I have to admit that in the past and through much of my professional bartending career, I have always discounted rum as a premium spirit. (I blame it on too many Captain Morgan and cokes or sugar-laden Daiquiris that I consumed in my misspent youth.) But over the last couple of years I have started to embrace the sugar cane distillate and explore the beauty that this spirit holds.
Rum is so rich in history and taste – few other spirits can hold a candle to it.
What is rum?
Let’s start at the beginning:
Rum is a distilled spirit that is made from sugar cane. Just like whiskey starts with grain and Cognac starts with fruit, Rum starts off as sugar cane.
According to the TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), for a spirit to be called “Rum” it must meet the following description:
“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 (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)” (Source)
So as you can see, sugar cane is a vital component of Rum’s production – because if it’s not made with sugar cane then it’s just not “rum”!
How is Rum Made?
The simplest basics of production are pretty easy to understand. While this is over simplified, at its highest level this is how Rum is made:
- Sugar cane is used as the base material.
- It is fermented to produce a low alcohol mixture.
- This mixture is then distilled and bottled.
Of course, this is a huge generalization. There is a lot more detail and complexity with each of these steps, and different styles of rum are made differently. But at its highest level, this is how it is made.
Sugar Production: From Grass to Glass
In order to better understand rum production, we have to understand sugar production first. Sugar cane is a tall grass that grows in warm tropical climates. The inside of the grass is fibrous and very sweet. That sweetness is what makes it so valuable. The cane can be juiced to create a very sweet liquid, which is refined to turn into things like table sugar, molasses, or (in this case) rum.
The refining process is what turns the raw grass into ingredients that can be distilled into rum. First, sugar cane is cut down, shredded and then juiced. This liquid is then heated in a large vat to evaporate the water (and increase the sweetness and sugar content). When enough water has been evaporated, brown sugar crystals begin to form. The sugar crystals are then dried and processed in a centrifuge which separates the molasses (where most of the brown color comes from) from the sugar crystals. The result is two separate ingredients: Molasses and raw sugar, also called “Turbinado” sugar.
Originally, molasses was considered a useless byproduct of sugar manufacturing. But then it became known that it could be mixed with water and allowed to ferment. The result was a low alcohol wine. In the 17th century, this low alcohol liquid was distilled and rum was first produced.
Again, this is a very basic (and over-simplified) explanation of sugar and rum production. Every step of the sugar and rum making process has endless variables, from the yeast used for fermentation to the type of still used for distillation. Each of these variables add up to a style of rum that is unique to each style and to each producer.
To learn more about the intricacies of rum production, have a listen / watch to our chat on the podcast with Distiller Carter Raff and Rum Expert Josh Miller:
Famous Rum Cocktails
I’m here for the cocktails! Don’t worry, we got you covered on that end as well. Check out the links below for some great cocktails featuring this month’s highlighted spirit, Rum.
It’s perhaps most famous for its role in the world of Tiki – and it’s no coincidence, given how well Rum works with fruit and tropical flavors. But don’t be fooled, it is key to quite a few famous recipes! Check the links below for a few of our favorites.
- Mojito – The perfect choice for mint lovers, this one is bright, sparkly and refreshing.
- Piña Colada – If you love pineapples and have a blender handy, this one will make you feel like you’re lying on the beach on a tropical island!
- Mai Tai – Got orgeat? Then go here! This drink is rich and almost creamy, with citrus notes from the lime juice and Triple Sec and a hint of sweetness from the syrup.
- Daiquiri – Simple, classic, and perfect. Just lime juice, rum and simple syrup. The perfect choice for the perfectionist.
- Dark ‘N Stormy – Great for ginger beer lovers, this one could not be easier to make!
If you start to go down the rabbit hole of learning more about rum, you’ll quickly realize that there have are many different ways to put it into categories. It seems like Rum as a whole is at a tipping point right now in terms of how the industry tries to group and classify the spirit to present to consumers.
In my naivete, I thought there would be hard and fast rules about rum categories – like there are in the world of Whiskey. But the only “rules” in the United States on what can be “rum” are what I mentioned earlier (that brief quote from the TTB). In contrast, the “rules” for Whiskey were almost 4 pages long. And since the TTB hasn’t officially created any classifications, it means the industry was left to do it. There are a lot of different opinions on what is best!
I highly encourage you to look more into the different types of categorizations and this will help to understand the landscape. For now, here’s my best understanding of the different categorization systems out there:
Current Consumer Model:
This type of classification is what you will most likely run into when you walk into a supermarket and buy a bottle of rum. You will sections of rum with different colors associated with their labels, white or clear rum, gold rum and dark or black rum. The assumption is that as the color gets richer, then it infers a higher quality product and more aging, but this is not always the case. Many producers will add molasses, caramel coloring or other additives back into their bottles in order to achieve a specific color and look. Besides bunching rums by colors, you will also see categories such as spiced rums, overproof rums, Rhum agricole and possibly Navy strength rum.
Navy Strength rum has some generally excepted guidelines as far as the alcohol content goes and some general guidelines as far as the origin of rums. I’m sure there are exceptions, but traditionally Navy strength rums are a blend of rums from British Colonies and is around 54% ABV and just under 60% ABV.
With the exception of Rhum Agricole and Navy Strength rum, there are no rules or common language for what delineates one category from another category. Each country can have their own rules and regulations on rum categories and rum production. This is one of the reasons that the color of a rum should not be used to infer quality.
The Colonial Category
This is another rum categorization that I ran into when researching this article. I imagine this is the next system that you might run into if you were trying to learn more about rum. In this system rums are divided into 3 buckets based on the 3 major colonizing powers and the influence they held over the Caribeans.
The French style (Rhum Agricole) is generalized into being produced from fresh press cane juice, instead of molasses, which results in a more grassy, “agricultural” style of rum. Martinique has its own criteria for what can be considered Martinique Rhum Agricole. Just like wine and other consumable French products, Martinique Rhum Agricole is under the AOC or appellation d’origine contrôlée
The Spanish Style (Ron) is probably the most popular (in regards to sales volume) in the world. Typically when someone says it is a Spanish style rum they mean it is lighter in style and delicate on the sugar cane flavor. This can be a result of higher degree of distillation (column stills), less time fermenting and charcoal filtering before bottling. Think Bacardi or Havana Club.
Finally we have the British style (Rum). If someone says this is a British style rum, what they are trying to communicate is that it is a big flavorful rum, most likely dark in color and probably some funk to it as well. This can be the result of longer fermentation times, use of a pot still vs the column still and the lack of charcoal filtering.
This system of bunching rums together is easy to understand but also generally regarded as full of holes, over-generalizations and an antiquated view of the rum world.
The next set of systems to categorize rums are some of most highly regarded ways to talk about rum with the rum nerds – but they are less common among consumers.
The Country of Origin
If you really get into rum and getting into the nitty gritty details of rum, then you will probably end up at this level of detail. You have the vocabulary and understanding of typical styles of rum within each country, the fermentation styles they employ the stills that are used for production and most likely each distillery in each country. Josh Miller from Inuakena has outlined some of the details that learning this level of rum can deliver.
The Cate Category
Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove fame classifieds rum into 21 different categories based on the production method of the rum and the aging qualities. In his book he even gives examples of rums that would fall into each category.
- Pot still
- Lightly aged
- Long aged
- Lightly aged
- Long aged
- Column Still
- Lightly aged
- Long aged
- Pot still
- Blended overproof
- Coffee Still aged
- Pot still unaged
- Pot still aged
- Cane AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole
- Long Aged
- Pot Still Cachaca
As you can see the level of knowledge you would have to have in order to understand this system is pretty deep, but it does convey a lot of information at the same time.
The Minimalist Tiki Category
Matt Pietrek takes a different approach to categorizing rums, and he focuses on how rums work in Tiki cocktails. He does a great job covering all of the categories in his book, Minimalist Tiki, as well as outlining his own categories.
- Lightly aged/filtered Rum: Molasses rums that have been aged and charcoal filtered
- Moderately aged Rums: Molasses based rums that have been aged from 5-8 years and not been charcoal filtered
- Aged Jamaican Rum: British style rum that has been aged and also made in Jamaica
- Unaged Jamaicain Rum: Unaged Molasses based Jamaican rums that come in at 63%ABV
- Aged Demerara Rum: Aged rums that originate in Guyana
- Overproof Demerara Rum: Aged Demerara Rum that come in at 75.5% ABV
- Aged Agricole Rum: Cane juice based rums that originate in Martinique or Guadeloupe that have been aged for less than 4 years
If you want to learn more about rum and even possibly tiki cocktails, here are a few resources that I would trust to give educated information about rum.
Smugglers Cove: A great book all about the full history of Tiki, by Martin & Rebecca Cate, the founders and owners of the famed Smuggler’s Cove bar in San Francisco.