Among rum producers, Denizen is a bit unusual, a company apart from others. An American company, it doesn’t distill its own rums, but sources them from wildly differing distillers around the Caribbean, and then blends them in the Netherlands, where rum has historic roots dating back to the golden age of Caribbean exploration and piracy. This oddly distanced business model makes the company almost more of a rum observer and a rum blender, more than a traditional distillery. They oversee the market, and decide where there are niches to be exploited, although the product lineup has been kept quite simple over the years: An aged white rum, and an 8-year reserve rum.
Now, however, with the brand’s first “dark rum” addition to the portfolio, it seems like a good time to reexamine the entire Denizen lineup, and evaluate how well each of these releases is servings its own designated niche.
As I came to realize in the course of tasting, each of these three releases is being sourced from very different locales, and represent intensely disparate styles.
Denizen Aged White Rum is one of those bottles I’ve seen in liquor stores for years, but always sort of passed over. Granted, I’ve never been much of a white rum buyer, but after our recent blind-tasting of cheap white rum bottles under $15, I have a much greater understanding of the pleasures and pitfalls of the style. And what ultimately makes Denizen Aged White Rum so excellent is right in the name: This is genuinely aged rum, not something straight off the still like so many other rums in the same demographic. Whereas many of the cheaper white rums on the market have more in common, flavor-wise, with your average bottle of vodka, Denizen’s product is appreciably distinctive.
This is a blend of rums between 3 and 5 years in age, sourced from Trinidad’s Angostura and Jamaica’s Hampden Estates. The Trinidadian aged rums in this blend are column distilled and similar to the liquid going into our blind taste-winning Angostura White Oak, which is aged and then charcoal filtered to remove its color. The 20% of the blend from Jamaica, on the other hand, is essentially the spice of this blend: 3-year-old high-ester rum from pot stills, which implies a much funkier and more unique distillate. Note: Despite having an average age of more than four years, this “white” rum has an MSRP of merely $19.99, and is bottled at a standard 40% ABV (80 proof).
On the nose, Denizen Aged White rum contains hints of vanilla, marshmallow and coconut, with sawdust woodiness, grassiness and a hint of pineapple. It smells considerably more tame than entries we tasted in the $15 and under blind tasting, as if all its rough edges have been sanded and smoothed away.
On the palate, this is essentially confirmed. This is a lovely little spirit that is just complex enough, just assertive enough and a near-perfect example of what it is intended to be. Green sugar cane impressions and hints of banana bread, coconut and slight oak tannin lend it complexity not seen in other examples of white rums. To answer the obvious question: Is it worth paying more for? The answer is absolutely it is. The difference in quality between a $12 bottle of the average white rum we were sampling in our blind tasting and the $20 bottle of Denizen Aged White Rum is absolutely massive, and its subtlety will shine through your daiquiris in the best way possible. You would likely choose the Denizen Merchant’s Reserve over this as a “sipping rum,” but I won’t hesitate to say that of all these three products, it’s the Aged White Rum that stands out as the greatest value and execution within its own style. I don’t know if you can get a better “white” rum for $20.
We’re a little sensitive when it comes to the words “dark rum,” as the term has no legal definition and is effectively meaningless when it comes to marketing spirits within the U.S., typically implying liquors that involve large amounts of artificial coloring or flavoring. To their credit, though, Denizen doesn’t exactly try to hide this, provided you know how to read the product description. Regardless, Denizen Vatted Dark Rum is the brand’s newest offering, clocking in at a robust 50% ABV (100 proof), at a roughly $29.99 MSRP.
This bottle is a particularly complicated blend of rums from Guyana and Martinique, which breaks down as follows. A small portion is 2-5 year old aged rum from Guyana, aged in the traditional way, in ex-bourbon barrels. This aged spirit is mixed with larger portions of unaged rum from (very rare, these days) wooden pot stills in Guyana, some of which is “dark unaged pot still rum”—which means it has to be artificially colored and flavored, as there would be no other way for an unaged spirit to be “dark.” Finally, 20% of the bottle is unaged rhum agricole from Martinique, to give the final product an undercurrent of grassier and funkier elements. It’s clear that Denizen is both playing around here with the freedom inherent in unregulated “dark rum” labeling, and trying to keep the final spirit interesting with the inclusion of the Martinique product.
On the nose, however, what the result mostly smells like is sugar. There’s a big waft of molasses cookies on this one, with hints of cinnamon and definitely plenty of raw ethanol—unsurprising, given the higher proof and relative lack of time to mellow. On the palate it’s sweet and hot on first blush, with a prickling heat that mixes awkwardly with deeply caramelized flavors of molasses and vanilla extract. This is dark, sweet and not particularly complicated, crying out for some kind of mixer—some ginger beer and lime, at the very least. It feels a tad artificial, as I was afraid it might. All in all, dark rum has plenty of cocktail applications, but I fear it’s likely never going to be a style for me. I admire the fact that Denizen attempted to run counter to some of the sub-style’s conventions, but when you could be buying the Merchant’s Reserve for only $5 more, the choice seems clear.
Denizen’s premium product—although still pretty affordable, at a $34.99 MSRP—is Merchant’s Reserve, a collection of three different 8-year aged rums from Jamaica and Martinique. The Jamaican rums are a combination of Worthy Park Estate & New Yarmouth pot-distilled rums, and Hampden Estates and Clarendon high-ester pot-distilled rums. The Martinique contribution, meanwhile, isn’t the agricole you would no doubt expect—this is instead molasses rum (rather than sugar cane juice), which is uncommon in Martinique, and referred to as rhum industriel. Regardless, it’s also aged 8 years, allowing the bottle to bear an overall 8-year age statement. It’s bottled at an intermediate strength of 43% ABV (86 proof).
On the nose, it’s immediately milder and more subtle than the vatted dark rum, without the blast of over-the-top molasses sweetness. Notes of toffee, caramel and banana are pleasant here, with an almost malty or doughy quality, and hints of stone fruitiness as well. On the palate, it is much smoother and more easily palatable than the 100 proof dark rum, with well-integrated heat, toffee, caramel and hints of Jamaican funkiness. The overall impression: A cinnamon raisin oatmeal cookie—with toffee bits. Big baking spice notes linger on the finish, lending it some complexity (although this is not the most complex of aged rums), with late heat that comes on in repeated sips.
All in all, this is a lovely and approachable aged rum that is easy to appreciate in neat drinking, and would no doubt work nicely in classic tiki cocktails as well. We have a feeling this would likely shine in a Mai Tai, if only we could be bothered to make some homemade orgeat. Maybe this will serve as the inspiration we need. If not, you can consult the really quite impressive collection of cocktails on the Denizen website.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.