The taste of rum is a sweet kiss from a far off land. There’s a little sand, salt, and sea in every bottle — reminders of the spirit’s long history with pirates, navies, and centuries of exploration (and brutal colonization). It’s the upcycled outcome of the sugar industry, discovered when African slaves were given the byproduct of sugar production — molasses. They used the dark gooey substance to ferment a mash and then distilled the product into a very strong spirit nicknamed Kill Devil or rum.
Over time, rum became so popular that the Royal Navy of Britain adopted it as their daily drink ration, a tradition that lasted from 1655 to 1970. Rum became the drink of the American colonies too, and a cornerstone of the American economy. The need for labor to grow and process the sugarcane fueled the Caribbean slave trade — a tragic twist of fate — with casks of rum serving as the currency to trade goods, services, and human lives.
Over the years, rum became more defined. Today we have light, dark, golden, overproof, spiced, and flavored rums. The light rums tend to be those that are either aged for an extremely short amount of time or aged in steel tanks so that they remain largely clear. There are also rums made from sugar cane juice directly. These are your cachaças, charanda, aguardientes, and rhum agricoles. Vital spirits all, but we’ll leave them for now.
Dark rums are those aged in old bourbon barrels (mostly) for anywhere from two to 30 or more years. This gives them a distinct whiskey-like color and intensity. Golden rums are the middle-aged counterpart between light and dark. They’re aged in old bourbon barrels, but generally for less than two years, inflicting a twinge of coloring into the distillate.
Overproof rums are the ones that haven’t be cut in the blending process. They’ll contain an ABV well above the standard 40 percent (80 proof). The most common example of this is Bacardi 151 which clocks in at 75.5 percent ABV.
The difference between a ‘spiced’ and ‘flavored’ rum is what’s used in the infusion. Spiced rum uses spices and generally comes in the golden rum variety. Although it’s common for spiced rum to be a cheap light rum with caramel coloring added to give the illusion of aging. Flavored rums are infused with a fruit, vegetable, or some other food stuff. Though it’s generally a fruit like coconut, banana, mango, and so on.
Today we want to talk about just one variety of rum — dark rum. These are the molasses distillates that spend years mellowing in bourbon-soaked charred oak. Those barrels impart the spice, tannins, oak, and esters that make dark rum so delectable. Below are ten bottles of dark rum that deserve a spot in any home bar.
THE REAL MCCOY 12 YEARS — BARBADOS
The Real McCoy rum got its name due to being a stand-up distillery during America’s Prohibition era. It was literally the real McCoy and not some bathtub hooch that might blind you.
The rum here is made from blackstrap molasses and local spring water in a single combi pot and column still. It’s then aged for 12 years in charred American oak that’s already held bourbon. This imparts an oaky and vanilla aroma that’s underpinning a taste of sweet dried fruit and a peppercorn finish. There are no additives here, just good old fashioned Barbadianan rum.
RON ZACAPA XO — GUATEMALA
Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa stands out on this list for a couple reasons. They don’t use molasses. Instead, their fermentation is started with a condensed sugar cane syrup that’s more akin to a honey. This is also one of the more expensive bottles on the list. It’ll set you back about $100. But it’s worth every single cent.
Ron Zacapa XO is distilled at sea level and aged high up in the mountains. The rum also uses the solera method of aging, akin to the way sherry is aged. Each bottle is a blend of rums aged for six to 23 years in various barrels from Kentucky and Spain. When all is said and done, a spectacular rum emerges. Expect notes of marzipan, orange rind, and burnt caramel leading to a taste of prunes, dark chocolate, cloves and cinnamon, ginger, brown sugar, and an ever so slight hint of smokiness. It’s a complex spirit that really opens up with the addition of a single, well-made ice cube.
HAVANA CLUB AÑEJO 7 AÑOS — CUBA
Okay, this one is a bit of a pain in the ass. American travel to Cuba may be tightening again (legally anyway). In the meantime, keep your eye out for this classic dark rum. Or make sure to bring a case or two back from your summer vacation in Havana.
Havana Club Añejo 7 Años is a blend of rums that have aged for seven years, but not all at once. Generally speaking, this is what the rum maestros drank after barrels were bottled. It was born out what they kept back and blended for themselves. The unique aging and Cuban molasses (mieles) lends a distinct flavor of tobacco, sweet fruits, vanilla, banana, and a hint of roasted coffee. This one is perfect for sipping or making a wicked rum old fashioned.
BRUGAL 1888 — DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Brugal has been making rum since, you guessed it, 1888. They release a large line of rums, but their 1888 line is especially worth your time. They age the spirit for five to eight years in old bourbon barrels and then finish the rum for two to four years in old Oloroso sherry casks that once held Macallan scotch.
All of that specialized aging brings a depth of complexity and flavors to Burgal 1888. Expect to get a hit of sherry on the nose followed by a distinct tobacco, dark roasted coffee, nutmeg, clove, and sweet fruits — balancing with the wood of all those oak casks. It’s a well-made rum that adds a real depth few brands can match.
EL DORADO 15 YEARS — GUYANA
This is another wholly unique rum experience. Guyana is famous for demerara rums which have a distinctly smoky edge to them. This is accomplished through a long and complex distilling and then aging process. The blend of rums that go into a single bottle of the 15 year old come from Enmore and Diamond Coffey stills, Port Mourant double-wooden-pot-stills, and Versailles single-wooden-pot-stills. Those spirits are then aged up to 25 years before being blended down into old bourbon barrels for a few years of finishing.
El Dorado 15 is a class act. All of those stills and casks impart velvety smoothness that eschews rum sweetness for a closer to whiskey-like, oaky taste. Coffee, creamy chocolate, and orange rind are accompanied by hints of tobacco smoke and a dried herb garden. This is the rum that whiskey lovers will fall in love with.
MOUNT GAY BLACK BARREL — BARBADOS
Mount Gay holds the distinguished position of being the oldest (continuously) running rum distillery in the world. It dates back to 1703. Their recent release of Black Barrel adds new dimensions to their usual line up. They’ve created a spirit that’s double distilled in pot and column stills and aged separately in old bourbon barrels. The rum is then finished in new charred oak barrels lending credence to the name.
Black Barrel is a big spicy rum. You’re going to get good hits of marzipan, lime zest, baking spices, orange rind, caramel, vanilla, and a hint of smoke from the charred oak. Overall it’s a great rum with a cool history.
APPLETON ESTATE 21 YEARS — JAMAICA
This Jamaican rum is going to set you back some (pirate) coin. Bottles go for around 160 bucks. But, again, you’re paying for some of the finest rum out there before getting into the bottles that cost hundreds or thousands per bottle.
Expect subtly with Appleton Estate 21. There are hints of tropical floral gardens, vanilla oak, and brown sugar. Under that introduction are sweet dark cherries, creamy milk chocolate, coffee, all spice, and hints of cinnamon. It has complexity without any single part being overbearing. Instead, all those flavors tie the rum together nicely.
FLOR DE CAÑA 18 YEARS — NICARAGUA
This rum house was started by Nicaraguan sugar cane farmers 125 years ago. Flor de Caña has continued to innovate and is currently running their distillery with 100 percent renewable energy.
There’s a combination of the volcanic ash enriching the soil that grows the distillery’s sugar cane and the pure, volcanic water that make this a truly great rum. Flor de Caña 18 lingers in your senses. There are subtle hints of tobacco leaf, burnt brown sugar, dark jam, and cinnamon. Overall, it’s a velvety rum that’s worth taking your time to sip.
SANTA TERESA 1796 — VENEZUELA
This is a world class rum that comes at a very affordable price of $50 a bottle. The Santa Teresa estate has been making stellar rum for a while. They hit it out of the park with this bottle. The rum is a blend of four to 35 year old rums that are finished in sets of Spanish sherry and brandy casks.
Santa Teresa 1796 imbues clean and true rum tastes into every glass. Expect honey, sweet fruits, and brown sugar to start off the taste. That’s followed with plenty of vanilla oakiness, coconut, banana, and dark chocolate bitterness to counterpoint the sweet. This rum makes for a perfect drink on a single rock of ice or a wonderful base for a simple cocktail.
DIPLOMATICO RESERVA EXCLUSIVA — VENEZUELA
Diplomatico’s special reserve rum is a unique blend. They use molasses and sugar cane honey for their fermentation then distill through a single copper pot still. That spirit is then aged 12 years in old bourbon barrels before being bottled.
Reserva Exclusiva is a bold rum. Some would say it screams, ‘RUM!’ with every sip. Expect sweet and slightly burnt brown sugar, dark fruits, citrus rinds, baking spices, and hints of fresh thyme and maybe some rosemary. It’s a smooth rum that leaves the burn behind in favor of a nice subtle kiss.