Kevin Beary knows rum. One could even say that he’s obsessed with it. The accomplished Chicago-based barkeep cut his teeth at the Chicago Park Hyatt’s chic NoMi Lounge before taking over the beverage program at the bustling River North tiki emporium Three Dots and a Dash in 2015.
Just last month, Beary opened the doors to yet another soon-to-be Windy City institution: The Bamboo Room, an intimate speakeasy-style rum bar stashed away beside the entrance to Three Dots and a Dash’s dimly lit subterranean lair. And it’s in that little colorful corner, amid a three-deep chorus of bottles representing distilleries from Fiji to Guyana and back again, that Beary really gets to let his freak flag fly.
“Three Dots is amazing—it’s a super fun, high-volume cocktail-focused tiki bar. But there are some things about its inherent success that make certain aspects a bit challenging,” Beary says, explaining the impetus behind this new hideaway. “It’s the problem that every bartender wishes they had, that their bar is sometimes too busy to do everything they might want to do. This is our collection of the coolest rums that need a little bit more description, a little more interaction with your bartender, to really appreciate, plus all of the cocktails that would be way too hard to make 1000 of a night. I could do cocktails with rums in here that I know that I can get 20 bottles of, whereas for Three Dots proper, it was a little bit challenging. Anytime I would get something rare and interesting, unless I was able to buy a palette at a time, we couldn’t quite do it.”
A self-professed lifelong “fan of everything distilled,” his love affair with rum began when he joined the team at Three Dots and started seriously delving into the spirit’s fascinating and multinational history. Soon he traveling to distilleries around the world and learning everything he could about the different distillation processes.
“I was definitely more into other spirits before, but once I came here and started to get a better understanding of the diversity of rum, it very quickly spiraled out of control,” he recalls. “The way that single malt scotch whisky can be diverse, rum is even more so. You have not only the incredible variation in flavor profile as a result of base materials and production methods, you also have these incredible cultural and regional influences. You can put two products in front of someone and tell them that they’re both rum and they’re just like, ‘What??’”
Education has always played a huge role in Beary’s philosophy behind the sticks and it lies at the core of the Bamboo Room’s personalized rum journey ethos. When I saddled up to the sleek canopied bar just a week after opening night and asked him to suggest a handful of aged rums that might sway whisk(e)y diehards, he was more than game to accept the challenge.
“In my experience, whiskey nerds are surprisingly good about rum,” he says. “I’m very pleased when I have a whiskey drinker come in and say, ‘You know, I’m not really into rum, I just drink whiskey,’ because that clues me into the fact that a) they’re able to drink and enjoy a spirit at bottle strength, and b) that they have somewhat of a palate. If you understand the characteristics that make a good whiskey, it’s very easy for me to introduce you to rum versus someone who comes in and says, ‘I don’t know, I usually drink gin and tonics,’ or whatever. Whereas I would usually say, ‘Alright, let’s start with an aged column still and then maybe an aged blended and then a young Agricole and old Agricole, with a bourbon drinker, I’d skip right to blended pot and column still rums of reasonable strength.”
Curious? Ready your rocks glass and prime your palate for a trip to the tropics with the venerable Professor Beary. Here are 8 must-try rums worthy of a prominent spot on your home bar.
1. Real McCoy 10 Year Old Limited Edition Virgin Oak Rum ($60)
“You drink Maker’s Mark on the rocks and you want to try rum on the rocks?,” asks Beary, reaching for a mahogany-hued bottle of Real McCoy 10 Year. “I’d start you here: Barbados, no sugar added, a blend of pot and column still rums distilled from fermented molasses.
Between enticing aromas of butter pecan and vanilla, smooth brown butter, toasted almond, and dried fruit on the palate, and a tinge of allspice enlivening a lingering oaky finish, this silky, medium-bodied premium expression from Foursquare has tried-and-true bourbon drinkers right where it wants them. The blend is a marriage of twelve-year-old spirit aged in spent bourbon barrels and ten-year-old spirit matured in virgin American oak, a combination that adds to its unique, velvety depth and whiskey-like appeal. But at 92 proof, it’s a tad hardier than your old red wax-dipped friend.
“You’re going to have a similar oak level between something like Maker’s Mark and a 10-year-old Barbadian rum, but this is going to have more character, in my opinion,” notes Beary. “To be honest with you, this is a more balanced sipping spirit than Maker’s Mark in the first place. You’d be hard-pressed to drink that and say, ‘Oh my God, please just give me Maker’s Mark.’ Let’s just say I haven’t had it happen yet.”
2. Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve ($65)
If you prefer your whiskey to pack a more peppery punch, Beary recommends picking up a bottle of Jamaican pot still rum like this aged Worthy Park release. This style is known for its lengthy fermentation time and higher ester content, creating a juice that maintains a spicy potency throughout the aging process even as its funk mellows.
“This is a traditional Caribbean-style Jamaican distillery so it’s going to be long-fermented molasses distilled in pot stills,” Beary explains. “And when I say long, I mean like two weeks long. For most of these rums, they use dunder which is similar to a sour mash method of making whiskey in that you take the waste stillage—whatever gunk that wasn’t distilled out after the first run—and you add it back into fermenting molasses, adding all these acids and other flavorful compounds.”
The Single Estate is a mix of six- to ten-year-old bourbon barrel-aged spirits, copper pot-distilled, matured, blended, and bottled onsite at Worthy Park’s central island facility. Whiffs of tobacco, sweet toffee, and spiced fruit cake lead the way, followed by a burst of ginger, vanilla, and toasted oak as it warms on the palate to reveal banana, coconut, and dried pineapple. The finish is longer and drier than expected, featuring strong black pepper notes, more ginger, and a little citrus pith cutting pleasantly through the rum’s buttery mouthfeel.
“Now we are switching gears to the island of Martinique,” says Beary, breaking out a broad-shouldered bottle of amber liquid. “It’s essentially a French state, so there’s a lot of regulation. Martinique’s Rhum Agricole AOC is an AOC just like you’d have for White Burgundy or any other wine- or spirit-producing region, and one of the criterias of that is that the cane must be pressed within 24 hours of when it was cut. In practice, the cane gets cut, either mechanically or by hand, then it’s loaded into trucks and sent right to the distillery where it gets pressed and dosed with water because the juice has too high a sugar content to start distillation on its own. Then it ferments and is distilled in a column still.”
Though the production method differs, Neisson’s maturation mirrors Jamaica’s Worthy Park, which mellows Agricole’s signature grassy funk and results in a roasty, nutty, and dark fruit-forward sipper that’s more than suitable for the whiskey-inclined. Rich layers of leather, tobacco, anise, and oloroso sherry make up for the slightly thinner mouthfeel.
“So this is aged just the way we saw with the Jamaicans,” explains Beary of the spirit, which spends up to 10 years in mix of new French oak and used bourbon and whiskey barrels. “This could be a rye drinker’s rum, for sure, even scotch whisky. It’s a little bit more interesting—there’s a little bit of pepperiness, a little bit of maybe something vegetal.”
“Something that would appeal to a scotch drinker? Maybe something like this, but it needs a fair bit of explanation,” begins Beary. “This is from Plantation, an independent bottler, and was made by Demerara Distillers Ltd, which is the only distillery in Guyana. As all the distilleries in Guyana closed, Demerara acquired all their stills so they have all these incredible old, weird stills—like, they have a column still made of wood. It’s wild.”
Honey, cedar, and wet cigar dominate the nose on this 2005 bourbon barrel-aged vintage, alongside vanilla, toasty praline, and ripe, juicy pit fruit. Toss in an earthy, cinnamon-laced finish and it all comes together to form something akin to an easy-drinking Speyside single malt. Beary adds that Plantation, owned by France’s Maison Ferrand, often finishes its vintages in Cognac barrels. Their Single Cask line goes a step further, introducing everything from peated whisky and rye barrels to calvados, wine, tequila, and even dry curacao casks to the process. This make the brand a great starting point for whisky devotees looking to branch out into rum.
5. Foursquare 2005 Cask Strength Rum 12 Year Old ($70)
Foursquare Master Distiller Richard Seale is behind this Barbados-born blend of pot still and column still rums, which spent 12 years aging in ex-bourbon barrels before entering the bottle at a whopping 118 proof. According to Beary, Seale is an outspoken advocate for better transparency within the rum community, eschewing common doctoring practices like adding sugar, color, or artificial flavors. Every aspect of this Exceptional Cask Series release—from the soft crème brûlée, ginger bread, and nutty toffee aroma to the fire-roasted plantain, plump Mounds bar, and smoky char that follows—comes from the distillate and the wood. And the time and effort Seale put into the 2005 Cask Strength paid off in spades: The all-natural expression was named Supreme Champion Spirit at the International Spirits Challenge in 2018, and holds the distinction of being the first rum to ever receive the title.
“It’s that little bit of extra proof which, for sipping, is huge,” Beary notes. “I don’t sip on 80 proof spirits. I don’t really do anything with 80 proof spirits. Now that rum distillers have convinced their marketing departments to let them bottle it at a little bit higher proof, we’re only seeing more options and better quality in the category. That’s a trend that I really hope continues. I’ve been to so many distilleries where I’m like, ‘This rum, either from the barrel or off the still, is awesome, but what are you putting in your bottle?’ Because they’re bottling at 80 proof.”
“There’s very few bourbons that you would walk in and buy off the shelf at 80 proof and sip them. Any real quality American whiskey is over-proofed and that’s to your advantage,” he continues. “Proofing, of course, hides some flaws in distilled spirits, so if your intention is for people to sip it, why wouldn’t you bottle it that way? I think the answer is money, marketing, and taxes, but I’m just a bartender giving my opinion, what do I know?”
6. Chairman’s Reserve The Forgotten Casks ($45)
This sepia-tinted rum hails from Chairman’s Reserve casks that were relocated and, yes, subsequently forgotten after St. Lucia Distillers’ devastating 2007 fire. They were discovered several years later and bottled for a limited yet affordable six- to 11-year-old release that has quite an edge over its multi-award-winning younger brother, which clocked in between three and five years. Originally sourced from a mix of Coffey and pot stills and aged separately in Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Buffalo Trace barrels, it was then married inside oak for an additional five years, lending surprisingly complexity to the relatively low 80 proof spirit. Honeyed dates and sweet raisin rises to the fore here, alongside earthy vanilla, marmelade, candied walnuts, and a hint of cigar smoke and spice to keep the sugars in check.
“This is from a cool little distillery in St. Lucia with a really unique still set up,” says Beary, decoding the spirit’s particular makeup. “They have a little John Dore, a big John Dore, a Vendome hybrid still, which is basically a pot still with a column on top, as well as a column still. So they have all the bases covered to make these three really interesting distillates and then blend them together for rums like this.”
7 & 8. Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old ($35) or Appleton Estate 21 Year Old ($110)
“I think the Appleton, both the 12 and the 21, are also good places to go,” says Beary. “The 21 is relatively commonly available and a pretty good value. I mean, in the store, this is around 100 bucks—you’re not going to get 21-year-old whiskey for that.”
Not ready to commit? Dip your toe into aged rum’s ample waters with a bargain bottle of this trusted Jamaican distillery’s 12-year-old Jamaican blend. Distilled from molasses in traditional copper pot stills, it features aromas of ripe bananas pan-fried in brown sugar, bright orange, and a smidge of earthy funk mixed with toasted oak. It’s more sophisticated than expected on the palate—creamy and full-bodied, like a nutty, bittersweet New Orleans-style iced coffee sprinkled with pipe tobacco and baking spices.
For the investor, Beary recommends the Master Blender Joy Spence’s flagship 21-year-old expression. Distilled from molasses and matured for a minimum of 21 years in Number One Select American Oak barrels, the nose is a seductive hodgepodge of candied orange, rich cocoa, freshly ground coffee, and a dash of black pepper. A thick, viscous wash of vanilla, stewed tropical fruit, orange blossom, nutmeg, and brown sugar melt on the palate, culminating in a long, drawn-out leathery finish tempered by espresso, black tea, and dark brown sugar.