Rum is a very popular spirit and has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. Once viewed as the preserve of old salty sailors, a new generation has embraced this ancient spirit. As provenance and flavour have become more important to millennial's, rum has been allowed to show its varied styles to the masses once more. This was facilitated by the heightened interest in the cocktail scene and by some pretty aggressive marketing by brands like Captain Morgan's and Kraken. Here are some fun facts about rum;
Unfortunately, rum has a dark history that is closely linked to colonialism and the slave trade. The all-important sugar cane grew naturally throughout Asia and China and it's believed that it was harvested and used for human consumption as early as 4000 BC. The first recorded mention of its use was in 1129 AD in an Indian text detailing its use in a fermented cane drink. In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean Bahamas and it's here that the story of modern rum begins. Soon after this, South America was discovered and the gates to the New World had been opened. What followed over the next century was several ground-breaking voyages that made it possible for Europeans to travel the globe with relative ease.
By the beginning of the 1600's, trade was swiftly becoming the key to be a global superpower. The old Islamic cultures of the world were waning in strength whilst Christian Europe was in ascendancy. The main European players, namely Holland, England, Portugal, Spain and France, formed huge merchant companies that plied their trade on the new frontiers of the West Indies and East Indies. The Spanish initially had a foot hold the Bahamas thanks to Columbus, but it wasn't long until they were muscled out by the might of the English and Dutch.
The first sugar cane plantations were constructed in Brazil in 1520 and they spread to Jamaica and Cuba by 1595. The Portuguese used slaves from Africa to work the plantations as they were used to the heat and less likely to escape than indigenous slaves. Soon the British, French and Spanish were also purchasing slaves from Arab and African traders and a truly despicable trade was established. This abhorrent practice spawned a market that was hugely profitable and countless individuals were traded like cattle. It was however, the slave population that was responsible for the creation of rum as we know it today.
The earliest recording of sugarcane distillate was in 1552. It was reported that the slaves were more co-operative if they could imbibe cachaca, a spirit made from unprocessed cane juice. This was in a report from a Brazilian Governor and cachaca is still Brazil's national drink. Nowadays it's commonly used to make a cocktail called a Caipirinha. Back then it was popular among the slaves as it was easy to make and there was an abundance of sugar cane to work with. We suppose that being constantly intoxicated was certainly preferable to the harsh reality of life as a slave. Whilst cachaca is technically a type of rum, today the classification states that rum is made using molasses, the by-product of crystal sugar production.
There's sound historical evidence that the first molasses-based rum was produced by Pietr Blower on Barbados in 1637. He was a Dutchman who had come from the plantations of Brazil to settle in a new British colony on the island. He came prepared with seeds to grow sugar cane and a pot still required for distillation. With previous attempts to grow plants for valuable dye a failure, the residents of Barbados turned to producing sugar for export. Pieter encouraged the slaves to save the molasses and distil them into rum. By 1651 rum was being widely consumed on Barbados.
It was a comparable situation on the French island of Martinique and Cuba, with records of molasses distillation being recorded around the same time. With the sugar plantations being in operation since the previous century, it wouldn't be surprising if someone had already distilled a rum before this. This spirit, still regarded as the tipple of slaves and brigands, was never actually called rum. Instead, it was given monikers such as Kill-Devil, Barbados Liquor and Devil Water. The first printed example of the name wasn't until 1751 in a French Encyclopaedia of Sciences and Art.
Rum and sailors have a long and well documented relationship and the first rum rations were given to British mariners in 1655. This was under the orders of Vice Admiral William Penn after he captured Jamaica from the Spanish. Sugar cane spirit was being produced there and, with the beer rations already well depleted, he started a tradition that would remain with the British Navy until 1970. Rum was the go to drink for both privateers and pirates that plied their trade around the Caribbean and this didn't help its reputation as a drink for rogues. There wasn't really any difference between a pirate and privateer back then, just the flag that you sailed under.
By the beginning of the 18th century, Britain was getting rich from rum. That and molasses were the biggest source of trade income for the UK and the most profitable commodities to come from the West Indies. The molasses from the Caribbean was traded to the American colonies for rum. More rum was then distilled and exported to Africa in exchange for more slaves to work the Caribbean plantations. This was known as the Trade Triangle and it made merchants very rich indeed.
Due to the vast amounts of money being made trading slaves and rum, the British were ashamedly the last of the European powers to abolish slavery in 1833, some thirty five years after the French. Despite this, Britain still retained a monopoly on rum production and trade. Eventually, dedicated rum distilleries started being developed and the spirit was no longer just something that was a by-product of the sugar trade.
As you have probably gathered by now, rum is made by distilling the molasses that come from making sugar crystals. It might surprise you to know that sugar cane is still harvested by hand in many parts of the world. This is extremely physical work that requires a sharp machete and a strong back. Once the cane has been cut, it's transported to the plant where it's crushed in a large machine. The precious juice is collected and the waste pulp is either discarded or burnt as a fuel for heating the stills.
Once the juice has been collected, it's then made into sugar crystals which leaves the molasses behind. The sugar will be sold and the molasses taken on to the next stage of distillation. This is when the molasses is fermented and is by far and away the most common method of making rum today. Other methods include fermenting and distilling the pure sugar cane juice; this is how Brazilian cachaca is made.
The fermentation process can be undertaken in a variety of ways. The simplest and most natural method is leaving the molasses in an open vat and letting natural yeasts react naturally with them. On the other end of the spectrum, some distilleries use state of the art equipment and scientific apparatus to complete the process. Most modern distilleries fall somewhere between these extremes and often add the yeast that they want whilst ensuring environmental issues are kept optimal. The fermentation process can be as short as half a day or take weeks to complete.
With the fermenting done, it's now time for the exciting stage of distillation, where the fermented molasses are placed into a still. The still is then heated, releasing the alcohol from the liquid in vapour form which is then re-condensed and collected. What's left over is the pure spirit. Sounds simple right? Unfortunately, there are a multitude of factors that can affect this process and it takes time, dedication and skill to become a master distiller. Another crucial factor is the stills themselves which are either copper pot stills or continuous stills. Every still is handmade and unique, with some being extremely simple whilst others have complex features that allow various parts of the rum to be separated. Each still has its own quirks and secrets that only practice and patience will reveal. Between the Master Distiller and the still used, each rum is unique and its character is determined by the aforementioned factors.
After the distillation process is complete, the rum is run off and collected. It's usual for this to be blended with other rum from the distillery and watered down to around 40% ABV. Some rums are bottled straight after distillation and sold as are, especially for the Caribbean market. Others are aged in wood casks, dramatically altering their flavour profile. Some have various spices, fruits or other juices added either before or after maturation. As you can imagine, this leads to a huge possible range of flavour profiles in the finished product.