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What Is Rum?

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What Is Rum?

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Rum is an alcoholic spirit that’s made by distilling fermented molasses or sugarcane juice. Although the rum production industry is largely unregulated, it’s typically aged for at least 8 months or two years before it can be commercialised. However, there are many dark rums that are also aged for far longer.

Rum is most commonly produced in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, there are also operations that continue in mainland North America, African islands in the Indian Ocean, and even as far as Indonesia.

You can learn more about their different varieties and the way they’re productions with our guides on the different types of rum and how rum is made.

Each style of rum has its own rich history, which has greatly contributed to their respective identities as well as the beverage’s overall diversity. However, we’ll be covering its fundamental history below.

Rum History

Kissing A Rum Barrel

Although rum, as we know it today, first originated in the Caribbean during the 17th century, there are predating records that indicate it existed in other forms elsewhere.

7th-century Sanskrit texts refer to Shidhu, a drink made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane juice, which was usually consumed as a medicine. Similarly, Marco Polo had referred to a sugar wine that he had sampled in 14th-century Iran.

During the same period, rum was likely present in Cyprus, which was a significant sugar producer at the time. It was often drunk with orgeat, which is a concoction not far removed from the modern-day Mai Tai!

Finally, Malaysia has possibly been producing a sugar-based alcoholic drink for millennia, which was referred to as “brum” by Dutch sailors. Indeed, this is a leading theory behind rum’s etymology.

Troubling Origins

Cutting The Sugar Cane Antigua

It shouldn’t be overlooked that modern-day rum is a product of slavery. During the Atlantic triangular trade, plantation slaves soon discovered that the byproducts of sugar refinement could be fermented into an alcoholic drink.

Most grades of molasses were usually kept and sold to the American mainland as a cheap sweetener. However, the lowest grade known as blackstrap molasses, contained little sugar and was often discarded.

Although initially consumed as a fermented drink similar to beer, it was soon distilled to remove the impurities. These first iterations of rum were recorded as early as the 1620s in Brazil. By 1651, the techniques had travelled through the Caribbean to the British-owned islands of Barbados and Nevis.

Initially shunned as a “hot, hellish, and terrible liquor“, it soon grew into a valuable commodity and an exploitable commercial enterprise. Therefore, it was soon appropriated by the colonists and played a significant role in the triangle trade’s growth.

Being produced from byproducts, rum was relatively inexpensive to produce had soon became a form of currency in the slave trade.

It quickly replaced French brandy, which was comparatively more valuable, to pay for services on the triangle’s African side. It was also used on occasion to purchase new slaves from Chieftains, at a value of four gallons of rum and a piece of cotton each.

International Disputes

Battle Of Saint Lucia 1778

Battle Of Saint Lucia, 1778

Rum’s reputation eventually spread to Europe and it was often carried by ships returning from the Caribbean. As it was somewhat cheap, its popularity soared. France had even banned rum during the 18th century to protect its own brandy market from collapsing. Consequently, the price of molasses plummeted.

Newly-established distilleries on the American mainland in New Engand acquired molasses at discount rates from French plantations, which undercut the British. In response, the 1733 Molasses Act heavily taxed any foreign molasses imported by its North American colonies.

American depended on foreign molasses and there was little compliance with the regulations. Therefore, they were further strengthened with the 1764 Sugar Act. Coupled with the debt accrued following the Seven Year’s War, it sowed the seeds of discontempt that eventually led to the American Revolution.

Rum, Pirates & The Royal Navy

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718

After the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, its navy had abundant access to cheap rum. Therefore, its daily liquor ration switched from French brandy to rum instead.

Referred to as a “tot”, it was given neat but often watered and mixed with other ingredients by sailors to produce a “grog”. The Royal Navy often tested the rum it bought by igniting a sample that had been mixed with gunpowder. If it caught flame, it would pass the gunpowder test and be referred to as “Navy Strength”.

With the invention of the hydrometer, it was learned that this strength represented 57% ABV. Although the Royal Navy abolished the ration in 1970, the term is often used to market this style of rum today.

As the Caribbean was geopolitically turbulent with several competing nations vying for control, they often hired mercenaries to target their rivals. Known as privateers, they would operate by capturing vessels and returning them in exchange for prizes.

Both military and merchant ships were targeted and the privateers would use confiscated rum for trade. Although it was regarded as a legalised piracy, many of these sailors eventually became buccaneers and pirates.

Therefore, rum remained part of their activities as both a currency and a beverage while sailing. Similarly, rum was also sold at cheaper rates to naval shapes operating near vulnerable Caribbean islands so that their presence deterred piracy.

What Does Rum Taste Like?

What Does Rum Taste Like

As you will have learned above, rum has a diverse range of cultures, which their own techniques and production methods for making rum. As a result, it can offer a spectrum of flavours and experiences.

Generally speaking, rum’s taste is reminiscent of sugar but its sweetness is significantly curbed through the distillation process. As a result, it’s quite dry but still offers a distinctive nectarous flavour.

Nevertheless, rum will express its raw ingredients in a way which reflects how they were prepared. For instance, rum made from molasses will usually have a rounded and bolder character whereas those made using sugar cane juice may feature a herbaceous quality.

When aged in wooden barrels, the oak will often impart its textures and flavours on the rum. The result is often described as a caramel flavour with a smoother mouthfeel. The ageing process will often lead the rum to develop aromas of spice, leather tobacco, and even candied fruit.

Finally, spiced rum, as well as some dark rums, will incorporate various flavourings to produce a desired experienced. Although it is a clear intention behind spiced rum, it is a somewhat controversial aspect of the way dark rum may be blended.

You can learn more about the different types of rum and their characteristic flavours with our dedicated guide.

How To Properly Drink Rum

How Is Rum Made

As we explore further in our detailed guide on the topic linked above, there are lots of different types of rum. As a result, they can be enjoyed in a variety of different ways.

Although often offered as a cocktail ingredient, particularly in its white form, rum can be enjoyed in a plethora of ways. We believe that there is no wrong way to drink rum so long as you’re enjoying it. That being said, we can offer some advice on how to best drink it in order to make the most of its potential flavours.

Firstly, it’s rare that white rum is sipped neat. However, occasionally it can be served with ice and a lime wedge. Nevertheless, it’s more likely that gold and spiced rums will be served this way.

Should You Chill Rum?

Meanwhile, dark rum is a wide and diverse category, which can consist of finely-aged beverages as well as some that have been flavoured to give that impression. Cheaper dark rums tend to fare well with ice. Meanwhile, we would suggest savouring a high-quality rum neat.

Indeed, ice can both dilute an alcoholic beverage while simultaneously preventing it from releasing its aromatic compounds. As a result, you can lose out on the flavour when chilling it too much.

Depending on the results that you want, you can always control the level at which you dilute or cool your rum.

Whisky stones are a great way of reducing the temperature without diluting your drink. Meanwhile, the Pegueot Les Impitoyables tasting glass features a metallic cooling base. You can either remove the stones or take the glass from the base to prevent it cooling further or just let them warm up naturally.

Alternatively, if you find that the drink is too strong, we’re fond of using a pipette to slowly dilute the drink until it’s to your taste.

What Glasses To Use For Drinking Rum

Rum-drinking culture is diverse and varied as it is part of many different cultures. It’s not uncommon to see people use Old Fashioned tumblers to drink rum. Meanwhile, some people prefer to use glassware designed for brandy or whisky instead.

Brandy snifters are ornate, bulbous, and well-designed for capturing the aromas while you’re enjoying your drink. You can also consider stemmed nosing glasses for more formal tasting.

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However, aside from tumblers, most rum enthusiasts have adopted glassware that was designed for Scotch whisky. For instance, the Glencairn glass is perfectly adapted for enjoying rum in an effective yet laid-back way.

As mentioned above, there’s also the Peugeot Les Impitoyables glass, which offers an excellent experience for most aged alcoholic spirits as well.

Learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.

Similar Drinks & Rum Substitutes

Cognac Alembic Still

Cognac Still

As has been emphasised numerous times in this guide, rum is diverse. As a result, there are lots of substitutes for rum depending on what you’re trying to replace.

If you’re looking for alternatives to white rum, it’s geographically and culturally closest relative may likely be tequila. Reposado tequila is probably the closest variety as it has been aged for at least 2 months, which isn’t far removed from rum, which in some places must be aged for a small period, too.

Nevertheless, other clear spirits like gin, grappa, or eau-de-vie may share certain qualities with rum in that they have a distinctive flavour. However, clear spirits like vodka are often distilled multiple times, which means that its flavours are far more nuanced than rum.

Meanwhile, dark rum shares a lot in common with aged brandy and especially cognac. Interestingly, cognac uses a similar distillation process to some Caribbean rums, especially in the former French colonies.

However, it can also be reminiscent of whiskeys like bourbon or even Scotch whisky. As is the case with cognac, some Scotch whisky distilleries have even adopted the French-style copper pot still that is used for making some Caribbean rums.

Indeed, the ageing process, as well as the types of oak barrels used, will heavily influence a rum’s final character.

What Next?

Having now learned about what rum is made from, check out more of our rum resources:

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Rum Contents

Rum 101 & History
Types Of Rum
Rum Ingredients
How Rum Is made
Best Rum
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