10 Best Budget Rums

My posting frequency at SE has slipped to about twice a month these days, because BUSY. Anyway, here’s my latest.

We who love rum are very lucky people. It’s a category of spirits that offers many wonderful values—bottles that taste like they should cost way more than they actually do. You can very easily find great rums, both white and dark, under $20, and today, I’ll introduce you to a few of my favorites.

[Get the list!]

Ads of the week

A hodgepodge, from Life‘s issue of August 30, 1937:


(Another Norman Rockwell ad. I keep meaning to do a specific post on Schenley’s history. Another time.)


(Burnett’s is still around; the brand, today, is owned by Heaven Hill.)


(If you need me to tell you that Myers is still around, you don’t drink enough.)

Appleton Remixology

I don’t really know what’s up with these faux holidays. Today, for example, is National Rum Day. I have no idea why, who declared it such, or why we don’t have a day off work for it, but such it is.

One night last week, I found myself at Sons of Essex bar, on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. The event was Appleton Estate’s Remixology competition, meant to coincide with Jamaican Independence Day. The concept was simple: five bartenders were invited to choose a song they really liked and devise a cocktail to accompany the song.

Sons of Essex had bartending stations set up around the bar, with the five cocktails in various forms of premix. (So, for example, a cocktail might be premixed up to the point at which the bartender would top it with something that needed to be fresh, such as champagne or ginger beer.)

The winner was a cocktail I found a little odd, a blend of Appleton Estate, lime juice, falernum, and black bean soup.

Yes. Bean soup. Probably one of the strangest ingredients I’ve had in a cocktail.

It didn’t have the texture of bean soup, so I have to assume it was pureed or strained. I generally liked the flavor it added to the drink, I have to say. I just thought it skewed the drink farther into savory territory than I normally like in a cocktail.

(Although I have to say, that alone made it a pleasant surprise; some of the drinks that night were far too sweet for my tastes.)

The winner was Lubens Besse from Mister H and Imperial No 9 in the Mondrian Soho. He moves on to a finals round on September 10, versus winning bartenders from similar events in San Francisco, Boston, and Miami.

Zacapa Tasting Kit

Prior to the move, a PR rep for Zacapa rum contacted me, asking whether I’d like to receive a new tasting kit they were offering. I agreed, but the kit went out to my old address the very day we left. It bounced around Rhode Island and Massachusetts (appropriate for rum, perhaps), before finally reaching me here in Brooklyn.

The tasting kit was pretty simple: four mini-bottles of Zacapa, in various stages of aging. (I’d take pictures, but our cameras wound up in storage, somehow).

The first mini contains rum aged in American whiskey barrels. The second is from sherry barrels, and the third from barrels previously used for Pedro Ximenez wine. The fourth mini contains Zacapa 23.

But let me digress for a moment to discuss Zacapa’s aging process. Zacapa uses a solera system, in which new rum is blended with rum from older barrels. This process helps to ensure consistency from batch to batch. But the system is a bit more complicated than taking raw distillate and mixing it with old stuff.

Even so, the description I’m about to give is simplified; it’s not the full process that Zacapa employs. I’m extrapolating from a chart they sent, so any mistakes are mine, not theirs. If I can pick a nit here, I wish the materials that came with this kit were a little more thorough in describing the solera process.

The process starts with new-make rum, which ages for a certain amount of time in American whiskey barrels. The rum sample from these barrels tasted a little rough, woody, and raisiny, and it smelled a little smoky. The whiskey-barrel rum is then mixed, after aging, with a certain amount of older rum.

(When I say “certain amount,” take that as a cue that I have no idea what that amount is, and it’s one of the points at which I’m simplifying the process.)

That mixture of rum goes into charred barrels, which I presume (again: simplification) are new barrels and haven’t previously aged other spirits. It ages for however long it ages, and then gets mixed again with older rum.

That mixture goes into vats that previously held Oloroso sherry. The sherry-aged rum tastes a little smoother than the whiskey-aged. It should; it’s older. Even the newer stuff is older, and it’s been blended twice with older rum at this point, so everything in the sherry-barrel bottle is older than the whiskey-barrel bottle. The sherry-barrel bottle tastes of dried fruit and almonds.

Then, of course, it’s mixed again with older rum before aging in barrels previously used for Pedro Ximenez wine, from Spain. Here, it picks up notes of fig and coffee. Of the three, this bottle was by far the smoothest and roundest.

From here, the rum is blended once again with older rum, but then the solera process is largely over, at least for the 23. (Zacapa XO is altered once more, this time aged in cognac barrels.) After this step, the rum goes into the warehouse as is, for another certain amount of time before being diluted to 40% alcohol by volume and then bottled.

I might, as a novelty, sometimes drink the proto-Zacapa aged in whiskey barrels, perhaps if I wanted a rum old fashioned that reminded me somewhat of bourbon. But I wouldn’t sip it on its own. I would seldom ever turn to the sherry-aged proto-Z; drinking it is an interesting intellectual exercise, but not wholly pleasant on its own merits. The Jimenez is nicer because it tastes more like a well-aged rum; I could see myself enjoying this as a standalone bottling, although not in place of the Zacapa 23.

All this leads me to wonder whether the rum category has enough consumer interest to merit special bottlings of the sort that the Scotch market has grown so fond of. These days, you can buy Scotches aged in barrels made from wood scavenged from the remains of Noah’s ark. I could imagine Zacapa possibly releasing some of these, in limited-edition bottlings.

Disclaimer: As noted in the very first paragraph, this kit was sent to me for promotional purposes. I will add, though, that I enjoy Zacapa very much, have previously bought bottles of it with my own goddamn money, and am very likely to spend my own wages, such as they are, on it again.


The PR powers recently saw fit to send me a bottle of Denizen Rum, a relatively new product that’s available in New York and via online merchants such as DrinkUpNY.com and Astor Wines.

Denizen is a white rum, but if you’re expecting it to be bland and lackluster as a result, you might be surprised. Denizen is a rum with character and body. The promotional literature tells me that Denizen starts with rum from the Angostura distillery in Trinidad. That rum is charcoal-filtered to remove the color, leaving a clear rum. The blenders then add trace amounts of 15 types of aged Jamaican rum (which I assume is also filtered).

The resulting spirit is richly bodied, with aromas and flavors of tropical fruits and flowers, and the grassy, vegetal notes of fresh sugar cane. Funky enough to be sipped on ice, Denizen also mixes well. I put it up to the daiquiri test and absolutely loved it.

Denizen retails for about $15.99 for a 750ml bottle, and at that price, I want to keep it constantly stocked on my home bar.

Drink of the Week/Month/Year/Whatever: XYZ

Near the end of his Savoy project, Erik Ellestad featured the XYZ cocktail, a daisy/daiquiri/sidecar variant using rum. The drink sounded great to me, and while browsing through the comments, I saw that someone suggested using Banks 5 Island rum as the base.

The original, from the Savoy, calls for lemon juice, Cointreau, and Bacardi. Erik used Clement Creole Shrub in place of the Cointreau. The same person who suggested the Banks, though, also thought that maybe Cointreau or Combier might pair better with Banks because he found the cocktail a little dry.

I happened to have a bottle of Banks 5 Island, provided to me as a free product sample, and I wanted to try it in this cocktail. I love Banks. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a white rum, but it certainly doesn’t taste like one. It has a funky taste you normally expect from a rhum agricole. Banks is actually a blend of rums from five islands: Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Indonesia.

Wait. That’s a little misleading. Banks is actually a blend of rums from four islands: Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, and Barbados. The Indonesian component is not a rum at all: it’s Batavia arrack, a pot-still distillate made of sugarcane. It’s similar to rum but it’s much funkier. It brings a unique character to Banks 5 Island that you can’t find in other white rums.

I find that Banks is great in cocktails. It blends exceptionally well with other ingredients without losing its own character. Unlike most white rums, though, it’s also wonderful sipped on ice or stirred into an old-fashioned.

I wanted to try it in the XYZ, though. I mixed it twice, over successive nights. The first time, I tried it with Creole Shrubb. Like Erik’s commenter Sam, though, I found it a little dry that way. So the next night, I mixed it with Combier and — oh my! — that was lovely.

Odds and Ends

No one ever seems to blog much during Christmas week, and I’m no exception. Just wanted to drop a quick post linking out to a couple of other things I’ve been working on.

The biggest news is that I’m contributing to Serious Eats. I’m writing a weekly column for the next several weeks on basic cocktail techniques. Right now, I’m in the middle of a three-part series on party planning. Parts 1 and 2 are up, along with a recipe for a batched Negroni. Part 3 should be up next week. I still can’t believe people pay me to write about what I love.

I also have a recipe that’s part of a crowded field at Food52, competing for best Hot Toddy recipe. My entry, the Rum Tum Toddy, features baked apple and Smith & Cross rum. I love the drink and hope it has a chance, but we’ll see. Here’s a video of me flaming an orange twist to go atop the toddy. I sloppily managed to drop the twist pith side up, which irritates me, but I didn’t get a smudge of match soot on the peel, which would have vexed me even more. (Yes, that’s a box of wine behind me. Sigh.)