What is Rum?

what is rum

If you're wondering what rum is, one thing is certain, regardless of color, rum is among the world's premier mixers.

Rum is something of an oddity among distilled spirits in that its final form varies so widely. Rum is, in a sense, bipolar. Rum can be clear or dark brown with an alcohol content that varies by as much as 75% and a flavor that can be faint or sweetly heavy. It’s a drink that tries to please everyone. British sailors were not only bribed by island natives, but also officially provisioned with rum from the government to, in part, combat Caribbean pirates, whose signature drink was, indeed, rum.

Rum’s divergent characteristics mirror the spirit’s development and the diverse peoples who contributed to its evolution. We cannot date the first batch of rum with precision, but we do know that by the 17th century, it was in production on various Caribbean islands, where sugar cane was native and plentiful. As workers cut and milled the sugar cane, it oozed a juice: “melazas,” or what has become the English word “molasses.”

The bridge between melazas and rum was simple: workers noticed that the hot sun of the West Indies caused the melazas to ferment. Because the Caribbean was such a nexus of South American, European, and North American exploration, trade, colonization, privateering and piracy, word of the recipe for fermented molasses sailed before the wind to a variety of homelands.

Distilling and Aging Rum

Although the paths to a finished cask of rum may diverge, rums begin similarly. Wild or cultured yeast is added to sugar cane juice. The mix ferments for a few days to a few weeks, which influences the spirit’s alcohol levels. The resulting spirit is then distilled. It is colorless—even dark rums lack initial color. Light rums are made in column stills, whereas dark rums are made, like Cognac, in pot stills.

Light rums, such as those from Cuba, are hardly, if ever, aged. Dark rums, like those of Haiti and the Dominican, sometimes spend several years—up to twelve—in oak barrels. Although the wood of the barrel imparts a touch of color, the lion’s share of the hue of dark rum comes from caramel tint.

Types of Rum

Whether rum remained light or was colored dark was a matter of national preference. Countries under the Spanish banner, such as Cuba and Colombia, liked light rum, whereas those under British influence preferred their rum dark.

Light Rums

Light rums are further classified as light, silver, or white rums. Their flavor is subtle, which makes them most popular as cocktails companions, as opposed to drinking straight. The majority of Light Rum is produced in Puerto Rico.

Amber Rums

Amber rums, also known as Gold rums, usually have a foot in both camps. Typically aged, Amber rums have more flavor than their lighter counterparts.

Dark Rums

Also known as brown rum, black rum, or red rum, Dark rums, bear much more resemblance, in both color and flavor, to the molasses from which they derive. Dark rums are considerably more robust and have greater complexity of tastes and aromas, such as vanilla, caramel and sweet spice. In addition to being an excellent base for cocktails, most chefs favor this type of rum for cooking. With the exception of the award-winning rums Flor de Caña and Ron Zacapa Centenario, most Dark Rum comes from Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique.

Spiced Rums

Spiced rums can be light, dark or in somewhere between, as the flavor comes from the added spices not the underlying spirit. Some of the most common additions are cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, or pepper.

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