In case you didn't know, Friday, Aug. 16 is National Rum Day.
First distilled on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean beginning in the 17th century, rum has enjoyed a long history in popular culture as the preferred drink of pirates, sailors and daiquiri-swilling tourists on tropical vacations.
While early descriptions of the molasses-based spirit refer to it as a "hot, hellish, and terrible liquor," today we know rum as the base alcohol in tiki bar staples such as the mai tai, blue Hawaii, piña colada and the aforementioned daiquiri.
However, although rum has gained a reputation as a mixer in sweet drinks, the bottles on our list of the top 10 rums exhibit a bold, complex character that is best experienced straight or on the rocks. Made from high-quality sugarcane crops and patiently distilled and aged in oak barrels, these spirits represent the finest output from across the Caribbean.
Appleton Estate 30 Year Old
Origin: Jamaica; $395
Straight rum is considered a manly drink (who could be manlier than a pirate?), but Appleton Estate rums are made with a woman's touch. The Jamaican distillery has a long history, making rums in Nassau Valley since 1749, and made history by hiring the industry's first female Master Blender. Joy Spence has her hand in the entire line of products, but the extremely rare — and sought after — Appleton Estate 30 Year Old is her handcrafted masterpiece. There's an abundant smokiness to the spirit, as one might expect given its three decades spent soaking up woody goodness inside used Jack Daniels barrels. Notes of maple and orange are dominant, complemented by hints of ginger and grapefruit. One reason for the high price is the extremely limited supply: only 744 bottles made it to the U.S. The Appleton Estate Reserve, made of rums that are at least eight years old, is one-fourteenth of its big brother's price, but still good enough to sip (although Spence enjoys hers with a splash of soda water).
Bacardi Reserva Limitada
Origin: Puerto Rico; $110
Bacardi is the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world, and is best-known for their rum. Originally crafted exclusively for the family of founder Don Facundo Bacardi, this premium blend was kept from public consumption for generations before finally receiving a commercial release in 2003 to celebrate the opening of the distillery's visitor center. Composed only of the label's finest rums, Bacardi Reserva Limitada is aged in lightly charred American white oak barrels for ten to sixteen years. The resulting rum is a deep reddish gold in color, and has a rich, smooth taste with hints of vanilla, oak and dried fruit.
Don Q Grand Anejo
Origin: Puerto Rico; $65
After a decades-long absence from the American market, Don Q is once again livening up parties stateside as well as at home in Puerto Rico with its nearly 150 years of rum-distilling experience. However, while we recommend Don Q Gold or Cristal as mixers for your mixer, we prefer the elegant and smooth taste of Grand Añejo served straight. Pulling the stopper from the impressive bottle filled with golden liquid — aged three to twelve years in former whiskey and Bourbon barrels — makes us feel that we are on the verge of doing something profound. This premium product balances sweet and dry, exhibiting many enjoyable fruit flavors, including banana.
El Dorado 21 Year Old Special Reserve
Origin: Guyana; $92
When considering the nearly 350 years of experience that go into each batch of El Dorado 21 Year Old Special Reserve, the two decades and change required to create this premium spirit seem like a relatively short stretch of time. Exhibiting a rich red mahogany color due to prolonged aging in oak barrels, the rum is the El Dorado Master Blender's own special recipe, blending spirits from several distinct stills for a unique, full-bodied flavor. On the nose, there's sweetness and light, but with a whiff of alcohol and a sense of import. The oak from the barrels is evident on the palate where this honeyed and viscous liquid makes its presence felt. The earthy aftertaste contrasts well with its sweet beginnings. Adding ice lightens the effect, but can't mask this rum's gravity.
Gosling’s Family Reserve Rum
Origin: Bermuda; $56
Just as its name states, this relatively new rum from Gosling's has been around a while. While the recipe is more than a century-and-a-half old, the rum has only been commercially available since 2005. Each bottle is hand-filled, hand-labeled, individually numbered and sealed with a cork and wax, but it's the elixir that's inside that counts. Reportedly based on a secret family recipe passed down for seven generations, Gosling's Family Reserve Old Rum is distilled from fermented molasses and aged in used whiskey barrels for a smoky, oaky, masculine taste. It plays on the tongue like a wave across the ocean, leaving buried treasure in its wake.
Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask Selection
Origin: Barbados; $102
Named for the year in which the Mount Gay distillery was founded, this premium product of Barbados displays the type of craftsmanship and refinement of flavors that one would expect from the oldest continuously active rum brand in the world. Made from Barbadian sugarcane and coral-filtered water, Mount Gay 1703 goes through both single and continuous distillation processes for increased complexity before being aged for up to 30 years in lightly charred oak Bourbon barrels from Kentucky. The finished product is fruity, but not in a paper-umbrella-adornment way. Rather, the amber-hued rum features banana and candied fruits on the palate that lingered long after the 86-proof nectar warmed our innards.
Ron Abuelo Centuria
Origin: Panama; $130
Crafted by Varela Hermanos in celebration of the Panama distillery's centennial, Ron Abuelo Centuria is a specially selected blend of the Varela family's own private reserves. Using only estate-grown sugarcane and adhering to the labor-intensive Sistema Solera, the production of this limited-edition rum is carefully overseen from field to bottle, resulting in a unique, artisanal spirit. A combination of dark rums aged for up to three decades in American whiskey barrels, Ron Abuelo Centuria stands out due to the spicy trail it blazes across one's palate.
Ron Brugal 1888 Gran Reserva Familiar
Origin: Dominican Republic; $45
Taking its moniker from the distillery's birth date, Ron Brugal 1888 is a pleasing product of five generations of experience. Double-distilled and double-aged, first in American white oak barrels and then Spanish sherry casks, the dark amber spirit offers a smooth, light sweetness with raisins and molasses on the nose and a refreshing blend of caramel, spices and a hint of orange peel that coats one's mouth. Released annually in a limited-edition small batch, the final product is a master blend of rums aged five to fourteen years.
Ron Zacapa XO
Origin: Guatemala; $99
First introduced in 1976 to celebrate the centennial of Zacapa, Guatemala, Ron Zacapa XO is a unique product of its hometown, using only the first pressing of sugarcane distinctly flavored by the local volcanic soil. Crafted according to the complex Sistema Solera process, Ron Zacapa XO is a blend of rums aged in many different types of casks — including Bourbon, wine and charred oak barrels — at an altitude of 2,300 meters above sea level, where the cool air slows the aging process and allows the spirit to develop its profound character and multilayered profile. Finished in French oak barrels from Cognac, Zacapa XO features mature toasted oak on the nose, along with burnt caramel and orange peel with a floral note of honeysuckle.
Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21
Origin: Dominican Republic; $39
Created by New Yorker Riccardo Giuliano with the help of the Oliver family, a clan with deep roots in the Caribbean rum business, this transnational collaboration may be a modern product, but its complex, refined flavors are the result of time-honored tradition. Distilled in small batches in the "méthode agricole," Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21 is then aged in oak barrels formerly used to hold Bourbon until it achieves a rich mahogany hue. The finished product is extremely smooth, with brown sugar and maple on the nose, and butterscotch on the palate.
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