If you’re anything like me, drinking rum makes you feel just a bit like a pirate. It’s funny how something as simple as a drink can evoke a feeling or emotion. Many claim drinking Scotch makes them feel more elegant, or brandy more relaxed. However, perhaps aside from vodka, there is no drink more versatile and globally popular across every demographic than rum. Unless of course we consider beer and wine, which are both popular but not nearly as versatile. Most people know Rum as a mixer but in this guide, we explain what Rum is and the history behind it,we will also introduce you to Aged Rums, provide Top 5 guides on what to buy and outline the great value rum provides compared to Scotch, Brandy or even Bourbon Whiskey.
What Exactly is Rum?
Rum is delicious, that much we know… But what exactly is it? Well, the truth is rum is a fermented and distilled spirit made primarily from sugarcane juices or byproducts like molasses. Initially a clear spirit, it obtains it’s rich colors from being aged in oak barrels. Although rum is made in various countries around the world, the vast majority of the “good stuff” comes from the Caribbean and Latin America.
The History of Rum
While many of us know the famous cultural history of rum being consumed and used as currency by the Royal Navy and pirates the origins actually date as far back as the antiquities. It is widely believed that the initial distillation of rum as we know it today was developed in either ancient China or India. In fact, the Malay people have been documented to produce a spirit they referred to as Brum and Marco Polo even wrote about a sugar based wine he tried in the fourteenth century. While some believe that the Malay’s “brum” is the source of the word “rum”, others claim it has a different backstory. There are many accounts and theories about where the name came from and none are officially documented. Some believe it comes from the last syllable of the Latin word for sugar being saccharum whereas others believe it comes from the Romani word rum, meaning “strong” or “potent” as all early accounts show that the drink was in fact just that. Still, many believe British etymologist Samuel Morewood’s 1824 theory that it stems from the British slang term for “the best” which is “having a rum time”. Other theories claim it’s in honor of the Dutch word “roemer” for drinking glass. Regardless of its etymology, the term “rum” has existed for centuries and is used the world over, sometimes with other spellings but usually the same pronunciation.
The first documented distillation of rum actually came from the 17th century sugar plantations in the Caribbean where slaves realized that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. Most historians believe that rum was initially discovered on the island of Barbados, but records from the 1620s also show it being produced in Brazil. In fact, the Swedish warship Vasa which famously sunk in 1628 had tin bottles of labelled rum found amongst the wreckage. Regardless of the many theories, it is my belief that rum was born somewhere in the Caribbean. Somewhere between the 1630s and 1660s, rum found its way into Colonial America. In 1664 the British colonies set up the very first distillery on Staten Island with another in Boston, Massachusetts just three years later. Quickly, the distillation of rum became Colonial New England’s most profitable industry. Initially the rum was similar to that of whiskey and for awhile, even traded as currency. In order to support a growing demand now that rum was popular amongst men, women and children, a trade agreement known as the Triangular Trade was established between the colonies, the Caribbean and Africa. In a nutshell, the agreement allowed for the trade of rum, molasses and slaves providing workers, ingredients and the end product for consumption. In fact, the trade agreement was so profitable that when the Sugar Act of 1764 halted the exchange, many believe it was the cause of the American Revolution.
With rum becoming so prolific in government, it ended up being rather important in the game of politics. Candidates began to bribe voters with rum in an effort to influence the election results. In fact, at George Washington’s inauguration, he was insistent on a barrel of Barbados rum as it had helped him not only win, but gain friends in the process. In the way politicians are known today for shaking hands and kissing babies, in the past a major campaign tactic was to pour rum for the voters and socialize with them. It is only due to the popularity of whiskey and restrictions from the British islands, that rum production began to subside.
A Pirates Life for Me
Many, including myself have long been fascinated by the relationship between pirates and rum. In almost any film or story featuring pirates, rum is shown and consumed by everyone from the captain to the cook. Surprisingly, many believe that rum has no actual connection to the golden age of pirates and that it is a myth perpetuated by Hollywood. For those who believe that, I regret to be the one to inform you, but you are wrong. Captain Morgan is not misleading you – pirates and rum go hand in hand. In the year 1655 the Royal Navy captured Jamaica and the rum industry became property of the British fleet. Due to the availability of the spirit, the Brits began to include it in the daily rations of all seamen eventually changing over from brandy to rum completely. This is actually how the drink Grog became known. Since rum was so strong, an admiral by the name of Edward Vernon ordered that it be watered down into a cocktail to prevent his sailors from being too intoxicated to work. The name of the drink is named after Admiral Vernon’s grogram cloak he famously wore during inclement weather.
Since a primary job of the Royal Navy was capturing pirates, whenever a fleet lost or was commandeered by a pirate vessel, rum was seized. As did the Royal Navy provide rum as rations, so did the pirates and for most ships, whatever rum was seized was split evenly amongst the crew. However, unlike Admiral Vernon, most captains didn’t require their crew to water the rum down and so many of the pirates quickly became addicted to rum and the spirit rapidly became used as currency and was valued as one of the highest commodities. In addition, the pirates used the rum as currency in port, selling it in exchange for slaves and goods. While many believe pirates simply took what they wanted – and while that is true – they still needed currency to barter with when running low on supplies or crew. Since pirating was such a prosperous trade, many captains used rum as a way to purchase or fix their first ship. While the Royal Navy and other military organizations certainly consumed their fair share of rum, the pirates made it famous and some say, kept the industry afloat.
How Rum is Made
Unlike Scotch or Bourbon, there are no global requirements as it relates to the production of rum. Most regions have their own customs and traditions, which is one of the reasons that the Caribbean and Latin America still produce the most popular barrels. Most rum today is still made from molasses, although some is derived directly from the natural juices of sugarcane, but that’s primarily in the French speaking islands of the Caribbean. Especially, the island of Martinique is know for their cane juice rums, which are referred to as Rhum Agricole, in fact it has a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) protected designation of origin. In order to get this designation, certain criterias must be fulfilled.
- Must be made from fresh sugar cane juice
- Minimum sugar content (Brix > 14 ° Bx) and a minimum pH (pH > 4.7) to prevent development of undesirable flavor compounds.
- Juicing is reglemented and Hot Juicing is not allowed
- The fermentation has to be discontinuous and conducted in open tanks with a maximum of 13,208 US gallons or 500 Hectoliters. For more details click here.
For molasses based rum, most of the molasses stems from Brazil and its this sugar that’s found in most North American and European liquor stores. The fermentation process is rather simple and is really a combination of yeast and water. There are a wide variety of wild and hybrid yeasts used but the standard rule is that lighter rums tend to use a faster working yeast whereas the darker rums use a slow acting yeast as it causes more esters to form making it a more full bodied and stronger spirit. For the distillation it’s similar in the fact that there are no hard and fast rules. Some distilleries will use column stills where others choose to use pot stills. The only difference being that the pot still tends to produce stronger, darker rums. The final step to producing rum is to age it. This is where some regions actually maintain loose regulations. Many countries require a minimum resting period of at least one year and the vast majority of rum makers use American oak bourbon casks for their aging process. Don’t be fooled by thinking that one year can’t age a spirit properly. Remember that most rum is made in tropical climates and because of this the rum actually matures far faster than Scotch or even brandy would. To clarify this point further, the average “angels share” of Scotch or Cognac is around 2% per year, whereas the average evaporation rate for rum is closer to 10%. By aging the rum in bourbon casks, this is what causes the beautiful rich color to develop. It should be noted though that for clear rums, typically they’re aged not in wood casks but in stainless steel tubs. Finally, the rum is blended to maintain consistency and dark rums aged in wood casks will often have caramel coloring added to it as well.
Since rum is produced in various ways throughout the Caribbean, many regions have actually adopted styles that set them apart from their competition. Rums from Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Belize and other English speaking islands are typical dark and full bodied. Rums from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique are primarily made from actual sugarcane juice rather than molasses making them more expensive and often more refined. In Brazil, Cachaça is made from sugar cane but it is basically not barrel aged and they start off as white rums, and as such they don’t intensify and develop secondary flavors the way darker rums do. It is primarily used for the famous cocktail Capirinha, although sometimes also Vodka is used, changing the name to Caipiroshka.
Types of Rum
Globally, there are seven basic types of rum that can be found for sale in most liquor stores. Each has a very unique tasting profile and many are intended for some pretty specific uses.
Light rum which in sometimes labeled as “white” or “silver” generally are quite sweet with little to no flavor profile. Often they are filtered after being blended to remove any color and they’re typically used for mixing in a variety of cocktails due to their mild flavor and aroma.
Another rum that can easily be identified by its color, the dark rums are generally made from a caramelized molasses and matured in charred casks for a fairly significant period of time. They are usually full bodied in comparison to lighter rums and can sometimes contain a bit of smoke and spice. Typically this type of rum has historically been used for cooking and baking, but recently it’s also been utilized by mixologists to provide color in cocktails.
Sometimes referred to as an “amber” rum, these are lighter than the dark rums but stronger than the light rums making them fairly medium bodied. Typically, these rums are aged in white oak casks and are very popular for use in mixed drinks.
Most spiced rum is actually a gold rum with added spice. A good note to keep in mind is that the less expensive bottles are usually just light rums with added color whereas the more expensive ones can often be dark rum based. In the majority of the spiced rums available on the open market, a blend of anise, pepper, cinnamon and rosemary is infused into the rum to give it the extra kick.
Many simply refer to these as premium rum, although in my experience the word “premium” is a very relative term. A sipping rum is basically the Scotch of the rum world and is carefully matured and created by master blenders to be consumed by discerning palates either straight up or on the rocks without any additions. Personally, as a whisky drinker these are my favorite rums and I typically savor them neat in a brandy snifter. See below for a list of some of my favorite bottles.
High Proof Rum
These are some of the more ridiculous rums in my opinion. Often consumed by the drinker who’s only interest is getting intoxicated, these are rums that are over proofed higher than the standard 40% ABV with many as high or higher than 75% (or 150 proof). The most well known example of this is Bacardi 151 and these rums are generally consumed in mixed drinks such as a Rum and Coke rather than cocktails.
The paragraph I dreaded writing… As most of you know I abhor flavored spirits. However, in an effort to appease all readers, I am compelled to mention flavored rums. Similar to flavored vodka, these are primarily light rums infused with fruit or dessert flavoring. Typically these are used in tropical or desert cocktails, although some do enjoy drinking them neat or on ice.
Most people associated rum with mixed drinks and cocktails, and while we discussed the beauty and value of aged sipping rums below, no guide on rum would be complete without a few recipes. While this is only an assumption, I believe it’s safe to say that the majority of you are intelligent enough to figure out what goes in a simple Rum and Coke or Rum and Seven. That is why, I have chosen to forgo mixed drink recipes and focus primarily on a few of the more popular cocktails that are enjoyed globally. For non-U.S. residents, bear in mind that 1 oz is about 30 ml.
Is Brazil’s national cocktail and can be found in numerous variations. It is enjoyed on the beach during the day, in clubs at night or before dinners and makes for a fantastic summer drink. Ingredients:
- 2 oz cachaça
- ½ lime, cut into 4 wedges (Lemons won’t work)
- 2 teaspoons brown of brown or white sugar
- crushed ice
- Optionally, people use other fruit like pineapple, strawberry or raspberries to create different flavors.
Preparation: First, combine the lime and sugar in a glass and thoroughly mash it with a muddler. This step is extremely important because it releases the flavorful oils from the skin of the lime. If you don’t own a wooden muddler, I recommend getting one because of the end of a wooden spoon is too small and not a real substitute. After having muddled the mixture for about two minutes, fill the glass with crushed ice, and add the cachaça, then stir. Typically, Caipirinhas are served with drink stir stick of wood or glass. Note, brown sugar will take much longer to dissolve than white sugar, and while some prefer their drink with little crystals of brown sugar, others prefer their white sugar to be almost completely dissolved.
In homage to the first documented cocktail mentioned previously in the history of rum, I feel compelled to provide you with a recipe for it. Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of recipes for Grogs and so I have decided to post the one I personally enjoy. Ingredients:
- 1 ounce light rum
- 1 ounce spiced rum
- 1 ounce dark rum
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
- 1 ounce organic syrup
- Club soda
- Orange slice and cherry for garnish
Preparation: Pour the rum, juice, and syrup into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake it well. Strain into a collins glass half filled with ice. Top with club soda and garnish. Enjoy.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans chances are you’ve heard a story or two about Pat O’Briens infamous Hurricane. As legend has it in 1939 the famous bar invented this cocktail as a way to rid itself of a stockpile of rum that wasn’t being used. Today, it is one of Mardi Gras most ordered drinks and one that is said to quite literally knock the wind out of you. This is the original recipe:
- 2 ounces light rum
- 2 ounces dark rum
- 2 ounces passion fruit juice
- 1 ounce orange juice
- Juice of a half a lime
- 1 tablespoon simple syrup
- 1 tablespoon grenadine
- Orange slice and cherry for garnish
Preparation: Squeeze the lime juice into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Pour the remaining ingredients into the cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a hurricane glass and garnish. Enjoy.
Next to sangria, this is my wife’s go-to drink in the summer. I have to admit, that when we’re on a patio and the restaurant has a terrible selection of spirits, I tend to keep the mojito at the top of my list as well. Here’s the recipe I use at home when making one for my wife. Ingredients:
- 10 fresh mint leaves
- 1/2 lime, cut into 4 wedges
- 2 tablespoons white sugar, or to taste
- 1 cup ice cubes
- 2 ounces light rum
- Club soda
Preparation: Place the mint leaves and 1 lime wedge into a sturdy glass and muddle them to release the natural mint oils and lime juice. Add 2 more lime wedges and the sugar, and muddle again to release the lime juice. Whatever you do, don’t strain the mixture. Fill the glass almost to the top with ice. Pour the rum over the ice, and fill the glass with club soda. Stir, taste, and add more sugar if desired. Garnish with the remaining lime wedge and a mint leaf on top.
Literally translated, the word mai tai means “out of this world” and it is, it really, really is. This is a great summer drink and one I often make when we host a backyard party. It’s a crowd pleaser and while I find women enjoy the taste, men enjoy the strength. Ingredients:
- 1 ounce light rum
- 1 ounce dark rum
- 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/2 ounce orange curacao
- 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
- Maraschino cherry for garnish
Preparation: Pour all the ingredients except the dark rum into a shaker with ice cubes and shake well. Strain into an old-fashioned glass half filled with ice. Top with the dark rum and garnish with the cherry. Enjoy.
As a full time writer, I have to pay homage to the daiquiri, not just because it’s one of the quintessential rum cocktails, but because one of the greatest lovers of the drink was none other than Ernest Hemingway. The daiquiri is an interesting concoction as it was first invented in Cuba for medicinal purposes. Today however, it’s one of the most popular drinks in the world and there are so many variations of it that to list them I could write an entire book. Because of this, I’ve opted to simply put the basic formula and let you experiment and play with it from there. Be it fresh or frozen, daiquiris can be made using a variety of fruit and juices taking on flavors ranging from strawberry and banana to lime and orange. Ingredients:
- 2 ounces light rum
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/4 ounce simple syrup
Preparation: Pour the light rum, lime juice and sugar syrup into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
I know I said I wasn’t going to include any mixed drinks, but in two short sentences I want to throw in the Cuba Libre. Basically it’s a rum and cola with the addition of lime juice. Enjoy.
For those men who view rum as a lightweights drink of choice, try a Zombie. Also known as a Skull Puncher the drink does exactly that – it knocks you out. Ingredients:
- 2 ounces light rum
- 2 ounces gold rum
- 2 ounces dark rum
- 2 ounces apricot brandy
- 2 ounces pineapple juice
- 1 1/2 ounces 151-proof rum
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
Preparation: Mix ingredients other than the 151 in a shaker with ice. Pour into glass and top with the high-proof rum. Note: If you really want to impress people, light it up. The 151 is flammable. I do however, advise caution and that you do it on the first one and not after you’ve consumed one or two.
Personally, I don’t have a huge rum collection but Sven Raphael Schneider interviewed Rum Connoisseur Tom Hudson, who has a collection of way over 100 bottles of aged rum in his bar. As a young man, Tom never really had any interest in Rum, until about 5 years ago he really developed an affinity for fine, aged rums. Because strict protocols and definitions of what Rum is or should be, Rums from different islands have a different flavor profile and style. Tom enjoys aromatic rums with complexity the most, and sometimes, they are even made by Cognac producers, like the one from Plantation listed below. Despite its outstanding flavor, they are rather affordable compared.
How to drink Aged Rum?
Aged rum benefits from a but of water or one or two ice cubes to really develop its best flavors. Just like with Bourbon or Scotch, you shouldn’t drink it at cask strength of 150 proof. Instead water it down to about 70 – 80 proof to get the best sipping experience. These rums are just like fine bottles of Cognac, Scotch or Bourbon and you shouldn’t use them in mixed drinks or cocktails.
Why You Should Give Aged Rum a Try
Unlike Scotch, Brandy or wine, a top notch bottle of deliciously aged, 20 year old rum starting at $40! Of course, you can also invest more but you won’t find many rums that retail for over $200. Now compare that to a bottle of decent wine. A half way decent bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape will set you back more than $40 and you consume it one setting, while a 750ml bottle of rum will last you much longer. On the other hand, a Scotch bottle of similar size and age will cost you at least $100, but more likely $150 – 200 or more. Of course, it is a different spirit and it tastes great but aged rum can provide a similarly unique and sophisticated flavor experience at a fraction of the price of Scotch. So, if you are on a budget, rum may be a great way for you to start with aged spirits because nowhere else do you get a high end quality at a novice price tag.
How to Buy Rum?
Ideally you should taste bottle before you buy them but that may not always be feasible. Maybe there is a rum bar close to you or a rum dealer who offers samples, please check here to see what is available in your area.
Tom Hudson’s Rum suggestions:
Top 5, very affordable everyday rums that are good for sipping:
- El Dorado 12 Year Old from Guyana (great notes of anise and smooth, long finish) – $24
- Saint James Royal Ambre Rhum Agricole from Martinique (A Rhum Agricole for a student’s budget) – $22
- Flor de Cana Gold 4 year from Nicaragua (Exceptional value and heavily underpriced) – $16
- Pampero Ron Anejo Especial from Venezuala (a little harsher burn, but very typical of Latin American rums) – $17
- Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum from St. Croix (Yes, I sometimes drink spiced rums, and if I do, they are always neat) – $13
Overall Top 5 Rums
- Edwin Charley The Virtue (The best stays on the island and does never get exported from Jamaica, but in my book it gets 100 out of 100;comes in an exquisite bottle) – $140US for 700ml
- Havana Club Barrel Proof from Cuba (Not available in the U.S., but devine)
- English Harbour Aged 10 Years Reserve from Antigua (Rather pricey for rum, and difficult to find) – $90
- Saint James Hors D’Age Rhum Agricole from Martinique (best example of Rhum Agricole – Martinique rhums have a unique taste) -$35
- Plantation 20th Anniversary Extra Old from Barbados (cognac producer Claude Ferrand produced an exceptional rum) -$40
J.A. Shapira’s experiences:
Flor de Caña Centenario Gold 18 Year Rum Probably one of my favorite rums, this is an award winning full-bodied 18 year old rum from Nicaragua. It’s aged exclusively in American white oak casks and is rich and complex with hints of nuts and cream, with the vanilla touches you expect from a bourbon cask. It has a nice peppery spice to it and a smooth oak finish. To taste it properly, follow the same steps you would for a whisky or even a wine and enjoy this rum neat in a brandy snifter or on the rocks if you prefer. El Dorado Special Reserve 21 Year Rum My other go-to rum is this beauty of a beast. It hails from Guyana and is lush and tropical with bursts of sweet honey, nuts and brown sugars. It has a touch of orange zest and is full bodied with a beautiful rich mouth feel. The finish is fruity and spicy with strong notes of caramel.
Appleton Estate 30 Year Rum This one is a little pricy as it can cost a few hundred dollars. However, if you think Scotch is a man’s drink, wait until you try this. It’s a very rare blend of several rums, the youngest of which is 8 years. Once blended, the rum is placed again in charred white oak barrels where they rest for an additional 22 years. The nose is bold and you can immediately discern hints of baked pears, black pepper, cinnamon, anise, maple and orange peel. It has a strong burst of fresh ginger and vanilla. The palate is a little more mellow and is quite oaky and sweet with pops of spice and wafts of vanilla.
Bacardi Reserva Limitada Light Rum At first I was quick to write this one off as I let my arrogance get the better of me. I had always considered Bacardi to be the Budweiser of rums and I admit, I didn’t give them a fair chance. That is until the manager at my local liquor store whom I place a lot of trust in opened a bottle and forced me to try it. It was splendid. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually purchased a bottle of this myself as I typically don’t drink light rums. The ones I keep stocked in my bar are Havana Club and they’re primarily for guests. While I did sample it I don’t remember it well enough to provide a tasting profile and so I’m going to simply say that as far as light rums go this one is the best I’ve tried and that’s why I’m recommending it. Another light rum I should probably mention that I’ve had and enjoyed is the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva.
Where to Learn More About Aged Rum?
To learn more about aged rum, you should try rums from different islands because they taste distinctly different. As a general guideline, Caribbean rums tend to have more fruity notes while others can be a bit more down to earth. At the end of the day, each individual has different taste buds and all that matters is what you enjoy. Undoubtedly the best books about Rum were written by the leading rum authority Edward Hamilton who wrote
Also, he created the website Ministry of Rum, which provides all kinds of expert knowledge along with a forum about rum, which is highly recommended.
Today, rum is well regarded as a ladies spirit. However, I question any man who says it’s not a “real mans drink” because in my opinion no one is more masculine than a pirate or sailor. The fact remains that there is a wide variety of rum and aged rum available and it is one of the most versatile spirits in the world. Even if you don’t fully appreciate rum, I would urge you to keep this article in mind when stocking your bar for guests, and if you value my opinion at all, consider trying one aged sipping rum next time you go to the store in search of Scotch, brandy or port – they are affordable and provide excellent quality and value. As always, I love spirits and know quite a bit about them, but I can always learn more so if you have anything to add or any comments to make, I would love to hear from you. Especially, if you can recommend a new rum I perhaps haven’t tried. Stay tuned for my next installment on Irish whisky.
This article was a collaboration between J.A. Shapira and Sven Raphael Schneider.