The liquor industry has quite the wink-wink, nudge-nudge relationship with sugar.
It’s the single easiest way to sell your product to the masses, but the subject still needs to be approached with some degree of subterfuge. You can’t simply market a “respectable” liquor by saying “it tastes sweet and will satisfy your cravings for sugar!” The American consumer does crave sugar and sweetness, but they simultaneously wrestle with the knowledge that a mountain of sucrose is “bad for them.” It’s the reason why cloyingly sweet, flavored vodkas are marketed as having a “hint of sweetness,” or the like—the words are a tacit admission of just how saccharine the contents of that bottle are. And that “hint” is all the consumer needs to justify their purchase, rationalizing that they can afford to be a little bit indulgent—even as the sheer amount of sugar present erodes their enamel. It helps the drinker feel better about indulging the sugar addiction so many of us share.
This is all pretty readily apparent in a field like the flavored spirits market, but when it comes to rum there are far more shades of grey. Sure, you expect spiced rums and cheaper, explicitly “flavored” bottles to contain more than their fair share of sweetness, but what about the “premium” field of aged rums that are always marketed as being for “after dinner”? You know what comes after dinner, right? It’s dessert, of course. And many of these offerings are just as over-the-top in their sweetness as the cheap stuff, while maintaining a degree of gravitas not possessed by other bottles of sugary booze. It’s one of the alcohol industry’s odder double standards.
Enter, Diplomatico rums, which in recent years helped to popularize the “premium” rum market in the U.S., in the same mode as other names such as Ron Zacapa. Distilled in Venezuela by Destilerias Unidas, Diplomatico is found in a wide range of bottlings, but the most common offerings you’ll see in the U.S. are the younger Mantuano and the older Reserva Exclusiva. But like other rums in the “premium” marketplace, they seem to seek to distinguish themselves not specifically by age, but by decadence. They’re not simply well-aged, classic-style Caribbean rums—they market themselves as experiences.
Which is to say, most of them are quite a bit sweeter.
This is all information that I’ve only come to really grasp in recent weeks and months. Throughout 2018, I’ve been expanding my interest and knowledge of rum as a complement to my passion for American bourbon and rye, and it has been fascinating to compare the two. Whereas “super premium” bourbon or rye in the U.S. isn’t necessarily marked by a greater degree of (or the expectation of) residual sugar, the opposite is often true in rum. But even comparing one 12-year spirit to another, the differences in sweetness can be outright shocking. The experiences, then, have a tendency to broaden your conception of what rum can be, or what rum should be. There’s a reason why arguments have raged for years on various rum forums as to whether certain premium rums are more “liqueur” than they are liquor, because they contain so much added sugar.
But enough navel gazing. Let’s actually taste some Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva.
In the glass, this rum presents with a very dark, amber-to-outright-red color—one of the darkest rums I’ve seen, which immediately makes me wonder if caramel coloring was involved. Even as “a blend of rums up to 12 years old,” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this much color sucked out of a barrel.
On the nose, I get a lot of banana fruitiness first and foremost. It’s sweet, vinous and intense—sherry or port-like, with notes of molasses cookie and roasted pecans.
On the palate, the texture is immediately notable—thick and very “syrupy.” Notes of candied nuts, caramel, cinnamon, brown sugar, banana, raisin/prune and black cherry are all present and coat the tongue, finishing with a melange of baking spices and tons of vanilla extract. It evokes the way you might imagine a “spiced wine” to taste in your favorite fantasy novel. In the real world? It’s more like an ice cream topping. No, seriously—I bet that if you reduced this even further and spooned it over some vanilla bean ice cream, it would be incredible.
And yes, it’s sweet—intensely so. Compared with a classic aged rum of similar age such as Mount Gay XO, they hardly seem to have anything in common at all. The XO is a balanced, subtle spirit that you can enjoy in neat drinking or as a base for classic cocktails. The Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva? It’s more like a marching band putting on a flavor parade in your mouth, dressed in the most garishly expensive costumes imaginable. The website for the spirit claims that “it can also be used in elegant and sophisticated cocktails such as Old Fashioned and Sazerac,” but I find myself horrified by the very idea of a Reserva Exclusiva Old Fashioned, which would involve additional sugar. Simply said, please don’t do this: This is a rum wherein the only reasonable methods of consumption are neat or with ice.
I expect this review probably makes it sound as if I disliked every aspect of Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, but that isn’t the case. The reality is that if what you want is something extremely rich and indulgent, and are willing to think of the liquid in the bottle as dessert, then the Reserva Exclusiva is capable of being quite satisfying. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re nosing something with “a subtle hint” of anything. It’s time we be honest with ourselves on just what cravings it is we’re feeding.
Distillery: Destilerias Unidas
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $42.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.