Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
As we’ve already opined from time to time in the past when writing about spirits, there’s perhaps no other style of liquor that breeds so many misunderstandings and misconceptions as rum. As I myself wrote last year when dismantling the idea of “dark rum” as a style:
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.
And that confusion no doubt means there are rum questions out there waiting to be answered. So here are our answers to five of the most common questions you may have about rum. Also: Check out our blind tasting of 10 bottom-shelf white rums for less than $15.
In a single sentence: Rum is an alcoholic liquor made via the fermentation and then distillation of molasses or sugar cane juice. It is defined, then, by the source of its fermentables—whereas something like the vague concept of “vodka” can be produced from fermentables that range from potatoes and corn to wheat or rye, the starting point of rum always comes back to sugar cane.
Notably, rum can be produced from either the pure juice of crushed sugar cane, or the byproduct we know as molasses. We call molasses a byproduct because that’s what it is—it’s created via the process of refining sugar cane juice into crystalized sugar. Each time that the sugar cane juice is boiled, sugar crystals form and the remaining liquid further concentrates and caramelizes, becoming darker and darker styles of molasses. Industries thus sprung up around how to use this byproduct, incorporating it into cooking and various styles of baking. But one of the biggest uses of molasses has always been rum production, and rum made from molasses has always accounted for the vast majority of all rum that is produced. Rum produced directly from sugar cane juice has a very different flavor profile and identity, which we will discuss in more detail below.
You can’t have rum without sugar cane.
Beyond that basic definition, however, the idea of “rum” is quite nebulous, and each sovereign nation may have very different requirements for its production and maturation. Some locales require a year of aging for all rum products, while others do not. Some distilleries focus more on expressive pot still distillation, while others stick to cleaner and lighter column stills. Many rums that are aged see time in used American whiskey barrels, but others are aged in wooden barrels of every possible description—wine, sherry, port and beyond. Some rums are even aged in stainless steel rather than in wood at all, or are filtered after being aged in wood in order to remove their coloration.
A good rule of thumb: If you want legitimately aged rum, look for an actual age statement. Not just a number on the label, mind you—an actual age statement that has the word “years” after it.
The expectation that rum will be sugary sweet is perhaps the most common misconception that exists around rum in general, and things have been this way for decades. This is in large part thanks to the dark ages of cocktail culture in the 1970s and 1980s, when neon-colored drinks and copious amounts of artificial flavoring gave rum a long-lasting reputation for serving as the backbone of particularly garish cocktails. This perception still exists today, in part due to artificially flavored rums that remain a mainstay of skeezy college dive bars, tainting young drinkers’ impressions of rum at a time when they’re developing their personal taste in spirits.
Suffice to say, rum is inherently no sweeter than any other style of spirit, despite the fact that is is a product of molasses or sugar cane juice. As in any spirit, it’s the product of sugars that are fermented, transforming them from simple sugars to alcohol, before being distilled to increase purity and strength. What’s inherently left over isn’t particularly high in sugar, and unaged rums are inherently quite dry and not all that far off from some vodkas, depending on their point of origin.
More sweetness or richness is commonly introduced via barrel aging, wherein the spirit is able to draw notes such as caramel and vanilla from the interior of a former bourbon barrel, but even here the barrels are contributing a lot less of these compounds to your average aged rum than they do to a bourbon going into a newly charred barrel. Used barrels, as are used in the scotch whisky industry, simply have less flavor to give than freshly charred ones.
So how do you end up with some rums that are very dark and very sweet? Well, that answer is as simple as added sugar and caramel coloring, both of which are quite common in rums sold in the U.S. that are simply labeled as “dark rum.” These words have no U.S. federal definition, and often imply rums that have been artificially colored and sweetened to appeal to the American palate. If you’re looking to avoid that kind of artificial sweetness, we’ll once again recommend you look for products simply labeled as aged rums, with unmistakable age statements on the bottle. These aged rums offer the best balance of natural sweetness and oak-influenced flavors, and are generally much more balanced and dry than the artificially flavored bottles of “dark rum.”
Almost every Caribbean/Central American nation has its own spin on rum, as do many South American nations. Overall, though, they can largely be grouped into three major substyles: English-style rums, Spanish-style rums, and French Caribbean rums.
Areas of the Caribbean where English is spoken tend to coincide with formerly English colonies, and these rums are universally produced from molasses. They are, by and large, typically darker in color and more bombastic in flavor, and these types of rums include beloved tiki cocktail essentials such as Barbados (Bajan) rum, Guyana (Demerara) rum and extra-funky and ester-laden Jamaican rum. Other sources of English-style rum include the Bahamas, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Bermuda, Saint Kitts and Belize.
With that said, these English-style rums still differ quite a bit from area to area, thanks to their traditional means of production. Jamaican rum, for instance, is known for its fruity, high-ester character derived from fermentation with dunder, the yeast-rich muck saved from previous fermentations. Demerara rum from Guyana, meanwhile, is classically said to possess a deep, rich and smoke-forward flavor that can be partially attributed to being distilled in the world’s only remaining wooden coffey stills. These rums tend to be assertive and quite flavorful.
Many classic cocktail rums are in the English style.
Spanish-style rum, on the other hand, is often labeled as ron in the Spanish-speaking world, and typically has a comparable lighter, smoother, fruitier character than the bombastic English rums, although they are also produced from molasses. These rums typically come from nations that were once part of or adjacent to the Spanish empire, and include such markets as Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela. These rums are characterized as more easygoing in character, are often produced solely on column stills rather than pot stills, and include some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Puerto Rico’s Bacardi and Don Q.
The French-speaking Caribbean, though? They do things very differently, and it really deserves its own section.
The most important subdivision of the rum world, especially as far as mixology and tiki cocktails are concerned, is rhum agricole. This spin-off from rum is produced in the French-speaking Caribbean, in countries such as Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti, and is the product of the fermentation and distillation of pure sugar cane juice rather than molasses.
One might expect the end result to be pretty much the same, but rhum agricole is capable of being wildly different from molasses-based rums, especially when produced in countries such as Martinique that have refined their sugar cane growing techniques to a science. These specialized sugar cane varietals produce rum that is much different in terms of flavor profile, often being brighter and more punchy, with intensely fresh, grassy, citrusy, earthy and pungent notes. Strong, unaged agricoles (and many are produced at 100 proof or more) can have such intense earthy notes that they may remind drinkers of mushrooms or the forest floor, while aged agricoles pick up more of the wood/caramel/vanilla traces found in other aged rums, combining them with tobacco-like earthiness. They’re also often more expensive than molasses-based rums, given that rhum agricole production uses sugar cane juice that could otherwise be refined into sugar.
Because of their strong, punchy flavor that is reflective of the terroir where they were grown, modern bartenders and mixologists have fallen in love with rhum agricole, either as a primary ingredient in classic tiki drinks such as the ‘Ti Punch, or in small proportions used to add complexity to other drinks made with molasses-based rums. For these reasons, agricoles are invaluable for broadening the flavor palettes available to bartenders making rum cocktails.
Tiki drinks would be a lot less interesting without rhum agricole.
We’ve already covered the relative meaninglessness and indefinable nature of the phrase “dark rum,” so it likely won’t surprise you to learn that “premium rum” is in a very similar boat. This is less a full-on subcategory of rum production and more a category of rum marketing, which you could loosely define as non-age-stated rums that are pitched to appeal to consumers who want luxurious sounding “sipping rums,” without knowing all that much about the category. They include such brands as Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico, Zaya and Don Papa, who share something important in common: The presence of significant amounts of added sugar, and in some cases additional coloring/added flavors such as glycerol and artificial vanillans.
For some consumers, this may be exactly what they’re looking for. These rums are often marketed as being “after dinner” sippers, implying their dessert-like status, but the distilleries are also typically shy about outright admitting that the products contain additional sweeteners, as the rum geeks in the audience balk at the idea. Indeed, a community of rum adherents has grown in recent years who test their rums at home with hydrometer readings in order to determine how much sugar has been added to the product, but the average consumer would never possess this information.
A particularly misleading “23.”
Perhaps more troublingly, the premium rum space also tends to go hand-in-hand with other deceptive labeling practices, such as the insertion of bold-faced numbers into labels that look like age statements, but really aren’t. A prime example is Ron Zacapa “23” Centenario Rum, which sticks its “23” front and center in a way that is clearly meant to imply an age—indeed, you can easily find online shops selling it as “23 year rum,” knowingly or not. The company can hardly claim the label isn’t deceptive, when you can clearly see evidence of even the retailers being deceived by it. This is also problematic in premium rums aged in solera barrel systems, which can sometimes get away with putting the age of the oldest rum in the blend on the label, rather than the youngest. It boils down to how much the consumer cares about transparency.
This isn’t to say that these “premium rums” aren’t quality products for those who enjoy them. In the end, all that matters to most drinkers is personal taste. But we’d argue that full disclosure and transparency only increase our respect for a brand, and we appreciate those distilleries that are forthcoming about their practices and labeling.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.