Rum 101

When you think of rum drinkers, you probably picture pirates and sailors getting drunk on the high seas, and for good reason. The British Royal Navy used to keep their crew hydrated with water, beer and, yes, rum, which was rationed to sailors daily up until 1970.

These days, rum is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. It is produced everywhere from the Caribbean to Europe to India. Meanwhile, the tiki drink craze refuses to die. The highly mixable spirit shows no signs of disappearing, with marketers pushing aged and sipping rums to a new group of craft spirit drinkers. American actor and comedian W.C. Fields once said, “All roads lead to rum,” and perhaps he was right.

The History of Rum

Before there was rum, there was sugarcane, first introduced to the Caribbean in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. Seeing the vast potential for profit — sugar was always a hot commodity — early sugarcane farmers rushed to harvest the crop and found themselves with a large surplus of molasses, a sticky liquid byproduct of sugar extraction. Not knowing what to do with the excess molasses, farmers would just dump it into the ocean — that is, until they learned that the sugarcane byproduct could be fermented and distilled into rum.

Though rum production first originated in the Caribbean (most likely in Barbados) around the 1650s, it didn’t take long for the British colonists in North America to catch on and adopt it as their own. In 1664, they set up the country’s first rum distillery in what would later become Staten Island, and three years later, a distillery popped up in Boston. Rum production became a booming business for the budding colonies thanks to their abundant resources and thirst, and by the end of the American Revolution, the country boasted about 150 rum distilleries.

But it didn’t last forever. Breaking away from England meant the new Americans lost access to British sugarcane plantations. Without the molasses, American distillers couldn’t produce rum. So, they made do with what they had: grain. Whiskey became the all-American spirit we know and love today.

How Is Rum Made?

Unlike spirits such as Cognac or bourbon, rum is practically declassified, meaning there isn’t a strict system guiding standard production. Therefore, any spirit that contains some form of sugarcane can be called “rum,” and these beverages can range from clear to dark with varying levels of ABV.

That said, there are two main types of rum. Rhum industriel (industrial rum) is made with sugarcane byproducts and usually tastes fruitier. Rhum agricole (agricultural rum), made with the sugarcane juice, is widely considered the signature rum of the French West Indies, and it usually tastes earthier than its industrial counterpart.

Both styles can vary in color, from light to dark, but agricole rums are typically more floral and vegetal and can even be a little funky in flavor. Each island in the Caribbean produces rum differently, but Martinique is the only geographic region with its own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), or “controlled designation of origin,” meaning only specific rum from the French West Indian island can be sold as “AOC Martinique Rhum agricole.”

In general, commercially produced, industrial rums typically start with a base of molasses, yeast and water. During fermentation, the first step of the process, yeast and water are added to the molasses. The strain of yeast (wild, fast or slow) to which the molasses is exposed helps determine the taste and aroma of the rum. The distillery also decides the method of fermenting (natural or controlled), which also affects the timing (anywhere from hours to weeks). After fermentation, the mixture is ready to be distilled. During the distillation process, the fermented liquid is placed in either a column still or a pot still. The liquid is heated to about 175 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the alcohol to evaporate. Distillers collect the vapor from the still and recondense it into the raw spirit.

After distillation, the rum is ready to be aged. The amount of time rum spends being barrel-aged varies, once again, by country and distillery. One year is typically the minimum, but the aging process could last up to decades. Rum is stored in bourbon, wooden or stainless steel tanks or some combination. Rum aged in oak casks turns dark, whereas rum aged in stainless steel tanks often remains colorless. Since a lot of rum is produced in tropical climates, a good amount of the spirit is lost to evaporation, causing it to mature at a faster rate than brandy or whiskey.

After aging, distillers blend the rum to achieve a consistent flavor. During the blending stage, light rums may be filtered to remove any color gleaned during the aging process. With aged rums, caramel may be added for color and flavor, and water may be added to even out the strength.

Where Is Rum Made?

Most of the world’s rum production is based in the Caribbean and Latin America. Most notably, rum is made in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Guyana, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Martinique. But it can be produced wherever sugarcane is grown or imported.

Rum Styles

Silver/White: White rum, also called "silver," is very sweet, making it ideal for cocktails and a spirit that is rarely drunk straight. It ages quicker than any other grade of rum and is often filtered after aging to remove any color.

Gold: Also referred to as “amber,” gold rums are medium bodied and a bit stronger in flavor than light rums, having aged longer in oak barrels. Much like white rum, gold rums mix well in cocktails, but some can hold their own as sippers.

Dark: A grade darker than gold rums and sometimes known by their color (brown, black or red), dark rums are aged longer than light or gold rums. They may be spicy or have a strong molasses or caramel flavor. Full-bodied and sippable, dark rums are often served neat or on ice, but they can also be used in cocktails and cooking.

Spiced: Spiced rum begins with a golden rum base, before spices are added (typically cinnamon, rosemary, nutmeg, clove and pepper) along with caramel, depending on the brand.

Naval: Part of the dark rum family and typically proofed at 50% ABV or higher, these rums are made in the style of those historically rationed to the British Navy.

Single Barrel: Most rums on the market are blended to achieve a consistent flavor. A single-barrel rum comes from just one barrel and may taste different from barrel to barrel.

Overproof: This term refers to rum with an ABV over a standard value, usually 120 proof, or 60% ABV.

Notable Rum Cocktails

Daiquiri: Jennings Cox, an American mining engineer, is credited for the Daiquiri’s invention, though he may not be the sole inventor. He named the cocktail after a beach near Santiago de Cuba. Cox’s Daiquiri calls for Bacardi rum, lemon, sugar, mineral water and crushed ice, but today, the classic rum cocktail is more commonly made with white rum, simple syrup and lime juice.

Mojito: The essential Cuban cocktail, a Mojito is made with white rum, sugar, lime, mint and soda water.

Mai Tai: First made popular by tiki legend Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron Jr. in the 1930s, the Mai Tai is made with both light and dark rums, along with orgeat, curaçao and lime juice.

Cuba Libre: A fancy way to order a Rum and Coke.

Dark 'N' Stormy: Technically made only with Gosling’s Black Rum and ginger beer, the drink can also be doctored with lime juice and Angostura bitters.

Rum in Culture

  • Possibly the most famous rum drinker of all was “Papa” himself, Ernest Hemingway, who was particularly partial to Mojitos and Daiquiris. He is credited with creating a Daiquiri variation (which includes grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur) that has since been named after the writer. He is also credited with regularly drinking doubles of the potent concoction.
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s novel The Rum Diaries, which took place in Puerto Rico, was undoubtedly fueled by rum on the rocks, said to be Thompson’s drink of choice.
  • The famous sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest” was originally written by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel, Treasure Island. It forever immortalized the line, “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.”