For most North Americans, rum suffers from a conundrum of its own making. Outside of certain pockets of United States territory around the Gulf of Mexico and in the usual big-city specialty bars and upscale liquor stores, the selection of limited-edition, reserve-quality Caribbean rums dries up north of the Tropic of Cancer.
Part of the issue is logistical: north of Orlando, the climate quickly chills to prohibit the cultivation of the cane sugar necessary to the production of excellent rum. As rum production is relatively time- and labor-intensive, it makes no sense to import raw materials on a large scale to distilleries closer to big American population centers; the finished product keeps better in ships’ holds anyway. Noted rum distilleries do exist in Florida and around New Orleans (a historical hub for the spirit), but these use mostly domestic South Florida cane sugar, produce in relatively small batches, and cater either to savvy local customers or more upscale aficionados.
Part of the issue is cultural: the popular light and spiced varieties of rum offer comparatively inoffensive taste profiles, which would normally be a key selling point for the massive casual-drinker demographic. The strength and complexity of tequilas, whiskeys and even gins turns off the “crossover” drinkers, the folks who tend to prefer beer or wine but might sneak a cocktail or rocks-drink on occasions for celebration. But rum’s smoothness is a double-edged sword—most palettes fail to establish a meaningful distinction between light (un-spiced) rums and vodkas, and for those that do, it’s often the case that even the most complex rums taste sweet and unfinished next to the dry polish of quality vodkas. It may be that casual American drinkers detect something “exotic,” something a bit too sickly-sweet, in the liquor’s aftertaste; it may be that its frequently reinforced association with lecherous pirates, ethnic “others” and Johnny Depp in drag rubs the collective subconscious of the well-heeled the wrong way. Pending a definitive ethnological work, the precise causes of the temperate-belt bourgeoisie’s collective refusal to consume reserve-quality rums on a meaningful scale will remain mysterious.
Whatever the reasons for rum’s failure to penetrate the lucrative North American top-shelf market, the lack of demand for quality—and thus of upward price pressure—has reduced any incentive the Caribbean reservists might have had either to expand their distribution networks northward or to set up satellite distilleries in the U.S. And Canada. But it hasn’t reduced the profit motive for certain Caribbean producers. Rum’s aromatic simplicity and suitability for mixing seems to resonate with younger high-volume drinkers (read: college students), who tend to consume several drinks in single sittings of certain preferred brands of liquor and thus make great customers. Unlike their older counterparts, these young drinkers also tend to prefer sweet or flavored drinks. This has created a perfect fold into which a number of mostly Puerto Rican—due to the island’s status as a preferred trade partner of the United States—distilling companies have stepped. It’s no coincidence that all of the following brands top-selling products are either spiced or flavored. This is a symptom, not a cause, of the peculiar mass-market woe which afflicts the extra-tropical rum business.
Before the list, a few general notes are in order. As is the case with vodka and whiskey, the American rum market can be surprisingly localized, with many brands appearing in circumscribed geographic areas (Rondiaz in the upper Great Lakes, Ronrigo in the northeastern U.S., and so forth). Because they’re made by generic distilleries which strive to produce large batches of multiple spirits, these brands generally don’t make it on “best-of” lists. Likewise, many of the better-quality import brands featured here are large operations which release multiple varieties of rum, sometimes under different labels. This will be noted, where appropriate, and each listing will be comprehensive, but particular weight will be given to two or three superior varieties within each brand. Lastly, and in keeping with the “bigger is better” theme, it’s important to note the following. As in many other consumer products industries in which quality is key and protocols and procedures are closely guarded, even the biggest of the Caribbean distilleries operate on a “keep the best, sell the rest” basis. More than that, North American tastes differ in important ways from those of Latin America and the Caribbean. As such, some of the flavored beverages some of the bigger concerns send northward resemble rum only tenuously. Nonetheless, they are acknowledged varieties of the spirit and and deserve mention.
Admiral Nelson: One hesitates to include this bitter, forgettable spiced dark rum on any list whatsoever, but for sheer value alone it’s worthy of a mention. The name is a riff on the more popular (and pricier) “Captain Morgan” label, and rightfully so: the Admiral is basically the Captain with less artfully-blended spice that fails to fully conceal a chemical aftertaste. But it is a good value, coming in at several dollars cheaper for a comparably-sized bottle, and thus is a favorite of the college crowd. Good—some would say essential, if it’s to be tolerated at all—for mixing. Best bang for the buck: Mercifully, there’s only one variety of the Admiral so far.
Bacardi: The most popular rum brand by sales and probably the most widely-known, Bacardi makes a number of different varieties of the spirit at low-mid price points. Although at this point the concern makes most of its money from its half-dozen or more flavored rums (there are already apple, melon, coconut, raspberry, orange, peach, and lemon, with more in the pipeline), Bacardi can at least pride itself on abstaining from the spiced-rum craze. And the vestiges of what once must have been a noble mission remain in Bacardi’s Gold and 8 Year varieties, two darker, un-spiced rums that offer the intrepid novice a taste of higher quality without the sticker shock. Best bang for the buck: Bacardi 8 Year. Rich and dark, without the harshly sweet aftertaste younger drinkers have come to associate with inferior rums, it can be found on the top shelf of the rum section at larger liquor stores.
Captain Morgan: Where Bacardi targets female twentysomethings with growing disposable incomes with its sickly-sweet flavored concoction, Captain Morgan harnesses its surprisingly potent spices in its quest to open the wallets of their suitors. Its aggressive new “Calling All Captains” ad campaign strokes the egos of male under- and post-graduates, encouraging these volatile youngsters to binge on its single spiced product (one now-discontinued commercial featured a young man preparing for a night of drinking by smell-testing a shirt he’d worn on the previous three nights’ consecutive drunks). The Captain is the Budweiser of rums: palatable but not delicious, affordable but intentionally not cheap, and studiously consistent in taste and composition. To the extent that niches exist in the world of mass-market rums, Captain Morgan seems intent on grabbing a piece—the success of its recently-released “Lime Bite” will be closely watched by others in the industry. Best bang for the buck: Classic Captain Morgan, although new releases coming down the pipe might surprise to the upside.
Castillo: Another of the spiced Puerto Rican majors, Castillo finds itself perennially overshadowed by the Captain. This is too bad. By every objective measure, Castillo is superior. Its spices are more delicately balanced, less bludgeoning, than the Captain or the Admiral; its body and back-taste are richer and smoother; its aftertaste is pleasant and organic; and its burn is survivable. Indeed, it’s probably the only mass-market spiced rum that doesn’t beg a mixer or chaser. For whatever reason, Castillo seems content to fly under the radar, with almost zero advertising visibility in North America. It’s certainly not for lack of business—drinkers who appreciate the difference tend to stick with Castillo when it’s available. Best bang for the buck: Castillo Spiced. Several imitations exist, including a white and some flavored varieties, so be careful and follow the name to the second shelf from the top.
Parrot Bay: Both an “upmarket” answer to Bacardi’s flavored repertoire and a “rum drinker’s” alternative to the diluted frivolousness of the Malibu family, Parrot Bay is working on expanding its line of fruity rum derivatives. Most drinkers agree that as a rum Parrot Bay is overpriced, but enough mid-market consumers are willing to pay a premium for this drier and more delicately-mixed option. The added flavors of this particular brand of spirit—even the sickly-sweet coconut variety—don’t linger on the tongue unpleasantly as in Malibu or certain Bacardi varieties, making for a more “mature” rum drinking experience. Half-full Parrot Bay bottles thus haunt the top shelves of hotel bars, wedding parties and other establishments where timid casual drinkers either don’t care that they’re being ripped off or aren’t paying for their drinks in the first place. Best bang for the buck: Mango. Drinkable but ultimately uninspired and strangely lacking in value, Parrot Bay is best consumed as part of a fruity cocktail.
Sailor Jerry’s: The black sheep scion of the spiced rum family, this under appreciated offering surpasses the more popular spiced brands in flavor, body and drinkability. Jerry has been gaining market share for the past decade; its distinctive packaging and no-advertising cachet make it a hipster favorite. It’s also the best neat rum of the widely-available spiced varieties; most regular Jerry drinkers prefer it straight or on the rocks. A word of caution, though: this rum is a bit stronger than the others and its smoothness can be deceptive. Enjoy carefully. Best bang for the buck: Sailor Jerry’s, period. It’s a bargain compared to the Captain and it tastes better too.
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