Trying to get a handle on rum is like shopping for computer equipment: The styles and choices are so complex that at some point you're likely to throw up your hands and say, arbitrarily, "All right, give me that one."
Many rums have caramel coloring, so darker might not mean older. The bottle often misleads about exactly how old the rum is, and where it's from. (The country of origin on the label only means that the rum's been bottled there, not that the sugarcane was grown there.)
Recently, I judged a rum competition at a San Francisco tiki bar, Smuggler's Cove, that was run by rum promoter/importer Edward Hamilton, of The Ministry of Rum. Hamilton and Smuggler's owner, Martin Cate, are foremost experts on rum. They helped me come up with a rough system for categorizing this incredibly complex spirit.
Although Cate believes that rum can be divided into more than forty categories, at his bar he breaks it down to twenty, and he says it can even be simplified to just three: English, French, and Spanish. Hamilton calls the same three categories heavy, French, and light.
The good news is that we can ignore the French style, because I already discussed it in this column. (Briefly, it's known as rhum agricole and is made from fresh sugarcane juice.)
Heavy rum, a.k.a. English, comes mostly from the former English colonies of Jamaica and Guyana, and is often made in a pot still. It's fatter, rounder, more complex, earthy, and funky; is usually distilled to fire-breathing proofs; and makes for category 5–level hangovers. Exporters include J. Wray & Nephew and Smith & Cross, both from Jamaica, and Lemon Hart from Guyana.
Light rum, what Cate throws into the catchall "Spanish" category, is what most people are used to. It's stuff like Bacardi and DonQ from the island of Puerto Rico. The rum is finer, lighter, easier-drinking, and easier to mix into cocktails like daiquiris and Mojitos. Fun history fact: During Prohibition, when Americans repaired to Havana to drink, they were introduced en masse to this style of rum. The preference they developed ignited that industry, and today, Hamilton estimates, it accounts for about 98 percent of the rum we drink.
My favorite? The heavy, a.k.a. English. Its high proofs, often earthy aromas, and suggestions of overripe tropical fruit and singed caramel make for a far more interesting spirit. No, it's not the best for light, refreshing cocktails, but it is the best for Talk Like a Pirate Day, which just passed. And there are hybrid styles like the exceptional Appleton Estate Reserve, which brings the best of both worlds to a single rum.
Ultimately, it's up to you to find your own style. Next time you're at a good bar, line up tastes of heavy, light, and French-style rums. Make note, brand by brand, of the style and what you like best about it. Or, if you can visit San Francisco frequently, enroll in Cate's Rumbustion Society at Smuggler's Cove, a tasting program that takes you through all 20 of the bar's styles. I recommend spacing this program out over several visits.