Rum and other cane spirits are basically made by the distillation of fermented sugar and water. Most rum comes from regions with sugar cane as its main horticultural product; it is fermented from cane juice, concentrated cane juice, or molasses. Molasses is the sweet, sticky residue that remains after sugar cane juice is boiled and the crystallized sugar is extracted.
Most Rums are made from molasses, as molasses is an unneeded by product of sugar production. Molasses is over 50% sugar, but it also contains significant amounts of minerals and other trace elements, which can contribute to the final flavors. Rums made from cane juice, primarily on Haiti and Martinique, have a naturally smooth palate.
Depending on the recipe, the “wash” (the cane juice, or molasses and water) is fermented, using either cultured yeast or airborne wild yeasts, for a period ranging from 24 hours for light Rums up to several weeks for heavy, full varieties. Rum is distilled in the same manner as all other spirits, boiled and then the alcohol vapor caught and condensed. The choice of stills does, however, have a profound effect on the final character of Rum. All Rums come out of the still as clear, colorless spirits. Barrel aging and the use of added caramel determine their final color. Since caramel is burnt sugar, it can be truthfully said that only natural coloring agents are used.
Lighter Rums are highly rectified (purified and blended) similar to vodka production and are produced in column or continuous stills, after which they are usually charcoal-filtered and sometimes aged in old oak casks for a few months to add a degree of smoothness. Most light Rums have minimal flavors and aroma, particularly those brands that have been charcoal-filtered. Heavier Rums are usually distilled in pot stills, similar to those used to produce Cognacs and Scotch whiskies. Pot stills are less “efficient” than column stills and some congeners (fusel oils and other flavors elements) are carried over with the alcohol, when drinking aged, amber rum you want a few flavors to come through from the distillation process. Some brands of Rum are made by blending pot and column distilled Rums in a manner similar to Armagnac production.
White Rums are generally light-bodied (although there are a few heavy-bodied White Rums in the French islands). They are usually clear and have a very subtle flavors profile. If they are aged in oak casks to create a smooth palate they are then usually filtered to remove any color. White Rums are primarily used as mixers and blend particularly well with fruit flavors.
Golden Rums, also known as Amber Rums, are generally medium-bodied. Most have spent several years aging in oak casks, which give them smooth, mellow palates.
Dark Rums are traditionally full-bodied, rich, caramel-dominated Rums. The best are produced mostly from pot stills and frequently aged in oak casks for extended periods. The richest of these Rums are consumed straight up.
Spiced Rums can be white, golden, or dark Rums. They are infused with spices or fruit flavors. Rum punches (such as planters punch) are blends of Rum and fruit juices that are very popular in the Caribbean.
Añejo and Age-Dated Rums are aged Rums from different vintages or batches that are mixed together to insure a continuity of flavors in brands of Rum from year to year. Some aged Rums will give age statements stating the youngest Rum in the blend (e.g., 10 year old Rum contains a blend of Rums that are at least 10 years old). A small number of French island Rums are Vintage Dated.
The Caribbean is the epicenter of world Rum production. Virtually every major island group produces its own distinct Rum style. Barbados produces light, sweetish Rums from both pot and column stills. Rum distillation began here and the Mount Gay Distillery, dating from 1663, is probably the oldest operating Rum producer in the world.
Cuba produces light-bodied, crisp, clean Rums from column stills. It is currently illegal to ship Cuban Rums into the United States.
The Dominican Republic is notable for its full-bodied, aged Rums from column stills.
Guyana is justly famous for its rich, heavy Demerara Rums, named for a local river, which are produced from both pot and column stills. Demerara Rums can be aged for extended periods (25-year-old varieties are on the market) and are frequently used for blending with lighter Rums from other regions. Neighboring Surinam and French Guyana produce similar full-bodied Rums.
Haiti follows the French tradition of heavier Rums that are double-distilled in pot stills and aged in oak casks for three or more years to produce full flavored, exceptionally smooth tasting Rums. Haiti also still has an extensive underground moonshine industry that supplies the voodoo religious ritual trade.
Jamaica is well known for its rich, aromatic Rums, most of which are produced in pot stills. Jamaica has official classifications of Rum, ranging from light to very full-flavored. Jamaican Rums are extensively used for blending.
Martinique is a French island with the largest number of distilleries in the Eastern Caribbean. Both pot and column stills are used. As on other French islands such as Guadeloupe, both rhum agricole (made from sugar cane juice) and rhum industrial (made from molasses) are produced. These Rums are frequently aged in used French brandy casks for a minimum of three years. Rhum vieux (aged Rum) is frequently compared to high-quality French brandies.
Puerto Rico is known primarily for light, very dry Rums from column stills. All white Puerto Rican Rums must, by law, be aged a minimum of one year while dark Rums must be aged three years.
Trinidad produces mainly light Rums from column stills and has an extensive export trade.
The Virgin Islands, which are divided between the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Island. Only the US Virgin Islands still produce Rum, predominately making light, mixing rums from column stills, although there are some fine dark and aged sipping Rums made by the most significant producer Cruzan. These Rums, and those of nearby Grenada, also serve as the base for bay Rum, a classic aftershave lotion.
Guatemala and Nicaragua are noteworthy in Central America where a variety of primarily medium-bodied Rums from column stills that lends themselves well to aging. They have recently begun to gain international recognition.
Brazil produces vast quantities of mostly light Rums from column stills with unaged cane spirit called Cachaça (ca·sha·sa) the best-known example.
Venezuela makes a number of well-respected barrel-aged golden and dark Rums.
The United States has a handful of Rum distilleries in the south, producing a range of light and medium-bodied Rums that are generally marketed with Caribbean-themed names.
Canada’s 300-year-old tradition of trading Rum for dried cod fish continues in the Atlantic Maritime provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where golden Rums from Antigua, Barbados, and Jamaica are imported and aged for five years. The resulting hearty Rum is known locally as Screech.
Europe is primarily a blender of imported Rums. Both the United Kingdom and France import Rums from their former colonies in the Caribbean for aging and bottling. Heavy, dark Jamaican Rums are imported into Germany and mixed with neutral spirit at a 1:19 ratio to produce Rum verschnitt. A similar product in Austria is called Inlander Rum.
Australia produces a substantial amount of white and golden Rums in a double- distillation method utilizing both column and pot stills. Rum is the second most popular alcoholic beverage in the country after beer. Light Rums are also produced on some of the islands in the South Pacific such as Tahiti.
Asia Rums tend to follow regional sugar cane production, with white and golden Rums from column stills being produced primarily in the Philippines and Thailand.