We don’t necessarily review a lot of spiced rum, here at Paste. Craft beer, obviously. Whiskey, certainly. Wine, frequently. But other liquors have a tendency to get the short end of the stick, if only because they command a bit less prestige. But that’s not entirely fair, is it? Just as there’s a time and a place for a rum ‘n Coke or a Cuba Libre, there must be a time and a place to talk about and compare spiced rums.
That’s what I was thinking when opening a new bottle of Sugar Island Spiced Rum, a product of the Virgin Islands that is bottled by the Sugar Island Rum Co. of Mira Loma, CA. At a familiar 92 proof, it seems pretty clear that this stuff is meant to be positioned against the Sailor Jerry’s of the world as a slightly more “premium” spiced rum for mixing purposes. And wouldn’t you know it—we just so happened to have a bottle of Sailor Jerry on hand in the Paste offices, because we like to party down here in Atlanta. And so, a head-to-head comparison was the obvious thing to do. So let’s get to it.
Appearance: It’s hard to miss that the Sugar Island product is notably a shade or two darker than the Sailor Jerry, which implies a certain degree of caramelization/richness. I honestly was expecting the two to look virtually indistinguishable, given their identical ABVs and positioning in the market, but the chestnut/ruby highlights of the Sugar Island spiced rum proved to be only the first of a bevy of differences between them.
Aroma: On the nose, they are indeed quite different from one another. Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum is lighter and less bombastic, with clean, familiar vanilla and hints of well-balanced spice. The Sugar Island product, on the other hand, is significantly more spice-forward, while also showing more alcohol influence. It immediately comes across as wilder and more unrestrained, with big spice notes of cinnamon and clove and anise.
Palate: Again, the two diverge. The best way to praise Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum is to say that it’s precisely what you’d expect it to be—lighter and smoother, with well-defined notes of vanilla, toasted oak, sweet caramel and well-balanced cinnamon/molasses cookie. It’s perfectly pleasant and approachable, and you can see yourself mixing it with just about anything.
The Sugar Island spiced rum, meanwhile, is considerably more unique—bigger, bolder, darker. It’s significantly more overt in its sweetness, teasing out flavors of stewed dark fruit (plum, prune), anise and cola spice. In short, this tastes just about how I always imagined that “sugarplums” would while reading “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s caramel is of a darker, more intense variety; molasses-like, but really it’s the added intensity of the spicing that stands out, along with a somewhat more prominent booze note. For being the same ABV as the Sailor Jerry, it’s notably more assertive and outright flavorful, but less balanced.
With Coke: While tasting the two side by side, it occurred to me that my job wasn’t really done until I’d tasted the two with Coke, so I went out to grab a few cans and make that happen. Results were as expected: The Sailor Jerry stands out less when mixed, giving you a rum ‘n Coke that accentuates the spice and sweetness of the cola without changing much—it’s also the more mellow of the two mixed drinks. The Sugar Island version of the drink is more overt, amplifying the cola spice and adding a dark fruity element, while also calling more attention to the booze. In particular, the spicing makes this mixed drink “extra cola-y” on the nose—it reminds me of one of those craft colas that are significantly more spice-forward than mass market offerings such as Coke and Pepsi, which are designed to be sanded down to smooth approachability.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how different an experience these two spiced rums actually offered. Although the 92 proof draws an obvious comparison to Sailor Jerry as one of the biggest brands on the spiced rum market, Sugar Island’s bottle is forging a significantly different path for itself. If you’re in the market for a sweeter, more bombastic take on spiced rum that makes for a unique mixed drink, it’s worth checking out.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident booze guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.