Distilled from fermented sugarcane juice or molasses and aged in oak barrels, rum is a spirit steeped in culture and can be found in the majority of the world's sugar-producing regions. Its history goes back centuries, with strong ties to the Caribbean and the maritime operations of privateers and imperial naval forces.
Rum's diverse history means it can be found in a huge range of styles that make it perfect for mixing or sipping, and the premium rum market is experiencing something of a revival. Established brands are rejuvenating their efforts to elevate their offerings, enticing rum enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike with a variety of uniquely flavored and aged expressions.
The ranking and quality of the brands below are based on my own extensive experience in the alcohol industry and personal love of rum, having met with representatives of many of the producers and created cocktails with their products. Regarding their popularity, the majority of these brands sit at the top of global sales lists, while others are highly renowned in the industry and by rum lovers around the world.
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While Malibu is technically a flavored rum liqueur, its global recognition and association with the cocktail world have earned it a position on the list of the most popular rum brands. While purists might disagree, and it's not what you'd consider a sipping rum, few bar shelves don't hold a place for it.
Despite Malibu's tropical branding, the liqueur was actually invented by a Cornishman, Tom Jago, in the 1970s -- the same brain behind the invention of Bailey's Irish Cream and Johnny Walker Blue Label. However, Malibu is still made in the Caribbean, with its white rum base distilled and flavored in Barbados at the West Indies Rum Distillery. Originally, Malibu was mostly used in tiki cocktails like piña coladas, but the brand's astounding growth has seen a range of different flavored versions emerge that beg for experimentation, as well as a large selection of pre-mixed cocktail cans.
There are few rum brands as iconic as Bacardi, the second-best-selling rum on the planet from the world's largest privately-owned spirits brand. Despite having hundreds of spirits in its portfolio, Bacardi's iconic white rum was the drink that started it all.
Bacardi rum was originally created in 1862 by Spaniard Facundo Bacardí Massó in Cuba, in an attempt to create a more palatable version of the readily available rum that was considered rough and unrefined. Eventually, Cuba's political situation in the 20th century forced the company to relocate to Bermuda, where they're still headquartered to this day.
Although most would consider Bacardi an entry-level rum best saved for cocktails and mixing, the company has expanded its range considerably over the years. Now, the brand offers flavored editions, a spiced rum, pre-mixed cocktails, and a selection of aged, premium expressions that can hold their own against some of the best-sipping rums around. They've even started to experiment with using different casks for maturation, including ex-rye whisky barrels.
Like Bacardi, Don Q is a brand that also has its roots in Spain. However, its founder, Juan Serrallés, settled in Puerto Rico instead of Cuba over 150 years ago. Named after the famed literary character Don Quixote, it's hard to understate the popularity of Don Q rum, especially in Puerto Rico, where it outsells its Cuban competitor.
Typically, Don Q is considered a more premium rum with a renowned smoothness and quality that's rare in mass-produced spirits. Complementing the base range of white, gold, and overproof rums is a flavored selection that offers bartenders plenty of choice for fruity concoctions and tropical cocktails.
Where the Don Q range truly shines is with its Serrallés Collection, which bolsters a range of premium rums with a distinctive approach to barrel-aging. While most rums are aged in ex-bourbon barrels, the Serrallés Collection features expressions matured in a variety of casks that impart truly unique flavors, including ex-cognac, wine, sherry, and port barrels.
Kraken spiced rum, with its iconic Victorian-style hoop-handled bottle, is a relative newcomer to the rum world, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of today's best-known brands. Created in 2010 by Jersey-based drinks giant Proximo Spirits, best known for producing Jose Cuervo tequila, Kraken's base rum comes from Trinidad's famed Angostura distillery.
Although the brand has experimented with special editions and limited releases, the original, jet-black Kraken is by far the most ubiquitous, offering a depth that sets it apart from almost every other spiced rum. The rich molasses base provides toffee-like flavors that harmoniously blend with notes of warming cinnamon and sweet vanilla, and while it's not quite smooth enough to be an ideal sipping rum, it's perfect for adding a new dimension to cocktails. For the best results, it's worth trying Kraken as a substitute in classic cocktails like a Dark 'n Stormy, Mai Tai, or Daiquiri, but its caramel profile means it works just as well paired with cola or lemonade.
While it's likely that rum has existed in some form or another before its existence was first documented, the earliest records we do have come from the West Indian island of Barbados. Furthermore, the Mount Gay distillery on Barbados has a deed dating back to 1703, making it the oldest commercial rum distillery in the world.
While age doesn't always equate to experience, it's fair to say that Mount Gay's centuries of rum-making, combined with its use of ultra-pure, coral-filtered water results in some of the finest expressions of the spirit. The Mount Gay range is an excellent value for the money, starting simple with its crisp Eclipse, bold Black Barrel, and complex XO rums. However, like Don Q, Mount Gay has released numerous special edition, top-shelf rums alongside versions that make use of different barrels for aging. They've even released a scotch-inspired rum aged in ex-Islay whisky casks, combining the smoky maritime features of the Scottish isles with the nautical influence of the tropical Caribbean.
The third best-selling rum globally is Captain Morgan, owned by the British drinks powerhouse, Diageo. Keeping with rum's association with sailors and the sea, the famous spiced spirit is named after Welshman Henry Morgan, a famous 17th-century "privateer" who continued to gain notoriety for years after his death.
Morgan's name was likely chosen purely for its recognizability and connection with the British Empire's presence in the Caribbean, as he doesn't appear to have much connection to the rum industry, but that hasn't stopped the brand's success. Captain Morgan Original Spiced Gold is the flagship rum, bringing together sweet notes of vanilla, oak, and dried fruits, but the range has expanded slightly to include a white and dark version. While Captain Morgan might not win over hardcore rum aficionados, it's an easy-drinking, affordable option that can be paired with most mixers and subbed into plenty of iconic rum cocktails.
To most, the name Angostura is associated with the most famous of the cocktail bitters, a concoction that was originally developed as a medicinal tincture in Venezuela in 1830. When the product's inventor, Dr. Siegert, passed away, his descendants eventually moved the company to Trinidad.
In the early 1900s, Angostura Limited began experimenting with rum production, but it wasn't until the 1940s that they launched their very own distillery. Now, Angostura is one of Trinidad and Tobago's most famous exports, with a well-earned reputation for crafting smooth and luxurious rums that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a range of cocktails. Such is their esteem that the company even went as far as releasing the world's most expensive rum, Legacy, which sets buyers back a cool $100,000 per bottle. The rest of us might have to settle for one of their more affordable bottles, but even Angostura's base range consists of rums that are the envy of other distilleries.
Despite being one of the most famous rums in the world, particularly in the spiced rum category, the Sailor Jerry brand wasn't born out of the drinks industry. Sailor Jerry was the nickname of a tattoo artist, sailor, and musician called Norman Collins -- the man who not only popularized the art style seen on the Sailor Jerry bottle, but arguably revolutionized modern tattooing.
When Collins died, he handed over his legacy to his protégés who formed a company to commercialize the Sailor Jerry brand. In 1991, the company launched a rum in his name, showcasing Collins' artwork while paying homage to his sailing roots. Spiced rum was chosen as it was a common way for sailors to make their rum rations more palatable, and the rest is history. Although there's only one expression of Sailor Jerry rum, it's versatile enough to be used in a huge range of drinks. It's not a perfect sipping rum but it's lighter and smoother than the likes of Captain Morgan or Kraken, working well in cocktails where you want the rum to play a supporting role instead of taking over the show.
Like many of today's most well-known rum brands, Goslings has a history that combines the old world with the new. The original company was launched in Bermuda in the early 1800s by two English brothers who'd become waylaid on their way to America, but it wasn't until 1860 that they launched their first rum.
Today, most people know Goslings as the key ingredient in the classic rum and ginger beer-based cocktail, the Dark 'n Stormy, a name the company managed to trademark in the USA in 1988. Their flagship product, Black Seal, got its name from the way the rum was originally sold in reclaimed champagne bottles and sealed with black wax and was renowned for its smoothness and rich fragrance. While Goslings is still primarily associated with the rich and spicy Dark 'n Stormy, today the brand offers a handful of more unique expressions, including pre-mixed cans, a rye barrel-finished rum, an overproof rum, and Spirited Seas, a spirit that pays homage to Goslings' roots by spending time aging on a vessel out on the ocean.
The fifth best-selling rum in the world, Havana Club was born in Cuba and created at the Arechabala family distillery in 1934. However, like the Bacardi family, the Arechabalas were forced to flee Cuba and eventually lost their trademark, with the Cuban government nationalizing the brand and sharing ownership with French spirits powerhouse, Pernod Ricard.
America's embargo on Cuban products meant the Pernod version couldn't be sold in the U.S. market, but the Bacardi family bought the original recipe to develop their own rum under the same name. To this day, legal battles rage on to determine who makes the real Havana Club. The Cuban selection includes a range of supreme rums of different ages and styles and is revered for its versatility. The rums are of a high enough quality for sipping but make exemplary bases for cocktails, especially considering their affordability. Expressions like the 3-Year and Especial are excellent in tropical drinks and classic tipples like mojitos and daiquiris, while at the other end of the spectrum are premium, limited releases like Maximo unparalleled in their representation of an authentic Cuban rum.
Although rum has undeniably strong ties to the Caribbean region, it can be easy to overlook the spirit's connection to the Philippines. The region is home to what many consider some of the highest quality sugar cane in the world, and when Rémy Cointreau executive Stephen Carroll visited the island of Negros Occidental, he saw the potential for creating a world-class rum.
Don Papa was initially launched solely in the Philippines market, but it wasn't long before the premium small-batch, oak-aged rum gained international popularity, ultimately being bought earlier this year by Diageo for an impressive €260 million. Don Papa is the ultimate sipping rum, exemplifying the magnificent flavors of the distiller's world-class molasses while aged and finished in a unique array of casks. Rye, sherry, and port barrels are all used to mature different Don Papa rums resulting in a complex range that meets the standards of even the most discerning rum aficionados.
Throughout rum's extensive maritime heritage, it arguably has no closer tie than the one that connects it to the British Royal Navy. For hundreds of years, sailors were allocated a rum ration by the ship's "purser," a title which became colloquially known as the "pusser."
Although the British Admiralty abolished the rum ration in the 1970s, permission was given to continue producing the rum using the navy's original recipe, making Pusser's the closest you can get to the traditional sailors' spirit. Distilled in the British Virgin Islands and embodying a distinctive, full-bodied flavor with notes of molasses, oak, and dried fruits, Pusser's award-winning range is relatively small but features a gunpowder-proof version and an extra mature 15-year-old expression. Like Goslings' Dark 'n Stormy, Pusser's has its own trademarked cocktail, a richer twist on a Piña Colada called the Painkiller, but the rum makes for excellent sipping neat or on the rocks and is intense enough to mix deliciously with all manner of mixers.
Named after the legendary lost city of gold, El Dorado rum hails from the Demerara region of Guyana, a location long associated with its sugar production. Over the centuries, the area's multitude of rum distilleries eventually either closed or became part of Demerara Distillers, the sole producer now operating in the region.
This combination of history, experience, and fine ingredients has led to a brand created in 1992 that's renowned for exceptional craftsmanship and a distinct character. El Dorado rums are smooth and velvety across a diverse range that uses a variety of aging and finishing techniques. Whether blended or drawn from a single still, toffee, caramel, and tropical fruits are mainstay flavors that are emboldened with maturation for up to 25 years in unique casks and barrels, including port, Madeira, and sauternes. While the most premium expressions don't come cheap, they're worth every penny, and there are plenty of more affordable editions that are easy to get your hands on.
With a legacy stretching back to 1749, Appleton Estate is arguably Jamaica's most famous rum brand, exemplifying the unique qualities of the country's rum. Distilling the rich molasses of Jamaica's superior sugarcane in copper pot stills results in a robust, full-bodied rum and a profile that boasts notes of berries, pineapple, caramel, banana, and warming spice.
Combined with its sister brand, Wray & Nephew, Appleton Estate is one of the top ten best-selling rums in the world and is lauded for its approachability. Alongside expressions that are perfect for sipping, like its 12- and 15-year-old releases, Appleton Estate rums are an extremely popular choice for tropical cocktails, blending styles for Mai Tais and daiquiris, and can be used to add a Jamaican twist on tiki drinks. Although limited editions such as their 25-year-old Joy blend can cost up to four figures, their standard releases are exceedingly good value and are a must-try for any rum fan.
Ron Zacapa is a relatively new rum that was launched in 1976 to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Guatemalan town of Zacapa. Since its inception, Ron Zacapa has garnered international acclaim as an exceptional rum that makes use of unique production methods to create its premium products.
Instead of molasses, Ron Zacapa is distilled with the first press of sugar cane juice rather than molasses and is aged at high altitudes to arrest the maturation process. It's also aged using what's known as the solera system, a method most commonly associated with wines but has since found some use in the spirits world. By stacking rums of different ages, drawing bottles from the oldest barrels, and replacing what's taken with younger distillate, Ron Zacapa rums offer unparalleled depth, balance, and consistency. The Ron Zacapa range is small and relatively expensive, but the brand is highly sought after by rum enthusiasts around the world, and not especially difficult to find considering its excellent reputation.
The methodology for selecting and ranking these rums is based on a combination of global sales figures, as well as their overall reputation. I've tried rums from every single one of the brands listed, having listed them at bars I've managed and used them in a range of cocktails, testing them in personal creations or substituting them in existing classics. While many of these brands offer expressions that are rare, expensive, and hard to find, they also all have bottles that are easily accessible and come in at a reasonable price point.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.