One of the first things you’re probably wondering, when it comes to rum appreciation, is – how do you taste rum? And I don’t mean the mechanics of taste buds, this isn’t a biology lesson. I mean how do you pick out different flavours and characteristics so you know what type of rum your taste buds prefer and how to pick good choices based on those little descriptions on the bottle.
The first thing you need to know is tasting rum is different to trying rum – crazy I know.
It’s easy to try rum and decide whether you like it or not, its different to actually taste rum and work out what characteristics (tastes, smells etc) it is about the rum that makes up the overall experience.
Deciphering Rum Reviews
To get started, lets look as some reviews that some experts have done after tasting some popular rums, you may or may not have heard of them, and if you haven’t – that’s ok! This is all about learning.
Let’s see what they had to say about each of the rums below. If you’ve tried any of these rums – see if you noticed similar characteristics.
Mount Gay Extra Old:
What the experts had to say:
“rich aromas of dried coconut, banana and raisins, caramel butter cream, toasted pecans, and brown spices follow through on a round, vibrant entry to a slightly tannic, dry-yet-fruity full body with cascading waves of toffee, oak, and spice flavors and a long, lingering fade.”
Don’t panic! If you’re thinking “what have I gotten myself into”, it’s ok. That list seems long to me too.
Lets look at another expert’s review of the same rum:
“tastes of brown sugar, spice, vanilla, oak, and, of course, bourbon. Lingering burnt wood and molasses. Very complex and robust. Bite is firm and intense, but pure – not from immaturity or improperly added spice. A small splash of cool, clean water evokes an additional taste of creamy bitter chocolate and maybe a very faint fruitiness.”
Re-read those two reviews again and tell me if you notice anything?
What I noticed is that just about the only common element between them was oak & spices – none of the others matched up! This tells me one thing – that rum is full of a very complex array of flavours, and what you notice comes very much down to individual perception.
Lets take a look at another review…
Angostura 1919 8 Year Old:
“chocolate phosphate, varnished wood, and creme brulee aromas. A silky entry leads to a dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body of butter caramel, roasted pecans, brown spices, and lacquered wood. Finishes with a pleasant pink peppercorn, toffee, and cigar box fade”
Again, lots of fruit and nuts, but this time a little wood and cigars thrown in. El Machete describes the same rum as:
“toasted caramel, sweet molasses, ripe banana and vanilla. It’s this combination of sweet aromas that makes 1919 ridiculously approachable. On the tongue it is not as sweet, but it is still excellent. Smooth and sweet, this is the crème brûlée of rums. Round, creamy, and warm, the tastes are classic and fairly uncomplicated: lightly burnt caramel, brown sugar, toffee, and vanilla with some smoky alcohol”.
If you read those two reviews, they’re a lot closer than the first two – it could be argued that “banana & vanilla” could be likened to “cream caramel” and that a “silky entrance” could be likened to “ridiculously approachable” and “toffee & cigar box fade” could be likened to “burnt caramel”.
What does it all mean?
You’re probably wondering where the hell you start with this whole rum tasting process and how rum tasters arrive at these conclusions, and that’s a great question.
In the end, it really comes down to the individual. Everyone is going to taste different things and your experience is going to depend highly on a number of things – what you’ve consumed throughout the day, have you been drinking coffee, have you been trying several rums, or perhaps just brushed your teeth? (Well done if that’s you).
With the background out of the way, lets get into the practicalities of tasting your rum like a pro. I’ve summarised all the pro tips I could find for you in one easy to follow list below!
How to taste Rum:
El Machete says rum is first judged on its sweetness, and then “its balance according to bitterness, spiciness, acidity….the key to tasting is first allowing the nuances to present themselves … then actively and methodically looking for and identifying common flavours.”
For example, “I may taste a general sweetness that possibly hints at fruit. I try to break it down more precisely: is it citrus in origin? Stone fruit? Melon? Berry? Once I feel I am able to confidently identify the family of fruits, I will try, if possible, to identify it further to a specific fruit.”
Make sure you have a clean palate (your mouth). Common palate cleansers are bread or unsalted crackers. Or a fancy sorbet is good if you happen to have a personal chef – I don’t – so crackers it is. Avoid coffee, chocolate or anything spicy before tasting the rum.
Also a good way to taste rum, funnily enough is in a wine glass, this gives you a nice way to capture the aromas and view the rum.
The first thing to look for when tasting a new rum is what it looks like! Take note of its colour, is it clear or cloudy, light, golden or dark – this can help prepare your brain for what is about to come next!
Joy Spence, Master blender from Appleton Estate advises to tilt the glass and hold it to some light (natural sunlight if possible). Look at the edge of the glass where the rum meets the cup – you may see what appears to be a green ring, the dark this ring, the older the rum is likely to be!
Straighten the glass up again and watch the rum run down the glass back to join its friends – commonly known in the wine industry as “legs” this shows the viscosity of the rum. The thicker the legs, the more viscous. Full bodied rums will have thinner legs so if that’s what you prefer, look for that trait!
Commonly referred to as “nosing” this is where you sniff the rum to soak in those delicious aromas. Short quick sniffs are best to capture different aromas and its wise to sniff the bottle when first opened and in a tumbler once the air has had time to reduce some vapours. You have about 7 seconds before you nose gives up and stops noticing things so try and identify things quickly.
Best approach is the “top sniff” where you get the original notes, then swirl the rum and whack your nose in again deeper for the secondary more subtle aromas.
The first sip is always a bit of a shock to the tongue, so take a small sip to get the light burn out of the way so you can then focus on the flavours.
Take a second, slower sip and let the rum float around your mouth and the vapours float into your nose to identify more aromas. Here you want to look for sweetness, bitterness and spiciness & acidity. Make a note of what you observe.
Next, take another sip and pay attention the the consistency or the rum, is it smooth, light, syrupy? Does the flavour intensify or stay the same? Compare this to what you noticed in The View above.
Swallow (or spit out – depending how many rums you’re tasting) the rum and pay attention to the after taste. How quickly does it fade away? Do more flavours present themselves, do other flavours disappear.
There are ways to further taste rum and identify even more aromas and flavours. Two popular methods are with a small dash of cool water, or pouring the rum on ice, which spreads out and reduces the intensity of the stronger flavours and aromas, allowing subsequent characteristics to come through.
Soon I’ll be adding a follow up lesson on how to describe each of those elements discussed above. Until then – happy tasting!
What’s the first thing you look for when tasting a rum?
Write what you notice in the comments below!