White rum might be the least appreciated spirit in the cocktail world. It’s generally understood to be either a rough liquid meant for spiking tropically inspired slushies, or a sickeningly sweet liqueur associated with an artificial coconut flavor. Other clear spirits seem to get far more respect.
Vodka is praised for purity that’s perceived as premium. Gin has historical connections to North Atlantic elitisim, and is generally considered to be sophisticated.
American White Whisky’s connection with Appalachian moonshiners, earns it a cool outlaw status. It’s also seen as more pedestrian; either upstart, or laidback depending on distillery marketing. This allows moonshine to stand in stark contrast to the growing snobbiness of Bourbon and Scotch.
Agave spirits have also managed to build a premium image around two different styles, the terroir driven small batch Mezcal, and the Tequila Plata that managed to made drinkers across the world change their view and see tequila as something to be sipped or enjoyed in a minimal Margarita rather than as shots on spring break.
Rum has enjoyed a recent rise, but white rum has not really been a major part of this renaissance, never really finding appreciation beyond the core rum enthusiast community.
Understanding the diversity of “white rum” is a way to understand just how varied this sugarcane spirit actually is. This understanding could eventually lead to better execution of classic white rum cocktails like the mojito and daiquiri. This article is not an explanation of white rum, but simply an examination of a few different types of white rum to challenge the prevailing narrative that white rum is boring.
Most people enter the world of rum through a light and crisp Cuban-style rum like Bacardi Carta Blanca, a product aged for a few years in oak barrels then filtered to clarity. From there, the journey typically continues within that brand but to darker rums like Bacardi Cuatro, or Bacardi Reserva Ocho since these añejo rums are generally seen as made for sipping rather than mixing.
Many of them would be surprised know that Bacardi has actually released a premium white rum in the past called Bacardi Facundo Neo. This limited edition product was aged for twice as long as their standard white rum. Bacardi’s master of rums David Cid said that it was an attempt to change the general perception of white rum as something to be mixed, and instead present it as something to be enjoyed on the rocks.
Their arch-nemesis Havana Club once did something similar with a product called Havana Club Professional Edition D. It was the fourth of a limited series done in collaboration with Cuban bartenders and it included a blend of fresh destilado de caña with full-bodied and aromatic aged aguardiente. The company describes it as a raw expression of Cuban sugarcane and aguardiente and it’s designed for use in the concoctions that defined the period that some people refer to as the golden age of Cuban cocktail culture.
Part of the reason that these white rums are seen as sipping rums is because of the long time spent in charred Bourbon barrels in a tropical climate. Although the dark colour derived from the oak is filtered out with charcoal, the sweet yet smokey nuances remain.
In comparison, Jamaican white rum is a completely different animal. Animal is an apt description, since the early references to Jamaican rum referenced the aroma as being similar to the pungency of aged pheasant, or to the unpleasant odour of a vulture; a richness now recognized as umami.
This flavour comes from an extremely long fermentation period that sometimes extends for more than a month. At more than triple the industry standard fermentation time for molasses, the rum develops complex aromatic esters that come through in the final spirit because of an emphasis on artisanal distillation methods. Fermented tropical fruit dominates the profile and the undiluted Jamaican Overproofs are redolent of rich, ripe mangoes and pineapples. Powerful in both proof and pungency, and although designed for mixing they make excellent sippers after resting in a glass for a few minutes.
Jamaican rum companies like Appleton Estate, Hampden Estate, and Worthy Park generally don’t consider white rum to be premium and prefer to promote their long aged expressions as flagship luxury products as opposed to their incredible Overproof expressions like Wray and Nephew Overproof, Rum-Bar Overproof, and Rum Fire.
Italian rum bottler Luca Gargano feels differently and believes that it’s important to recognize these artisanal methods of rum production still practiced in Jamaica. He conceived his Habitation Velier line of rums as a partnership between his company and the respective rum distilleries, and an image of their pot still is prominent on each label. High proof and high ester Jamaican rum from Hampden Estate and Worthy Park are some of the few unaged expressions in this line and among the most praised white rums in the world.
If Jamaican white rum can summed up as pot distilled, long fermented and made from molasses, then the Agricole Blancs of Martinique, Marie Galante, and Guadeloupe can be seen as the total opposite.
This style of French Caribbean Rum is distilled directly from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. It’s rapidly fermented so that it does not spoil, and then distilled in a specially adapted “creole column” single column still.
Agricole blanc is renowned for a flavour that’s strongly influenced by the character of the sugarcane crop. The location of the cane field on the island as well as the conditions of the rainy season and dry season of a particular year all play a role in the final profile of the distilled rum. Blending is used to ensure consistency across products, but almost every rum company in Martinique releases at least one unaged white rum that highlights terroir; the unique environmental factors that influence every crop of sugarcane and the rum that it makes.
Clément Canne Blueu is distilled from the aromatic juice of a single varietal of blue sugarcane. Ter Rouj’ by Maison La Mauny is named for the red soil near the south of the island where the cane crop comes from. These subtle changes in the species of sugarcane, the soil it grows on, and even the time of day that it receives the most sunlight results in drastic differences in the character of these French white rums.
Aged Barbados Rum from companies like Mount Gay Distilleries and the Foursquare Rum Distillery constantly receive high praise, but the white rum from the island has never been seen as particularly interesting until recently. When Saint Nicholas Abbey was conceived as a tourist attraction and micro-distillery, the owners sourced an aged rum from the Foursquare Rum Distillery to sell while their own spirit was put into casks to mature for a few years. They also decided to start selling some of their unaged white rum as a tribute to Bajan “see-through rum” traditions. This batch-distilled rum is made with cane crushed from their own fields, and it has a subtle, but sweet flavour of marshmallow and graham cracker.
The Foursquare Rum Distillery, whose white rum like ESA Fields, and Doorly’s 3 Year Old has typically been seen as relatively regular, in recent years have collaborated with Hampden Estate and Velier on a blended white rum called Veritas or Probitas depending on where it’s distributed. The rum has the aggression of Jamaican Overproof, but it’s subdued by the balance that Barbadian blenders typically strive for.
Some see recent times as a white rum renaissance because it’s easier than ever to find Aged Aguardiente filtered to perfect clarity, single estate and batch distilled Jamaican Overproof, or aromatic environment driven Agrocole Blanc.
Drinkers want to enjoy expressions of what a distillery is capable of that is uninfluenced by even oak ageing. Mixologists want to create clear rum cocktails that are packed with character. Aged stocks are also becoming more difficult to access for companies like Velier, and their releases have shifted away from long aged high strength Demerara rum and Caroni rum towards white rum from far flung places like Haiti and islands in the Indian Ocean.
To some rum lovers in the Caribbean, it’s less of a renaissance and more of a rediscovery by the wider world. Charley’s J.B. Overproof Rum and Conquering Lion Rum have never lost local popularity in Jamaica. Cavalier Puncheon and River Antoine Grenada Rum have also continuously been enjoyed in their respective islands of origin. White Oak Rum reigns in Trinidad, Tobago and Saint Vincent and Forres Park Puncheon Rum is still hot.
White rum is a major part of the tropical cocktail culture in the region. True tropical cocktails like the simple concoctions made with white rum, lime, sugar and few other ingredients.
This is in no way any attempt to categorize white rum or even begin to explain different styles because it’s far too complicated a concept to do in a short article. It’s instead a tribute to the diversity of a spirit often seen as boring. A spirit that includes astronomically high proofs in brands like Denros Strong Rum or Sunset Very Strong Rum, broad methods of production across different regions, and living heritage in terms of how it’s produced and how it’s enjoyed.