For the final two years of my college career, I was the editor of a campus newspaper called The Booze News. Being something of a bootstrapped operation, compensation for the editorial staff came by way of a $30 weekly-stipend to spend on alcohol to review for the upcoming issue. Thus, every week, it became my prerogative to cram as much bottom-shelf booze as I possibly could into that 30 bucks so as to properly “pay” the staff.
Most weeks, my writers were paid in rum — hence the reason why I’ve not let a whiff of Sailor Jerry near my lips in over a decade. Cheap rum isn’t hard to come by, but finding cheap rum that doesn’t sacrifice in quality is a bit more challenging. And since I don’t trust the reviews written by my 21-year-old self to know the difference, I reached out to industry experts to get their takes on the top five rums under $30.
Smith & Cross Traditional Rum — $30
“I don’t usually spend a whole lot of money on rum — except once, when I went in on a $1,000 bottle of Black Tot — so I definitely have some thoughts on great tasting, affordable options,” says Megan Coyle, a 20-year bartending veteran working for The Gallavant Group. “My hands down favorite is Smith & Cross — this runs about $30 retail, but it’s an absolute steal. It’s overproof (114 proof) and the ratio of smooth to funky is perfect.”
A Smith & Cross daiquiri, she continues, “is one of life’s great pleasures, as is a Smith & Cross Manhattan (two to one, please) — honestly, I’m constantly amazed at how versatile it is for its strength.”
Havana Club Anejo Blanco — $26
The best cheap silver rum on the market, Coyle contends, is Havana Club’s Anejo Blanco. “It’s very reasonably priced, and it’s been nice to see it outside of Cuba again,” she says. “Havana Club makes a nice Cuba Libre (duh), and a mojito always hits the spot.”
“I mean, it’s white rum,” Coyle continues, “do with it what you will — but do try it neat with a smoky lager or rauchbier. It’s hefty enough to stand up to their richer flavors in a delightful way.”
Apple Estate’s Signature Blend — $25
“Though I have sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on some amazing bottles, Apple Estate Signature Blend is one of my favorite go-tos,” says Jim McCourt, beverage director of Prohibition and Bonny’s Hideaway in Charleston, South Carolina. “On the nose you get vanilla from the bourbon barrels and a touch of orange peel and exotic fruits. When it comes to taste, you’ll get bananas, apricots and brown sugar with a suggestion of tropical fruit.”
But most of all, McCourt says, he loves Apple Estate’s Signature Blend “because it’s versatile — it goes great in everything from a rum and Coke to a Mai Tai.”
Blackwell Rum — $23
For fans of Jamaican rum, Coyle suggests Blackwell Rum. “It usually retails in the low $20 range,” she says. “Sip it on its own, or mix it with Bittermens Tiki Bitters and an orange peel to make a lovely Old Fashioned.” Blackwells goes great with “all the juicy tiki concoctions, too,” Coyle adds. “In fact, it works well with almost any Tiki-style recipe that calls for aged rum.”
Cruzan’s 9 Spiced Rum — $16
And finally, Emily Cooper, a former bartender in New York, swears by Cruzan’s 9 Spiced Rum. “This is cheap stuff, but don’t sleep on the Cruzan’s 9,” she tells me. “This is an aged rum that uses nine different spices to create a complex and rich flavor, but it packs a punch at the same time.” Cooper says she’ll sip it on its own, but makes for a good rum and Coke, too.