- Rum is a distilled alcohol made from sugar cane.
- The history of rum overlaps with the history of the Caribbean, including that of the pirates.
- Rum is an extremely diverse category of spirits that can be enjoyed in many ways.
The mere mention of rum conjures up images of tropical beaches, refreshing cocktails and pirate ships. But what exactly is rum? And how is it made?
Simply put, rum is a distilled alcohol made from sugar cane and its by-products.
Rum was first made in the tropical islands of the Caribbean, where it remains one of the region’s most important cultural and economic exports.
“Rum is a product that is not well understood,” says Joaquín Bacardí, president of Ron del Barrilito. There is a diversity, complexity and nuance in rum that is often overlooked.
To learn more about the history of rum and how it’s made, we caught up with Bacardí and master blender Luis Planas, two of the experts at the helm of Puerto Rico’s oldest rum producers, Ron del Barrilito.
History of rum
The origins of rum are murky. Records are sparse and historians cannot fully agree on when and where it was first invented, but it is believed to have originated on the Caribbean island of Barbados in the 17th century.
Rum is inextricably linked to the history of European colonization of the Americas and the economic influences that drove it. “For centuries, much of the Caribbean’s economy was based on sugar cane,” says Planas. “People use what surrounds them to make spirits.” Rum is usually made from molasses, which was a by-product of the sugar cane production process.
“Rum has generated another economy,” says Bacardí. “If you have a secondary product that you can sell from the same crop, you maximize your income.” After this realization, rum production boomed as an integral part of maritime trade between the colonies and Europe.
Beyond its existence as a commodity, rum was distributed as a daily ration to sailors and mixed with lime juice to ward off scurvy. The rum quickly became a target of theft, attracting pirates from all over the Caribbean Sea.
During Prohibition, wealthy Americans flocked to Cuba and other nearby Caribbean islands, where alcohol consumption was still legal. After Prohibition ended, the rum craze persisted and it remained a fixture behind bars around the world.
How is rum made?
Although rum is made all over the world with different production methods, there is one thing that unites all rums: they are distilled from sugar cane and its by-products.
Despite these commonalities, very varied production methods give the different rums unique characters. Although the rum distillation process works essentially the same everywhere with the same basic steps, there are a few choices made at each stage that can influence color, flavor, and aroma.
- Ingredients: All rum is produced from by-products of sugar cane production. Molasses is the most common base, but sugar cane juice is also used in Martinique to make Rhum Agricole.
- Fermentation: Sugarcane is mixed with yeast and water and left to ferment. “Fermentation breaks down sugar into alcohol and other compounds,” says Planas.
- Distillation: The fermented sugar cane is then heated and condensed in a process known as distillation. Distillation creates a concentrated liquor with a high percentage of alcohol by volume. Rum is made using column stills and pot stills. Each type of distillation changes the overall character of the finished rum.
- Aging in barrels: Like whiskey and cognac, rums are often aged in oak barrels. Barrel aging allows the harsher flavors of the rum to mellow and adds caramel and vanilla flavors from the oak barrels. “The aging factor in warmer climates is accelerated,” says Bacardí. “Rum does not need to be aged as long as whiskey to achieve similar maturation.”
Types of rum
Rum might be the most diverse category of spirits on the planet. “Each individual grower has their own formulation, their own flavor profile, and the aromas they are looking for,” says Bacardí.
There is no widely accepted method of categorization. Traditionally, rums have been graded by color, but color is not always a useful indication of age or flavor, as filtration and added coloring are common in rum production. Despite this diversity, the most common types of rum can be broken down into a few useful distinctions.
- White Rum: This style of crystalline rum, characterized by the ubiquitous Bacardí Superior, is the most common in the world. While many clear spirits like vodka and gin are unaged, white rums are usually lightly aged and then filtered through charcoal to remove their color. Light rums tend to have a more neutral flavor and are often used in tropical cocktails where fresh fruit juices are the star of the show.
- Golden rum: Sometimes called Spanish rum, this style is usually made from a near-neutral molasses-based distillate that is barrel-aged to add color and flavor. This process results in a bright amber-colored rum with aromatic notes of fruit with hints of caramel and vanilla.
- Dark rum: Sometimes known as dark rum, this category is known for its dark brown, sometimes black, color. The color of this rum may come from barrel aging, artificial coloring or the addition of molasses to the rum after distillation. Dark rums tend to be rich in flavor and less fruity, with more emphasis on dark caramel and vanilla notes.
- Jamaican rum: Jamaican rum is known for its distinct flavor known locally as “hogo”. These rums are made in pot stills, so the distillate has more body and character than pre-aged Spanish-style rums. Jamaican rums are unique with sometimes pungent flavor notes of bananas and ripe fruit. Appleton Estate, Smith & Cross and Doctor Bird all produce this style of rum with varying degrees of funk.
- Agricultural Rum: Rhum Agricole is the signature rum of the island of Martinique. While most rums are made from fermented molasses, Rhum Agricole is made from pressed sugar cane juice and is not always aged. This gives it a grassy, fresh flavor that sets it apart from molasses-based rums.
- Cachaca: Originally from Brazil, Cachaça is a spirit made from sugar cane juice. It is best known as the base of the Caipirinha, where it is mixed with crushed lime and sugar.
- Spiced rum: Spiced rums are a new addition to the category, but due to heavy marketing in the United States, they have become one of the most popular styles. Spiced rums like Captain Morgan or The Kraken are infused with spices, extra sugar and other flavors after the distillation process.
How is rum different from other types of alcohol?
Where rum stands out from other spirits like whiskey or gin is its diversity. Rum is currently made in around 60 different countries, each with their own traditions. Due to production differences, two rums from different parts of the world may look, smell and taste like different spirits.
Due to the wide variety of rums, it may seem like there are no regulations in place, but there are. “Rums are well regulated, but each country has its own different regulations,” says Bacardí.
Rum can be enjoyed in as many ways as there are ways to make it. Traditionally it has been used in cocktails and cocktails, but there is a renewed interest in appreciating rum for the complex and nuanced spirit that it is.
For any lover of distilled spirits and cocktails, rum has a lot to offer. Between its history and the wide variety of styles, there’s always something new to learn about rum and a delicious new drink to try.
Rum is an incredibly diverse category of spirits made from sugar cane. Its history is linked to the Caribbean sugar cane plantations and the subsequent maritime trade network. Although there is new interest in enjoying and appreciating its nuance and craftsmanship, rum has continued to be a beloved ingredient in tropical cocktails, providing a brief escape to an island beach from the first sip.