Unless you’ve been living your life under a rock or trapped inside a cheesy 90s-era beach resort, you’re probably already clued into the fact that rum, as a category, is well on its way to shedding its frozen strawberry daiquiri image. Thanks to a growing lot of industry devotees, the storied spirit is finally breaking free from its saccharine past and popping up on respected backbars across the country, from funky tiki spots to refined cocktail lounges. Yet, as is so often the case in the land of plenty, navigating rum’s vast and complicated waters is a much tougher feat than it used to be.
That’s where Kevin Beary comes in. The decorated barkeep has spent the last few years as the beverage director for Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, one of the Midwest’s top tiki destinations, where he cultivated his rum fixation on a steady diet of expertly crafted cocktails and excursions to tropical distilleries. In February, Beary ratcheted things up a notch by opening the Bamboo Room, a specialty rum bar inside Three Dots that showcases hundreds of bottles spanning just about every make and model out there. Column-distilled, pot-distilled, Agricole, long-aged, or high ester Jamaican, this guy definitely knows his way around a proper Mai Tai.
You might not be in a position to cop one of Beary’s limited-release 20-year-aged Trinidadian rarities, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick to plastic jugs and cartoon pirates. Here are nine expert-approved rums perfect for stocking your home bar without maxing out your MasterCard.
Best Light: Real McCoy 3 Year 92 Proof
“This is a really nice pot-and-column blend from Barbados, which is aged and filtered,” says Beary. Master distiller and rum legend Richard Seale is behind this Foursquare Distillery creation, skillfully combining sweet candied fruit notes with creamy vanilla and tingly spice for a markedly layered and well-balanced light option. There’s also a lower proof version, which cuts out a chunk of the depth but comes in at less than $20 a bottle. “The 92 proof is a step up from their 80 proof, and it makes a hell of a daiquiri. It’s a very good universal white rum.”
Best Dark: Coruba Dark
“Dark rum’s a tricky one because the majority are un-aged rums that they just heavily color,” Beary notes. “Unless you’re using it for a very specific purpose, it’s something you probably wouldn’t even want to buy, but this is usually the one I go with.”
Inexpensive dark rums like these are best reserved for tropical cocktails that call for a bold, assertive anchor like a Planter’s Punch or a simple Dark ‘n Stormy. When in need, reach for this Jamaican pot- and column-still blend, aged for a minimum of two years in American oak and chock full of smoky molasses, funk, spice, and a tinge of dried citrus.
Best Spiced: Chairman’s Reserve Spiced
“Spiced rum is not a category I generally screw with, but I really feel OK about this one because I’ve seen how they do it,” says Beary. “It’s truly spiced with actual ingredients like dried spices and fresh fruit, and it’s probably one of a very, very, very small handful without artificial flavorings and essential oils. They have like 23 different vats that they age in the rum in — not terribly large, maybe 100 or 200 gallons — and they spice each individual flavor separately and then blend the whole thing together. It’s pretty incredible.”
This smooth, amber-hued expression packs a hodgepodge of cinnamon, coconut, vanilla, candied orange peel, and clove into every sip and manages to steer clear of the cloyingly sweet quality that gives spiced rums a bad rap.