is no name in the spirits reviewing business more prominent than F. Paul Pacult. His Spirits Journal is the gospel of the booze industry, the way Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate makes or breaks companies in the wine business.
Pacult, along with cohort Sean Ludford, is branching out from neutral critic into industry advocacy. His new group, Rum For All, is meant to bring awareness to the public regarding rum as a serious, high-quality spirit. Rum For All is sponsored by a wide range of rum producers — 14 of which Pacult had on hand for sampling during a recent road show event for trade and media, for comparing side by side by side. (Incidentally, you can always tell you’re at a rum event by the large number of Panama hats and Hawaiian shirts in the crowd.)
But first, some history. Rum is made from sugarcane, as you surely know, and 97% of it is born from molasses. (The other 3% from unprocessed cane juice.) While rum is associated mostly with the Caribbean, sugarcane wasn’t around here until it was brought over by Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the New World. The cane thrived in the wet heat, and the rum business was born.
Rum’s first production in the New World came not in the islands but rather in Staten Island, and in the 1600s and 1700s, New England was the epicenter of the world’s rum production. A triangle of world trade began, with sugarcane shipped to New England, the resultant rum shipped to Europe, and, sadly, slaves shipped from Africa to the Caribbean for use in harvesting the cane. (Pacult is very apologetic on this point, noting that today the vast majority of sugarcane is machine harvested.)
Rum was the It liquor until Revolutionary War and the 1800s, when the new U.S.A. banned trade with French and British territories, which dried up the source of sugarcane. By the time the 1900s arrived, rum was all but forgotten as a major spirit in the United States. This didn’t change until the 1950s, when rum made a revival nearly 200 years in the making. Brought on by the Tiki craze (in part driven by Hawaii’s new statehood), rum became hot once again… and on until today.
Now rum is made largely where the cane is produced, all over the Caribbean and Central America, and Pacult warns us that the heat makes for special conditions for this spirit. While Scotch whisky barrels may lose 2% of their volume in a year to the “angel’s share,” with rum this number can hit up to 12% thanks to the aging conditions. Pacult shared many tales of rum-makers opening 7-year-old barrels only to find them bone dry. Because of the heat, rum ages fast. A good trick, says Ludford, is to think about rum ages in “dog years.” (Though they tell you this in Kentucky, too.)
After an hour of talking about rum, we finally got to the hard task of tasting the stuff. As noted, 14 rums were on tap, all from different distillers, sampled side by side. I’ve reviewed nearly all of these rums separately in the past, so these ratings and comments shouldn’t be taken as formal reviews. However, it was nonetheless a great opportunity to taste all of these rums comparatively, even in small quantities, so the differences among them could be more readily sussed out, which is hard to do in a standalone review. Tasted from light to dark (and remember, most “white” rums are aged in wood then filtered back to clear, or nearly clear), thoughts and gut reactions follow.
Shellback Silver – A new brand from Barbados, this is a gorgeous white rum, very rich with coconut, molasses, cotton candy, and vanilla character. Looking forward to sampling again after its official release. A-
Brugal Especial Extra Dry – Very light (this should have gone out first), I’m getting some medicinal notes in the body of this aged white. A little greener, with a tighter finish, than I was expecting from Brugal. B
Denizen Aged White – A blend of various white rums, including pot still rum. Sharp nose with vegetal notes, dried spices and herbs. A bit of a menthol/cough drop character. B
10 Cane – Recently reformulated away from its agricole (10 Cane used to be fully made with sugarcane juice) roots, this light yellow rum features lots of flavor — vanilla, cinnamon, baking spices, and bright vanilla. Very sweet, a real knockout with its new recipe. A
Banks Five Island – A blend of rums from all over the Caribbean plus Indonesia. Again a funkier style of rum, it’s rustic, sharp, and full of lots of vegetal and earth flavors. Huge, long finish. B
Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Agricole – Immediate agricole nose, but not too rough on the palate. Heavily vegetal; some people in the room declared one of the bottles to be “corked,” though I was skeptical of that one. B-
Don Q Gran Anejo – We’re moving into a totally different world here, one of well-aged, quite dark rums. Big oaky nose, with raisins, cinnamon, and lots of vanilla, all of which evolves in the glass. Bit alcoholic on the finish. A-
Bacardi 8 – Oaky upfront, with fruitcake notes. Vaguely vegetal on the finish, it’s got a good body, but the balance isn’t perfect. Still, it grows on you. B+
Ron Abuelo 7 – Sweeter, hits the front of the palate. Big vanilla and raisin character, with chocolate notes showing up in the finish. Great balance with good intensity without being overpowering. A
Appleton Estate Reserve – Surprisingly a bit boozy on the nose. This classic rum (including pot still rum) offers cookies, graham crackers, and a spicy, aromatic nose. Pacult praised this rum for its “whiskey” character, which makes for some very interesting comparisons. A-
Diplomatica Reserva Exclusiva – Whiskey on the nose again, with molasses, candied nuts, and raisins. Very, very sweet, with cinnamon and chewy honey character. A-
Flor de Cana 18 – Very woody, a little rough, and rustic. Good, but a touch bitter, and not as exciting as you’d think given its 18 year heritage. B+
Mount Gay Extra Old – Lovely raisins, molasses, and oranges, with tons of complex allspice and cinnamon notes. Just beautiful A
Ron Zacapa 23 – So much chocolate on the finish here. Remarkably smooth and sweet for a 100% sugarcane-juice based rum. Quite sweet but balanced with cinnamon and raisin character in the mix. A-