Why Rum Is the Most Misunderstood Spirit, and Why the Words “Dark Rum” Are Meaningless

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Why Rum Is the Most Misunderstood Spirit, and Why the Words “Dark Rum” Are Meaningless

Of all the major liquor families to populate the well of your average bar, none is so fundamentally misunderstood on almost every level by the American consumer as rum. And really, it’s not their fault—rum, as a topic, seems to possess an almost mystical power to compel mythology and misinformation. Its histories are murky and rife with inaccuracy. Many national rum industries get away with inconsistent or downright misleading labeling practices. Unlike homegrown American liquor terms such as “bourbon,” merely seeing the word “rum” barely gives you any information at all as to what is inside a bottle. It’s the most confounding of the major spirit categories … and one of the most delicious as well.

In general, though—and especially because we’ve recently conducted some rum blind tastings and general rum reviews —this feels like a good time to clear up some misconceptions on exactly what “rum” truly is, and exactly why so many rum labels aren’t particularly meaningful in classification.

What Is Rum, Really?

Rum is the product of fermented and then distilled sugarcane. That’s all there is to it, right? Moving on to the next section, right?

Well, not quite so fast. All rum is the result of sugarcane production, but they don’t all come from quite the same set of fermentables.

The vast majority of rum you see on store shelves, and in the wells of bars, is made from the fermentation and distillation of molasses—the same molasses used in the production of brown sugar, and in your grandmother’s cookies. Molasses itself is the byproduct of the refining of sugar cane juice into the sort of crystalized table sugar we all have in our own homes—a sticky, messy plant and sugar residue left over from the process, which the more adventurous learned to make into an alcoholic spirit. In doing so, they reclaimed what was essentially industrial waste and turned it into an industry—just one of the reasons why early rum had a rather notorious reputation.

Not everything in the rum aisle is made from molasses, though. Spirits are also created from the sugarcane juice itself, before it is refined into crystal sugar, and this liquor is called rhum agricole. First produced in French-speaking locales of the West Indies (such as Martinique), “rhums” can be consumed unaged or aged in oak barrels, just like other rum styles. However, they are noted for possessing a similar but distinct flavor profile all their own, typically described as being lighter, fruitier, grassier and funkier than molasses-based rums. In other words, they tend to retain more of the character of the plant from which they derived. Confusing things further is the Brazilian national spirit cachaça, which is likewise made exclusively from fermented and distilled sugarcane juice. Functionally, this means cachaça is very similar to rhum agricole, although the unaged examples differ slightly in a few aspects of their distillation process. Aged cachaça, on the other hand, becomes a more significantly different spirit from rhum agricole, due to the use of Brazilian hardwood varieties other than the ubiquitous American oak that dominates the rest of the rum industry.

And that’s not even getting into words like “gold,” “dark” or “black,” which we’ll tackle in a moment.

Why Do We Even Call It Rum?

The fact that there’s still a healthy amount of discourse and argument over the origin of the word “rum” is perfectly indicative of just how nebulous everything about this spirit tends to be. Indeed, we know little about which cultures even distilled sugarcane juices first, with hypotheses and fragmented accounts that range from the Mediterranean, to the isle of Cyprus, to South America. We do know that the term “rum” seems to have arisen in the Caribbean, in the 1600s, following the development of molasses-based rums. Legend would have it that this happened in Barbados, but who knows for sure?

The oldest commercial rum distillery in the world still in operation is Barbados’ Mount Gay, which was established in 1703.

British etymologist Samuel Morewood suggested that the term might ultimately have come about as a shortened version of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum. This would certainly make thematic sense, but in practice there’s not a terrible amount of evidence for it.

There’s certainly no shortage of competing hypotheses. Some claim the term comes from the Turkish word for the Greek people, which also happens to be “rum.” The Romani word “rum” also can colloquially be used to mean “strong” or “potent,” which would certainly apply to early rums. Perhaps the best-supported idea, though, is that “rum” simply developed as a shorthand for the slang term “rumbullion,” which itself could be used to both describe the liquor and mean “uproar” in a general way. It certainly does seem as if there was a time when the words “rumbullion” and “rum” were interchangeable, before “rum” simply came to be the dominant term.

On Barbados itself, though, those early rums possessed another name—one that perhaps more accurately conveyed both the potency and corrosive quality of those dangerous spirits. The natives simply called it “kill-devil.” Might make you a little hesitant to take a sip, eh?

The Deceptive World of Rum Labeling

If you visit the whiskey aisle of your local package store, you’ll see an array of terms on every bottle that all have distinct legal meanings. Because the vast majority of the whiskey we consume comes from heavily regulated industries in a handful of countries (U.S., Canada, Scotland, Ireland, etc.) where whiskey is a well-defined commodity, you can look at a bottle and know that “straight bourbon” means a spirit that is at least 50 percent corn, aged in newly charred barrels for at least two years. Likewise, you know for a fact that “single malt” scotch is a 100 percent malt whisky that is the product of a single distillery in Scotland, rather than a blend of grain and malt whiskies from numerous distillers. These terms are universal and strictly enforced.

The same cannot be said, in the world of rum.

Although various Carribean and Central American nations have their own distinctions for various rum terms, the rules for what can appear on labels in the U.S. market are often frustratingly lax. This leads to an atmosphere where there is no legal definition at all for terms such as “white rum,” “silver rum,” “gold rum,” “dark rum” or “black rum.”

Let’s break down, then, what most of these usually imply.

White Rum

Much of the rum on store shelves labeled as “white rum” is more or less what you would expect it to be, which is newly made, unaged spirit distilled from molasses. These may be labeled as white, or “silver,” or simply “unaged,” but they tend to be fairly neutral in terms of profile—not terribly far off from vodka in certain scenarios, although the fact that most are only distilled a single time means more of the sugarcane/molasses natural flavor remains in the distillate than in vodka, which tends to be distilled multiple times in pursuit of the most neutral and light spirit possible.

Some of the bottles from our recent tasting of bottom-shelf white rums.

However, bottles labeled as “white rum” aren’t always unaged—far from it. Some are aged for years in used or newly charred oak, which does impart a degree of color—color that is then largely removed from the liquid via carbon filtering. These rums, such as Plantation 3 Star, Angostura White Oak or Denizen Aged White Rum, may retain a slight degree of yellowish tint, or they may be almost completely clear, but they will retain the added flavors they picked up in the oak, making them distinctly different products than other bottles labeled as “white rum.”

Likewise, “white rums” are available in a wide range of proofs, all the way up to 120, 130 and beyond. It should go without saying that they can’t all be used interchangeably, unless you want your daiquiri to taste like lime-accented rubbing alcohol.

Gold Rum/Aged Rum

Here’s where things really start getting confusing. “Gold rum” has no legal definition in the U.S., and as a result it can mean essentially whatever a producer wants it to mean. For the majority of products labeled as “gold rum,” that typically means a rum that has seen some time aging in some kind of oak, but there are also gold rums on the shelf that are UNAGED spirits, that have simply been given a golden tint with caramel coloring. That doesn’t necessarily make them inferior products, but you’d probably like to know you’re buying an unaged rum when you pick up the bottle, right?

Color, in fact, is a bad thing in general to conflate with a rum’s age, as any number of factors can contribute different degrees of color within different frames of time. Aging a rum in newly charred barrels, for instance, will contribute a darker color much faster, while aging in used barrels contributes much less color—one of the reasons why caramel coloring is also sometimes a hot-button issue in scotch, which is almost exclusively aged in used barrels. As a result, it’s entirely possible for a rum aged a couple of years in newly charred oak to come out of the barrel a dark amber, while a 15-year-old rum in used barrels comes out a pale, straw gold.

When it comes to age, only a proper age statement will give you any kind of guarantee—but even there, you may run into some deceptive practices, as I’ll discuss in “premium rum.”

Dark Rum/Black Rum

If you’re wondering if there’s a distinction between bottles you’ve seen of “dark rum” or “black rum,” you can stop wondering—both terms are equally meaningless as far as a legal definition is concerned. Some try to categorize these terms separately, but given that the producers aren’t being held to any kind of standard, that’s impossible—the words are used interchangeably to describe the darkest-shaded rums you’ll see on store shelves, as typified by a few classic brands such as Myers’s Dark and Gosling’s Black Seal. “Black” rums may be a shade or two darker on average, but the difference is practically negligible.

What makes these particular rums so dark that they become almost opaque? Well, it’s certainly not age. Most of them are aged for only a couple years, if at all, which you should really be able to tell by looking at their relatively low price tags. The dark color is achieved through copious use of caramel coloring, and they typically contain added sweeteners (especially unfermented molasses) that are intended to give them especially sweet, rich, “sugary” flavors, which makes these rums especially suited to mixing in tropical cocktails or classic mixed drinks like the Dark ‘n Stormy.

myers dark rum (Custom).pngEssential for making tiki drinks, but certainly not “extra aged” in any way.

Once again, these types of rum have their place in the industry—what is problematic is the amount of misinformation that proliferates on the web in articles on the subject. Just look at this piece from Bon Appétit of all places, which tries to describe “black rum”—acting like it’s an entirely separate category from “dark rum”—with the following definition:

So, what separates black rum from its lighter counterparts? For one, it’s aged for much longer than white rums. The aging process takes place inside a well-charred barrel, where the molasses-based spirit takes on the smoky characteristics of its environment. The result is that black rum shares taste characteristics with your favorite whiskeys, but with a touch more sweetness.

Suffice to say, essentially everything in that paragraph from a well-respected food and drink publisher is dead wrong, which is a testament to the enduring ability of rum to inspire misinformation. Dark/black rum is NOT “aged much longer than white rums.” The aging process may very well NOT “take place inside of a well-charred barrel.” Black rum does NOT particularly “share taste characteristics with your favorite whiskey,” unless your favorite whiskey is for some reason made with added sweeteners. To say that piece is embarrassingly inaccurate is an understatement, and guess what—it’s the FIRST GOOGLE RESULT for the words “black rum.” Even those trying to educate themselves about this field are more likely to run into startlingly inaccurate information than they are a reliable source. Is it any wonder people end up so confused about rum?

Frankly, it’s depressing.

“Premium” Rums

Finally, there’s the more recently emerged segment of “premium rums,” which are intended exclusively for neat drinking. As with other vague rum genres, things get a bit confusing.

One might wonder first, “Aren’t the more expensive, well-aged, age-stated rums essentially the premium rums of this genre?” And you’d be right. And yet, that’s not what people really think of these days when you say “premium rum.” What they think of are brands such as Ron Zacapa, El Dorado or Diplomatico, which have claimed the title by producing products that fit within a certain mold. And that mold is “rich and sweet.”

These rums do contain age statements in some cases, but all are essentially trying to achieve maximum richness. That means a certain degree of added sugar or flavoring before bottling, something that many rum purists look on as a crutch of artificiality. Likewise, many of these products are complex blends of rums finished in many different types of casks—sherry, port and many other wines, which all tend to add assertive fruit and sugar notes. This is all the intended effect, as “premium rum” is about delivering a somewhat hedonistic drinking experience, rather than a more balanced one.

At the same time, though, it’s common to run into more issues of misleading advertising within the premium rum sphere, especially when it comes to age and the use of solera systems of aging. Take Ron Zacapa 23 Centenario, which you might as well consider the template for the entire premium rum market. That “23” displayed so prominently on the name and label is not a proper age statement, but rather a reflection of the fact that there is some small portion of 23-year-old rum present in the distillery’s solera blending system—the majority being much younger, as young as 6 years old. The distillery will say that it gives consumers everything they need to find that information for themselves, but what small percentage will ever bother to investigate? Most will simply see the “23” and make an assumption it refers to age. The same practice has been adopted by other rum makers such as Papa’s Pilar, whose Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum prominently displays a large “24” in the middle of its label.

Between the added sweeteners and the questionable labeling, it’s enough to make one wary about the “premium rum” category as a whole.

So, what did we learn? Well, as much as we’d like to be able to glance at a bottle of rum and immediately know what we should expect when we see words like “white” or “dark,” the reality just isn’t that simple. Being a rum consumer just takes a little bit more attention to detail; something that may run against the carefree, easygoing, beachside image cultivated by the rum industry.

So the next time you’re in the rum aisle, take a moment to remember that this field is considerably more complicated than many of us have been led to believe.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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