We take delicious and ethically produced rum seriously. For us, that means finding rum producers who make and market interesting products that we can get behind, both as consumers and as importers/bottlers/distributors.
Domestic rum is particularly interesting to us. Sorting through ALL the rum made in the US is a tall order, so we were pleased to come across Will Hoekenga's admirably organized American Rum Index with over two hundred fifty companies that make rum in the US.
The index isn't 100% complete (for example WE'RE NOT ON IT YET) but it's a great resource that we're exceedingly grateful for. Will does a great job of tracking the US craft spirits industry as the category of American rum grows. But, like any other category of craft spirits, some producers are finding their groove sooner than others.
Not all rums are created equal
It's not hard to single out producers who don't just want to be known for their marketability. These companies use their marketing platform to center quality, ethics, and respect for the historical and social significance of rum. Accordingly, our criteria for finding the most interesting rum brands are as follows:
- We look for current, reasonably available products.
- We steer clear of flavored rums unless the brand also markets an unflavored rum.
- Raw material sourcing is the stickiest sticking point when it comes to ethically made spirits. We like cane juice and molasses based rums (not made with brown sugar, canela, evaporated cane juice, or refined sugar). Processed cane products are easy to ship and cheap to source, and they're also legal under US rum labelling laws, so they make very cost-effective rums, but...processing strips important flavor and fermentation compounds, and sugar is one of our most ethically and ecologically concerning commodities.
- We emphasize cane juice rum for a couple reasons. First, fresh pressed cane juice is about as shelf stable as soft-serve ice cream, so most domestic cane juice rum has to be made from domestic cane, mostly sourced regionally, if not hyper-locally. Second, we love the expression of sugar cane flavor in the final product.
- We're also attraced to molasses rum producers who are transparent about sourcing. There's no question about flavor and fermentation compounds in molasses. More importantly, brands who care to pay a premium for single origin, domestic, or organic molasses also tend to communicate transparently about their sourcing. We assume that no sourcing information means the brand doesn't bother to ask where the molasses comes from, or doesn't want to say.
- We want rum from producers who care about rum, so we like brands that center the category in their content, rather than presenting it at the bottom of a spirits listing, or in the "other" category. Sure, judging a rum by its website is a little loosey-goosey, but what we don't want is a great whiskey distillery that made a rum once. On the other hand, marketing content that waxes poetic about raw materials and process to sell a silver rum seems like a good sign to us.
Clearly, this is not a scientific process. After all, we're just surfing brand websites, albeit systematically, and we're totally dependent on how a brand chooses to signal their position within the industry. Additionally, we haven't tasted most of these rums. So, think of this as an over-organized road trip bucket list. If you think we missed anyone, let us know!
Brands selling US rum made from sugar cane juice
If a US rum manufacturer is using fresh cane juice, you can be fairly sure they are sourcing it somewhere nearby (there are exceptions), which means we might get some assurance that US labor and agricultural regulations are in play. Also, rum made from cane juice is funky and fantastic and, because of spoilage and seasonality, harder to find than sugar and molasses-based rums. Tasty, somewhat less ethically ambiguous, and elusive? Rum nerd heaven.
Boogie Bottom Spirits (Alabama): Alabama’s “first farm vineyard since prohibition” makes Blue & Gold rum and Joe Cane Rhum Agricole, both made from local sugarcane. As they say on their website, “just squeeze the juice on the farm and let it be natural.”
Elgin Winery and Distillery (Arizona): The rum brand associated with this company is actually called Regalo de Vida, and their rums—silver, dark, and “double black”—are made from northern Sonoran sugar cane, which is "crushed, juiced, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled on site.”
Sugar Sand Distillery (Florida): White, aged, and spiced rums are made in small batches with “estate grown fresh cane juice.”
Richland Distilling Company (Georgia): Classic Rum (aged 4-5 years), Virgin Coastal Rum (unaged), and a few others with interesting barrel finishes are all made with estate grown sugar cane syrup. Not the same as unprocessed cane juice, but they make it from their own cane.
Manulele Distillers (Hawaii): According to the makers of Kōhana Rum, Hawaiian sugar cane was thriving on the islands, “800 years before the plantations ever existed,” and their rums, both white and aged, feature heirloom varietal cane juice.
Three Roll Estate (Louisiana): Three Roll Estate grows and crushes its own sugar cane for their white rums, as well as a sugarcane-based vodka and a “Cachaça-inspired” spirit made from fresh cane juice.
Just Rum (Just A Distillery, Inc.) (Oregon): According to the American Rum Index, Just Rum is using fresh cane juice shipped frozen from Costa Rica. Whoa. We'd like to know more.
Railean Distillers (Texas): This brand has both molasses rum and cane juice rums. They are woman-founded-and-run, the first rum distillery in Texas, use only domestically manufactured packaging and raw materials (except agave), and want to be THE American rum company.
Brands selling US rum made from molasses
Molasses can be shipped anywhere, is relatively shelf-stable, and is just as hard to trace to its source as sugar. If the companies on this list aren't using molasses from US sources, they're at least up front about their sourcing.
Four Fathers Distillery (Florida): The Black Copper Rum from this distillery is made with fresh sugarcane juice from Louisiana and Georgia along with molasses. Although they don't specify their molasses source, they do claim to use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, and we were particularly impressed that they're using solar thermal heating on their still.
Kolani Distillers (Hawaii): The self-proclaimed oldest operating distillery in Maui, located on the ruins of a 19th century sugar mill, Kolani distillers uses molasses from Maui for their silver and aged Old Lahaina brands. They're up front about their molasses source going out of business, leaving them temporarily in the lurch and looking for a new one.
Happy Raptor Distilling (Louisiana): While most of their products are infused (flavored) spirits, the base rum at Happy Raptor is made with 100% Louisiana molasses and is released as their silver rum, which they market reverentially. We dig the cinéma vérité vibe of their homepage, too.
Striped Lion Distilling (New Jersey): Striped Lion sells flavored rums, imported blends, and two unaged white rums which are made from organic American molasses. Majority-woman owned, Striped Lion is also the only black-owned business on our list.
Vitae Spirits (Virginia): The silver rum made by Vitae Spirits is made from American molasses. The label art includes a botanical cross-section diagram of a sugar cane stalk. We had to read their explanation before we recognized it, but we totally get using botanical cross sections on spirits labels!
Jersey Artisan Distilling (New Jersey): The Busted Barrel silver rum from Jersey Artisan Distilling is made from Louisiana molasses.
These companies didn't fit in our cane juice or molasses categories because they're working with sourced cane juice syrup, but they caught our eye for other reasons.
Clever Fox Rum (California): The silver rum is made from Louisiana cane syrup and the bottles are made from 100% post-consumer recycled glass—which is pretty cool. They also screen print (instead of label) their bottles to facilitate an as-yet unrealized buyback program.
Charbay Distillery (California): Charbay's rum is made with vacuum-distilled cane juice syrup from Hawaii which, according to the website, makes the syrup "4 times purer than molasses." We're not sure what math you do to get that very specific number, but F. Paul Pacult gave Charbay's Double Aged Rum (bottled at a whopping 68.4% ABV) his highest rating of 5 stars, which ain't nothing.
Why not more US rum?
Most, if not all, of the brands listed on the American Rum Index are solidly in the "craft" sector of the US spirits industry, which is just over two thousand distilleries strong. In rough figures, this means that the American Rum Index identified only about 12% of the US craft spirits sector making rum.
Which makes some sense—the US is more of an American whiskey market. According to a recent DISCUS report, "America's native spirit" sold about 30 million cases in the entire (not just craft) spirits market in 2021, while rum managed about 25 million cases (dominated by just a few massively imported brands).
But here's the rub: not only is the sobriquet of "native spirit" misleading (rum was here first, just ask Wayne Curtis or Ian Williams), but there's also no reason the American craft spirits sector shouldn't be more deeply in love with rum. We've got the domestic sugar cane, we clearly have the equipment and at least some of the know-how. We just seem to have collectively forgotten how important rum once was to the US spirits industry.
We gotta do it right though, and that doesn't just mean finding good molasses and cane juice, it means accountability and transparency in sourcing.