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What is rum?

What is rum? What isn't rum? The wikipedia definition of rum is “Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane by-products such as molasses, or directly from sugar cane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak barrels.” and this is pretty accurate. Due to a lack of international established standards almost anything alcoholic that has been in the vicinity of a sugar product gets called rum. Some regions and countries have strict standards for what is and what is not rum, unfortunately they all differ.


If it were up to me a product called rum should be distilled from a sugar cane product or by-product, like molasses, sugar cane juice or sugar cane honey. It should be aged for at least three years in oak barrels and all additives like colouring and sweeteners etc should be listed on the label. All age statements should of course list the youngest component of the rum, and it should be at least 40% alcohol by volume. I would also like to see specified on the label if the rums has been abused by chill filtration or similar. This is however very far from the current state of the rum business.

What about the mixing rums you might ask, they are all white mostly unaged rums. Yeah, what about it? If you buy a three year old white rum you will have a much nicer drink than if you mix it with cheap unaged rocket fuel. For the long term success of rum I think it is better to go towards a minimum requirement that ensures that all products sold as rum are of decent quality. It will be more expensive for the producers but it might be better for them in the long run. For me to talk about the long term success of a product that has been around since the 1650's is of course a bit rich...

Rum is produced all over the world even in places to cold to grow cane but the most producers are located in central and south America and the Caribbean Islands. Rum can be called Ron (Spanish) or Rhum (French) also depending on where it is made. Young rums are mostly made to be drink mixers while aged rum is better enjoyed as they are without any additions. The last few years there has been an increasing amount of super premium rums. They are normally aged for a very long time and sold in bottles made to impress at silly amounts of money. I have a feeling many of these super or ultra premium rums are mostly collectibles and not really meant for consumption.

Dividing rum into categories is a very popular thing to do, specially on the internet. There are numerous ways to do it and all have plenty of exceptions which means that they are in the end pretty meaningless. I make it simple for me and stick to sippers vs mixers but there is a noticeable difference between the molasses based rums and the cane juice based rums I have tried. Molasses based rums tends to be sweeter and cane juice rums tends to be a bit drier, more like a cognac. More “serious rum experts” divides rums into region from which it originates or the language spoken in that region. You will see a lot about English vs Spanish vs French style rums or Jamaica vs Cuban vs Barbados vs Guyana vs Martinique styles. Some people use the even more stupid system of dividing rum according to their colour. Considering how much colour is normally manipulated with carbon filtration alternatively adding of caramel colour or molasses this is borderline insanity. Most of these systems has some core of truth to them of course, otherwise people wouldn't have adopted them to begin with but on the other hand as mentioned earlier these systems all have exceptions. Rums that falls outside the frames of the categorizations. This is a can of worms I will not get further involved in even though I admit it might make for some nice discussions during a rum tasting session.


 Different types of rum

There are many types of rum and even more ways of categorizing them. The main difference is if they are made from molasses or cane juice and if they are aged for a decent amount of time or not.

Rum made from molasses

Traditional rum is made from sugar cane, most commonly from the molasses that remains after the sugar factory has extracted as much sugar as is possible. The molasses are then diluted with water and fermented before distillation.

Sugar cane juice rum

Rum can also be made directly from fermented sugar cane juice. Rums from Haiti, Reunion and Martinique are known for this. The French calls rum made from molasses Rhum Traditionelle or Rhum Industrielle and cane juice rum Rhum Agricole.When France began to make sugar from sugar beets, sugar prices plunged heavily. The anti-slavery laws had also made sugar production in the French islands more expensive. The debt ridden sugar factories could not survive solely on sugar production so they used fresh cane juice for fermenting and distilling into rum.

Except rhum agricoles produced in Haiti, these rums are generally distilled in column stills. Cachaca is a Brazilian spirit made from fermented cane juice, like agricultural rum.

Martinique is most well known for Rhum Agricole because French law allowed for (and current European Union law allows for) an "Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée" (protected designation of origin) of "rhum agricole AOC Martinique" for rums produced on the island of Martinique that meet certain standards.

Rhum Agricole is usually distilled to 70% alcohol (140 proof in the U.S.) and then watered down to 40~55% (80-110 proof)when bottled. It may be aged as little as a few months (3 months at least for AOC rhum agricole) or for several years. After three years of aging in Oak Barrels it may be called "rhum vieux," or "old rhum".



Navy rum

The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655, when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon had the rum ration watered producing a mixture that became known as grog. While many believe the term was coined in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather, the term predates his famous order. It probably originates in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970.

Today, a tot of rum is still issued on special occasions, using an order to "splice the mainbrace", which may only be given by the Queen, a member of the royal family or, on certain occasions, the admiralty board in the UK, with similar restrictions in other Commonwealth navies. Recently, such occasions have included royal marriages or birthdays, or special anniversaries. In the days of daily rum rations, the order to "splice the mainbrace" meant double rations would be issued.

The Royal New Zealand Navy was the last naval force to give sailors a free daily tot of rum. The Royal Canadian Navy still gives a rum ration on special occasions the rum is usually provided out of the commanding officer's fund, and is 150 proof (75%). It is consumed on the order "up spirits".

Navy rums are usually a blend of primarily overproof Jamaica and Guyana rums plus others. The closest you can get to buying a proper navy rum would be Pussers Rum. Pussers bought the original recipe for the blend from the British Royal Navy.


Spiced rum

Spiced rums obtain their flavors through the addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in color, and based on gold rums. Some are significantly darker, while many cheaper brands are made from inexpensive white rums and darkened with caramel color. Among the spices added are cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, or pepper. As a related category there is the flavoured rums that are mostly meant for mixing.


Flavoured Rums

Flavored rums are infused with flavors of fruits, such as banana, mango, orange, citrus, coconut, starfruit or lime. These are generally less than 40% ABV. They mostly serve to flavor similarly themed tropical drinks but are also often drunk neat or with ice. There are also a lot of artificially flavoured rums available competeing with the flavoured Vodkas that are mostly suited as drink mixers.


Proof, over proof and under proof. What does it really mean?

Alcohol is in Europe normally measured in Alcohol by Volume and expressed in percent. Earlier degrees Guy-Lussac was used. The main difference is that alcohol by volume is measured at 20° Celsius and Guy-Lussac is measured at 15° Celsius. On the bottle it might say 40% Alc by volume or 40° G-L.

The alcohol content can also be expressed as Proof and of course we have two different systems for this that are not compatible. In the U.S.A. Proof is twice the alcohol by volume and in the U.K. it's 1.75 times the alcohol by volume and expressed as degrees Proof. Since 1980 the U.K. has changed to alcohol by volume though.

In the U.K. concept for Proof, 100° Proof is equal to 57.15 % ABV and was the point were gun powder doused with rum would still ignite. It was a simple test to see if the daily rum ration in the navy vessels had been watered down or not. On some rum bottles you can see the alcohol content described as for example 30° Under Proof, meaning 70° Proof which equals 40 % ABV.


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Most of the above categories are rather clear and undisputed but when you dive deeper into the categorization of rum you end up in a big mess and whatever system you use there will always be a lot of exceptions if you don't choose the path of inventing a new category for each exception you find of course. The absolutely worst system is by colour so it is of course the most commonly used one.


White Rum

Light rums, also referred to as silver or white rums, in general, have very little flavor aside from a general sweetness. Consequently, they often serve as bases for cocktails. Light rums are sometimes filtered after aging to remove any colour. The Brazilian cachaça is generally this type, but some Products: are more akin to "gold rums". The majority of light rums come from Puerto Rico. Their milder flavors make them popular for use in mixed drinks, as opposed to drinking them straight.

Gold Rum

Gold rums, also called amber rums, are medium-bodied rums that are generally aged. These gain their dark colour in theory from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred, white oak barrels that are the byproduct of Bourbon whiskey). They have more flavor and are stronger-tasting than light rum, and can be considered midway between light rum and the darker products.


Dark Rum

Dark rums, also known by their particular color, such as brown, black, or red rums, are classes a grade darker than gold rums. They are generally aged longer, in heavily charred barrels, giving them much stronger flavors than either light or gold rums, and hints of spices can be detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone. They commonly provide substance in rum drinks, as well as colour. In addition, dark rum is the type most commonly used in cooking. Most dark rums come from areas such as Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique.


Aged Rum, Premium Rum etc

Premium rums, as with other sipping spirits, such as Cognac and Scotch, are in a special market category. These are generally from boutique brands that sell carefully produced and aged rums. They have more character and flavour than their "mixing" counterparts and are generally consumed straight.

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Rum can also be categorized according to regional differences or the language spoken where they were produced. Let us start with the language categorization which at the moment of writing is the one that feels best for me.


English style

English style rums are darker, heavier rums like Jamaica, Demerara and Barbados rums. This is the oldest style defined by medium to long fermentation, pot stills and cask aging for several years.


Spanish style

Spanish style rums are lighter, smoother rums from the Spanish speaking regions. They have usually short to medium length fermentation and are distilled in column stills.


French style

French style rums are cane juice rums from places like Haiti, Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique.


Categories according to countries that have had a historical influence on rum

Finally there is categorization according to the style of the countries that have created their own characteristic styles. Dave Broom in his book “Rum” suggests Jamaica, Cuba, Guyana and French style rums. Some wants to add Barbados to this or even more countries.

The reasoning behind these are that Cuban style rums are light smooth rums like Havana Club, French Style are the cane juice rums, Jamaica are produced with dunder and are quite dark and heavy also the original Navy Rum, Guyanas Demerara Rums that has also been a component of the Navy Rums, are full flavoured and have a long history of rum making. Barbados was probably the first place in the Americas were rum production started. This may have made sense before but today with our mega corporations only the small companies make “authentic” rum. Some say this categorization is good so rums gets compared to rums of similar style and not to something that are worlds apart. I can to some extent agree with that.

Today it's either about high volume sales or ultra premiums that sell for ridiculous prices. The rums are doctored and manipulated to suit the taste or the imagined taste of the market. The reason we still have some “real” rum left is that these smaller companies doesn't have the financial muscles to step up their game and compete with the Bacardi Superiors and Captain Morgans. This is something I am very grateful for but I also realize that none of the producers are into it for some ideological reason or commitment to rum, it's all about market share and money. Whatever unholy blend of rums from different countries or styles and doctored up with added sugar and caramel colour that sells is what will be produced. That there still are some niche rums left is just something to be appreciated while it lasts. My guess is that they will sooner or later either be bought up by the rum giants or go out of business since they can't compete with large scale production.

Last modified onThursday, 22 January 2015 21:26
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