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Rum marketers have long prophesied a great rise in popularity for the category, which has long been dominated by the mojito fodder lining liquor store aisles. The pitch: seasoned bourbon drinkers will come to love rum, which is so much more than Bacardi Silver. They were right in one sense, but wrong in another. Bourbon whiskey shares much with rum, but its followers won't flock to rum for similar flavor profiles — they will convert only if given a pressing reason to. And ironically, it's bourbon's own swelling popularity that's provided one.
There are other, perhaps even better, reasons the modern bourbon-whiskey drinker might be tempted by the rum world's easy-going nature, but the simplest argument is made with numbers: if you could buy Pappy van Winkle for $100 right now, would you? Bourbon whiskey's popularity has reached the point where many coveted bottles — Pappy, Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection, older Michter's and more — are effectively unobtainable; once widely available staples of the top shelf, Weller 12-year-old, Blanton's and Eagle Rare (really, you could name the entire Buffalo Trace lineup), in turn, have become the Pappys of the 2020s.
By contrast, rum offers more: more varieties; more flavors; more production methods; more eccentricities; more bottle diversity — and, critically, more availability. Step back and compare the breadth of flavor profiles in the rum world to that of bourbon — or even whiskey, bourbon's parent category — and rum is the clear winner. This is mostly due to one of rum's unique traits: decentralization. Where bourbon, scotch and spirits like tequila and cognac are, to different degrees, bound by regulation, geography and strict definitions, rum is a loose cannon. Make it with molasses, and you've got rum. Make it with fresh sugarcane, and you still have rum. Age it (or don't), blend it with spices (or not), filter out the color (or add it) — it's all rum.
With that in mind, here are the best rums for an ex-bourbon drinker to start with — from the true Pappy of rum to the Bacardi you should be drinking.
Spirits reviewer Jay "t8ke" West assisted with curation. Find West's reviews at WhiskeyRaiders.com.
The 'Pappy' of Rum: Hampden Great House 2020
Hampden Estate has been making rum on a near-continuous basis since 1779, and its Great House release, has quickly earned a reputation for intense, rich flavor and a healthy dose of rum funk in only its second year. For longtime rum drinkers, it represents rum's mighty potential. For former bourbon lovers, it offers a glimpse into a category not yet destroyed by hype magnets.
The Buffalo Trace of Rum: Real McCoy 12-Year
Reliably excellent, well-made and expertly matured, Real McCoy 12-year-old rum is named after a famous Prohibition-era rum smuggler whose product became known as "the real McCoy" due to the number of fakes at the time. Today, it's sourced from the Barbados-based Foursquare Distillery, the rum producer closest to capturing the enormous pull of Buffalo Trace Distillery in the bourbon world.
The Jack Daniel's of Rum: Bacardi Reserva Ocho
Origin: Puerto Rico
While Bacardi is better known for the un-aged, tall-bottled Bacardi Superior expression, rum drinkers will point you to its easy-to-find, consistent, well-aged and affordably priced middle-shelf bottling instead. Cheap enough to make a punch with and smooth enough to drink on the rocks, it's a do-it-all shelf staple.
The Rum You Give Your Whiskey-Loving Boss: Privateer Distiller's Drawer
This top-notch rum comes from an odd place: America. By most accounts, Privateer is the best in the country — and it's not made anywhere near the tropics, either. Based in Massachusetts, Privateer's Distiller's Drawer series offers rum from barrels hand-selected by its master distiller, and they’re some of the most whiskey-like bottles in the category. Expect oak, vanilla, burnt sugar and more classic bourbon notes.
The Deep-Cut Rum: Clairin
If you want to go straight to the bottom of the rabbit hole, Clairin is a good way to do it. It's usually unaged, so it has more in common with white whiskey than bourbon proper, and it's made with local wild sugarcane and “dunder,” which is a bit like the sour mash of the rum world, but far less frequently used than its whiskey counterpart. It lends Clairin a deep funkiness that blends with the base spirit to invoke whiskey, mezcal, natural wine and rum all at once.