High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of Rum

Paul McGee of Chicago's Three Dots and a Dash tiki lounge brings some clarity to a misunderstood spirit. The best part? You don't need a lot of money to drink great rum.

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Ernest Hemingway once said: “Who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?”

It is true that a slug of rum can make the world turn a bit rosy, but the spirit’s complicated history has contributed to its less-than-stellar reputation. College kids are first introduced to the Captain through cloying concoctions mixed up in red Solo cups, and many adults still reserve it for breezy, coconut- and pineapple-heavy cocktails on Caribbean beach trips. But there’s a lot more to rum than meets the eye, starting with the fact that it actually originated in Europe, not the islands.

When the English, the French, and the Spanish colonized the Caribbean in the early 15th century, they brought with them rum’s major ingredient, sugar cane—and with it came rum. Depending on the occupying country, many of the islands have developed different methods for producing the spirit, yet—unlike whiskey-makers—they did not develop many requirements for labeling it. The Spanish colonies aged rum using a 500-year-old method for maturing sherry, and the French-speaking island of Martinique developed its own style, known as rhum agricole, which tastes vastly different from its counterparts.

In fact, rum has more distinct styles and flavors than perhaps any other spirit. It can have thick, heavy notes of vanilla, or it can be dry and bourbonlike. Some varieties even have bitter notes of chocolate. Rum’s diversity is what made it an attractive layer for tiki drinks in the first place.

Given its complex past, there is a mess of misinformation surrounding rum. Restrictions are loose, connoisseurship is scarce, and many people believe there is only one way to drink it. From colonization to contemporary marketing ploys, Paul McGee of Three Dots and a Dash tiki lounge in Chicago—which has more than 200 rums on file—tells it like it is.

paulmecgee High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of RumThe expert: Paul McGee has been bartending since 1989. “I made some terrible Mai Tais back then,” he says about his early experience with rum. McGee had the revelation in 1997 at Trader Vic’s at the Beverly Hills Hilton, where he says he had his first real Mai Tai (that is, without grenadine). “It was made with orgeat, which I had never even heard of at the time,” he recalls. “It was so refreshing and tart, and it was served over ice and with bouquet of fresh mint. That was my aha moment, when I realized that rum drinks were not all sugary and sweet.”

Here, he breaks down seven keys facts that will turn you into a rum-swilling pro.


There is (almost) no way to tell what you are really getting from the bottle.

rum RhumMartinique1 High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of Rum
McGee says: Rum is not as forthcoming as other spirits when it comes to restrictions and labeling. With exception of agricoles from Martinique, distillers can add coloring and flavoring without stating it on the bottle. This makes it more difficult for uneducated consumers to buy a good quality product. You really have to dig to find out what you’re actually getting.

Color isn’t always indicative of flavor.

McGee says: You might think that darker rum is aged for longer, but that is not always the case. Distillers often add caramel coloring. In general, lighter rums have been aged in oak barrels, but they are filtered through charcoal, which strips a lot of the color and flavor. Golden rums are typically aged between three to five years, but again, because you can add coloring without putting it on the label, you never really know without some research. One thing that is certain is that really dark, blackstrap rum has blackstrap molasses added to it. These have a maple, almost toffeelike flavor.


Instead, the best way to identify a style of rum is by country.

rum maitai High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of Rum
McGee says: There are three main regional styles of rum: Spanish, French, and English. Spanish and English are the more common rums available out there, and about 95 percent of rums are made from molasses. Here’s a quick guide:

Spanish: These often say ron (Spanish for “rum”) on the label. Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia are the major countries that make the rum. They are typically a little bit lighter in style.

English: The two main sources for English-style rum are Jamaica and Guyana. These tend to be richer and heavier. Producers use pot stills, which provide a lot of the fruit flavor without being so sweet.

French: Otherwise known as agricole or rhum, this style primarily comes from Martinique and is highly regulated (look for the AOC sticker). Think of it as Armagnac that is made from sugar cane. Because agricole is made from the fresh-pressed juice of sugar cane (instead of molasses), it has a distinct vegetal and earthy taste and tends to be dry as opposed to sweet.


The age on the bottle has a different meaning depending on where it is made.

McGee says: Like whiskey, when a French- or an English-style rum has an age statement on the bottle, that number refers to the age of the youngest rum in the blend. However, with Spanish rum that number can be the oldest rum in the bottle. Ron Zacapa 23 year from Guatemala has some five-year, some eight-year, and some 15, but the oldest rum in the blend is 23 years old.

Aged Spanish rum is labeled differently because it is aged differently.

rum zacapa High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of Rum
McGee says: Spanish rum is made using the solera method, a tradition developed more than 500 years ago to age sherry. The solera method employs a succession of rum barrels, and—starting at the top—the distiller pours unaged rum, which trickles down into each successive barrel. The bottom row contains the oldest rum; that is what gets tapped and bottled, and the distillers replenish the top row with more unaged rum.

Some distillers put rum in a different style of barrel for finishing. For instance, Zacapa finishes its rum in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks to impart raisin-like flavors. This process was brought to the islands that were colonized by Spain, so you will often find this process used in rums from Puerto Rico and Guatemala.


Rum isn’t always sweet.

McGee says: Most people think that all rums are sweet, and for the most part they are. But within the broad range of styles, there are rums that are dry and don’t lend themselves to the spectrum of sweetness at all. It is all about making cocktails that don’t showcase the sweetness. One of my favorite things to do is to take a whiskey drinker and make an Old Fashioned with rum. People are blown away at how smoky it is.

For the tequila or whiskey drinker, a Ti Punch is a simple cocktail with aged agricole that is made like an Old Fashioned but instead of bitters, you use lime juice and lime oil to balance out the sweetness. Flor de Caña from Nicaragua makes a seven-year aged rum that is more bourbonlike. It definitely has some sweetness, but it is balanced with leather notes and is a little bit dryer; it makes a great Manhattan with sweet vermouth.

The difference between premium rum and lower-end rum is mostly arbitrary.

rum rivermystic High Life Decoded: Unlocking the Secrets of Rum
McGee says: Any time you’re talking about premium price, you’re talking about two things: Age and marketing. You will pay a premium price for aged English-style rum because the longer it sits, the more you lose to evaporation.

More often, you are paying premium price for a fancy bottle. Be aware of certain packaging. Anything that has a lot of trendy components—a wicker cask or a perfume-like bottle—you are paying for that. Sometimes the packaging is more expensive than the cost of the rum.

Like anything else, you have to do your research. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good rum. El Dorado 12- and 15-year rums are my favorites, but they are never more than $40 a bottle.

  • Josh Miller

    A couple thoughts:

    First, it’s “Flor de Cana”, not “Florida Cana”.

    Second, while there are a lot of really great rums available at the $40 price point and below, there are some truly magical rums above that, which renders this statement utterly ridiculous:

    “THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PREMIUM RUM AND LOWER-END RUM IS MOSTLY ARBITRARY.”

    • Chris S

      @disqus_RbMT7CvNgJ:disqus thanks for the catch, embarrassing typo.

      As for the price point, I’m not sure the existence of good expensive rum negates the point he’s making, which is that there are a lot of great moderately priced options and many (though certainly not all) premium rums are not worth the bells and whistles that have little to do with the actual product.

  • Paul Leddy

    One other correction, it is Ti Punch not Ki Punch.

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