RUM - THE RUM GUIDE
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.
RUM: BETWEEN LEGEND AND REALITY
Discovered as a result of the Spanish, French and English colonial conquests, rum was originally a drink for sailors and slaves. Used as bait by pirates to intoxicate and thereby recruit young sailors in the British navy, rum has retained a connection with its adventurous, seafaring past. 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. In the mid 200s, over a hundred countries were growing sugar cane, with Brazil, India and China topping the list. At that time, sugar cane was providing nearly 75% of the world’s sugar (source ACER – Nov. 2005). Depending on distillation and ageing processes, rum has the most diverse range of aromatic profiles of all the spirits.
THE EUROPEAN CONQUEST FOR WHITE GOLD
Discovered in Asia and brought back to Europe by the pilgrims from the first crusade (1096-1099) on, sugar was at that time a rare and highly-prized commodity. It gradually gained economic importance, becoming a source of rivalry between European countries. In the 14th century, Venice claimed a commercial monopoly on this ‘brown gold’ and developed the first refining processes. Envious of this Italian success and keen to break free from Italy’s control over the supply, the Portuguese and Spanish set up plantations and refineries in their colonies: Madeira, the Canary Islands and then the Azores. Lisbon quickly became a major sugar refining centre. The discovery of America enabled sugar cane production to be extended even further, thanks to the excellent navigational skills of the Portuguese. While Brazil, Peru and Mexico presented exciting opportunities thanks to the richness of their natural resources (timber, gold, minerals), the Caribbean quickly became the sugar islands. Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane to the West Indies at the end of the 15th century. His first attempts at planting seem to have been on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and Santo Domingo). In 1512, the Spanish launched an aggressive sugar cane plantation campaign in Cuba, which after a few decades consisted of more than 250 Spanish families. By 1520, sugar cane had spread all over South America: Mexico, Peru, Brazil... Having controlled sugar trade until 1630, the Spanish gradually became more interested in gold and timber, leaving the French and English to continue in the West Indies, with Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Produced all over the world, rum is a sugar cane alcohol obtained by alcoholic fermentation and then distillation, either of molasses or syrups resulting from the production of cane sugar, or directly from sugar cane juice. While rum is not strictly regulated, some countries (including France) have created regulations aimed at protecting their rum production.
Step 1 – Sugar cane juice or molasses
As a general rule, rum can be divided into those produced by distilling sugar cane juice, and those made from molasses. Obtained by crushing sugar cane, sugar cane juice deteriorates very quickly, and so needs to be fermented as soon as possible, and then distilled to produce agricultural rum. A thick, residual syrup that results from the refinement of cane sugar, molasses are used as an ingredient in desserts and sweets, and in the production of numerous types of rum. Sugar cane (‘Saccharum officinarum ’) grows in tropical regions in the equatorial zone. It can be found in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, the West Indies, in Hawaii, in Central and South America, and also in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, China, India, islands in the Indian Ocean, Australia, and in southern Spain. There are many varieties with various degrees of resistance to disease and levels of sugar content. The cane consists of water, fibres and saccharose. The saccharose is concentrated at the base of the cane. The canes are harvested manually or mechanically at the age of 11 months, before they flower. The leaves and tops of the sugar canes are left in the fields. The bases are quickly transported to the sugar refinery to avoid any of the sugar being lost. The bases of the canes are then ground into fibres and hot water is added to extract the sweet juice. The pressing process results in two products: cane juice for the production of rum, and the bagasse, consisting of the fibrous residue, which is used as fuel. In the case of molasses-based rum, the sugar is extracted from the cane juice and then transformed into molasses.
Step 2 – Cane wine and fermentation
Yeast is then added to the mash (molasses diluted with water or sugar cane juice), which is then fermented and gradually converted into alcohol until it eventually produces a sugar cane wine containing around 8% to 10% alcohol. A fundamental stage in the development of the flavours of the future rum, the fermentation of the sugar cane wine is conducted in various ways in different parts of the world, resulting in a very broad aromatic range. There are three types of fermentation : Spontaneous fermentation This relies on the yeasts and micro-organisms naturally present in the atmosphere or in the sugar cane juice. Such fermentation takes place in open vats and takes between 1 and 2 weeks. Small distilleries, especially those in Haiti, still practise spontaneous fermentation. Controlled fermentation (batch) Usually carried out in batches, this kind of fermentation uses laboratory-grown yeasts that are added to the sweet liquid. Some distilleries cultivate and maintain their own strains of yeast that they protect, like a trademark. Such fermentation is spread over 2 to 3 days and enables the production of a consistent percentage of alcohol and range of flavours. Controlled fermentation (continuous) This is a growing trend in the rum industry. It involves keeping a fermentation vat permanently filled, with the continuous addition of more molasses. This enables the yeasts to be kept active by removing a quantity of the mash, whose sugars have already been digested by the yeasts, from different sections of the vat. .
Step 3 – Choice of still
Like many other spirits, rum can be distilled in a column still, continuously, or in a pot still (used by the more traditional producers). The type of distillation practised is often influenced by the country’s colonial history. Former British and French colonies still use copper pot stills, while those of Spanish origin tend to prefer column stills. The type of rum produced very much depends on the distillation method: in basic terms, heavier rums tend to come from pot stills (due to the middle cut of the distillate being collected at between 68% and 70% alcohol) while lighter rums are produced by column stills (the distillate collected has an alcohol content above 90%, thereby eliminating the heavier vapour). Pot still - batch distillation: this ‘batch’ distillation technique requires regular stopping of the still so that it can be cleaned and allowed to rest before loading with another batch for distillation. This is the most traditional of distillation methods. Column still - continuous distillation: usually consisting of two or four columns, each one feeding the next, this type of distillation does not require any interruption, with the columns being continuously supplied. Consisting of different levels of concentration, through which the steam circulates, this technique enables the rum’s aromatic profile to be monitored and controlled. Only its lightest vapour in terms of flavour reaches the column’s final level. The heavier vapour remains at the lower levels.
Step 4 – Ageing
Since there are no legal regulations, the ageing process and associated designations vary from one producer to another. While most ageing takes place in old bourbon barrels, rum can also be aged in cognac barrels and new oak barrels. Special cask-finished rums are quite rare; these are usually produced by Italian and French merchants, who use Banyuls, port, sherry and madeira barrels to impart flavour to the rum. There is no required minimum period, but few rums claim to be aged for more than 8 or 12 years. Matured at the site of production, the barrels are exposed to extreme weather conditions, resulting in considerable evaporation. The evaporation issue: ageing conditions in the Caribbean, in a tropical climate, are completely different to those in Europe. As oak is permeable to alcohol molecules, which are themselves soluble in water, the combination of a high temperature and high humidity results in substantial evaporation and a faster ageing process. In a tropical climate, a typical annual loss would be 6% to 8% of the barrel, compared to 2% in a temperate climate, such as in Scotland or Ireland. On this basis, only 65% of the barrel’s initial contents will remain after 5 years of ageing, about 45% after 10 years, and 30% after 15 years. In Scotland it would take 55 years for a similar degree of evaporation to occur. In addition to the increased evaporation, the ageing process itself is accelerated in tropical climates. Two years of ageing in the Caribbean is equivalent to 6 to 8 years in Scotland. Several solutions have been considered to reduce the evaporation problem, without having to change the product description, in particular transporting the barrels of rum to Europe for ageing. There are two opposing camps: those who believe that rum should be aged in its country of origin, and those who want to age it in Europe, in order to benefit from a slower esterification and oxidation process.
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. Ron 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’. Rum 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. Rhum 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 rumTo be described as aged rum, rums from the French West Indies must have been aged for at least three years in oak barrels.
White rumWhether 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 rumThese 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 rumDark 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 rumsSome 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 rumsPopular 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 rumsThese 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
Rum can be drunk in many different ways and is undoubtedly the world’s most versatile spirit. Although white rums are generally used to make cocktails, some of them have such a rich aroma that they can also be enjoyed straight. Highly perfumed rums go very well with fruit juice flavours. However, the higher the level of impurity (level of non-alcohol), the more the rum is aromatic, and, therefore, the more it deserves to be served neat rather than incorporated into a cocktail. The white rhums agricoles in this category are worth a closer look. Some of the Jamaican white rums, that are white despite being made from molasses and distilled in pot stills, are equally remarkable. The dark rums are more for tasting straight in a cognac-style glass. However, fine feathers don’t necessarily make fine birds, and this is the case for both rum and whisky – an amber colour is not always proof of quality. This category of spirits, lacking in any legal framework, is sadly often abused and labels are rarely much help when choosing rum. The French rums are actually the most reliable since they are strictly regulated.