There are a number of distilleries which put out a whole family of rums. The more common ones available in the US are Appleton, Cruzan, and Mount Gay. Drawing on the scotch analogy again, these distilleries have rums with similar tastes, and the more aged they are usually means the more deep and smooth the drink. Unlike scotches, though, with rums you can't really compare ages across distilleries. Indeed, many rums won't have a specific age listed. The rum analagy to "single malt" is "single barrel" or "single cask", but most rums are blended, and there's no special status given to those that are not.
If you're not familiar with buying rum, three things to watch out for are flavored rums, anything called "rum cream", and 151 proof rum. You don't want to accidentally pick up a bottle of any of those.
Here's my list of favorite and notable rums, organized by price in WA (which is state-controlled; you'll probably find these for 10-20% cheaper in your neck of the woods):
- $15 - Cruzan Black Strap Rum
- A dark, almost black rum in the tradition of the British Navy. Heavy molasses flavor.
- $20 - Goslings Black Seal
- The best all-around rum. Very dark mahogany. Works as a mixer or straight up. Probably a good rum to start with.
- $25 - Cruzan Estate Single Barrel
- A very good medium rum. Probably the best of the Cruzan line.
- $30 - Pyrat Planters XO Reserve
- In my opinion, the best rum available in the US for under $100. Medium-dark, very complex flavor. Elegant packaging.
- $35 - Pampero Aniversario
- Very strong flavor, but no subtlety at all. An interesting rum from a technical standpoint.
- $35 - Mount Gay Extra Old
- Very good, medium rum; slightly sharp. For a long while, Mount Gay was my default brand, and the Extra Old was my favorite. I guess my tastes have changed as I've gotten older.
- $45 - Ron Zacapa Centenario 23yr
- An excellent medium rum, in an unusual plant-wrapped bottle.
- $50 - Coyopa Rum
- A very good medium-dark rum, in a musical bottle. May be hard to find.
- $250 - Pyrat Cask 23
- I've never had this because it's ~$250 a bottle. I very badly want to.
- ??? - Blackbeard's Reserve 24 year (port morant (guyana))
- I had a glass of this at Opus in Madison, and it's the best rum I've ever had. Very smooth and complex, with finish for days. I cannot find anyone who sells this in the US. If you ever find a bottle for less than $250 (fair/expected price would be in the $120-$150 range, but someone may be upcharging), PLEASE buy it for me. Even two if you can. I will pay you back, guaranteed. Apparently there are some similarly named rums that are not the same. The "24 year" part is important; no other number will do.