Rum is complicated.  Light, amber, or dark?  Spanish, English, or French?  Tiki drinks or stirred concoctions?  When it comes to cocktails, rum is a challenging beast. And because rum is such a diverse spirit category, the cocktails in which it's used — from the daiquiri to the mai tai — have their own unique demands.

Understanding the spirit's inherent sweetness as well as the fruit and spice character — and learning how to use each style of rum properly — are key to a drink's success. To address the challenges that rum poses, we turned to L.A. bartenders and asked the question, “What's in a bottle of rum?”  They answered the questions through the lens of some of the cocktails in which they use the sugar-based spirit. 


Light rums, also called white and even silver, exude the character of tropical fruits — bananas, pineapple — and, certainly, the sugar cane/molasses from which they originally stem. While they are often aged to some degree, they are then put through a filtration system that produces the clear color and and softer flavor profile for which they are known. 

At Los Balcones de Peru, bartender Cody Summers created the pichuberry caipirissima to marry the freshness of the unique fruit with the cleanness of light rum. Summers says, “Light and dark rums may as well be classified as different spirits all together in my opinion. It's best to use light rums when your fresh ingredients are designed to be the star of the show. To keep it simple, think about your priority when you've gone to the market. If you have an exotic, seasonal fruit with hand squeezed lime juice, keep it simple with light rum and let your fresh ingredients do the talking.”

Summers wanted to create a take on the Brazilian caipirinha, one that would celebrate the confluence of the restaurant's food and drink. He stumbled on it when he discovered the pichuberry, a Peruvian nutrient-rich super-fruit found in the Amazon. The “sweet and hearty flavor of the pichuberry was a cocktail no-brainer” according to Summers, who was eager to use light rum to highlight the fruit's pure, intense quality. 

Sotto's Italian Mai Tai; Credit: Brynn Smith

Sotto's Italian Mai Tai; Credit: Brynn Smith

Tiki drinks pose a unique challenge because they're often little more than alcohol delivery systems, laden with up to four ounces of rum disguised by an abundance of fruit juice. When made properly, however, they can be a sublime evocation of rum's possibilities, especially as modern bartenders riff on the classics to create their own takes on the concept of tiki. As such, not only the choice of rum, but the balance of ingredients are key to the drink's overall success. 

Brynn Smith, bartender at Sotto notes that “to make a successful tiki drink, it is really important to know the original recipes and have fresh ingredients. Amber-type rums are perfect for cocktails because they are slightly sweet with tons of different flavor profiles from the aging process, but also are very smooth without being too syrupy.”

Smith notes that it's essential to measure with a jigger; free-pouring is never a good idea when making any cocktail, but certainly not one where the rum proportion can be so pronounced. In her Italian mai tai, she uses Diplomatico Riserva Exclusiva Venezualan rum, which is aged for 12 years in oak barrels and offers notes of brown sugar and Christmas spice.  These sweet, spicy elements marry with the classic use of orgeat, an almond syrup that helps define the mai tai's exotic yet earthy flavor.  


If you're looking for a quick schooling in rum and its evolution, you need look no further than Caña Rum Bar downtown, whose offerings are enviable. The respect for the sugar cane spirit reaches a fever pitch here, especially bottlings created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez.  Bar manager Danielle Crouch refers to Don Pancho as “the Michael Jordan of turning sugar into booze.  Just as anyone can toss a ball at a net, anyone can make rum. Then there are people whose understanding of their game makes them legends.”

Among the rums created by Don Pancho are the 86 Company's light rum and Plantation's Panama bottling, an amber rum aged for 10 years in bourbon casks, which Caña uses in its take on the classic Presidente, a cocktail that emerged in 1919 Cuba. As an example of how malleable rum can be, co-bar manager Allan Katz created the Shaky Alibi, which mixes amber rum with a reduction of amber ale and Grand Marnier, as well as dry vermouth. The result is a cocktail served up in an elegant glass that flies in the face of the typical tiki-style or South American party drink. 

At the far end of the spectrum, dark rum is challenging  to mix with because of its deep, caramel-like profile.  In the dark rum category, the Dark 'n Stormy is as classic as it gets.  Originally a proprietary drink made only with Gosling's Black Seal Rum (the dark) and ginger beer (the stormy), the classic quencher has been given many a spin by modern bartenders.  Sarah Kay Godot, the new bar manager at Zengo in Santa Monica, put her own stamp on the drink by adding Asian elements to the mix. 

“With dark rum you need to keep in mind its intensity,” she says. “It is full bodied and complex, kind of like the bourbon of rum, so it needs to either be sipped. Or, if used in a cocktail, it needs to be blended with equally bold exciting flavors such as ginger and Chinese five spice… In my opinion rum is one of the best canvases to play with multiple spices ”

Zengo's Kyoto Storm; Credit: Zengo

Zengo's Kyoto Storm; Credit: Zengo

This is exactly what Godot does with her Kyoto Storm, which blends the Goslings with Cointreau, lime juice, ginger simple syrup, a pinch of Chinese five spice powder and a few dashes of orange bitters.  The effect is both a nod to the classic, but also a drink entirely its own with the rum acting as a bridge for the complementary flavors. 

Whether light, amber or dark, rum is a spirit category that not only continues to expand, but also manages to redefine itself each time a new drink is created.  The underlying sweet character that results from either sugar cane or molasses provides an anchor for both fruity and spicy drinks that can span the seasons in their appeal. 

Given the almost chameleon-like character of the spirit category, Caña's Danielle Crouch offers sound advice when she says, “Don't pigeonhole the spirit. There's rum that can do anything whiskey or brandy can. First properly identify what you're working with, then think about what you'd like to accentuate or challenge with your mixing ingredients on hand. Just as you would with any other spirit. Let your palate be your guide and have some fun with it.” Yo ho ho, indeed. 

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book Gin: A Global History. Her book The 12 Bottle Bar, co-written with David Solmonson, was released on July 29. Email her at Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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