10 Questions About Rum, Answered

Heidi Burton
Heidi Burton

The more you learn about rum, the more you realize it’s the most underappreciated major spirit, by far. It’s like that “humans only use 10% of their brains” thing: drinks fans only appreciate a small fraction of the vast, varied universe of rum. Rum is the “noble spirit;” it’s also the global spirit, the oldest commercially produced spirit, and the first All-American spirit. Below you’ll find answers to 10 key questions about rum—including where our new favorite drinking euphemism, “splicing the mainbrace,” comes from.

What is rum, exactly?

Excellent kick-off question, because rum is one of the least classified spirits there is, meaning there aren’t a lot of rules and regulations governing its production. In short, rum is a distilled beverage derived from the byproducts of sugarcane. There are two main types—traditional (aka industrial) rum, and “agricultural” (rhum agricole). Traditional rum is made from molasses (and other sugarcane byproducts), while rhum agricole comes from sugarcane juice. Generally speaking, cane juice rum has an earthier flavor profile than traditional rum, which tends to have more fruit and caramelized notes. The vast majority of rums fall in the “traditional” category.

Where is rum made?

Rum can be (and is) made just about anywhere sugarcane is cultivated or imported, but the bulk of current rum production takes place in the Caribbean and Latin America. There is one Caribbean territory with its own “controlled designation of origin” (a French term abbreviated as AOC), and that’s the French island of Martinique. Only rum produced from sugarcane grown in authorized areas of Martinique can be marketed as “AOC Martinique Rhum agricole.” But cane juice rum is also produced in Haiti and Guadeloupe—and you can find it from distillers in Trinidad, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. The more common traditional rum comes from just about every island in the Caribbean (and many nations on earth).

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What are the differences between light and dark rums?

One of the results of having no strict classification is that rum’s considerable variety is very difficult to, uh, ... classify. A common, but flawed, method is to organize rums by colors, ranging from clear and colorless to black. As cocktail blogger Matt Pietrek points out, this categorization is flawed because within each color designation there can be huge differences in flavor profiles, aging, filtering, and so forth. But it’s one way to try categorize the uncategorizable, so... in we go:

  • All rum starts out clear and colorless. It can go to market that way if it’s unaged, aged in stainless steel tanks, or filtered after aging in oak to remove any color picked up in the process. Its flavor profile can vary wildly, though many white rums are on the sweeter, less bold side of the spectrum.
  • Gold or amber rum is usually aged in oak barrels and, broadly speaking, is medium bodied with a more pronounced flavor than light rum. Its color can come from the barrel and/or from added caramel.
  • Dark rums range in color from brown to red to black, are aged in charred oak barrels, and usually contain coloring and flavoring agents such as caramel or molasses.

What is Navy-strength rum?

The best definition of Navy-strength rum is rum that clocks in at no less than 114 proof. And there’s a good story behind it: During the heyday of the British Royal Navy, sailors got a daily ration of rum, and, to ensure that this supply wouldn’t neutralize the gunpowder onboard if it leaked, the rum was meant to be 57% abv (114 proof). The high alcohol level guaranteed that if the rum mixed with the gunpowder, the gunpowder would remain flammable. Legend has it that sailors would prove that rum-soaked gunpowder would still burn, by, you know, lighting it on fire. This yielded the term “proof.” It also proved the Navy wasn’t buying watered-down rum.

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Courtesy of Zapaca 23

What’s a good sipping rum?

Scotch and bourbon aren’t the only spirits worthy of slow slipping. Plenty of rums are terrific neat, or with a bit of ice, and a good one to start is with Zacapa 23, from Guatemala. It’s a blend of rums aged from six to 23 years, at 7,000 feet above sea level, in American whiskey, charred American whiskey, sherry, and Pedro Ximenez barrels. The result is a remarkably complex rum featuring notes of dried fruit, vanilla, cocoa, and oak.

Wait, the British Royal Navy supplied its sailors with a daily ration of rum?

Yep. Sailors previously received a gallon of beer onboard, but as rum production boomed in the New World, and because of beer’s tendency to spoil, rum eventually took its place. The ration was consumed in a morning and an afternoon serving, and spawned one of the great drinking euphemisms of all time: “splicing the mainbrace.” Initially applied to a tough onboard repair job, after which a celebratory drink was hoisted, the phrase evolved into a slang term for treating the crew to a “tot” of rum. The drink was (erroneously!) believed to fortify the crew, and later, mixed with water and lime juice, it did actually help ward off scurvy. (Though that was entirely due to the Vitamin C in lime juice.)

What are some other highlights from rum’s history?

Oh, man. So many. But let’s focus on rum’s overlooked history in Colonial America. While bourbon is now (rightly) considered to be the ultimate American spirit, it took that title from rum, the undisputed liquid king of the colonies. The world’s first rum distillery (and first commercial distillery of any kind) sprang up in the Caribbean in the 1650s, but by the following decade, there were rum distilleries in Staten Island and in Boston, and New England became the second-largest producer in the world, distilling 1.2 million gallons a year. The comparatively small port city of Charleston imported 130,000 gallons annually, and George Washington supplied his troops with regular portions of rum, believing (incorrectly!) that it would rejuvenate them after tiring campaigns.

What is spiced rum?

Spiced rum is a golden rum to which spices—ranging from cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove to rosemary, ginger, and pepper—have been added. Some versions also add coloring agents such as caramel or molasses.

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Where does the name come from?

The origins of the name “rum” are as murky as a vat of molasses, with at least seven competing theories about it. Here are our five favorites:

1) It comes from rummers, the Dutch word for oversized drinking glasses used by sailors from the Netherlands—during a time when Dutch settlers farmed sugarcane in Barbados, the birthplace of rum as we know it today.

2) It derives from the 17th century English slang term “rum” which meant, approximately, ‘the best.” And since the New World spirit was not whisky or brandy or any of the other brown liquids, it needed a new name.

3) It’s coined from the final syllable of saccharum, the Latin word for sugar.

4) “Rum” grew out of another English word, “rumpullion,” sometimes also rendered as “rumbustion.” Both terms refer to “a great tumult or uproar” and may derive from 17th century slang used by English settlers in Barbados. Described as a “hellish, hot liquid,” early rum was rough around the edges, and the term may have been coined as combination of the adjective rum (from the Romani word meaning, ‘male, good man’) and boullion, a French term for “hot drink,” then simply shortened to rum. Got that? It’s actually the most widely accepted theory.

5) Not for nothing, but there’s a sugar-based spirit invented by the Malay people in the 14th century that’s called brum.

What are the best mixers for rum?

As the staple of Tiki—that Polynesian-inspired subset of cocktail culture—rum plays very well with fresh fruit juices (especially pineapple and lime). It also goes with cola, ginger ale, ginger beer, tonic, and coconut water. The truth is rum can mix with almost anything—you can swap it into a whole range of classic cocktails, including an Old Fashioned, a Negroni, and a Tom Collins—and there are loads of rums that can (and should) be enjoyed neat.  

Is it gluten-free?

Since rum’s raw materials come from the byproducts of sugar production, with no grain involved at any point, the answer here is an emphatic, Yes, rum is gluten-free. And here’s a pro-tip, courtesy of celiac.com, Scientific American, and many other sources: No matter what they’re made from, all additive-free distilled adult beverages are gluten-free, because distillation removes gluten.