Whether it’s called rum (for English rum), rhum (French) or ron (Spanish), this eau de vie made from sugar cane remains the common denominator between the Caribbean islands and the South American countries, with each boasting its own distinctive culture and set of traditions.
The main styles of rum by region
While rum can be produced anywhere in the world, the most well-known rums come from the Caribbean and South America. Shaped by colonial history, the Caribbean’s rum production consists of three main types: Spanish, British and French. This influence is apparent in the names given to the rums, and enables an understanding of the three characteristic styles.
Produced in Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Columbia and Venezuela, these rums are produced in the Spanish tradition, from molasses, and distilled in column stills giving them a very smooth, mild character: they are described by terms reminiscent of the world of sherry, such as as ‘Anejo’ and ‘Solera’.
Produced in Jamaica, the British Windward Islands, Barbados, Saint Kitts, Trinidad and the Demerara region of Guyana, these rums are of British origin and are mostly distilled in the traditional fashion in copper pot stills. Characteristically heavier, they are mainly produced from molasses. Navy Rum is part of one of the more evocative names and was distributed to sailors on a daily basis for more than 3 centuries.
Of all the rum-producing countries, France is the only one to have established a legal framework to regulate the production and labelling of rum in its overseas territories. The French West Indies, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Marie Galante are known for both their ‘rhum agricole’ (agricultural rum), made by fermenting and distilling pure, fresh sugar cane juice, and their traditional rum, unlike Reunion which, in addition to producing both of these types, also makes ‘Grands Arômes’ (‘full-flavoured’) rums in a markedly British style.
Main categories of rum
Because of a lack of legal regulations, the ageing process for rum and the associated descriptions vary from one producer to another.
Traditional Rum can be made from either sugar cane juice or molasses. However, for France’s overseas departments, the term ‘traditional’ may only be used for rum with a level of impurities equal or greater than 225 g/hectolitre of pure alcohol.
Among the traditional rums there are two main categories that are governed by their production procedures:
- Agricultural rum
Obtained by the distillation of fresh sugar cane juice and produced primarily in the French West Indies, ‘rhum agricole’ developed in the 1870s as a result of a collapse in the price of sugar. This type of rum is now also produced by other countries and islands.
- Molasses rum
Produced from sugar cane residue after the juice has been concentrated by boiling and the impurities have been removed, this rum may be called ‘industrial rum’ if it is obtained by direct fermentation, or ‘rhum Grand Arôme’ (‘full-flavoured rum’) (containing more than 500 g of impurities per hectolitre of pure alcohol) if the fermentation is carried out with the residues and it is produced in certain geographical areas (Martinique, Jamaica, Reunion).
Other categories of rum
- Aged rum
To be described as aged rum, rums from the French West Indies must have been aged for at least three years in oak barrels.
- White rum
Whether they are made from molasses or sugar cane juice, white rums, with lighter flavours than amber rums, make an excellent base for cocktails. Many contain more than 40% alcohol and are kept in stainless steel vats or casks for several weeks to obtain smoother flavours.
- Amber rum
These rums are generally aged in oak barrels for 18 months, usually in barrels that were previously used to age bourbon. However, their colour can also be influenced by the addition of caramel. These rums are halfway between cocktail rums and rums that can be enjoyed neat.
- Dark rum
Dark rums are aged for two years or more in oak barrels and fall under the category of rums to be enjoyed neat. For rums that are aged at their production site, the climate conditions are such that 4 years in oak barrels is sufficient to obtain an aged rum with a complex aromatic profile.
- Vintage and specially matured rums
Some rum merchants offer vintage rums that have been matured in various types of ‘exotic’ barrels. This practice, largely inherited from the whisky industry, does not serve as any guarantee of the rum’s quality, insofar as the notion of vintages does not exist. As for special maturing, this process will depend on the expertise of the cellar master.
- Overproof rums
Popular in the Caribbean and used in cocktails, ‘overproof’ rums can contain 70% alcohol and constitute a curiosity within the rum category. They are often used to make punches.
- Spiced rums
These rums result from macerating a white rum with spices (ginger, cinnamon, etc.) and other flavourings, thereby creating the possibility of a multitude of flavours for all tastes.