Rum can be a sticky wicket to wrap your head around. Versions that have spent time in a barrel can then be rendered clear through filtering, leading unsuspecting consumers to think they’re light-bodied, Mojito-ready silver rum, while unaged bottles can gain a tawny or amber hue thanks to the addition of caramel color.
And then, just to confuse us all, there’s black rum.
So what exactly is it? In “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki” (Ten Speed Press, $30), author and bar owner Martin Cate writes, “Black rum was designed to impart the appearance of age to rums intended for mixing.”
It can be distilled in a pot, column or a combination of the two, usually sees little if any age and has caramel, molasses or both added to it, meaning it can appear shades darker in the bottle than a rum that has been aged in charred barrels for decades.
“It remains, in my mind, the only style of rum you should refer to by color, because the addition of color itself is what defines the category,” Cate writes. The misunderstanding, he believes, stems from consumers equating a darker beverage as an older one (similar to how uninformed oenophiles might consider a transparent Grand Cru red Burgundy to be of inferior quality to a cheap but opaque Napa cabernet).
So since black rum can actually be fairly light in body, Cate thinks it works better with citrus than in boozy stirred drinks where it’s often overwhelmed.
The category was popularized, he points out, in the post-Prohibition era by the Myers’s corporation, when color was added to impart a perception of age and richness of flavor. The spirit was marketed as a good base for punch recipes (it’s pretty great in a Hurricane).
Today, the category is represented by pot-still bottles like Hamilton Jamaica black rum and blended ones like Coruba original blend, Gosling’s Black Seal, Lemon Hart Original 1804 and Skipper Finest Old Demerara.
But it all depends on who you ask, believes Gary Nelthropp, the master distiller for Cruzan, which also produces a blackstrap rum. “For us, our Cruzan Black Strap rum is most like the classic navy rums of the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he says. “Compared to our traditional aged light and dark rums, Black Strap has a richer, darker and more aromatic flavor profile and is medium- to full-bodied in its mouthfeel.” A five-column distillation process removes impurities and makes it smooth, with flavors of robust licorice and molasses. Bartenders reach for it most often as a finishing element or float in Tiki drinks and punches made with lime, pineapple, guava, orange or other juices.
For some in the industry, black rum can be a hard sell. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, for instance, isn’t so flattering in his description and positions black rum in direct contrast to what he says is the honorable centuries-old history of dark rum.
“It’s at heart a bogus category, with the ‘blackness’ allegedly achieved through years-long contact with the barrel it has been aged in,” says the owner of Tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans. “In reality, it could be a young rum ‘doped’ with caramel coloring.”
In the glass, it tastes close to a dark Jamaican rum, says Berry, albeit sweeter and denser because of the addition of glycerin or other sweetening or darkening agents. He submits that it can be a great substitute in cocktails that call for dark rum, though, or used as an accent or float.
And then there’s Gosling’s, which some consider to be the producer of the benchmark and most recognizable expression. Produced in Bermuda, it’s a blend of pot-still and continuous-still spirits. According to the company website, one adds flavor, while the other gives a “subtle elegance.”
Malcolm Gosling, the president and CEO of Gosling’s International Limited, explains black rum as a syllogism. “All black rums are dark rums, but not all dark rums are black,” he says. “Black Seal is a blend of three separate rums distilled from fermented molasses ... aged in charred American white oak [for] three years.”
He describes it as smooth, creamy and complex, with notes of molasses, fruit and brown sugar. It works in classic drinks like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned and is the essential ingredient (along with ginger beer and lime) in the company’s trademarked drink the Dark ’n Stormy. Gosling’s Family Reserve Old rum, designed for sipping, is crafted from the same spirits but aged for six years.
In the end, the takeaway may be to consider black rum the liquor version of what’s referred to in business as the Iron Triangle, where you are given the options of fast, cheap and good and told you are allowed to pick two. Familiarize yourself with reputable distillers, think about how you are planning on mixing it, and decide whether or not you are willing to give up barrel aging and accept color and flavor gleaned from shortcuts.
Imbiber, beware: It’s not all, um, black and white.