This piece originally appeared on Fix.com.
If rum were a friend of yours, it would be the fun one.
Unlike cognac, bourbon, scotch, and tequila, there are no universal regulations for the distillation or production of rum. This is awesome news for the adventurous drinker, who can enjoy the infinite creativity allowed by rum producers around the world. But it also means that being a savvy rum drinker requires a little more research, since there’s no one ensuring that what’s in the bottle is of the highest, uniform quality standard.
While rum has a reputation for being a summertime favorite, it’s deserving of a place on your bar in the winter, too. With versatile flavor profiles ranging from fruity and grassy to caramel and cinnamon, rum can be both refreshing and warming, whether drunk neat or in cocktails.
Savvy imbibers are catching on: super–premium rum consumption is up about 10 percent from last year in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a lobbying group.
Once you’ve got a handle on rum, the world is your piña colada.
What Rum Really Is
Rum is made from fermented sugarcane juice, cane syrup, or molasses that is distilled to become alcohol at about 80 proof or higher.
Rum is relatively new, having been first made by colonists in the Caribbean in the 1600s. Legend has it that it was discovered when a Barbadian slave dipped his spoon into a tray of leftover molasses that had spent weeks in the hot sun. Slaves enjoyed the buzz-inducing concoction, and land owners then began applying more advanced distillation methods for export – a successful endeavor that’s lasted hundreds of years.
Creating rum from sugarcane is a fairly simple process: sugarcane stalks are harvested when their sucrose levels are sufficiently high, and then they’re pressed to get the juice. If making cane juice–based rum, you’d distill it right after that.
But if making molasses-based rum – which the majority of rums on the market are – the juice is boiled and sugar is transferred to tanks or pots, where it crystallizes and becomes molasses. It takes over 11 tons of molasses to make one gallon of 110-proof rum! A mash is then created for fermenting by adding varying amounts and types of yeast, distilled water, and nutrients. This mixture ferments for up to three weeks.
During fermentation, the yeast mixes with molasses and creates compounds called esters. These esters add flavors. The longer the fermentation, the higher the number of esters, which increase the rum’s acidity and aromas.
The rum is then typically distilled twice in either copper pots or column stills, or a combination of both, before being blended or aged with other batches of different styles and ages to achieve a desired outcome. Rum can be aged in former cognac, bourbon, scotch, or sherry barrels for a twist on the flavor. The longer the rum is aged, the more character it will take on from the barrel. Usually, it's notes of vanilla, honey, tannins, and fruit.
Recognize Your Rums
Rum can be produced anywhere in the world, but some common origins you’ll see are in or around the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico (Bacardi), Jamaica (Appleton’s), St. Lucia (Chairman’s Reserve), Bermuda (Gosling’s), Barbados (Mount Gay), Nicaragua (Flor de Caña), Dominican Republic (Brugal), Guatemala (Zacapa), and St. Croix (Cruzan). But there’s even rum made in Madagascar (Pink Pigeon) and the United States (Prichard’s, RAILEAN, Montanya, and The Noble Experiment).
Every area that produces rum is known for certain cocktails, but one of the most recognizable rum drinks is Bermuda’s Dark ’n’ Stormy. Made with ginger beer and dark rum this drink packs intense flavor!
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Some countries, but not all, regulate their rum products independently. Those that do, indicate their origin or style on the bottle. A few of the most common styles include:
French Rum: Made from fresh cane in Martinique, but aging and blending takes place in Bordeaux, France.
Jamaican Rum: Double-distilled and made from molasses, which is fermented for about three weeks.
Cachaça: Brazilian rum made from the juice of sugarcane, which is fermented for three weeks. When imported to the United States, it must be at least 80 proof.
Wise up on Rum Words
No matter where a rum is made, there’s a universal vocabulary you’re likely to find on rum bottles:
Light, Clear, White, or Silver Rum: Aged for a year or less in stainless steel containers or oak barrels. Lighter-bodied.
Amber or Gold Rum: Aged at least three years, these rums are sweet but with a little more punch.
Dark Rum: Aged five years or longer, dark rum may also be referred to as brown, black, or red rum. It takes on a more woody character and is dominated by caramel.
Blackstrap Rum: Heavy, very sweet rum made from the remaining molasses after the extraction of sugar from sugarcane.
Spiced Rum: Infused with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and peppercorn, and may have sugar added after distillation.
Añejo: Older rum or rum with an age statement, blended from different outstanding, dynamic vintages.
151-Proof Rum: Known as overproof rum, it is usually floated on top of cocktails for a fiery show.
Demerara: A premium dark rum made in Guyana.
Flavored Rum: Light rums usually artificially flavored with fruit; often contain added sugar.
Naval Rum, British Royal Navy Imperial, or Pusser’s: These products usually combine rums from Guyana, Barbados, and Jamaica, creating a complex blend of flavor.
Rhum Agricole: Rum made in the French West Indies from sugarcane juice rather than molasses; it is lighter-bodied and clean-tasting, often with grassy notes.
Rhum Industriel, or Industrial Rum: Rum made from molasses (i.e., most rums).
Solera: To make this particular style, barrels are stacked in rows several levels high. Each row is a different batch or vintage. The rum is bottled from about one-third of each barrel on the bottom row. The used liquid is then replaced with rum from barrels above it, and so on.
American or Colonial Rum: Defines rum that is distilled in a pot still and minimally aged.
ACR: Meaning “Authentic Caribbean Rum,” this marque on the bottle indicates the rum was distilled in one of 30 Caribbean distilleries that have guaranteed the origin and provenance of their rum. No additives are permitted in ACR rums, and the age indicated on a bottle must be the youngest of the blend in the bottle.
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Some rum distillers may label their bottles with the average age or refer to the oldest. This is one of the tricky parts about dealing with rum’s vast array of products. In the greater scheme of things, age isn't all that important anyway. Gauge a rum's quality by the taste for the price.
How to Buy Rum
Rum is sold at varying proofs and in various styles depending on the country it comes from. Keep the following tips in mind when selecting a style.
Mixing or Drinking Neat?
If you’re drinking the rum neat or will be giving it as a gift, you’ll want to spring for a higher-quality rum. Look for rums with complexities or richness – maybe an añejo or agricole. That being said, you can also enjoy many classic cocktails with these rums too! It really depends on what you enjoy, and there truly is no wrong way to drink rum! How about a Mai Tai, which uses agricole rum and orgeat syrup, yum!
Enlist the Help of Trusted Reviewers
Taste is subjective, but you can consult reputable reviewers such as F. Paul Pacult, who conducts the annual unbiased Ultimate Beverage Challenge and writes the quarterly Spirit Journal, with honest reviews on every new and established product across every category imaginable. Ed Hamilton's site MinistryofRum.com is also a good resource. Since not many people have the time to spend tasting all the brands reviewers do, these resources can help steer you away from impure brands before you waste time or money.
Ignore marketing jargon on the bottle. Words like “super premium” actually don't hold weight. Follow your instincts and independent research instead.
Ignore the vessel. That gorgeous bottle may not contain your favorite rum – you may be paying a premium for the packaging. The only way to know what you're getting is to taste it.
But forget what I say. Let the rum be your guide!
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