10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap White Rums, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

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10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap White Rums, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.

Surely, of all the major “base spirits” in American drinking/cocktail culture, none of them is so profoundly misunderstood, or so afflicted by misinformation, as rum.

We all know what the average consumer thinks of, when they think of rum. Brightly colored tropical drinks. Rum ‘n Cokes. Pirates, of course. But unlike say, bourbon, the average consumer doesn’t seem to have a solid grasp of how rum is actually produced, or from what it is even made. And unlike the more regulated world of American whiskey, the rum aisle falls victim to an array of naming and labeling conventions that tell you very little about the nature of the spirits in any given bottle.

Take “white rum,” for instance. The vast majority of white rum is a distillate made from the by-product of sugarcane processing, which we of course know simply as “molasses.” To make white rum, molasses (with added water and yeast) is allowed to ferment, and is then distilled, cut with water and bottled.

Simple, right? Well, no, not so much. “White” rum can also be produced via the fermentation and distillation of unrefined sugarcane juice rather than molasses, in which case it’s usually referred to as rhum agricole—unless this same process is done in Brazil, where it’s referred to as Cachaça, the national Brazilian spirit. Does this mean that rhum agricole and Cachaça are functionally the same thing? Pretty much, yeah, although don’t say that to a Brazilian person. And you could technically refer to both as “white rum” as well, and be more of less correct.

But at least all “white rums” share one thing in common, right? They’re all unaged … except no, once again that’s not accurate. Some “white” rums are indeed aged in re-used or newly charred oak barrels, which does usually impart a degree of color to them—color that is then removed from the finished product via filtering to obtain a more or less clear final appearance, with perhaps just a touch of yellow or gold. But these products are still sold as “white rums,” which illustrates just how little the classification actually means in the U.S. The same thing is true of “gold rum,” “dark rum” and “black rum”—labels that also mean essentially nothing in the U.S. market. But those are topics for another, deeper essay that I promise to write in the near future.

Today, we’re here to taste some of those classic white rums that are typically consumed in one of America’s favorite pastimes: Mixed drinks. Whether it’s as simple as a rum ‘n coke or as classy and eternally fashionable as a well-made daiquiri, you’re going to want to know where the value truly lies on the bottom shelf of the rum aisle. And we’re here to let you know.

Rules and Procedure

— This is a tasting of cheap white rum, with a strict price limit of $15 or less for a 750 ml bottle. Some of the bottles we used in the tasting were merely pints, but every brand on this list was available for $15 or less on Total Wine at the time of purchasing. Please note, the $15 cutoff means certain mid-shelf brands such as Plantation 3 Stars, J. Wray or Havana Club missed the tasting by a few bucks, as they can’t reliably be had for less than $15. All entrants are proud members of the Plastic Cap Club.

— All rums were tasted neat. Gold/dark/spiced rums were not allowed, and will be tasted separately.

— All rums in this tasting were acquired directly from liquor stores in Georgia.

— Rums were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines.

The Rankings: All 10 White Rums, Ranked From Worst to Best

10. Heaven Hill West Indies Rum
Origin: U.S. Virgin Islands? (Heaven Hill Distilleries)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $6.49

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Truly, it pains me as a whiskey fan to think that one of my favorite distilleries in the world, Heaven Hill—the makers of everything from Evan Williams to Elijah Craig—are also the low-key producers of some truly unpleasant, dirt-cheap white rum. This is an entry in the “disowned by its own producer” file, as the Heaven Hill website makes literally zero mention of the existence of a basic “Heaven Hill Rum,” any more than they do for their other ultra cheap spirits like Heaven Hill Vodka. Instead, they proudly reveal the fact that they produce the almost-as-cheap Admiral Nelson series of rums, which is to say—when you’re proud of the likes of Admiral Nelson, just imagine how bad the stuff you don’t acknowledge must be. Yeah.

Information about this stuff is quite spotty, but it sounds like the liquid was distilled in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Truly, it’s what you expect a bottle of ultra-cheap booze to taste like—all burn and nothing else to speak of. On both the nose and palate, this just reeks of pure ethanol, like some combination of gasoline and nail polish. To say it’s “hot” on the palate is sort of misleading, in the sense that it can’t be anything other than hot, as it really has no other flavors to speak of. Tasting this neat, you’d never come to the conclusion that it was rum at all—it comes across almost perfectly as harsh, boozy and neutral grain alcohol. If you were told it was vodka, you’d say “this is bad.” If told it was rum, you’d say it was doubly bad. Suffice to say, this was pretty much universally hated by the tasters.

9. Captain Morgan Caribbean White Rum
Origin: U.S. Virgin Islands (Diageo)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $9.99

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Honestly, how many of us even realized that there were other entries in the Captain Morgan line other than the iconic spiced rum? I certainly had never paid attention to the fact that there was not one but multiple white rums in the Captain Morgan brand lineup, as it comes in both “silver spiced” and plain “white.” This one is the latter, which comes with a suggestion to consume in a rum ‘n Coke, but really, who is buying this stuff rather than the much better-known spiced gold rum? Is there really a market out there, craving the purity of Captain Morgan white rum with their cola? I’m having a hard time accepting this … especially after tasting it.

Of all the rums in this tasting, Captain Morgan White registers as the most unsettlingly artificial. On the palate, it makes a jarring, screeching departure from boozy, neutral grain spirit into sudden, inexplicably strong tropical fruitiness, in a way that drew comparisons to everything from “Sunny D” to “sweet tarts” from tasters. Rarely have we experienced such an abrupt left turn in the profile of a spirit, which gives these powerfully sweet, insistent fruit impressions an added sheen of artificiality. Tasting blind, the impression is of a spirit that came out of some kind of test tube. It seems well-suited to your average weekday night, freshman binge blackout, if you ask us.

8. Calypso Silver Rum
Origin: U.S. Virgin Islands (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.99

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It’s becoming clear that a lot of the major spirits producers operating in the U.S. are sourcing their bottom-shelf, cheap rums from the U.S. Virgin Islands, but at least Sazerac’s entry is marginally better than the likes of Heaven Hill White Rum. This one can claim ownership what has got to be the most cliche of all the rum bottle labels in the blind tasting—oh look, a sexy pirate lady, it must be RUM!—but at least avoids the harshness of some of absolute bottom of the barrel.

In profile, Calypso comes off like a cleaner, less offensive version of the Heaven Hill offering—very neutral and fairly mild, with a slightly creamy texture and little flavor to speak of. The nature of the alcohol is a bit less medicinal and in all honesty is just EXTREMELY neutral, with little in the way of signature flavors. Residual sweetness is moderate, with just a hint of what might register as “hot cinnamon” spice, like a stick of Big Red gum. Of all the rums in the tasting, it comes the closest to presenting like an inoffensive bottle of cheap vodka. Unfortunately, that’s not what you really want in a rum, which hurts it a bit.

7. Bacardi Superior
Origin: Puerto Rico (Bacardi Ltd.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $9.99

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Certainly the biggest name in the bunch, and one of the biggest alcohol brands on the planet, we found Bacardi Superior fell decidedly in the middle in the pack when blind tasted. Surprisingly, it’s really not among the more “rummy” of the offerings, being drier than most and oddly herbaceous in character. In fact, one of the signature notes here is a combination of berry fruitiness and pine-iness that almost would make one think of the juniper profile you expect to find in any bottle of gin, albeit much more subtle. These are notes more typical of rhum agricole offerings, but Bacardi Superior isn’t one—it’s derived from molasses, as are the rest of the bottles in this tasting. On some level, we can admire that it has a more distinctive house style than some of the other offerings, but at the same time there’s a lot here we’d choose before reaching for it again. Some 70 years ago or more, this might have been the sort of brand to make Hemingway wax poetic, but you can do better today on a budget of $15 and under.

6. Cruzan Aged Light Rum
Origin: U.S. Virgin Islands (Beam Suntory)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $10.99

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Bottom shelf rum really is cheap, isn’t it? Even when it’s an aged product, it’s still barely over the $10 mark for a 750 ml bottle. And Cruzan’s entry is indeed aged in oak, one of several on this list that can make that claim. How old isn’t quite clear; various sources cite it as a blend of “one to four year-old rums,” while another claims two years—we’d wager it’s mostly 1-year stock with traces of older stuff in it. The color is a very, very pale straw, although it’s worth noting that in a glass we couldn’t specifically tell the difference in appearance—carbon filtering has removed almost all of the color, and it’s really only noticeable within the bottle.

In terms of our tasters, this rum proved slightly divisive. It’s certainly not lacking for character, being one of the more explosively flavorful in the group. On the nose, there’s a suggestion of light vanilla and marshmallow-like confectionary, while the palate goes a bit darker with hints of brown sugar sweetness. On the flip side of the coin, pretty much all the tasters noted that the alcohol presence on Cruzan Aged Light Rum trended toward the harsh side, seeming noticeably hotter than other 80 proof expressions on the table. If not for the harsh, solventy nature of the ethanol in its finish, the brown sugar/butterscotch profile of Cruzan Aged Light Rum might have been able to carry it into the top tier of competitors in this field, but alas. It’s a little unbalanced.

5. Castillo Silver Rum
Origin: Puerto Rico (Bacardi Ltd.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $7.49

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Castillo is often offered as a substitute for Bacardi Superior, given that they’re both Puerto Rican rums owned by the same company, but Castillo is certainly the more easygoing (and even cheaper) of the two, which isn’t a bad thing. This was one of the lightest-bodied rums in the tasting, crisp and only slightly medicinal in terms of its alcohol presence, with a lingering spice note that is sort of reminiscent of freshly crushed cardamom pods. It’s not the most distinctive of the entries in this field, but it feels like a rum that would probably accomplish exactly what most drinkers want a white rum to do, which would be to largely disappear into whatever mixer they’re drinking it with. Or in other words, Castillo more ably does what you’d probably assume Bacardi Superior would do. That’s worth a few points, we think.

4. McCormick Caribbean Rum
Origin: USA? (McCormick Distilling Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $6.99

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In every one of these bottom-shelf liquor blind tastings, there’s always at least one plastic jug of generic booze flying way above its station. As far as rum is concerned, that selection is the extremely humble McCormick. Now, with that said, it’s not as if this position wasn’t divisive—tasters were pretty split on the relative merits of this liquid, but it still garnered enough fans to end up in a solid position. And for the price? Well, considering you can find a bottle of this stuff for WELL under the $10 mark, it’s certainly one of the best values out there if you’re making a punch bowl full of hooch. It’s almost enough to look past the fact that I genuinely can’t tell you where this is actually distilled.

In terms of profile, McCormick is on the sweeter side, with a bit of vanilla extract and ripe banana fruitiness. Residual sugar is moderate to high, but it doesn’t come off quite so abrasively or artificially as in some of the other rums in this mold, such as the Captain Morgan White. In fact, McCormick is startlingly easy to drink when all is said and done, with only a whiff of antiseptic booziness (and slight band-aid note?) that belies its bottom shelf stature. We can’t imagine you’d ever even notice that sort of thing within the context of mixing, though. If you’re on the most extreme of budgets, this is what you should be looking for.

3. Burnett’s White Rum
Origin: British Virgin Islands (Heaven Hill Distilleries)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.99

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Oddly, the Heaven Hill website acknowledges the existence of some facets of the Burnett’s brand, including Burnett’s Gin and Burnett’s vodkas, but makes no mention at all of Burnett’s rums—all the more odd for the fact that this stuff isn’t too bad, all things considered. For less than $10, you get a rum that seems like it would be at home in citrusy or tropical drinks, mirroring some of the same flavors. Various tasters cited notes of orange peel, pineapple and coconut, which are supported by moderate residual sweetness—not ridiculous, but enough to take the edge off. Like Castillo, it’s another case where being approachable and easygoing really helps the overall profile, in comparison with some of the other, harsher brands. Certainly, this is worlds better than the Heaven Hill Light Rum from the same distillery, at almost the same cost. The choice to make is obvious.

2. Don Q Cristal Rum
Origin: Puerto Rico (Destilería Serrallés)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $11.99

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Don Q Cristal is actually another aged rum, but the company’s marketing rather oddly chooses not to draw attention to this fact—despite the fact that it’s made from a blend of rums aged 1.5 to 5 years, which is certainly respectable for any “white” rum. You’d certainly never suspect it from the liquid’s color, which is perfectly clear. And like the Cruzan, it’s kind of crazy to think you can buy an aged product like this for just over $10 at an average package store, considering the time that was spent to produce it. It certainly seems to sell plenty in Puerto Rico, where it’s the #1 selling white rum.

I hate to use a term like “smooth,” heavily abused as it is by tasters who lack any other descriptive language to describe a spirit, but in this case it’s fairly earned. Don Q Cristal just has more polish than most of the other rums in this tasting, presenting a gently sweet profile of banana fruitiness and an almost buttery, ever-so-slightly oaky finish. The nose is mild, although marred by a touch of acetone. Still, this bottle struck all the tasters as appropriately “rummy” in nature, and it feels like a go-to mixer. If you have the choice between spending $7.99 on a bottle or $11.99 for something like this, it’s very easy to justify that additional four bucks.

1. Angostura White Oak Rum
Origin: Trinidad and Tobago (House of Angostura)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $13.99

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Angostura’s product, the #1 selling rum in Trinidad and Tobago, comes the closest to reaching our $15 price ceiling, and they’ve made the most of a slightly higher price point. This simply tastes like a slightly more refined product—a little bit more nuanced, a little bit more characterful. Like the Cruzan and the Don Q, it’s aged in oak (a minimum of 3 years) before filtration, making it likely the oldest in terms of average age in this tasting. That in itself isn’t worth anything in a blind tasting, but the results speak for themselves.

On the palate, Angostura White Oak possesses a friendly sweetness and lightly creamy texture, with a noticeably spicy profile that hints at black and pink peppercorn. Ethanol is present but not overbearing, being incorporated into the profile in a way that feels more like a welcome, chest-warming sensation rather than the solventy burn of many of the other bottom shelf entries. These are shades of grey, of course, but the cohesion of White Oak was apparent to pretty much every taster in this blind tasting, which implies it will probably shine through in your mixed drinks as well. Certainly, this bottle proved to be the most universally appreciated in the tasting, and for that we’re happy to see Angostura taking home the crown. May your daiquiris be blessed by its presence this summer. And if you’re not drinking daiquiris, then shame on you.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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