Get to Know This Renowned Puerto Rican Rum
What makes Barrilito special, other than the fact that non–Puerto Ricans have to get a personal introduction to the stuff, is that it’s aged in sherry casks.
To know Ron del Barrilito is to love it, but introductions are hard to come by. The proudly Puerto Rican rum was born in 1871, when Pedro F. Fernandez returned to Bayamon, a city south of San Juan. Finished with his engineering studies in France, he was inspired to make a rum that could rival the flavors of brandies and cognacs. Since 1880, Barrilito has used the same formula for their two expressions (2 star, aged 3 years; 3 star, aged 6 to 10). But it was only in 2015 that they launched a website, and it’s only more recently that word has begun to spread beyond the island.
“I visited San Juan several years back, and all I saw behind bars were bottles of Bacardí and Don Q,” says co-founder and editor of Bevvy Kevin Gray. “I asked a bartender about other local options and learned about Ron del Barrilito. It proved surprisingly difficult to find, but the deeper I ventured into San Juan, and the farther I got from the tourist-heavy port, the more I found it. Ron del Barrilito 3 Stars, neat, became my drink of choice for the remainder of that trip.”
What makes Barrilito special, other than the fact that non–Puerto Ricans have to get a personal introduction to the stuff, is that it’s aged in sherry casks, giving it a deep warmth. “I think that it's a very expressive Spanish-style rum,” says owner of Louisville bar Meta, Jeremy Johnson. “It demonstrates the terroir of Puerto Rico but absolutely has its own unique style. The sherry cask aging really shines through.”
That approach to aging also makes it a favorite rum among whiskey drinkers. Ron de Barrilito “is not like other rums,” says Jillian Désiré Oliveras, head bartender at San Juan’s 1041 Gastronomía de Barrio. “For me, it resembles something like a brandy or a whiskey — and I am definitely a whiskey, dark spirits gal.”
“I think there's a combination of things that gets people hooked on it,” she explains. “For starters, the flavor: It's got hints of spice without technically being a spiced rum; it's got a nuttiness to it as well that is simply delightful.”
Another major point in Barrilito’s favor? The fact that it’s a small, family-owned business in a sea of major brands. “I think having been to the actual facility, you realize how it truly is a tiny family business and is utilizing proprietary techniques that are seriously labor-intensive and 100 percent by hand,” says Johnson. “Barrilito is a very human product.”
Gray echoes that sentiment: “They keep a really low profile, so they're easy to root for. None of that matters if the rum doesn't taste good, but fortunately it does.”
Back home in Texas, drinking the 3-star neat continues to be Gray’s favorite way to sip, but he tosses the 2-star into a daiquiri. For Johnson, splitting equal parts Barrilito and a funky Jamaican rum makes for a brilliant Painkiller that can take you back to the tropics.
On the island, though? There’s nothing like a straight-up shot of Barrilito to make you feel at home. “I'm all about a shot of Barrilito and a Medalla [local beer] chaser,” says Oliveras. “I even had an item at my old bar which we called ‘Lucía y Tefo’ that simply consisted of a Barrilito shot and a Medalla.”
That tradition is key to getting visitors hooked on it. “Our culture is based on warmth of heart, and sharing moments and experiences with others, and the shot kind of does that for people,” she says. “It brings people together; Barrilito has become the go-to shot.”
Of course, that has its risks, too. As San Juan–based bartender Irvin Roberto Cofresí jokes, “My liver cannot take any more Barrilito.”
In terms of cocktails, Oliveras also recommends using the rum in a daiquiri. “I've got a daiquiri twist on my menu that's Barrilito, Averna, lemon/lime, simple syrup, and a bit of Angostura bitters,” she says. “I call it the Ms. Stein's Getaway, and if edible flowers are available, that's what I garnish it with. It's light, refreshing and simply beautiful!”
Next time you head into your local liquor shop, check for Ron del Barrilito — or book a trip to the island and prepare to do plenty of shots. Either way, try to make its acquaintance.
“It's a quality rum that remains accessible,” Oliveras notes. “There's something really beautiful in that.”