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What is Rum?
Simply put, rum is alcohol distilled from fermented sugar cane juice and its derivatives. Cane juice, cane syrup (miel), turbinado sugar, white sugar, molasses, blackstrap molasses—it’s all fair game, and each brings its own unique flavor to the end product. Alcohol made from other sugar sources such as beet sugar molasses is not rum.
The fact that you can make rum out of any sugarcane-based source is one of the principle reasons for the diversity of flavors in the category. The difference between freshly pressed cane juice and blackstrap molasses is quite profound after all, so it makes sense that the distillates thereof would be markedly different, too. Geography also plays a role in rum’s different flavors. Islands naturally create silos of information, and each one organically develops their own way of doing things. But perhaps the biggest reason for the variety is a lack of uniform rules.
According to the United States Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rum is defined as:
“Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume.”
While it might seem a bit prescriptive at first glance, there is actually very little to the requirements. No restrictions on sources, barrel-aging, blending, filtering or bottling. This of course is a double-edged sword, and there are many terrible rums out there to prove the point. Some rums have sugar added to them, some caramel for color. But others are essentially spiced and flavored rums masquerading as aged or dark rum (and this is where things get tricky) and that’s the wild world of rum.
There is, however, a movement afoot to distinguish “true rum” from its adulterated counterparts. One industry group pushing the agenda is the West Indies Rum and Spirits Association. Their “Authentic Caribbean Rum” marque is designed to draw the attention of the consumer to a group of rum producers committed to producing real rum with no additives.
Making Rum: Fermentation
Once you choose your sugar source, the next critically important step is yeast selection. The yeast will “eat” the sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and that reaction will vary greatly from yeast to yeast. Some distilleries use tightly controlled processes to ensure no “wild” yeast enters the fermentation tanks, while others freely invite them in. In the old days, if fermentation didn’t begin in a timely fashion, they might throw a dead animal or two in the tank (more likely a pit) to get things going. It’s rumored that some distilleries still use dead bats (not likely, although flying animals that pass through a concentrated stream of CO2 coming off the fermenter could easily fall into the tank) and it’s widely known that others use rotten fruit like jackfruit and bananas.
The reason folks add in these strange fermentables is that they contain the acids that turn into desirable congeners in the distillate and subsequently link up into long chain esters in the barrel. On the palate, esters generally taste like fruit: think bananas, apples and pears. Still, others taste a bit more floral like rose water.
The yeast choice will also affect the length of fermentation. “Turbo” yeasts can fully ferment all available sugars in as little as a day, while others can take up to a week or more. This has to do with the additional “food” added to the yeast like di-ammonium phosphate, the likes of which encourage production of alcohol and discourage yeast reproduction. The pH of the liquid also plays a big role in how far the yeast can go before dying off, so acids and bases can also be added to buffer the solution in one direction or another to increase yield and reduce stress on the yeast which can result in off flavors. The length of fermentation time is generally correlated with the flavor potential of the rum to be created. A fermentation time of 3-5 days is usually a good sign that the distillate will have some flavor potential, while a one-day fermentation signals a vodka-like product will be coming from the still.
Making Rum: Distillation
Once you ferment your sugars, you have what’s called a “wash”. Usually, less than 10% alcohol, the wash is more of a sugar wine than a rum, so it’s got to be distilled. In the old days, stills were crude boiling kettles heated by the open flame. Today there are a wide variety of still designs, and each one will produce a different tasting distillate. The preferred heat source in today’s distilleries is steam, which heats evenly, doesn’t scorch the molasses, and is a heck of a lot easier to control than an open flame.
There are essentially two types of stills: pot and column (column stills are also called patent or Coffey stills after their inventor Aeneas Coffey). Generally speaking, pot stills produce more full-flavored rums, while column stills produce lighter bodied rums. A third type called a hybrid still combines pot and column still designs into an efficient apparatus that makes higher alcohol spirit while retaining some of the pot still flavor.
The typical Caribbean pot still has two retorts (aka doublers or thumpers) that increase the potency of the distillate. These are often filled with low and high proof rum, which gives the final product a unique taste and quality.
After one pass through a simple pot still, you won’t be at your target alcohol percentage, so it must be re-distilled to reach the desired potency. Column and hybrid stills have the ability to recycle the distillate without leaving the system, so they can reach higher alcohol levels more easily. Because column distillation is more efficient, continuous, easy to automate, and produces such a clean, potent distillate (and in greater quantities), it is the preferred method of high volume producers. The tradeoff with column distillation is that fewer congeners make it into the final product, which means it will have less flavor than that of a pot still. That said, column stills can be configured to produce a full-flavored distillate if desired—Foursquare Distillery on Barbados and Demerara Distillers of Guyana being prime examples. Thus the real distinction is not pot vs. column, but continuous high yield distillation vs. batch mode distillation.
After the wash is up to temperature, alcohol begins coming off the still (this occurs at around 74°C, but is dependent of the amount of water in the wash). One of the most critical decisions the distiller makes during distillation is where to make the “cuts”. During distillation, the first liquid that comes off the still is called the “heads”. The heads contain methanol, and thus it’s not potable. They are typically reserved for re-distillation or in some cases, sold off as industrial grade solvent.
Once the distiller can no longer detect the methanol (this is often done by still temperature, feel on the fingers or simply by smell) he begins collecting the “heart cut” which will be the portion we eventually drink. After a while, the second undesirable portion will appear in the distillate, which is called the “tails”. The tails are trickier than the heads in some ways, because while they contain plenty of nasty things like fusel oils and propanol, the tails can also provide desirable flavors. In some cases, a bit of the tails are allowed to join the hearts before making the last cut, while in others they are removed completely. And yet others will add back a portion of the tails to the heart cut after the run is complete. It’s all up to the distiller.
Making Rum: Aging & Blending
After the distillation is complete, some producers will filter the “new make” rum through a carbon (charcoal) filter to soften the flavor. This is accomplished by chemical adsorption of undesirable compounds to the carbon. Others will simply rest the rum in stainless steel for a short time. At this point, the producer might put the rum directly into a barrel, or they may elect to blend the rum with that of another still in the distillery to achieve a given profile prior to aging. In any event, the next step in the production process is aging.
While the newly distilled rum has its own flavor, most aged rum gets as much or more of its taste from the barrel in which it’s aged. Most Caribbean rum is aged in used 53 gallon Bourbon barrels, which is a result of the strict laws governing the production of Kentucky Bourbon. All Kentucky Bourbon must be aged in *new* charred white oak barrels, so that leaves a plethora of lightly used barrels on the market for rum aging.
The flavors imparted by oak are numerous. You could literally write a book on it, and some have. At its most basic level, we can say that charred oak provides a smoky, woody flavor. Digging a bit deeper, we can add that charring the wood breaks the cellular structure of the hemicellulose and frees the lignins and tannins. It’s also where the signature vanilla flavor comes from—it’s vanillin from the wood. Oak also provides some sweetness through its own wood sugars. The toasted caramel flavor? That also comes from the wood. And last but not least, the charred oak provides color.
Barrels are the responsibility of the cooper. In some distilleries, they might buy and directly re-use the barrels, while others might re-char the inside of the barrel. Still, others might completely disassemble the barrels and re-char and re-assemble to them to their own liking. Unlike Kentucky, rum barrels can be re-used as many times as the producer desires.
In addition to used barrels, some smaller distilleries (especially in the US) use new American oak barrels to impart as much charred oak flavor as quickly possible. These folks are driven by necessity more than anything, as it is difficult to wait years to start selling your product. Many who go this route will also use smaller than average barrels (25 gallons appears to be the sweet spot) to increase the surface area relative to the rum. An even quicker way to impart oak flavor is to add charred wood chips to a tank, but this is no substitute for barrel aging.
How long a rum is aged is up to the producer, although there are some minimum age requirements in various places around the world. In Puerto Rico, for example, rum must be aged in oak for a minimum of one year. Yes, that’s right; even Bacardi Superior white rum is aged in oak for a year or more. (The color is subsequently removed through charcoal filtration.) Venezuela mandates a two-year minimum aging.
In contrast to Scotch or Cognac, rum ages rapidly. The reason is not the spirit, but its location. Because most rum is made in tropical climates, it’s aged in steamy barrel houses year-round, and that speeds the aging process considerably. At elevated ambient temperatures, the wood gives up more flavor more quickly. And because there is more evaporation through the wood, the remaining liquid inside has even more flavor intensity. The portion of rum that evaporates through the barrel is called the “Angel’s Share” because it rises to the heavens. The average evaporation rate in the Caribbean is 6%-7%, although the rate can be as high as 11% in the first year.
The most straightforward aging protocol is single barrel aging. This means you fill the barrel, let time pass, dump the barrel and bottle it (usually with some water added to reach the desired alcohol percentage). More often, however, aged rum is made from a combination of barrels, and that is where the blender comes into the picture.
In small distilleries, the Master Distiller and the Master Blender (or Maestro Ronero) might be the same person. In larger companies, they are distinct positions. The job of the blender is to choose and blend aged rums from the company stocks to achieve the desired taste profile. It is generally perceived to be one of the most important jobs one can have in the rum business.
When making a blend, many will use a combination of old and young rums. It not only makes good business sense to stretch the aged stocks, it enables the blender great latitude in creating a given flavor profile. Blending new and old can occur in a variety of forms, including while still in the barrel, as done in the Solera process. Simply put, the Solera process is accomplished by removing a portion from one barrel containing one of the oldest rums and replacing that portion with one of the youngest. The older portion goes into another barrel in line, or is bottled. It is often done with four or five series of barrels at intervals of a year, although the Santa Teresa Bicentenario claims to have a smidgen of rum as old as eighty years in its final blend.
Part of the aging process can also include moving rum from one barrel type to another. A common flow is from Bourbon barrels to Sherry barrels (often Pedro Ximenez [PX]) which is called “finishing” or “double-aging.” By aging in different barrels, the rum is imparted with additional flavors that work synergistically to create a taste that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Other barrel “finishes” include Cognac barrels, which is what most rhum agricole is aged in. Cognac barrels are different not only because of what they previously contained, but because of the wood used. French barrels are usually made with Limousin oak, which has a tighter cellular structure than American oak. Thus French oak takes a bit longer to give up its different flavors, and tends to impart a floral quality not found in American oak.
Although many makers either ignore or deny this in their literature and labeling, it is often understood that small quantities of coloring (usually caramel) are added to the final blend to impart a color profile pleasing to the bottler. In other cases, the wiggle room deriving from the lax definition of rum permits blenders to add spices or fruit extracts to the blend to provide a unique flavor profile, a practice purists deride, claiming this disqualifies them from being rums at all.
The final steps in the rum production process are proofing and bottling. “Proofing” means adding pure water to the rum to reach the blender’s target alcohol percentage. More often than not, that target will be 40%, which is as much a business decision as it is a matter of taste. Not everyone will enjoy a cask strength rum at 65%, and at 40% you get to sell a lot more rum. Adding water greatly affects the taste, and if done too quickly, can damage the esters that give the rum its flavors (saponification). Once the rum is at its target ABV, it’s bottled, packed and shipped to your favorite bar, restaurant or retail store.
Rum is typically broken down into the overly simplistic “light, dark, and aged”, but here we learn that there are at least four more categories:
Rum Styles by Geography
Rum styles are typically broken down along the lines of the colonizers. Generally speaking, former French colonies use sugar cane juice to make their rum, and former English and Spanish colonies use molasses. French style rhum is grassy, Spanish style rum is light and dry, while English style rum is heavier and full flavored. These three colonial delineations are where most garden variety rum educators stop, but while convenient, it’s a woefully inadequate system. In order to really understand rum styles, one needs to delve deeper and drill down to the country level. Let’s take a look at a variety of rum-producing countries and learn a bit about their styles and the brands that represent them.
Antigua’s local rum is called Cavalier (my uncle grew up on the stuff, and my Grandfather drank a lot of it). The only Antiguan rum you’ll find for export is made by the same folks, but is called English Harbour. The Antiguan style is light and fruity, but with a noticeable bottom end that rounds things out nicely. Antigua is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Barbados may well be where it all began for rum. The medium-bodied Bajan style is known for being both flavorful and approachable, and frequently blends rums from both column and pot. Notable rums from Barbados include Mount Gay, Foursquare (maker of Doorly’s, R.L. Seale and The Real McCoy), and Cockspur. Microdistillery St. Nicholas Abbey is the newest player in the market. Barbados is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Bellize is a rum producing nation that does not spring to mind for most folks, but Traveller’s Liquors would love to change that. They are the makers of One Barrel rum, a tasty budget rum that is light and a touch sweet. This one is made for mixing, but Tiburon rum is a higher end expression that can be sipped.
No rum is distilled on Bermuda. The Gosling family buys bulk rum and blends it there, however. They will threaten to sue you over their trademarks, so beware when speaking about rum and ginger beer combinations. I do not buy or drink Gosling’s “rum”.
Colombian rums tend to be sweet and smooth. The brand most easily found in the States is Dictador. Known for their flashy black bottles, Dictador has a distinctive nutty note from Sherry finishing.
Like other rums from the region, Costa Rican rums are smooth operators designed to delight all types of rum drinkers. Smooth and sweet, brands like Centenario are good jumping off points for those brought into the fold by Zacapa and Zaya.
Similar to Puerto Rican rum, Cuba’s rums are light bodied and very crisp. As is the case with most light bodied rums, they do not necessarily lend themselves to extended aging (with negligible congeners in the rum, there are few acids and esters to recombine into new and interesting flavors). Havana Club (marketed by French drinks giant Pernod-Ricard) is the largest selling brand, but there are others worth noting including Ron Cubay and Ron Santiago de Cuba.
Occupying roughly two thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is home to a number of famous rums including Brugal and Barcelo. With the exception of Brugal, most Dominican blends tend to be on the sweeter side (particularly Atlantico and Matusalem). Brugal is drier and markets its rum as such. Sugar aside, the flavors are typical of the Spanish style: light bodied and fairly neutral, but comes together nicely in used Bourbon barrels. Brugal and Barcelo are party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Fiji is home to one distillery, and none of its rums are directly exported to the States. The local brand is Bounty Overproof Rum, and it’s bottled at 58%. You can, however, find private labels from noted sellers of boutique rums including Berry Brothers and Rudd, Blackadder, and Duncan Taylor. My thought on the matter is that these good folks are after an amazing Fijian holiday, and buy a few barrels of rum to keep the tax man happy, because I’ve yet to meet anyone that actually enjoyed Fijian rum. Paint thinner is a recurrent theme in the tasting notes, so this is definitely one style to try before you buy.
Just over 100 miles north of Martinique lies Guadeloupe, home to one of my favorite rum styles. Grassy and earthy with a subtle roundness, Guadeloupe’s rums are dynamic and thought-provoking. Free of the AOC rules found on Martinique, Guadeloupe makes both can juice and molasses based rums, and often combines a bit of the two to create a style all their own. Damoiseau was recently introduced to the States, and other products from brands like Bielle and Pere Labat can be found throughout Europe.
Guatemala is home to the rum that brings many to the fold: Zacapa. Once a delicious rum, its popularity has rendered it a shadow of its former self. Also from Guatemala is Ron Botran, which represents a better representation of the style today. The Guatemalan rum style typically involves a solera blending process and a smooth, sweet, Sherry finish.
Guyana is home to just one rum producer today, Demerara Distillers Limited, makers of El Dorado rum. The Guyanese rum style varies with the type of still used, and DDL has a lot of them, including wooden pot and column stills. This working museum turns out some amazingly flavorful rums that are known for their rich, earthy bottom ends that have a thread of freshly churned butter woven through them. Guyana is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Haiti is home to thousands of clandestine distilleries that make the local cane spirit called Clairin, but the only distillery operating at scale on this side of the island is Barbancourt. The former French colony shares a border with the Dominican Republic, but their rum styles are as different as their languages. Made from cane juice, Barbancourt is an agricole style rum, but has a roundness not found in Martinique or Guadeloupe’s rums. At just over $40 US, Barbancourt’s 15-year expression is one of the best values in aged rum today. Barbancourt is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
India is one of the world’s largest rum producers of rum, but many would be quick to counter that the product they produce is more akin to a flavored vodka than rum. Made from cane juice, but usually distilled to ethanol’s azeotropic limit, the resultant spirit contains no flavor. The ethanol is then aged (or not) and doctored up with a variety of flavors and colors to make it resemble aged or dark rum. Old Monk is the only brand you’re likely to find in the States.
Jamaican rum represents a delightfully unique style that puts a premium on flavor and is notable for its signature “funk”. The funk is the result of open fermentation, the inclusion of backset from previous distillation runs, and in some cases, the presence of bacteria from a dunder or muck pit (bacteria-rich outdoor pits that contain backset from previous distillations). The strong flavors that result from the long fermentation are concentrated by the pot stills and yield a fruity, earthy distillate that can border on unctuous. The most widely consumed product on the island is J. Wray and Nephew White Overproof Rum, which is bottled at 63%. The most famous brand outside of Jamaica is Appleton Estate, which is now owned by Gruppo Campari. Look for private labels out of Jamaica from Mezan, Hamilton, and Cadenhead’s along with up-and-comers like Rum Fire from Hampden Estate. Jamaica is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Martinique’s rums are unique for many reasons, but the two primary factors are its use of cane juice, and its AOC. Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is the French equivalent to the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The AOC regulates the way cane must be planted, grown, harvested, crushed, fermented, distilled, and aged. Because of this, many rum (or rhum, as the case may be) aficionados believe this to be the most pure expression of cane spirits. With all the rules, one might think that all Martiniquan rhums would taste the same, but that is certainly not the case. There are some with harsh turpene-like aromas and rubbery flavors, and others that are much more approachable with notes of tobacco and leather. The most widely distributed rhums agricoles in the U.S. are Rhum J.M. and Clement, but there are many others including Saint James, Neisson, Trois Rivieres, and La Mauny. Those who come to cane spirits from the world of Scotch often find these rhums very interesting.
Mexico is far better known for its agave spirits, but by volume, the country actually makes more cane spirit than agave. Much of it, however, ends up in those crappy mixto Tequilas that gave you such bad hangovers in college. After those gems comes Bacardi, which makes a few of its expressions there like Bacardi Black. These rums are basically indistinguishable from their Puerto Rican products. The only other Mexican rum widely available in the States is Mocambo, which is aged in non-traditional woods and tastes, well…non-traditional.
Nicaragua is home to Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, producer of ron Flor de Caña. The rums are crisp and dry similar to Cuban rums. In 2015, William Grant & Sons took over marketing for the U.S. market, and Flor de Cana removed the age statements from their rums, but kept the numbers. At the same time, the company came under fire for an epidemic of chronic kidney disease among its cane cutters.
Panama’s rum comes from Destilería Don José and Ingenio San Carlos. The former makes Hermanos Varela’s Ron Abuelo; and the latter makes a variety of brands under the watchful eye of Don Pancho Fernandez. Panamanian rum is another cast by the Spanish die, it’s medium body is clean and crisp with a hint of caramel sweetness.
Peru is better known for its wine and Pisco than it is for rum, but that may be changing because of the delicious Cartavio rums from Destilerias Unidas. The Spanish style rums are aged in both straight and solera styles with full flavor and complexity. The line has something for everyone.
The Philippines (like India) is worth mentioning because of the volume of product produced there. Tanduay is the main brand, which recently launched an export label in the U.S. which is a massive improvement over their domestic products. Many industry experts say that Tanduay is like Old Monk in that it is made from neutral alcohol that is flavored and bottled. Another brand recently introduced to the European market is Don Papa, which has been selling fairly well despite being panned by critics who claim it is nothing more than a cheap rum doctored up with additives in a fancy bottle.
Puerto Rico is known for its dry, crisp, light-bodied rums made in the Spanish style. The most popular brand in Puerto Rico is Don Q from Destileria Serralles, but of course, the largest volume producer is Bacardi. The continuous column-distilled rum must be aged for a minimum of one year before being bottled and sold. Thus light Puerto Rican rums have all been charcoal filtered to remove color and congeners.
Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is the longtime home of Cruzan Rum, which is owned by Beam-Suntory. More recently, UK-based global drinks giant Diageo built a distillery there (with huge U.S. government-backed subsidies) to make Captain Morgan rum. Captain Morgan is not really worth talking about from a taste perspective, but Cruzan is a decent rum that is along the lines of a Spanish style rum (despite the island’s Dutch history). It’s got slightly more body that Puerto Rican rums, and the single barrel expression is actually pretty tasty.
Saint Lucia is home to Saint Lucia Distillers, makers of Chairman’s Reserve rum. Untouched Saint Lucian rum is quite funky and full of phenolics (try one of Ed Hamilton’s rums for reference) but the Chairman’s line manages to maintain an intriguing profile while attenuating the punchy notes that might put off the average rum drinker. The “Forgotten Casks” edition is delightful and a bit woodier, and the 1931 anniversary blends (a new one released each year) are phenomenal. Saint Lucia is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
Saint Vincent’s claim to rum fame is its local overproof rum simply called “Sunset Very Strong Rum” which is bottled at an eye-popping 84.5% ABV. The same distillery (Saint Vincent Distillers) makes Captain Bligh XO, which is actually quite a nice fuller bodied rum made in the English style. In the U.S., this one is sold as “Mutineer’s Gold” due to trademark issues with Captain Morgan.
With the closing of Caroni, Trinidad now has just one distillery: Angostura. The maker of the eponymous cocktail bitters has been making its own rum since the early 20th century and sales thereof finally overtook the bitters in 1964. The Trinidadian style is a medium bodied column-distilled rum. The Angostura range has a lot of variety within it with everything from white to 12 years and more. Trinidad is party to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
As most of the rum from the States is made by craft distilleries in small batches, it defies generalization. There is everything from agricole style rums from California and Hawaii, Colonial style rums from Massachusetts, and many more from all over the country.
Venezuela is known for Diplomatico and Pampero rums. These are Spanish style rums similar to those from Guatemala or Costa Rica, with a focus on smoothness and a penchant for sweetness.
In order to truly enjoy a fine rum, you needn’t know anything about its provenance, its age, or anything else for that matter. If it tastes good to you, then you could just stop right there. But if you’re like me, a little background on your drink is not only fun to discover, it enhances your appreciation of what’s in the glass.
Evaluating Rum: The Bottle
When evaluating rum, it’s always good to start with the bottle. What can it tell you?
Evaluating Rum: Glassware Selection
After examining the bottle, the next step is to get some in a glass, but what kind to use? Many argue that glassware is nearly as important as the liquid inside, but you can still derive plenty of enjoyment from a good rum in a rocks glass. If money is no object, then by all means spring for Riedel spirits glasses or Glencairns. Some like concentrating the aromas at the top of the glass, and others prefer them to be diffused—it’s really a matter of personal taste (although science seems to favor the tulip shape).
Evaluating Rum: In the Glass
The next step is to get the rum into the glass. Before we take a sip, there are a few things we want to look for:
Evaluating Rum: On the Palate
It’s all been leading up to this: we finally get to taste the rum! On the first sip, we will mostly be getting our palate accustomed to the sensation of the rum, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t pick out many flavors initially. On the second sip, you will be better prepared to fully explore its taste. Here are some questions to ask yourself during the tasting:
Again, you needn’t treat your tastings like a science experiment to derive enjoyment, but many folks do find joy in evaluating their rums systematically. You can even keep a notebook!