There is a very deep rabbit hole one can go down, regarding rum and its associated cocktails. Many other blogs and publications go into much more detail and with much more historical knowledge than I have here.
What is rum?
Rum is a spirit that is derived from sugarcane. Its modern history traces back to the new world and so three major styles of rum exist: Spanish-style (ron), French-style (rhum) and British-style (rum). Generally speaking, a rum’s style is defined by the country of its production and that country’s colonial history.
The above does not account for rums produced in geographic locations without relevant colonial history; the role that those rums serve best will have to be independently determined.
A very oversimplified breakdown of rum styles is as follows: Spanish-style and British-style rums are both produced from molasses. French-style rums are produced from sugarcane juice. Spanish-style rums are lighter in taste and tend to be more distilled and neutral in flavor, prior to any ageing. This is in part due to column distillation and filtration. British-style rums, on the other hand, tend to be more intensely flavored thanks in part to the use of pot stills. French-style rums tend to be more vegetal.
What about aging and color?
In addition to the above colonial-influenced styles, rum may be aged for varying amounts of time. The ageing process will mellow the spirit and shape the overall flavor even further.
The color of the rum does not necessarily indicate its age. A lot of light rums are actually aged for a short period of time and then filtered to remove color. If a drink calls for light rum, do not dismiss pale straw-colored rums that have a young age statement. A call for light rum is not necessarily a call for unaged rum.
Alternatively, many rums are colored with caramel color to make them look older, or in some cases, jet black.
For this reason, the use of “white”, “light”, “gold”, “dark”, “black”, and “aged” is not a great scale for determining rum styles. I use these terms mainly because the color of the rum may be important to the visual outcome of the drink, and because there tends to be a roughly agreed upon meaning behind the color that producers respect at least for marketing (lighter is younger and drier, darker is older and sweeter). In short, the color of rum is important if only because it’s a marketing shorthand for the flavor, but the region the rum is from matters more importantly. It is not enough to just have a white rum, a gold rum, and a dark rum, if you are looking to make complex rum or tiki drinks.
Besides caramel color which is just an unavoidable reality in the rum world, something to look out for is rum producers who added sugar to the final rum in large amounts. Certain regions forbid this practice, however other regions do not. These “dosed” rums are frowned upon in rum enthusiast communities. You can find many rum blogs which have compiled tables of independent sugar measurements of various popular rums; I will not be maintaining such a “wall of shame” list, but I try to recommend rums that are generally regarded as quality and without such dosing.
Regions and recommendations
I will further break down the regions associated with rum production, below.
When it comes to regional calls for rum, Spanish-style rum tends to be called for interchangeably. Spanish-style implies a desire for a Cuban rum or any rum produced in that style. I like to use Havana Club 3 Años as a light rum, Havana Club 7 Años as a gold rum, and Havana Club Añejo Especial as a cheaper gold rum.
If Cuban goods are hard to come by for you, Flor de Caña 4 Extra Seco is my prefered substitute for Havana Club 3 Años. For a gold rum, there are many choices including Bacardi Reserva Ocho and Flor de Caña 7 Gran Reserva.
If a highly-rectified, crystal-clear, Spanish-style white rum is needed (for example, because the drink’s color should not be muddied even at the cost of flavor complexity), Bacardi Superior is ubiquitous, and there are many easy-to-find alternatives.
British-style rums are more often called for specifically by region.
Generally, you will see calls for Demerara (Guyanese) rum, Jamaican rum, or Bajan (Barbados) rum rather than “British-style rum”. Jamaican rum and Demerara rum each have their own unqiue, very specific “funky” flavor, in their most pure expressions. Bajan rum is generally less “funky”, but more so than Spanish-style rum. It is a good bridge between Spanish-style and British-style and generally called for for that reason.
For Demerara rum, I like Hamilton 86 Demerara. Demerara is a region where you have to be careful regarding rums that are dosed with sugar as there is no restriction on this practice. Ed Hamilton is a rum enthusiast who imports rums from throughout the Caribbean and makes it clear his Demerara rum contains no added sugar. For an overproof Demerara rum, Lemon Hart 151 is classic and Hamilton 151 is a great substitute.
For Jamaican rum, there are a ton of good options. I use Appleton Estate Signature Blend for a low-ester gold rum and Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old for a low-ester dark rum.
A higher-ester, “funkier” rum is Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still produced by Worthy Park. This comes in black as well as gold; they are the same formula with differing levels of caramel color and both can fill in as a funkier gold or dark rum, with only the resulting drink’s color being affected. Beachbum Berry specifies that extremely high-ester rums don’t necessarily serve classic tiki drinks well, and that Hamilton is a good higher-ester rum choice to go along with Appleton’s low-ester offerings, in the context of tiki.
However, outside of the world of tiki, David Wondrich believes that old-school rum punches benefit from high-ester “funky” rums. Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum is one very popular choice, for this category.
In tiki drinks, calls for a gold or dark Jamaican rum can be seen as an opportunity to perfect your own Jamaican rum blend on a per-drink basis. Or you can keep things simple and find a rum you like, as is.
Luckily, Jamaica has a regulations on dosing rum with sugar so finding a “safe” brand is less important of a worry than finding a brand you like and can easily get your hands on.
For an overproof, white Jamaican rum, J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof, Hampden Estate Rum Fire White Overproof, and Worthy Park Rum-Bar White Overproof are all popular. However, these un-aged, overproof Jamaican rums were never really used heavily, if at all, in the classic era of tiki.
For Bajan rum, Mount Gay Eclipse is ubiquitous, especially for mixing. However, many other offerings exist and as with Jamaican rum, there are regulations against dosing rums with sugar, so feel free to explore.
French-style rums, like British-style rums, tend to be called for specifically by region.
Martinican rhum agricole
The most common French-style rum called for is Martinican rhum agricole. Once again, this is a region that does not allow dosing of the rum with sugar, and furthermore, it actually is protected with an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée by French law. I have limited experience with these rhums but for an intensely vegetal rhum agricole blanc, I enjoy Neisson Blanc and for a smoother rhum agricole vieux, I like Clément V.S.O.P.
Martinican rhum grand arôme
Already breaking the oversimplified rules on regional rum styles set forth above, this is a French-style rhum which is molasses-based. This style is hard to find, but it is contested that such a rum was used by Trader Vic in one of his Mai Tai versions. Denizen Merchant’s Reserve 8 Year includes a rhum grand arôme in it’s blend of otherwise Jamaican rums, in attempt at bottling a Mai Tai-specific rum, and is much easier to find.
According to Beachbum Berry (in his Total Tiki app), Haitian rums “[blur] the line between molasses rum and rhum agricole”, on account of using sugarcane juice and molasses in their production. The ubiquitous Haitian rum brand is Rhum Barbancourt.
Haitian rhum agricole, generally with more rustic production.
There is a ton of internet discussion regarding best substitute and/or successors to various brands or regional varieties of rum, so if something is hard to find, dive in to the internet world of rum and tiki discussion and you’ll probably find some good advice.
Flavored rums and spiced rums are less useful in the classic cocktail world but are popular for quick and easy summery drinks.
What about cachaça?
Cachaça is a Brazilian spirit made of sugarcane juice. There is a lot of debate over whether it’s a Brazilian rhum agricole or it’s own spirit category, but I think it belongs on the page for rum, although I wouldn’t substitute one for the other unless purposefully experimenting.