What is rum? To aficionados, it's a sophisticated sipping spirit that's every bit as complex as the finest cognacs and single malts, and arguably even more appealing. But to a much bigger segment of the drinking population, it's that clear stuff that's closer in flavor to vodka than whisky, as often as not artificially flavored with tropically themed chemicals — an inexpensive party drink that you add liberally to sugar-laden punches, mojitos, and frozen daiquiris.
Bacardi, the mighty colossus that bestrides the world of rum, has a foot in both camps. The lion's share of the brand's success and recognition is built on the foundation of its flagship Ron Superior — the light, charcoal-filtered rum that's ubiquitous at pool parties worldwide. It's so successful, in fact, that a whole lot of casual drinkers think rum begins and ends with Ron Superior — oblivious to the fact that rum is the most diverse, all-over-the-map category in spirits.
Bacardi has spent a lot of time, effort and money in recent years shining a light on its aged rums to get them out of Ron Superior's long shadow. In 2014, the Facundo line — the Bacardi name wasn't even used — showcased four rare and pricey aged rums that had previously been the exclusive purvey of the Bacardi family, which still owns the brand more than 150 years after it was founded in Cuba. Now comes another quartet of bottlings, two old and two repackaged, priced to appeal to non-connoisseurs and all proudly emblazoned with the Bacardi logo. And more importantly, they're designed to tell a story.
Part of the story, of course, is that aged rum is a thing and Bacardi does it as well as anyone. "Listen, we’ve made premium rums for ages, we just don’t focus on it," says David Cid, Bacardi's Brand Master. "Now we are committed to showing that side of our history a little bit more, and through these variants we can tell that story." It's also a story of barrel aging, and how the time spent in oak affects the rum. The youngest expression of the quartet, the 4-year-old Añejo Cuatro, has a golden amber hue and a pleasantly dry flavor that's versatile enough to mix into cocktails or sip straight — a pretty impressive feat for a $20 rum.
Reserva Ocho has been around for years with different packaging and a slightly different name — it's been rejiggered to fit into this lineup. It's got a darker hue than the Cuatro, and that applies to the taste buds as well as the eye. Dark caramel, hints of coffee, and spicy oak come to the fore. It may not convert the unconverted, but for rum fans it's a fine sipper, and a great value at $30 a bottle. The Gran Reserva Diez, ($40) a blend of rums aged a minimum of 10 years, is aged in toasted refill ex-bourbon barrels, rather than charred first-fill barrels. David Cid says, "That’s not a practice we apply often.>span class="Apple-converted-space" data-redactor-span="true"> We want the rum to mature. But there is something to be said about selecting one rum base that can age that way, and then adding it to a blend and seeing what it brings to the blend." The result is a delicious melange of tropical fruits like banana and coconut, along with vanilla and hints of dark chocolate and spice. I have no confirmation, but I'd guess from the Diez's lush mouthfeel and dessert-like sweetness that a little sugar was added post-distillation, which is both legal and widely practiced among rum makers.
The crown jewel of the line is Gran Reserva Limitada, which, like the 8-year-old, is an existing product that's been repackaged and relaunched. A blend of younger and older rums aged up to 17 years, it's only made once a year in very limited quantities — which is one reason it's priced at a cool $100 a bottle. For your money you get a very fine, smooth sipper, redolent of vanilla, caramel and coffee with a sweet sugarcane and almond roundness. It's got some heft to it, but like the other rums in this series, I wish it had been bottled a little stronger than the 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) Bacardi decided to go with.
These rums are all worth the space on your shelf. For newbies, they're a great introduction to aged sippers — if they can get past the the whole "rum is for mojitos" bias. Rum geeks, who have been gravitating towards funkier, higher proof pot still expressions coming from Jamaica and Barbados, may turn up their noses at these more refined, lighter, column-still bottlings. David Cid has mentioned that the Bacardi team is looking into making a column still rum with many of the flavor and texture characteristics of a pot still rum. If they succeed, they'd be a lot closer to the vanguard of the category than they are now. Good as these four rums are, they feel just a little behind the times, the way blended Scotches can seem slightly anachronistic amidst the deluge of single malts.
But Bacardi's still got a lot of muscle in the rum industry. And they've got a lot of damn good rum that's currently aging. If they can reach the right audience with these expressions, they could transform the industry the way Patron transformed tequila in the '90s. I've been predicting a rum renaissance for a good 10 years now — it'd be nice to be right for once.