Cocktail Party double old-fashioned, Lauren Ralph Lauren ($60/set of four). Brenna charger tray, Ralph Lauren Home, ($395).

You may think you know rum. In recent years, the spirit has dubiously become synonymous with canned island vacations, rowdy college bars or, at the very least, frothy and sweet frozen drinks capped off with cocktail umbrellas and questionable bar fruit. But if you haven’t tried its deluxe, aged varieties—rich with subtle, captivating notes like vanilla, molasses, chocolate, and oak—you don’t know the full story.

Like wine, many mature rums are stored in oak barrels and can be aged for five years, 20 years, or more, explains Vance Henderson, beverage and nightlife manager at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar (801 Ninth St. NW, 202-408-1600). The longer the spirit sits, the more color and flavor it will pull out of the barrel, he adds, noting that these varieties also become more mellow and have less bite over time.

Many producers age spirits in a mixed style known as solera, topping off barrels with “younger” rums and drawing from the bottom. Black Tot Rum, for instance, was a British Naval concoction for centuries before its last solera-style blends were sealed 40-plus years ago. Bourbon Steak (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-944-2026) now serves this mahogany-hued libation with Navy roots to its discriminating clients; a two-ounce portion sells for about $200. “You’re tasting a piece of history with the rum,” says the restaurant’s head bartender, Jamie MacBain. “It’s really pretty cool.”

To enjoy the full flavor profile of these varieties, don’t dilute your taste of history with juice or soda. “I think that part of what’s driving the explosion in rum now is that people are more willing to try it neat rather than mixing it,” says MacBain, pointing to the fact that rums aged in different countries and in different climates have different notes, partly because rum is one of the least regulated spirits. For instance, Vizcaya VXOP, a premium Dominican product, has notes of butterscotch, honey, and caramel; Zaya’s 12-year-old estate rum features notes of vanilla, caramel, and cocoa. “When you get into aged rum, you really want to experience it for itself. It is more than a mixer,” Henderson adds.

If you must have your aged rum blended in a cocktail, MacBain and Henderson suggest ordering it in an authentic Cuban mojito. Henderson says you can substitute a younger variety in a sidecar, or warm up with a café Cuba Libre featuring aged rum instead of spiced. MacBain is also using 15-year-old Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti in a classic cocktail called El Presidente, which includes dry vermouth and grenadine.

But both bartenders recommend sipping neat first, with Henderson allowing one ice cube dropped in to open up the rum. “If you’re used to drinking a Scotch or a bourbon or whiskey, ask your bartender to guide you to [an aged] rum that’s in the same plane,” he says. “These are luxury and boutique brands. When it comes to rums, really what you pay for is what you get.”

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