Rum is such a huge and diverse category of spirits that you could spend a lifetime studying it and still have a lot to learn. I can’t think of another style of spirit that offers such a range of styles, flavours and products, well apart from whisk(e)y maybe, and even then I think rum has it trumped. So as the sun has just started shining here in the UK, and spring is on its way, I thought I’d take a moment to look at this wonderful family of spirits and share nine things I think everybody should know about rum.
I hope the thoughts below will inspire you to explore the amazing world of rum a little bit, and maybe find the styles of rum that you can enjoy the most. Even if you don't think you like rum, you should definitely open your mind to the possibility that there might just be a rum out there that's perfect for you. For me this will be an excuse to dig into the b&t back bar and sip a few old favourites and remind myself why I love rum so much. It seems that every year, with the first burst of spring sunshine the rum section of the b&t drinking room starts calling out to me. In fact I may have to pause here to shake myself a daiquiri before I continue writing.
Right, that’s better! On with the blog and my thoughts on rum…
Ok that may be a slightly bold statement, but it’s hard for me to imagine a person who doesn’t, or couldn’t, enjoy rum. Sure I’ve come across people who say they don’t like rum, but most of the time they are thinking of a particular product and writing off the entire category without fully understanding it.
The fact is there are so many different styles of rum and so many products available to us that it’s hard to believe that you couldn’t find at least one rum you’d enjoy sipping. For some it’s the light, crisp rums often associated with the Hispanic countries of the Caribbean. For others it’s rich, heavy bodied pot still rums from Jamaica. Then again you may prefer dark rum or even spiced rum, but no matter what I bet there’s a rum out there with your name on it.
The reason for all this diversity is a combination of two things, traditions and regulations. You see every rum producing nation has its own historic style of rum for which that island or country is famous. These traditional styles are passed down through generations until they become part of the fabric of the culture of that country, and because every country has slightly different traditions, each produce a different style of rum. Add to this the fact that every rum making nation has its own set of rules and regulations governing the production of rum and you start to see why the category is so diverse.
It’s precisely the fact that there is not one single set of rules governing rum that gives the category so much range in terms of style, but this also makes it the hardest category to define. There are rules governing what the US and Europe will allow to be called rum, but these are just a loose set of guidelines and not nearly as rigid as many other spirit categories.
If we simplify the rules as best we can then we arrive at a basic definition of rum that tells us it must be made from sugar cane, shouldn’t be rectified to the point that it has no character, and that it should be bottled at no less than 37.5% abv. But other than these definitions the rest is up to the nation where a particular rum is made.
There are some exceptions of course, and the one that springs to mind straight away is Rhum Agricole, which has a tighter set of regulations that include where it can be made, what processes must be employed and how it can be labelled. But looking at the general rum category there is a lot of room for each distillery to do things their own way. For example, unlike whisk(e)y, age statements on rums don’t have to reflect the youngest rum in a blend, so a rum labelled as seven years old, may have much younger or much older rums in the blend.
When I’m talking to bartenders about different spirits I always say that ‘rum is the rogue spirit’. This isn’t an insult, in fact it’s the reason I love this spirit so much, because unlike cognac or bourbon or gin or vodka, almost anything goes when it comes to making rum.
In the world of spirits we tend to get a little hung up on numbers. It’s almost as if the bottle with the biggest number on it must be the best, but this isn’t always the case. As it happens, when it comes to rum, the numbers can often be misleading, but then you’d expect that from the rogue spirit. You see in some countries if you put an age statement on the bottle, it must reflect the youngest spirit used in the blend, but in others there are no such restrictions.
In fact when it comes to age statements on rums, to me at least, I pay them very little attention other than as a way of distinguishing one product from another. I find it easier to judge the product based on how it smells and tastes than by the number printed on the bottle. This is especially true when you start to consider different production techniques such as ‘solera aging’ where younger rums are added to older rums before being aged again. So other than using them as a rough guideline they serve very little purpose.
Of course even this rough guideline does help a bit, but all I’m saying is when it comes to rum, don’t get too hung up on the age statement. Comparing different rums from different countries that are all labelled seven years old, I’m always struck more by the differences than the similarities. You can’t tell how good a rum is by the age statement on the label, you can only know that by taking a sip. Just because a rum says it’s 23 years old doesn’t make it any better than a 12 year old rum from a different island, it just points you to the fact it may have been aged longer, and even then there’s no guarantee.
One of the things I love about rum is that there is a different style for every occasion, so depending on your mood you can almost certainly find a rum that will fit the bill. For example when it’s sunny outside and I want a refreshing cocktail, then a crisp white rum, some lime and sugar are all I need to make me happy. After a rich meal, when I’m looking for something to sip while I enjoy a cigar, a richer more heavily aged rum is likely to be called for.
Be it spiced rum, dark rum, golden rum or white rum there’s a product to fit every need you might have. I have my favourites of course, at the moment Banks 5 Island white rum is going down well in my daiquiri, Havana seven year old is a favourite for cocktails and early evening sipping, El Dorado 15 is a great after dinner treat, but these are all subject to change depending on my mood, which probably explains why I have over 60 rums in my drink cabinet.
The reason that rum is such a popular spirit with bartenders is the versatility of the category. If you want a white rum but need it to be creamy and rich for a particular cocktail, you can find it. Want a golden rum with vegetal notes and a dry finish? I can point you in the right direction towards several contenders. Need a sipping rum that’s easy to drink? Yep there are plenty to choose from. A delicate almost floral rum for a simple stirred drink? Of course such a thing exists. There literally is a rum for every occasion, in fact there are likely to be a dozen that you can choose from.
Traditionally white rum has always been seen as a light and delicate spirit, but that’s not always the case. The perception that white rum is delicate and less full bodied than golden rums probably goes all the way back to Cuba in 1862, when Mr. Bacardi first introduced the world to a new style of rum. His white rum was only lightly aged and then filtered through charcoal to remove any colour and soften the spirit. The resulting rum was light and delicate, and was perfect for mixing refreshing, crisp cocktails. Such has been the success of this style of rum that for years it has been taken for granted that all white rums are this way.
Now though we are increasingly seeing more heavily aged white rums, often three, four or even five years old, which have a fuller flavour profile and more depth to them. These premium white rums open up new possibilities for mixing and can take traditional white rum cocktails in a new direction. Likewise they can be used in place of golden rums to create unusual spins on drinks that would usually use a heavier rum as their base. My favourite for this is El Dorado three year old, which is rich with creamy chocolate and macadamia nut notes, but still light enough to work in delicate drinks such as the Daiquiri.
In counter point to the perception that white rums are lighter and more delicate, it is often assumed that golden rums are more flavourful due to aging. Once again though this isn’t always the case. In fact judging a rum by its colour is almost as useless as judging it by the age statement on the bottle.
The first thing to bear in mind is that in most rum producing countries you can add caramel colouring or molasses to make the spirit darker. While this is often only done to create a consistently coloured product from batch to batch, it can be done to make the rum look older than it really is.
The second thing to consider is that as I’ve mentioned before, different countries produce different styles of rum. In Cuba they use a process similar to the solera method for aging, which means that as a rum is maturing, they will from time to time open up the barrel and add newly made rum to it. The result is a lighter and more lively rum, that has a balance between the depth of flavour of well aged golden rum, and the more delicate aspects of newly made rum. So even Havana 7yo may be more delicate than a four or five your old rum from a different country.
A current favourite for me is the newly launched Banks Golden Age, which is an intriguing blend of full flavoured rum, with a surprisingly dry and delicate finish making it great for playing with in cocktails.
Rum also has a fascinating history that spans several hundred years, and as you might expect from the rogue spirit, it’s a pretty colourful story. When you start looking at the category of rum and how it has developed you can’t help but trip over stories of pirates, drunken sailors, wars and corruption. A lot of this is due to rum's association with the Caribbean, and the fact that this was one of the most fought over parts of the world.
The fact that rum is made from the by-products of sugar production (molasses) has meant that its history has always been tied up with that of sugar, and as it happens this was one of the most valuable commodities of days gone by. Sugar was so valuable that at one point Canada was given to Great Britain in exchange for the return of three sugar producing islands to the French. Yes, an entire country was traded for the return of three small islands just because they could grow sugar cane there!
The association with the British navy is also an interesting side of the history of rum, and I always grin at the thought of the chaos it caused to our navy. You see from 1655 when we captured Jamaica from the Spanish, rum became the ration of choice (before this it had been beer, which had a tendency to go sour in hotter climates), and sailors were given a staggering half pint of neat rum twice a day. It was when Admiral Vernon was inspecting his troops in the Caribbean that he realised that sailors drinking a pint of neat rum per day were basically staggering around half drunk, and so the ration was ordered to be watered down, and thus navy grog was invented.
All to often spiced rum is seen as a product that is just thrown together with coke and a few cubes of ice, and is perceived to be consumed by less discerning drinkers, but that isn’t always the case. As the rum market has grown, new products have been made that aren’t simply sickly sweet vanilla rums, and that offer more possibilities for mixing in cocktails. In fact now there are a range of premium spiced rums on the market which means when it comes to the spiced stuff you can find anything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Personally I'd suggest spending a little extra and going for the sublime.
I’ve enjoyed seeing this section of the rum category grow, and with the launch of new spiced rums have found an appreciation for this style of rum. For me the pinnacle of spiced rum has to be Elements 8 Spiced, a St Lucian rum, sweetened with honey, spiced and then barrel aged to allow the flavours to marry. The sweetness is restrained and is balanced against a considered selection of spices, all of which shine through with surprising structure. Trust me when I say that you should have a bottle of this on your bar or at home, it will make you look at spiced rum in a whole new way.
Yes, it is! Don’t even think of arguing this point with me! Overproof rum is fantastic for so many reasons but here are the ones that jump out to me. It is punchy, lively and full of flavour, which means that when used well in cocktails it adds a dimension that no other spirit can. The Nuclear Daiquiri is a fine example of how great overproof rum can be, as is the Anise and Nephew served at Callooh Callay. In the hands of a good bartender, overproof rum can be a great ingredient.
It’s also awesome because it burns so well… I mean come on, who doesn’t love a tiki drink served blazing and almost daring you to drink it? For me the pyrotechnic attributes of overproof are almost important as how good it tastes.
Yes, I said that overproof rum tastes good! It really does. It’s full of vegetal and grassy notes, usually set against crisp citrus flavours and a whack of sugarcane sweetness. That being said it’s strong, so I’m not suggesting you drink it straight (although you can if you want to of course), but as a punchy cocktail ingredient it’s hard to beat.
You have to treat it with the respect it deserves, and this is one of the reasons I love it. I remember a party where some of my guests failed to notice that they were using Goslings overproof in their drinks instead of the regular product. They were surprised when after just a couple of drinks they were feeling the effects. Any spirit this strong demands respect, and if you turn your back on it for even a moment it will have you.
Let’s face it, Wray, Goslings Overproof or my current favourite El Dorado 151, are fun spirits that all taste great but that you have to watch closely. They are the pranksters of the spirit world and will get you in trouble if you let your guard down, but you’re bound to have a good time in their company. The term playing with fire never seemed so appropriate as it does when associated with overproof rum!
So there you have my nine things you should know about rum, and I hope it inspires you to go and find the rums that are right for you. Summer is coming, and believe me it will be all the better if you have a Mai Tai, a Daiquiri or a Zombie in your hand the next time the sun is shining.