Rum – The Original American Spirit
Most people today think of Bourbon as the official spirit of America. But while there is no denying that Bourbon is a uniquely distinctive product of the United States, it is not the original spirit of our country.
Rum was actually the first spirit to take this country by storm. In fact, the tradition of using native ingredients to make an American spirit was born out of our history with Rum.
Rum has a very rich history — not only in America, but globally. It’s a history that involves creating a global trade economy, while also being deeply entrenched in the darkest parts of humanity: slavery. The Rum Triangle involved ships bringing slaves to the Caribbean in exchange for molasses. The molasses would then be shipped to New England to be traded for Rum, and then the ships would return to Africa.
Much like our own history of spirit production, slaves were largely responsible for not only the distilling of Rum, but for actually perfecting the processes. Unfortunately, this would go unacknowledged for far too long. Barbados is typically considered to be where Rum was invented, but Jamaica really gets the credit for refining its production.
In America, Rum was a big part of not only colonial consumption but also industry. Rum was produced up and down the East Coast, often being flavored with spices. Since molasses was a hot commodity and cheap to purchase, it became as easy source of income.
This did not make the British motherland happy, and they did everything that they could to kill the Rum industry here. They finally did it with the imposition of the Sugar Tax in 1764. The tax led Americans to search for local ingredients to distill, which led to the birth of Brandy and, more importantly, whiskey production here in America. Later on, during Prohibition, Rum would make a comeback, as Rum Runners (or Privateers) would bootleg Rum up to this country from the Caribbean.
How It's Made
So, what exactly is Rum?
It is a spirit that is distilled from sugar cane or from the byproduct of its refinement — molasses. It can be distilled in a column still (most mass-produced brands) or Pot Still, which is more traditional.
Rum is distilled in over 60 countries, though very few grow their own raw materials. Each country has its own rules that govern factors such as age statements, added coloring, or added sugar, so you may want to do a little research when deciding on a bottle.
In its pure form when freshly distilled, rum has no sugar in it. Depending on where it comes from, sugar, juice, or wine may be added. What is almost universally agreed on is that the best Rums come from Jamaica. Not only is that where the art of Rum distillation was truly refined, it is made with limestone water (hmm, where have we seen that be a benefit?), and if it is labeled as Pot Still Jamaican Rum you can be sure it has no sugar added to it.
Know Your Rum
While there are no global standards for Rum, there are some items on a label that can help you navigate the landscape.
- Light, Gold, and Dark labels have more to do with color than body or flavor. However, Dark Rums tend to be aged, and as such tend to pick up some wood flavors.
- Navy Strength tends to be a higher proof. It gets its name from the fact that the British Navy issued a daily ration of Rum to its sailors right up until 1970.
- Rums are aged in a variety of barrels, often times in multiple barrels such as Bourbon, Rye, Cognac, or Sherry before being bottled. This can sometimes give you an indication of flavors to expect.
- The term Rhum Agricole is an AOC (Appellation Origin Control), which means it comes from a French-owned island such as Martinique, and is produced from sugar cane juice instead of molasses. These Rhums really exemplify what is affectionately known as “Rum Funk.”
Selecting Your Bottle of Rum
Rum is a very versatile spirit when it comes to cocktails. Much like great whiskies, some are great for mixing and some are truly meant to be enjoyed as a sipper. Rum and cola may be the most popular way to consume it, but it is also the obvious choice for Tiki style drinks such as Mai Tais, Daiquiris, Piña Coladas, and Rum Punches. Aside from that, it also makes a great substitute for whiskey in cocktails such as Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs.
With all of that in mind, here are a few Rums that are worth checking out to experience how diverse (and delicious) Rum can be.
Denizen 3 Year White Rum. A blend of 5-year-old Rum from Trinidad and 3-year Rum from Jamaica that is charcoal filtered, leaving a clear spirit. It has great body with fresh grassy and vegetal “Rum Funk” flavors, with coconut and vanilla notes. Perfect for cocktails.
Plantation Xaymaca. Jamaican Pot Still, dry and funky with overripe banana and pineapple flavors. Works as a sipper or perfect in an Old Fashioned.
Grander Trophy Release. A blend of Rums from Panama between 8 and 15 years that have no sugar added to them. This is stylish, opulent and unique. It is made in small batches of around 1500 bottles. This batch was voted a top 10 Rum of 2020. Aromas of coffee, leather, coconut, and berries lead to flavors of dried stone fruits with hints of tropical fruit and molasses. Savor this one and sip it slowly.
Bully Boy Rum Cooperative. From Bully Boy in Boston, this is a blend of 5 Rums from around the world, including some of their own. It presents as the best that each region has to offer, with sweet dark fruits, caramel, molasses, and an almost cotton candy note. Perfect for sweeter Manhattans or Old Fashioneds.
Papa's Pilar Dark Rum. Named after Ernest Hemingway, who was known as "Papa," and his boat, "The Pilar." Hemingway was such a Rum aficionado that he has a variation of the Daiquiri named after him. A blend of Rums from different countries, this is dark and rich, with vanilla, caramel molasses, and raisin flavors. It has enough body to hold up in cocktails like a Mai Tai or Rum Runner
Dos Maderas 5 + 5. A blend of Rums from the Caribbean. It spend the first 5 years of its life aging in the Caribbean, then gets shipped to Spain where it spend 3 years in used Palo Fino Sherry barrels before finishing for 2 more years in barrels that held Dom Px Sherry for 20 years. This is rich and elegant. It is full bodied and picks up a beautiful sweetness from the Dom Px. The flavors of cinnamon, brown sugar, raisin, and bran make this the perfect dessert finish to any special meal.