Rum, Rhum, Ron, Cachaca, Aguardiente... The Rum family is a large one. The only thing you can say they have in common is their ancestry. They are all descended from Great Granpa Sugar Cane in one way or another. Sugarcane juice, sugar cane syrup, or molasses (which is a by product of cane sugar manufacturing) are the only things that rum may be made from.
Rum first came about back in the days soon after the discovery of the Americas. Sugar cane was imported and planted and the processing of sugar from its juices began. Molasses, a byproduct of sugar manufacturing was either thrown away or used as fertilizer when some slaves drank some of the waste molasses that had been sitting in the sun and rain for a few weeks ad had fermented into a sweet/sour 'beer' that was highly flavored but only mildly alcoholic. first only slaves drank this crude 'rum beer' but it came to the attention of the plantation owners and soon they started playing around with distilling it and rum was born. By 1651 it was already in widespread production and documents from Barbados, what may be the home of rum, show that 'rumbullion' aka 'kill devill' as it was known, was a fiery and cheap spirit.
Over the years rum came to be made wherever sugar cane was processed into sugar. Every sugar cane plantation also became a rum distillery as a way to make money off of the waste products. Soon more care was used during the process and fine rums were being made. The high temperatures, fast fermentation, long aging in barrels, and other factors of the tropics made rum become a spirit unique from any others being produced. The intense flavors were so different from the other spirits of the time like cognac, fuller and sweeter.
Rum took the colonies by storm. By 1664 there was a rum distillery in New York and a few years later in Boston. After that there was no holding back. Rum became the un-official national spirit and was drunk everywhere, including in huge amounts by our founding fathers. new England became a major rum producing area.
It wasn't just the colonies that took to rum with a vengeance. The British Navy took to it as well. From around 1650 on they served a ration to the men of 1/2 a pint a day. Amazingly it wasn't until 1740 that they started to water it down and so the 1/2 pint ration was watered down with a quart of water to curb drunkenness. The lucky ones also received sugar and lime juice to make it more palatable and to help prevent scurvy. This mixture came to be known as grog. Pusser's Rum from the British Virgin Islands became the official maker of the British Navy Rum and this continued right up until July 1, 1970 when the 'tot' of rum, the daily allowance to sailors, was discontinued. The brand almost became lost but enterprising souls bought the recipes, it is still being made and they are great rums. I keep a stainless steel flask full of Pusser's British Navy rum for my winter walks and tobogganing.
Rum comes in many types and styles. White/light, amber/gold, aged, dark/black, overproof, sweet, dry, spiced, flavored, etc. All rum is aged for a period of time in oak casks. usually used casks that were first used to age Bourbon. White/light rum is only aged for a short period of time and may actually be filtered to remove any coloring it developed during the cask aging process. Amber/gold rum is aged for a few years to develop a mild color and flavor. Aged rum is barreled for up to 12 years to develop a strong and mellow flavor and darker color. Sometimes caramelized or burnt sugar or molasses is added to increase color. Dark/Black rum is made to have a much stronger flavor and is usually colored with burnt sugar syrup. Overproof rum is rum that is much stronger than the avregae rum, usually over 60%abv. / 120 proof and many in the 75-80% abv. / 150-160 proof. Spiced rums are actually that, rums that are flavored with spices, and then there are the flavored rums which may be infused or flavored with one or more fruits.
Rum may be spelled in different ways but it basically means much the same thing. Rhum in French, Ron in Spanish, or Rum in English. Fellow blogger Joe Distefano and I like to say that when we go out drinking rum that we are hanging out with our good buddy "Evil Ron." This is based on a festive week we spent camping in the Florida Keys a few Decembers ago, sharing many bottles of premium rum from all over the Caribbean.
Up until around 1870 all rum was made from molasses. Then around this time Homere Clement in French Martinique came up with a new way to make rum. Sugar prices had dropped and it was being made and sold much cheaper in other areas than possible in Martinique. Clement tried fermenting fresh pressed sugar cane juice into a wine (called vesou) and distilling this, and what is now called Rhum Agricole (Agricultural Rum) was born. After this point the French called molasses based rum, Rhum Industriel (Industrial Rum because the rum is made from an industrial by-product), and developed agricole into a completely different type of rum. Much dryer, more like a cognac, complex, earthy, and more. This led to France recognizing an Appellation d'Origine Controlle (AOC) system for Martinique rum and all french rums are clearly labeled Agricole or Industriel. Clement Rhum is still in business today and producing some of the best rums in the world. I have met Benjamin Jones, a direct descendant of Homere Clement, and he is proud they make premium rum in the tradition of his ancestors, and strive to bring even better rums to the market today. Just last year they released two super premium rums that are amazing delicious, well aged and complex.
Besides the French style of rum there are a few other regional differences. There are Jamaican rums which undergo a much longer fermentation than many other rums and so have a more fruity and estery flavor. Brazil has Cachaca which is similar to agricole. Aguardiente is a fiery agricole style, although in some countries it isn't a rum but more of a grappa. Different countries have different styles and variations, but I won't go into depth here. I will leave it up to you to find out how they differ or are similar, their strengths, tastes, etc. because I know you will enjoy the process. Personally I go for the aged rums. These are great sipping rums out of a snifter or on the rocks. Some work well in cocktails, others are better alone. But a fine cocktail made from a premium rum can be an amazing experience.
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