August 16 is National Rum Day—a virtual invitation for bloggers to post recipes for crappy blender drinks and liquid fruit salads. Not only does this celebrate dumb cocktails, it misses the bigger news about how new rums are embracing bigger, bolder, more assertive flavors. Yes, stankiness is in.
First, a brief history lesson: Most Caribbean rum is distilled to near-neutrality before aging in barrels. It's innocuous on purpose. In much of Jamaica, however, "kill-devil" is still made in pot stills, which produce a characteristic funk—a weighty, sweatsock-like aroma ("high esters," if you want to get technical about it) that tastes far better than it sounds.
We saw a few nostril-tickling dark rums trickle into mass markets a few years ago with the launch of brands like Blackwell—brought to you by the guy from Island Records who helped introduce the world to Bob Marley—and Smith & Cross, which is still one of the skunkiest rums you can find. Other folks followed: Plantation sells a Jamaican rum aged a second time age in cognac barrels in France, and Renegade Rum sells a Jamaican rum "enhanced" in Château Latour wine casks in Scotland. These brands tame and refine the wild beast, like putting lipstick on bacon.
Some of the most exciting rums to launch in the past few years have been blended white rums that take the best qualities from multiple islands, like Denizen (a blend from Jamaica and Trinidad), the just-launched Plantation 3 Stars (Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados), and the Banks Rum 5 Island Blend (Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and Java). They may look like the neutral big brands, but they pack a wallop of pungent grassy, earthy flavor and fumes that won't go unnoticed in your Mai Tai.
As with so many single-malt Scotch whiskies and extra-anejo tequilas these days, Jamaican rum now comes in super-fancy, limited-quantity, you-can't-afford-it editions, too. Appleton Estate released a 50-year-old rum this year to coincide with the island's 50 years of independence—for $5,000. And Black Tot unveiled a blended rum in 2010 that was originally distilled in the 1940s, aged for a while decades ago, and then sat around for 40 years after the Navy stopped giving out daily rum rations to sailors. It costs $1,100 a bottle and tastes like bitter molasses, coffee, and dark fruit.
No matter how it's branded, though, much of this rum was originally distilled by one company: J. Wray & Nephew, which makes the high-end Appleton Estate line as well as Wray & Nephew Overproof—a national treasure that comes in at a throat-searing 126 proof. Of course, at that strength, the joy of stank succumbs to the strength of alcohol, and if your tastebuds aren't completely fried after a few drinks, your ability to appreciate quality funk certainly will be.
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—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and publisher of alcademics.com