Like gin-colored waters and powder-soft sand, rum is practically synonymous with the islands of the Caribbean. Whether it’s a caramel-colored batch served on the rocks at a beachside tiki shack or a shot of the clear stuff blended into a frozen drink garnished with a slice of pineapple, one can’t avoid the ubiquity of the cane spirit when traversing the islands.
Each of the islands produces a spirit of a distinct character. Rum from Jamaica and Barbados is fuller-bodied than Puerto Rico’s, which, like Cuba’s, is light. And the range is truly dizzying, with over a hundred varieties vying for attention as interest in the intoxicating “grog” continues to grow and bartenders and mixologists experiment with concoctions that go beyond the typical Mai Tai or mojito.
Rum was born in the 17th century, when industrial waste — molasses residue from slave-era sugar production — was transformed via yeast into drinkable stuff. Rum gets it trademark amber color and flavor via wood-barrel aging and can be affected by factors like soil, climate, variety of cane and strain of yeast. It was made famous during the era of pirates and went on to fuel many a navy seaman’s misadventure at sea. Now the spirit has gained a bit of an upscale cache with pricey bottles of 8 year-old Bacardi Millennium Edition going for upwards of $700 (each one comes with a certificate of authenticity signed by Ruben Rodriguez, the then-president of Bacardi) and the even-swankier Rhum Clement 1952 which can retail for as high as $1,000 and hails from the Habitation Clement distillery in Martinique.
Here we take a look at the “kill devil” spirit as it used to be known, and the islands it calls home. So whether you enjoy that barrel-aged rum neat or mixed with fruit juice and served with a little straw umbrella, this guide will help you sip knowledgeably.
Jamaica: The Appleton Estate, the oldest sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica, is arguably the island’s most famous rum brand. The Appleton Estate Appleton Special rum has a tart grapefruit aftertaste that’s perfect for Jamaican rum punches. The estate dates back to 1655 when the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish and sources suggest that rum has been produced there continuously since 1749. The brand also has the distinction of being helmed by the industry’s first female Master Blender, Joy Spence, a London-educated chemist who has curated the taste of the spirit for over fifteen years. Appleton Estate 12 Year Aged Rum’s aromas of caramel, vanilla, candied orange peel and sweet almond set it apart. Another noteworthy newcomer to the scene is Blackwell Rum developed by the famous music producer Chris Blackwell. He also owns the legendary GoldenEye Resort, formerly Ian Fleming’s private island residence. In 1952, Fleming wrote Casino Royale, the first book in the legendary James Bond series. He penned 13 Bond books in total— all written on site.
Martinique: This French-Caribbean island produces only Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) rums. This refers to the high standards by which the French government monitors the product coming out of the island’s distilleries. Martinique is famous for its rhums agricoles which are distilled from pure sugarcane juice (rather than molasses) and have a vegetal quality. Aficionados call it the purest expression of rum and its most common iteration for locals is in a “Ti’ Punch” made with rhum agricole, cane syrup and a lime wedge. One to look for is the Clément VSOP Rhum Agricole Vieux which boasts smokiness and spice to offset the elixir’s grassy notes.
Dominican Republic: The 130-year-old label Brugal proves that all rums are not sweet. Sip Brugal 1888 and linger over the smooth palate of candied orange peel and dried sultana raisins, or pour Ron Atlantico Private Cask over ice.
Barbados: Mount Gay rum has been producing rum since 1703. The brand maintains a strong connection to the sailing world, sponsoring regatta events around the world and the US Sailing Association. And the storied rum is one of the key ingredients in Stirling Punch, a drink named for famous yachtsman, America’s Cup winner and Vanderbilt Sailing Club founder Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. Mount Gay Rum Extra Old, a blend of rums aged 12–17 years, is rich in aromas of cinnamon, ginger and caramelized bananas. The latest “Eclipse” varietal is inspired by a 1910 total solar eclipse and features single and double-distilled rums matured in Kentucky oak barrels, imparting flavors of honey, apricot and vanilla.
Puerto Rico: It’s reported that anywhere between 70 to 80 percent of the world’s rum hails from Puerto Rico, where the best-selling rum is actually Don Q. Other brands that call this island home include spirits giant Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Reserva Añeja. For a slightly more upscale quaff go for one of the four aged sipping rums from Bacardi’s Facundo Rum Collection, a tribute to Bacardi founder Don Facundo Bacardi Masso. The Exquisito in particular is aged in oak barrels and then transferred and stored in sherry casks to rest for a minimum of 1 month giving it a fruity finish that balances its smoky and spicy notes.

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