Rum’s importance in American drinking history stretches back to before the United States was even a country. Rum was a necessity in the Colonial days, both as an item for trade and as one of the primary means of getting schnackered. When the country was just getting on its feet, whiskey as we know it hadn’t quite made an impact yet, leaving primarily rum and hard cider.
With such a long history of rum-drinking, it seems important then, to know what exactly rum is, how it’s made, and the different types of rum that are out there. The guy next to you deciding which handle of flavored Bacardi to get might not give a flying F, but you should.
What is Rum Made From and How Is It Made?
Rum is a liquor distilled from sugarcane byproducts — typically sugarcane juice, sugar cane syrup, or molasses, according to Difford’s Guide For Discerning Drinkers. After sugar cane was introduced to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus, slaves were the main consumers of the molasses created during the sugar production process. Even then, the waste was so abundant that people didn’t know what to do with it until someone finally got the bright idea to make alcohol.
Modern rum is usually made using one of three methods: directly fermenting sugar cane juice, creating a concentrated syrup from sugar cane juice and fermenting the result, or processing the juice into molasses and fermenting that. The climate and the soil will impact the final rum taste, which is why rum produced from molasses from Barbados will taste different than a rum made from Dominican molasses, even if the two were distilled in exactly the same place and method. The vast majority of rum distillers use molasses to make rum, but not all molasses is created equally.
“In Britain and the former British colonies, the first distilling is called light molasses, the second dark treacle or dark molasses, while the third is called blackstrap molasses,” wrote Richard Floss in Rum: A Global History. “Rum of varying quality can be made from all of these, though liquor made from the lower grades of syrup is usually re-distilled to remove pungent flavors.”
On the fermentation side of things, distilleries can then choose from a couple different paths. If they go with natural fermentation, the sugar product will sit in open vats, letting the natural yeasts in the air do their thing and turn sugar into alcohol. Another option — and one most larger companies use — is to introduce pre-determined strains of yeast themselves and from there control the fermentation from beginning to end.
Once fermentation has completed, distillers are left with a low-alcohol product (sometimes called the low wines). It isn’t rum yet, but it will be once it goes through distillation, which is the process by which alcohols are separated from the fermented liquid.
Distillation happens in stills, which are made or copper or steel or typically come in two varieties: continuous or pot. There are other kinds of stills — and variations within each — but those are the two main kinds. Distillers can opt to use one type or the other, or some mixture of both. Depending on the type of rum, it may go through the distillation process a second time, raising the alcohol even higher. As with every other element of the distillation process, the choices here will affect the final taste of the rum.
The variables in making rum don’t end there, though. After distillation comes aging (or the lack thereof). Distillers can choose to put out an unaged product or they can pump it into barrels for a length of time (sometimes as little as a few weeks and sometimes as much as twenty or thirty years).
That leads us to the next section: the different kinds of rum. Taking into consideration the different variables above, rums generally fall into the following categories:
Types of Rum
You know this one from a mojito, swizzles, or most drinks that are served with an umbrella. White — also known as light or silver — rums are the lightest in flavor and are typically aged three to six months in tropical climates, or up to one year in colder climates. Unlike other rums, white varieties are distilled in stainless steel casks, thus they tend to offer the most straightforward rum experience. This is the best white rum made in America.
Gold and Aged
These two types of rum will look very similar, but it’s important that you know which one you’re getting. An aged rum will have a golden or amber hue naturally cultivated from the casks it was made in. There are also a few aged dark rums available. A gold rum can also be aged, but it often gleans its color from additives.
“It is common for caramel to be added to aged rums to ‘correct’ the color, and lets [sic] be honest, often to darken the color so potentially giving the rum an older appearance,” states Difford’s Guide. “Conversely, some aged rums are charcoal filtered to remove any color and are bottled completely clear.”
In terms of taste, an aged rum will have more depth while a gold rum offers a smoother experience with a little more to talk about than a white rum. This is the best aged rum made in America.
Remember when we talked about molasses? Here’s where things get heavy. Most dark rums are the result of a double distillation and they tend to have the most in common with Scotch or brandy. A third distillation yields blackstrap rum, a deep rum with complex flavors. Regardless of the grade of your dark rum, you should really sip it and can even approach drinking it similarly to whiskey.
Spiced or Flavored
Primarily used in rums made from molasses or sugarcane syrup, the method of flavoring rum with spices or tropical ingredients — like coconuts —has grown increasingly popular. The flavor can either amplify the sweetness of a rum or add heat and complexity. Low-proof liqueurs and alcoholic syrups like rum creams or falernum can be considered subsets of this category.
Rhum agricole is made from sugar cane juice, not molasses, and is only produced in the French Caribbean. (See: Champagne vs. sparkling water and cognac vs. brandy). Rhum production must adhere to the strictest regulations of any rum type, down to the distillation length, making it the most consistent form. Similarly to white rum, the sweetness from the sugar cane comes through in a strong way, but rhum also presents a pleasant grassiness.
Another rum made directly from sugar cane juice, cachaça gained some popularity in the U.S. following the 2016 Olympics. Like rhum agricole, cachaça is location-dependent and can only be made in Brazil, though with less stringent rules. As long as the rum is less than 54 percent ABV and doesn’t use molasses, it can be considered cachaça. Known for its exceptionally sweet sugar cane crop, Brazil’s other rums and cachaça are widely accepted as the sweetest and most palatable rums in production.
Are you feeling hot, hot, hot? Commonly used for drinks that require a flambé treatment or as a floater, overproof or high-proof rum is anywhere from 50 to 75.5 percent ABV, depending on the country’s regulations. Do not take shots. Do not use while cooking. Do not pass “GO.” Overproof rums can be used in cocktails, provided you’re dealing with a rum on the lower end of the ABV spectrum. The higher the ABV, the less rum you should use.
Article originally published by J Fergus on October 3, 2017. Last updated September 5, 2018, to include the winners of The Manual Spirit Awards 2018.