Made from sugar cane, rum comes in all sorts of styles, and some can be as good on their own as a component in a cocktail...
Since all rum is the product of sugar cane, its history can be traced to Asia where the sugar cane is indigenous to tropical parts of the south and southeast. Between the 8th and 10th century sugar cane was exported around Asia and introduced to Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Andalucía. By the 14th century merchants were importing sugar cane into mainland Europe which early Spanish explorers, including Christopher Columbus, took to the Caribbean, initially to the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
The first distillation of rum in the Caribbean took place in the 17th century, when it was discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. Through development in the refining process, rum’s popularity soon spread to Colonial North America with the first distillery being established in 1664 on Staten Island, Boston. The demand for rum, that had increased exponentially in the American colonies before the American Revolution War, and for sugar across Europe, grew in commercial importance and led to increased work in sugar plantations across the Caribbean. Rum started to play an important part in American politics but eventually its popularity declined due to restrictions on sugar imports from the British islands of the Caribbean combined with the development and rise of American Whiskey.
Rum’s association with the Navy began in 1655 with the capture of Jamaica by the British fleet. Thanks to the availability of large quantities of domestically produced rum a seaman’s daily liquor ration was changed from French brandy to rum.
The term ‘Navy Strength’ historically refers to the style of rum that would have been found on board naval ships from the 1600s onwards. These rums were rich in flavour due to maturation in wooden casks and thus provided a perfect base for the addition of lime juice, an important supplement for sailors warding off scurvy. They were also extremely high proof – an essential factor, not only to prolong the rum’s lifespan on long journeys (as barrel-aged spirits experience a drop in ABV over time) but to also ensure any gunpowder on board would not be diluted by low-strength alcohol leaking from the casks.
Read: Best rums for beginners
- Colour: Clear when bottled directly from stills ranging to light gold or deep, dark amber when matured in casks
- Region: Can legally be made anywhere in the world, typically the tropics where sugar cane grows most rapidly. The majority of the world’s rum production occurs in Cuba, the Caribbean Islands, Latin America and India.
- ABV: Ranges from 37.5% – 75.5%+
- Maturation / Age: Many rums are aged, either for a short period or a few years, but not all rums will be matured
- Made from: Must be made from sugar cane, most rums are made with by-product molasses or from freshly crushed sugar cane juice
- Translation: There is no standard theory of origin for the word ‘rum’ though some suggest it stems from the last syllable of the Latin word for sugar – saccharum. The word ‘Rhum’ typically distinguishes rum made with fresh sugar juice from rum made with molasses in French-speaking countries. Other names for rum include Nelson’s blood, kill-devil, demon water, pirate’s drink and Barbados water.
Method of production
Traditionally rum is made with molasses, a thick syrupy by-product of the sugar industry. It is mixed with water in equal parts, fermented then distilled. While some wild yeasts are used for fermentation most use specific strains to ensure a consistent taste and fermentation period. High-quality rums that are usually destined to be aged are typically produced in pot stills (some with a unique adaptation, called a retort, that further concentrates flavours) while white, lighter, unaged rums are made in column stills.
After distillation, rums will either be drawn straight off the still to be bottled immediately, rested briefly to round out the palate and have any colour filtered out, or aged in casks for a number of years. Most producers use either ex-Bourbon or French oak casks for maturation with the rise of premium aged rums encouraging producers to focus more closely on the quality and age of the wood used. After ageing, nearly all rums are blended with spirits of different ages, countries or production methods. Distilleries will produce a range of spirits to make consistent styles of rum as well as selling spirits to international brands or for ‘white labelling’. These rums are often aged and blended in different countries to the ones in which they were produced.
Also referred to as ‘silver’ or ‘white’ rums. These are typically unaged rums drawn directly from the still or those that haven’t spent a prolonged period of time in casks and will be filtered before bottling to remove any colour. They will generally be light in intensity with some characters of the base material including grassiness, sugar cane and cinnamon, making them a popular choice for use in mixed drinks and cocktails. Many light rums are made in Puerto Rico.
- Light rum brands: Appleton Estate White, Barcardi Silver, Ron Castillo White, Mount Gay Premium White, El Dorado White, Starr African Light Rum, Plantation 3 Stars, Koko Kanu
Gold and short-aged rum
Also known as ‘amber’ rums. They are a halfway point between white and dark rums, being slightly more complex and darker than light rums due to ageing for a short period in oak barrels.
- Gold rum brands: Appleton Special Gold, Appleton Estate VX, Barcardi Gold, Havana Club 3 Años, Tortuga Gold, Mount Gay Eclipse, Rom Zacapa Centenario, Don Papa, Plantation XO
Dark or black rums have been aged for extra-long periods of time, often in previously used and heavily charred wooden whisky or bourbon casks and have a darker colour with fuller flavour profiles.
- Dark brand brands: Bacardi 8-year, Angostura 1824 12 year, Appleton Estate 12 year, Rhum Barbancourt 8 year, Mount Gay Extra Old, Zacapa 23 year, Gosling’s Black Seal
Any rum bottled at over 100 proof (50% abv) is deemed to be ‘overproof’. These range from dark Navy rums to complex white rums. The banana-scented Wray & Nephew White Overproof is perhaps the most famous example of this style, and holds a special place in the heart of Jamaicans who use the spirit for christenings and libations as well as drinking.
- Overproof brands: Bacardi 151, Plantation Rum Old Fashioned Traditional Dark, Lemon Hart & Son 151, Wray & Nephew White Overproof
One of the most well-known categories of rum. They are produced by adding flavours such as cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, orange peel, spices and sometimes caramel. They can be made in a white, golden or more common dark form. Depending on the style – ranging from lightly spiced to thick and treacly – spiced rums can be drunk on their own, over ice or mixed in cocktails.
- Well-known spiced rum brands: Captain Morgan, Bacardi Oakheart, Castillo, Kraken Black, Red Leg, Sailor Jerry, World’s End, Dark Matter
These are made in a slightly different way to rum, the style being originally distilled in the French Caribbean islands with freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice as opposed to molasses. These rums are made in Haiti, the Guadeloupe islands, Trinidad, Dominican Republic and Grenada among others. Cane juice rums from Martinique are labelled AOC Martinque Rhum Agricole as it has its own controlled appellation under European Union Law. The juice used can only be taken from canes grown in 23 designated regions of the island. They can be aged for as little as three months (Blanc), a minimum of 12 months (Élevé Sous Bois) or laid down for at least three years (Vieux).
The equivalent Brazilian sugar cane spirit and by far the country’s most popular spirit. Like rum, cachaça can be made with or without age. Unaged, known as white or silver (branca or prata in Portuguese) is usually bottled immediately after distillation and commonly used in cocktails. Aged, known as yellow or gold (amarela or ouro in Portuguese) usually makes up the premium category, is matured in wooden barrels (from up to 3 years to 15 years) and is meant to be drunk neat.
The 10 biggest selling rum brands in the world:
- Tanduay – made in the Philippines and the best-selling rum brand in Asia
- Bacardi – made in Puerto Rico in the largest premium rum distillery in the world known as the ‘cathedral of rum’. It produces over 100,000 litres of rum every 24 hours
- McDowell’s No.1 Celebration – made in India and the country’s largest selling rum brand with a market share between 38 and 40%
- Captain Morgan – made in Jamaica with over 19 different styles including a light white rum, a 100 proof Spiced rum and fruit flavoured rums and is the second most popular rum brand in the U.S
- Havana Club – made in Cuba with over 4 million cases sold worldwide
- Barceló – made in the Dominican Republic with Spain its top export market
- Contessa – made in India and the only domestic rum to be made with cane juice spirit
- Old Port Rum – made in India from 100% molasses
- Ron Medellin – made in Colombia and predominantly consumed in Latin America
- Appleton Estate – made in Jamaica – the oldest sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica
Other popular rum brands:
Ron Zacapa, Foursquare, Brugal, Mount Gay, El Dorado,
Did you know?
Rum was the traditional liquor of choice for the British Navy for over 300 years. Sailors were issued daily rations of ‘grog’, also known as ‘tots’, in lieu of fresh water. The practise of pouring and drinking rum was known as ‘totting’. Totting was only abolished by the British government in 1970.
More than 80% of the world’s rum sources originate in Puerto Rico from the sugar cane grown there.
Gosling’s in Bermuda have trademarked the name ‘Dark ‘N Stormy’ – The official version of this popular cocktail is to mix 1.5oz (42ml) of Gosling’s Black Seal rum with 5oz (142ml) of Gosling’s Stormy Ginger Beer
Popular rum cocktails:
- Piña Colada
- Dark ‘N’ Stormy
- Mai Tai
- Cuba Libre
- Rum Punch