Rum is produced all over the world, and methods of production vary hugely depending on location. But it's this variation that lends different rums their distinctive and individual flavours. Here, we'll explore some of rum production's central tropes and characteristics, how and why they work, and their impact on what ends up in your glass.
Rum is always distilled from a sugar cane product, but the nature of that product can vary dramatically.
- When discussing rum, 'cane juice' refers to the liquid collected from milling freshly-harvested sugar cane stalks.
- Rum distilled from fresh cane juice is sometimes known as rhum, in a nod to its roots on French-speaking Caribbean islands. Rhum is usually distilled in a column still, and is typically associated with French Overseas Territories such as Guadeloupe and Martinique.
- Cane-juice rum tends to be light, herbaceous and grassy in character, with notes not unlike those of some agave spirits.
- When discussing rum, 'cane honey' refers to fresh sugar cane juice which has been boiled to a thicker, more concentrated consistency, much like creating a reduction in cooking.
- Rums made with cane honey benefit from its high sugar content, which imparts a soft texture and sweet, floral flavours.
- Historically, rums made with sugar cane honey have been most common in Latin America.
- When discussing rum, 'molasses' refers to the dark, treacle-like substance left over once cane honey has been run through a centrifuge, removing much of its sugar content.
- Rums distilled from molasses are often associated with Caribbean islands like Barbados and Jamaica, where lots of rum is distilled in copper pot stills for a heavier, deeper style. However, most rums now use molasses as their base.
- Molasses-based rums are typified as being full-bodied, rich and fruity, but they are capable of offering a full spectrum of flavours depending on distillation method and age.
There are different ways to distil the raw materials, each influencing the style and flavours of the rum. Though the main styles can be said to have distinct characters.
- Lots of rum production still uses traditional copper pot stills, like those used in the production of single malt whisky.
- Pot-still distillation allows the spirit to retain a relatively high proportion of natural flavour compounds, lending it heavy and distinctive 'rummy' flavours.
- Pot-distilled rum will often form the foundation of a blended rum, providing the spirit with weight, substance and depth of flavour.
- Column distillation, used in both traditional and modernist rums, is probably the most common method in modern rum production. It allows lots of control over the distillation process and can produce high volumes of spirit.
- Column distillation can distil to a very high ABV and can produce very pure, clean-tasting rum.
- Due to its lighter and fresher character, column distillate is often combined with pot-distilled rum, adding bright, floral and vegetal flavours to create a balanced blend.
Once the spirit has been distilled, rum can either be bottled, or aged in oak barrels. Young rum is often vibrant and fresh, whereas over time, it interacts with wood and air, developing further intricacies and depth of flavour.
Due to the geography of rum production, most rum is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels from the USA, imbuing the spirit with citrus fruit, oak and vanilla flavours.
Cuba and Venezuela are tied for the longest minimum-aging requirements in rum: both require the spirit to spend at least two years in wooden casks.
Ex-bourbon casks are the standard in rum maturation, but some producers and bottlers are now experimenting with other casks, including Cognac and wine casks.
Aging in wooden casks is used to develop different flavours within the spirit. This makes it a perfect alternative for whisky and Cognac fans looking for an adventure!
- Just like whisky, rum evaporates during the maturation process. This evaporation is known as the 'angels' share'. How much liquid evaporates from a cask during maturation depends on the climate where it is maturing.
- Maturation in a temperate climate often causes more alcohol to evaporate than water, lowering the spirit's alcoholic strength and softening its character.
- Tropical maturation is a sought-after trait in modern rum. High humidity and temperatures can mean that more water evaporates than alcohol, leaving the spirit with a higher alcoholic strength and more concentrated flavour.
- Maturation in hot climates can also lead to an increased interaction between wood and spirit, helping to create particularly flavourful rums.
The Geography of Rum
Rum may have started out in the Caribbean, but it's since spread its wings and flown the roost, developing new styles and characters all over the world.
The birthplace of rum as we know it, sugar-cane alcohol in the Caribbean dates back as far as the 15th century, and there is evidence of distillation on Barbados as early as the 1600s.
Sugar cane was introduced to the 'New World' – modern Brazil – by Christopher Columbus in 1492, literally sowing the seeds of modern rum.
Much of South America's rum production is centred on cane honey distillation, both for the sweet, fresh flavours it produces and its economical nature: cane honey is cheaper to produce than molasses and stores for longer than fresh cane juice.
With the rise of craft spirits in the early 2000s, there are now hundreds of rum distilleries worldwide, from the Caribbean Islands to Central London and beyond.
Rum and the Sea
The image of rum has become almost inseparable from the nautical, on one side of the law or the other. But why do we associate sugar-cane spirit with the sea?
The tradition of the Navy's daily ration of alcohol goes back centuries. Originally the ration was beer, but beer spoils quickly, so was replaced by rum in 1731. The Royal Navy rum ration was abolished on July 31 1970, now remembered as Black Tot Day.
The association between pirates and rum probably stems from the 1500s to the 1800s when pirates preyed on trade routes throughout the Caribbean, plundering cargo sure to have included rum.