Rum 101: An Introduction to the Caribbean Spirit and Different Types of Rum

types of rum

Rum is slowly clawing its way into your graces, easing you into appreciating it the same way you respect whisk(e)y or brandy. Brands like Bacardi, Malibu, Sailor Jerry, and Captain Morgan carved their spots on American bar shelves, but there’s so much more rum to savor. Once you start to understand the nuances of how rum is made, you can discover which types of rum you will enjoy the most.

What is Rum 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.

sugar cane

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 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.”

Different climates and soil composition will also affect the final taste of the rum, which is why people tend to favor rum from a specific country or region rather than holding onto brand loyalty. There are several types of rum available, most clocking in at about 40 percent ABV, but you’re most likely to run into one of the following:

rum

White
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.

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 (anywhere from two to 10 years) 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 colour, and lets [sic] be honest, often to darken the colour so potentially giving the rum an older appearance,” states Difford’s Guide. “Conversely, some aged rums are charcoal filtered to remove any colour 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.

Dark
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.

Old Fashioned

Spiced/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
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.

Cachaça
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.

Overproof
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.