In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
The rum world is filled with a massive range of styles, classifications, and terminology. For someone new to the spirit, it can make sorting through the clutter a bit confusing. There’s dark rum and light rum; spiced rum and navy strength rum; English and Spanish and French rum; and many other distinctions. Let’s take a step back and start simple then; What is rum actually made from?
Rum is a spirit distilled from sugarcane products. Most commonly, that means that rum is made from molasses, which itself is a byproduct of sugar production. To briefly digress, sugar crystals are formed by boiling and reducing sugarcane juice. The sugar is then extracted from the reduction, and molasses is the result.
Turning that byproduct into a more profitable source of revenue than the actual product, sugar, is what earned molasses the nickname “black gold” on its home island of Barbados, where it came to life in the early to mid 1600s. Molasses can of course be used in all types of other ways, but let’s all agree that rum is its best end result, right? Today, the world’s oldest rum brand, Mount Gay, is still found on Barbados.
Rum though, can also be distilled from the sugarcane juice itself, as opposed to molasses. The resulting flavor profile is generally lighter and grassier, showcasing more of the actual characteristics of the sugarcane. But flavor is influenced by the style of distillation and maturation, along with a number of other factors as well.
When distilled from sugarcane juice, the result is still rum, but more specifically is known as agricole, or rhum agricole. The French naming there indicates you’re likely to find rhum agricole among French influenced Caribbean countries, such as Rhum Clement from Martinique or Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti.
However, that’s far from a hard and fast rule. For instance, in the Dominican Republic, Ron Barcelo is made from sugarcane juice. Further, there’s no rule that rum has to be made in the Caribbean to begin with, and today it’s a truly global spirit, made all across the Americas, not to mention Asia and beyond.
Meanwhile, cachaça is also distilled from sugarcane , and it originated even earlier than rum did on Barbados. We can tackle that subject another time though, so Tweet me with #AskTheExpert if you want to deep dive into cachaça and the murky waters surrounding its classification as opposed to rum’s.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.