QUESTION: Is expensive rum (climbing into the hundreds of dollars) really that much better than mid-shelf expressions?
ANSWER: Yes and no.
Rum, like most other booze, gets better with age. That being said, rum doesn’t demand decades spent in the barrel to reach well-aged, nuanced heights — thereby making it all-around more affordable. Yes, there are some very expensive rums out there, but those are typically priced (at least in part) for their exclusivity, packaging, and backstory.
For this exercise, I’m blindly tasting eight dark rums. Four of the expressions are in the $20 to $40 range, which is very affordable. The other four expressions range from $65 to $200, a little more pricey (though not stratospheric). Since this is a blind tasting, I’m going to guess whether these rums are expensive or not, solely on taste.
I have to admit first off, there are some mile-markers in dark rum that usually give it away. Spicy tobacco often denotes long age while butterscotch reveals the opposite. Plus, Caribbean rums have a very distinct feel to them. Bacardi, for instance, smells like Bacardi. Jamaican rums often have a very particular funk to them or “hogo.” One of the rums I tried was very sweet, which gave the brand away immediately. However, I still called it wrong when it came to price. In fact, I actually called three rums incorrectly — which I’m telling myself is more a testament to dark rum’s depth and affordability than my own failings.
(That reasoning is working… for now.)
Here we go!
Part I — The Blind Taste Test
This is smooth, smooth, smooth. There’s a bourbon edge that leads towards a Cognac fruitiness. There’s a clear spicy tobacco vibe with hints of vanilla and Christmas cake. Then you get an almost salted caramel counterpoint on the long and warming end.
This is delicious. It’s also clearly old and expensive. You can drink this stuff neat. It’s so velvety, I don’t even think it needs water.
Peaches and pears meet vanilla pudding and brown sugar in butter. There’s a spicy edge that’s a little grassy and tobacco-forward. I think there’s a hint of banana on the end that mixes with the vanilla pudding to give a banana cream pie feel to this sip.
The end is long, warming, and pure silk.
This is 100 percent on par with the last dram. It has to be expensive. Again, this is a killer served neat, though I’m sure a rock or water would open up a lot more lurking below the surface.
Vanilla, molasses, butterscotch, heat, spice — this is Black Seal. There’s even an old plastic Christmas tree sense to this which, inexplicably, works.
This is cheap rum that tastes perfectly good, but it’s clearly a mixer. Now, where’s that ginger beer?
This is a Christmas cake teeming with dried and candied fruits, spices, molasses, and nuts in a glass. It’s almost unbelievably soft and light while packing in serious notes of dark chocolate and orange oils next to all that Christmas cake depth and tobacco-y spice.
This has to be expensive. Final answer. It’s so, so easy to drink yet so full of dialed flavors.
This is interesting. There’s that fruit/nut/spice matrix as with the last dram. But the sweetness is edging towards butterscotch for me. Still, it’s grassy and has hints of banana, pineapple, and vanilla with a svelte mouthfeel.
I’m going with this as expensive and well-aged, perhaps blended with something younger to add that little bit of butterscotch-leaning-towards-toffee.
Okay. This is Bacardi. It’s spicy, sweet, and smells like, well, Bacardi. It’s light and a little thin but still carries a nice depth of vanilla, oak, caramel, and spice.
This is a great mixer but definitely cheap.
Just from the look, I know this is Don Papa. It’s so sweet, fully in a butterscotch way. There’s a bit of dried fruit, nuts, and spice somewhere under all that sweet but it’s hard to find.
Don Papa has its fans. But, wow, it’s sweet. Because of that, there’s been a lot of debate as to whether there are additives. Regardless, it’s squarely in the “affordable” camp.
There’s that Jamaican funk. This sip has a nice candied fruitiness next to nuts and a bit of ginger spice. There’s a nice grassiness too, next to subtle whispers of vanilla and oak.
This is light and easy but it’s definitely not expensive rum.
Part II — The Answers
Papa Seal (Expensive/Correct)
Average Price: $210
Bermuda’s Goslings is a classic blendery. This expression is a marrying of single barrels of rum that were aged seven to 21 years in ex-bourbon barrels. The juice is then finished for two years in Bermuda in new white American oak.
Bacardi 10 (Inexpensive/Incorrect)
Average Price: $40
This is Bacardi’s high-end expression that’s crazy cheap. The rum is aged for ten long years in lightly charred oak before it’s charcoal filtered and brought down to proof, creating an ultra-refined expression.
Goslings Black Seal (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $20
This rum is a blend of Caribbean rums that were aged for varying years in ex-bourbon barrels. The blend is specifically designed to be mixed but can work as a sipper. Really though, this is known as the base ingredient in a Dark ‘n Stormy and that’s really the best use for it.
Appleton Estate 21 (Expensive/Correct)
Average Price: $135
This rum is made all in-house from the growing of the sugar cane to the special yeast used to ferment the juice. This expression is a blend of at least 21-year-old rums that each have the best textures and flavors in the barrel.
Santa Teresa 1796 (Inexpensive/Incorrect)
Average Price: $45
The Venezuelan rum is a blend of rums aged from four to 35 years in former Spanish sherry and brandy barrels. Those key barrels are hand-selected for their depth and then married into this masterful rum.
Bacardi Añejo Cuatro (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $20
This is Bacardi’s new entry point aged rum. The juice is blended with a minimum of four-year-old rums with a distinct purpose for working as a mixer in the Tiki revolution (and Cuba Librés).
Don Papa 10 (Expensive/Incorrect)
Average Price: $65
This Filipino rum is made from locally grown sugar cane called Noble Cane, making it a very dark (almost black) and very sweet rum. The rum is then aged for ten years in ex-bourbon casks before cutting down to proof.
I knew the brand, but assumed it was their entry-level expression.
Appleton Estate Signature Blend (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $22
This entry-point rum from Appleton Estate blends 15 different rums that were barreled in a variety of methods and aged for around four years. The blend is designed to be a mixer and a sipper that won’t break the bank while introducing the drinker to that signature Jamaican funk.
Part III — Final Thoughts
That Don Papa really threw me. As for the Santa Teresa and Bacardi 10, what can I say? It’s really f*cking delicious rum that’s very affordable.
If I had to rank these by which ones I want to drink again, it’d go something like this:
8. Don Papa 10
7. Black Seal
6. Bacardi 4
5. Appleton Signature
4. Santa Teresa
3. Appleton 21
2. Bacardi 10
1. Papa Seal
That Papa Seal is just so. damn. good. I’m still thinking about it, hours later. The price is high but I really don’t care. It’s that type of spirit. That being said, the Bacardi 10 is pretty much a tie for me, especially given the amazingly accessible price point.
If you need a bottle to trot out for guests (when guests are a thing again), that’s the pick.