WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RUM AND BOURBON?

By Lisa Frania — / Coffee Talk

In the world of spirits and cocktails, rum and bourbon are often viewed as one in the same. It's true you’ll see both types of alcohol in the media, on TV and in ads, but because of their unique histories, production and flavor profiles, it’s clear they're definitely not the same. Rum will leave you fantasizing about the Caribbean islands, while bourbon is as American as cowboys and apple pie! Their differences are a bit more complex than that though.   

Here’s a guide all about rum and bourbon to help you buy what’s just right to satisfy your palette, tap into your inner Don Draper (because he always knew what he liked)—and also impress that bartender slinging those drinks! 

Alcohol in glasses on a table[Photo credit: Anastasia Zhenina via Unsplash] 

RUM VS. BOURBON 

What Is Rum? 

If your mind immediately conjures up images of palm trees by tiki bars with your “toes in the water and *ss in the sand,” that’s because most people generally think of rum as a “beach drink.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but rum offers so much more. 

Rum is a distilled liquor made from sugar cane and its most common by-product, molasses. Other by-products include cane sugar, cane juice and syrup. That tie to sugar is why many people view rum as a sweet and fruity liquor and use it as a staple for cocktails. That also makes it an essential bottle for any home bar. Most rums are around 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is why it’s also used more to mix in cocktails versus drinking alone on the rocks. 

What Is Bourbon? 

Bourbon is as American as you can get—the American South, in particular. When you hear “Kentucky bourbon,” thoughts of cowboys, saloons and horses come to mind. You’re definitely on the right track, but there’s quite a bit more to bourbon than that, y’all.  

First of all, bourbon is a specific type of whiskey. That can be a bit confusing to some. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Whiskey is a distilled liquor made from fermented grain—for bourbon, in particular, that grain is corn. Unlike rum that just needs to come from a sugar cane base, you have to meet the criteria—aka follow the rules—to guarantee the consistency and quality of bourbon and to have “bourbon” on the label. Most importantly, bourbon has to be made from 51% corn, aged in charred American oak barrels only, distilled at no higher than 160 proof and made in the United States (but that’s just naming a handful of the rules).  

HISTORY OF RUM VS. BOURBON 

Where Did Rum Come From? 

Rum is generally linked to the Caribbean. Some historians suggest that slaves on sugar cane plantations fermented molasses pulled from the sugar cane, originally calling it rumbulon (“kill devil”). Later, sugar cane was shipped to Asia, Africa, India, Britain and eventually America, with the intent to recreate the rum results. Over time, rum accounted for approximately 80% of the area’s exports, but when molasses become sparse due to the war, the American colonies moved to grain-based spirits (whiskey) instead. That’s when whiskey-making took off and most of the rum production landed back in the Caribbean. Most rums we drink today are still produced there.   

Where Did Bourbon Come From? 

Unlike rum, bourbon doesn’t come from tropical, Caribbean roots; instead, it has European and American roots. Bourbon is most closely associated with Kentucky and the southern United States, where many of the early distilleries were built due to the abundance of corn. So when you hear “Kentucky bourbon,” it's legit. About 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky to this day and must follow specific regulations to put “bourbon” on the label.  

Stacked rum barrels [Photo credit: Marvin L via Unsplash] 

WHAT ARE THE UNIQUE FLAVOR PROFILES OF RUM AND BOURBON? 

What Does Rum Taste Like? 

Simply put, it tastes like the islands. It’s tropical. Pirates. Oceans. Beaches—and barrels of rum. Depending on its production, rum can be separated into two basic categories: white rum and dark rum. The type of rum offers a variety of flavors. White rum, which uses sugar cane juice and sugar cane syrup as its base, is not as sweet and has a lighter taste with a dry finish. This rum offers sweet cane notes combined with notes of plants with a grassy flavor. In contrast, because it’s aged longer (3-5 years) with molasses as the heavier base, dark rum’s flavors are more complex. You’ll taste a wide variety of tropical fruit notes and spices like bananas, coconut, caramel, chocolate, dried fruits, vanilla—and maybe even the molasses and smokiness from the barrel. 

What Does Bourbon Taste Like? 

The taste of bourbon may be a little trickier to pin down compared to rum. That’s because the key flavors of bourbon rely on the base grain and required aging process. In general, bourbon is sweeter than other whiskey variations and features bitter tones. As a result of the corn mash and charred white oak barrel, you’ll taste caramel, vanilla and oak. But remember, distillers can add additional grains that alter the flavor a bit, too.  

If rye is added to the mash, the spices change from hot to warm:  

  • Cinnamon 
  • Cloves 
  • Nutmeg 
  • Allspice  
  • Pepper 

Add wheat to the mash, and it becomes sweeter: 

  • Oatmeal 
  • Cornmeal 
  • Toast 
  • Wheat flakes  
  • Apples/pears 

Add barley, and it becomes a bit more like fall flavors:  

  • Nuts 
  • Ripe apples 
  • Pumpkin pie 
  • Eggnog 

If you’re looking for a specific flavor, you have to look at what else is in the mixture (mash) besides corn, which will have a huge effect on the taste. The length of aging affects the taste by changing it from a light bourbon to a much heavier bourbon. How you drink it—neat or on the rocks—has the potential to dilute the stronger flavors as well. These variables make bourbon very versatile and great for sipping on all by itself—or combining in a mixed drink. 

person holding a glass of bourbon[Photo credit: Clay Banks via Unsplash]   

WHAT ARE THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN RUM AND BOURBON?  

  • Most rum comes from sugar cane, whereas the bourbon is made mostly from corn. 
  • Rum doesn’t have set regulations, whereas bourbon rules are consistent. 
  • Rum can be made anywhere, whereas bourbon can only be made in the US. 
  • Rum is the most varied liquor on the market, whereas bourbon only has a few flavor varieties.  

WHY COFFEE INFUSED WITH RUM AND BOURBON MAKES GREAT BREWS 

If you’re a coffee diehard, you might be thinking, why mess with a good thing? Coffee—a stimulant—combined with alcohol—a depressant—seems like the odd couple at first. But when done right, the two create powerful aromas, complex flavors and buzzworthy benefits that only enhance the drinks.   

That’s why more and more people are getting their “creative juices” flowing and becoming badass master mixologists right at home. Creating cocktails by infusing coffee is a great way to enhance your favorite drinks and make them just a little more interesting. Cheers to a buzz, booze and coffee—we can all drink to that! 

DARK SPIRITS BARREL-AGED CHOCOLATE RUM BALL COFFEE 

It’s time to start getting in the holiday spirit, and by that, we mean with one of our most favored Dark Spirits Barrel-Aged Chocolate Rum Ball flavored whole bean coffee. 

Back from the dead and better than ever, an old favorite is coming back in a whole new way. Formerly known as Barrel Brand, our specialty barrel-aged bold brew has been resurrected. Reborn from the ashes in an all-new look, Dark Spirits serves the same Chocolate Rum Ball flavor you’ve been longing for since 2019—just a little sexier.  

Dark Spirits Barrel-Aged Chocolate Rum Ball Coffee is proof that good things come to those who wait. We start by aging high-quality green arabica coffee in freshly dumped rum barrels. Over time, the coffee absorbs the flavors and aromas of the rum. The rum barrel-aged coffee is then roasted medium and mixed with natural flavors to create the sweet, chocolate and rum-forward coffee you fell in love with when it went by Barrel Brand Chocolate Rum Ball. 

Bag of coffee on table

Get Dark Spirits Barrel-Aged Chocolate Rum Ball for yourself or someone else this holiday season for a limited time.  

Related: Dark Spirits Barrel-Aged Chocolate Rum Ball Coffee Toffee Recipe

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