It’s difficult to overstate the size of the gap of knowledge, passion and priorities that exists between 99% of the spirits-drinking population who consume rum and the 1% of drinkers who would qualify as the hardcore rum geeks. On one end, you’ve got the drinkers who enjoy rum in the context of mixed drinks and the occasional tropical cocktail, perhaps having a vague understanding of the common differences between rums of different regions. On the other end, you’ve got amateur linguists dissecting legal marques, the chemical compositions of volatile rum compounds, and arguing over the relative merits of various 100-year-old pot still designs. What is important to one of these groups often doesn’t even register to the other.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the casual rum drinker and the serious rum geek often have wildly differing reactions and estimation of a company like Plantation Rum. This is a complex topic; one that takes into account ownership, secondary finishing practices, legal lobbying and transparency in labeling. Suffice to say, the Plantation brand has long been something of a lightning rod for discussion among rum devotees.
To start with, the Plantation brand is owned by France’s Maison Ferrand, which produces such brands as Citadelle Gin, Ferrand Cognanc and dry curacao, and Mathilde Fruit liqueurs, which we recently tasted. Since 2017, they’ve also owned the historic West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, a major producer of Bajan rum for blends all around the world. The West Indies Rum Distillery was itself a partial owner of Jamaica’s Monymusk and Long Pond distilleries, giving Maison Ferrand ownership in both the Barbados and Jamaican markets. This ownership has been contentious, especially in Barbados, pitting WIRD (and by extension Maison Ferrand) against the island’s other rum distilleries as the likes of Foursquare and Mount Gay attempt to establish a Geographic Indication that would essentially offer a concrete definition for what constitutes “Barbados rum.” Maison Ferrand opposes this GI because it wouldn’t allow for them to label some of their products as “Barbados rum,” thanks to their use of additives and secondary aging in France. This is a fight that continues to grind along to this day.
When we talk about “additives” with Plantation rums, we’re mainly talking about post fermentation and distillation sugar, which is added for sweetening. This is common practice in the brandy/cognac industry, referred to as “dosage,” which is why it’s been part of the majority of Plantation’s rum products from the beginning. As with other rum producers, this issue of sweetening is likewise contentious with rum geeks—some have no problem with it as long as the company is transparent about their process, while others rail against the practice in general as inauthentic and artificial. Plantation, to their credit, does offer in-depth information on everything from dosage to volatile compounds via their website profiles on each rum, but the obvious question becomes how much they should be expected to transmit that information to the average drinker, rather than the rum geek who cares enough to look up the page for every bottle.
These issues, coupled with things such as accusations of cultural appropriation in the company name—Plantation announced roughly 16 months ago that it would change its name, but hasn’t shown any sign of doing so yet—have meant that Plantation Rum has often been a topic of much rum geek argument in recent years. As a result, there’s not much in the way of “rum hipster” cred in the Plantation brand, even though most drinkers do seem to acknowledge that they produce quality products. Bartenders, on the other hand, often seem quite happy to make use of Plantation bottles, likely thanks to the combination of quality and value they often represent. It’s still a very common brand when it comes to cocktail bar usage.
Ultimately, these rums are perhaps more ideal for cocktailing than neat drinking in many cases, but this seemed like a good opportunity to personally taste my way through the entire lineup of regularly available bottles, something I’ve never actually done in the past. As with any Paste tasting, what follows is solely an assessment of the liquid in the bottles, rather than further discussion of Plantation’s headlines in the news. What you make of issues such as the Barbados GI debate is ultimately up to you.
Now, let’s taste some rum.
Plantation 3 StarsABV: 41.2% (82.4 proof)
A common staple of cocktail bars and dives alike, the friendly price point and multi-island blend of Plantation 3 Stars makes it an extremely versatile “white” rum for cocktails and mixed drinks. I use the quotation marks in the previous sentence because “white rum” is so often a misnomer that implies an unaged product, when that may or may not be true. 3 Stars is in fact a combination of unaged Barbados rum, 2-3 year old Trinidadian rum and both unaged and aged Jamaican rum, being a blend of pot and column still rums that have presumably been filtered to remove color. Accordingly, this is one of the few Plantation rums without any caramel coloring used.
The nose of this one is pleasant and hints at the fact that it has had at least a little time in the oak for some of its components, with traces of vanilla and coffee being met by fresher, grassier notes and some green herbaceousness. On the palate, it’s very lightly sweet (this one is dosed, but only slightly) with moderately strong flavors of grass, pineapple and fresh cane. It seems very much like a rum designed for the classic daiquiri, and this is indeed how 3 Stars is often used, as it makes a very crisp and easy drinking daiquiri. Its price point makes this an easy rum to use for just about any application that calls for lightly aged Bajan or Jamaican rum that isn’t particularly funky. All in all, the word is “versatility.”
Plantation Original DarkABV: 40% (80 proof)
Products labeled as simply “dark rum” are something a personal pet peeve for me, as that term is particularly nebulous even by rum standards, and lacks any kind of formal definition in the U.S. Here, they often imply blends of aged and unaged rum that have been heavily sweetened and artificially colored to confer the look of age and “darkness” that some drinkers expect in a mixed drink such as a dark ‘n stormy.
In Plantation’s case, though, Original Dark feels like it was named less to take advantage of the category’s loose restrictions, and more to simply fill a gap that consumers expected. There’s no unaged rum in this blend, and the company claims its use of caramel coloring is “solely to adjust—if needed—the color between different batches.” This one is a blend of 1-3 year old column and pot still Barbados rum, and (presumably a smaller quantity) of 10-15 year old Jamaican rum, which are “blended into a wooden vat to age for 3-6 months in the southwest of France.” This is the standard Plantation playbook, as rums are moved from tropical aging to blending and secondary aging in France, often in cognac barrels.
This rum brings heavy brown sugar and molasses notes on the nose, with some caramelized plantains. It’s noticeably sweeter on the palate, with significant cinnamon sugar and banana bread fruitiness. The alcohol feels a bit “raw” in nature to me on this one, with a slightly vinous tone. This is clearly a rum designed to merge into a punch, or a Jungle Bird, rather than being sipped neat, and for $20 it does that admirably. Some would likely find it to be too sweet, but it fits fine in a cocktail setting.
Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple RumABV: 40% (80 proof)
This is one of those rums you’re considerably more likely to encounter as part of a cocktail than on its own, and as a result I don’t think I’d ever tasted it neat before. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that this is actually quite subtle as pineapple rums go, defined not by candied fruit flavors but by little hints of pineapple layered atop what is otherwise a blend of 3 Stars and Original Dark. Both pineapple rinds and the fruit are ultimately used. Dosage is higher than on the Original Dark, although it oddly doesn’t read as particularly sweet on the palate, particular in comparison with many commercial “pineapple rums.”
On the nose of this one there’s plenty of brown sugar and some grilled pineapple, although it’s not particularly punchy—I genuinely think that if you gave this to someone blind and told them that it was simply “aged rum,” they wouldn’t suspect that there had been actual pineapple involved. On the palate I’m getting some roasted cane flavor, and a bit of that “raw” booze I was tasting in the Original Dark, paired with citrus, green apple and a puff of smoke. It honestly seems like a moderately aged rum that could be used in practically any application, rather than doubling down on drinks that already call for pineapple elements.
I must say, it is strange to drink a spirit literally made with pineapples and find it only has a subtle pineapple flavor, and then drink another spirit such as Kasama Aged Rum that wasn’t made with pineapple, only to find it to taste overwhelmingly like artificial pineapple flavoring. Truly, this is a strange, eclectic category.
Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof RumABV: 69% (138 proof)
In terms of bang for your buck, there are evergreen deals in the rum world such as Wray & Nephew Overproof, but it’s impossible to look past Plantation O.F.T.D. as well. For just $30, this is a bombastic blend of aged rums (though it is non-age-stated) that can go toe-to-toe with 151 proof Demerara rums such as the classic Lemon Hart, even if it’s not specifically designed to replace those classic Demeraras. Its use is flexible—you can handle it like an extremely high-octane sipper, or as a “secret weapon” cocktail ingredient designed to put your next tiki drink over the top, as is often done with other 151 proof brands. In terms of origin, this is a blend of column and pot still Barbados rum, pot still Jamaican rum and demerara rum from Guyana’s famed Port Mourant stills.
On the nose, this one initially evokes nothing so much as browned butter sugar cookies. It is quite buttery, and smells quite rich, with note of caramelized bananas, orange and darker fruits, and hints of coffee roast. On the palate, I’m getting lots of brown sugar and both dark and dried fruit, plums and raisin. It has a vinous quality reminiscent of port wine, and the high proof brings no shortage of natural sweetness—this brand is actually not “dosed,” surprisingly. You certainly feel this in the chest; it has the feeling of an intense rum cordial. I personally would likely find this a bit unbalanced and overly sweet for neat drinking, but it’s a no brainer for a Zombie, or any of the other tiki-style cocktails that benefit from punchy aged rum. And compared to the outrageous prices that bourbon geeks have trained themselves to find acceptable in the whiskey world, a $30 price tag on a bottle like this feels like excellent value.
Plantation Barbados 5 YearsABV: 40% (80 proof)
One of the few Plantation rums with an age statement on the label, this might be considered the flagship of Plantation’s “signature blends” lineup, and is one of the brands they’ve been offering longest. The five year age statement is nice, if not particularly impressive—it makes this a “moderately aged” rum. It’s important to note that 3-4 years of that time is tropical aging in Barbados, and the remaining 1-2 years is aging in France in “Ferrand casks” previously used to mature cognac. That’s a significant period, which makes this ultimately a product substantially different than simply a Bajan rum—there’s also the moderate dosage to consider as well. Products like this are at the heart of the dispute between Maison Ferrand and the other Barbados distilleries.
On the nose, this one displays prominent notes of molasses cookie, with flashes of ginger and glazed pineapple. There are some darker fruit notes, “stewed” fruit perhaps, and some savory, tobacco-like notes as well. On the palate, this one is somewhat on the sweeter side, with moderate residual sweetness, dark fruits, vanilla and a bit of green apple. It’s a fairly well-rounded profile that is perhaps slightly more booze-forward than it should be at a modest 80 proof, but it drinks easily neat nonetheless. The pricing is fair, although one can also find similarly priced Bajan rums from brands such as Doorly’s or The Real McCoy in the same range. Tasting side by side is likely a good way to determine if you personally prefer Plantation’s dual finishing technique/dosing, or the traditional Bajan profile.
Plantation Xaymaca Special DryABV: 43% (86 proof)
This brand is essentially Plantation’s slightly more approachable (but unsweetened) take on the higher-ester, funkier Jamaican rum that is so beloved by the rum community, and increasingly being discovered by the average consumer. This is a 100% pot still blend of rums from Jamaica’s Clarendon and Long Pond distilleries, coming from John Dore and Vendome pot stills, lightly aged for 1-3 years tropically and then married for 1 years in France in Ferrand casks previously used to mature cognac. In this way, Plantation puts their signature spin on this Jamaican rum, although in this case there’s no dosage, which is what makes this one “special dry.” Fans of Jamaican “funk” should know that this one is modestly estery, at 156 g/hL AA.
On the nose, this one particularly stands out next to pretty much all of these other Plantation brands. It’s much more funk and ester-forward than something like the Barbados 5 Year, with exotic notes of overripe tropical fruit, touches of smoke and a bit of glue. There’s fresh sugar cane-y notes, and something more like melon as well. On the palate, this is certainly dry as promised, with prominent notes of melon, apple and white grape, met by a bit of resin. On the back end, I’m also getting a nice little bit of char and coffee. I imagine this would probably make for a really fun daiquiri, which I’ll have to remember to try in the near future. All in all, the individuality of this brand certainly makes it stand out in the Plantation lineup, and it’s a good introduction to more funk-driven Jamaican brands. The slightly higher proof point doesn’t hurt, either.
Plantation Isle of FijiABV: 40% (80 proof)
Rum from Fiji has been all the rage among the rum geeks in the last few years, so it’s no surprise that Maison Ferrand wanted a piece of that action, if the category were to continue catching on. This is a pretty standard Fijian rum, a blend of pot and column still rums aged tropically for 2-3 years in bourbon casks before the usual 1 year of finishing in Ferrand casks in France. It’s lightly estery, with a moderate level of dosage.
On the nose, this one has an interesting combination of fruit and more wood-accented notes. There’s some tropical elements, including passionfruit and pear, but also a nuttiness and hints of cocoa, oak and resin. On the palate, this one has some pleasant spiciness, with significant allspice, cocoa and spicy French oak, along with some more dried herbal notes at the same time. The overall assertiveness of presentation isn’t very intense—it is only 80 proof, after all—but it is actually nicely complex. A good balance between elements driven by the wood, and the base spirit.
Plantation XO 20th AnniversaryABV: 40% (80 proof)
Essentially the extra-aged version of the company’s flagship Barbados 5 Year Rum, Plantation XO was unsurprisingly created for the brand’s 20th anniversary, but is a regular part of the rotation and the most “premium” of the standard Plantation brands. This one is significantly older on average, being a blend of column and pot still Barbados rums aged tropically for 8-15 years, before spending at least 2 and as many as 10 years in secondary maturation in France before final blending. Plantation notes that the French aging takes place in “many different types of casks, ranging from new white oak to bourbon casks, as well as Ferrand casks, each with different level of toasting.” Complexity is no doubt what they’re shooting for, though one wishes that such a product would have been released at a strength above 80 proof. This one also has moderate dosage.
On the nose, the XO initially reads as surprisingly subtle—that low proof coming into play again—but what it boils down to is that it’s just not super bombastic in nature. Rather than the big sugars (brown sugar, caramel, etc) on the nose of many of these rums, this one has more of a woody and floral complexion, with flowers and fragrant oak, met by resin, herbals and something like mint. On the palate, there’s hints of tropical fruit, brandy and more oak that is definitely far more present, lending this one more structure and some tannins as well. It doesn’t read as particularly sweet despite the dosage, with some wood-inflected bitterness that provides balance. All in all, a contemplative sipper, although my taste here tends to run toward extra-aged rums with a higher proof point and no secondary maturation. Still, $50 or $60 is not an unreasonable price point for the level of work that was put in here.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.