Rum, in our humble estimation, is the finest application of sugar cane known to man. It’s made from a distillate of either the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup or sugar cane molasses.
“For me, rum is the most diverse and fascinating of any category of spirits,” says Brandon Wise, mixologist and beverage director for the Sage Restaurant Group. “Its history is rich, and rum trade was one of the primary influences that helped shape the Western world as we know it today.”
The origins of rum lie in the Caribbean islands, where modern rum production got its start and where island nations continue to produce the majority of the world’s sugar cane spirits.
“Fortunately, the rum category is gaining popularity in the United States, and new expressions continue to make their way to our bars and shelves,” says Wise. Whether aged patiently in oak barrels, blended or bottled straight from the still, rum offers a myriad of flavor profiles that are perfect for the summer months.
Throw out all of your preconceptions of rum. If you have any negative associations with cheap versions of this summery spirit, give it another chance, but be sure to look out for the higher proof, higher price-point and artisan varieties. The best new and forward-thinking distillers and blenders are taking rum to a new place – a place of higher craft on a higher shelf, in your cabinet and in your glass.
The History of Rum
Rum, in the modern sense, began in the 17th century. In some form, it is likely that it was discovered much earlier. By the late 1600s and early 1700s, rum production exploded in Barbados, and in the early days it was called “Kill Devil” and likely tasted as harsh as the name implied.
“You know the saying ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure? Well that’s how rum started,” says Marta Gebo, bartender at Ways & Means Oyster House in Huntington Beach, California. When you make sugar from sugar cane the by-product is molasses. “In the Caribbean, they discovered that instead of throwing the molasses away, they could make rum.” If there has ever been a better use for an industrial waste, we’ve never heard of it.
In the USA, rum production was once one of the largest industries in New England. “Politicians would sway voters by giving them free rum,” says Gebo. “The British Navy would give their sailors a daily ration. In Australia rum was so valued it could be used instead of money. The Australians loved rum so much that when the governor tried to regulate it, they threw him in jail.”
How Rum is Made
There is no standard for making rum. “All you have to do is start with sugar cane. Of course it has to go through the normal process for making a spirit: fermentation, distillation, aging and blending,” says Diana Dermody, bartender at Ways & Means Oyster House in Huntington Beach, California. “But how these steps are done is up to the whim of the distiller.”
Most rum produced is made from molasses. Yeast and water are added to the base ingredient to start the fermentation process. “While some rum producers allow wild yeasts to perform the fermentation, most use specific strains of yeast to help provide a consistent taste and predictable fermentation time,” says Jonathan Moore, Bar Manager at Skyloft in Laguna Beach, California.
Why is Rum Made With Molasses?
The most common rum is the variety made from molasses. “With molasses you can make many different varieties,” says Dermody. “You can make light rums, gold rums, dark rums, flavored rums, spiced rums and on and on.” One of Dermody’s favorite rums is overproof rum. “Not because it tastes great, but because I love watching videos of people trying to do flaming shots of it. Trust me, you want to Google this.”
How and Why Rum is Aged
Many countries require rum to be aged for at least one year. This aging is commonly performed in used bourbon casks, but may also be performed in other types of wooden casks or stainless steel tanks.
The aging process determines the color of the rum. “When aged in oak casks, it becomes dark, whereas rum aged in stainless steel tanks remains virtually colorless,” says Moore. Light rum is un-aged, but there is also dark rum, aged rum, over-proof (high alcohol) rum and pot still rum.
The rum is also greatly impacted by how it’s aged. “The type of wood, how long, whether it is a new barrel or a barrel previously used to make a different liquor, all give each type of rum its own flavor,” says Gebo. “So, I guess I’m saying rums are like snowflakes. Each one is unique. If snowflakes were made out of rum, I would start skiing a whole lot more!”
The Different Types of Rum
There are many expressions of rum, including French style (Agricole/Rhum), Spanish/Puerto Rican (Ron), English, Jamaican and Black Strap. Each has its own particular recipe and nuances that make it different from the rest.
There are rums from Antigua, Barbados, Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. Lucia, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands, just to name a few. Rum has something for everyone, and even if you think you don’t like it, you probably just need to shop around.
“Don’t let a bad experience you had in college drinking Mohawk 151° and Kool-Aid inform the rest of your life decisions about mixed drinks,” says Josh Loving, bartender and part-owner of Small Victory in Austin, Texas. “If you drink a proper daiquiri and don’t enjoy it, it doesn’t mean you don’t like rum, it means you don’t like drinking certain cocktails.”
Why is Rum Blended?
After aging, rum is normally blended to ensure a consistent flavor. Blending is the final step in the rum-making process. “As part of this blending process, light rums may be filtered to remove any color gained during aging. For darker rums, caramel may be added to adjust the color of the final product,” Moore explains.
Why Rum is a Great Spirit For Summer
The Tiki/Polynesian craze of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s established rum as a summer vacation spirit. “It mixes well with all sorts of fruits & juices and I think people tend to associate that with summer,” says Loving.
Of course, rum’s history is based in the Caribbean, which gives it an additional summer vibe. “In the 1600s, rum was produced on islands with a history of mass sugar production,” says Dermody. “Rum made from molasses is created with the industrial waste or end product of sugar production.”
How to Use Rum in Cocktails
“I’m a big fan of tiki drinks, so nothing screams summer to me like a rum-based island drink,” says Nick Digiovanni, bartender at Público in St. Louis, Missouri. “The classic Daiquiri is the most notable and delicious when done right.”
The recent rebirth of Tiki within contemporary cocktail culture has helped catalyze a resurgence in mixing drinks with rum. Arguably the greatest and most perfect cocktail of all time is the aforementioned Daiquiri. “I’m not referring to the blendy sugar bombs you might find along Bourbon Street or on the Vegas strip,” says Wise. “I’m talking about the simple and harmonious mixture of rum, fresh lime juice and sugar that when shaken over ice can temper the most savage summer heat.”
Rum shines in simple cocktails. It has the moxie to stand up to a litany of bold flavors one might find in the hundreds of exotic Tiki cocktails made famous by Trader Vic Bergeron. “Try it in a Jungle Bird cocktail using Cruzan Blackstrap Rum or lit ablaze in a Volcano Bowl shared amongst friends,” says Wise.
“However you drink your rum, I encourage you to employ your most daring and inquisitive instincts and explore the many diverse styles of rum that we are fortunate to have available to us today.”
What do the daiquiri, mai tai, pina colada, zombie, mojito, hurricane, dark and stormy and rum punch have in common? As we’re sure you guessed, they are all made with rum. Given that there are so many varieties, rum is arguably the most versatile spirit in the world, so get experimenting!
In case you missed it, check out our comprehensive guide to whisky.
- Words: Christopher Osburn
- Main image: Bacardi