Today, August 16, is National Rum Day, and while you might be tempted to partake in a little Captain and Coke or Malibu and pineapple to celebrate, don't reach for that bottle of Bacardi so fast. Rum is actually a complex, incredibly tasty spirit with as many varieties as there are islands in the Caribbean.
A few years ago, I was listening to a lecture with rum experts Wayne Curtis and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry when Beachbum said something along the lines of this:
"You know why people take whiskey seriously and not rum? Because there's no such thing as coconut-flavored whiskey."
In the time since, we have, of course, gotten things like Tennessee Honey and Fireball Whiskey, but the sentiment remains. So below, I am trying to do my part to "class up" the image of rum. The seven bottles below are all rums of a high enough quality and complexity that they can (and should) be savored neat. Stick a paper umbrella in the glass if you must, just don't mix the rum with Coke. They're also readily available in Houston.
Banks 5 Island White Rum The only white rum on the list, Banks is a blend of rums aged at least three years from, you guessed it, five different islands, including Jamaica and Java, and finished with Batavia Arrack. It runs about the same price as Bacardi white but is vastly superior for cocktails and mixed drinks, and even for sipping over some ice.
Ron Zacapa My tastes in rum tend toward the super-sweet. One of my favorite rums tastes like boozy molasses (more on that one in a minute). A nip of Zacapa tastes like dessert -- dark, chocolatey without being cloying. The rum is produced in Guatemala with first-pressed cane juice, basically the sugar cane equivalent of extra virgin olive oil, and is then aged using the solera process, which provides a smoother aged flavor in less time than traditional aging normally takes.
Zaya Gran Reserva Zaya is a private label rum, meaning it is composed of three to five other rums purchased from other distilleries and then blended together. It is then aged at least 12 years in oak barrels. The result is somewhat vanilla-y with notes of caramel and, of course, that nose of oak and bourbon from the aging process. Zaya also looks gorgeous in the glass -- it's a dark amber with a velvety mouth-feel.
Lemon Hart 151 Oh Lemon Hart, love of my life. If you're looking for an over-proof rum, the only sane option is Lemon Hart. Made in Guyana, one of the few Caribbean countries that is not an island, Lemon Hart falls under the category of demeraras, my all-time favorite types of rum. The name comes from the region, but it also refers to the type of cane sugar used in the distilling process. Normal-proof Lemon Hart is currently not available in Houston, but if you ever find a bottle, scoop it up quickly. Prices are less than $20 a bottle, and I promise you it won't disappoint. In the meantime, Lemon Hart 151 can soothe you with its flavor of slightly-toasted molasses and banana. Makes my mouth water just writing about it.
Ron Abuelo 12 Year Ron Abuelo only recently became available in Texas, a couple of years ago. Before then, I had my international flight attendant friend bring me bottles from her jaunts to Panama. Abuelo is one of the few distillers that grow their own sugar cane, and this rum is made from the fermented molasses. Whiskey lovers who are dubious about rums should give this one a try first. Aged in white oak whiskey and bourbon barrels for 12 years, it delivers a drier and more oaky finish than most of the rums on this list, with hints of toffee. It's also 80 proof, and runs about $25 a bottle, so it's a good bang for your buck.
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Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star Distilled and bottle in Haiti for more than four generations, Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star is aged eight years and is made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses. Though Barbancourt makes five different rhums aged to various levels, 5 Star is a good middle-of-the-road. It has a pale straw-like color, the scent of anise and orange, and a vaguely cinnamon, smoky taste.
El Dorado 15 Year Another demerara rum, and the only brand of regular proof readily available in Texas. This is by far my favorite and the name is fitting -- it's like liquid gold. Fermented in wooden stills, demerara rums owe much of their unique flavor to things such as humidity and microfauna in the Guyanan atmosphere. Unlike the solera method of aging, with demerara, the age on the bottle is actually the youngest age of the blended rums contained within. You can splurge for the 21-year, but the difference in price point doesn't much match the difference in flavor compared to this fairly accessible, affordable aged rum. Have a shot for me.
You can celebrate more of National Rum Day by making a weekend out of it. Caribbean Rumfest takes place this weekend at House of Deréon.