How Rum Has Been Misunderstood, And Why You Should Reconsider It

If you're stuck on rum and Cokes, you're missing out on this liquor's best qualities.

National Rum Day falls on Aug. 16 this year, but every day is National Rum Day in Shannon Mustipher’s world.

The wearer of many hats, Mustipher is the beverage director of Glady’s in New York and a spirits and cocktail consultant who spends a lot of time training, educating and organizing other beverage professionals.

She took a little time away from her work to school me in all things rum and I left our conversation feeling inspired by her passion and ... thirsty.

Shannon Mustipher is the beverage director of Glady's in New York.
Shannon Mustipher is the beverage director of Glady's in New York.

How did you find your way into beverages?

I like to say through the back door. I started working in hospitality during college as a side gig as a barista. I worked at a Starbucks in Providence. I got really obsessive — when I was off work, I was reading about coffee, cupping at home, etc. When I get into something, I get really into it. I liked the coffee but what really got me was watching how my manager interacted with the team.

How did you become the beverage director of Glady’s?

I was involved in cocktails from day one, but there was no beverage director when I started and I thought we could do a lot better so I called a meeting. We were totally on the same page. At the same time, the owners were deciding to switch from the original New American concept to an all-Caribbean concept and they asked me to build a program around rum. I wasn’t totally averse, but you have to consider at this point, about five years ago, most bars had Bacardi, Gosling’s and that was about it. Rum wasn’t something people were trying to work with at all. I had a month to do a crash course.

What did that month look like?

I tried 200 samples to choose 50 for my bar. And I was hooked. I am die-hard. I could live the rest of my life just drinking rum.

You studied painting, right? Any parallels between cocktails and canvases?

I went to [the Rhode Island School of Design]. I studied painting, had a studio, did a little bit of sporadic showing. I think it’s an inspiration when it comes to how I build a recipe. I think of ingredients as a palette. Rum is a palette. Juice is a part of a palette. When you consider where the products are coming from, you can weave that into the story. I also think in terms of colors. Not just literally, but in how do you modulate color, texture, flavor, things like that. I think about what kinds of stories and moods can you evoke with your drink. You can take the kid out of RISD, but you can’t take RISD out of the kid!

Let’s talk about rum. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word rum?

Girls just wanna ... girls just wanna have rum. Rum is hard to pin down. It doesn’t refer to one thing. There are 90 countries that produce rum and only three of those have codified production. The only thing that ties them all together is that they’re made out of some sugar product and that can range from sugar cane juice to jaggery to molasses. Some distillers use a combination. When I think of rum, I think diversity and the changeability. I don’t think of pirates.

It’s curious that there’s a National Rum Day since rum comes from everywhere. Do you prefer rum from anywhere in particular?

I have a soft spot for Jamaican rums and agricole rums. Glady’s is a Caribbean rum bar so I focus on that. The Caribbean is where rum was established as a commercial product so there’s a level of sophistication of how the rums are produced there because there was an economic reason.

Can you talk a bit more about the economic history?

Rum was developed by plantation owners in the Caribbean to use a byproduct of molasses production. They were like this stuff is sitting here and taking up space and it’s not biodegradable. They realized they could ferment it and make more money.

And how did rum change as it became produced on a large scale?

People began to notice that when rum spent time in the barrel and had exposure to saline air, it was really nice ... kind of like night and day. Just for comparison, think of mezcal that comes straight out of the still and doesn’t go into a barrel. Compare unaged pot-distilled rum at full strength and put it next to an aged rum: It’s not the same thing. It’s the same in name, but it’s not the same. The drinking experience is actually different. All of this is to say that when the British started this practice, it got so big that they had to open warehouses in London. Dealers began to embrace it as a high-end sipping spirit. The private dealers also figured out that it was more cost-effective for them to produce and bottle than scotch. That’s when rum became rum as we know it today. When it became a product.

Where and how have you learned all of this? What’s been your education process?

I’ve accumulated it over the course of working with Glady’s. When I initially started working with rum the questions were, how does this taste, and how do I pick out the styles that do the best job of showing what this category is, and how do I find the best way to use it in cocktails that people will enjoy that also reflect how people enjoyed it wherever it came from?

About that last question ― how does each type of rum reveal where it’s from?

So much is driven by economics, colonization, even slavery. I’ve found that the economics that were in each of [the main] regions affected the flavors and characteristics of each rum. I explored the cultural roots of each and got into the history. Martinique rum was made with fresh juice because it was less expensive. When French territories began to collapse, the solution was to turn inventory into rum — there was no economic support for molasses, so that’s why they use fresh juice.

Do these differences remain the same today?

The distinctions between cultural styles are starting to blur, which is informed by beverage culture overall.

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about rum?

The most misunderstood thing is that it’s cheap and sweet and I attribute that to when you’re in high school and in college and you just want to get twisted. That’s where most people encountered rum for the first time and that perception is so difficult to overcome.

How do you combat that stereotype?

I knew when building the cocktail program that there would be pushback so I made a point to keep it simple. People always say, “I don’t want something sweet” and I say, “Yeah, me neither.”

Walking into a liquor store or reading a drinks menu can be intimidating ― for the uninitiated, what should we look for or ask for when choosing a rum?

Think of rum like wine — there are some generalities among regions and countries. Rum has three broad categories: French, Spanish and English.

French-style rums are often made from fresh juice and are going to retain more natural qualities of the juice (floral, funky ... think overripe fruit like bananas and papayas). If you’re a little bit more adventurous (like if you like funky cheese), consider an aged agricole French rum, which is more like cognac.

With Spanish-style rums, there are two types: white and aged. White rums are meant to disappear and be clear and crisp. These are good if you want something light, but not designed to drink on their own (good for punch, etc.). If you want something creamy and rich, go for an aged Spanish rum.

English-style rums are more robust — think whiskey and scotch. They have more peppery, bold notes and wood notes like cedar and mahogany.

So think about spirits you already know and like. Are you a vodka drinker? Crisp Spanish white rum. Are you a tequila drinker? Try an aged agricole.

What are some of the best ways to enjoy rum, from simple to dressed up?

I would say if the rum is aged for fewer than five years, it’s a mixing rum (with the exception of agricole) or you can make Ti’ punch ― a bar spoon of thick cane syrup and a muddled slice of lime and a little rum. It’s like an Old-Fashioned where you mash the sugar into bitters to get the aroma. No ice! With English style rums, make punch!

And older rums?

If the rum is older than five years, especially if it’s over eight, sip it. Put it in a snifter. Enjoy it neat. Rocks on the side are nice. Add a rock if you’d like.

What do you want people to keep in mind when they’re trying rums?

Keep an open mind. Notice the scents and texture and mouthfeel. Take your time and try them out. There’s not a best rum ― take time to figure out the best rum for you. Get together with some friends and start a rum club so you can try different kinds.

Any favorite things to serve with rum?

Seafood! Any snack you can make with seafood. And plantains.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.