Ask your local bartender: The Daiquiri (the original simple mix of rum, sugar and lime, not some neon-colored slushie) has officially replaced the Negroni as the mixologists’ drink of choice. But why is the humble tipple so trendy lately? Rum.
Not only is rum remarkably affordable (even the highest-end spirits cost a fraction of their whiskey and cognac equivalents), but it also comes in an amazing variety of styles, from crystal-clear, dry and austere to deeply funky and oaky.
However, navigating those styles can be hard. Short of actually tasting every rum out there, going by country of origin is a good way to know what you’re getting. Each country in the Americas has a different tradition for making its rum, which gives each its own unique character. Our guided tour through the Western Hemisphere will help you know which rum to reach for when you’re making a cocktail.
Rum’s been made in Barbados since the 1600s, so they’ve had plenty of practice—in fact, many drinks historians say rum was invented here. By far the largest brand made on the island is Mount Gay, which has been around since 1703 and comes in many varieties, like the nutty and floral cocktail-friendly Eclipse and the rich, smooth sipping rum 1703. Take advantage of the aged depth in the sweet, fruity Planter’s Punch.
Notable brands: Mount Gay
Love the Dark n’ Stormy cocktail? Well, the mix of rum and ginger beer should be made with Bermudan Gosling’s Black Seal Rum—by law: The distillery holds a trademark for the cocktail, and also makes the Stormy brand of ginger beer. In fact, Gosling’s is about the only Bermuda-made rum you can find. Good thing it’s tasty, with deep sweetness and some nice spice.
Notable brands: Gosling’s
While rums from former colonies of Spain are clean and crisp, those from British possessions tend to be a bit more full and aromatic, with a bit of funk on the nose. (French colonies are a whole different story, which we’ll get to in a moment.) Jamaica specializes in dark rums, which offer lots of deep, toasted caramel flavors. Your best cocktail bet is a Hurricane—no, not the neon-colored frozen concoctions served at low-rent “Daiquiri” bars, but the original, made with rum, passion fruit, lemon and nothing else.
Notable brands: Appleton Estate, Wray & Nephew, Myers’s
Named for a coastal region of the South American nation, Demerara rum is the specialty of Guyana. The spirit is deep, dark and very rich—think really complex unrefined sugar. Guyana’s high-proof Lemon Hart 151 is a must-have for tiki cocktails, most notably, the Zombie.
Notable brands: Lemon Hart, El Dorado
Well, no, you can’t buy Cuban rum (legally) in this country, but the island is nonetheless key to the history of the spirit. Bacardi got its start in the city of Santiago in the 1860s and defined the Cuban style: a clean, dry white rum with a crisp finish—perfect for Mojitos. Aged bottlings tack a nice oaky smoothness on top of that style. Next time you’re in Canada (or really anywhere outside the US), pick up some Havana Club and give it a try.
Notable brands: Havana Club
Much like Cuban rum, Puerto Rican rum is of the clean, fresh, former-Spanish-colony style. It’s appropriate, then, that the Bacardi family built a distillery here (along with others in Mexico and Bermuda) after fleeing the Cuban revolution. And thanks to its political status as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has lower taxes on rum imports to the mainland, making its rums best sellers here. That clean and crisp flavor works best in a Piña Colada.
Notable brands: Don Q, Bacardi
Nicaragua & Guatemala
For some reason, rum made in Central America takes well to long periods of barrel-aging, so you’ll find many bottlings from the region that are 5, 10, 15 years old or even older. All that aging tames a lot of the roughness of a white rum, giving it a nice smoothness with vanilla and bourbon flavors, plus sometimes coffee or chocolate notes. They can work in cocktails, sure, but to truly appreciate one, sip it neat.
Notable brands: Botran, Zacapa (Guatemala), Flor de Caña (Nicaragua)
Martinique & Haiti
Most rums are made from molasses, which is a byproduct of extracting refined sugar from sugar cane. But in the French-speaking Caribbean, they make rhum agricole, which starts with fresh, unprocessed sugar cane juice. The resulting spirit has a lot of funk, with aromatic grassy and herbal notes that are quite unlike other rums. They’re best used in a Ti Punch, a simple mix of muddled lime, sugar cane syrup and lots of rhum, traditionally served without ice.
Notable brands: Clèment, Neisson, Depaz (Martinique), Barbancourt (Haiti)
Brazil’s national spirit is made from fresh sugar cane juice, much like rhum agricole. But don’t call it rum: It’s cachaça. (Why isn’t it rum? Brazilian producers fought a long legal battle to get cachaça its own classification from the US Tax & Trade Bureau, which regulates liquor labeling.) Cachaça is mostly bottled unaged to be used in the classic Caipirinha, but there are also a handful of barrel-aged varieties. (There is at least one true rum made in Brazil—Oronoco—but these are far less common than cachaça.)
Notable brands: Leblon, Avuá, 51, Novo Fogo, Ypioca
The United States
Rum was actually the first spirit distilled in North America; we didn’t start making whiskey in large quantities until the Revolutionary War cut off our access to sugar cane from British colonies in the Caribbean. Today, American rum is made by a wide range of small craft distilleries, in a wide range of styles. The wide variety of course lends itself to different cocktails, but go for an all-American classic, invented in Florida in the ‘50s: the Rum Runner.
Notable brands: Thomas Tew (Rhode Island), Railean (Texas), Old New Orleans (Louisiana), Ragged Mountain (Massachusetts), Koloa (Hawaii)
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.