The Fallacy of "White Rum"
At least once a week, I see at least an article entitled “Best white rums for… blah blah blah,” or “Ten White Rums You Need in Your Bar.”
I grit my teeth, knowing my blood pressure will rise if I click the link. It’s not that the selections are always bad in their own right, but rather, such articles reinforce the idea that white rum is a valid way to categorize rums without color.
We can overlook that “white rum” is actually colorless rather than white and accept that the term refers to rum with little or no coloring.
The bedrock problem with using white rum as a category is that colorless rums encompass several well-defined styles that aren’t the same nor interchangeable.
Let’s envision a parallel example from the whiskey world to demonstrate the folly of using white rum as a category. Imagine an article titled 12 Best Brown Whiskies for an Old Fashioned, where the selections include bourbons, ryes, single malt Scotches, and Canadian, Irish, and Japanese whiskies. It sounds preposterous, as each a distinct type of spirit and recognized as such.
Whiskey is a meta-category encompassing multiple well-known and well-understood subcategories, including single malt Scotch, bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, and Japanese whiskey. You don’t see bourbon and single malt Scotch bottles intermingled beneath a “Whisky” banner in a well-run liquor store.
The same idea holds for cane spirits. Rum is a meta-category encompassing multiple well-defined subcategories. Rhum agricole is a subcategory. Jamaican rum is a subcategory. Demerara rum is a subcategory. Cuban rum is a subcategory. Unfortunately, they are often intermingled on store shelves, but that’s a topic for another time.
You may be thinking, “Wonk, aren’t you splitting hairs and being a bit melodramatic?”
I’m glad you asked.
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Four Styles of Rum Which Happen to be Clear
If we collect a sufficiently large set of so-called white rums, examine each closely, and lump together those with similar attributes, four unambiguous categories emerge. The categories are easy to identify and aren’t interchangeable:
Aged and Filtered Rums
These rums are molasses-based and typically aged between one and five years before carbon filtration removes most or all of the aging-induced coloration. Despite the absence of the tell-tale brown hue from aging, they have the flavor of aged rum, even if for only a year or two.
Well-known examples include:
Havana Club 3 (Cuba)
Havana Club Anejo Blanco (Puerto Rico)
Don Q Cristal
Flor de Caña 4 Extra Seco
Angostura White Oak
El Dorado 3
Myers’s Platinum White
Kingston 62 White / J. Wray Silver
Aged and filtered rums may be the most prevalent type of rum consumed worldwide if we put aside Cachaca. The classic daiquiri and mojito, both of Cuban origin, were and continue to be made with aged and filtered rum. Any daiquiri or mojito claiming to be classic or authentic should use that style of rum.
While commonly associated with Spanish-heritage regions, aged and filtered rums are also made by producers in English-heritage countries like Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana.
Fun fact: while many people mistakenly believe white rums are unaged, Cuba and Puerto Rico require rum labeled as Cuban/Puerto Rican rum to be aged.
Multi-Region Blends (aka Multi-Island Blends)
These rums are blends from two or more locales and may contain combinations of unaged and aged/filtered rums.
While they can make a delicious daiquiri, multi-region blends are stylistically different than aged and filtered rums. They are not what the Cuban cantineros use to make daiquiris and mojitos. Nor are they what the Tiki forefathers of the mid-20th century used in Tiki’s golden era.
The multi-region blend category only arrived on the scene within the last two decades. It’s not a coincidence that most multi-region blends include Jamaican rum in the mix, as its distinctive flavors easily makes itself known, and frankly, it’s delicious! Amsterdam’s E&A Scheer crafts many multi-region blends for various brands.
Well-known multi-region blends include:
Plantation 3 Stars
Banks 5 Island
Denizen Aged White
Hamilton White Stache
Ten to One White
Tiki Lovers White Rum
Unaged Cane Juice Spirits
This category encompasses unaged cane juice distillates, including rhum agricole. The wild, grassy, vegetal flavors of cane juice rums dramatically differ from aged/filtered and multi-region blends.
Well-known unaged cane juice rums include:
Saint James Blanc
Renegade Pre-Cask Collection
Oxbow Rhum Louisiane
In addition, certain Haitian clairins and Mexican charandas can also be considered within this category.
Unaged Molasses Rums
This final category is a catch-all for rums that don’t fall into the prior categories. Because of this category’s wildly varying distillates, it’s impossible to assign it a particular flavor profile. The best-known examples of this category are the unaged Jamaican Overproofs (Wray & Nephew, Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Monymusk, etc.) which could reasonably constitute their own category, but let’s not overcomplicate things.
Many unaged molasses-based rums are sold exclusively in their country of origin and may be sold as aguardiente in Spanish-heritage countries. Many new distilleries outside the Caribbean release unaged molasses-based rums while waiting for their aging stock to mature.
How Do I Tell Clear Rums Apart?
Having laid out the case that rums labeled white rum should instead be treated as several distinct categories, my next task is to make it as easy to determine which category a given rum belongs to.
While enthusiasts sometimes turn to technical categorizations like Gargano, such categorizations rely on the technical details of a rum’s production that aren’t readily available to all but the most hardcore enthusiasts. That’s frustrating and leads people to throw up their hands in despair and give up. Therefore, I’ll eschew production criteria and focus on some rules of thumb for mapping a white rum to the right category.
First, determine if the rum is made from cane juice rather than molasses. If the label says “agricole” or “cane juice,” it’s almost certainly an unaged cane juice rum. I can’t think of any aged cane juice rums that are color filtered after aging, but it could happen.
If it’s not a cane juice rum, the next question is whether it’s a lightly aged and filtered rum or a multi-region blend.
Look for the words aged or matured anywhere on the label. If present, it’s an aged and filtered rum. Alternatively, if the rum comes from a producer known for having its own distillery, it’s likely an aged and filtered rum. Think Bacardi, Havana Club, Flor de Caña, El Dorado, Angostura, Diplomatico, etc. Producers with their own distilleries rarely blend their rum with rum from other producers. (Yes, Foursquare is an exception.) Likewise, if the rum comes from a single country, especially one of Spanish heritage like Panama, there’s a good chance it’s an aged and filtered rum.
On the other hand, if a label lists several countries, especially Jamaica, it’s a multi-region blended rum. Alternatively, a label may say something like “a blend of Caribbean rums.” It’s the same idea.
Can We Stop Using White Rum?
The above polemic against “white rum” as a category won’t stop people from using it as a catch-all for any clear rum. However, there are concrete steps those who care about rum can take to help move things in the right direction.
Content creators should be more thoughtful in choosing white rums to compare. Why not “Eight Aged and Filtered Rums You Should be Drinking Now” or “Six Multi-Origin Blends to Make Your Daiquiri Sing”?
Bartenders can use something other than “white rum” in recipes they share for publication. For example, in our Minimalist Tiki book, all recipes specify the rum category with the suggested rum in parenthesis afterward:
1.5 oz lightly aged and filtered rum (El Dorado 3 Year)
All that said, the brands must do the heavy lifting. Those with no real interest in elevating rum beyond the status quo will keep calling their products white rum. But new and forward-thinking brands can choose better descriptions than “<Brand Name> White Rum.” If it’s aged, perhaps call it “aged rum” or “aged and filtered rum.” If the rum is a multi-origin blend, call it “Five Country Blend,” “Tropical Island Blend,” or whatever works for the marketing team.
Anything other than “white rum.”