Everything You Know About Dark Rum Is Wrong
To start, there’s no such thing as “dark rum.” We’ll explain.
Categorizing rum is slippery.
It’s not like whisk(e)y. You may pick up a bottle of, say, Zacapa 23 and think, “This is a delicious example of a dark rum that’s been aged 23 years, and they call it dark because of the age.”
Except for the delicious part (recommended!), everything about that thought pattern is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Blame it on a lack of regulation and the abundance of countries producing rum. Because while you might find “dark rum” as a category in stores or in plenty of online publications (it’s even been touted as the hottest spirt of 2020), it is not an official category — though to be fair on the first point, the Whisky Exchange has attempted to come up with its own rum classification system, which it recently claims helped its rum category grow 43%.
And it’s certainly not recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka the TTB) … and neither is “black rum,” which is sometimes used interchangeably.
Even rum aficionados use the phrase in different ways, some more negatively than others.
“Dark rum is a lazy attempt to describe one of the most complex processes that this spirit has to offer,” says Alex Velez, who started in the hospitality industry at age 15 in his homeland of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and is now a San Francisco-based mixologist and designer of bar programs.
“Who’s ever heard of a ‘dark bourbon’ or a ‘dark Scotch’? The idea is ridiculous and would never pass muster today,” adds Jesse Torres, the bar manager at Denver’s American Elm, noting that there’s a history and more legitimate reasons rums have been artificially colored. “It’s deceptive.”
Since there’s not a lot of agreement on the category, we curated a cross-section of opinions on “dark rum” (in quotes) from some very rum-forward bar professionals around the world. Their thoughts below.
How do you define dark rum?
“It’s a vague term. I think we need new standards of identity and we should look at the model of agave spirits to classify rum, like reposado, añejo and extra añejo.” — Alex Velez
“For the mass consumer, dark rum would indicate a cane spirit distillate made with third-boil molasses or cane spirit distillate with added molasses, caramel or sugar to create body. For others, ‘dark rum’ would indicate a cane spirit aged in oak, hopefully with transparent age statements.” — Austin Hartman, Paradise Lounge (Ridgewood, NY)
“When I think of dark rum, it’s made from molasses or juice and then aged in oak barrels (generally bourbon barrels).” — Kenneth McCoy, The Rum House (New York)
“It’s the rum you find at your liquor store that looks unnaturally dark — black as molasses and probably just as sweet. It’s the Gosling’s, the Myers’s, the Kraken, the Zaya. These are the traditionally dark rums my parents and grandparents drank, and they’ve saturated the market and firmly lodged themselves deep into the modern drinker’s idea of what rums are. But it’s deceptive — darkness and color are synonymous with aging, but a lot of them rely on coloring to artificially ‘age.’ Meanwhile, distillers like Foursquare, Appleton Estate and Clément are all outstanding examples of companies that are referring to their spirits not by old words like ‘dark’ but are instead using proper verbiage like ‘aged 10 years’ or ‘XO’ to properly describe what exactly their spirits are.” — Jesse Torres
What should consumers look for in a “dark rum”?
“First, look for age statements and regions. For example, Barbados and a brand that actually tells you how it’s made, like The Real McCoy or Plantation or Foursquare.” — Kenneth McCoy
“For the mass consumer, they should seek something with a fuller and sweeter body. For [more serious drinkers], something that reflects the development of age and blend method.” — Austin Hartman
“Look for bottles that carry verbiage that has legal weight and meaning, such as ‘aged 10 years’ or ‘XO.’ These are spirits that must pass more stringent scrutiny and are almost always a better product. — Jesse Torres
What’s an affordable brand you’d recommend?
“Coruba is my favorite, in the ‘traditional’ and labeled sense of dark rum. It has the least amount of additives in the category, a Jamaican origin and the price point is perfect. Myers’s is also grand.” — Austin Hartman
“Plantation Original Dark Rum. It’s wonderful in cocktails neat or with a rock. I personally use it in a lot of my creations; it covers a lot of ground. It’s fruity, delicate and woody.” — Kenneth McCoy
“Ron del Barrilito 3 Estrellas. All around, This is what I think personifies the category — not sweet, straight-up oak, sugar cane and a rich history with a meaningful package that celebrates rum.” — Alex Velez
What’s a hard-to-find, expensive or less attainable dark rum for a more serious home bar?
“Anything that Foursquare Rum Distillery is doing with the limited releases are worth having on your back bar. I’ve heard them called the Pappy of the rum world. Foursquare Dominus would be one to get a hold of, as well as The Real McCoy 12 Years, a limited release that’s out of this world.” — Kenneth McCoy
“Samaroli Demerara Dark Rum 1988 is a jewel in my personal collection for the category.” — Austin Hartman
“Rhum Clement XO, the unique blends from early ’60s and mid ’70s. Also anything Lost Spirits makes; their cutting-edge techniques are reviving old styles of rum flavors with amazing art and packaging. Also, and this is a unicorn: Ron del Barrilito 4 Estrellas. It’s the Amer Picon of rums, but for me it’s all about the hogo. — Alex Velez
Try Foursquare’s Exceptional Cask Series or Hampden Estate Single Jamaican Rum, aged seven years. They are ell-made, tropically aged stocks and some of the most delicious and well-made spirits in the world.” — Jesse Torres
And finally, a few cocktail recipes:
Via Kenneth McCoy, The Rum House
2 oz Santa Teresa 1796
Dash of Angostura bitters
Dash of Regans orange bitters
Stir over ice for 20-30 seconds. Serve in a chilled rocks glass with a large cube of ice and a cherry garnish with expressed lemon and orange peel discarded.
Via Austin Hartman, Paradise Lounge
1.5 oz Coruba Jamaican Dark
1 oz pineapple juice
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz orange juice
.25 oz Rhum JM Cane Sirop
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake. Strain into collins/highball glass. Garnish with a pineapple triangle skewered with a maraschino cherry.
Via Alex Velez
1.5 oz Ron del Barrilito rum
.5 oz Lost Spirits Havana Nights rum
.75 oz Byrrh Quinquina
.25 oz Carpano Antica
3-6 drops Bitterqueen bitters (Tobacco)
In a mixing glass add ingredients except bitters. Stir until proper dilution is achieved, and pour into Old Fashioned glass. Top it off with tobacco bitters and garnish with flamed orange peel.