Photo: Demián Camacho Santa Ana
Long before our beloved bourbon became America's native spirit, rum played a role in shaping the future of the U.S. with a strong molasses trade between New England and the Caribbean islands. According to author Gerald Carson, "In 1807 Boston had no fewer than forty rum distilleries...and it used to be said that for every missionary sent out to Christianize Africa, ten thousand gallons of rum went along for the more secular purposes."
Kill-devil was its most universal name, not only a slang name, but a trading-term used in bills of sale. Rumbullion was also a popular name, shortened into our modern term "rum." A description of Surinam written in 1651 says: "Rhum made from sugar-canes is called kill-devil in New England."
All rum is made from distilling fermented sugar whether cane juice or molasses. Most rum is made from molasses, the sweet, sticky residue that remains after sugar cane juice is boiled and the crystallized sugar is extracted. Molasses is over 50 percent sugar, but it also contains significant amounts of minerals and other trace elements which can contribute to the final flavor. Molasses comes in various qualities with the best labeled "Grade A Fancy" and the worst as "black strap" made from the bitter residue left over from processing granulated sugar.
Rhum is a French spelling, but also implies that the spirit is made from freshly-pressed cane juice instead of molasses. You will find rhums in Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Martinique is the only one to boast French Appellation d'Origine Contrôllée (A.O.C.) status regulating production, aging and labeling like the protected categories of Champagne and Cognac.
Although the Brazilian spirit known as cachaça is also made from fresh cane juice, it is often distilled to lesser proofs than rhums.
High quality dark rums are aged in oak barrels, often bourbon barrels which contribute caramel and vanilla flavors and color. The cheap versions have added coloring to give it a gold color.
Although spiced rum brands exist, most contain added sugar. Perhaps, try making your own dry version.
1 Bottle aged rum
2 Whole vanilla beans, split open
1 Teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 Cinnamon stick
3 Whole allspice
1 Slice fresh ginger, size of a quarter
Add all flavorings to the bottle of rum. Cap it and store somewhere dark and cool. Shake it once a day for 3 to 5 days, until you get the amount of flavor you like. Strain and re-bottle.
Alabama-born LeNell Smothers defines herself first and foremost as a bartender, but she's been called many things -- most recently, the proprietress of Casa Cóctel with partner Demián Camacho Santa Ana. She's owned her own whiskey label, called Red Hook Rye, and has been recognized by her home state as an honorary Colonel. Other interests include gin, sin and men.