Tatler's Guide To The Best Asian Rums 2021
Known as a bottom-shelf spirit or not at all, rum has a less-than-stellar reputation in Asia despite its long history in the region. We highlight the craft rum distilleries hoping to change that once and for all
Last year, as the pandemic forced lockdowns around the world, two curious things happened: firstly, online alcohol sales boomed as people denied nights out in their favourite restaurants and bars resorted instead to buying their tipple over the internet; and secondly, sea shanties—a musical relic of the rum-swigging sailors and pirates of maritime history—suddenly made a viral comeback among teenagers on TikTok thanks to a rendition by Scottish singer Nathan Evans of Wellerman, a 19th-century ditty that has since garnered over seven million views on the social media platform.
Both trends bode well for rum, an oft-neglected category among the primary spirits that is "probably the last major category to premium-ise, and that’s because it was associated with big brands with not a lot of product quality," according to Venezuelan rum producer Diplomático's global marketing director, Edouard Beaslay. This is even more the case in Asia, where rum is almost uniformly a low-quality product, imported en masse to be hastily mixed in mojitos and daiquiris the region over.
Made from the fermentation and distillation of sugarcane byproducts such as molasses or sugarcane juice, rum's ties to Asia arguably stretch back even longer than in the Caribbean, which today is widely regarded as the birthplace of the spirit. Sugarcane was first domesticated 6,000 years ago in New Guinea, while the oldest recorded mention of rum was in the 7th century AD, when Indian Ayurvedic physician Vagbhata suggested in his Heart of Medicine text that fermented sugarcane liquor mixed excellently with mango juice, alongside mentions of a sugarcane wine called shuddi. Among the Malay people, a fermented sugarcane spirit called brum had been drunk for thousands of years.
In Indonesia, batavia arrack (named after the capital of Dutch-colonised Indonesia, modern-day Jakarta) is regarded as a proto-rum, distilled using sugarcane molasses and fermented Javanese red rice. Drunk throughout Southeast Asia—and later in Holland and as far afield as colonial America, thanks to the shipping routes of the Dutch East India Company—batavia arrack was widely used as the main ingredient in punches of that era, eventually being replaced by Jamaican rum.
"Rum has always been a major spirit in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in larger sugar-producing countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines. Most of the these markets are dominated by a few players with some eye-watering volumes—in the millions of cases—predominantly consumed domestically," says co-founder of the Philippines' Don Papa Rum, AJ Garcia.
"There are two characteristics that make for an interesting rum out of Asia. One is the type of sugarcane and molasses you find here, especially in Southeast Asia and in the South Pacific. The different cane species have been growing in the wild in these parts of the world for millennia. The second characteristic that helps us create great rum is our climate. With varied tropical climates and high humidity in many of these rum-producing countries, the liquid ages rapidly and matures beautifully, making for some delicious rum."
Today, gin is heralded as the poster child for a previously outdated spirit turned artisanal, high-quality product that has rapidly (and successfully) naturalised to the many terroirs across Asia. However, with its growing number of small-scale Asian producers, rum could very well have its own heyday and revive the region's long history with this most storied of liquors. Here, we bring together the best rums to be found throughout Asia.
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What do you get when two Venezuelans set up a rum distillery in Cambodia? The answer is clear in the spirits created by Samai, which translates to "modern" in the Khmer language. Founded by expats Antonio Lopez and Daniel Pacheco, Samai began distilling rum in 2014 and currently has three bottlings under its belt: the Gold rum (made using molasses from local Koh Kong sugarcane), the PX Limited Edition, and the signature Kampot Pepper rum. The latter is produced by macerating the appellation-controlled Kampot pepper—found only in the Cambodian province of the same name—with a base of Samai's Gold rum to produce a distinctive red liquid that delivers a balance of spice, herbal and vegetal notes like fennel and caramel.
Chalong Bay Rum
One of Asia's best-known craft rums is Chalong Bay Rum, which was founded in 2012 and is now distributed across Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Located in Phuket, the distillery uses local organic sugarcane as the base for its rum, which is then distilled in an imported French copper still and aged for a minimum of eight months. Aside from its signature white rum, Chalong Bay also produces a Tropical Notes series, featuring rums that have been vapour-infused with Thai botanicals like lemongrass, lime, cinnamon, kaffir lime, and Thai sweet basil; as well as a spiced rum that incorporates all of the above, plus the likes of pandan, coffee, chilli and vanilla.
Originating from a landlocked border region of the same name in the north of Thailand, Issan Rum is a rhum agricole—a style of rum native to French-speaking Caribbean islands like Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique—that is made using the fermented juice of a local red sugarcane varietal, as opposed to the sugarcane molasses used in more conventional styles of rum. The process of distilling it in a small copper pot still contributes to the herbaceous character of the final product, with notes of vanilla, toffee, black fruits and sweet corn at the fore.Issan Rum is bottled and distributed by That Boutique-Y Rum Company.
Don Papa Rum
Inspired by a trip to Bacolod—a city in the Philippine region of Negros that is nicknamed "Sugarlandia" for its unofficial status as the country's sugarcane capital—former Rémy Cointreau executive Stephen Carroll co-founded the Bleeding Heart Rum Company in 2011 with Monica and AJ Garcia (the latter pair were selected as part of our Tastemakers List for 2021). Named after a 19th-century sugarcane farmer turned revolutionary, Don Papa Rum is made using noble cane, a high-sucrose varietal that is ground in old local sugar mills to produce "black gold" molasses, then distilled and aged for seven years in American oak barrels at the base of the Mount Kanlaon volcano. The high humidity of the region intensifies the ageing effect, resulting in a rich, smooth and fruity rum that is then shipped as far afield as Mexico and California.
While the Philippines is home to Tanduay, the largest rum brand in the world by total sales, an increasingly sophisticated clientele has also made space for proudly artisanal operations like that of Kasama. Launched in the midst of the pandemic, Kasama is the brainchild of 29-year-old Polish-Filipina Alexandra Dorda, whose father, Tad Dorda, co-founded the Belvedere and Chopin vodka brands. Like Don Papa, Kasama's dark rum is distilled using fermented noble cane; though unlike its peer, this brand uses the juice of the sugarcane rather than its molasses to create a rhum agricole. It's then passed through a column still, then aged for seven years in American ex-bourbon casks in the Philippines, to produce a spirit that is intensely candy-like and pineapple-forward, backed by notes of toffee, vanilla and citrus.
Owing to Vietnam's French colonial legacy, the country's dominant style of rum is rhum agricole, tying the distilleries of this Southeast Asian nation to their counterparts in the French West Indies. Squarely in this category is Rhum Mia, which was founded in 2017 by two French expats from the spirits industry, who chose to base their operation in Ho Chi Minh City. For this white unaged rum, sugarcane juice from the Mekong Delta is fermented and distilled in a column still, then rested for eight months in chum claypots traditionally used to make rice liquor, resulting in a medley of herbal and grassy flavours like cucumber, lemongrass, guava and dill.
Produced by Distillerie d'Indochine, an operation run by Frenchman Antoine Poircuitte out of his Hoi An beachside hotel and bar, Sampan Rhum is a white rhum agricole made using organic sugarcane harvested by hand from the local area. Interestingly, the spirit is sold at three different strengths—45% standard, 54% overproof and the 65% full proof—of which the overproof variety was awarded a double gold medal at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Carrying notes such as olive brine, vanilla, sugarcane and dill, the spirit imparts a smooth mouthfeel and long aftertaste. Distillerie d'Indochine also produces a spiced rum under the Sampan brand, as well as an upcoming rhum vieux (aged rum).
Cor Cor Rum
While Japan is much better known on the world stage for its whisky, rum has been quietly making headway in the country for several years. Among them is Cor Cor, which hails from the Okinawan island of Minamidaitojima and is distinct for producing their own sugarcane and molasses, likely due to the island's remoteness. Founded in 2004, the Cor Cor distillery produces two unaged varieties: Red, which is based on molasses and imparts a bold character full of Japanese black sugar, tropical flowers, and ripe red fruits; and Green, an agricole-style rhum made using sugarcane juice for a grassy, clean aroma of olives, bitter lime and macadamia.
With a history that dates back to 1961, this Okinawan distillery has made the gamut of alcoholic beverages over the years, from beer and awamori, to shochu and rum—the latter of which was initially created to target American soldiers stationed in Okinawa, and to reserve rice (traditionally used to brew spirits) to feed the population instead. Helios rums have been gaining traction in serious rum circles in recent years, its most notable offerings being the Kiyomi white rum and the Teeda 5-year aged rum. Both are made from Okinawan sugarcane: the Kiyomi is fermented for 30 days and distilled in a double column still, while the Teeda is a blend of barrel-aged rums ranging from 5 to 15 years, which is then distilled in a pot still. Featuring complex flavours and a lingering nose, the Helios rums lend themselves well to both sipping and mixing.
While the majority of Japanese rums are found in its southern island chains, Nine Leaves has been carving out a niche for itself from Shiga prefecture on the main island of Honshu. Founded by precision car part maker turned rum distiller Yoshiharu Takeuchi, Nine Leaves uses exceptionally soft spring water sourced from beneath an anorthite mine, along with brown sugar from the Okinawan island of Taramajima to distill his rums, lending them a profile that sits between that of molasses-based rums and agricoles. Nine Leaves ages its spirits in American and French oak casks for six months at a time, meaning that its rum releases happen every half year, allowing ample opportunity for experimentation and winning the distillery several awards in its short lifespan so far.
While India is a titan in the Asian rum scene thanks to longstanding brands like Amrut and Old Monk, until recently the vast majority was made only for domestic consumption, much of it of the bottom-shelf variety. However, Goa-based Maka Zai (which translates to 'I want' in the Indian state's official language of Konkani) is looking to bring more refinement to the spirit category with rums that pay tribute to Indian culture while holding their own in a cocktail. Founded by veteran banker Kasturi Banerjee, Maka Zai comes in two varieties: the Bartender's Edition white rum is designed for mixing thanks to its friendly, floral character and medium body, while the Tribute Edition is an aged rum with notes of praline, fig and honey that is perfect for leisurely sipping.