When people think rum, they may be likely to picture the Caribbean—palm trees, coconut shells, and sugar cane fields as far as the eye can see. While its spiritual soul most certainly resides in the islands, rum—which technically can be produced anywhere in the world—has an important connection to North America.
Before there was bourbon and rye, there was rum. “North America was producing a ton of rum in the 1700s,” says Fred Minnick, the author of “Rum Curious” (Voyageur Press, $25).
Much of the production was concentrated in New England and the Gulf states. Legend holds that the first North American rum distillery was on Staten Island in 1664, but Minnick says that although there was indeed a distillery on the New York borough, there’s little supporting evidence that it produced rum.
Ships coming from the Caribbean to the Northeast would use molasses as both ballast and trade, according to Maggie Smith, the head distiller for Massachusetts’ Privateer Rum. After the War of 1812, a combination of steep import taxes, the gradual abolishment of the slave trade triangle, and a meteoric rise in the popularity of whiskey in America would soon crowd out the cane-based spirit. It would again be produced, albeit poorly, during Prohibition—hence the term “rum runner.”
The explosion of craft distilling over the past decade includes North American rums, which are in the midst of a renaissance, with labels appearing all over the country, from California to Minnesota to Massachusetts. “I think American craft rum distillers are bringing a real sense of adventure when it comes to production,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. “There is no one single tradition that they're married to, so there is tremendous variety in raw material, fermentation, distillation, and aging.”
Here are our top picks for the best American rums you can find today.
KōHana Kea Agricole Rum
Region: Hawaii | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Grass, Banana, Caramel
Located on the island of Oahu, KōHana Distillery produces unique, single sugar cane variety agricole rums. “I'm enjoying what they do at KōHana, with a special focus on the preservation and celebration of unique Hawaiian heritage cane varietals,” says Cate. “Their stewardship of their cane and gentle distillation means that the distinctions of each varietal are readily apparent.”
“It’s incredible to taste how different the rums are from these canes,” says Emanuele Balestra, bar director for Le Majestic Hotel in Cannes, France. “It’s a new approach to rum.” While each bottling is certainly worth tasting, start with the basic "Kea" white rum, which is grassy and earthy with notes of banana and caramel. Drink it neat to truly enjoy the nuance and complexity, but don't hesitate to shake it into a stunning classic Daiquiri.
Owney's Original New York City Rum
Region: New York | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Dried fruit, Cream
Named for a Prohibition-era New York City rum runner and distilled by Brooklyn’s Noble Experiment, Owney’s is a classic Northeast-style rum. Created in a hybrid copper-pot-column still using non-GMO molasses and featuring no added sugars or colors, the silver rum is dry and mineral-driven on the palate. Noble Experiment founder Bridget Firtle says she sought to create an “edgier” style of rum. “Owneys is a fantastic rum to use with citrus-based cocktails such as a Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned variation using Velvet Falernum and cane syrup in lieu of sugar,” says Lucinda Sterling, managing partner at Middle Branch and Seaborne in New York City. “[It] has a pot-still character that emulates a Jamaican rum.”
Region: Colorado | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Pineapple, Red chili, Caramel
A “high-altitude” rum from Crested Butte, Colo., the 9,000-foot elevation Montanya Distillery exemplifies one of the characteristics that distinguishes North American rum from its Caribbean counterparts. Cooler, less-humid temperatures mean a slower, distinctive aging process, which affects color, flavor, and density. Non-GMO Louisiana cane sugar is fermented in Colorado aquifer-fed well water, then distilled in old-school alembic pot stills. The gold rum is aged in old Colorado whiskey barrels and sweetened with a touch of honey. Founders Brice and Karen Hoskin emphasize green and sustainable production processes, using wind power in both the distillery and tasting room and recycling biomass in the still boiler, among other initiatives.
Region: Hawaii | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Coffee, Vanilla, Baking spices
Located on the island of Kaua’i, Koloa produces a range of rums, including coconut, spiced, and cacao, all made with water that has been filtered through volcanic rock. But it’s the two classics that Kyle Jones from Bon Vivants in the Bahamas likes the best. “We offer a selection of tiki cocktails at Bon Vivants and their Kaua’i white and dark are perfect pours for me,” he says. “The white has a clean, crisp raw cane flavor while the dark adds a lovely subtle dark chocolate note.” The dark is rich, with notes of coffee and baking spices. It’s vanilla-forward and perfect for a nightcap or a Mai Tai.
Greenbar Distillery Crusoe Spiced Rum
Region: California | ABV: 35% | Tasting Notes: Baking spices, Caramel, Orange
The inventive folks at Los Angeles’ Greenbar Distillery, where organic spirits and social causes are as important as great-tasting booze, are responsible for two rum expressions. Both rums combine traditional distillation methods with modern wine techniques and are fermented with white wine yeast and “micro-oxygenated” like many California wines. The unaged silver rum is grassy and slightly sweet, while the spiced rum features notes of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and California orange zest. Each bottle purchased allows Greenbar to plant one tree through Sustainable Harvest, an organization that plants indigenous shade trees in rural communities in Central America to help farmers, reduce slash-and-burn practices, and offset the carbon footprint of rum lovers.
Read Next: The Best Spiced Rums
Wicked Dolphin Coconut Rum
Region: Florida | ABV: 35% | Tasting Notes: Coconut, Caramel, Pineapple
Wicked Dolphin incorporates Florida-grown sugar cane and a dollop of lighthearted beachside fun not found in many U.S. craft distilleries. Founder JoAnn Elardo launched Cape Spirits (Wicked’s parent company) in Cape Coral after downing one too many terrible cocktails over the years and deciding it was time for Florida to make its own pot-still pirate juice.
Flavored rum has a pretty lamentable reputation among lovers of fine spirits, but it's important to note that not all flavored rums are created equal. You won't find the usual coterie of hangover-inducing artificial flavors in this lighthearted offering: Wicked Dolphin's coconut rum is brought to proof after distillation with real coconut water, and contains less sugar than the ubiquitous national brands.
Best Single Barrel
Bayou Single Barrel Rum
Region: Louisiana | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Pineapple, Pepper
“Rum is the original American spirit,” says Bayou founder Trey Litel. Bayou, based in Lacassine, La., distills rum from regional sugar cane and molasses. Litel points out that Louisiana produces more sugar cane than any Caribbean island. “We’ve been growing cane since 1750,” he says. “It grows in this rich Mississippi topsoil, and we believe it produces a very different cane sugar than in the Caribbean.”
Using American-made copper pot stills and a blend of molasses and raw sugar crystals, Bayou produces a full lineup of enticing rums, with their Single Barrel being among the most intriguing. Aged for 2.5 years in ex-bourbon casks, the Single Barrel offering boasts spicy notes of pepper and honey to compliment the familiar elements of pineapple and banana.
Read More: The Best Rums
Best Cask Strength
Privateer Navy Yard Rum
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 55% | Tasting Notes: Brown butter, Apricot, Hazelnut
The award-winning Privateer distillery has been seamlessly blending American rum history and contemporary craft distilling since launching in 2011. “It’s exciting to see the American rums come on the scene,” says head distiller Maggie Campbell. “They tend to be dry and distilled very cleanly, with a sort of linear palate and a hard edge to the flavor definition.”
Privateer makes white and amber rums, either of which can take your Daiquiri to new heights. But their most full-throated offering is Navy Yard, a 100-percent-molasses rum that pays homage to Privateer’s New England heritage, which is bottled at barrel-proof and aged in a single cask. Balestra appreciates how the distillery balances the tradition of American rum with modern techniques. “Maggie has always done creative work on aging,” he says.
Humboldt Distillery Original Rum
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Toffee, Oak
Producers and importers of spirits aren't required to divulge much about what goes into their finished products, so the typical US consumer browsing the rum aisle will know very little about the origins of most of the bottles on offer (how the sugarcane was grown, where the water was sourced, what effects the production methods had on the environment and local communities, etc.). But many American craft distilleries are much more transparent, including Humboldt Distillery, based in northern California, who produce two rums using organically-grown sugarcane and pristine water from a redwood forest watershed. Their gold rum spends time in ex-bourbon barrels, resulting in a smooth and balanced spirit boasting nuanced notes of toffee and toasty oak. It's great in a Daiquiri or a Mai Tai, but try it in an Old Cuban, where its warm, woody flavors mingle beautifully with the mint and the Champagne.
Richland Estate Old Georgia Rum
Region: Georgia | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Espresso, Dried fruit, Chocolate
Growing their own estate sugar cane, Richland Distilling produces what Minnick calls this “the best rum made in the U.S.” Pure cane syrup undergoes a long fermentation process, distilled in open-fire alembic pot stills and aged in well-charred new oak barrels, making the rum appealing to bourbon drinkers. Cate agrees that this cane-to-glass distillery offers a very well-crafted product. “I really enjoy Richland Rum from Georgia," he says, "where they produce all their own cane syrup, and then combine it with a really creative barrel program that's especially exciting.” The brand emphasizes true “single barrel” bottling, which means each batch is just a little bit different depending on the intricacies of barrel aging—but first-time buyers should anticipate fruit, chocolate and espresso notes. It’s an excellent accompaniment to cigars.
Best for Whiskey Drinkers
Region: Texas | ABV: 63.9% | Tasting Notes: Brown sugar, Banana, Vanilla
Rum from Texas? You bet. The Waco-based distillery took a break from its usual repertoire of whiskeys to create this whiskey-esque rum. Made from molasses and double-distilled in copper pot stills, it’s aged in barrels made with a variety of oaks (French, American, etc.) and toast levels. The resulting spirit is oaky and nutty on the nose at first pour, opening up to more classic molasses aromas as it sits in the glass. Bourbon lovers will feel right at home upon first sip, with its flavors of brown sugar and vanilla. But the distinctly rummy notes of banana and fruit remind you that you are, in fact, drinking rum. Sip it neat or with a cube, or stir it into a complex Rum Old Fashioned.
Each one of these American rums is certainly worth trying. But if you’re looking to narrow it down, KōHana Kea (view on Total Wine) is at the top of our list. The rums they produce are truly unique and the approach they take is very much their own. Want to stay on the mainland? Opt for the Privateer Navy Strength (view on Total Wine), an old-school New England bottling that reflects both America’s rum history and its future.
What To Look For
First, try to determine the age: has the rum seen some time in a barrel? Check for an age statement or simply the word “aged” on the label. The longer the time spent in oak, the more rich, vanilla flavor the rum will get from it. If you prefer your rums crisp and light, stick with an unaged silver rum. Next, check for any acknowledgment of flavoring: rums can be spiced or flavored with things like coconut, and sipping a spiced rum when you expect classic brown sugar flavors can be an unwelcome surprise. Next up, check the alcohol content—if you’re looking to use a rum in strongly flavored cocktails like tiki drinks, go ahead and choose a spirit with a high ABV, but if you’d rather invest in a sipping rum or a straightforward mixing rum for simple cocktails like daiquiris, skip the overproof spirits and stick with a bottling that hovers around 40% ABV. Finally, look into the distillery: Cate recommends being aware of the other types of spirits the distillery creates. “With some exceptions, the distilleries focused on rum as their primary project usually produce a better spirit,” he says. “Cane spirits need special handling!” When in doubt, opt for a rum from a producer whose primary business is rum.
What are the different types of rum?
While there are many different types of rum, there are several main categories to familiarize yourself with when it comes to American rum. Silver (or "white") rum is often unaged, but it also can be aged and then filtered to remove the color— it's typically used in cocktails like Daiquiris and Mojitos. Gold rum is also a bit ambiguous as a category: some gold rums have been aged for a few months, while some are unaged white rums that are artificially colored. Dark rum is full-bodied and brawny—while the term dark rum can include aged rums, it can also mean rum that features added color and molasses. (Try it in a Dark ‘n Stormy!) Aged rums are typically aged in oak barrels, usually ex-bourbon casks; they can be aged for a few months or for decades and are perfect for sipping neat or over ice. Rhum agricole is native to the French Caribbean, but there are some American distillers dabbling in it. Made with raw sugar cane only, it’s grassy and funky, so use it to add character to classic rum cocktails like the Daiquiri or Ti’ Punch. Finally, spiced rums are infused with spices like clove, anise, and cinnamon, and they also typically contain some sort of sweetener. Use spiced rum to spike cozy winter drinks like mulled cider, or simply stir it with cola.
How is American rum different?
Unlike some other countries where rum is the primary spirit of production, the U.S. is fairly lax when it comes to the guidelines for making rum. While that can mean some not-so-great products make it onto the shelves labeled as “rum,” it also means American distillers have the freedom to produce a wide range of styles, from agricole to spiced to something totally new. You can’t pin American rum down, and that sets it apart from the others.
What's the most common type of rum in America?
As of 2017, the top selling rum in the U.S., according to Statista.com, was a gold rum. Spiced rum and silver rum are up there too.
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This piece was updated by Justine Sterling, an experienced spirits writer and cocktail recipe developer. She has been writing about the wide world of drinking—from new spirits to cocktail trends to wines and beers—for over a decade. Her home bar is always stocked with a range of spirits, from the staples to the downright strange, and she has serious opinions about Martinis.
This piece was also updated by Jesse Porter, who fell in love with rum on a trip to the Caribbean over a decade ago, and spent the week making his way through a bottle of aged Virgin Islands rum that he discovered upon his return to the US is impossible to find here. (It probably didn't hurt his new obsession that he was reading The Rum Diary at the time—the Hunter S. Thompson novel from the '60s, not the movie version that contributed nothing to the world except for the marriage of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.)