Everyone has at least one spirit ruined for them in college. For me, it was rum. After one ill-advised night featuring shots of gasoliney white rum poured from a family-sized plastic bottle, I awoke the next afternoon queasy and broken. And a week later, when someone offered me rum, I got a whiff and gagged.
On graduation day, if you asked me whether I would ever sip rum straight, I would have laughed in your face (before putting a wicked hex on you behind your back—keep your evil rum away!). But today, rum is one of my favorite spirits, both neat and in cocktails. All it took were a few great bottles. If you’re looking to find your way back to rum, or find it for the first time, here’s your roadmap.
Brugal Especial Extra Dry ($23)
Learning to accept white rum back into my life was no easy undertaking. I learned that I could tolerate a Mojito, but anything—even a Daiquiri—that didn’t beat rum into submission with the sugar stick was tough for me to stomach. Brugal’s white rum was a turning point. Unlike the plastic-bottled white rums of my past (get thee behind me), Brugal is subtle, smooth and eager to cooperate with other flavors in cocktails, acting as a lightly tropical backbone. On its own, with just a spritz of lime and ice, it’s a perfect summer night refresher.
Flor de Caña 12 Year ($35)
As I got comfortable with rum, I began to build a small, but reliable stable. I thought I had the bases covered when a friend insisted I try Flor de Caña. After I did, I realized I needed more rums in my life. Many more. Starting with this one. Though it’s a fantastic sipper on its own, its flavors of rich, overripe dried fruit also lend themselves to cocktails like Dark ‘N’ Stormies, Rum & Tonics and rum Manhattans.
Lost Spirits Navy Strength Rum ($65)
I’ll admit I was skeptical when a bartender presented me with a California-made rum. Though America has rum distillation roots, we aren’t much known for it anymore. This bottle makes a convincing argument we should give it another go. At 68% ABV, it packs serious heat, followed by a cozy coating of brown sugar and a funky finish. Lost Spirits Navy Strength adds complexity to fruity cocktails like Piña Coladas or even simple rum punches. Bear in mind, though, this rum is a bit scarce, so if you come across it, make sure to grab some.
Santa Teresa 1796 ($36)
Uniquely aged in the solera style (à la sherry), this is the first rum I ever loved. Its nutty sweetness and pineapple-esque fruitiness are offset by subtle campfire undertones. With a bottle of orange bitters at your side, it’s shockingly easy to make your way through a bottle. One of my desert island cocktails is this simple: a slug of Santa Teresa over a large ice cube with a few dashes of orange bitters. Learn to spearfish and make fire, and your deserted island could get downright comfy.
Rhum J.M. Agricole Blanc ($30)
Just when I thought I knew what rum tasted like, I encountered this strange beast. An innocent-looking, unassuming clear spirit, it hits your palate with a pow! Total flavor reset. Overripe papayas and fresh-cut grass jump around with lime-like tartness. As with fish sauce, a little goes a long way, but in cocktails it can be transformative. Try it in a tiki drink like Three Dots and a Dash.
I don’t regret my years wasted (literally and figuratively) on bad rum. I had a lot of fun. But I am glad I found the path to rum redemption. Today, I toast young me, throwing back plastic shot glasses of gasoline-rum. And I sip. Slowly.