If you’re ever confused about types of whiskey, tequila or gin, you can take a look at those spirits’ governmental regulations in their native countries. Various laws clearly define bourbon’s mash bill, the years required to create reposado tequila, the defining taste of juniper in London Dry gin. Rum, on the other hand, is chaos.
“Rum is the Wild, Wild West,” says Miguel Salehi, a bartender at Pacific Cocktail Haven and brand ambassador for Santa Teresa. “Rum doesn’t have a lot of regulation to it, so it becomes pretty confusing. You have light rums, dark rums, aged rums that are light because they’re filtered—it’s a confusing category.” Unlike other spirits, rum doesn’t have a home country to unify its production. As Nelson Hernández, maestro ronero of Diplomático, points out, “Rum is produced in more than 40 countries in the world, all with different laws.”
To avoid any further confusion, we asked Hernández and Salehi to straighten all this out for us. Here are all the types of rum explained.
Don’t be fooled. Unlike other white spirits like vodka and blanco tequila, white rum isn’t always unaged. Depending on the producer and country of origin, white rum can be aged for years before bottling, just like darker rums. Hernández explains that the only defining factor in white rum is the color (or lack thereof). In Venezuela, where the government requires that distillers age all rum at least two years, Diplomático ages its Planas rum up to six years before charcoal filtering it to achieve a clear appearance. Diplomático brand ambassador Manny Pena adds that charcoal filtering primarily removes color, but it also softens the rum.
Like clear white rums, you can’t always predict the age of gold rums simply by their pale-caramel hue. While some gold rums do see the inside of a barrel for a few months or years, many are simply white rums dyed with additives. “There are golden rums with no age. That’s essentially a white rum with pigmentation added to it,” Pena explains, adding that most distillers who produced aged rum without coloring refer to their products as aged rum. “The color in aged rum is from barrels. The color in golden rum is from coloring.”
Be careful about throwing around the term dark rum. “I try to separate dark rums and aged rums,” Salehi says. “It’s an important distinction. When I’m talking about a dark rum, that’s a rum that has caramel added to it. After distillation, they add coloring and molasses. That’s a distinctive style with sugar added.” Gold rums often contain some sort of sweetener in addition to coloring, while dark rum is often associated with molasses specifically.
Like gold and dark rums, spiced rum usually contains added sweeteners, which balance the intense flavors of infused spices like cinnamon, vanilla, bay leaf, clove and anise.
Both Diplomático and Santa Teresa produce aged rums. Though they’re very different products, the rums from both companies gain their color from time in the barrel. Some distilleries age their rums by choice, while others must do so to meet the requirements of local laws. “In some countries you can’t say ‘rum’ until it’s aged,” Hernández explains. He says that these laws define and protect the distinctive style of rums from specific nations. “In some [rum must be aged] three months, in some eight months, some one year, some two years.” For example, Puerto Rico requires a minimum of one year, while Martinique requires at least three months. These are only the minimum ages. Venezuela only requires distillers age at least two years, but Diplomático ages rums that end up in its flagship Reserva Exclusiva line for up to 12 years, while Santa Teresa ages its rums for Santa Teresa 1796 in a solera style for up to 35 years.
You may well see an age statement on a bottle of rum from many distilleries, but not on a bottle of Santa Teresa. When you crack into a bottle with an age statement of 12 years, you can guarantee that the rum inside is at least 12 years old (some rum in the blend may be much older). With a solera-style rum like Santa Teresa, the liquid could be anywhere from 4 to 35 years old. It’s impossible to know exactly. Salehi explains that in the solera style, a system adopted from sherry producers in Spain, distillers stack barrels in a pyramid formation. The oldest barrels sit on the bottom row, called the solera. “These are legacy barrels that have been there for awhile and never been emptied,” Salehi says. To fill new bottles, Santa Teresa pulls some but not all of the rum from this bottom row, replacing it with rum from the row above it and so on up the pyramid. Finally they refill the barrels in the top row with new rum.
You can’t sip most overproof rums straight (except for rare cases like the extremely quaffable Plantation OFTD). Usually these bottlings, like the infamous Bacardi 151, are meant for cocktails, most commonly tiki drinks. Salehi points out that while overproof rums may seem like a brash way to simply raise the proof on a high-octane drink, they’re actually a great representation of a rum brand because they are less diluted.
Far from a misspelling, rhum is a unique style of the spirit from the French Caribbean. While producers in many nations create rums from both sugar cane juice and molasses, rhum agricole is limited to raw sugar cane only. The unrefined juice lends bright, grassy, sometimes savory or funky flavors to the rhum.