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Rum 101 - What Is Rum?

basics of rumDefinition

Rum is an alcoholic spirit made from sugar cane, or it's derivatives. According to the United States Government Federal Standards of Identity, the following paragraph offers an official definition of rum.

(f) Class 6; rum. "Rum" is an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, produced at less than 190 proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum, and bottled at not less than 80 proof; and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.

Factors Affecting Rum Production

Significant factors that affect the taste, quality, color and viscosity of rum include the raw fermenting materials, the method of fermentation including the types of yeast used to convert sugars to alcohols, the method(s) of distillation, the process of maturing the spirits over time, the quality of water used and, in many cases, the blending of various cane spirits to create a final product. Additionally, some rum products include flavors and coloring agents as well.

Fermentation and Distillation

When sugar cane juice or other sugar-based liquids are allowed to rest, a natural process of fermentation occurs where sugars are converted by yeast into alcohols, at approximately the strength of wines. To further concentrate these alcohols, the process of distillations isolates much of the alcohol components by evaporating and condensing them into a second holding tank. The resulting distilled liquid contains mostly alcohol, plus some other ingredients that provide unique flavors. The more these alcohols are isolated, the fewer flavor components remain in the solution.

Raw Materials Used For Making Rum

Sugar Cane spirits vary greatly in the manner in which they are created and by the products from which they are fermented.

Fresh Cane Juice
Some rums are made directly from cane juice, which is fermented immediately after being crushed. This raw sugar cane liquid typically contains 18 to 24 percent sugar in solution. Rums made from fresh sugar cane juice include the cachaças from Brazil and the Rhums Agricole from Martinique. Raw cane juice is not able to be stored for extended periods and must be fermented soon after being crushed.

Most of the rum distilled in the world today is made from molasses, a by-product of the crystalline sugar making process. After all of the crystalline sugar has been removed from the sugar cane juice, the left-over molasses still contains fermentable sugars and can be stored for extended periods of time. A finer quality premium table-grade molasses contains more natural sugars and flavors.

Cane Syrup
A third type of rum stock is concentrated sugar cane syrup, sometimes referred to Sugar Cane Honey or Sweet Table-Grade Molasses, which still contains all the sugars present in cane juice, with most of the water removed. This concentrated cane syrup may contain more than 90 percent sugar and is able to be stored to be fermented and distilled at a later date.

The Classic Plantation Or Estate Method

In simple terms, the classic centuries-old process of making rum from sugar cane juice is straightforward. When the cane fields are harvested, the stalks of cane are crushed and the juice collected. After extracting crystaline sugar from the reduced juice, the resulting left-over molasses is fermented to begin the rum process.

Selected yeasts are added to convert sugar to alcohol. The resulting fermented sugar cane solution is then distilled or concentrated to 140-190 proof and stored in barrels.

The classic plantation method is seasonal and the process is over after the harvest is complete. There are few rum making operations in the world that continue to follow the classic plantation method.

pot stillModern Methods Of Making Rum

The Traditional Pot Still
Many artisanal rums are produced by small companies in small quantities. The traditional pot still is a method of distilling fermented product in relatively small batches. The fine art of the distiller is the key to success for the traditional pot still method. The disadvantage is that each distinct batch may vary to some degree and high volume production is not always feasible.

The Column Still
Most modern, well known brands of rum are made from molasses distilled in large column stills. The process involves heating the fermented molasses wine (sometimes called beer or wash) in tall columns. Steam in the column strips the alcohol from the fermented wine. The alcohol rich vapor is collected from the top of the column then condensed into a clear high proof alcohol.

Resting And Maturing

Like vodka, which is nothing more than clear distilled alcohol with water added, fresh rum, when first distilled, is clear and lacks the sophisticated flavors and golden amber hues of fine sipping rums. Unlike vodka, only a few rums are bottled before being aged.

rum maturingClear rums like Bacardi Silver and Don Q Cristal are aged at least one year to gain smoothness, then carbon filtered to remove the color gained from the barrels during the time spent aging.

Among premium rums on the market, aging in oak barrels is one key element to producing a superior product. The choice of used whiskey and bourbon barrels is common. The alcohols in the rum interact with the wood to add subtle flavors, extract color and develop a smooth characteristic that is highly desirable to aged rums. For example, Appleton rums from Jamaica are aged in used Jack Daniels whiskey barrels from Tennessee.

Another method for maturing rums is the use of new oak barrels, often charred to an alligator-skin type texture, giving the rum a stronger interaction with the wood element in the maturing process. The size of the barrel makes a difference as well. Small barrels offer a higher wood to spirit ratio and tend to mature faster.

Some rums are aged in barrels previously used for sherry, cognac, port and other distillates, imparting their own unique characteristics. These variations can give a master blender a range of flavors with which to create unique blends.

Because methods of maturing can vary greatly, the simple age statement on a bottle of rum is not always an indication of the maturity of the spirit. Rums aged in small charred oak barrels, for example, can become quite mature at three to five years, while other methods take many more years to achieve similar wood-infused flavor profiles.

Color, Clarity and Viscosity

Rums generally gain golden and amber hues as they mature. Some distillers use burnt sugar or caramel coloring to further enhance or balance the color for consistency. Many dark rums gain most of their rich color and often their full-bodied flavor from added caramel or molasses.

Over time, some water and alcohol evaporates from the aging barrel. This missing liquid has long been called the "angel's share." The remaining product in the aging barrel becomes more concentrated in flavor, color and viscosity.

When evaluating fine rums, judges will examine the color, clarity and viscosity of rums by holding a tasting glass up to a light source and swirling the product. The resulting drips of liquid on the glass, known as "legs" offer an indication as to the range of thin or thick characteristics. The rich color of the rum may indicate a level of maturity compared to other products. Exceptional clarity may indicate sophisticated filtering methods have been used.

Blending Rums

The master blender of a fine spirit is the rock star of the organization, possessing great talents and abilities necessary to produce the unique products of that brand. There are mysteries and closely guarded secrets involved in the aging and blending of fine spirits. In many cases, aged rums are blended, then stored in barrels again to further mature and "marry the flavors" before bottling the final product.

One unique method of blending, known as the Solera Method, involves adding small amounts of newer rum to barrels of aged rum as the angel's share is depleated. After many years, the resulting marriage of rums of many ages can create a complex blend often described as a symphony of tones or flavors.

Age Statements

In the US, the age statement must refer to the youngest rum in the bottle.

Types Of Rum

Most rums can be classified in one or more of a few distinct categories.

Bacardi SuperiorWhite Or Clear Rum

White rum is clear, usually has milder flavor and lighter body than gold or dark rums. These light rums are most often used to create cocktails that do not have a need for bold rum flavor.

In the U.S., most white rums are sold at 80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume. They are often aged one or more years, then filtered to remove color. White rums may be cheaper to make and less expensive to purchase that more mature rums.

White rums are popular in the most common drinks, such as the Cuba Libre (rum, Coke and lime), the Daiquiri, the Mojito and the Piña Colada. Many rum cocktails call for a white or light rum, a gold rum and/or dark or spiced rum.

Popular white rums include Bacardi Superior, Don Q Cristal, Cruzan Estate Light, Oronoco, Mount Gay Silver, Matusalem Plantino, Rubi Rey, 10 Cane, Flor de Caña Extra Dry and Diplomatico Rum Blanco.

Baracelo Dorado Dark RumGold Or Pale Rum

As rum mellows in barrels over time, it takes on amber or golden hues. These golden rums usually present a more flavorful profile than the white or clear rums. Gold rums are used to make cocktails in which a stronger flavor is desired.

Gold rums are often aged several years or more and some coloring may be added to provide consistency. Subtle flavors of vanilla, almond, citrus, caramel or coconut may be present from the type of barrels used in the aging process.

Gold rums are often enjoyed on the rocks or neat, in addition to being used in cocktail recipes. They are popular in recipes for baking and making desserts as well.

These medium bodied rums are often quite affordable compared to older aged rums that have allowed to mature for many years.

Examples of gold rums include 1 Barrel, Abuelo, Appleton Special, Barcelo Dorado, Brugal Añejo, Bermudez Ron Dorado, Cacique Anejo Superior, Cockspur 5 Star, Diplomatico Añejo, Doorly's 5, Don Q Gold, El Dorado 5, Gosling's Gold, Matusalem Clasico, Maui Gold Rum, Montanya Gold, Mount Gay Eclipse, Pyrat Pistol, Sergeant Classic Gold and Sunset Captain Bligh Golden Rum.

Flor de Caña 7 Dark RumDark Rum

Dark rums are often matured in oak barrels for two or more years to develop rich flavors and hues of mahogany, copper and caramel. The label of dark rum is often assigned to a range of rums that are not clear, from light golden amber to black, as well as rums that are well aged.

Dark rums are often aged in oak barrels for extended periods. When used in cocktail recipes, the robust rums offer a contrast of more flavorful profiles compared to white rums, overproof rums, flavored and spiced rums.

Examples of dark rums include Cruzan Estate Dark, Bacardi Select, Flor de Caña 5 Black Label, Barbancourt 3 Star, Diplomatico Anejo, Angostura Dark 5, Angostura 1919, Appleton V/X, Barcelo Dorado, Cockspur 5, El Dorado 5, Matusalem Classico, Mount Gay Eclipse and Santa Teresa Selecto.

Maui Dark Rum from HawaiiBlack Rum

The darkest, richest, heavy bodied rums are often referred to as black rums, offering bold tropical essence to libation and recipes. Black rums are popular ingredients used to balance the flavors of drinks against gold, white and spiced rums.

Most rum is made from molasses, a thick, dark sweet liquid left over in the process of manufacturing crystalized sugar. The black rums retain much of this rich molasses and caramel flavoring and are sometimes colored with burnt caramel to achieve consistently dark hues.

Black rums are essential to many uses in the baking and candy-making industries, imparting bold sweet spicy flavors to cakes, candies, desserts and sauces.

The barrels used to mature black rums are often charred or fired heavily, imparting much of the wood's strong flavors to the liquid.

Black rums are popular in British territories such as Bermuda, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands and Guyana.

Examples of black rums include Coruba, Cruzan Black Strap, Gosling's Black Seal, Maui Dark Rum, Myers's, Skipper Demerara, Woods 100, and Whaler's Dark.

Pusser's 15 Year Old Navy RumNavy Rum

Navy rum refers to the traditional dark, full-bodied rums associated with the British Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy was famed for its custom of providing a daily ration of rum to sailors, as far back as 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. Rum traveled aboard ships far better that French brandy. As a matter of fact, where grape-based spirits of wine and brandy eventually went bad in the heat of the tropics, rum seemed to improve as it aged in the barrels aboard ship.

Around 1740, the practice of watering down the rum and supplementing it with lime to prevent scurvy became popular. This change is often credited to Admiral Edward Vernon, who was known to wear an old grogham coat and his potion was nicknamed grog, or later, tot. The tradition of providing British sailors with a daily ration of rum continued until July 31, 1970, known as black tot day.

To ensure the viability of the economies of its territories, recipes for navy rum included blends of spirit from British territories, including Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.

One of the first official purveyors of rum to the Navy was Mr. Lemon Hart, starting in the early 1800s. A few decades later, Alfred Lamb began aging his dark rum in cool cellars beneath the river Thames, earning his product the nickname of London dock rum. The Lemon Hart brand was registered in 1888 and remains to this day a popular staple of naval-style rums. United Rum Merchants was created as a merger of several leading rum concerns.

Unique to the rums of Guyana is their legacy 200 year old wooden pot still that produces an uncommonly rich and full bodied spirit. This Demerara rum is an essential ingredient in many navy rums.

The final supply of old British Royal Navy Imperial Rum, representing the spirit of international adventure, honor and bravery on the high seas, have recently been re-bottled and are available for the most serious rum collectors.

Some popular navy style rums include Lamb's Navy Rum, Pusser's, Lemon Hart, Skipper Demerara and Wood's 100.

fine aged rumPremium Aged Rum

Many fine rums are aged in oak barrels for years to achieve a superior flavor profile. The interaction of spirit and wood has a positive effect on the smoothness, the richness and the subtle flavors of the rum.

Aged rums often represent the finest examples of mature rums from a distillery, often blended to achieve complexity and distinctive flavor profiles. The cost of storage and the loss of some rum from the barrels through evaporation adds to the cost of producing aged rums.

These older, more mature rums, often labeled as anejo in Spanish territories, are often enjoyed neat or on the rocks like a fine cognac or single malt scotch. In addition, many cocktail recipes call for the inclusion of these flavorful and rich rums.

Aged rums generally take on darker and richer colors due to the time spent in barrels. Charred oak barrels can impart dark tones. Cognac and sherry barrels can produce a reddish tint.

Rums labeled premium or ultra-premium often contain age statements. In the U.S. and some other territories, the age statement refers to the youngest rum in the blend. For example, Appleton Estate 21 from Jamaica is comprised of aged rums at least 21 years old. Other territories have differing standards. For example, Zacapa Centenario 23 from Guatemala is a blend of rums aged 6 to 23 years old.

Premium aged rums include Angostura 1824, Appleton Extra, Atlantico Private Cask, Bacardi 8 and Reserva Limitada, Barbancourt Reserve Especiale and Estate Reserve, Barrilito 3 Star, Barceló Imperial, Botran Solera 1893, Don Q Gran Anejo, Chairman's Reserve, Cockspur 12, Cubaney 15, Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, El Dorado 15, Flor de Caña 18, Gosling's Family Reserve, Matusalem Gran Reserva, Mount Gay Extra Old and 1703, Santa Teresa 1796, Trigo Reserva Aneja, Vizcaya VXOP, Zacapa Centenario XO and Zaya.

Plantation Vintage Rum 1992 VenezuelaVintage Rum

While most rums sold in the U.S. are blended from multiple sources before bottling, some unique rums are bottled from specific vintage years of production.

Vintage rums are most often seen from the French islands, where the growing and processing season is short. In some cases, private label rum brands purchase a large bulk of rum from a single production year, age the product and bottle it when maturity is peaking.

Like in the production of fine wines, in some years the harvest is bountiful, while others are not as abundant. The amount of sugar contained in the raw cane might vary each year due to changes in rainfall and other environmental factors. The resulting differences are noted by the master distiller and the maturing process is monitored to achieve the ideal flavor profile for that vintage year.

Vintage rums are labeled with the year they were distilled and the location of their origin. Examples are Rhum J.M. 1997 Vintage from Martinique, Plantation Venezuela 1992 and the 1998 Vintage from Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados.

Cruzan 151 Overproof RumOverproof Rum

Most rums available for sale in the U.S. are 80 to 100 proof(40% to 50% alcohol by volume). Rums which contains higher concentrations of alcohol are often labeled as overproof.

Rums produced for popular consumption are distilled to remove non-alcohol components. The modern distillation process produces a spirit that is generally 160 to 190 proof alcohol. After aging and blending, most rums are diluted with water to reach the 80 proof standard.

Some rums, such as Sunset Very Strong Rum from St. Vincent are not diluted. Sunset VSR is bottled at the full cask strength of 169 proof.

U.S. regulations prevent rums over 155 proof from entering the U.S. under most circumstances, so many manufacturers produce rums in the 150 proof range, such as Bacardi 151, Cruzan 151, El Dorado 151 High Strength Rum, Bruddah Kimio's Da Bomb 155, Gosling's 151 and Matusalem 151 Red Flame.

One of the most popular overproof rums is Jamaica's Wray And Nephew White Overproof at 126 proof. This potent spirit is the most popular rum sold in Jamaica.

Overproof rums tend to be more popular in the Caribbean Islands where locals prefer a stronger drink. They're also used in cooking recipes that call for rum to be ignited in flame (flambé) or drinks that blend a very strong rum into their recipe.

Classic rum punches are often made with high-proof rum mixed with tropical juices (and sometimes flavored rums and liqueurs) to deliver a "punch" to those that enjoy them.

RClement VSOP Rhum Agricolehum Agricole

Rhum Agricole is a specific category of rhum made principally in the French territories of the Caribbean, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Marie-Galante and St. Barths. Reunion Island (a French Overseas Territory, like Martinique) and it's neighboring Island Nation of Maritius in the southwest Indian Ocean also produce Agricoles. Rhums made in Haiti from cane juice may also be considered agricole by some experts.

Martinique is the only geographic region in the world to have an AOC mark in the rum industry. Similar to the AOC marks for champagne and cognac, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for Martinique rhum agricole is a standard of production, aging and labeling.

Rhum Agricole is fermented and distilled from pure, fresh cane juice. The spirit is distilled to about 70 percent alcohol, a lesser degree than most molasses-based rums, allowing the rhum to retain more of the original flavor of the full cane juice.

The lighter rhums agricole are rested for up to six months before being bottled as rhum blanc. They're often used in the popular cocktail known as petit punch ('ti punch) mixed with lime and cane syrup.

Other more mature rhums have been aged in oak barrels for years, taking on richer hues and flavors. After three years of maturing, the rhums are labeled rhum vieux (old rum). Some of these exceptional spirits are bottled as vintages, such as wines from France. For example, the Rhum J.M. 1997 vintage spent ten years in oak before being bottled in 2007.

Some examples of rhums agricole include Clément XO and Cuvee Homere, Darboussier Rhum Vieux 1983, Depaz Blue Cane Amber Rhum, Rhum J.M. Agricole Blanc, La Favorite Rhum Agricole Vieux, Neisson Rhum Réserve Spéciale, St. James Hors d'Age.

Cabana CachacaCachaça

The Brazilian sugar cane spirit known as cachaça (kah-SHA-sah) is one of the most popular categories of cane spirit in the world. Made from fresh sugar cane juice, cachaça is often bottled with little or no aging in barrels, presenting a full-flavored profile spirit most popularly enjoyed in cocktails, such as the caipirinha (kai-pee-REEN-yah), the national drink of Brazil.

Some premium products, referred to as artisanal cachaças, are often made in small quantities and aged in woods indigenous to Brazil. The region of Minas Gerais in Brazil is well know for producing artisanal cachaça. Using natural yeast in the environment, these spirits are distilled in copper pots in small batches. Maturing in wood develops special aroma components and softens the finish.

Large manufacturers of cachaça use tall column stills of stainless steel to produce vast volumes of spirit in a continuous process, most of which is enjoyed without maturing in barrels.

Examples of popular cachaças available in the U.S. include Agua Luca, Beija, Beleza Pura, Boca Loca, Cabana, Cachaça 51, Cuca Fresca, Fazenda Mãe de Ouro, Leblon, Moleca, Rio D, Sagatiba and Ypioca.

Cristal AquardienteAguardiente

Aquardiente is a spirit fermented and distilled from fruit, most often sugar cane. The name can be translated to burning water or fire water.

Aquardiente spirits are not aged. Their simple distillation process retains robust flavors of the vegetal matter used.

In Columbia, aguardiente is usually flavored with anise. Each region of the country produces their own spirit which cannot be exported to other regions. In the Andean region, the spirit is often enjoyed straight. In the Caribbean regions, where rum is more popular than aguardiente, the local spirit is more likely to be mixed in cocktails.

Perhaps most popular aguardiente enjoyed in the U.S. is Cristal (made from sugar cane and labled guaro), produced in Manizales, Colombia by Industria Licorera de Caldas. A variety of flavors have been introduced into Cristal products in recent years including peach, orange and lime.

Foursquare Spiced Rum from BarbadosFlavored and Spiced Rum

The myriad types of flavors and spices infused into rums offer a wide range of interesting and multifarious variations of spirits, both full proof and limited potency liqueurs and creams. Spiced rums offer unique flavors to cocktails, rum cakes, holiday libations and many other uses, bringing decidedly tropical flavors to the palate.

Spices are generally derived from the seeds, dried fruit, root, leaf or bark of edible flora. These aromatic and pungent vegetal substances often provide excitement and zest to sweeter liquids. Many popular spiced concoctions were originally devised and distilled as medicinal cures and treatments for a laundry list of ailments known to plague modern society in the post-industrial generations. Many popular drink ingredients in the category of bitters evolved from such intendedly curative mixtures.

Roots of ginger, seeds of vanilla and allspice, bark of cinnamon or cassia and buds of clove are commonly used as flavoring agents for spiced rums. Fruit extracts of citrus, cherry, mint, black currant, coconut, mango, pineapple, banana and other tropical plants and trees bring luscious tones to flavored rum varieties.

Rum creams combine rum flavor with rich and decadent dairy textures to create dessert-like mixtures suitable for after-dinner libations or as a creamy base to other spirited drinks.

U.S. laws require products labeled as rum to contain at least 40% alcohol by volume. Some distilled spirits that do not meet this requirement are labeled as flavored rum, whether or not they contain discernible or dominant flavor agents.

Some popular brands of spiced and flavored rums include Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry, Pango, Montecristo, Foursquare, Malibu Coconut Rum, Castries Peanut Rum Cream, Bacardi Limon and Dragonberry, Cruzan Mango and Coconut, Don Q Passion, Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, Crisma Rum Cream and Taylor's Velvet Falernum.

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