I. Rum: What is It?
Distillers produce rum from only sugar cane or sugar cane by-products. Some producers use fresh cane juice. But most use molasses. That’s’s a by-product of making crystalized sugar. And some producers use cane syrup. The definition of rum is rather simple.
I. Rum: What is It?
However, producers make the beverage in over 80 countries around the world. And they’ve been distilling it for hundreds of years. Therefore, different regions have developed different traditions and taste preferences. As a result, there are many styles or varieties of rum.
Distillers make numerous choices that effect the character of their product. This includes the material they ferment, the yeast they select, and the fermentation method they use. It’s also their choice of barrel, the length of aging, and their blending decisions. The minerals in the water they add to lower the proof and the final bottled proof are other factors.
There are innumerable laws, regulations and restrictions on the production of many alcoholic beverages. This regulatory straight-jacketing reduces experimentation and prevents the evolution of those beverages. Consequently, they fall into a sometimes boring uniformity. Rum doesn’t have this problem.
People generally categoriz rum simply as light or dark. But there are many, many variations of color, flavors, aromas, and other characteristics. Producers who spice their product usually use anise, caramel, cinnamon, pepper, or rosemary.
Here’s a more specific categorization.
- Light-bodied (white or silver) rums. These are clear with subtle flavor. Producers age them for one year or less.
- Medium-bodied (golden or amber) rums. These have deeper colors and more pronounced flavors. Distillers age them for two to three years.
- Dark rums have deeper colors and more mellow flavors. Producers age them for five to seven years. The deeper colors and taste come from the longer aging. However, producers sometimes add caramel to enhance those characteristics.
- Spiced (aromatic) rums. Producers add various ingredients to spice their products. They generally age them for a year or less.
Most people choose their favorite simply by tasting a variety of styles.
Cachaça is a sweet, spicy rum distillers make in Brazil from fermented sugarcane juice. It must be 38 to 48 percent alcohol by volume.
Until 2013, producers typically labeled their cachaça sold in the U.S. as Brazilian rum. However, the two countries agreed that henceforth all Brazilian sugarcane spirit sold in the U.S. must be labeled cachaça.
II. Rum Trivia
- Rum has no sodium, gluten, carbohydrates, fats or cholesterol of any kind.1
- Standard servings of beer, dinner wine, or rum have virtually identical amounts of alcohol.2
- When distillers make their product it’s completely clear at first. If they want to age it, it gets color from the oak barrels.3 Alternatively, they can give it color by adding caramel.
- Producers can age it either not enough or too long.4
- Heavy taxes more than double the price of a bottle of rum.5
- Distillers can’t really produce any spirit beverage higher than about 190 proof. That’s about 95% alcohol. At higher proof, the alcohol draws moisture from the air and dilutes itself.6
- Our bodies absorb alcohol from beverages more quickly when they’re in an effervesenant drink.7
- “Rum and Coca-Cola” was the most popular song in the U.S. in 1945.8 It was the third most important song of the 1940’s.9 Hear it sung by the Andrews Sisters.
- Some people in the 1800s used the beverage to clean their hair to maintain its health.10 Even today, many people think that it helps prevent hair loss.11
- Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry was distilling the beverage from molasses.12
August is National Rum Month in the U.S.
- The American Colonial Army gave each soldier a daily ration of four ounces of either rum or whiskey.13
- Paul Revere had two drinks of the sugar cane beverage before taking his famous ride.14
- The British Navy issued it daily to every sailor from 1651 until 1970.15
- You might remember Desi Arnaz from “I Love Lucy.” His grandfather was one of the founders of the largest rum distillery in the world.16
Admiral Nelson died in the Battle of Tralfager. The Navy supposedly preserved his body in a cask of the distilled spirit. Some say it was rum while others say it was brandy. It was to preserve his body for burial in England. The story is that some sailors drank much of his preservative on the trip back home. Hence sailors even today sometimes call rum “Nelson’s blood.”17
- The first North American rum distillery began in 1664 in what is now Staten Island.18
August 16th is National Rum Day in the U.S.
- Some parents in the Caribbean sprinkle the distilled spirit on the foreheads of their newborns for good luck.19
- In the early days of European settlement in Australia there was little hard currency. Therefore, settlers used it in the place of currency.20
III. Rum Terms
Knowing these terms will help you enjoy and describe your specific beverage preferences.
ABV is alcohol by volume.
ABW is alcohol by weight.
Alcohol equivalence refers to a simple fact. Standard servings of beer, dinner wine or distilled spirit have virtually the same amount of alcohol. It’s six-tenths of one ounce.
Puerto Rico produces about 80% of all rum in the world.
American gallon (for liquid) equals four quarts, 231 cubic inches, 3.785 liters, or 0.83 U.K. imperial gallon.
Barbados rum has a smoky flavor. Not surprisingly, distillers make it on the island of Barbados.
Barrel is a unit of volume or the wooden vessel containing it. A U.S. barrel is 31.5 gallons while a British barrel is 43.2 gallons.
Barrel proof means that the producer didn’t dilute the spirit after removing it from the cask or barrel. Thus, it has a higher proof than the traditional spirit.
Barrel aging (or cask aging). Aging the distillate in a wooden (usually oak) barrel or cask. Other producers may have earlier used the container to age another spirit. Or they may have charred on the inside of it.
Barrel Proof or Cask Strength means the producer didn’t dilute the spirit before bottling it. Thus, it has higher proof than otherwise.
British gallon (U.K. gallon) is the imperial gallon.
Cachaça (ca-shah-sah). Brazilian distillers make this spirit from sugar cane juice. It has between 38 and 48 alcohol by volume.
Caramel is sugar that has been cooked to a brown color.
Cask aging. See barrel aging.
Cask strength. See barrel proof.
Coffey still. Same as column or continuous still. Aeneas Coffey invented it. Hence, the name.
Column still. Distillers pump fermented material continuously into a column. Steam rises and evaporates the alcohol. This is more efficient than pot distilling. See pot distilling.
Continuous still. Same as Coffeey or or column still.
Congeners are substances in alcohol. More are in darker spirits and wines. They add flavors but also contribute to hangovers.
DISCUS is the abbreviation for the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. It’s a trade group.
Distillation is the process distillers use to separate alcohol from water. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. Therefore, it evaporates first and then distillers condense it back into liquid form.
Distilled spirits refers to ethanol that distillers produce by distillation. See distillation.
Fermentation is the process of yeast converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Finish is the lingering aftertaste that results after swallpwing a distilled spirit.
Imperial gallon (for liquid) equals about 4.546 liters, 4,546 centimeters, 277.42 cubic inches, or about 1.2 U.S. gallons
Jamaican rums are medium heavy-bodied rums. Understandably, distillers make them in Jamaica. produced in Jamaica
Molasses is a by-product of making crystal sugar from ground sugar cane.
Navy strength means the spirit has an ABV of 57% or more.
Overproof is navy strength.
Pot still. Distillers use a pot still to make one batch of spirirs at a time. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. So they evaporate the alcohol, send it into a coil, and condense it back into liquid. See column distilling.
Show us the proof!
Proof is a measure of alcoholic level in a beverage in the U.S. It’s twice the alcohol by volume. For example, a 60% ABV would be 120 proof. The U.K. uses ABV instead of proof.
Rhum is French for rum.
Ron is Spanish for rum.
Rhum agricole. Distillers make this from sugarcane juice instead of molasses.
Single barrel. Producers bottle the product from a single barrel. Thus, it may taste different from barrel to barrel and bottle to bottle. Most producers blend from different barrels for consistency bottle to bottle.
Straight is unblended.
U.K. gallon (British gallon) is the imperial gallon. See imperial gallon.
U.S. gallon is sometimes called the American gallon. See American gallon.
Discover cocktail recipes, history, or even how to distill at home in these resources. These resources include books and videos.
Cate, M. and Cate, R. Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2016.
Curtis, W. A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. NY: Crown, 2007.
DuBose, F. The Four Seasons Book of Cocktails. NY: Sterling, 2010.
Films Media. Rum Running. NY: Films Media, 2014. (e-Video)
Foley, R. The Rum 1000: The Ultimate Collection of Cocktails, Recipes, Facts, and Resources. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008.
Morris, R. and Cummings, E. The Joy of Home Distilling. NY: Skyhorse, 2014.
O’Hara, C. Hot Toddies and other Soul-warming Winter Drinks. NY: Potter, 2002.
Rathbun, A. and Punch, M. Dark Spirits: 200 Classy Concoctions. Boston: Harvard Common, 2009.
Rowley, M. and Lyon, V. Lost Recipes of Prohibition. Woodstock, VT: Countryman, 2015.
Searing, D. The Punch Bowl: 75 Recipes. NY: Sterling, 2011.
WGBH. Demon Rum. Alexandria, VA: PBS, 2005. (Video)
3 Limon, E. Tequila. NY: Abbeville, 2009, p. 34.
4 Avis, H. Drugs & Life. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 74.
6 Mingo, J., and Barrett, E. Just Curious, Jeeves. Emeryville, CA: Ask Jeeves, 2000, p. 269.
7 Alcohol and the Body Trivia, item 2.
8 Calypso on Trial.
9 Importance of the Song.
10 Absolute Trivia.
11 Save at Home Mom.
12 Roueche, B. Alcohol. NY: Grove, 1962, p. 178.
13 Goode, E. Drugs in American Society. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 182.
14 Burns, E. The Spirit of America. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 2004, p. 27.
15 Martini heresy. Life (Dec 10, 1951), pp. 81-82.
17 Davis, J. Nelson’s Blood.
18 Rouche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 178.
19 Lendler, I. Alcoholica Esoterica. NY: Penguin, 2014, ch 5.
20 Abbott, J. Dollars or rum. World’s News, April 1, 1931.