Mapping Rum by Region

Anyone who has tasted single malt Scotch or district-designated Cognac knows that these distilled spirits can reflect their places of origin as strongly as any wine. Is the same thing true for rum?

While sampling a flight of oak-aged rums recently, I found myself wondering if, like fine wines, the world's great rums have distinctive regional profiles. Do the rums of Martinique or Barbados stand out noticeably from all other rums? Does a rum version of wine's vaunted terroir exist? Do regional variations in rum distillation technique make a difference? In the name of science, I set out to discover the answers to these questions.

Holy Terroir
As all wine enthusiasts know, terroir is defined as the influence of environmental factors (such as climate, microclimate, atmosphere, subsoil, soil variety and topography) on the wine of a particular locale. Terroir's effect on wine is pretty much accepted. But the jury is out on distilled spirits—beverages that are first fermented, then distilled (or to be blunt, boiled). Some well-intentioned imbibers insist that distilled spirits cannot under any circumstances reflect the characteristics of their place of origin, blaming the rigors of distillation.

I agree with them regarding multidistilled and largely neutral spirits, such as vodka, grappa and gin. But fermentation and distillation don't negate the effect of terroir in all distilled spirits. Just sample the smoky, peat-laden single malt whiskies of the island of Islay in Scotland. Or try the distinctive 100 percent Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, or Borderies-designated brandies from the Cognac district of France. It's clear from these and other examples that a small number of distilled spirits of a certain pedigree do indeed show the effects of terroir. Could rum be among them?

Some leading rum experts dismiss the idea, explaining that where and how a rum's raw materials are grown have far less to do with its characteristics than what takes place during production. For Malcolm Atherton, manager of West Indies Spirits, an import company based in Salt Lake City, the origin of the sugar cane is "less important than a lot of other factors... . The biggest factor is what sort of still is used—a pot still or a column still—and at what point the rum comes off the column still."

Richard Seale, managing director of Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados, notes that the sugar cane's place of origin cannot be compared to that of the barley grown for
single-malt Scotch or grapes cultivated for Cognac because the cane undergoes industrial processing before it sees a rum distillery. "If the cane was grown for rum, we would see a bigger influence," he says.

Most cane, however, is not grown for rum; almost all sugar cane produced around the world is cultivated for the purpose of making sugar. Rum is actually made from the byproducts of sugar production. Indeed, the rum industry in the New World developed because plantation owners realized they could increase their earnings by using up the byproducts of the sugar-refining process.

Sugar's byproducts fall into two categories: sugar cane juice and a secondary byproduct, molasses. Sugar cane-juice rum is universally referred to as agricultural rum, or rhum agricole in the French-speaking nations, while molasses-based rum is called industrial rum, or rhum industriel. French distillers prefer sugar cane-juice rum, while most of the world's other rum distillers use molasses.

Jerry Edwards, research and development manager of Mount Gay Distilleries in Barbados, describes the differences between agricultural and industrial rums this way: "Rhum agricole is floral, fruity, spicy, while rhum industriel is notable for licorice character, lightly floral, generally heavier in body than rhum agricole." Rums produced in the English-speaking Caribbean are, he says, "typically much less aromatic than those produced in the French islands."

But are all of the raw materials of rum simply industrial byproducts? Not necessarily. On some islands in the French West Indies—in particular, Martinique—sugar is grown expressly for rum distillation, says Stanislas Ronteix, director of rhum at Martinique's Saint James Distillery.

This is no accident, but a result of cultural differences among the colonials who pioneered the New World rum industry, says Luis Ayala, a Round Rock, Texas-based rum consultant and author of The Rum Experience (2001, Rum Runner Press Inc.). "Sugar cane cultivation in the British West Indies was fueled by the demand for sugar in England," he says, while "in the French West Indies, enterprising plantation owners, some well-versed in the production of brandy, cultivated the sweet grass with the sole intention of fermenting and distilling the whole juice into a marketable product."

At the same time, says Ronteix, "molasses-based rums do not always use molasses from where their distillery is." In fact, the vast majority of industrial rum distillers buy their base molasses on the open market.

As a result, French agricultural rums, says Ayala, "are more influenced by terroir than their industrial counterparts. The influence of terroir is most noticeable in rums with the least amount of human/mechanical intervention."

Ronteix agrees: "For agricultural rums, the terroir is the key, in that, the base material, the distillation and aging process are specific. At Saint James we are responsible from the growth of the cane to the aging in oak barrels."

The Importance of Yeast
There are other elements that affect a rum's character. One is the yeast used to initiate fermentation. It's the yeast that activates fermentation by metabolizing sugar molecules. When yeast consumes sugar molecules, carbon dioxide and alcohol are created. Each strain of yeast dictates the length of fermentation, which brings about unique results for the various rums. Most rum distillers are guarded about which strain they use.

"The yeast employed will determine the final taste and aroma profile" of the rum, says Joy Spence, master blender at J. Wray and Nephew in Jamaica. "The variety of yeast used does affect the congener [biochemical elements that constitute aroma, body and taste] levels in the rum."

Producers have their favorites. José Gómez, process manager and master blender of Bacardi Corporation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, notes that "a good strain of yeast should be able to produce a high content of alcohol, the correct aroma composition, and in order to minimize bacterial infection, a rapid fermentation."

That emphasis on rapid fermentation, Hamilton points out, results in Puerto Rico's producing the lightest rums in the Caribbean. The rums of the British West Indies countries, on the other hand, are typically heavier than those of Puerto Rico or the French West Indies, because their fermentation period is longer. Bajan rums (rums from Barbados) are a superb example of a deeper, richer style of rum, due in part to the yeast cultures that are used there.

Bubbling Out of Control
If fermentation is the heart of a distilled spirit, distillation is the soul. There are two fundamental kinds of distillation employed in making rum. In batch distillation, small copper pot stills are used for two successive distillations. In column-still distillation, the fermented molasses or sugar cane-juice "wine" gets boiled and vaporized, either once in a single tall column, or several times in multicolumn stills. Pot-still rums contain more congeners than most column-still rums, thereby making them meatier and richer.

Foursquare Rum Distillery's Seale describes the impact of distillation on the character of rum, saying, "The single biggest difference in any spirit is batch versus column distillation. Variations in environmental conditions, yeasts and all can shine through more in 100 percent pot-stilled products like single malts than they ever can in blended rums." But, he says, "100 percent pot-still rums are very rare, whereas single-malt Scotches and Cognacs are 100 percent pot still. We describe pot still as the backbone of the blend, [but] we can make a better rum by combining both methods. Most of the regional variation in rums is due to the nature of the pot-stilled rum and the quantity of the pot-stilled rum in the blend. This is the most important component of the 'terroir' question."

By contrast, the distillers of Martinique favor the single-column distillation method, which they say is key to the style of rum for which the French Caribbean is known. They likewise compare their rums with another famous product of single distillation from France's Gascony region. As Ronteix of St. James Distillery in Martinique, explains, "Agricultural rums are not far from Armagnac. When tasting it you can feel the raw material and its fruity are very near the sugar cane." And, as he points out, the rums of Martinique are the ones that display terroir.

For the most part, however, rums do not exhibit the effects of terroir—flavors and aromas imparted by soil and climate conditions—but they do have regional profiles determined by the local tastes of their producers.

"As far as I am aware," says Edwards, "the industry has not evolved to a level of sophistication in which notions of a terroir of rum are attended by serious concern. Generally, rums do have peculiar characteristics in accordance with the regions and/or nations in which they are produced."

"Absolutely," agrees Seale. "Jamaica, Guyana, and Barbados all have distinctive styles that have evolved over the years."


Food historians have determined that sugar cane (a species of tall grass) is native to the Indian subcontinent, most likely the Ganges river delta. Sugar as a sweetening agent has been in existence for at least 3,000 years. The Indian classic text, Ramayana, written in about 1200 B.C., refers to a feast "with tables laid with sweet things, syrup, canes to chew..."

Rum, in some crude form, appears to have been developed either in ancient India or China; its precise origins are uncertain. What is known is that Persians of the Middle Ages distilled sugarcane juice into alcohol. Marco Polo, in his 14th-century memoirs, mentioned the "very good wine of sugar" that he was offered in what is now Iran. Though the Koran forbade the imbibing of alcoholic beverages, the Muslims were very adept distillers who employed alcohol in the production of cosmetics. The clear, potent liquid known as "sugar wine" was transformed into "rum" sometime after the 1680s, when European colonists in the Caribbean realized the climate would support sugar plantations, and an industry—in fact, a whole economic structure—was born. The word "rum" is thought to have been derived from either "rumbullion," a drink made from boiling sugar cane stalks, or possibly "rumbustion," which meant "noisy, uncontrollable exuberance." —F.P.P.

Edward Hamilton, author of The Complete Guide to Rum (1997, Triumph Books), lists the styles of 11 rum-producing states from the lightest to the heaviest, starting with Puerto Rico as the lightest: Puerto Rico, Trinidad, U.S. Virgin Islands, Grenada, St. Vincent, Cuba, Guatemala, Jamaica, Venezuela, Barbados and Guyana. "Of course there are regional characteristics for rum," he says. "Style of rums produced is also influenced by the local taste for rum. In Barbados the best-selling rum wouldn't be liked in Puerto Rico...[and] few French will even drink anything else because that is what they are used to."

Pretty much everything influences a rum's character, says Ronteix: "It all adds up, you have different sugar canes, soils, weather conditions, distillation process and oak barrels."

So that's the answer to my question of whether rums vary by region. Not so much by the land alone, but by the land and the tastes and customs of the people who make and drink rum.

But just as I think have it all down, author Ayala reports on a worrisome trend (worrisome to me, at least): "As large distilleries seek new markets, the most progressive of them often deviate from their original styles. The once-distinctive characteristics of the Jamaican, Bajan or Cuban rums, to name a few, also tend to disappear as distilleries become part of the international community and start catering to taste preferences beyond those within their borders. Rum taste is always in motion. This, after all, is the true nature of rum."

Ah, well. I take heart in knowing that, at least for now, some regional styles remain on the market. And that virgin bottle of 6-year-old, oak-aged rum from Martinique is looking for a friend to uncork it.

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