Rum from small American craft distilleries doesn’t often garner the best reputation from lovers of sugar cane spirits, and it’s not really hard to see why. The fact of the matter is that many small distilleries make basic rums, because it’s technically not very difficult to make something that qualifies under the U.S. definition of “rum.” Especially for a young distillery that is just getting its feet under it, an unaged white rum is a no-brainer, and very little often differentiates these rums from the vodkas being produced by those same distilleries—both products tend to be very neutrally flavored and inexpensive to produce. Rum geeks, meanwhile, end up being burned by these bland rums, eventually coming to associate quality exclusively with rum produced outside of the country, in regions such as the Caribbean and Central America.
There are, however, some American producers out there with a true passion for traditionally produced rum, who have focused solely on bringing this kind of rum to the U.S. Montanya Distillers, for instance, has focused solely on rum in Colorado since 2008, and has branched out in some interesting, experimental directions. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Thrasher’s Rum is still a newer kid on the block in a national sense, but they’re also making a very legitimate exploration of rum, America’s original colonial spirit. With an award-winning, tropical concept bar called Tiki TNT attached, they’ve quickly made themselves into D.C. fixture, but owner Todd Thrasher has his eyes set on making Thrasher’s Rum into a thriving national brand. And he’s doing it with an eye toward subtlety that is distinctly unusual among those making flavored rum brands, such as spiced or coconut rum.
Curious about where the Thrasher’s Rum brand might be headed, I sat down for a tasting of four of their core products, and the newly released aged product known as “Relaxed Rum.”
Like all of Thrasher’s rums, this is from a base of molasses and raw turbinado sugar, fermented and then distilled twice, first in a pot still and then a column still. In the 80 proof white rum (all the core brands are 80 proof), this yields a surprisingly “rummy” result, rather than the very neutral or vodka-like white rums that tend to proliferate at small American distilleries.
The nose on Thrasher’s White Rum has a light grassiness that gives it a fresher feel, with hints of green banana or plantain. There’s also something a bit more toasty and confectionery, with hints of nougat or marshmallow, and vanilla highlights. It’s not especially bursting with character in comparison with an unaged rum from say, Jamaica or Guyana, but you wouldn’t mistake this for vodka either, which is nice.
On the palate, Thrasher’s White Rum maintains a mild sweetness, and there’s definitely vanilla tones here, to the point that you’d think it had been lightly aged and then filtered to remove color. It’s generally on the neutral side, but there are flashes of grass and something like under-ripe pineapple that keep things interesting. The flavors aren’t bombastic, but it has a nicely integrated, mild sweetness, with a pleasantly round texture. All in all, a good, all-purpose white rum. I prefer something a bit punchier for my daiquiris, but this would have myriad mixing possibilities. Certainly, an obvious choice for something like a mojito.
The company refers to this one as their flagship, which is fascinating to me—if this is actually what they sell the most of, then I’m very impressed they’ve managed to get their most unique concept over with the audience. Consumers can be hesitant with flavor profiles they don’t recognize, and “botanical rum” is still pretty unusual to see.
Regardless, this basically a rum that has been infused with gin-like botanicals—perhaps not juniper specifically, but Thrasher’s calls out lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon balm, mint, green cardamom and lime peels as some of the components. They give it a really intriguing nose that is resinous, spicy and subtle all at once. There are herbaceous notes, floral notes and spice notes that evoke pink peppercorn, giving the nose an almost amaro-like quality.
On the palate, this one is initially grassy and resinous, but there’s a fresh burst of mint that carries through into a new level, with an almost menthol-like cooling effect. There’s also some spice, with peppery notes and the cinnamon-like warmth of cardamom. A mild sweetness balances the bittering elements in the more herbaceous flavors. All in all, it’s a really successful experiment, and definitely something one should obviously try with tonic. I’d be curious to see it applied toward other classic, gin-based tiki drinks such as the Saturn as well.
The more traditional spiced rum from Thrasher’s mostly defines itself by what it isn’t, which is sweet in any way. This is really quite unusual for a spiced rum profile, but Thrasher’s incorporates no post-distillation sweetening at all. The spice blend, meanwhile, includes star anise, clove, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla and orange peel.
On the nose, there’s no missing that spice character—the aromas are quite heady, and a bit overwhelming at first blush. It throws off strong wafts of “holiday spice” that evokes wassail, or mulled wine—that, or a Yankee Candle store. Over time, I’m increasingly reminded of Caribbean allspice dram/pimento dram as well.
On the palate, this one very much took me by surprise, as I hadn’t read anything in advance about the lack of post-distillation sweetening. It’s shocking how dry this spiced rum is, if you’re not prepared for it—the tongue is coated with spice notes of allspice, clove and nutmeg, which have a drying, tannic sensation. I have to give the company credit for not making this saccharine like so many others are, but it also makes for a rum that is clearly not intended to be consumed neat. This is obviously meant for mixing and cocktail purposes, and should be included in recipes that have some other addition of residual sugar, to really make the spice flavors come to life.
I tend to not be a fan of commercial coconut rums, as so many taste like nothing but artificial coconut flavor and syrupy sweetness, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Thrasher’s Coconut Rum was burdened by neither of these issues. It does indeed smell very pleasantly of coconut, in a way that is surprisingly well measured. It’s unmistakable without every being overwhelming, at at no point does the nose suggest any kind of intense or syrupy sweetness.
On the palate, this rum evokes toasted coconut shavings atop vanilla sponge cake. The coconut is again only moderately assertive, putting one in mind of actual shaved or shredded coconut flesh rather than suntan lotion. It makes for a pleasant combination with the light vanilla cream notes of the base white rum, and again finishes dry. This proved to be the running theme that most ingratiated me to Thrasher’s Rum over the course of the tasting—not a single one of these rums had more than mild residual sweetness, even in the categories that are typically defined by their sugar content.
I am typically of the mindset that “coconut rum” can be discarded, and that coconut flavors can be brought to a tropical drink in other ways such as coconut milk or coconut cream, but Thrasher’s Coconut Rum may actually have made me a believer. This is a phrase I would not have expected to be typing right now.
Thrasher’s newest release is Relaxed Rum, the company’s first seriously “aged” rum—they make a year-round Gold Rum that is aged for a few months in newly charred oak, but this one has spent 2 years or more in the wood, putting it into more familiar territory with lightly aged Caribbean rums. It’s also bottled at a significantly higher strength of 49% ABV (98 proof), which is a big jump indeed from everything else in the lineup at 80 proof.
Surprisingly, the nose on Relaxed Rum isn’t all that vivacious, even with the bigger proof point. It seemed almost subdued to me on the first few passes, with distant notes of lumber/sawdust and mild tones of molasses and toasted bread crust. Over time, I teased out more notes of cacao nib-like nuttiness, but the aromatics still strike me as more gentle than I thought they would be—”relaxed,” even.
On the palate, this one becomes significantly more interesting, though. Here I’m getting gentle caramel and cocoa, with a slight roastiness that quickly starts evolving into a really lovely mocha. There’s also a distinct note of coconut, which perhaps my palate had been trained by the coconut rum to detect, but it’s here as well. Additionally, I’m finding faint banana, and a nice mild-to-moderate residual sweetness that gives the coconut a little bit more confectionery character than in the actual coconut rum. Still, this is nicely reserved in terms of overall sweetness. The coffee note in particular is nice.
All in all, this one is impressive in the sense of how easy it is to drink—the amped up proof barely makes itself felt on the palate, but more strongly in the chest. All in all, I could stand for the Relaxed Rum to be a bit bolder in its presentation, but I can also appreciate that the Thrasher’s brand seems to argue in favor of nuance rather than excess. If there’s a philosophy that links all these rums together, that would be it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.