The Cocktail Wonk Comprehensive Caribbean Rum Tour: Bottles $45 or Less

There’s no shortage of rum listicles lately. Rum is a hot
topic du jour and publications push them out with abandon: “Nine Rums I Found at
My Local Bar” or “Seven Rums Too Expensive for You.”

All too frequently these stories elicit groans from rum
enthusiasts, because the author only dabbles in rum, thus providing well-intentioned
but often misguided recommendations. Equally wince-inducing are lists without a
unifying theme, or those that rely on outdated
and discredited rum categories
such as silver, gold, and dark.

Yes, I cast a suspicious eye toward most rum listicles,
preferring a more nuanced approach to rum writing. Yet here I am with a rum
list of my own. What gives? And why is my list any better?

Rum is my primary spirit focus, and I’ve written a thing or two about rum previously. Along the way I’ve assembled a collection comprising hundreds of
rums from across the globe. And visiting rum distilleries to learn firsthand what
makes each rum special is a bit of an obsession of mine. (Just ask Mrs. Wonk,
when she’s lost track of which distillery we’re at.)

The guiding principle for the rum selections that follow: Highlighting a single, emblematic rum from each country or island in the Caribbean basin that produces a substantial amount of rum for export markets.

From Barbados to Belize, Cuba to Costa Rica, Guatemala to
Guadeloupe, I’ve selected one bottle from each place that I feel truly
represents the mainstream ethos of rums made there. Not necessarily the best
rum made there, or the most unusual rum, but rather, a bottle showcasing the
typical style of that country’s rum-making tradition.  In some countries, I could have selected multiple
rums, so where appropriate I’ve listed alternates.

In all cases the selected rum retails for US $45 or less.
This is admittedly an arbitrary figure, but with so many exceptional bottles
under $45 on the list, it highlights what a great value rum is relative to
other spirits.

Another factor in my selection was identifying bottles that
are reasonably available in places like Europe and the United States – my
primary readership. A fantastic bottle only sold at the distillery gift shop is
a great find, but if there’s little chance of obtaining it without an
international flight, it doesn’t belong on this list.

Because many brands simply bottle rum produced by someone
else, I biased my selection toward original producer brands, rather than
independent or merchant-bottled rums. So, while Smith
& Cross
is a great Jamaican rum at a great price, it’s not a distillery-owned
brand like Appleton, Worthy Park, Hampden, or Monymusk. Where a country has
both old and new distilleries making great rum, I gave a slight preference to
the older, legacy distilleries to break a tie.

Since sweetened
rums
are an oft-discussed topic among rum enthusiasts, the list leans to rums
believed to have fewer additives. This is easier with some countries than
others. If sweetened rum is a concern, there are several sites, such as Johnny
Drejer’s
, that illustrate the estimated
sugar content of many expressions. I won’t attempt to replicate their
information here.

Regarding the prices listed below, you may not find a given
rum for sale at that exact price in your locale. As such, I’ve given the lowest
price matched by at least a few stores. Every bottle listed below is for sale
online somewhere at the time of this writing, at the price listed. Where you
purchase can make a huge difference. For example, California prices for a
bottle are often half the price of the same bottle in Washington state.  Sites like 1000corks.com and wine-searcher.com
are great resources for learning what a rum may cost in different areas.

With these qualifiers addressed, on to the list!


Jamaica has a cornucopia of good options from four major producers on the island: J. Wray & Nephew, National Rums of Jamaica, Hampden Estate, and Worthy Park. The Appleton Estate Rare Blend (12 year) isn’t considered as “funky” as some of the Jamaica’s other options, but its frequently cited as a masterpiece of good distillation, aging, and blending.

Alternates

  • Plantation Xaymaca (Long Pond, Clarendon, $23)
  • Rum Bar Gold (Worthy Park, $23)

Notes
Worthy Park and Hampden Estate both have fantastic well-aged rums, but each costs a bit over $45, so didn’t quite meet the list criteria.

The two large Barbados
distilleries
with distillery-driven brands are Mount
Gay
and Foursquare.  Both make pot-
and column-blend rums that are well-regarded by rum enthusiasts.  Mount Gay has a longer history of making rum,
so their XO gets the nod.

Alternates

  • Doorly’s 12 (Foursquare, $30)

Notes
There are several Foursquare-made expressions under $45; I went with the 12 year.  Real McCoy is a partner brand of Foursquare and sells Foursquare-made rums at a good price.

Cockspur used to be owned by the same company that owned
West Indies Rum Distillery. However, after West Indies was sold to Plantation
Rum, the Cockspur brand was sold to a different company. As such, Cockspur’s
rums don’t meet the list’s criteria.

Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) is Guyana’s only rum distillery, with El Dorado and Diamond Reserve as their two house brands. The El Dorado brand targets the higher end of the rum market with blends of pot- and column-distilled rum. While the El Dorado 12 is quite popular and well under $45, I picked the El Dorado 8 year, as I find it a bit drier than the 12 year.

Notes
Lots of brands purchase from DDL, but most are not as widely available; look for brands like Lemon Hart and Old Sam.  Also, Pusser’s now sources their rum entirely from DDL. At $33, their Gunpowder Proof is a good way to sample Guyanese rum at a higher ABV than El Dorado’s mainline expressions.

Trinidad has only one major distiller of note – Trinidad
Distillers Limited, which uses column distillation exclusively; their house
brand is Angostura. While their premium market targeted 1919 expression comes
in at under $45, the Angostura 7 year is a bit drier than the 1919, so takes
the top spot.

Yet another single-distillery island, St. Lucia’s rum
industry is St. Lucia Distillers. Working with both pot and column, they blend a
wide variety of expressions across a broad price spectrum.  The Chairman’s Reserve lineup is their
mainstream pot/column blend. While the new, top of the line “1931” Chairman’s
Reserve expression is a delight, it’s more than $45, so my pick goes to the Chairman’s
Reserve Forgotten Cask.

While Cuba has several distilleries, essentially all rum
production occurs within the state-owned Cubaron,
which partners with Pernod Ricard to make and sell the Havana
Club
brand. The Havana Club 7 year fits well within the Cuban style and is
readily available where Havana Club is available–just not the United States,
unfortunately.

Notes
Havana Club’s Selección de Maestros is around $45 US in Cuba and is a quite enjoyable rum. However, it’s not available everywhere Havana Club is sold, and outside of Cuba its price is a bit higher.

Puerto Rico’s rum industry is effectively Bacardi (the
Caribbean’s largest rum producer) and Destilería Serrallés, makers of Don Q rum
and other brands. Both make rum in the Spanish heritage style – molasses,
column stills, and carbon filtration after an initial aging period.

Alternates

  • Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez 10 year (Bacardi, $38)

St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is home to Cruzan
rum distillery, as well as the Diageo distillery that produces the North
American version of Captain Morgan rum. The Cruzan Single Barrel represents the
top of Cruzan’s lineup.

Martinique is a tough island to select just one rhum to
represent.  With column-still
distillation of cane juice and strict regulations (the
Martinique AOC
), all the island’s distilleries make rhums worth
considering. However, not all distilleries have wide distribution. The
Spiribam-owned brands (Rhum
Clément
and Rhum
J.M
) fortunately do.

Alternates

  • Rhum J.M VO (Rhum J.M, $40)
  • Trois-Rivières Rhum Cuvee du Moulin (Trois-Rivières,
    $45)

Guadeloupe: Rhum Damoiseau VSOP (Damoiseau, $43)Like its sister French island Martinique, Guadeloupe is blessed with many
distilleries making mostly column-distilled, cane juice rhums. However,
Guadeloupe is not subject to Martinique’s AOC. The Damoiseau distillery is the largest on the island, and the brand is the most readily
available off-island, so its VSOP gets the nod.

Venezuela’s primary export brands are Diplomatico, Santa
Teresa, and Pampero. Both Santa Teresa and Diplomatico blend pot and column
distillates in their various blends. The well-known top of Diplomatico’s
regular line, Reserva Exclusiva, is extremely sweet so doesn’t take the honors
here. In contrast, Santa Teresa’s 1796 is believed to have little or no added sugar
and is generally well reviewed.

Alternates

  • Diplomatico Mantuano ($24)

Notes

Notes
Hydrometer tests indicates the Mantuano has far less sweetening than the Reserva Exclusiva.

Panama’s two large distilleries are Varela Hermano (house
brand: Abuelo), and Proveedora Internacional de LIcores, S.A. (PILSA), known
for the Origenes line, as well as selling bulk rum to brands like Caña Brava
and Panama Pacific.  Even though the
Abuelo is fairly sweet, given the selection criteria a case can be made for it being
the most emblematic.

The dominant player in Guatemalan rum is Zacapa, best known
for its “23” and “XO” expressions. However, Zacapa rums are known by the rum
enthusiasts to be fairly sweet. The lesser known Botran line is made at the
same distillery and appears to have fewer additives.

Notes
Casa Magdalena, a rum made in partnership with Portland’s House Spirits, is offering a new take on Guatemalan rum. However, it will be several years before aged stock hits peak maturity.

Antigua has one distiller, aptly named Antigua Distillery
Limited. Their house brand is English Harbour, with five and ten year
expressions. The five year is well regarded and falls under of the $45
threshold.

The Dominican Republic rum industry is dominated by the
Three Bs – Brugal, Barcelo, and Bermudez.  Column-still rums rule the day in the
Dominican Republic. Brugal’s 1888 is doubled aged, first in ex-bourbon casks
and then in ex-sherry casks.

Alternates

  • Ron Barcelo Imperial (Barcelo, $25)

Haiti’s only large-scale rhum producer is Barbancourt. The
distillery uses cane juice for its rhums, yet they don’t have the same grassy
notes as Martinique rhum agricole. At only $40, the top of the line Barbancourt
15 year is a great price for a tropically aged rhum.

Notes
Another cane spirit made in Haiti is clairin, made by numerous small producers using natural yeasts. Each of the available clairins on the market have their own unique flavor profile, and all quite different than Barbancourt. Some of these clairins come in under the $45 threshold.

Nicaragua’s large-scale rum industry is a single distillery:
Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua. The house brand is Flor de Caña, a column-distilled
rum with expressions ranging from an aged and carbon filtered four year white rum,
up to premium expressions aged for several decades.

Alternates

  • Flor de Caña Rum 12 (Compañía Licorera de
    Nicaragua, $32)

If the Flor de Caña 18 is too expensive for your wallet, the
12 is similar enough in flavor profile.

Notes
Flor de Caña’s labels previously stated minimum ages like 7, 12, or 18 years. However, recently the “years” word on the label vanished, raising questions about the true minimum age of rums in these expressions.

Costa Rica:  Ron Centenario Fundacion 20 Años Reserva Especial
(Centenario Internacional – $42)

Costa Rica’s primary export
rum brand is Ron Centenario, made by Centenario Internacional. Information
about the distillery is sparse, but it likely uses column stills. Like many
brands from Spanish heritage countries, Centenario’s rums are stated as solera aged.

When it comes to Belize, the column-distilled Travellers rum is the brand most seen on international store shelves, and the 1-Barrel is the most readily available expression. They also have 3-Barrel and 5-Barrel bottlings, but they seem to be harder to find internationally.

Alternates

  • Tiburon Small Batch 8 year (Sourced from Travellers Liquors, $30)

Although Grenada was once a large producer of rum more than a
century ago, current Grenada rum distillation is just a single large-scale rum
distillery: Clarke’s Court. However, Mark Reynier, the man who brought Scotland’s
Bruichladdich distillery back to life, is building an ultra-modern cane juice
rum distillery in Grenada as I write this—so more intrigue to come.

Notes

The Westerhall brand doesn’t distill their own rum so was not considered. The River Antoine distillery is beloved by rum wonks, but their rums can be a challenge to obtain.


Final notes: I’ve not included Colombia on this list because
very informed sources tell me that Colombia does not have any operating rum
distilleries.  Likewise, I’ve not
included certain countries like St. Vincent and Suriname because they don’t have
a significant presence in the international market.

If I’ve forgotten any significant rum exporting Caribbean basin country, do let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

A hearty thanks to Lance Surujbally for reviewing my selections for egregious missteps. All errors are my own.

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