There are some some hard-and-fast rules in the world of spirits. Cognac can only be produced in France’s Cognac region; you can’t call your liquor bourbon if it isn’t 125 proof before its aged. But rum isn’t bound by law or convention.
Just like its buzz, the rules of rum are fast and loose. Rum runs on sugar, and isn’t particular about what kind. It can be made from fermented and distilled sugarcane byproducts like molasses or straight sugarcane juice. While most rum is made in the Caribbean and Latin America, it’s distilled all over the world. Its alcohol content varies wildly, from 40 proof (20 percent alcohol) all the way up to 151 proof (75.5% alcohol), with the standard being 80 proof (40 percent alcohol).
So next time you yearn for the tropics, here’s a quick guide to the spirit that can transport you to the beach with just one sip.
Also known as rhum agricole, agricole is made directly from sugarcane juice as oppose to its byproducts and so has a vegetal and slightly funky taste. Usually distilled to 70 proof and then diluted to around 50 proof when bottled, it’s often used in more complex rum cocktails, like classic tiki concoctions.
Dark rums like Demarara and blackstrap are made from molasses and aged in oak barrels (usually the charred, white kind). Its dark color reflects its complex taste, so it usually appears in drinks with fewer ingredients, like the Dark ‘N Stormy, a simple combination of rum and ginger beer.
Sometimes called amber rum, gold rum sometimes acquires its color through oak barrel aging but spends less time barrelled up than dark rum. Some gold rums are colored by additives, so many experts call the fake tan rums gold and call the ones that were actually aged—ready for it?—aged. The artificially-colored rums taste sweet, like white rum, while the aged has a more complex flavor profile and can be a stand-in for whiskey for a twist in a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned.
Poo-pooed by rum aficionados and beloved by rum-and-Coke enthusiasts, spiced rum is another versatile variety—but for the opposite reasons agricole is. Its flavors are big and bold with notes of cinnamon and allspice. When not paired with cola and ginger ale, it can be seen in some tiki cocktails or eggnog.
In rum, “white” really means clear, the color rum takes after being distilled. For the white kind, it’s then charcoal-filtered before being bottled and after a short time aging. Because it isn’t aged for long it keeps a good amount of the sweet taste it imparts right after distillation and so does well when mixed with herbal ingredients, as in a classic Mojito.