Rum 101: All The Types Of Rum You Need To Know
When you think of rum types, are you someone who either picks 'the clear one' or 'the brown one'? Okay, as rum aficionados, we won't pretend we aren't a bit vexed if you say yes. But let's be honest. You're not alone, and at least you knew about the brown one.
Instead of being judgemental, we want to take beginner rum drinkers on an educational journey through our favourite spirit. From deliciously complex spiced rums (such as our very own SLY DOG), to deep dark black rums and aguardiente, the world of rum is rich and diverse. And once you start breaking away from the same few brands you see in the supermarket, you'll quickly realise how delicious it can be.
After you've had a gander through these 12 core rum types, we reckon you'll have a deeper appreciation for this criminally underrated spirit. Want to know what all those pirates were banging on about? Read on.
What exactly is rum?
Rum is the fiery spirit that results from fermenting either sugar cane juice or sugar cane molasses, and then distilling it into alcohol. That's pretty much the only rule. Whereas other spirits - like whiskey or tequila - have to meet certain criteria in order to have those names, rum is a little more relaxed in these rules. You can go wild with the ABV, country of origin and extra flavourings, as long as it's distilled from sugarcane or its byproducts.
Sugarcane needs a tropical climate to grow, hence rum's long standing association with sandy beaches and fruity cocktails. And today, rum is made in pretty much every sugar-producing region of the world, with the Philippines being the top producer. But the best rum? It has to come from the Caribbean, where it's deeply embedded within its history and culture. We're not biased, honest.
Types of rum - an introduction
When you distil fermented sugarcane juice, the resulting liquid is clear and colourless. Some rum producers stop right there - that's light rum, a.k.a. 'the clear one'. For rum to become brown, it has to be aged in wooden barrels, which impart complex flavours and aromas. And if you want to make flavoured rums (with spices, or things like coconut and lime), you add these natural or artificial flavourings after distilling.
That's the short version. But when you dig a little deeper, the world of rum has so much more to offer. Within the categories of light, dark and flavoured rums is a staggering variety of styles and flavours - and new craft rum producers are popping up all the time. Thanks to the lack of rules and criteria surrounding this spirit, people are free to get inventive.
So without further ado, let's get into the nitty gritty of distinct rum styles.
12 types of rum to familiarise yourself with
Also known as silver or light rums, white rums are clear and colourless. Generally, they don't have much flavour aside from a background sweetness (which comes from the sugarcane), and you won't get much from drinking them straight beyond a punch of alcohol. Instead, white rums are mostly used for making classic rum cocktails like Mojitos or Daiquiris, where the rum's mild flavour won't overpower the other ingredients.
You can make a white or light rum by simply diluting the pure sugar cane distillate to reach your desired ABV. However, ageing a white rum will give it a smoother, more refined taste. White rums which are aged in barrels are then filtered, restoring the rum's colourless appearance and delicate flavour. Alternatively, they can be aged in stainless steel tanks, which won't impart colour or flavour like a wooden barrel does.
Dark rum is a catchall term for rums that are deep brown - or darker - in colour. Whereas white rum is light and mild, dark rums carry much more depth of flavour. Usually, these flavours and colours come from being aged in wooden barrels - often Bourbon barrels made of charred oak. Plus, dark rums tend to be distilled from caramelised sugar or molasses.
All this results in deep, toasty notes of caramel, spices, vanilla and coconut. Although dark rums will impart incredible flavour to various cocktails, good ones are best sipped neat. That way, you can fully appreciate their character.
If you’re after something in between, go for gold. Gold rums, otherwise known as amber rums, are typically aged in oak barrels for a shorter time than a dark rum. This process gives the drink a handsome amber shade, and flavours of honey and butterscotch. Golden rum isn't as deep and spicy as a dark rum, but still offers much more flavour and complexity than a white rum.
To further muddy the waters of rum categories comes black rum, which is a type of dark rum with an inky black appearance. When it comes to rum, not all dark drinks represent a long storing process - so you shouldn't use colour as an indicator of age.
Black rum's dark tint isn't attained through prolonged ageing, but through adding some caramel and/or molasses to it after distillation (but confusingly, you can use an aged rum to make a black rum). This means that most black rums have a relatively lighter body, whilst being sweeter and denser than other dark rums. Usually, black rums are used as a finishing element in Tiki drinks and cocktails, where the contrasting espresso-like colour adds a bit of style.
Ahh, we've reached our favourite bit. Spiced rums are exactly what they sound like: rums that are infused with spices. These spices are usually added to the finished rum, though sometimes they're distilled at the start. Spiced rums are incredibly versatile, perfect for sipping neat or blending with a variety of mixers. Plus, spiced rums can add a deliciously complex twist to classic cocktails - as they already have some sweet aromatic notes built in.
Our SLY DOG Rum blends Caribbean rum with a top-secret parade of exotic spices. Unlike many spiced rums, we only use 100% natural ingredients of the highest quality. Compared to artificial spice, the difference in flavour is like night and day. If you fancy, you can read more on our blog about SLY DOG Rum here - or about how spiced rum is made here.
Overproof and navy strength rum
Ever heard of navy rum, or navy strength? Up until the 70s, Royal British Navy sailors received a daily dosage of rum - called a tot - to keep up their morale during long voyages. Back in the day, this rum had to be strong stuff. That was because if it leaked and soaked any nearby barrels of gunpowder, it could prevent the gunpowder from burning - unless it had a sufficiently high alcohol content of 57% or higher!
Navy sailors don't get a daily tot anymore, but 'navy strength' or 'gunpowder proof' rum can still be expected to have an ABV of around 57%. And what are overproof rums, you ask? It's a general term for any rum that's over the standard ABV of 40%. If you want to try and drink overproof rum, it's not for the faint of heart - some can be as strong as 80% ABV, so make sure you mix it with something!
So far, we've looked at categories of rum which are quite loose, only describing the colour, ABV or the addition of spices. Rhum Agricole, however, represents a type of rum made in a very particular style. Whereas most rums are made from molasses, Rhum Agricole is fermented and distilled from pure, fresh sugar cane juice.
It's also distilled to a lesser degree than most rums, preserving some of the sugarcane's grassy, vegetal flavours. Rhum Agricole is principally made in the French territories of the Caribbean; Rhum from Martinique carries an AOC (protected designation of origin) label - the only one in the rum industry.
Also known as pinga, caninha, or (rather crudely) Brazilian rum, cachaça is the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil. Similarly to Rhum Agricole, this spirit is distilled from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses. Its production is believed to date back to 1532, when the Portuguese colonists brought sugarcane to Brazil from Madeira.
Cachaça is exclusively produced in Brazil, and is often enjoyed in tropical cocktails - the most famous being the Caipirinha. Although very little is exported, it's starting to receive attention in other markets, such as the US and Portugal. If you see it on the shelves of a well-stocked bar, give it a try.
If you're touching down in Colombia, one of the first things you should do is try a cup of guaro - the popular name for aguardiente. This 'firewater' is Colombia's national drink, which is produced by distilling sugarcane and anise.
This liquorice-flavoured spin on rum can contain anything from a light 29% ABV, to a heavy-hitting 60%. And we're afraid ordering it with a mixer is very much not the done thing. The traditional chaser? Beer.
Ready to try something new?
Reading about all these rums is one thing - but we prefer the practical side of education. If that shifty black bottle of ours has piqued your interest, start your rum journey with our premium SLY DOG Spiced Rum. You can probably tell by now that we're obsessed with this seductive spirit - so why not try a rum made by real rum lovers? Bottoms up.