Great spirits. Aficionados will argue for hours about the best malt whisky, the finest Cognacs, now even the top gins. But rum? Not so much. And yet a great rum is as deserving of inclusion in any debate on the best of the spirit world. Indeed, I have made it my mission to search out the very finest.
By drinks writer, Ken Gargett
The only reason this is at all possible is that rum is the undisputed leader in the value stakes for spirits. To do the same for malts or Cognac, I’d need yet another mortgage on the house. And that might only allow me a bottle or two of the best.
Growing up in Queensland, I was, as were most, more than familiar with the ubiquitous Bundy rum. And like most, will defend it ‘till the day I fall off the perch, but I was stunned to discover, when I first travelled, that not only did all rum not taste like Bundy but that there were some truly stunning rums out there.
Many years ago, when friends and I first started to travel regularly to Cuba to chase the silver ghosts – the amazing bonefish found on the salt flats of Las Salinas – we experienced some stellar rums. I came home with a bottle of Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Anejo. Talk about your slippery slope.
Here are five of the greatest, rarest rums you’ll ever find. Some from personal experience, others on the bucket list. Good luck finding them, but if you do, you’ll never regret it!
Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Anejo Rum
I found this rum on my first trip to Cuba. It was released to celebrate the 485th anniversary of Santiago (quite why a 485th, who knows?). Rum aficionados will recognise the wavy shape of the bottle, the same as for the Ron Santiago 20 Years. Indeed, I believe that this small release of 12,000 bottles was so successful that it eventually became the forerunner to the 20 Years. It was a revelation. I could not have ever imagined that a rum could be so smooth, subtle and with such persistence of flavours; flavours which rolled off the tongue in waves. Honey, hazelnut, butterscotch and more. 20 Years is good, but it does not quite match that first release.
Ron Edmundo Dante 25 Year Old Gran Reserva Rum
On a subsequent trip to Havana, I caught up with a good mate of mine, Hamlet Parides. Hamlet will be known to anyone who loves cigars. If there are two things which Hamlet loves even more than cigars, they would be baseball and rum. We were chatting one day, and he mentioned this as the best rum anyone would ever find in Cuba. I asked him to keep an eye out for me and he did – it was incredibly hard to find. I collected it on a later trip and it was everything Hamlet promised. More elegant and linear than the Santiago, it tended to more of a Cognac-style, with notes of dried fruits, leather and cinnamon. It comes in a rather odd-looking, triangular white porcelain container and is twice the price of the Santiago (Wine-searcher.com has it around a $1,000 a bottle but mine cost a fraction of that, I’m happy to say). But it is still good value in comparison to the best examples of other spirits.
Bundaberg 18 Year Old Rum
Bundy is surely the most divisive of rums. Some love it, driving thousands of kilometres and standing in queues for hours, even overnight, for their special releases. Others are utterly derisive of it. Whichever camp you fall into, there is no denying that this was something special. Released back in 2006, today you will occasionally find it on eBay, where you will need to spend well over $1,000 if you want it.
The story behind this rum is not that it was a carefully planned release, lovingly aged in their cellars. Rather, in a clean out one-day, workers found fifteen small old casks and wondered what they were. Research confirmed them as having been laid down between 18 and 22 years earlier, and then forgotten. A friend doing the PR for its release asked me to host the event in Bundaberg. I was delighted, not least as Bundaberg is my mother’s hometown (not that rum would ever have been allowed in the house). I said to my friend, as a joke, that surely I should see the rum before the event. To my amazement, a bottle arrived a few days later.
It had the Bundy DNA, but there was a complexity, refinement and balance to this rum, which lingered on the palate for so long, that even the Bundy-haters found themselves on board.
1780 Barbados Private Estate Rum
Okay, this is a bucket list (or perhaps Gold Lotto) rum. I’ve never seen a bottle, let alone tasted it, but I gather you can find a few of the last remaining bottles in London for a mere $15,000. Or thereabouts.
There are more expensive rums (two, as far as I can ascertain) – Angostura has its ‘Legacy’ at US$25,000 and a bottle of J. Wray & Nephew from the 1940s went for US$54,000.
The bottles were discovered in the cellar of Harewood House in England when sons of the late Earl had the servants carry out an audit of the cellar. Apparently, their existence was no secret, but they were so deep in mould that it was assumed they’d be worthless. They were not.
Isla del Tesoro Rum
Finally, what is simply the greatest spirit of any kind I have ever tasted. A legendary rum, and one which is now being made commercially. Beware, as good as the new release apparently is, it is not the original (Cuba really does have a habit of this).
Back to my dear friend Hamlet. After I had collected the Ron Dantès, we were chatting – again, rum and cigars may have been involved – and I asked if there was anything better than my latest acquisition. No, Hamlet assured me, that was as good as it got. Then on reflection, he mentioned a rum called Isla del Tesoro, but hastily added that neither he nor anyone he knew had ever seen a bottle, let alone tried it, and they were still not convinced that it actually existed. Hamlet told me to forget about it. There was no chance of ever getting a bottle.
A few years later, back home, I noticed something interesting at the back of an auction catalogue. “Isla del Tesoro, Cuban rum. Est’d $20 to $30”. Could it possibly be? I snuck in a quiet bid and kept an eye on it. I thought I had it for $20 until late on the day when there was a competitor. We kept leapfrogging each other – to this day, I have no idea if he knew what he was chasing – fortunately, it fell to me for around $200. Not cheap, but I felt like the Dutch paying 60 guilders for Manhattan.
The actual bottle is little more than a small drab clay pot. But the rum! Drink on bended knee with head bowed. Glorious. Every imaginable flavour, perfect balance, it is both concentrated and dances like a feather in the breeze and the length! It would outlast a politician speaking about himself.
It does not get better!