I've always been a coconut fanatic. When I was a kid, my grandpa would tap a coconut twice with a hammer, and then expertly split it in half over a bowl. The juice that flowed out would be used in that night's dinner, but the coconut meat was all mine. I got so greedy that he would make up stories about how eating too much coconut would make my bottom so itchy that I'd be unable to sit down long enough to watch television. (I've since looked this up; turns out it's not true.)
Coconut rum always makes me a little sad, because it never lives up to its promise. I want it to taste like a real coconut spiked with rum. But what you usually get is a syrupy mess. It smells good, so I psych myself up with visions of a big, fat coconut filled with rum—only to taste a viscous mouthful of sugar and artificial flavors. I had just about given up on coconut rum when I tried to make it myself. Yes! It turns out that it is possible to have a coconut rum that just tastes like rum and real coconut.
What's Available to Buy
Most of what we know as coconut rum is actually coconut liqueur—in addition to rum and coconut (or coconut-like flavoring), it also contains sugar. A lot of sugar. Because of this, using coconut rum as a substitute for rum would be like using simple syrup as a substitute for water. These sweet coconut rums are 42 proof—for comparison, a typical rum would be 80 proof, and most flavored rums are around 70 proof.
Malibu is the most ubiquitous brand, and it's easy to find at most liquor stores for about $14. Captain Morgan Parrot Bay, Coruba, Cruzan, and Don Q are a little harder to come by, but they're in the same price range. When used sparingly, Malibu and the rest of this 42-proof gang can add a little tropical splash to a drink. However, more often than not, coconut liqueur is the inspiration for sickeningly sweet shots and syrupy umbrella drinks. If a shot is named after a bad euphemism for a sex act, chances are there's coconut rum in it.
Bacardi and Brinley Gold both have coconut-flavored rums that are less sugary and, at 70 proof, more like a spirit than a liqueur. The coconut flavor in these isn't as strong as it is in Malibu, Cruzan, or any of their sweeter counterparts and the rum is more pronounced. If you wanted a little coconut in your cocktail without a sugar overdose, these would do the job.
Visit any of the distilleries that make coconut rum, and you'd see a bunch of barrels of flavoring rather than a bunch of actual coconuts. It's also safe to say that the rum they mix with the flavoring would be their lowest quality rum—possibly rum they'd never consider distributing without masking the flavor.
Why drink pretend coconut when you can easily put real coconut into your cocktails? DIY coconut rum is easy, cheap, and fun to make. It has a fresh and lightly sweet taste along with a fantastic aroma. All you need to make it is rum, a coconut, and a hammer. OK, open the coconut however you like. But you're missing out on the satisfaction that comes from hitting things with a hammer if you do it another way. And you also get a bonus beverage, since the coconut is filled with delicious coconut water.
You can use homemade coconut rum in place of plain rum in cocktails. Since this recipe doesn't have any sugar, it's a nice way to put a little coconut in your drink without adding sweetness.
I was inspired by Maggie Savarino's coconut rum recipe, though I skipped the additional flavors. She suggests adding half a vanilla bean, a half teaspoon of peppercorns or grains of paradise, or makrut lime leaves. I think cardamom, ginger, basil, lemongrass, or chiles could make for an interesting infusion with more of an Asian flavor.
You can also steep fruit with the mixture for a few days: try pineapple, which adds a hint of pina colada to cocktails, or mango, kumquats, or guava. If you're looking for a final product that's a bit closer to Malibu, you can add in some simple syrup to taste.
Add a little tropical fun by subbing in your DIY coconut rum for plain white rum. It's particularly delicious in a Daiquiri, Hemingway Daiquiri, El Floridita, or Mojito. (The coconut flavor would probably get lost in really complicated Tiki drinks that contain multiple rums, liqueurs, fruit juices, and syrups.) Homemade coconut rum is also delicious in rum sauces and homemade desserts.