Jamaican rum has a special place of honor among rum geeks and tiki devotees, owing to its integral position in cocktail culture in particular. There are simply so many classic drinks that call for Jamaican rum, and although you can always substitute from the likes of Barbados or Guyana if you wish, the purists will tell you that when a recipe says “Jamaica,” there’s only one thing that will do.
Appleton Estate, meanwhile, is perhaps the first Jamaican rum distillery that U.S. consumers are likely to come across on the store shelves, and it thus serves as an introduction to aged Jamaican rums for many drinkers. It occupies the same sort of “standard bearer” status for Jamaican rum that a brand like Mount Gay does for Bajan rum—the widely recognized, more easily approachable brand with international availability, thanks to its Campari Group ownership. Appleton Estate’s products are known for being skillfully blended, balanced and approachable—less defined by intense, funky ester character than Jamaican distilleries such as Hampden Estate and Worthy Park, but never lacking in character. This approachability means that Appleton tends to stir up less crazy hype among the funk-seeking rum geeks than more limited bottlings from the other Jamaican distilleries, but the brand simultaneously plays a major role in converting new drinkers to Jamaican rum on a yearly basis. And it must be said, there are few people in all of the rum industry more universally admired and respected than Appleton Master Blender Joy Spence.
It’s always a big deal, then, when a company that has been producing rum since 1749 debuts a revamped core lineup, as Appleton did this spring. It was a move that seemed to make sense for simplicity’s sake—Appleton had previously refreshed the lineup in bits and pieces in recent years, with the old flagship V/X Jamaica Rum becoming Appleton Estate Signature Blend, and Appleton 8 becoming “Appleton Reserve Blend.” Frankly, things had become confusing in the Appleton lineup, and it was likely time to redesign its branding from the ground up for the sake of making its progression obvious at a glance to newer drinkers.
This is exactly what the company has done, condensing the “core” lineup into the following three bottles: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve, and Appleton Estate 12 Year Rare Casks. These brands re-debuted in the spring with a new bottle shape as well—taller and slimmer than the previously squat Appleton bottles, but with some of the same shapely curves. It’s a thoroughly modern approach, as indicated by this quote from Marsha Lumley, marketing director of J Wray and Nephew Limited, Appleton’s parent company (itself owned by Campari):
“The consumer palate has become much more sophisticated. Appleton Estate’s range boasts some complex and elegant expressions, which inspire us to both educate and entertain on a higher level. This relaunch gives us the opportunity to illustrate Jamaica’s rich history and geography, as we reinvent our most iconic international brand to connect deeper with our existing consumers and appeal to new markets across the globe.”
So yeah, standard marketing speak there, but this lineup swap is definitely still of interest to rum fans for the fact that the Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve is a new product, with a new blend not released by the distillery previously. The Signature Blend and 12 Year Rare Casks, meanwhile, have been left intact in their new packaging.
This was clearly a good time to revisit the core range as a whole, so we commenced a tasting to do exactly that.
Price: Roughly $20
The flagship Appleton Estate Signature Blend is, like all of Appleton’s core products, a blend of many Jamaican rums of various ages. It’s non-age-stated, but seems to be younger overall than the old V/X Jamaica Rum, which was discontinued in the mid-2010s and replaced with the Signature. Like the other brands in this core lineup, the bottle shape has been redesigned, becoming taller and slimmer, although the recipe of Signature Blend is reportedly unchanged. It weighs in at the baseline of 40% ABV (80 proof).
On the nose, my immediate impressions are ripe dessert banana and molasses, along with light grassiness and faint hints of oak. Sweet brown sugar is featured prominently on the palate, along with sweet, toasty baking spice and fruitiness that trends toward caramelized plantains or tostones. There’s a bright note that is something like lime citrus, and an overall profile that is nicely balanced between freshness and richness, while being slightly punchy as well.
The fact of the matter is, for a $20 bottle of aged rum, there are few options better than Signature Blend—you can get more intense or characterful unaged rums around the same price if you know where to look (like the company’s own J Wray), but there’s few aged competitors that provide the nuance of this one for the same price. It’s an outstandingly versatile bottle that is just as at home in a glass of Coke as it is as the foundation of basic tropical drinks like the daiquiri or the mai tai. Once again, for $20 it’s a no-brainer.
Price: Roughly $30
The most interesting bottle of the new lineup is the new 8 Year Old Reserve, which restores the minimum 8 year age statement to the mid-tier Appleton offering, although as with all of these blends it may also contain some older distillate as well. It also has a slight bump in strength, to 43% ABV (86 proof), which it shares in common with the 12 Year Old Rare Casks. MSRP seems to be as low as $29, but I’m seeing it priced a bit above that from most online retailers—it’s actually $40 via the Virginia ABC’s website, which is the exact same price as the 12 Year. Odd.
On the nose, the 8 Year Old Reserve is markedly more expressive and mature than the Signature, with notes of grilled pineapple, banana and ginger. There’s a more savory and slightly more wild dimension to this dram, with a greater oak presence and considerably more spice—the slight bump in proof makes itself felt in an appreciable way, lending heft to these flavors. This one strikes me as particularly fruity, with lots of pineapple, citrus and passionfruit notes, closing with a bit of supporting oak tannin.
Ultimately, the 8 Year Old Reserve actually proved to be my favorite of this lineup, and I think it’s the star of the newly revamped line—especially if it’s available to you near the MSRP. It’s perhaps the most balanced synthesis of all the Appleton notes, bringing plenty of fruitiness and spice to play, amplified by the bump in proof and balanced by subtle oakiness. Whereas the 12 Year Rare Cask ultimately leans more toward influence from the barrel, the 8 Year Old Reserve strikes me as a very skillful balancing act. This is going to be a foundation for many of my cocktails moving forward.
Price: Roughly $40
Appleton’s 12 Year Old Rare Casks receives a bit of a price bump in the new lineup, adjusting to the current state of the increasingly premiumized rum market, but with that said $40 is still less than you’d expect to pay for 12-year-old rum from most other producers. Like the previous rum, this one is bottled at 43% ABV (86 proof), and is a blend of numerous rums that are at least 12 years of age.
On the nose, the fruit here has matured in a darker direction, with notes of dark berries that are met by nuts and caramelized sugar that suggests marshmallow or nougat. It’s dark fruity as well on the palate, with a pronounced blackberry note that also comes with a pithier, more bitter dimension. The oak is significantly more assertive on the palate, with more aggressive tannins that counteract the sweeter elements and fruit. Late-evolving cocoa bolsters the darker profile here, but the way this rum projects more dyness with its oak profile does not necessarily make it a favorite for me—it feels like it’s drying out my palate a bit. That quality will probably play well in the context of cocktails, however, when other sweeteners are involved.
All in all, though, the biggest takeaway for me in this tasting is my new appreciation for the mid-tier 8 Year Old Reserve—if what Appleton wanted to do in this revamp was get attention on the newest blend, then they’ve done a good job of it. Here’s hoping I can find it for close to MSRP going forward.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.