Rum vs Whiskey: What Are The Differences?

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: January 28, 2023

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There are many different alcohols out in the world, each of the bottles lined up on the shelves at bars, pubs, and taverns. Each of them comes with a variety of colors and flavors, making certain liquors better for certain mixers. That may lead to wondering about the differences between rum vs whiskey. This guide will help you get straight to the heart of the matter and also help you decide which you may want to try first if you’re new to alcohol.

Table of Contents

Rum vs whiskey - a glass filled with an amber alcohol, ice, and lime.
Can you tell the difference between rum and whiskey?

What is Rum?

Most people are familiar with the famous line from the Pirates of the Caribbean: “Why is the rum always gone?” For hundreds of years, rum has been a prized export from islands throughout the Caribbean. Made from fermented molasses or sugarcane juice, rum is high in alcohol by volume (ABV) and has distinct spiced flavors, like nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Some of the best rums in the world are aged in oak barrels—similar to whiskey—which gives them a mellow flavor profile that goes down easy.

Rum can be consumed neat, on the rocks, or mixed into cocktails. Some of the most famous rum-based cocktails include the Mojito and Pina Colada.

Check out this video on the fascinating history of rum:

How is Rum Made?

Making rum is an involved process that differs from some other types of alcohol, including whiskey. Let’s take a look:

Step 1: The Sugarcane Harvest

Sugarcane, a kind of grass, is commonly used for the production of cane sugar, but it can also be made into alcohol, under the right conditions. In order to produce rum, sugarcane is cut down and then transported for processing. Sugarcane grows well in the Caribbean, thanks to the warm climate and nutrient-rich soil throughout the islands.

Step 2: Juice Extraction

In order to extract sugarcane juice, the crass is chopped, crushed, and squeezed. In the juice is a load of sugar that is essential for fermentation.

Step 3: Fermentation

Fermentation, as you may know, if you have brewed beer at home, is essential when you want to make alcohol. To produce rum, the sugarcane juice is mixed together in a tank with yeast. The yeast begins to break down the sugar, turning it into alcohol over time.

This process is simple, and once the fermentation has been completed, the resulting liquid is called a wash. Though alcoholic, wash is not as boozy as rum or other liquors. A bit more processing must be done to get the rum that all the pirates adore.

Step 4: Distillation

Next comes distillation, where the magic happens. For rum, there are two forms of distillation used: a pot still or column still. Rum is most commonly made with the pot still method.

The fermented juice is first poured into the pot still. The still is heated until the liquid inside is boiling hot. Because alcohol vapors boil before the water in the juice does, they need to be separated. This ensures that any impurities are left behind in the water, while the alcohol is collected, condensed, and made into a liquid. The process is repeated over and over until you have rum.

Step 5: Aging

You may have noticed that there are clear and dark rums. Clear rums, kind of like clear tequila, have not been aged. Clear rum is usually distilled then bottled, and ready for consumption. Keep in mind that there are dark rums that are technically clear but have added coloring and spices, changing the look and flavor of it.

However, the darkest rums are dark because they have been aged inside oak barrels. Whenever alcohol is aged in a wooden barrel, the wood will expand, contract, and start to impart upon the alcohol some of its coloring, flavors, and aromas.

Rum, like whiskey, becomes smoother and more mellow the longer it ages. A light rum will be aged for a year, while others sit for three years or longer.

What is Whiskey?

When talking about rum vs whiskey, it makes sense to mention that they are both distilled spirits. However, that is where some of the similarities end. Whiskey is made from a fermented grain mash that can include ingredients like corn, wheat, barley, and rye. After distillation, whiskey is kept in wooden barrels, giving it a distinct flavor profile.

Interestingly, the word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic phrase for “water of life,” or uisce beatha.

Compared to rum, whiskey is a much older drink, as it has been produced for hundreds of years. Today, the popularity of whiskey is at an all time high. Whiskey distilleries can be found across the globe, with each region crafting something unique.

In the US, rye whiskey and bourbon are the two most popular varieties. Rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye in the grain bill, while bourbon must have at least 51% corn. There are also strict requirements in terms of aging and distilling.

How is Whiskey Made?

When reading about how rum is made, you may have seen the similarities between rum vs whiskey, especially during the aging process.

The difference in how whiskey vs rum is made is the fermentation process. Rather than crushing the ingredients for juice, the grains used in the whiskey are first milled and then mixed with hot water. This is called mashing, as it creates something similar to porridge. Making this mash is essential in preparing cereal grains for fermentation since it unlocks the starches inside the grains.

Otherwise, whiskey distilleries also use pot stills for their liquors and wooden barrels for aging. There may be some differences since the regulations for whiskeys are more strict than those for rum.

Curious to learn more? This video explains how whiskey is made:

Rum vs Whiskey: What Are The Differences?

Although some differences between rum vs whiskey have already been mentioned, such as their sources, origin, and fermentation, here are other ways these two liquors differ:

Ingredients in Rum vs Whiskey

Rum is made from sugarcane that has undergone “sugar refinement,” where the sugars are made into molasses (or black treacle for those readers in the UK). Molasses is thick and syrupy. Sometimes, spices and flavorings are added to rum to create a variety of flavors.

On the other hand, whiskey uses a grain mash. The grains included in the mash have a direct influence on the whiskey. As such, whiskeys tend to have more variability than rum, which uses a single ingredient during the fermentation process.

Rum vs Whiskey—The Different Types

Rum comes in six varieties, while whiskey is far more extensive. This sugarcane-derived alcohol comes in light, gold, spiced, flavored, premium, or dark. Light rum is clear, mellow, and versatile. This is the kind of rum you dilute with lime juice or cola while on a date to calm your nerves.

Gold rum is slightly amber and has aged a little. The flavor is more complex than light or clear rum, but it is not as exquisite as dark rum. Full-bodied and rich, dark rum has matured the longest. The only difference between dark rum and premium rum is the quality of the ingredients.

Then you have spiced and flavored rums, which include additional spices, juices, and liqueurs to make them more appealing. Think Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum. Flavored and spiced rums tend to be sweet and lower in alcohol content than those that are merely distilled and bottled.

In comparison, whiskey has two classifications and many varieties created by its malt and cask type. Whiskeys can be named after what they are made from, such as grain, corn, rye, or malt. There is also bourbon, which must pass specific requirements. You can also name whiskeys by their cask, such as single, blended, or single cask. For example, a single malt is produced at a single distillery and never blended. A single cask is aged in one barrel.

So when it comes to variety, a whiskey lover is going to have far more to sample than a rum drinker, but there are enough of both types that you should never get bored.

Tastes and Aromas in Whiskey vs Rum

One of the areas where rum and whiskey greatly differ is flavor. Depending on how rum is made and which spices or flavors are included, it will have a sweet, sugary flavor. If the rum is aged, that sweetness is combined with elements from the wood, such as caramel, vanilla, and oak accents.

The aroma of rum is reminiscent of the flavor. Give rum a whiff and you will get a sense of just how sweet it will be, as well as a bit of vanilla. Flavored or spiced rum may have a different scent, depending on which spices are included. Nutmeg and cinnamon are common additions.

Conversely, whiskey tastes less sweet, though there are hints of vanilla and oak, thanks to the barrel aging process. The most forward flavors, however, are malt and smoke. The grain bill can alter some of the flavors. Furthermore, if the whiskey was aged in barrels that previously contained bourbon or wine, those flavors will also become part of the final product.

Whiskey tends to have aromas of peat, rain, grass, and wood. Again, this depends on how it was distilled and the ingredients involved.

That said, if you were trying to figure out which is better—rum vs whiskey—you may be stumped. Both alcohols are complex and aromatic. Rum can be just as unique as whiskey, especially when it has been aged. Therefore, the difference comes down to sweetness. Those who like a touch of sugar may find themselves preferring rum to whiskey.

Alcohol Content

How does rum vs whiskey compare in terms of alcohol by volume? There is little difference. Legally, rum must contain 37.5% ABV in Europe and 40% in the US. However, the most common brands in the US, UK, and Europe range between 40-60% ABV. There are some brands of rum that even reach 75% ABV, such as Sunset Very Strong Rum (84.5% ABV) or Bacardi 151 (which was, unfortunately, discontinued back in 2016).

Whiskeys are about the same—ranging 40-50% ABV. That said, there are whiskeys that are lower and higher than this average range. For example, Bruichladdich X4 Quadrupled Scotch Whiskey has a proof of 180! Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye Whiskey is over-proofed at 127.4 proof per bottle.

These higher proof bottles of whiskey have a strong scent of alcohol, but they are smoother than you would think. The same is true for rum. As such, when it comes to ABV, there is not much difference between rum vs whiskey. You can find an array of proofs to suit your needs and preferences.

Whiskey vs Rum For Cocktails

When it comes down to it, you want to know which is better for whipping up cocktails. If you are caught up in choosing between whiskey vs rum, take a moment to consider the flavors mentioned earlier. Whiskey can be strong or mellow, consumed straight, or it can be mixed. Many people love whiskey for cocktails because it does not get diluted by mixers easily. When you make something with whiskey, you know there is whiskey included.

Plus, whiskey blends well with a variety of mixers, making it highly versatile. Consider whiskey or bourbon when you want a delicious Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, Kentucky Mule, Vieux Carre, or Sazerac. Also, you cannot go wrong with whiskey and cola.

Meanwhile, white rum is grassy, almost herbaceous, while dark rum is sweet. These two varieties bring their own unique flavors to cocktails. Plus, rum has an undeniable creaminess that makes whatever cocktail it is in all the more palatable. Truly, the mouthfeel of rum in a cocktail is part of the draw.

Due to the flavors of rum—also as well as its tropical reputation—it is most often blended into cocktails like the Mojito, Dark n’ Stormy, Mai Tai, Daiquiri, and Pina Colada.

Both rum and whiskey are flexible (and sometimes interchangeable). You can use them as the base of many drinks. Your choice depends on what you are making and what kind of flavor you want to experience. If you want something sweet, like summertime in a glass, go with rum. If you want a moody, smoky, or faintly vanilla vibe, choose whiskey.

There Are Many Differences When it Comes to Whiskey vs Rum

All right, quiz time: What are the differences between rum vs whiskey? You should know that rum is made from sugarcane and that whiskey comes from grains. Furthermore, rum is sweeter than whiskey, while whiskey is either peaty or smokey, with some notes of oak in there. Ultimately, whiskey and rum are similar, but you will be able to taste and smell the difference between the two.


Is rum healthier alcohol?

Rum does have health benefits and only 97 calories in a shot. That said, alcohol, no matter the kind, is not healthy. Alcohol can cancel out most of the benefits you may get from drinking alcohol, so keep that in mind when making healthy choices.

Can you drink rum like whiskey?

Yes, you can drink rum like whiskey. Rum can be consumed neat, on the rocks, or blended into a variety of cocktails. Furthermore, rum and whiskey are interchangeable for cocktails like a Mai Tai or Manhattan.

Is rum cheaper than whiskey?

Yes, rum is cheaper than whiskey because sugarcane is inexpensive compared to the grains used to make whiskey.

Which has more sugar, whiskey or rum?

Both rum and whiskey are highly distilled alcohols and, therefore, should contain no added sugars, unless you are buying a flavored or spiced rum. If so, then rum will have more sugar than whiskey.