Spiced Rums That Aren’t Gross
Typically, the autumn and winter months belong to whiskey or brandy, not sunny, tropical rum. But spiced rum may be the exception, carrying the same brown sugar and baking spice profile typical of pumpkin spice lattes or holiday gingerbread.
Right now, rum makers are bringing an ocean of new spiced rums to market—and they’re a lot better and more diverse than ever before. Once derided as too sweet, fit for little besides mixing with Coke, spiced rum has progressed to the newest crop, whose flavors range from subtle (showing nutmeg, ginger, and orange peel) to dark and dangerous (punched up with coffee bean, clove, and campfire smoke). These rums lend themselves to more sophisticated cocktails. Many are even good enough to sip straight.
Ironically, it's the rum-soaked tiki resurgence that has helped reacquaint consumers and bartenders with the spiced stuff, despite the spirit not being part of classic tiki drinks.
“Spiced rum is a sort of a spirit analogue to all of these syrups that are in tiki,” says Garret Richard, bartender at Slowly Shirley and The Happiest Hour in New York. In other words, it adds sparks of allspice or cinnamon without sweetness. For smaller bars that may not have the bandwidth to whip up a batch of, say, falernum (a clove-spiked almond syrup called for in many tropical drinks), a good-quality spiced rum “is like a gateway to getting into the flavors” without the fuss.
O Captain, Bye Captain
Spiced rum is a relatively new product for U.S. tipplers. Traditionally, Caribbean islanders would make spiced rums at home with whatever was locally available (think nutmeg, vanilla, allspice, and honey as a sweetener), perhaps selling some at local grog shops or, as in Haiti, on the street. Only a handful were brought to the U.S.—most notably Captain Morgan, introduced here in 1983 and credited with creating the spiced rum category. (“Captain & Coke” still remains a popular drink call at bars across the country.) For decades, Captain was the only game in town, with a sweet, distinctly vanilla-forward flavor profile.
But within the past few years, a drier style of rum became preferred, embodied in bottlings such as Sailor Jerry, Cruzan, Kraken, and most notably Chairman’s Reserve, which features brisk citrus and baking spice, and a whole lot less vanilla sweetness. Made in St. Lucia and introduced to the U.S. market in 2010, it quickly became a bartender favorite. Even Captain Morgan couldn’t help but take note, releasing a series of less sweet, cask-finished bottlings (Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum, 2012; Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish, 2013; Captain Morgan 1671 Commemorative, 2014) intended for an upscale audience.
Now the next generation of spiced rum seems to be returning to its traditional Caribbean roots, as producers take a page from the craft spirits playbook, using unusual techniques or ingredients like local sugar cane or distinctive flavorings.
“It’s like gin,” says Richard, “where you want to be able to tap into the different botanicals.”
Consider, for example, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice: distilled from Louisiana molasses and accented with a spicy, near savory one-two punch of cayenne pepper and clove. Elsewhere, Trinidad’s Stolen Coffee and Cigarettes almost reads like a blackstrap rum; it’s aged in former bourbon barrels for two years and infused with Colombian coffee beans and Madagascar vanilla and other spices, yielding a bold toffee-coffee-chocolate base.
And then there's Siesta Key, made by Florida’s Drum Circle Distilling. In addition to a traditional spiced rum, the producer also makes a “Distiller’s Reserve” solera aged version—a fussy method of aging and blending that involves a pyramid of barrels (youngest rum on top, oldest rum at the bottom) and perpetual blending with each new batch. Drum Circle founder/CEO/head distiller Troy Roberts first produces a silver rum, then infuses it with honey and spices, which are filtered out before the rum goes into the barrel. “Grinds of fine powder” deliberately remain, allowing the spice flavors to mellow over years, then the rum is filtered again before bottling, yielding a mellow, butterscotch-y sipper.
All that trouble for a spiced rum? Surely it’s a sign the category has matured.
“In rum, there was a split,” Roberts says. “There have always been good aged or sipping rums. But when it came to flavored or spiced rums, they were more like the mass-produced beers. They were the cheapest,” often artificially colored, flavored, and sweetened. “I was surprised how few were using actual spices,” he notes.
That’s not necessarily so anymore. Now the balance of quality has shifted, he says, particularly among smaller producers, who are starting with quality rum, plus plenty of spice. “People are slowly willing to pay a bit more for a quality spiced rum,” Roberts says.
The sign of a good spiced rum? It’s enjoyable enough to sip straight (as in all the bottlings listed below), but also blends seamlessly into mixed drinks—including the perfect cold-weather drink, the hot toddy. “Spiced rum is one of the easiest ways to get a toddy really complex fast, without the work,” Richard says. “Apple cider, butter, and hot water is all you need.”
Spiced Rum Buying Guide
Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum ($23): This classic hits the right balance between sweet and spiced, with ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and plenty of orange peel. stluciarums.com
Stolen Coffee & Cigarettes ($24): The bold toffee-coffee-chocolate base is accented by dark spices like clove, black pepper, and nutmeg and interwoven with a whiff of campfire-like smoke. Inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s short film series Coffee and Cigarettes. Mix or sip over a large ice cube, like whiskey. stolenrum.com
Old New Orleans Cajun Spice ($32): The base is made from Louisiana molasses, infused with a fiery mix of cayenne pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and clove. Ideal for swizzled drinks with plenty of ice. oldneworleansrum.com
Captain Morgan Cannon Blast ($16): Marketed as a shooter and clearly gunning for the Fireball flavored-whiskey crowd, this new spiced rum almost reads like a liqueur: viscous and sweet, with orange peel, allspice, and fiery cinnamon. Packaged in a novelty bottle shaped like a cannonball (round, heavy, ridiculously difficult to hold and pour), and yet, it's not bad at all. captainmmorgan.com
Siesta Key Spiced Rum ($20): Made from 100 percent Florida sugar cane and flavored with honey and spices, for a butterscotch, maple-y profile sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Not too sweet and ideal for mixing into cocktails. drumcircledistilling.com
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