What to look for in a 'sipping' Rum?

What to look for in a 'sipping' Rum?

Posted by Sam Lawson on 21 Sep 2020

You can enjoy your rum however you like but it is important to know what you are drinking, especially if you intend on drinking it neat or on the rocks. Here, our resident Rum curator and founder of  Rum Runner's Co, Sam Lawson, explains how sipping rum neat  exposes you to its full potential...

Sam Lawson, Rum Runners Co Over the years we have been led to believe that a spirit must be ‘smooth’ to be considered fine or good enough to sip neat. I beg to differ! Now I am not saying that ‘smoothness’ isn’t a contributing factor to the complicated equation of factors that makes a rum a good sipper, but to be honest, what makes a good sipper is entirely up to you, your nose and your palate. Stick with me and I’ll take you through what I look for in a sipping rum...

Firstly, it is important to understand what is inside the bottle! A massive contributing factor for me is if the rum has been adulterated in any way outside of the acceptable norm i.e. sugar, sweetener, excess molasses, colouring, etc. It is common practice to add a nominal amount of caramel colouring, E150d, to homogenise the colour between batches and most rum producing nations strictly regulate the amount of colouring that can be added. 

Unfortunately, it is also common practice to add sugar, in some form, to rum. In my opinion doing that is completely unacceptable as it stunts the flavour profile and therefore automatically counts it out as a good sipper in my book. You wouldn’t accept added sugar in your single malt so why accept it in your rum?

My second tip is to pay attention to distillation methods. You can get a good sipper from all types of stills, but I tend to lean towards distillates from the more traditional artisanal methods such as pot stills and traditional column stills as these provide more depth in flavour due to less refinement. Whatever your preference, I recommend you find a still type that suits your palate.

Here are four rums that I like to drink neat.

Appleton-estate-rare-blend-12yo-rumAppleton Estate Rare Blend is for me one of my all time favourite sippers. Not just because it reminds me of Jamaica but because it is the full package and is perfectly affordable. This 12 year old Jamaican rum was one of the first rums that got me on the path of sipping rum neat.

The combination of pot and column still distillates coupled with a minimum of 12 years of maturation in American Oak barrels in Jamaica creates a rum that is the perfect example of balance. Balance (that sweet spot where natural spirit reach a harmony with the characters imparted by the barrels) is something that can make an awesome sipping rum as it can take you on a journey through many levels of flavour.

Appleton-estate-rare-blend Old FaashionedAppleton Estate Rare Blend highlights the skill of the Master Blender, Joy Spence, as you are taken on a journey that provides your nose and palate with notes of rich oak, zesty orange peel, moreish butterscotch, bitter dark chocolate, sweet molasses and warm barrel spices. Appleton Estate also makes a mean Old Fashioned as the natural orange peel notes are enhanced by the addition of fresh orange peel and complemented by a few dashes of bitters.

Trois Rivieres RumSome would consider the following as sacrilege, however I think that Trois Rivieres Blanc makes a delicious sipper, as well as a cocktail rum. This rhum from Martinique is bottled as 50% ABV, which may appear daunting to some, but as it is in the majority of cases additional ABV equals additional flavour and Trois Rivieres Blanc is no exception. 

Given I've referenced balance and smoothness before and that this is neither, why do I like sipping it? It a real flavour explosion! If you haven't tried Rhum Agricole before then it may taste all a bit bonkers the first time around, however once your palate becomes used to the unique flavour profile the depth of its character is beyond any other white rum of its kind and that is because it is made by means of creole column stills and fresh sugarcane juice. The distillation of fresh cane juice captures the essence of the terroir.

Terroir is wine terminology but in some cases applies to rum also. Terroir is simply the environment and how it imparts flavour to the end product. Soil, water, location, air, etc. all play a part in shaping a rhums flavour profile. Trois Rivieres Blanc is packed full with grassy vegetable notes softened by naturally sweet surgane juice notes. Several sips in will reveal more delicate notes of orange blossom and honeysuckle coupled with a twist of warm white pepper.

The pure abundance of unadulterated flavour makes it a good sipper and in general, Rhum agricole is a great choice for the seasoned rum drinker looking to broaden their horizons. The cost of this rhum is slightly higher than most but that's a testament to its quality (don't forget that the tax man gets a higher cut due to the high ABV too).

Rum barrels

Next up is  Don Q Gran Añejo. Do I hear you say that a modern multi-column still produced solera aged rum can’t possibly make a good sipper? I disagree. Don Q Gran Añejo is a rum that is thoroughly enjoyable without being over-challenging. As this rum is produced by means of a modern multi-column still, it creates a clean crisp spirit where the majority of its flavour is picked up from the art of ageing. 

Solera ageing, when done correctly, honestly and without adulteration, can impart some serious flavour. Don Q Gran Añejo is a blend of rum aged between 9-12 years with a drop of rum aged up to 50 years, which is the beauty of solera as the lower tier of the ageing scale is constantly being replenished with aged stock and never fully emptied. 

The result is a rum that is a great balance between naturally sweet and dry, with all those classic ‘Spanish style’ rum flavours of tobacco, vanilla, leather, dark chocolate and barrel spices. This is what’s called a session rum. It’s a rum that can be brought out with friends and you can end up with an empty bottle by the end of the night! It makes a superb Old Fashioned and old Cuban too!

Mount Gay Master Blender, Trudiann Branker Last but not least is Mount Gay 1703 Master Select. Having this one in your collection does not come lightly as it's right at the top end of the category. Some will argue that it's grossly overpriced for a rum that is bottled at 43% but I think it is priced fairly considering it is a blend of rums specifically selected by the Master Blender, Trudiann Branker, for their quality typically ranging in ages between 10 and 30 years.

Mount Gay 1703The careful oversight allows the Master Blender to specifically hone in on a flavour profile that she wants. The results over the years from both her and her predecessor, Allan Smith, have been truly unique and this one does not disappoint either. With a rum like this the flavours are evolving with every moment that passes, revealing more with every sip. This again highlights the perfect balance between rum and wood.

What I enjoy most about this rum is that  Mount Gay 1703 can really open the eyes of the casual drinker to the world of top end sipping rums. 

Overall, sipping rum neat exposes you to the spirit’s full potential. Taking your time to understand the noble spirit will pay dividends as you will understand what makes a great sipping rum and you will ultimately get better value for money. Like most things it's about quality over quantity. The slower you sip, the more is revealed and the more you enjoy!