Terroir is a term often associated with wine, but this ‘sense of place’ is gaining traction with spirits as well, first with mezcal and tequila and now with rum. Rums from across the globe vary in their agricultural ingredients, distillation methods, barrel ageing times and weather… tropical vs continental ageing plays a big factor. All these factors into the essence of the spirit, its terroir.
Rum styles are typically broken down along the lines of the colonizers. Former French colonies use sugar cane juice to make their rum, and former English and Spanish colonies use molasses. French-style Rhum is grassy, Spanish style rum is light and dry, while English style rum is heavier and full-flavoured.
These three colonial delineations are where most garden variety rum educators stop, but while convenient, it’s a woefully inadequate system. In order to really understand rum styles, one needs to delve deeper and drill down to the country level. Let’s look at a variety of rum-producing countries and learn a bit about their styles and the brands that represent them.
Antigua’s local rum is called Cavalier but the only Antiguan rum you’ll find for export is made by the same folks but is called English Harbour. Antigua is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Barbados is the birthplace for rum production. The medium-bodied Bajan style is known for being both flavorful and approachable, and frequently blends rums from both column and pot. Notable rums from Barbados include Mount Gay, Foursquare (maker of Doorly’s, R.L. Seale and The Real McCoy), and West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD), which is now part of the Maison Ferrand umbrella, making rum for the various Plantation bottlings. Micro distillery St. Nicholas Abbey is the newest player in the market. Barbados is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Canada’s spirited history goes back at least 250 years. On the East Coast, rum reigned, with distilleries importing Caribbean rums or making their own. The term “rum-runner” comes from this era, with Atlantic Canada serving as a smugglers’ haven. St John's is home to Screech, a rum made of Jamaican rum. Halifax has since embraced distilling with brands like Fortress Rum, J.d. Shore, Ironworks and others. In Quebec, you have brands like Chic Choc spiced rum. Ontario has seen growth with brands like Leatherback Rum, Kinsip Dark Matters Rum, Last Straw, Yongehurst, and Dillon's Distillery. More craft distilleries in Saskatchewan and Alberta making rum as well as new smaller distilleries in BC. Canada and more specifically, the east coast was one of the ports that traded heavily in sugar, molasses and rum. A lot of rum is being made in the Caribbean, and blended and bottled in Canada.
No rum is distilled on Bermuda. The Gosling family buys rum from various Caribbean distilleries and blends it themselves, thus creating their own proprietary rum blend.
Similar to Puerto Rican rum, Cuba’s rums are light-bodied and very crisp. Havana Club is the largest selling brand, but there are others worth noting including Ron Cubay and Ron Santiago de Cuba.
Occupying roughly two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is home to a number of famous rums including Brugal and Barcelo. Brugal and Barcelo are party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Just over 100 miles north of Martinique lies Guadeloupe. Grassy and earthy with a subtle roundness, Guadeloupe’s rums are dynamic and thought-provoking. Free of the AOC rules found on Martinique, Guadeloupe makes both can juice and molasses-based rums, and often combines a bit of the two to create a style all their own. Damoiseau and other products from brands like Bielle and Pere Labat can be found in various rum markets around the world.
Guatemala is home to the rum that brings many to the fold: Ron Zacapa. Also, from Guatemala is Ron Botran, which locally is considered a better representation of the style today. The Guatemalan rum style typically involves a solera blending process and a smooth, sweet, Sherry finish.
Guyana is home to just one rum producer today, Demerara Distillers Limited, makers of El Dorado rum. The Guyanese rum style varies with the type of still used, and DDL has a lot of them, including wooden pot and column stills. This working museum turns out some amazingly flavorful rums that are known for their rich, earthy bottom ends that have a thread of freshly churned butter woven through them. Guyana is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Haiti is home to thousands of clandestine distilleries that make the local cane spirit called Clairin, but the only distillery operating at scale on this side of the island is Barbancourt. The former French colony shares a border with the Dominican Republic, but their rum styles are as different as their languages. Made from cane juice, Barbancourt is an Agricole style rum but has a roundness not found in Martinique or Guadeloupe’s rums. At just over $40 US, Barbancourt’s 15-year expression is one of the best values in aged rum today. Barbancourt is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Old Monk Rum is an iconic vatted Indian dark rum, launched in 1954. Wild Tiger Special Reserve Rum is another brand found being produced in India.
Jamaican rum represents a delightfully unique style that puts a premium on flavour and is notable for its signature “funk”. The most widely consumed product on the island is J. Wray and Nephew White Overproof Rum, which is bottled at 63%. The most famous brand outside of Jamaica is Appleton Estate. Look for private labels out of Jamaica from Mezan, Hamilton, and Cadenhead’s along with up-and-comers like Rum Fire from Hampden Estate as well as Hampden Estate produced rums. Jamaica is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque. Worthy Park Estate now has its own estate rum as well as their signature local and export line called Rumbar Rum, inspired by the local rum bars in Jamaica.
Martinique’s rums are unique for many reasons, but the two primary factors are its use of cane juice, and its AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. AOC is the French equivalent to the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The AOC regulates the way cane must be planted, grown, harvested, crushed, fermented, distilled, and aged. With all the rules, one might think that all Martiniquan rhums would taste the same, but that is certainly not the case. The most widely distributed rhums agricoles in the U.S. are Rhum J.M. and Clement, but there are many others including Saint James, Neisson, Trois Rivieres, and La Mauny.
Mexico is far better known for its agave spirits, but by volume, the country makes more cane spirit than agave. Bacardi, which makes a few of its expressions there like Bacardi Black. These rums are basically indistinguishable from their Puerto Rican products. The only other Mexican rum widely available in the USA is Mocambo. Paranubes Rum is a newer form of sugar cane juice rum coming from Oaxaca.
Nicaragua is home to Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, producer of ron Flor de Caña. The rums are crisp and dry like Cuban rums and the only rum to be Fair Trade certified and sustainably sourced.
Panama’s rum comes from Destilería Don José and Ingenio San Carlos. The former makes Hermanos Varela’s Ron Abuelo. Panamanian rum is another cast by the Spanish die, it’s a medium body is clean and crisp with a hint of caramel sweetness.
The Philippines (like India) is worth mentioning because of the volume of product produced there. Tanduay is the main brand, which recently launched an export label in the U.S. which is a massive improvement over their domestic products. Another brand recently introduced to the European market is Don Papa, which has been selling fairly well.
Puerto Rico is known for its dry, crisp, light-bodied rums made in the Spanish style. The most popular brand in Puerto Rico is Don Q from Destileria Serralles, but of course, the largest volume producer is Bacardi. The continuous column-distilled rum must be aged for a minimum of one year before being bottled and sold. Thus, light Puerto Rican rums have all been charcoal filtered to remove colour and congeners.
Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is the long-time home of Cruzan Rum. More recently, UK-based global drinks giant Diageo built a distillery there to make Captain Morgan rum. Cruzan is a decent rum that is along the lines of a Spanish style rum (despite the island’s Dutch history). It’s got slightly more body that Puerto Rican rums, and the single barrel expression is tasty.
Saint Lucia is home to Saint Lucia Distillers, makers of Chairman’s Reserve rum. Saint Lucia is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
With the closing of Caroni, Trinidad now has just one distillery: Angostura. The maker of the eponymous cocktail bitters has been making its own rum since the early 20th century and sales thereof finally overtook the bitters in 1964. The Trinidadian style is a medium-bodied column-distilled rum. The Angostura range has a lot of variety within it with everything from white to 12 years and more. Trinidad is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
As most of the rum from the States is made by craft distilleries in small batches, it defies generalization. There is everything from agricole style rums from California and Hawaii, Colonial style rums from Massachusetts, and many more from all over the country. The most celebrated of the American Rum market would be Privateer Rum, from New England, just north of Boston.
Venezuela is known for Diplomatico, Santa Teresa, and Pampero rums. These are Spanish style rums similar to those from Guatemala or Costa Rica, with a focus on smoothness and a subtle oakier flavour.