Now that rum has established its reputation as something more than just a good-time beverage, there are compelling reasons to look at the various regional styles available. How long a rum brand is fermented and what sort of still is used changes regardless of region, but in general there are some rules worth knowing about who makes what.
For starters, rules governing them vary, as do ingredient sources – rums are always made from sugar cane or by-products, but there are few laws restricting a rum maker from, say, bringing in molasses from another country to make their rum.
These are the major rum varieties in terms of marketing:
Light rum – typically slightly aged with most resulting color filtered out
Gold rum – usually picks up color and flavor from the addition of some aged rum or caramel in the blending process
Dark rum – more likely to develop its color and more intense flavor from longer oak aging, added caramel or both
While much of the mass-market growth of rums relies on new flavors, international rum makers are working hard to get traction in the American market. Rums from Martinique (Rhum J.M. and Clément Rhum), Venezuela (Santa Teresa and Diplomatico), Nicaragua (Flor de Caña), Panama (Ron Abuelo) and Guatemala (Ron Zacapa and Botran) are starting to appear more often in cocktail-centric and rum-focused bars.
Especially interesting to contemporary bartenders are long-fermented, pot still rums, especially from Jamaica or Guyana, in which there’s an unmistakable lingering funk known as hogo (from the French haut gout or high taste). These rums are estery, usually potent and not at all what most American drinkers associate with fine rum, but like Scotch whisky, have developed a loyal following.
In style, rums differ mostly due to tradition and history – those from the Spanish language islands in the northern Caribbean - Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic - are known for dry, light and crisp flavors (Bacardi,
DonQ and Barrilito from Puerto Rico; Brugal, Barcelo and Matusalem from the DR). That crispness helps them work well in cocktails made with fresh juices.
Rums from English language islands like Barbados and Jamaica tend to be darker and richer, often with a more intense molasses quality, although light rums are also made here, and the fruity results of pot stills are at play as well. Myers's, Mount Gay, Appleton Estate, Goslings and Cruzan are among the best known, but new brands like Banks are making their mark. Heavier in flavor or body, these rums work better in drinks made with a more complex mix of flavors.
Producers in French-language Martinique and Haiti use sugar cane almost exclusively to make their rums, providing a more fruity, estery and even slightly funky quality to young rums (Haiti's Barbancourt and Martinique's Depaz, Rhum Clément, Neisson and Rhum J.M. are the best known). Light or aged, these rums deliver complexities that make them a bartender’s favorite.
As rums age, they take on character and depth in ways that vary tremendously. It’s with aged rums that producers from Central and South America shine - Zacapa, Diplomatico, Ron Abuelo and Flor de Caña are fuller-bodied than their Caribbean counterparts, developing a broader flavor palate without taking on extreme woodiness as they age.