Rum & Cachaça
Rum is the most underrated spirit category. Too often is it dismissed as a common mixer only fit for fruity and tropical cocktails. Rum certainly is those things, but so much more, both in cocktails and on its own. For starters, rum is extremely diverse. Styles range from clean and light to smooth and rich to earthy and funky and everywhere in between. Rum is also largely unregulated. Basically, as long as it's distilled from as sugar cane, it's rum. So it can be made anywhere - though most comes from the Caribbean and Latin America - in any style, using any viable production method.
The majority of rum is made from molasses, which is what's leftover after sugarcane juice is refined to make table sugar. There are some rums made from pure sugar cane juice. These are called agricole rhums (the French spelling rum). Cachaça, Brazil's national spirit, is also made in this way, which is why it's including in the rum section.
With so many aging and style variations, it’s difficult to separate all rums neatly into categories because there isn't a system of widely accepted definitions. Some countries have their own internal classifications, others have no regulations at all. They don’t even all spell rum the same way: rum, rhum, ron. So I've done the organizing myself. I tried my best to create sections that would reflect both how the rum tastes and how it's labeled to help you navigate the liqour store and get an idea how different rums will play in cocktails. Just be prepared for some overlap and contradiction.
For a more complete, accurate as well as potentially more confusing look at rum, check out the "How Rum is Made" section below.
Clear, clean tasting molasses based rum this is the most familiar style to many drinkers. It is the base of many classic cocktails, notably the Daiquri, Mojoito and all important Rum & Coke.
Rum can be aged in any kind of barrel for any length of time. Aged rums range from lightly amber to black, some of which are as fine as XO Cognac and can be sipped neat. In Jamaica they make many rums, but are known specifically for their aged rums that have a robust spicy earthiness that coms from extra long fermentation.
Agrciole rum or rhum (french spelling), is a rums made with sugar cane juice which has fresh, grassy and vegetal flavors. The French caribbean island Martinique is best known for agricole rhum, but it can be made anywhere. They are both aged and unaged. Cachaça (kah-SHA-sa) is made similarly to agricole, and has a comparable flavor profile. It is the national spirit of Brazil and base of the Caipirinha cocktail. They’re typically clear, though are some barrel aged.
Rum production can be boiled down into three distinct styles, or more precisely, traditions: English, French or Spanish, which correlate to relatively specific areas. How a rum is made has a major impact on how it will taste, and usually there will be little to no information about the that on the bottle. Most rum's are categorized by color and relative aging - white, gold, dark, etc. So by considering what style is traditional where a rum was made, you can get a better understanding how it will taste. Though it should be noted that today some producers blend rums from different traditions to get the best of both world, with some fantastic results.
To be clear, the differences between these styles isn’t terroir driven like in the different regions in Cognac or the altitudes of an agave used in tequila and mezcal. It is purely from a production standpoint. Most countries don't even grow their own sugarcane, they purchase molasses from elsewhere - Guyana, Mexico, Panama and Brazil are the biggest suppliers. These also have nothing to do with aging, all rums can be aged.
The Three Rum Traditions - In a nutshell:
English: Heavy, earthy, spicy, funky - Jamaican rum is the best example. Also traditional in Barbados, British Guyana around the demerara river (also called demerara rum), Bermuda, St. Lucia, Antigua and the Virgin Islands.
French: Grassy, vegetal, funky (but bright), fruity. - Agricole rhum, primarily made on Martinique, Haiti, Guadeloupe and Réunion and Cachaça (Brazil) are the primary examples. These have their own page.
Spanish: Light, clean, crisp, fruity - The most common and popular style today. Made in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Coast Rica and Ecuador.
How Rum is Made
These molasses based rums are the oldest style. They're heavier, earthier, and, at their most extreme, spicy and funky - think super ripe bananas. It is also sometimes called Navy style rum, because it was the type used for the sailors’ daily rum rations by the British Navy, who by the way, continued to administer rum rations until 1970!
Production Details - The English rums get their characteristic full bodied funkiness from a combination of factors, of which some or all are used:
Longer fermentation - Sometimes as long as two weeks. This cultivates a higher density of congeners (alcohols and flavor compounds).
Pot-stills - This style was built on the pot-still which generally yields heavier, richer spirits compared to column stills. True English styles exclusively use a pot still, but today many of the other countries only use it for some of their rum.
Dunder - This is only used in the more intense style rums, particularly Jamaican ones. Dunder is undistilled residue leftover in a pot still after a run, the industry calls it stillage, that is scraped up and added into the next fermentating batch. It is rich dead yeast cells and bacteria which helps to maintain good pH (acid) levels and creates more flavors compunds. You may notice this is similar to the sour mash process used with American whiskey and the method for making sourdough bread.
More on Dunder (and the Muck Pit)
Some distilleries famously store their dunder in pits which are fittingly called muck pits (aka dunder pits). In the pit alongside the dunder can be things like fermented molasses, cane juice and decomposing fruit. There are also popular rumors of bat carcasses and goat heads being thrown into the brew, though to the best of my knowledge the truthfulness of that lies somewhere between gross exaggeration and outright fantasy. But the truth is still pretty wild. The purpose of these festering, bubbling pits is to create a sludge known in trade terms as muck, rich in specific types of bacteria.
When added into the fermenting batch of yeast and molasses, the bacteria produces acids (carboxylic acids, specifically) which will combine with the alcohols excreted by the yeast to create more intense and tasty flavors, particularly in form of esters which have varying fruity and floral aromas. That’s why these more intesne and funky rums are also called high ester rums.
While it sounds totally archaic and vile (and by all accounts that assumption corroborated by the smell) it’s a carefully measured and essential component of this rum making tradition, both past and present. The best high ester rums are among the most unique, fascinating and delicious of any spirits made on earth - including some some of my personal favorites - and much of that is thanks to dunder and the muck pit. To go deeper down the dunder nerd rabbit hole check out these articles, which are where I got a lot of my information:
The French tradition uses sugar cane juice as a base rather than molasses. Because cane juice is less concentrated sugar, these rums have more vegetal, grassy flavors which veer into the funky territory, though they are brighter than the funkiness found in English style rums. As mentioned above, these rums fall into two categories: agricole rhum or cachaça, both of which will be clearly stated on the label, making this is the easiest style to identify. This is also the only one of the three styles that also lines up perfectly with one category page, rather than being scattered throughout.
Where - This style can be made anywhere though it is most prevalent in the French, or formerly French, provinces of Martinique - where it has an AOC from the French government, Haiti, Guadeloupe and Réunion. Cachaça can only be made in Brazil.
Production Details - Unlike most molasses based rums which source molasses from abroad, cane juice rum producers often over oversee production from sugarcane a stalk to bottle. This is because once it’s pressed, the sugar cane juice will start fermenting almost immediately, whereas molasses has a much longer shelf life. It’s an instant dinner for the yeast to chow down on. So it needs to go into production as soon as possible. In many cases the sugar cane for agricole rums is being grown on nearby estates very near the distillery, if not right next to it.
Today mostly column stills are used for agricole rhum is mostly distilled in column stills to create the brightest and freshest, distillate possible. Most large scale cachaças also use a column, though many higher end artisanal cachaças use a pot still.
These are the light and clean tasting rums you’re probably most familiar with. This was the last style to be created and the one that made rum a household name. As clear white rums they are used in rum and cokes and as base of most classic rum cocktails and when aged, they become silky bourbon-like sipping spirits. There is none of the earthiness or funkiness of the English style.
This style originated in Cuba with the Bacardi family, which then moved to Puerto Rico, where Bacardi is based now (they also make rum in Mexico). It is also common in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Coast Rica and Ecuador. Most of the rums on the white rum page are made in this style, and they make up a large quotient of the rums on the aged rum page.
To acheive their light, clean and slightly sweet flavors these rums basically do the opposite of the English style. They use shorter fermentations, column stills and are often charcoal filtered (with no dunder in sight).
Base Ingredient: Sugar Cane
All rum begins as sugarcane which is a species of grass. Originally sugar cane was only grown to extract the juice to be made into table sugar. A byproduct of that process is molasses, which initially was seen as nothing more than industrial waste. Until someone had the bright idea to let it ferment and run it through a still. Thus, rum was born.
Harvest and Press
The right concentration of sugars in a stalk , is key. so Its need to be harvested at the precise time. Producers keep track of sugar content by measuring the brix levels, looking for 12-16% sucrose. Once harvested, the stalks - which can grow to be as tall as 19 feet - are trimmed and run through a mill or press to crush the cane and extract the juice.
To turn cane juice into molasses it is first clarfied of impuities and then boiled and cooked down until sugar crystals are formed. This caramelizes the sugar, giving it a darker color - common white table sugar has the color removed at the end using granulated carbon. The sugar crystals are then run through a centrifuge, basically industrial salad spinner, that further separates any remaining liquid. This thick, brown and gooey residue is what we know as molasses.
The boil and spin process is done a total of three times, resulting in three tiers of molasses concentration: light molasses (aka first, sweet, mild or Barbados molasses), dark molasses (aka second or full molasses) and finally, black strap molasses. Blackstrap is most commonly used to make rum. The first two are used more for baking, they can be used for rum - they’re just more expensive.
Molasses is far too viscous or yeast to survive, so it needs to be cut with water to ferment. The style of rum being made will determine how much water is added to yield certain flavor characteristics.
Maturation and Barrel Aging
All rum styles can be barrel aged. Even many white rums spend are aged then are filtered to become clear again. Some countries won’t even consider it rum until it’s been aged for a year or more, more on that here. Other aged rums come in a spectrum of hues from gold to black with every shade in between. Like many barrel aged spirits, ex-bourbon casks are by the most common barrel used for aging rum, though sherry and others are as well. Some rums are aged using the solera style, which is a cumlative blend over several years, even decades.
The best thing about aged rum, in addition to being delicoius, is it's one of the best bangs for your buck on the spirits market. You can get a top shelf bottle for around $30-35. These bargains are because rum matures much quicker than most other spirits, and time is money.
One reason for this is sugarcane spirits don’t have as many congeners as many other barrel aged spirits, like the grain based whiskey. So it doesn’t need as much time to smooth out the rougher edges. Even more impactful is the Caribbean climate, where the majority of rums are made. The high heat and humidity creates more evaporation and absorbtion in the barrel. So the interaction between the rum and oak happens faster. As the saying goes, one year in Scotland is three in the Caribbean. If a Carribean rums is aged for too long and the wood flavors becomes overwhelming, 4-5 years is often plenty. However, the climate on the mainland of South America is cooler, so rums made there can be aged for longer. The fantastic El Dorado 12 and 15 year old rums from Guyana for exmaple.
Caribbean territories held by European nations in the 17th century
mirrors the corresponding styles made there today.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Flavored rum, like flavored vodka, is how many people enjoy their rum. You can find rum flavored with pretty much any fruit imaginable, along with typically preposterous concoctions like Key Lime Pie and Cake. Many popular flavored rums that are really more like liqueurs, such as Malibu, which heavily sweetened and lower proof. Flavoring rum isn’t necessarily bad, though the majority does seem to have little interest in tasting like rum, which is why I tend to stay away from them. That being said, good flavored rum does exist. Plantation Pineapple for example which is amazing. Perhaps the best known flavored rum is spiced rum, which you can read more about - and get a recipe for making it - here.
While most rums are diluted and bottled at or around 40% ABV, agricoles tend to be a little higher. Any rum over 50% ABV is labeled as overproof rum, some go as high as 75% ABV! Rums bottled specifcially at 57% ABV may be labeled Navy Strength rum, just like Navy Strength gin, Smith and Cross is one exmaple.
Blending rum is as integral to rum production as fermentation, dsitillation and barrel aging. Some would even argue that the blender has the biggest impact on a rum's final form. A blend can include multiple rums in all manner of styles and a wide range of ages. These different varities of rum - called marks (or marques) byt he industry - are used by the blender like ingredinets, similar to mixing a cocktail, to create the perfect rum. A single distillery will often produce multiple marks of rum to be used for blends. If a blend has an age statement on a bottle, it will typically be of the youngest rum in a blend.
Coloring and Sweetening
Coloring and sweetening is very common in rum prodcution, even more than other with spirits, particualry in aged rums. As always, in moderation there's really nothing wrong with it.
Jamaica - Where the most traditional English style rums are being made today.
Martinique - The home of the Rhum agricole.
Cuba - The birthplace of Spanish style rum.
(My) Rum Categories:
White - Clear and clean tasting. The base of Daiquri, Mojoito and Rum & Coke.
Gold - Lightly aged with a golden straw color and hint of vanilla and spice.
Amber - Moderately aged, ranging from amber to brown in color with more vanilla, toffee and spice flavors.
Dark - Heavily aged and/or colored rums that are dark brown to jet black. They are typically rich and full bodied.
Jamaican - A robust, earthy and sometimes funky style of rum made in Jamaica. When called for specifically in a cocktail recipe, it usually means an amber Jamaican rum.
Cane Juice Based:
Agricole Rhum - Broadly meaning any cane juice based rum. They have fresh, grassy, and at times, funky flavors. The French Carribean islands are best known for this style, particularly Martinique, but it can be made anywhere. They can both aged and unaged.
Cachaça - Made in Brazil. It has comprable flavors to agricole rhum and is the base of the Caipirinha cocktail. Typically clear, though are some aged.
How The Traditions Came to Be - These traditions took shape when Europe colonized the Carribean and Latin America - then known as the West Indies - through the 16th -19th centuries. Over that period the sugar and, eventually, rum industry emerged. As production evolved, territories adopted different methods and became known for certain styles of rum. Today, while Europe is longer in charge (for most part) many of those traditions still hold.
Where - These rums are also traditional in Jamaica, Barbados, British Guyana around the demerara river (aka Demerara rum), Bermuda, St. Lucia, Antigua and the Virgin Islands.
Today the rums made in Jamaican are the most indicative of the old English style, which is why I gave Jamaican rum it’s own section.
The rums from the other countries are now mellower and less intense than their rustic ancestors. But still, you can always count on a dry, earthy bite on the finish, as a nod to the rum's origins, particularly when compared to Spanish style rums. Outside of the Jamaican section, you’ll find other English style rum brands sprinkled throughout the white and aged rum pages.