A Guide to the Wide World of Rum: Plus 3 Budget-Friendly Rums

The 9-Bottle Bar

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At Smuggler's Cove, the much-celebrated San Francisco tiki bar, you can cultivate your rum connoisseurship by working your way up the rungs of the Rumbustion Society, the bar's rum club: milestones include tasting 20, 80, and — to achieve mastery status — 200 varieties from its extensive rum selection.

That there are literally hundreds of different rums to sample gives you some indication of just how broad and diverse the world of rum is. With factors like ingredients, production methods, country of origin, and years of barrel aging all influencing the final product, rum is a deep, windy rabbit hole for the spirits enthusiast to tumble down.

The 4 Colors of Rum

One of the most common ways in which rums are broadly classified is by color. You have your light rums (also known by the terms white or silver), which are usually transparent in color or close to it. These are often briefly aged — or are aged and then filtered, or not really aged at all — so they present as a clean, clear spirit. Despite their milder, drier profile, light rums can be plenty fragrant, with the best examples offering beautiful, complex aromas.

Moving up the darkness scale, you then have your gold rums, which are often light amber in color and have been aged in barrels for a few years. The influence of the wood is much more detectable, with caramel and vanilla flavors coming to the fore.

Dark rums are often the most heavily aged, sporting as much as 20 years' worth of barrel time or more. These are concentrated, robust spirits, which hit the palate with brooding flavors of cocoa and earth.

The darkest (and most molasses-y) of all is black rum, which tends to be sweet and syrupy, with strong maple and caramel notes.

For Cocktails at Home: Light and Gold Rum

For a versatile, cocktail-friendly base spirit, light and gold rums serve the home bartender well. Given that The 9-Bottle Bar already includes an appreciably aged spirit in its rye whiskey, it makes sense, for the sake of balance, to look to the lighter side when choosing a rum to add to the arsenal.

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Three Budget Rums for Cocktails at Home

Here are three budget-friendly buys to consider.

Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4 Year - $15

This Nicaraguan rum is among a handful of relatively recent arrivals to the rum market that, as its name suggests, are aiming for a drier (i.e., less sweet) style. You wouldn't know by looking at its color, but this rum is aged four years. The signature of the barrel is unmistakable, despite its crystal clarity, with abundant flavors of dried fruit, vanilla, banana, and coconut on the nose and palate. This is a superb base for mixing light, refreshing summer sippers like daiquiris and mojitos.

Brugal Extra Dry - $22

In the same family of dry-style light rums as the Flor de Caña, Dominican-made Brugal Extra Dry is made from a blend of rums that have been barrel-aged from anywhere between two and five years. Filtration removes any color imparted by contact with toasted oak, but leaves intact hints of bright citrus and spice.

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Rhum Barbancourt 3 Star - $20

Hailing from Haiti (and hence the French spelling), this four-year-aged rum nicely threads the needle between light and gold styles, proving a go-to base for cocktails. Because it's made from 100 percent sugar cane juice rather than molasses, Rhum Barbancourt 3 Star has a distinctive character that leans more toward grassy, vegetal flavors, which aren't as present in the molasses-based rums mentioned above. That said, you may pick up notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and raisins amidst the pleasantly brash heat that comes with each sip.

(Image credits: Roger Kamholz)