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Basics: Feeling Fiery? The Down Low on Overproof Rum

Basics: Feeling Fiery? The Down Low on Overproof Rum

Possibly you’ve seen “overproof rum” listed as an ingredient in cocktails, most likely tropical-style drinks, which often call for multiple rums. These high-octane spirits aren’t all the same—they hail from various regions and countries, are made using different production methods and yield varied flavor profiles. But they have at least a couple of things in common: They’re all rum, meaning they’re a spirit distilled from sugarcane, and they’re strong.

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What Does Overproof Mean?

Before we dive into “overproof,” let’s look at “proof,” or alcohol by volume (abv). Essentially, proof indicates the amount of alcohol that’s in a beverage. In the United States, a spirit’s proof is simply double the abv. The vast majority of spirits—including rum—are bottled at 40% alcohol by volume, or 80 proof.

The simplest way to define overproof is that it’s stronger—often much stronger—than the 80-proof baseline.

How Much Alcohol Is in Overproof Rum?

Here’s where it gets tricky: The U.S. government doesn’t officially recognize “overproof” as a spirits category, in rum or anything else. That doesn’t stop rum producers from using the term, and there’s a wide range of what might constitute overproof rum.

Some say “overproof” begins north of 45% abv, or 90 proof. Most will argue the dividing line is 50% abv, or 100 proof. (Smith & Cross, for example, clocks in at 57% abv).

Others go considerably higher, like Lemon Hart 151 and El Dorado 151. Both of those rums are so named because they’re bottled at a tongue-searing 151 proof, or 75.5% abv. (Some consider 151 Rum to be its own overproof sub-category. They’re usually white rums, and particularly sought-after for those seeking to set drinks on fire.)

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What’s the Difference Between Overproof Rum and Navy-Strength Rum?

“Navy rum” refers to the daily allotment of rum given to sailors aboard British Royal Navy ships starting in the mid-1700s (a practice suspended on July 31, 1970, dubbed Black Tot Day). The term is still used in marketing of certain aged rums today.

Navy-strength rum loosely intersects with those long-held seafaring rum traditions.

“One oft-told story is that back in the day, rum in a ship’s hold might inadvertently mix with gunpowder, potentially rendering the gunpowder unusable,” explain Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith in Modern Caribbean Rum. “However, if the rum was high enough in alcohol, the gunpowder would still ignite. Thus, the navy required rums to be a minimum percentage of alcohol.” Specifically, navy strength (established by the admiralty in 1866) is 54.5% abv.

In short, navy strength is more specific than “overproof.” That said, most pros would likely consider navy-strength rum to also be overproof.

Also of note: “navy strength” is not limited to rum—a number of navy-strength gins also exist.

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What’s the Difference Between Cask-Strength or Barrel-Strength Rum and Overproof Rum?

“Cask strength” or “barrel strength” usually means the spirit (rum or otherwise) was bottled directly from the barrel, without water added to dilute the strength of the spirit. Many of these spirits are bottled at around 50% abv, but there are no hard-and-fast rules around that. Many cask-strength rums may also be regarded as overproof.

How Should I Drink Overproof Rum?

That depends on the exact proof of the rum. Since higher proof often equals more robust flavor, many rums bottled around the 50% abv range or lower are suitable to enjoy neat, or adjusted to taste with water or ice.

Meanwhile, many aged rums bottled around the 60% range can be gorgeous, full-flavored sippers (again, adjust to taste with water or ice). Some bartenders also reach for these rums to add flavor or strength to cocktails, usually pouring a small amount alongside other ingredients. Other pros use these higher-octane spirits to create bespoke blends using one or more other rums of varying strengths. Smith & Cross is a particular pro favorite for mixing.

As for those bottled at 70% or higher, including those 151 proofers (75.5% abv): Handle with care, especially around anything flammable.

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Try These Overproof Rums

Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum

A top pick for tiki and tropical drinks, this practically begs for lime juice. Scented with warm honey notes, the palate shows lots of brown sugar and spice, plus an enticingly untamed, funky finish (the fabled *hogo*). Since it’s “navy strength,” you might not want to sip it straight up—the producer wisely recommends exploring the profile first in a daiquiri—though it’s smooth and interesting enough if you want to try. 95 Points  — Kara Newman 

Total Wine & More

Hampden Estate Great House 22

Look for a honey hue and complex aroma that melds nuanced smoke and funk, tropical and stone fruit. Of note, this is an overproof spirit, bringing both flavor and fire. Ripe and cooked banana drizzled with honey fades into a long, drying finish with nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne, and a fleeting peanut note. 95 Points  — K.N.


Amagi 9 Year Old Rum

Made from kokuto sugar, this Japanese rum has a deep nut-brown hue and deep aromas of roasted coffee, toffee and leather. Since it’s overproof, add some water to let the cocoa and espresso bloom along with dried cherry and fig—the long, warming finish displaying subtle violet and torched cinna-mon. 94 Points  — K.N.

Park Avenue Liquor

Denizen Vatted Dark Rum

This is a blend of 80% dark rum produced in Guyana on antique stills, and 20% unaged rhum agricole from Martinique. The end result is a deep copper hue and rich, toasty aromas that evoke browned butter and toffee. The palate opens with cinnamon bark and cayenne, a savory mesquite note and hint of tropical fruit, then slides into a long mocha finish enlivened with lemon and orange peel. 92 Points  — K.N.

Total Wine & More

Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum

Built to mix—or ignite, depending on your cocktail proclivities. This clear rum has a mild, marshmallow-like scent and a fleeting hint of coconut sweetness on the palate, which is quickly enveloped by powerful alcohol heat—this is an overproof rum, after all. Once diluted, hints of coconut and lime zest emerge. 86 Points  — K.N.

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