Rum is a versatile spirit used in many cocktails, but it’s also full enough of flavour to be served on its own. Many rums are aged and blended to perfection and should be appreciated the way you would whisky. However, rum can be confusing as there aren’t many regulations, and those that exist vary between countries. Below I have explained some basics, including the different styles of rum, to give you a better understanding of what to expect next time you buy a bottle or order a drink at the bar.
What is rum?
Rum is a spirit made from sugar cane molasses or from the juice of crushed sugar cane. In fact, rum was originally a by-product of the waste left from the processing of sugar. Large amounts of molasses from the sugar cane were fermented into alcohol, and later distilled, producing the modern-day rum.
If you’d like to learn more about the production of rum, check my previous article in the Technical Stuff section.
Where is rum produced?
The oldest working rum distillery is in Barbados; Mount Gay distillery was opened in 1703. Today, around 80% of rum comes from the Caribbean, with Latin America being the second-largest rum producer.
Sugar cane can be replaced by sugar beet, which can be grown outside of tropical climates, allowing rum production in various other countries. Look for rums from Scotland, Austria, Australia, the US, Mauritius, Spain, Fiji… the list goes on. Nowadays, rum can be fermented, aged and finished anywhere in the world.
Styles of rum
There are very few regulations when it comes to the production of rum, and the existing regulations vary from country to country. There are three main categories of rum: English, Spanish and French. Colonists made rum to re-create the drinking traditions they had back home and to cope with boredom and various diseases. European colonists took rum making into their own areas and avoided conflicts with each other.
English-style rum is generally distilled from molasses, creating darker and more aromatic rums. Many spiced rums come under this category. These rums are also aged in casks for several years. English-style is produced in Jamaica (rich and full-bodied), Barbados (full of vanilla and fruit, heavy), Mauritius, Trinidad and a few other countries.
Spanish-style is lighter, crisp and clean. Some Spanish-style dark rums are sweeter. This type of rum is also produced with molasses, varying from light to more complex spirits. The main Spanish-style producers are Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela (due to its climate it produces a wide variety of rums), the Dominican Republic (some distilleries use the Solera system to blend rums) and several other Spanish-speaking countries. Cuban rums are unique due to the wide variety of sugar cane grown on the island.
French-style (rhum agricole) is often fruity, floral and elegant. This style of rum is mainly made from pure sugar cane juice in Haiti (heavy, full of flavour), Martinique, Guadeloupe (fruity and herbal), Mauritius (note they also make English-style rum) and on other French-speaking islands. These regions also use Cognac and Armagnac barrels for ageing.
Rum categories based on ageing, colour and strength
Light rum (White rum)
Light rum has usually spent a short time in oak barrels to help smooth the flavour. Charcoal filtration is used to remove any colour absorbed from the wood. White rum is widely used in cocktails. Try Havana Club Anejo 3 year old – it makes a tasty Daquiri.
Golden rum (Amber rum)
Golden rums are medium-bodied, therefore slightly more flavoursome than light rums. These rums are generally aged in ex-bourbon barrels, which gives them their slight amber colour. However, golden rums can also be coloured with artificial additives or caramel colouring. The style of golden rum varies between distilleries. Try Mattuga Golden Rum – it is distilled in England from East African sugar cane molasses.
The base for spiced rum can be golden rum or dark rum. Unique combinations of spices (cardamom, cinnamon, orange peel, black pepper…) are added to create a more flavoursome spirit. Sometimes the spirit is coloured with caramel. Dark Matter Spiced Rum is made in Scotland and tastes like Christmas.
Flavoured rum is usually diluted to under 40% ABV. A flavoured rum can be made with a mix of rums and flavoured with coconut, pineapple or any other fruit. These flavours are added after distillation. Flavoured rums can be used in tiki cocktails but are commonly served on the rocks.
Dark rums can be identified by their colour (dark brown, black or red). These are made from caramelised sugar or molasses and are more complex and full-bodied compared to light or golden rums. A long maturation period takes place in ex-bourbon or Cognac barrels, which creates a stronger flavour profile. Sometimes caramel colouring may be used to hide a lack of ageing. Dark rum is used in cooking and in cocktails (try Santiago de Cuba Añejo).
Aged rum (Premium rum)
Aged rum spends more time in the oak barrels and is carefully blended. This style of rum makes a great sipping rum. Plantation XO Barbados 20th Anniversary bottling makes an excellent sipping rum and comes in a stunning decanter bottle.
Navy Strength rum (Overproof rum)
These are much stronger than your usual rum, some as high as 75% ABV. If labelled overproof, the rum has to be over 57% ABV. Heavy on caramel in both colour and flavour, they are mainly used in mixed drinks. Overproof rum was created by the British Navy to make sure the spirit’s alcoholic strength was high enough in case it was spilled over gunpowder; the high alcohol content meant that the gunpowder could still be ignited. Try Rumbullion! Navy Strength – it is rich in flavour with spicy notes of cardamom, vanilla, cloves and cinnamon.
The age on the bottle?
Many brands use age statements in different ways, so it can be hard for consumers to know what to expect from each bottle. Sometimes the number on the bottle indicates the oldest rum used or the average age of the blend, sometimes it can even be the number of rums in the blend. In Puerto Rico and Jamaica, for example, it is required by law to indicate the youngest rum in the blend. Therefore the age on Bacardi labels is always that of the youngest rum used.
Some countries do have regulations regarding ageing. For example, Venezuelan rum must be matured for a minimum of two years, and Puerto Rican for a minimum of one, but a minimum of three for dark rums. Unfortunately, there are countries where rum ageing is not controlled by law or the regulations are ignored.
Due to the tropical climate of most of these rum-producing areas, the spirit matures fast, so you shouldn’t expect similar ages to whisky.
The Solera method may take up to 25 years, but most of the rums in the blend can be much younger. The label only tells you how long the blending technique has been used (Ron Zacapa Solera 23, for example).
Without rules and regulations, it can be hard to know how the rum is actually made. There is no doubt that the lack of consistency influences rum’s popularity. Year after year, it is predicted to be the next “big thing” in spirits, yet we are still waiting… It is not always clear whether the rum has been aged properly or if burnt sugar has been used to cover up the lack of maturation and to improve the taste.
Try to sample rums from different regions to get a better idea of how they differ in flavour. Rum is a versatile spirit and it works well in a range of mixed drinks. Flavoured rums can be a treat served over ice (try Aluna Coconut – it has less sugar and it’s made with natural ingredients), and rums with a longer ageing process are more complex and full of flavour – perfect enjoyed neat. The time in wood will enhance the rum with unique tasting notes.
Do you have a favourite rum? How do you like to serve it?
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