Rum is a true American spirit, roguish and complex. Some historians claim that it was Britain’s molasses embargo, not the tea tax, that sparked the American Revolution. Rum can be sipped neat, mixed in a cocktail or poured into a sweet fruit punch; in the kitchen it makes a mean marinade and a wonderful dessert sauce. This carefree spirit appeals to the pirate in all of us. Just a sip is a quick trip to the Virgin Islands, azure waters and a day on the beach. The best rums come from those sun-kissed countries in the Caribbean.
There are two main categories of rum: “rhum industriel,” made from molasses (90 percent of the rum in the market) and the rare “rhum agricole.” This handcrafted spirit relies on freshly pressed sugar-cane juice and is produced primarily in Martinique, where its appellation is protected by the French government (in the manner of Roquefort cheese, for example). Prized for its nuanced flavors, it is priced at $40 to $50 or more a bottle and should be sipped straight, not mixed with soda pop. (Duquesne Martinique and La Favorite Martinique are among these.)
Here’s a user’s guide to the less expensive cocktail-friendly rums on the shelf.
Light rum: Unaged and clear, it’s the spirit in Papa Hemingway’s favorite cocktails — the daiquiri or mojito. (Bacardi is ubiquitous, Cruzan Light Aged and Mount Gay Eclipse are better choices.) Gold rum is oak-barrel-aged, amber in color, with more flavor, and it’s good in any rum cocktail (Dorado is nice).
Dark rum: Aged longer, it has more distinct flavors of chocolate, coffee or nuts. More expensive, this style of rum is best sipped in the style of a fine whiskey, straight up. (Find brands such as Zacapa 15- or 23-Year on the shelf.)
Black rum: The darkest colored, richest tasting and most heavily bodied rum, it’s aged in charred oak barrels. Black rum is favored in Bermuda, Jamaica and the Virgin Islands (Goslings Black Seal is a sure bet). Try this rum drizzled over pound cake or splashed into whipped cream. The trickiest category is spiced rum, flavored with ginger, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon and clove; cheaper brands can be overly sweet. (Captain Morgan is familiar; Cruzan 9 Spice is a better choice.) These are the mainstay of “tiki” cocktails.
Beth Dooley is the author of “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.”