The beautiful aged rums from the countries in and around the Caribbean are undeniably the best in the world—and the distinct climates of each nation in this region impart unique characteristics on the beverages produced in every one. The variation is much like the difference between Germany, Hungary and Belarus when it comes to Olympic canoeing: All are capable of greatness, but their representatives possess very different accents. (If you don’t follow Olympic canoeing, just trust me, those countries are good at it.)
Which raises the question: Which republic in this small patch of the globe can claim that it produces the very best rum? I chose four of the greatest contenders I could get my hands on—all aged for 21 years or more—and put them head-to-head in an epic battle for rum supremacy.
Here are the results:
Appleton Estate 21-Year-Old, Jamaica
$119.99, 43% ABV (alcohol by volume)
Twenty-one years is the minimum age in oak barrels for any of the rum used to make this ultra-premium beverage. Appleton wastes little budget on its packaging, which is modest and straightforward—unlike the rich, coppery-amber liquid it contains, which seductively entices me to drink it.
Ron Zacapa XO, Guatemala
$109.99, 40% ABV
A blend of rums aged between 6 and 25 years in American White Oak, sherry, and Pedro Ximenez barrels, then married in French oak Cognac casks for two years, Zacapa boasts a beautiful dark rusty brown hue. Presented in a gorgeous, flask-shaped vessel, I'm wondering if the bottle can be used as my cremation urn when I die.
Diplomático Ambassador, Venezuela
$259.99, 47% ABV
Aged in white oak barrels for a minimum of 12 years, then aged for 2 more years in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, Ambassador is slightly lighter than Zacapa. It's a beautiful reddish brown that edges toward mahogany—the color of the masculine wooden bar I dream of someday installing in my home to show this bottle off.
El Dorado 21-Year-Old Special Reserve, Guyana
$99.99, 40% ABV
El Dorado blends select rums that are oak-aged between 21 and 25 years, all distilled at historic 18th- and 19th-century production stills with 100 percent locally sourced sugar from Demerara, Guyana. The Special Reserve is just a tad darker than Appleton's 21-Year-Old, with more red-brown than orange in the hue.
WINNER: Zacapa XO
Appleton: Take a whiff of the Appleton 21-Year-Old for wafts of intoxicating caramel, toffee, sugar and tons of vanilla—all amounting to sweet deliciousness. I could sit and smell this irresistible rum all day, but I worry my wife would freak out if she came home to find me huffing rum fumes.
Zacapa: Woodier and spicier than Appleton, Zacapa's aroma is almost earthy in comparison. That's not to say that only tree huggers can enjoy those notes of raw chocolate, coffee, roasted nuts and even marzipan, which are rounded by a subtle and delicate sweetness.
Diplomático: Ambassador packs plenty of punch with a spicy aroma layered with rich toffee and stewed apricots. Meanwhile, its higher alcohol content masks some of the vast, underlying complexity: It's generally elegant, but can be a bit pungent in certain moments—like an elderly aristocrat.
El Dorado: There's an indisputable depth to El Dorado's aroma, reminiscent of prunes dripping with sweet molasses. The oak certainly shines through, too, and its sweet vanilla notes are not as subtle as Zacapa, but more subdued than those of Appleton. It's quite balanced.
WINNER: Appleton Estate 21-Year-Old Rum
Appleton: Prepare yourself for rich vanilla paired with lots of spice and just a hint of a metallic flavor in the background. Appleton 21 is certainly bright and intense, with a slightly creamy mouthfeel, but nothing can compare with its incredible nose. Is it possible to Neti Pot with rum?
Zacapa: Hold it—Zacapa takes the term "creamy" to a whole other level, with a rich, slick (but not oily) mouthfeel. Flavors include caramel, a touch of dark chocolate and a dash of spice. The Cognac cask finish really smooths this well-rounded rum out.
Diplomático: Ambassador goes down easy, despite a beautifully complex flavor: sweet and salty when it hits the tip of the tongue, before making way for a sophisticated combination of rich vanilla, leather and sherry flavors—even a touch of caramelized banana. Hello, dessert.
El Dorado: El Dorado has the most brooding, intense flavor profile, marked by tobacco, brown sugar and that dark fruit again (Grandma's prunes are back!). You can also even kind of taste the flavor imparted by the old metal pot stills in which this sweet nectar was distilled.
Appleton: Here's a spicy and lingering—yet smooth—finish. It's almost bittersweet, with touches of baking spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. It's surprisingly thick, considering how bright the flavor is. I'd drink another glass if I didn't have more work to do…
Zacapa: With hints of vanilla, dried mango and barely any spice, this stuff goes down easily: It's smoother than Ryan Gosling in a silk bathrobe. Honestly, I almost want a little more burn out of it in the end, though its drinkability does not go unappreciated.
Diplomático: Apparently all of the spice was stolen from Zacapa's XO by Diplomático, whose Ambassador provides a pleasant numbing burn in the mouth. One might even be able to detect hints of licorice in the truly unique and delicious finish, which is, overall, slightly overwhelming.
El Dorado: Wowsa! What an amazing finish, featuring deep sherry notes balanced with just the right amount of spice. It's smooth, but memorable; it's hard to believe how nicely this rum goes down given how complex the beverage is.
WINNER: El Dorado 21
So which rum is the overall winner? It all depends on what you're looking for. If price makes no difference to you, Diplomático Ambassador might just be one of the highest quality spirits money can buy. But when it comes to value, Appleton 21 will give you the most bang for your buck. The thing is, all four of these spirits have already earned their right to compete in the prestigious Aged Rum Olympics; when distributing medals between four proven international champions, placement pretty much comes down to the subjective opinions of the judge. Trust me: You can't go wrong with any of these bad boys.