bourbon casks which impart a rich, burnt vanilla note (think creme brûlée), plus some softer fruit notes.

At a whopping 120 proof, all of those flavors present as rich and luxurious, with a long finish.

Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum

Papa

Inga Tantisalidchai, bartender at OLEA Cellar Craft Cook in Newport Beach, California

ABV: 42%
Average Price: $30

I love Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum. Its vanilla notes are smooth and vibrant. It’s a beautifully balanced solera blended rum. Unlike other “light rums,” Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum utilizes the natural color of the barrels it’s aged in.

Zacapa XO

Zacapa

Austin Zimmer, bartender at Le Prive in New York City

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $114
Why This Bottle?

I would say Zacapa XO is one of the best rums for vanilla fans. The aromas are pretty strong, it’s a mix of vanilla, cherry, spices with cinnamon and nutmeg touches. Obviously, it’s a little more expensive than most. But the flavor and sipping quality make it completely worth it.

El Dorado 8 Year

El Dorado

Emily Lawson, bartender, and the owner of Foxhole Public House in Bentonville, Arkansas

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $25

Why This Bottle?

El Dorado’s 8 Year is a vanilla bomb. Pink House Alchemy’s cardamom syrup makes an incredible daiquiri with El Dorado 8. But if you sip it on your own you’ll be treated to sweet caramel, rich molasses, and toasted vanilla beans.

Bounty Spiced Rum

Bounty

Joe Harvey, lead bartender of Thr3 Jack in Minneapolis

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $18.99

Why This Bottle?

Many rums will offer some sort of vanilla notes, however, Bounty Spiced Rum, made in St. Lucia, puts a focus on it. This rum immediately starts on the nose with aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and honeyed raisin. As for the taste, the vanilla and nutmeg flavors heavily shine through.

It’s a delicious choice for fans of vanilla and is versatile enough to sip on or mix in a cocktail.

Plantation Original Dark Rum

Plantation

Jeff Rogers, bar director of Jester Concepts in Minneapolis

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $20

Why This Bottle?

Plantation Dark is a rum made from a blend of Barbados and Jamaican rums, then double-aged. The rums are aged in their country of origin and then blended and aged again in France. It has great flavors of banana, red fruits, dried fruits, and amazing vanilla. This rum makes wonderful cocktails made for the spring and summer.

Blend this with their Stiggins Pineapple rum for a daiquiri and your stresses will melt away.

Don Q Oak Barrel Spiced Rum

Don Q

Jaiker Soto, master blender at Destilería Serrallés in Ponce, Puerto Rico

ABV: 45%
Average Price: $30

Why This Bottle?

The best rum for vanilla enthusiasts is Don Q Spiced, a blend of Puerto Rican rums that have been aged for a minimum of three years in American white oak barrels, naturally infused with aromatic baking spices.

The aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove combined with a soft touch of sweet tropical fruits, give way to a bouquet of light notes of wood. In flavor, it’s intense and opens in permanent spicy notes, rich vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, ending with a balance of moderate sweetness and a touch of toasted caramel.

Zaya Gran Reserva 12 Year

Zaya

Shaun Traxler, bartender at Vault Cocktail Bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $30

Why This Bottle:

My go-to in this sweeter rum world is Zaya Gran Reserva 12 Year. It’s packed with vanilla, baking spice, and even some tobacco notes. It’s perfect as an after-dinner sipper on the rocks, in a Rum Old-Fashioned, but it also makes a heck of a Rum and Coke if you squeeze a lime wedge or two in it!

It’s a great buy for anyone looking for a rum on the vanilla-heavy, sweeter side of the category. The bottle will see plenty of use sitting atop one’s bar.

Rhum Barbancourt 8 Years

Rhum Barbancourt

Michele Alfonso, bartender and mixology instructor at New York Bartending School in New York City

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $30

Why This Bottle?

I have chosen this spirit because as we are going towards the summer season, this rum is a great combination for warm weather-tailored cocktails. A very powerful and fruity rum with hints of vanilla and pepper which together produce an amazing balanced flavor to the palate.

Personally, I really like this bottle for its Mediterranean, citrus notes but the vanilla is definitely there, too!


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