National Rum Day is today. Celebrate appropriately!
Types of Rum
Rums vary quite a bit in character, as there is no international standard in terms of ingredients, production or aging. They are typically made with molasses, aged at least a year and come in around 80 proof. That said, they generally fall into a few categories: Silver and White rums are sweet, but have little additional flavor. These light rums are good for mixing, but you probably wouldn’t want to drink them straight up. After some minimal aging, they may be filtered to remove color. Stainless steel casks may be used to prevent coloring and flavoring. Gold and Amber rums get their color from the process of aging in barrels, much like a whisky or bourbon. In fact, rums may be aged in used bourbon barrels (to meet the standards, bourbon must be aged in NEW oak barrels). Gold and Amber rums have have more flavor then the Silver and White. Dark Rums generally are produced from caramelized sugar and molasses. They are aged for longer periods of time than the Gold or Silver, picking up additional color and flavors.
Spiced Rums are just that — rums with various additional flavors. Depending upon the brand, these spices may include vanilla, cinnamon, anise, cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg and peppercorns. Caramel is often added for both color and flavor. Flavored rums are lighter rums infused with fruit flavors such as coconut (a favorite of mine), mango, orange, lime. Overproof Rums can be purchased as high as 80% alcohol by volume.
All rum is the distillate of fermented sugary liquids. However, as there is no standard definition of “rum,” the sugar base can be either molasses or straight sugarcane juice. To begin production, the base is mixed with water and yeast to produce the fermented mash. A major distinguishing factor in rums is the type of yeast used in this stage of the process. A faster acting yeast, for example, will produce a lighter rum. When the mash is finished, it is cooked in either pot or column stills. The distillates are then aged in wooden casks (although some use steel storage) for a year or more. After aging, the rums may be blended for consistency. Flavored and spiced rums will be infused with desired flavors.
A Brief History of Rum
Rum’s story begins with the ancient cultivation of sugarcane in India. Originally chewed for its sweetness, a method for producing sugar’s crystallized form was developed in India around the fifth century. The process soon spread to other nearby areas with weather suitable for growing sugarcane: South Asia, China and parts of the Middle East. European contact with China and India, especially during the Renaissance, led to a fondness for sugar, particularly in its crystallized form, which was at first known as “sweet salt.” Prior to this, Europe’s only sweetener was honey. Another use of sugar — and one that is particularly important to our story — was in the production of a fermented sugar juice. Marco Polo, in fact, described a “very good wine of sugar” that he was served in what is now Iran. Sugar was one of many products that the Europeans found frustratingly expensive and hard to obtain via overland trade routes. It was thus one of the things at the heart of the European voyages of exploration. Interestingly, one of the things Columbus took with him in 1492 was sugarcane cuttings he obtained in the Canary Islands. The New World turned out to be fertile ground for the production of sugarcane. The first sugar harvest in Hispaniola occurred in 1501. Cuba and Jamaica had sugar mills by the 1520s. By 1540, there were nearly 3,000 sugar cane mills in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Europe’s seeming insatiable demand for sugar and the labor-intensive nature of its production led to the use of slave labor. First Native Americans and then Africans were used to do the backbreaking work of growing and harvesting the cane. As the native populations died out, increasing numbers of Africans were brought across the Atlantic to work the plantations. Of the twelve million Africans estimated to have been brought to the New World, a full 70% were destined for sugar production.
One of the byproducts of sugar production is molasses. Since crystallized sugar was the desired final product, the viscous liquid which seeped out during the processing was generally viewed as waste. The slaves, however, had other ideas. They fermented the molasses to make an alcoholic beverage — a molasses, or sugar wine, if you will. It didn’t take long for the European planters to catch on. By the early 1600s, rum was being distilled in Barbados. The first printed use of the word rum is in a 1654 Connecticut court order to confiscate “Barbados liquors, commonly called rum, kill devil and the like.” The etymology is unclear. Some suggest that it comes from British slang for having a good (rum) time. Others say that it comes from the Latin for sugar, saccharum. Rumbullion was a slang term for a tumult or uproar that appeared in the English language in the mid-1600s. Dutch seamen had large drinking glasses known as roemers, or rummers.
Rum became a critical ingredient in the notorious Atlantic Triangular Slave Trade, which ran from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. Sugar and molasses produced in the West Indies was shipped to New England and Europe, where it was sold raw or distilled into rum. Profits from sugar sales were used to purchase manufactured goods, which, along with rum was used to trade for slaves in Africa. The African slaves then were used to manufacture more sugar in the New World. As part of a regular trade, rum acquired value as a commodity money, particularly in places where currency was scarce. In the absence of cash, rum could be reliably used to purchase goods. The British Navy began substituting rum for its sailors’ daily brandy ration following the 1655 capture of Jamaica. British sailors continued to receive a daily rum ration until 1970.
Associations with piracy are surely a byproduct of rum’s place of origin (the Caribbean), its value as money, and its use by the British navy. British sailors turned pirate would surely have continued to demand their ration. The remarkably successful pirate Henry Morgan now is the namesake of a major rum brand. Interestingly, he was born in Llanrumney, Wales. Rum was important beverage in Colonial America and during the early Republic. Indeed, George Washington ordered a supply to be served at his inaugural. Politicians were expected to supply voters with rum as part of their election campaign. Eventually, however, it was overtaken by corn-based liquors such as whiskey and bourbon. Still, it was enough a part of the American culture that the phrase “demon rum” was part of the campaign for prohibition. Today, the production of rum is a $2.8 billion industry. By volume, it is the sixth largest spirit sold globally. The vast majority is produced in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Some of my favorite rum-based cocktails
The Classic Rum and Coke:
This one is too easy. Fill a highball glass with ice, add two ounces of your favorite rum and fill with Coke.
The Cuba Libre:
A Rum and Coke with the juice of half a fresh lime. Fresh. Never processed juice.
Ginger and Rum
For a terrific change-up, substitute ginger ale for Coke.
Dark and Stormy
2 ounces of Ginger beer and 2 ounces of dark rum. Purists say that it must be made from Gosling’s Black Seal rum and Barritt’s ginger beer.
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
2 ounces of fresh lime juice
4 fresh mint leaves
2 ounces of your favorite rum (many use a white rum)
2 ounces club soda
Muddle the mint leaves with the sugar and a little club soda. Add the fresh lime juice. Fresh. Never processed. Add rum. Add ice. Fill with club soda.
The Pina Colada
I honestly mostly use prepared mixes for this one. But the recipe I use for a scratch made Pina Colada consists of
2 ounces cream of coconut
2 ounces pineapple juice
2 ounces of rum
Mix the ingredients and blend with ice until it is a slushie.
Long Island Iced Tea
Mix 1 ounce each of Rum, Gin, Vodka, Tequila, Triple Sec (or Cointreau). Add 1/2 cup of cola.