I’m sitting in a bar with the head buyer for The Whisky Exchange, Dawn Davies. Before us, on the polished wooden bar top, are more than 20 bottles of rum, ranging from deep amber to palest silver. There are vintage and cask-strength rums, single-estate rums and rums aged in port casks. There are rare independent bottlings and new-wave craft spirits; rums with art deco ships on them and colourful scenes of people dancing. There are rums from Barbados and Guadeloupe and Haiti – even one distilled in the UK. And not a single bottle of Bacardi in sight. “For me, rum is currently the most exciting category out there,” says Davies. “It’s a spirit that’s always had so much happiness and vibrancy about it, but now it’s a category that’s seeing so much innovation too.”
Rum has a reputation for being cheap and cheerful – the stuff of beach holidays, Tiki drinks and forgettable rum and Cokes. Lovable, certainly, but not the choice of connoisseurs. However, Davies acknowledges, that’s starting to change, as a new generation of sipping rums emerges, offering all the provenance, complexity and quality of good single malts. One of the distilleries that’s been at the forefront of this revolution is the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. Its Exceptional Cask Selection series, now in its 10th year, has helped to create a new kind of market for top-end rum. Unsweetened, cask-strength, sometimes vintage, these limited edition rums speak a language much more similar to Scotch. “Ten years ago, people were more easily seduced by rums with added colour and sugar and a nice package, but their palates have grown up,” says the distillery’s outspoken boss, Richard Seale. “The Exceptional Cask Selection is about showing rum in its purest form.”
One of my favourites in the series is the trophy-winning Foursquare 2004 (£59.95 from The Whisky Exchange), an 11-year-old rum that combines rum-and-raisin fruitiness with the spicy dryness of a whisky. A complete contrast is Foursquare Dominus (£54.95 from The Whisky Exchange), a 10-year-old rum aged in ex-bourbon and ex-cognac casks, which has a more fragrant, floral character and a long, finely textured finish. New for this year is the successor to the 2004, Foursquare 2007, and Foursquare Empery, a 14-year-old rum aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Like all the rums in the range, they’re limited to just a few thousand bottles, and are sure to sell fast.
The language of Scotch has seeped into rum in other ways. Mount Gay XO Peat Smoke is an extra-aged rum from Barbados that’s finished in Islay whisky casks. It sounds odd, but the sweet, caramelised notes of the rum and the ashy peat intertwine most beautifully (£199 from The Whisky Exchange or £235 from Harvey Nichols). Not long ago, Havana Club also released an Islay cask-aged rum as part of its Tributo series, a collection of luxury rums popular among cigar smokers. New for this summer is Tributo 2019 (€400 from Master of Malt or The Whisky Exchange), a blend of three vintages dating back to 1970. Spicy and aromatic but with a pop of refreshing fruitiness, it would make a good partner for a Cohiba Behike.
That light, dry style is very characteristic of Cuban rums. If you like yours more on the indulgent side, then look to South America which is renowned for making rums that are wickedly rich and sweet. The Venezuelan distillery Diplomático is a good example. Its unctuous rums are the kind of thing you might sip as a digestif. For richness with a bit more nuance, there’s the new Diplomático Distillery Collection: all the rums in this series are unsweetened, and showcase the house style, rather nerdily, through the prism of a different still. Diplomático Distillery Collection No 3, out this summer, is made exclusively in a single pot still, which helps to give it sassy notes of bruised banana and black chocolate (Diplomático Distillery Collection No 3, from £65 from Master of Malt or The Whisky Exchange).
All rums are derived from sugar cane. Most of them are distilled from molasses, which is a by-product of sugar production. Many rums are made with molasses that’s bought in from elsewhere, or even imported from overseas, so the source of the sugar cane has not historically been a big part of the discussion. But that’s also starting to change.
Jamaica’s historic Worthy Park Estate – one of the oldest distilleries in the Caribbean – was resurrected not long ago for the express purpose of making single-estate rums. Look out for the vibrant Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve (£49.95 from The Whisky Exchange). Over the next few years, it will also be interesting to chart the progress of the new Renegade Rum in Grenada, which is planting sugar cane in different locations around the island with a view to making terroir-driven rums that vary from plot to plot, a bit like wine.
Independent bottlers – who hand-pick interesting casks from the stocks of renowned distillers and release them in small amounts – have long had cachet in the whisky world. Now they’re becoming more popular in the rum world too. The ne plus ultra of independent bottlers is the Italian company Velier, which has been dealing in rare rums for nearly 30 years. The fabulously fruity Velier Last Ward 2007 is a cask-strength bottling of rum distilled at Mount Gay that’s no longer in production (£115 from Master of Malt. Many more Velier bottlings are available from Maison du Whisky). The Whisky Exchange has also done some great independent and limited edition bottlings. You’ll find many of these – as well as examples from Velier, Foursquare and the like – on show at The Whisky Show, in London this September.
Golden and dark rums are often considered the most luxe; but white rums can also make excellent sipping spirits. Veritas (£33.95 from Master of Malt) is a gorgeous blend of unfiltered white rums from the old-world Hampden Distillery in Jamaica and Foursquare. Silky and delicate, with notes of banana and fresh tropical fruit, it is a rum for sipping with a cube of ice, rather than drowning in cola. Several craft distilleries in the UK are now making promising white rum too. The white rum by the Bimber Distillery in northwest London is fresh and spicy with a creamy coffee finish (Bimber Classic London Rum, £24.95 from The Whisky Exchange).
Nearly all the rums mentioned up to this point are distilled from molasses. But there is a smaller sub‑genre of rums, known as rhum agricoles, that are distilled from fresh sugar-cane juice. Rhum agricoles can be an acquired taste – they’re typically lighter-bodied, with flavour profiles that can be quite rustic, medicinal or pungent – but that’s exactly why rum connoisseurs love them. They are, you could say, the Islay whiskies of the rum world.
One range that’s currently causing a bit of a buzz is Clairin from Haiti. Each colourfully labelled rhum in this series is sourced from a different producer, so they are all unique. Most of them are vintage, too, so they change slightly from year to year. You can find them on the list at Chiltern Firehouse, Coupette and The London Edition Hotel (and from around £38 from The Whisky Exchange).
I also like the white rum from Copalli, an eco-friendly craft distillery in the Belizian rainforest. Distilled from single-estate heirloom sugar-cane juice, it is smooth and bright with a minerality that would work well in a daiquiri. It launched in the UK this spring (£33.50 from Master of Malt).
One of the reasons rum has historically struggled in the luxury market is its lack of transparency. Confusing, opaque regulations that vary from country to country mean a lot of rums, particularly at the bottom end, are coloured, sweetened or tinkered with in various ways, yet you wouldn’t know it from the label. Martinique is currently the only rum-producing country with proper AOC. But Jamaica (soon to be followed by Barbados) has introduced an appellation-like GI (geographical indication) that does a similar job of guaranteeing provenance and a certain level of quality. A number of producers including Richard Seale are now also pushing for a classification system more similar to that of whisky or cognac.
If you want to get your bearings in rum, then a visit to the Laki Kane cocktail bar in Islington would be a good place to start. Amid a jungle of tropical-palm prints and bamboo, you can sample rum flights on different themes and explore a back bar stocked with more than 100 different rums, served by staff who know their stuff. Upstairs, in a nautically themed room equipped with 20 miniature pot stills, you can even have a go at making a spiced rum to your very own recipe. “I want to show how much versatility and quality there is in rum – that it’s not just party juice,” says Laki Kane’s co-owner Georgi Radev, who will be releasing his own all-natural spiced dry rum in collaboration with Bimber Distillery later this year. ‘‘If you like vodka or whisky or cognac, I guarantee that there’s a rum style out there for you.”
Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019.