A pirate’s drink of choice is not one to sip quietly in a wing-back chesterfield with some low-key jazz on in the background. Unlike a good whisky you have as a nightcap, or the gin you order when you’re pacing yourself, rum is a party-starter. It’s a holiday drink. It’s what your mate brings back from the bar when he’s trying to make sure you don’t call an early night.

But that doesn’t mean it’s only appropriate for nights when you’re three sheets to the wind. It has the same complexities as those other spirits, there’s a similar breadth of quality on the shelves – and just as rich a history to get into as you knock them back.

Rum – a spirit both quaffable and inebriating – is the best example of alcohol pioneers’ industriousness. Sugar cane farmers in the world’s tropics in the early 17th century had a problem. To make sugar to sate the world’s growing sweet tooth, it required crushing sugar cane, boiling the resultant juices and leaving them to cure in pots. This process yielded molasses as the waste by-product and, by god, they knew what to do with it.

What Is Rum Made From?

In its purest form, rum is made by mixing molasses with the solution skimmed off the sugar cane juice after it is boiled and fermenting it. Many twists on the process have developed in the proceeding 400 years, but in essence, this method remains.

As it was produced such a distance from the world’s key cities of consumption, to bring rum to market required sailors to get it there. While in transit, it’s fair to say that these marine men developed a taste. Safer to drink than sea water and certainly more fun, rum became synonymous with the navy, pirates and just about anyone who has ever hoisted a sail. It wasn’t until 1970 when the Royal Navy ended its daily rum ration, when it was deemed ‘inappropriate to operate ship’s machinery’ after receiving the allowance, which equated to two double shots.

When you consider that Navy Strength required rum to be at least 57% ABV, it’s a good job that breathalysers have been a relatively recent innovation.

Fermentation tank for rumiStock

The early sailors were a resourceful breed. The expression ‘proof’ in terms of alcohol strength came from these ships, where they would mix rum with gunpowder. If the gunpowder still ignited when lit, it was ‘proof’ that it was 57% alcohol or higher.

They also knew the value of morale in the workplace. Even Blackbeard – the most fearsome man-manager to sail the Seven Seas – knew how to keep productivity levels high in taxing times. “Such a day; rum all out,” the pirate mused in his log. “Our company somewhat sober; a damned confusion amongst us! Rogues a plotting. Talk of separation. So, I looked sharp for a prize and took one with a great deal of liquor aboard. Then all things went well again.” Middle managers, take note.

Consider The Colour

White Rum

This is the one you probably first encountered, mixing it with Coke or as the base spirit for mojitos or lots of easy-pour cocktails. “White rums tend to be younger and a little brighter in flavour, whereas darker tend to be a little more cask-y, depending on ageing technique,” says Christian Binders-Skagnaes, Chief Rum Seller at Burlock in Mayfair. “Filtration can change a lot though; a dark rum can be filtered through charcoal and taste much younger though still have hints of a richer body and age.”

Dark Rum

In the broadest possible terms, you can go by the epitaph that the darker the colour the longer the ageing. However, this isn’t the case when grabbing a quick bottle at a corner shop. “Typically most cheap rums are not aged for any significant length of time, with cheap dark rums like Captain Morgan heavily coloured with caramel. Conversely many premium ‘white’ rums like Flor De Caña Extra Dry are aged for up to four years and then charcoal filtered to remove the colour,” says Binders-Skagnaes. The old adage of getting what you pay for rings true. If it’s a dark coloured, top-shelf rum, you can generally be sure that you’re on the right track to drinking quality.

Rum Brands And Styles

The easiest way to start understanding the spirit is to look at the country where it is produced. “They are mainly classified into English, French and Spanish styles – named for the colonial ruler of the country where they are from,” says Damian Williams, manager at Opium bar in London’s Soho. And most rums have a rather shady colonial past. Rum produced in the West Indies helped fuel the slave trade, wherein it would be exchanged for slaves in Africa, who would then be shipped back to tend plantations.

French Rum

“These style rums [Agricole] use raw sugar-cane juice rather than molasses. Aged Agricole rums borrow techniques from the cognac industry and are some of the finest rums in the world,” says Williams. Excellent examples of these would include Rhum J.M, Clèment and Trois Rivieres.

The Best French Rums

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Spanish Rum

“These are nearly always made from the molasses. Spanish rums are generally lighter in body due to the four-stage distillation process they go through,” says Williams. “Aged Spanish-style rums often use Solera ageing – a technique borrowed from sherry production.” Solera means ‘on the ground’. When it comes to ageing liquids, the barrels are organised in rows from the ground up, with the lowest layer of barrels containing the oldest aged liquid, which is inevitably the most expensive. Examples are Bacardi, Havana Club, Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico and Santa Teresa.

The Best Spanish Rums

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English Rum

“English-style rums show a huge variety, but are generally heavier in body and richer in style,” says Williams. “Jamaican rums, Guyanese rums, Trinidadian and Bajan rums all have their own styles and a variation of this. They use pot stills and column stills, and are typically aged in American Oak former bourbon barrels. They often yield a deeper, smokier flavour.” Some of the best examples come from Mount Gay (Barbados), Appleton (Jamaica), Wray & Nephew (Jamaica), Doorly’s (Barbados), Angostura (Barbados) and El Dorado (Guyana).

The Best English Rums

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Rum - click to buyAppleton Estate Signature Blend Rum - click to buyWray and Nephew White Overproof Rum - click to buyDOORLY'S XO RUM - click to buy

The Best Rum

Sometimes, it’s better to take your purchasing advice from those who have spent a lifetime dedicating themselves to the cause. “There’s so many good quality rum brands out there. Generally, I would look for brands that are not scared to talk about their production techniques and focus on the quality of the liquid rather than the marketing,” says Williams of Opium bar. “Anything from the Foursquare distillery in Barbados, particularly their FOURSQUARE branded limited editions. The Plantation Rum range – barrels are hand selected from across the Caribbean and finished and bottled in Cognac, it’s a great range which showcases regionality in rum production. El Dorado rum from Diamond Distillers in Guyana are excellent and most of the aged Agricole rums from Martinique, particularly Rhum J.M and Clement. Smith & Cross Jamaican rum is one of the absolute finest spirits in any category ever made, in my opinion.”

“My go to for a decent all-rounder would be Mount Gay Black Barrel; dry but not excessively so, and it works excellently as both a mixer and a supper,” says Mihai Ostafi, head bartender at Oriole in East London.

The Best Rums In The World

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Tasting The Liquid

Like any other spirit, rum has nuances that are important to understand before you take the first sip. “When tasting, you want to consider the clarity of the liquid. You want a liquid that’s bright and shiny, not cloudy,” says Ostafi. “In terms of nose, there are lots of different types of rums: the agricoles will give you a grassy, tequila-like nose; molasses-based rums will have a nose ranging from tropical fruit to dark chocolate. When you taste it, think about the taste as a process. The complexity of rum usually increases with age, so you’re going to notice that difference if you taste a young rum before tasting an older rum.”

Then consider what style of spirit you usually enjoy, be that sweet, strong, smoky or smooth. “Sweet rums that include molasses will generally have a honey-like flavour. Zacapa is a great starting point for this,” says Ostafi. “Or for something else, the rums from French colonies are generally dominated by aromas that will remind you of tequila. These rums have a soft and complex taste with a seductive structure.”