Before I knew anything about liquor, I thought all rum was alike and used the Captain whenever a recipe called for rum. Even though I quickly figured out my mistake, I held a grudge against spiced rum and remembered it as "that gross stuff." Then, one freezing night, I was out of whiskey and desperate for a hot toddy. I had a dusty bottle of spiced rum leftover from the bad old days and figured, what the heck, it's better than going outside...
I was pleasantly surprised by a wintery spice mix that made me think of mulled cider. This inspired me to try spiced rum with apples and ginger, then Tiki drinks and desserts. It pairs well with lime for summer drinks, but I'll always think of it as my winter friend—a little spiced rum adds a rich and complex new layer to coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.
What's Available to Buy
Despite its bad rap as frat-party booze, Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum is actually a decent choice. It's not the most nuanced spirit, with vanilla dominating over other flavors, but it's good for mixing and costs less than $20. (I don't think Captain Morgan Private Stock is different enough to warrant the extra $10.)
Sailor Jerry is a little spicier than the Captain but has the same general flavor profile and price. Though they're the easiest to find, these two sea-faring men aren't the only affordable spiced rums available. Seven Tiki and Cruzan 9 are in the same price range, and both have a classic spiced rum taste with a more dry and spicy finish.
For a little bit more, The Kraken has a deeper and darker molasses taste accented with coffee, ginger, and chocolate flavors—plus gorgeous sea monster label art and a fun jug-shaped bottle. St Lucia Distillers' Chairman's Reserve is a richer and more aged choice, with a focus on orange and spice flavors for a few bucks more than the Kraken. For something really different (and a little harder to find) in the $30 range, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice includes cayenne for a tasty kick.
If you like spiced rum at all, then making your own is pretty much mandatory—it's super quick and easy to make. All the spices are common grocery-store finds you probably have in the cupboard already. Since you just need a pinch of this and a couple of that, the only significant cost is the rum. You'll end up with a more elaborate and rich mix of spices than you'll find in the store-bought kinds. And though you have the option of playing around with your favorite pricey rum, the spices are so pronounced that you probably shouldn't waste a high-end bottle. Start with a fairly inexpensive light rum that you like—whatever you'd normally use for, say, mojitos. Once you're confident in your spice mix, you can move up to an aged rum for a bit more flavor.
Commercial spiced rums aren't usually expensive, so saving a buck or three isn't the reason to do it yourself. But many brands use spices to cover up inferior rum, or they just veer toward way-too-sweet. At home, you can create a more elegant and bold spiced rum and sweeten only as much as you like. Experimenting with flavors and honing your recipe is pretty simple—taste daily and if a flavor is too dominant, remove that ingredient and keep steeping the rest. Ginger has a tendency to take over, which is why I take it out early. You might end up loving the heat and leaving ginger in longer, so testing as you go is important.
Don't let anyone tell you there's anything wrong with drinking a rum and Coke now and then. Spiced rum gives it a nice little extra something, and I like to add in some lime—Cuba Libre style.
Homemade spiced rum is also really good in another well-known rum highball, the Dark 'n' Stormy. You can try substituting club soda and several dashes of orange or Angostura bitters for the ginger beer to make a lighter drink.
For a fancy-tasting warm drink, try the Bitter Pumpkin, which mixes spiced and bitter flavors with a little hot dark cocoa. Of course, spiced rum is perfect for dessert, too. So go nuts and add it to a pecan pie, drizzled over cake, or mixed into caramel sauce.