October 15th, 2017
There are certain rums which are not at the top of the quality ladder…yet year in and year out, they have so many vocal adherents and champions, so many references throughout the literature, are so reasonably priced for the quality they do have, and come up in just about every conversation about a particular country’s (or perhaps company’s) rums, that they can reasonably be called Key Rums of the World. They belong on the shelf of every rum lover who wishes to gain insight into the wide profile variations and geographical dispersion rum embodies.
When I wrote the re-review of the Appleton 12 year old earlier in 2017, with the benefit of over eight years tasting and writing about hundreds of rums, it occurred to me that it was ready for a re-evaluation, and I called it a classic, a key rum of Jamaica. There are other rums like that, which exemplify their countries styles, or their companies’ ethos. Sometimes such rums are used as references by purists only; sometimes by rum fans and the general drinking population; on very rare occasions by both, and when that happens, you know it’s real.
And so, in this perhaps misguided effort to compile a list of what I believe to be some core reference rums of our time, I decided to start a new long term series, occasionally updated, as I come across and re-taste older rums (or find new ones) that I feel deserve another look. I was going to call it The Classics, but truth to tell, that’s too grandiose and suggests an elitism with which I’m uncomfortable: a Classic (or a Great Rum) is one individual which stands supreme in its own right and always will (and by that standard anything over 90 points here can theoretically qualify for that status). In contrast, a Key rum provides insight to the brand line, the company and the country from which it hails — and, perhaps more importantly, can be appreciated by more than just the deep-pocketed, the experts, or those who’ve tried scores if not hundreds of rums.
Who decides? What are the criteria? I have had to set some personal ground rules to assess which ones to consider. In no order they are:
- In general, the rums should not be a limited edition of any kind, whether single barrel or anniversary offering. For it to be considered a key rum of the general public’s drinking experience it must be available commercially, and be in production as at the time of writing, preferably for many years.
- The rum must be spoken of, written about and come up for discussion regularly, for good or ill. And for this reason, much as this will horrify many (or cause them to disregard this list with a snort of derision) I cannot in fairness exclude rums which have been adulterated such as the Diplomatico, Zacapa or even some El Dorados. If I was making a list of Great Rums then yes, they would never even come up for consideration. But this list is not at that level – people love these things and buy them constantly, refer to them almost as touchstones. They cannot be excluded. So rums I may not particularly care for but which satisfy the criteria here, must make the cut and I must make the case for the reader why they should be included…. and also, why to serious rummies they fail.
- The rums can be from either a company or a country. However, given the limited-edition rule, many favoured independents will likely be left out unless there is a series or a body of special rums that are satisfy the other criteria.
- Based on my notes above, it is clear that the regular rum buyer should be able to get such a key rum, and that almost presupposes an affordable price. Secondary market resales of rare rums are occasionally considered, and while expense is not an issue, the availability and affordability criteria for the general public would suggest something less than the very top-end marketed either as a halo brand or only to the 1%.
- These points aside, the world doesn’t play by my rules and nothing goes as expected, so it’s possible that exceptions may occasionally be made: where this is done, I will try to explain clearly the reasons for my divergence. I hope it doesn’t strain the patience off too many readers, where this occurs.
All rums listed here would be tasted fresh, all over again, irrespective of whether I’ve written about them before, and no, I didn’t, don’t and won’t re-read any older review before doing the rewrite. The El Dorado 21 revisit, for example, was written with great passion, from scratch, based on some thoughts about older marques being left behind, and a poem I’d read that same day.
It’s a rather grandiose project, to try and summarize rum production into just a few that define whole regions or countries or whole styles, that are examples every aficionado has either gone through, tasted once, or has on her shelf. But perhaps, closing in on five hundred reviews, I finally have both the sample set size and the confidence to try and do so. Why do it? It’s to answer the perennial questions asked every month or two on Facebook or Reddit or rum club meetings around the world: I’m a new rum lover, what do I start with? Or Which rum from Country X should I get? From now on, whenever someone asks me these questions, I’m linking to this page.
Well, enough of an introduction, then. Let’s get started.
- Appleton 12 Year Old – Jamaica
- El Dorado 21 Year Old – Guyana
- Mount Gay XO – Barbados
- El Dorado 15 Year Old – Guyana
- Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva – Venezuela
- Rivers Antoine “Rivers Royale” White – Grenada
- English Harbour 10 Year Old – Antigua
- The Foursquare Exceptional Cask Series – Barbados
- Barbancourt Réserve Spéciale 8 Year Old Rhum – Haiti
- Pusser’s 15 Year Old Original Navy Rum – BVI
- Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole 5 Year Old – Guadeloupe
- J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum – Jamaica
- Santa Teresa Antiguo de Solera 1796 – Venezuela
- Saint James 12 YO Rhum Vieux Agricole – Martinique
- The Habitation Velier Series – Pot Still, Multi-country
- Doorly’s 12 Year Old – Barbados
- Rhum de Père Labat Rhum Doré – Marie Galante
- Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve – Jamaica
- Clarke’s Court Pure White Overproof – Grenada
- St. Lucia Distillers’ Chairman’s Reserve (Original) – St. Lucia
Update July, 2021: Nearly four years into this series (and somewhat to my surprise), the folks at the RumCast podcast wanted to discuss the concepts and importance of the Key Rums, and we talked for a couple of hours about the subject.