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So here we are again with another 101 article, previously having covered liqueurs, American whiskey, vodka and gin I thought it was time that we had a look at rum. Like gin, rum has made a huge resurgence in recent years and its popularity shows no sign of fading.
A Brief History Of Rum
Many years ago, when British sailors in the Caribbean first encountered Kill-Devil (the extremely rough local spirit made from sugar cane) they drank it in copious quantities; this resulted in behaviour that was described at the time as rum-bullion and would likely leave you with an ASBO or even a custodial sentence in modern times! It is speculated that this saying lead to the name rum being adopted. It's believed that the first distilling of sugar cane juice or molasses to make rum took place on the plantations in the Caribbean early in the 17th century with legend alluding to the fact that it originated initially on Barbados. However, we do know that South American countries like Brazil have written evidence of distillation taking place as early as the first decade of the 1600's following the planting of sugar cane brought across by Spanish explorers. The popularity of rum spread from the Caribbean, first to North America and then through England, Spain and their various colonies. To this day, the Caribbean countries still remain the most important producers of rum for international consumption, although no longer the largest source of molasses.
Rum, rhum or ron is the product obtained by distilling the ferment of either sugar cane juice or molasses. Sugar cane is a perennial grass grown mostly in the tropics where it thrives particularly in volcanic soils; the variety of cane planted will dictate the volume of sucrose that it will yield. It can be distilled either in a continuous still or a pot still and has no requirement to be aged in a barrel. It can be any strength above 37.5% abv with some as high as 80% abv; it can be white, light and elegant, rich and pungent or any combination of the aforementioned. Most Caribbean islands harvest cane from February to through June but regions of South Amercica will aim for two crops a year. The sugar cane is cut by hand or mechanically and taken immediately to the mill where it is chopped and crushed to release the juice. If the juice is to be used for the production of rum it's fermented and distilled straight away. If it will be used for the production of sugar, then the juice is heated creating crystals and subsequently centrifuged in order to separate those crystals from, the molasses. Also known as treacle, molasses is essentially all that remains after the sugar has been crystallised out of the juice. The centrifuging process is repeated many times resulting in different grades of molasses that are so thick they need to be diluted with water before fermentation. Fermentation is a very important stage as all the character of the end product is created at this point. It is affected by three main factors; Temperature: The temperature of the ferment has a big impact on the final flavour of a rum, Yeast: Cultured yeasts are grown specifically for a particular length of ferment , weight of flavour and alcohol strength. Wild yeasts can increase the weight of flavour and produce a longer ferment. The distillery will choose depending on their house production style. Duration: This can vary from 48 hours for a typical Eastern Caribbean, Australian or Indian rum to two weeks for a Jamaican style rum. Interestingly, in Jamaica there is an additional process that is called dunder. Dunderis the equivalent of sour mash in American whiskey production. The distiller takes the residue from the previous fermentation and stores it in a pit or tank in the heat of the Caribbean sun; this concentrates the acids, reducing the PH and considerably slowing the rate of fermentation. This also imparts a dramatic pungency to the resultant rum. Whilst some of the stills are quite creative, one generally finds that the distillation process is selective. The art of distillation is is very much in evidence in the rum world with numerous possibilities from the same distillation. What to capture and what to discard is critical to the style of the ed product. Commence collection early and finish early and the result will be a light, delicate spirit occasionally showing hints of creamy toffee. Start later and finish later and the result will be a richer, fuller style with hints of burnt rubber and a certain oily character. The stills used may vary considerably. Column stills can be as high as a four storey building with one rectifying column or more columns linked together. The taller ones are very versatile as the collection shelves can be set anywhere to make anything from a heavy to light distillate. The pot stills can be big or small with long necks giving more delicate rums, whereas short necks result in richer, heavier rums. Some pot stills may even be modified to incorporate a single of double retort. A retort is a chamber attached to the pot before the condenser which is usually filled with the first distillate. The vapour passes though this chamber and the heat strips of and incorporates some of the alcohol before passing into the neck where it's condensed and collected. This method will always produce rums of great distinction and character, if not something of an acquired taste. White rums are often aged in stainless steel for up to six months; occasionally they will be oak ages for an extended period and then filtered through activated carbon to remove the colour. The vast majority of amber rums will have been aged in old bourbon barrels and many will pick up the vanilla and sweet spice notes found in bourbon. Aging in this part of the world is a quick business! In the tropics spirits evaporate through the pores in the wood at great speed during maturation. The Caribbean has evaporation rates of around 8% a year, quite a difference to to whisky matured in Scotland which evaporates at around 2% annually. This doesn't herald the same flavour development but does hasten the aging.
English Speaking Caribbean
Antigua, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago and the Virgin Islands all produce predominantly light and golden rums, some with great style and finesse. Labels often use proprietary terms for differing qualities and many use age statements such as 3, 5. 7, etc. year old. In some instances terms such XO are borrowed from the brandy world. Jamaica produces pungent, light and heavier, high ester rums. Jamaican rums are prized for for blending as well as for their own style and forthright flavours. Labels tend to indicate simply white or an age statement. Often a proprietary brand name is used and some age statements do actually refer to the minimum age of the blend. Guyana is a powerhouse of molasses production and produces a softer style of medium and heavily bodies rums. The whites tend to be labelled very simply whilst the golden and dark rums generally utilise age statements which refer to the youngest parts of the blend. Both Jamaica and Guyana use use pot and column stills to great effect. Many blended blended white and dark rums are sourced from these countries for bottling in the Caribbean or in Europe. They tend to be labelled with brand names and often carry no age statements or qualitative marks at all.
Guadeloupe, Marie Galante and Martinique produce both agricole and molasses based rums. The agricole have strict rules and follow a defined quality ladder. Blanc and Ambre followed by Vieux (minimum of three years), Hors d'Age and age statements or vintages. The molasses based rums are labelled with brand names and rarely carry any other quality statements. Many of these are bottled in France. Haiti has only one major producer; the rums are produced and aged in a similar way to cognac and carry age statements which refer to the minimum age of the blend.
Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela produce a huge variety of heavy and light rums, predominantly white and gold, labelled with terms such as silver and blanca for the whites and anejo, reserva, gran reserva and numerous age statements for the golden. Some are aged in Solera systems and the stated age or number on the label can be a reference top the average age of the blend or the youngest or oldest part of the blend. Brazil deserves a mention on its own as it produces a great deal of the world's molasses and some traditional rums but cachaca is its main spirit. The majority of these do not qualify as true rums as grain and suagr syrup are also used alongside the molasses.
From Australia through the Philippines, India, South Africa and the French speaking islands in the Indian Ocean, many types of rum are produced with brand names providing the best indication of quality. The French tend to be the greatest respecters of the age statement whilst Indian rums have colonial sounding brands. The Australians mainly differ on alcoholic strength and the Spanish speaking producers favour the solera system. Many other countries are now producing rums such as the USA, parts of Europe and South East Asia.