Guide: How to Buy Rum

Rum is used in many of our most beloved cocktails but in the last few years it has begun to shed its reputation as merely an ingredient in cocktails, rising to prominence as a spirit to be enjoyed neat. Here are a few nifty tips in choosing the right rum

Rum is used in many of our most beloved cocktails but in the last few years it has begun to shed its reputation as merely an ingredient in cocktails, rising to prominence as a spirit to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or replacing traditional spirits in classic cocktails for a nice twist. Before you leg it to buy a few bottles for your summer tiki parties, here are a few nifty tips in choosing the right rum. 

The spirit has long been synonymous with seafarers, earning its rep as a drink for the high seas due to the daily 70mm rum ration offered to the Royal Navy from 1655 to 1970. Rum was eventually mixed with lime juice and water for the seamen, dubbed 'grog' - to prevent scurvy and widespread naval inebriation - and that combination still lives on today, as rum is paired with fruit and citrus to bring out the flavors. This also earned its reputation as a staple in Tiki cocktails, which harks back to its Caribbean roots. 

Although it makes a regular appearance in drinks like daiquiris, pina coladas and mojitos, rum is gearing up to be increasingly popular on its own. Patrons often enjoy rum neat, on the rocks, or in different types of cocktails - a rum old fashioned, for example. This is evidenced by not only the availability of a wider range of rum for consumers but also rum festivals that serve delicious libations and also aim to educate. Spirits have become more accessible in the past few years so these festivals serve to introduce and educate newcomers to what maybe perceived as an inaccessible or intimidating spirit and to connect consumers with experts in the industry. 

If you aren't convinced yet, this guide will take you through the intricacies of the delicious spirit, and before you know it, you'll be asking (a la Captain Jack Sparrow) "But where has all the rum gone?"


Before it got a rep for being the drink of choice of scallywaggers and swashbucklers, rum was initially produced in the Caribbean (though origin stories vary) on sugarcane plantations, where it was discovered that molasses (a by-product emitted during the sugar refining process) could be converted to alcohol after fermentation. When the British Navy got their hands on rum, sailors rations were switched from brandy to rum and eventually it was so popular it had to be mixed with water and limejuice. 

Rum is mostly produced in the tropical climes of the Caribbean and Latin America, though also around the world and in many French-speaking islands.


Guide How To Buy Rum 3

Extracting sugarcane juice at the Ron Zacapa distillery

Rum is made from either molasses (which as aforementioned is a by-product of the sugarcane manufacturing process) or fresh cane juice. It is not as easy as that though - most rum is made from molasses, but agricole rums and Brazilian cachaca are made from fresh sugarcane juice. As it is made from sugar, this isn't a drink for chronic dieters or those wishing to drop plenty of pounds.

Sugarcane is harvested, the leaves removed and the cane pressed to extract water, then it is crushed and boiled - where the crystallized sugar is removed, and what remains is molasses, which is then diluted, fermented, distilled, and stored in barrels for aging. 

There are various factors that affect the outcome - the strain of yeast used for example, can affect the taste. In lighter rums, a faster-working yeast is used, but for darker rums slow-acting yeast is used; many distilleries can control the taste and timing by using a particular variety of yeast. Distillation occurs in either a column still or a pot still, and many argue this, too, impacts flavor - pot stills tend to produce richer rums and are a more traditional means of distillation, while column stills are commonly produce lighter rums, though some blend the two.

Rum is then aged in barrels. Typically these are old bourbon casks, but again it can differ. Rum has a very robust flavor profile and color; this is largely due to the interaction with the wood during the aging process. The tropical climate means water in the barrels evaporates quickly, allowing for a fast maturation process and for the wood to impart certain characteristics on the spirit, mainly the rich color. White rums are aged in stainless steel casks so as to keep the clear color. 

Guide How To Buy Rum 4

Storage of Ron Zacapa


Guide How To Buy Rum 9

While some may only be acquainted with certain brands or types of rum, there is actually a large range. The first three, light or white rums, gold rum and dark rum, are the most popular. 


  • Clear, no distinct or prominent rum flavor
  • Typically used in cocktails like pina coladas, mojitos and daiquiris
  • Aged at least one year 


  • More of a flavor profile - expect hints of spice and smoke
  • Barrels impart a golden hue, lighter than dark rums
  • Can be enjoyed on the rocks or neat, but also used in mixed drinks 
  • Aged for several years


  • Must be matured for two or more years 
  • Deeper colors like mahogany, copper and caramel
  • Robust flavor
  • Usually pot-stilled


  • Flavors and spices are infused into the rum for a more prominent aroma and taste
  • Also traditionally used in cooking
  • Expect spices and flavors like ginger, cinammon, coconut, clove and blackcurrant


  • Not for the faint hearted - normally rum is 80-100 proof (160-190 proof at distillation, but diluted down to standard of 80 proof) but these are not diluted
  • US regulations prevent rums over 155 proof from entering the country - it is here you'll find rums like Bacardi 151 staying within the 150 proof range


  • For those with a deeper appreciation and love for rum, this is a perfect match. 
  • Rum is aged for many years for a complex, rich flavor.
  • The long process coaxes out flavors that would not be apparent otherwise. Often the barrels are charred, which imparts a smoky flavor on the rum
  • It is often blended, and is to be enjoyed like a cognac or scotch - on the rocks or neat, especially the varieties of premium, aged rums

Guide How To Buy Rum 6


If you wish to learn more about rum, head to a bar with an excellent selection. Typically Tiki bars will have them, though don't be afraid to ask your bartender or mixologist for tips and suggestions if you are unsure. 

If it tickles your fancy so much so you want to learn more, we suggest:

Guide How To Buy Rum

The Complete Guide to Rum
by Edward Hamilton

Guide How To Buy Rum 7

And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis

Guide How To Buy Rum 8

Rum by David Broome

Guide How To Buy Rum 11

Rum: A Social and Sociable History
of the Real Spirit of 1776





Copyright © is part of the SPH Magazines Luxury Network