Rum is a spirit distilled from one of the byproducts of sugar cane. Rum is made throughout the world, but the historical and practical center of rum production is the Caribbean. Rum can be made in a variety of ways, with good examples being made with column stills and pot stills, from sugar cane juice, molasses, or cane syrup. Rums can be unaged, overproof, or aged in barrel for a period of time to pick up color and flavor. Some rums are colored with caramel.
Rhum is a type of rum centered around the French speaking islands of Martinique and Guadalupe. Rhum Agricole is a rum made from sugar cane juice. Some agricole rhum is allowed AOC Martinique status — regulated by the French government as with wine and cheese.
The history of rum production dates back hundreds of years. Sugar cane is native to Papua New Guinea, and was brought first to Asia, then into the Caribbean in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. By the 17th century, rum was being distilled there. While the etymology of the word is unclear, many people think it comes from the English word rumbullion, meaning an uproar or tumult.
As rum is made using a byproduct of sugar refining, it was relatively inexpensive, and became hugely popular. Distilleries appeared in the American colonies, and to satisfy the need of each party, Triangular Trade between the colonies, England, and the Caribbean sprang up, delivering molasses to the colonies, sugar to England, and slaves to the Caribbean to provide a labor force.
Between 1655 and July 31st, 1970 (known as Black Tot day), sailors in the British Navy were allowed a daily ration of rum. In the mid-18th century, a mixture of water, lime and rum known as grog was invented, mainly to reduce the effect of rum on the sailors.
With the rising popularity of American whiskey, rum's popularity and its production declined during the 19th century in the United States.
Rum production is fairly simple. It all starts with sugar cane. Sugar cane is washed, crushed, and pressed. Fermentation can take place using the fresh juice, or the juice can be boiled into a stable syrup, which allows producers to distill year round. Many rums are made using molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining. Molasses is diluted with water, then fermented as with cane syrup. Each base product makes a different style of rum. Fermentation can be either native or by the addition of commercial yeast.
Distillation can take place in a column or continuous still or in a pot still. Column stills produce a lighter, cleaner rum, and pot stills produce heavier, more flavorful, but less clean styles. Rum comes out of the still at between 140 and 190 proof. A type of rum known as cachaça is indigenous to Brazil and comes from the still at between 76 and 98 proof. Batavia Arrack is made in Indonesia from sugar cane juice, but the fermentation is kicked off using a native red rice, giving the resulting spirit a musky, buttery aroma and flavor.
Overproof rums are diluted slightly, then bottled. Some producers dilute their rums close to bottling strength before aging in barrel, but some prefer to age their rum at close to still strength, which speeds the extraction of alcohol-soluble compounds from the wood.
The many variables of rum production, coupled with a lack of legal oversight leads to many different styles and flavor profiles in the finished product. The best way to categorize rum is by the languages spoken in the places they're made.
First are the Spanish style rums, which include those made in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. These are typically lighter and smoother in style.
Second are rums from the English speaking parts of the Caribbean: Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Jamaica. These are typically heavier, with lots of estery-fruity notes, spicy flavors, and a strong base of molasses flavor.
Last are rums that come from the French speaking islands of Martinique, Haiti and Guadaloupe. These are made from cane juice, and are often called Rhum Agricole. Production requirements are typically stricter here, and Martinique in particular classifies some of their rhums as AOC Martinique.
Rum can also be classified by its color, with the caveat that darker color does not imply longer aging or higher quality, as they can be colored with caramel. Due to the lack of legal restrictions and guidelines, it it up to the individual producer to classify their rums.
All rum leaves the still colorless. Some are reduced in strength with water and bottled immediately as Light, Silver, or White rum. These are typically delicate, with aromas of tropical fruits, flowers and honey. Some white rums are aged, then the color is removed with activated charcoal, leaving a rum that is colorless, but rounded over due to oxidation of the spirit. A current trend is to take a white rum and flavor it as with vodka. A forerunner of this trend is spiced rum, which is darker in color and flavored with spices. Captain Morgan and Sailor Jerry are two examples of spiced rums.
Gold (or Amber) rum can refer to a rum that is either aged for a short period of time, or lightly caramel colored to provide a gold hue. Many producers make a rum in this style.
Dark rum can be made by either aging rum in heavily charred oak barrels, aging the rum for an extended period of time, or heavily coloring the rum with caramel. Flor de Cana 7, Meyer's and Cruzan Blackstrap are some examples of dark rum.
Añejo (aged) rum is rum that is aged, but again, there are no legal definitions of what "aged" means. Bacardi makes an añejo rum.
There are a few countries that require minimum aging requirements to be met for rum production. Puerto Rico requires one year, and Venezuela requires two. If the word Vieux (old) is on a French rum, it must be aged for three years.
While there are hundreds of producers of rum in the world, here are some good examples, categorized by language and country
- Bacardi (Cuba, now Puerto Rico) — A huge brand, with a vast line of rums in all styles, including flavored.
- Havana Club (Cuba) — A range of aged rums, designated with the year, including the extra-añejo Maximo. Illegal in the US.
- Flor de Cana (Nicaragua) — Another solid producer with age designates on the label.
- Brugal (Dominican Republic) — Founded in 1888.
- Matusalem (Dominican Republic) — Formerly Cuban. Produces Platino (silver), Clasico (amber), and Gran Reserva (añejo)
- Oronoco (Brazil) — Made from cane juice. Possibly discontinued.
- Centenario (Costa Rica) — Made from cane juice.
- Zacapa (Guatemala) — Made from cane syrup. Uses a solera system of aging, with 15 and 23 year designations.
- Diplomatico (Venezuela) — Made from cane syrup. Blanco (2 years old), Añejo (max 4 years old), Reserva (a blend of rums between 2 and 8 years old), and Reserva Especial (80% "heavy" rums and 20% "light" rums).
- Mount Gay (Barbados) — Founded in 1703, they claim the title "Oldest Rum Distillery". Eclipse (Gold), and Eclipse Silver.
- Pyrat (Anguilla) — Supposedly aged in barrels that previously held orange liqueur.
- Gosling's (Bermuda) — Makers of "Black Seal", a dark rum integral to the Dark and Stormy.
- Pusser's (British Virgin Islands) — Made from the original British Admiralty recipe. "Pusser's" is a corruption of the word "Purser's", the person on a ship who dealt out the rum ration.
- Westerhall Plantation (Grenada) — Made from cane juice in pot stills.
- Ten Cane (Trinidad and Tobago) — Made from cane juice.
- Angostura (Trinidad and Tobago) — Made by the producer of Angostura bitters.
- Cruzan (U.S. Virgin Islands) — Column distilled. Aged Rum, 151 proof, Blackstrap, and #9, a spiced rum.
- Appleton (Jamaica) — White, Gold, V/X, Estate Reserve, 21 and 30 year aged, 250th Anniversary.
- Demerara Distillers (Guyana) — Demerara Rum. The last distillery in Guyana, they provide rum for Lemon Hart and Pussers. Their El Dorado label is particularly good, and a benchmark for the style, especially the 15 year.
- Clement (Martinique) — AOC Martinique. Makers of Creole Shrubb, a liqueur of citrus and "Creole spices" in a rhum base.
- Niesson (Martinique) — AOC Martinique. White rhums at 50, 55 and 70 proof, aged rhums, vintage rhums.
- La Favorite (Martinique) — AOC Martinique. Coeur d'Canne (white), Coeur d'Ambre (gold), 15 and 25 year old rhums.
- Barbancourt (Haiti) — White rhum, Three Star (4 years old), Five Star (8 years old), Estate Reserve (15 years old).