Slowly but surely, rum is gaining popularity in the U.S. Last year, the Distilled Spirits Council’s annual economic briefing showed growth in the rum category for the first time since 2013, with 24.1 million 9-litre cases sold in 2019, amounting to $2.3 billion in revenue for rum distillers.
In the U.S., rum importers and bartenders are pushing for a simpler, more transparent way to buy and enjoy rum, drinking rum straight up or neat.
“It has definitely become a trend in the past few years,” Michah Anderson, bartender at Portland, Ore.’s Rum Club, says. “Folks want to expand their palates and try new things, and they have heard the buzz around sipping rums — so they are definitely asking for them more now.”
While drinking whiskey neat is relatively common practice in the U.S., history shows that sipping rum is really a return to America’s spirited drinking roots.
“Prior to the popularization of whiskey in the early days of the American Republic, rum was the spirit of choice,” says Shannon Mustipher, a Brooklyn-based spirits educator, consultant, author, and VinePair contributor. In those days, she says, Barbadian rum was held in high regard. Nowadays, rum is produced in more than 100 countries, using a variety of methods that vary between region and producer.
So, rum flavor profiles vary vastly. Mustipher compares rums’ regionality and flavor nuances to wine. “Some people like Loire Valley reds, some prefer round and oaky California Chardonnays,” she says. “The key is to have an understanding of your personal preferences, learn the basics of the category and which style is likely to give you what you are looking for, and take it from there.”
Mustipher recommends starting with a preferred flavor profile. For example, those looking for vegetal or floral flavors might try rums from Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique. “For someone who prefers sweeter spirits, they would likely prefer Venezuelan or Panamanian rums, which sometimes involve added sugar,” she says. “Die-hard whiskey drinkers would likely prefer Barbadian or Guyanese (Demerara rums), as they [tend to be] fuller-bodied and easy to enjoy neat or on the rocks.”
While there are plenty of rums to choose from at most liquor stores, understanding what information is given on (or is lacking from) the bottle is essential to making a selection. Kiowa Bryan, brand manager at Spiribam, a rum (rhum agricole) importer with distilleries in Martinique and Saint Lucia, advises shoppers to ask questions and do some research before buying — starting with the label.
“Look to see if the bottle says ‘no additives’ or ‘no sugar added,’” Bryan says. “Because of the lack of U.S. restrictions on rum compared to other spirits such as whiskey or tequila, you cannot be sure if anything has been added to mask the purity of the product. This is why many brands who don’t use additives or sugar note this on the label.” “Unfortunately, many brands also market rum as being sweet naturally because it is made from sugarcane products … This is entirely false marketing and is usually a ploy to mislead consumers while covering up flaws in a product,” she says. “So many popular rums out there take advantage [of this], tricking consumers into drinking rum with 40 grams of sugar added per liter or more. This also creates a common misconception that rum is sweet or has more calories because it is made from sugarcane or its byproducts.”