America is currently experiencing a rum revival. As new tiki bars open around the country and bartenders find new ways to celebrate the spirit via cocktails and curated rum lists, there couldn't be a better time to get educated and excited about the wonderful world of rum.
If you're only familiar with the cheap brands sold by the handle, you might think the category is pretty one-dimensional, best consumed with Coca-Cola, shot by shot or hidden under layers of fruit juice. But the truth is, rum is one of the most complex and interesting spirits, worthy of far more attention than simply mixing. In fact, it's one of the champions of the sipping liquor realm; a liquor category with a range of styles and flavors that's surprisingly expansive, with some brands tasting so delicious when sipped solo or on ice that they can often rival great Scotch or Cognac.
Here are nine outstanding options to get you started on your sipping journey. Flavor-wise, they range from dry and woody to brimming with sweet tropical fruit flavors. Some are bright and festive while others are dark and sumptuous. (And hey, cocktail lovers, keep reading: while all of these rums taste great on their own, they'll also add exceptional depth to your mixed drinks.) Need to brush up on what rum is exactly? Here's our primer on rum's history and production.
You'll notice that the least expensive bottle on this list goes for $22. One of the great things about rum is that it doesn't take deep pockets to get a great quality bottle. The most expensive just tips the scale at $50. When high-end Scotch or Cognac brands easily creep into the triple digits, what might sound like a splurge for everyday consumption turns out to be a reasonable price tag for a bottle that can be savored over time or for special occasions.
Rum experts might note there's no rhum agricole on this list; that's because it's such a unique style (made from sugar cane and boasting a pronounced grassy flavor.) Those deserve their own spotlight down the line.
Made in Guatemala, this medium-bodied rum needs a single cube of ice to mellow out the heavy charred layers of oak. When chilled and diluted a bit, Ron Zacapa 23 ($45 for 750mL) shines with delightful toasted almond and almost raspberry-like fruit flavor that mingles pleasingly with dry tannins. The rums used for the blend range from six to 23 years old, and are aged in a mix of used American white oak and sherry barrels before being bottled. With an exquisite balance and real depth of flavor, I found this one to be great for savoring slowly and leisurely.
Plantation 20th Anniversary XO
Plantation's rums are unique in that they're made and aged in various countries in the Caribbean and Central America, then shipped to France where they're aged a second time in Ferrand Cognac barrels to achieve a remarkable depth of flavor. Plantation Grande Reserve 5-Year-Old Barbados rum is a staggeringly good bargain at $21.99 for 750mL; it's zesty and playful with hints of banana, vanilla wafer, and subdued oak. If you're new to sipping rum, it's a perfect place to start. But the 20th Anniversary XO ($44.99/750ml) is completely worth the price increase if you're looking for a darker, more robust personality. In this more mature version of the Grande Reserve, the fruity flavors are amplified, leading with apricot and dried dates, with the underlying wood sneaking up slightly on the finish. No ice necessary—this rum tastes great without any interference.
Flor de Caña 12 Centenario
Grab an ice cube or two to help this even-keeled Flor de Caña 12 Centenario ($39.99 for 750mL) blossom in the glass. Made in Nicaragua, the sugarcane is grown in rich volcanic soil, which imparts a base note that's dry and dusty like walnut and stone. Tobacco and toasted oak flavors from the time spent in the barrel are lightly sweetened with a light layer of vanilla, and a borderline salty finish makes it taste really multi-dimensional.
Ron Abuelo 12 Años
Made by the third generation of the Varela Family in Panama,* this rum ($34.99 for 750mL) walks a fine line between dark sugar and wine-like tannins with flavors that remind me of the layer of marzipan on a Christmas cake, blended with toasted coconut and cedar. If you're a Scotch fan, give this one a try: its subtly smoky backbone mirrors a good peaty dram. Dilute with a cube or two of ice to help it taste its best.
* You might have heard of them: one of the brothers was elected president of Panama this past summer.
El Dorado 15-Year-Old Special Reserve
A favorite of tiki bartenders everywhere for its opulence and crazy depth of flavor, El Dorado's 15-Year-Old Special Reserve ($50 for 750mL) is a stunning sipper with an enormous bulky body full of tobacco, dark molasses, and a wonderful underlying funk. Blended from a combination of rums aged up to 25 years, it's aged in used bourbon casks, which lends soft vanilla and oak flavors. It's almost chewy in its texture and offers a huge complexity of flavor: you'll note bold hints of coffee and clove-spiced orange. Thanks to its richness, this rum is great for drinking after dinner with some fatty blue cheese.
Santa Teresa 1796
The Santa Teresa 1796 ($40 for 750mL) is the company's flagship sipping rum. The production process is quite complicated, as a blend of white rums, heavy-bodied rums like blackstrap, and pot still vintages from four to 35 years old are blended together and aged in bourbon barrels before the batch is then passed through another lengthy round of aging solera-style (a rotating system used for the likes of sherry) in former Cognac barrels. Dry leather, slightly smoky honey, and coconut flavors set an understated tone with a supple and soft body, but the rum also packs a fair amount of spice, making it a sound option for fans of rye whiskey. It takes some experimentation to find the best level of dilution; too much ice and all the warm honey notes dissipate, too little and it doesn't expand to its full potential. Start with a single ice cube and adjust until you find your ideal ratio. It's a fun journey that ends up showcasing all of the rum's nuances.
Appleton Estate 12 Year Old
Vibrant bittersweet orange and molasses drive the flavors in this Jamaican beauty. The straightforward Appleton Estate 12 Year Old ($36.99 for 750 mL) rum works well in cocktails thanks to its whiskey-like woodiness (specifically, it's great in a rum Old Fashioned). If you're a fan of dry Tennessee whiskies, though, try sipping this well-balanced rum on the rocks.
Zaya Gran Reserva 12
Created on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in a distillery that's been making rum since 1947, Zaya Gran Reserva 12 ($29.99 for 750mL) is a bright, medium-bodied rum with heaps of vanilla and hints of cinnamon from 12 years spent in used bourbon barrels. A great pick for those who are looking for a little easy sweetness (and who gravitate toward juicier rum cocktails); this rum's sugary side helps bring out hints of ripe papaya and candied orange. Ice tends to dull the inherent complexities; sip this one neat.
Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva
Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva ($32 for 750mL) almost resembles a fruit cake with dried dates or baked bananas with chocolate, making it a good dessert sipper. Maybe the sweetest of the bunch, this Venezuelan blend is made from 80 percent heavy rum and 20 percent light rum that's aged for 12 years. It's not as balanced as other sweeter rums as it's pretty low on the wood flavors, but still delicious in its unabashed celebration of what makes all rum great: the sugar.
Note: All spirits provided as tasting samples for review consideration.