For many of us, “spiced rum” conjures images of poolside Rum & Cokes or hazy college bar nights. But these days, the category goes far beyond the Captain and the Sailor. What may have begun as a way to make harsh spirits more palatable has morphed into a legitimate craft cocktail element, where distillers and blenders can indulge in a little creativity.
“There are really great options out there that go beyond what we were drinking in the 1990s,” says Kate Perry, the general manager at Seattle’s iconic rum bar Rumba. She oversees more than 500 different rums and makes a house spiced version, inspired in part by her trips to the Caribbean. “One of my favorite things to do is check out all the local spiced rums, made in giant plastic gallon jugs with barks, roots and spices.”
In fact, experimentation in premium spiced rum is on the rise in recent years, as a whole host of new bottles have appeared on liquor store shelves, commanding your taste and attention.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), spiced and flavored rums accounted for half of all rum sales in 2016. The bulk of those sales, of course, go to Captain Morgan and Sailor Jerry. But even these stalwarts aren’t sitting still.
Sailor Jerry is encouraging fans to experience the vanilla-and-cinnamon-toned spirit in mixed drinks besides Rum & Cokes. At New York’s Fleet Week this year (which the brand sponsors), the official cocktail was the Sailor’s Salute (rum, ginger beer, cherry bitters and candied ginger), a refreshing and tantalizingly mature drink, and the brand promotes a number of ginger-themed drinks on their site.
For some mainstays, expansion is key. Captain Morgan recently introduced Cannon Blast, a spicy cinnamon variation designed to compete with Fireball whisky, and Jack-O’Blast, a seasonal pumpkin-spiced concoction that follows current trends for pumpkin-spiced everything.
The Kraken, a rich molasses-ginger-vanilla newcomer that’s surprisingly good as a sipper or with coffee or cola, introduced its lower-proof Black Label last year that’s even smoother than the original.
Meanwhile Malibu, best known for its coconut flavored party rum, dipped its toes in the competition’s water with Malibu Island Spiced beginning in 2013.
It seems nearly every major rum brand and craft upstart has introduced a spiced variant in the past few years. Here, the strategy seems to be to take things up a notch. When St. Croix–based Cruzan launched its 9 spiced rum, it emphasized authenticity, saying in a press release that the “balanced blend of spices will be new to many spiced rum drinkers but will feel very familiar to the people of St. Croix.” The result is a clean, complex rum that pairs well with rich juices like apricot and guava, cold-pressed coffee or flavored liqueurs.
In 2011, Bacardí launched Oakheart, a product that has picked up some real momentum in the last couple of years among bartenders. While many spiced rums derive their amber complexion from added coloration and never see the inside of a barrel, Oakheart is aged the old-fashioned way, in charred American oak barrels, giving the spirit a lovely warmth and richness, full of maple, honey and toasted caramel notes.
For even more recent entries, straying from the formula seems to be one approach to standing out from the crowd. Instead of a traditional “spiced,” Blue Chair Bay, a Caribbean-produced brand helmed by country singer Kenny Chesney, decided to enhance its popular coconut-flavored expression with both a coconut spiced and a coconut spiced rum cream.
Rum creams are an island staple and seem to be gaining traction in the U.S. And though not technically categorized as a spiced rum, the high-end Bumbu (based in Barbados) is enhanced with traditional Caribbean spices, fruits and herbs, aged up to 15 years and based on a 17th-century recipe. The rich, dark sipper has hints of vanilla and banana and works wonders in a Banana Daiquiri.
When it comes to craft distilleries, rum is far less common a product than whiskey or gin. As with gin, however, the advantages of making spiced rum is that there are no hard and fast rules on the botanicals and flavoring agents involved, allowing craft producers to put locavore and gourmet twists on the usual combo of cinnamon, vanilla, orange peel and cloves. According to Perry, Rumba’s house-made blend is “centered around Chinese five-spice,” an ingredient she says plays well in cocktails with bold flavors, like the Zig a Zig Ahh, made with fresh lime juice, passion fruit, falernum, Angostura bitters and an absinthe rinse.
Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum (St. Lucia) incorporates local spices, including bois bandé—a Caribbean bark known traditionally as an aphrodisiac—resulting in a bold, spicy vanilla-driven spirit. The founders of Malahat, a new label out of San Diego, spent five months perfecting its blend of a dozen spices, with an emphasis on vanilla and cinnamon in a complex, smooth spirit popular with whiskey fans.
Ålander, from Far North Spirits (a bona fide farm distillery in Minnesota), emphasizes its farm-to-glass handcrafted nature. Co-founder Mike Swanson sources American turbinado and demerara sugars for the rum. Whole spices (not concentrates) are “hand-infused,” creating a light, balanced rum both complex and carefully focused. Here you’ll discover notes of allspice, banana and gingerbread and even hints of chocolate and root beer. It works nicely paired with fresh spiced apple cider but also in cream-based cocktails.
Louisiana-based distillery Bayou is serious about its craft cred and rum production. Founder Trey Litel is passionate about reviving the area’s colonial-era rum heritage, where sugar cane continues to thrive.
“We built a distillery from the bottom up,” he says of the 22-acre site. “It’s the first ground-up distillery in any of the Louisiana records we’ve found.” The brand currently offers four expressions, including an award-winning spiced variety that Litel says includes “a combination of Creole spices, along with the spices you’re very familiar with in a rum.”