Three years ago, my wife and I stayed for nearly a week at an Airbnb in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of the most pressing decisions we faced when we arrived was what would be our house rum—the bottle we could sip from after difficult days of doing nothing. We settled on Ron del Barrilito, a medium-priced rum said to be loved by locals for both drinking on its own or mixing into cocktails.
For me, someone with limited rum knowledge, Barrilito was a revelation—every bit as complex and layered as a good whiskey, with a sweet, irresistable aroma. My wife and I brought some home, and then started looking for it in local stores, too.
Barrilito comes in two main types: two stars (aged three to five years) and three stars (aged six to 10 years). A four-star variety available only at the distillery in Puerto Rico can be aged up to 20 years, while a five-star bottle is aged up to 35 years. Both are beyond my price point.
The history of the rum goes back to 1880. That's when Pedro Fernández began making rum on a family estate after studying chemical engineering in France, where he also learned about European spirits like cognac. He made special blends he kept in small barrels—barrilitos in Spanish, hence the name.
The rum's formula hasn't changed since then, and for decades has been a favorite of Puerto Ricans.
"It has the reputation as the rum of Puerto Rico," says Edouardo Bacardi, Barrilito's director of sales and marketing. "You can ask 100 bartenders, 'What should I drink?' Ninety-nine out of 100 will tell you, 'Ron del Barrilito.' It's their go-to. It's very ingrained in Puerto Rican history."
Barrilito has not always been widely available in the mainland U.S., but that has changed in recent years. New owners have invested $12 million to build an attractive new visitors center and to help the distillery increase its output, specifically with an eye toward increasing the rum's presence in U.S. stores.
Bacardi calls Florida a "key" market for the distillery. In years past, Barrilito could be tough to find at chains like Total Wine & More or ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, but that seems to be changing. You should be able to find it on shelves in the Sarasota area.
The rum is crafted by master blender Luis Planas, who has made rum in Puerto Rico for more than 40 years. "We would not be here without him," says Bacardi. Planas blends the rum base with macerations of 25 different fruits and spices before the final mix is aged in oloroso sherry casks. "That's where a lot of the sweetness comes from," according to Bacardi.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the lower-priced two-star Barrilito is good for cocktails, while three stars is best saved for sipping, but, in my experience, the distinction doesn't matter all that much. Both are great on their own, or when mixed.
The Barrilito website offers a generous list of recipes. The "Barrilito old fashioned" or a classic corn and oil both accent the rum's flavor without upstaging it. I think I'll go make one right now. It's been three years since my wife and I returned from San Juan, and Barrilito is still our house rum.