If you keep up with Paste’s drink reviews, then you know I find myself drinking a lot of bourbon and rye—the dedicated drinker needs a spiritual counterbalance to all of that craft beer, after all, and over the last seven years or so, I found it in American whiskey.
It so happens, of course, that my own immersion into whiskey occurred at the same time when the segment was blowing up in terms of sales. After stagnating and spiraling downwards throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, American distillers managed to recapture the hipness of brown spirits in the 2000s and 2010s. Fueled by the search for hype bottles, unique small batches, the rise of rye, the mixology boom and overproof releases, the American whiskey market became much more interesting … and much more saturated.
Enter, the world of aged rums. A few months ago, while sampling a few drams of aged rum a friend had brought back from a trip to the Caribbean, I had something of an “aha moment”—this aged spirit could be a natural progression from the world of whiskey, and one where you can still get in on (relatively) the ground floor. Rum in general is on the rise—just look at the surging popularity of tiki-centric cocktail bars, which are doing the heavy lifting in terms of convincing the American drinker that high-quality rum is worth paying a premium for.
But how much difference is there, really, between entry level and premium rum? Well, the only way to answer that is the way we answer everything at Paste: With a booze tasting. One that happens to coincide with National Rum Day, in fact—Thursday, Aug. 16.
Thanks to the folks from Mount Gay Rum, who generously forwarded some samples our way, I was able to conduct an illuminating, four-bottle horizontal tasting from the world’s oldest commercial rum distillery, with bottle prices ranging from the affordable ($20) to the decadent ($150).
Note that in this tasting we’ve eschewed the venerable Mount Gay Silver, which is an unaged rum, and skipped straight to the first entry in the distillery’s aged series, Eclipse. As with most aged rums, this one is a blend of many separate rums of various ages, brought together to form a harmonious whole. It can be had pretty cheap—around $20 on average, but you can occasionally find it as low as $15, putting it into the same price point as most solid bottom shelf whiskeys, such as Evan Williams or Old Crow.
On the nose, this one is a real banana bomb. Sweet and a bit on the “overripe” side, it’s bursting with lots of banana, plantain and a bit of stone fruitiness, with a slight “heavy syrup” note to the sweetness ‘ala canned fruit and a fair amount of alcohol heat.
On the palate, it has a slight, but distinctly “doughy” character, along with notes of vanilla extract, green apple, slight grassiness and molasses richness. This is an accessible rum, but a bit rough around the edges in my estimation, with a finish that is intriguingly vinous in character. Although I’m often happy to drink bottom-shelf whiskey neat, the thinner body and rougher edges of Eclipse (in comparison with the older bottles from Mount Gay) means I see this stuff as more appropriate for mixing. To test that point, I whipped up a classic daiquiri with it, which was very tasty indeed.
Final verdict: You could drink this neat, but it’s more at home making classic rum cocktails.
No product in the Mount Gay lineup makes the brand’s marketing and demographic intentions so clear as Black Barrel, which all but screams “I am a rum for whiskey drinkers.” This one is finished in used bourbon barrels, and is bottled at a slightly higher strength than the Eclipse, 43% ABV (86 proof)—which is also the proof of Mount Gay XO Reserve and Mount Gay 1703 Master Select. Bottles can be had in the $30 range, making it comparable price-wise to solid, everyday bourbon selections such as Elijah Craig Small Batch or Buffalo Trace. And that’s exactly where they’re clearly trying to compete—a reasonably priced, mid-range rum that will appeal to the drinkers (exactly like myself) who got interested in whiskey during the bourbon and rye boom.
On the nose, the first thing one immediately notices here is the increased oak presence, which really comes through distinctly. There is honestly more “whiskey” influence here than I was expecting, with impressions of caramel, vanilla and a wisp of smoke.
On the palate, Black Barrel is likewise fairly oaky, in a pleasantly familiar sort of way, with a more obvious sense of “roast” and toasted oak than the Eclipse. Spice notes are also accentuated here, with notes of clove and especially cardamom backing up the caramel, while the fruit impressions are more reined in than the candy-like banana of the Eclipse. It’s still slightly thin of body, but I find this a more enjoyable neat drinking experience than the Eclipse.
Final verdict: You could easily consume this neat for a change of pace, but I find myself curious as to how it would do as a whiskey replacement in several classic whiskey cocktails. That could be quite interesting indeed—further research required here.
This is where the Mount Gay line starts getting serious, in a blend of rums aged between 8 and 15 years. That extra time of course means a higher price tag, around the $50 mark, which puts it in the same tier as a number of small-batch, independent or likewise well-aged whiskeys—not breaking the bank, but probably not an “everyday drinker,” either. At this price point, you’re certainly expecting to buy something you enjoy drinking neat. Like the Black Barrel, this is a comfortable 43% ABV (86 proof).
On the nose, it’s clear that the extra age has brought some new facets out to play. There’s much more complexity here than in the Eclipse, and more subtlety than the Black Barrel, which is more dominated by oak. Extra Old, on the other hand, has a very pleasant bouquet of rich, caramelized sugar, baking spices and fruitiness—think apple compote/pie filling, banana cream and sweet spice.
On the palate, what stands out is harmony—the flavors are much more integrated than in the Eclipse, flowing from one into the other in a way that is more subtle and effortless. Cinnamon sugar sweetness and very well-hidden alcohol heat make the XO frighteningly drinkable—it’s certainly the easiest-drinking dram out of the four bottles. Everything here has simply been enhanced in a way that is elegant and refined, without any one flavor note gaining particular dominance.
Final verdict: Extra Old is a balanced, nicely complex aged rum that does well in justifying a higher price tag. It drinks extremely easily, with enough subtlety to reward introspection. An obvious choice for neat drinking, and one that more whiskey drinkers should probably explore. It compares favorably with plenty of bourbon I’ve had in the $50 range.
And here’s your “ultra premium” entry: 1703 Master Select, which can boast a complex blend of 10 to 30-year-old rums, released once a year in limited quantities to preserve the company’s stocks of its oldest rums. A bottle here will run you around $150, which obviously puts it into the same “your mileage may vary” camp of overproof or very limited whiskey releases. As with whiskey, value is a difficult proposition to determine here, and largely comes down to individual perception.
Personally, I wondered whether there would really be much of a perceptible jump between the profile of the Extra Old and that of the Master Select, but as it turns out, there is in a few key ways. Much of the profile could be described as “Extra Old, but more,” but the most interesting aspect that Master Select teases out with its oldest rums is a distinct trio of wood/smoke/tobacco decadence that isn’t present in the XO. Also greatly amplified is the spice profile, as the Master Select can boast a very complex, long-last finish that is awash in notes of anise, black licorice, cinnamon and nutmeg—almost Chai spice-like. But it’s the wood—those subtle impressions of cedar cigar box that make this rum feel like it’s already had a cigar dipped in it—that make Master Select stand out the most in my mind, as a quality that only age can provide.
Obviously, this bottle is intended for neat drinking, and I can safely say that it’s a lovely, rich experience, on par with many of the expensive, limited whiskey releases I’ve tasted—and at a proof that doesn’t necessitate a bunch of ice or water, like so many barrel proof bourbons. The age of the rums involved shine through more clearly, each time you revisit it.
Final verdict: A decadent sipper that still maintains admirable drinkability thanks to its moderate proof, Master Select is wonderfully evocative in terms of its wood/spice profile. It may or may not justify a $150 price tag, depending on your personal means, but it’s worth going out of your way to sample.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.