The Beginner’s Guide to Duty-Free Rum
Outside of the Caribbean rum is badly represented in duty-free. The main reason for this disappointingly low profile can be summed up in one word: “space”.
Shelf room in duty-free, whether it is an airport shop, an in-flight trolley or an onboard ferry store, is invariably limited to products that retailers know will sell well and deliver healthy margins.
In practice, that means Scotch whisky, Cognac and proven sellers such as Bailey’s liqueur, Gordon’s gin and Absolut vodka hog the shelves. When it comes to rum, shoppers usually struggle to find anything other than market leader Bacardi, and perhaps a couple of other supporting brands such as Havana Club, Captain Morgan or Malibu.
Thankfully this sorry state of affairs is slowly changing. Sales of premium and super-premium rums are growing fast in the US and parts of Europe as people discover that the world of rum is as diverse and complex as those of either Scotch whisky or cognac, and is actually far broader than either in terms of its geographical reach. Rum is made all over the globe, from the Caribbean and Latin America to Australia, India and Madagascar.The drink also has a long, fascinating history that dates back to the 17th century when European settlers introduced sugar cane as a lucrative plantation crop in the Caribbean. Rum and sugar went on to make these colonialists very rich, while the poor African slaves who toiled away on the plantations drank it to forget their troubles.
Once Jamaica had become a colony, rum famously became the British navy’s tipple of choice. Finding wine and beer went off too quickly on long voyages, the British chose rum as the sailor’s daily ration, which by the seventeenth century was cheap and in plentiful supply.
When introduced officially in 1687, the daily measure was a head-spinning one pint per day per sailor. This quantity was later diluted with water as men were becoming too drunk to stand up on deck let alone climb up the rigging.
Time to get down to basics: what exactly is rum? A simple question, but probably one few drinkers of rum and coke, still the world’s favourite cocktail, know the answer to. Most rum is made from molasses: a thick, black liquid created as a by-product when crushed sugar cane is turned into crystallized sugar.
It is worth pointing out that some rums such as those made in the French West Indies are actually made from sugar cane juice, which tends to give rum from this part of the world a lighter, fresher flavour. Brazilian cachaça, the essential ingredient in the increasingly popular Caipirinha cocktail, is also made this way.
The next stage for all rum is distillation either in giant steel continuous stills or smaller copper pot stills. Many rums are made from spirit from both types of still, but every distillery’s still no matter what the type, tends to have its own quirks and idiosyncrasies, which leave their impact on the finished liquor.
When it comes off the still, the raw spirit is powerful stuff, ranging in strength from around 70 to 95% abv. This spirit is then blended with other batches and aged in oak barrels previously filled with bourbon, Canadian whisky or less commonly, Spanish sherry and French cognac.
Some fiery rums are bottled straight from the still and are not diluted with water before bottling. These local firewaters are something of an acquired taste for the uninitiated, but considered the real deal for many in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean.
As the name suggests, spiced rums have spices (and sometimes fruit) added before they are sent off for ageing. Captain Morgan, the world’s second best-selling rum brand, boasts a popular spiced variant, while Sailor Jerry’s is another popular spiced rum.
Spirits matured in hot, tropical climates such as the Caribbean age up to three times faster than in cold, damp Scotland, where most whisky is made. This process of “tropical ageing” as it is known, where the tannins and esthers in the wood seep into the spirit over time, give the liquor both its golden brown colour and typical vanilla-rich flavour.
Rum is generally priced much lower than either Cognac or Scotch whisky, but when you factor in the process of tropical ageing it is even better value. After all, it could be argued that a three year-old rum has effectively matured to the same level as nine year-old single malt Scotch whisky. There are no prizes for guessing which will one will cost you more.
Unfortunately for the rum producer there is a downside to tropical ageing. The longer the spirit stays in the cask, the more of it is lost to evaporation each year. If a distiller loses 6-7% of the contents of a barrel each year, it doesn’t make too much sense to keep it in there for too long, especially as until fairly recently the market for aged rums was fairly small. Rum that has been in the cask for too long can also easily become woody and one-dimensional, losing the original character of the spirit completely.
A word or two about colour: rums are classified as being white, golden or dark. Most white rums of 40 to 43 abv have been aged and then carbon filtered to take out any impurities and colour. In contrast, golden and dark rums get their colour from the wood of the cask, but be aware that distillers add caramel to many dark rums supposedly to make them appear consistent from one batch to another.
Aged dark rums are great for relaxing. Sit back in a leather armchair after a hard day and sip them slowly from a brandy snifter much as you would a fine single malt or XO Cognac. Nothing need be added except perhaps a drop of water to open up the flavours. They also go very well with a decent cigar.
With their more neutral flavour, white and golden rums are perfect for cocktails. Rum is the essential ingredient in so many classic creations such as the simple Cuba Libre (rum and cola), Hemingway’s favourite, the Daiquiri, the trendy Mojito and the much-maligned Pina Colada. Yet on a hot day rum is also delicious just with soda water, a wedge of lime and lots of ice.
Unsurprisingly, the best region to find duty-free rum is in the Caribbean, where many of the islands have tax-free status. A good example is the Tortuga Rum Company’s chain of duty-free stores in the Cayman Islands. The firm boasts stores in the capital George Town, at the airport and the tourist hotspot of Seven Mile Beach.
As well as a big range of Bacardi rums and the company’s own proprietary brand, the stores stock some less well-known varieties such as the excellent Rhum Barbancourt ($31), made in Haiti, and a classic example of a “rhum agricole”, as well as El Dorado 15 Year Old ($37.25), a wonderfully smooth rum from Guyana. Another super sipping rum stocked by Tortuga is Mount Gay Extra Old ($35.25), a rum from Barbados aged for 17 years in charred oak barrels.
If you are travelling to Jamaica, steer clear of Wray & Nephew’s famously potent White Overproof rum, which is loved by the locals, but has caught many tourists off their guard. Instead, choose one of the company’s more refined Appleton rums, which hail from the beautiful Nassau valley. Appleton VX is a good starting point, a decent all-round rum, which is perfectly acceptable drunk mixed or straight, but if you can afford it, try and splash out on the Appleton 21 Year Old, which is all coffee and spices, and a real treat.
As for buying rum in Jamaica, the two international airports (Montego Bay and Kingston), each boast several duty-free concessionaires with good rum selections, but our pick of the downtown stores is Rum, Roast & Royals, which has shops in the cruise ship dock at Ocho Rios, and in the capital, Kingston. (It also sells a great range of local Blue Mountain coffees).
Away from the Caribbean, the choice of duty-free rums on offer to travellers is much more limited. Distribution of less well-known brands is increasing though albeit slowly. Pyrat Cask 23, a blend of Caribbean rums aged up to 40 years and made by the producers of Patrón tequila, is a good example, and definitely worth buying if you can track down a bottle (expect to pay about $28).
Ultra-premium rums are pretty thin on ground, but at the award-winning Le Clos specialist wine and spirit shops at Dubai International airport Terminal 3, you can find Havana Club Maximo priced at $1,806 for a 70cl bottle. Billed as the “supreme expression of Cuban rum”, Maximo is packaged in a stylish crystal carafe. The hefty price tag will of course be too expensive for all but a handful of super-rich travellers.
If you want a slightly more affordable taste of Cuba, however, plump for Havana Club 7 Year Old, which is a great entry-level aged rum, which can be savoured on its own, or alternatively mixed to make a great Mojito. It’s becoming quite widely available in travel-retail (it is even stocked by Kiev Boryspil airport shop operator ANP, for example, priced at €27 per bottle).
Here is another recommendation. At major Spanish holiday airports this summer look out for either Brugal Añejo Reserva or Brugal Extra Viejo Reserva, two recently launched travel-retail exclusive rums priced at about €22 and €30 respectively. Produced in the Dominican Republic, Brugal is the Caribbean’s most widely drunk rum, and deserves to be known better outside of the region.
Don’t despair if none of these rums is available in the duty-free stores of the airport you are passing through. Bacardi White, the mostly widely available brand there is, gets a lot of stick from rum purists, but as white rums go, it really isn’t that bad, and mixes very well.