Varied and Versatile: A Beginner’s Guide to Rum

Trudiann Branker, master blender for Mount Gay Rum in Barbados / Photo courtesy Mount Gay
Trudiann Branker, master blender for Mount Gay Rum in Barbados / Photo courtesy Mount Gay

Rum, the sugarcane-based spirit that’s a key component for countless drinks, is made all around the world. Records of its distillation in Barbados date back to as early as 1650.

Depending where it is made, the regulations for rum-making can vary widely. These differences in production and aging techniques can yield an incredibly broad, and confusing, universe of rums. But understanding where and how your rum is made can enhance the enjoyment of your next pour.

What is rum?

Producers agree on at least one criterion: rum is a product of sugar cane. It’s a spirit distilled from fresh cane juice, molasses, sugar crystals, or a combination of the three.

Where is rum made?

Just about everywhere! That said, rum production often is associated with the Caribbean islands, where sugarcane grows easily and rum-based cocktails are iconic diversions. But the spirit is made all over the world, with notable rums produced on almost every continent.

Sugarcane in Haiti being milled for rum production / Photo by Ralph Thomassin Joseph
Sugarcane in Haiti being milled for rum production / Photo by Ralph Thomassin Joseph

How is rum made?

In general, rum is made by fermenting fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, cane sugar or its byproducts (most commonly molasses) with yeast, then distilling it.

That distillate then is barrel-aged. This includes white or silver rums. Compared to other white spirits, which may never see the inside of a barrel, many white rums are aged in stainless steel tanks or in barrels, which add body and mellow character, and then may be filtered to remove the color. Depending on where it’s made, the label may say blanco, blanc or even carta blanca.

For aged rums, the distillate spends months or years in oak barrels, and emerges with notable layers of brown sugar, caramel and spice.

The Ultimate Guide to Bourbon, from Barrel to Bottle

Producers often blend rums of various ages (single vintage bottlings exist, but are far less common). In many countries, like Barbados and Jamaica, the age statement refers to the youngest rum in the bottle. Others use an average age, while solera (fractional blending) age statements usually refer to the oldest rum in the bottle. To add to the confusion, some producers may also use vague age-statement terms (X.O., añejo, or simply “aged”) that may not have a specific meaning.

Aged rums can appear golden and bright or have darker amber hues. Coloring is sometimes added to younger rums to create either gold rums or inky-dark black rums. Flavorings also are added to some rums, like spiced rum or flavored rum varieties.

Before bottling, the rum may be proofed (diluted with water down to a palatable strength). Others are bottled at barrel strength/cask strength, with no water added; some are bottled at deliberately high alcohol levels and sold as “overproof” or Navy Strength. The latter are often favored to float on top of tropical cocktails, whether to add extra aroma, power or to ignite for visual effect.

Rum in a fermentation tank, bubbling
Rum in its fermentation stage / Getty

What affects the flavor of rum?

Pretty much every step outlined above affects the flavor in some way. However, distillers say the following factors can impact rum flavor in particularly significant ways.

Fermentation: Fermentation accounts for “at least 50%” of a rum’s flavor, estimates Ben Jones, managing director of Caribbean rum importer/marketer Spiribam. He points to the French-style rums that he deals with in countries like Martinique, where fermentation yields flavor profiles so unmistakably distinctive, “it’s like a thumbprint,” whether fruity, floral, or grassy and vegetal. “The aromatics, the character, the complexities—you get them in fermentation,” says Jones.

Because of its importance, rum-makers are strategic about selecting yeast for the fermentation process, whether commercial or cultivated over generations as proprietary strains.

Some rum-making traditions use specific methods for fermentation: Jamaican rum uses dunder, a portion of stillage left over from a previous batch of rum, to jump-start fermentation. This builds a funky, banana-like flavor known as hogo. Meanwhile, many Haitian rums are allowed to ferment using naturally occurring wild yeast.

Distillation: Whether using pot stills (for a more robust spirit), column stills (for a lighter style), or a combination of the two, distillation amplifies the flavors created during fermentation.

“Fermentation creates fruity notes like banana, coconuts, tropical fruit,” explains Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador and co-creator of Equiano, which marries rums made in Mauritius and Barbados. “When you distill, you’re concentrating those flavors that have naturally arisen.”

Rum still
Rum still / Getty

Barrel aging: The spectrum of aging techniques can be quite wide. New or used barrels may be employed, and barrels that recently held other liquids can be used to create cask finishes. The length of time in the barrel may also vary. All this contributes to the dazzlingly wide variety of rum styles.

“The use of ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry, ex-wine barrels can constitute another layer of flavor onto a rum,” says Burrell. “You might want that big, deep flavor. Or it might be different if you’re creating a lighter style of rum, a barrel that has been used many times before might be used to mellow out the spirit.”

Where the rum ages also matters. “If aged in a much warmer climate, that promotes more evaporation, so the spirit takes on more of the wood notes as it evaporates into the pores of the wood,” says Burrell. If aged in a cooler climate, the flavor may take longer to develop, but is less likely to have a pronounced note from the oak.

Three key rum styles

Most rums fall into three key styles, although these can vary depending on local traditions and the intentions of individual distillers/blenders. These are the three main rum production approaches:

French-style rums: Also called rhum. Produced on French Caribbean islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe). Rum made in this style from fresh-pressed cane juice is called rhum agricole to distinguish it from those made with molasses, rhum industriel. These rums often are aged in barrels made from French oak, like used Cognac casks. These factors yield a rum that Burrell notes is “lighter, more grassy, more herbaceous, with more sugar cane flavor coming through. On the finish, less vanilla, more dark fruit and peppers.”

English-style rums: Typically, rum made in former British colonies (Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, etc.). Often crafted using pot stills, which creates a more robust spirit, and aged in used Bourbon casks, which usually contribute vanilla and spice. “You’ll get that on your rum: vanilla, orchard fruit, stone fruit, tropical fruit,” Burrell says. “Also that chocolate note, a bit of aniseed on the end.”

Spanish-style rum: Also called ron, these rums are made in the former Spanish colonies (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, etc.). Usually made using column stills, which create a lighter style. “These are seen as light, dry and more subtle, with medium influence from the wood,” says Burrell.

Various rum punches for sale in a market in Guadeloupe / Getty
Various rum punches for sale in a market in Guadeloupe / Getty

How to identify a good rum

While highly subjective, the pros have a few tips for finding a high-quality, enjoyable rum.

Spiribam’s Jones notes that in terms of flavor profiles, he finds that good-quality rums, particularly those from the Caribbean, often have “tropical” notes, although that can manifest in different ways. That characteristic might take the form of fresh lemon or lime; cooked fruit like grilled pineapple, roasted banana or banana bread; or dried fruit like dried plantain.

He also values distinctiveness in rum styles: “I don’t care if it’s white or aged, or the price point,” he says. “It should represent the culture or the country or the style of where it comes from.” Just as he wouldn’t expect a peaty whiskey from a Kentucky Bourbon house, “I shouldn’t taste sweet suntan lotion-type rums coming from Martinique.”

Meanwhile, Equiano’s Ian Burrell suggests that the key to a good note is a pleasing aroma, natural sweetness on the palate, and balance overall.

“Not too much [alcohol] heat on the nose,” he says. “After that, I’m looking for a balance of wood, fruit and spices. If you have that, then you’re on your way to really good rum.”

Most importantly, Burrell says, “A good rum is one that brings a smile to your face.”

Appleton Estate rum facility in Jamaica / Getty
Appleton Estate rum facility in Jamaica / Getty

Rum producers to try

While far from a comprehensive list, the following producers offer good rums worth the effort to seek out.

Appleton Estate: Under the leadership of veteran Master Blender Joy Spence, this is a producer of consistently excellent high-end rums from Jamaica, including its 21-year-old bottling, a Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Spirits 2019 pick.

Bacardi: No rum list would be complete without this iconic producer; most of its rums hail from Puerto Rico. The company’s larger portfolio also includes Banks 5 Island Rum, cofounded by bartender Jim Meehan, which blends rums from five islands and makes excellent cocktails.

Barbancourt: This is one of Haiti’s oldest rum-makers, a producer of French-style agricole rhums. The classic Barbancourt White is a nice addition to Ti’ Punches or mojitos.

Chairman’s Reserve: Although this St. Lucia distillery offers a broad range, its warming, versatile spiced rum is particularly notable as one of the best in the category.

Diplomático: Hailing from Venezuela, this family-run distillery makes some fine, special-occasion single vintage rums.

Foursquare: Master distiller/blender Richard Seale is behind this Barbados rum house beloved by rum geeks. He has a reputation as a purist and an activist, advocating against sweetened rums, for example. He’s also partnered with Ian Burrell on newly-launched Equiano.

Mount Gay: Another Barbados producer, this one lays claim as the oldest commercial rum-maker in the world, with a pedigree dating back to 1703. Sip or mix the baking spice-laden Eclipse bottling.

Smith & Cross: Synonymous with tiki and tropical drinks, this Jamaican label is renowned for its funky Navy-strength rum.

Published on December 14, 2020
Topics: Spirits Basics