What is Rum? A Beginner’s Guide to the category

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Rum has been a much misunderstood category for a very long time however, its growing popularity in the consumer market, not to mention the cult-like following some distilleries & bottlers have amongst the booze nerds of the world, means it’s about time we addressed some of the key quandaries and misinformation out there. To do this, we’ve enlisted the help of a few top and trusted figures within the rum industry to help guide us on our brief breakdown of rum and help our readers know a bit more about this phenomenal and insanely varied category.

What is Rum?

what is rum?

Rum is currently one of the fastest growing spirits categories sold in the UK, thanks in no small part to bartenders educating members of the public with brands they might not find in their local supermarket. However, what is rum?

Well, apart from the requirements that rum is a spirit produced from fermented and distilled sugar cane, that cannot be so highly rectified that it becomes a neutral spirit, there are very few global legalities controlling or defining the production of rum. This is not to say that rum-producing countries don’t have their own sets of rules (some have their own GIs and AOCs and many follow traditional practices), there are just few overarching laws, unifying bodies or clear-cut categories keeping rum in its place. This leads to a fantastically vibrant and varied category that is able to showcase a prolific range of flavour profiles whilst being derived from just one raw material (sugarcane).

Gergő Muráth
Gergő Muráth

Gergő Muráth, UK Trade Development Manager at Worthy Park Estate and Bar Manager at the legendary Trailer Happiness ventures that one of the biggest misconceptions about rum is that “it being made from sugarcane’s by-products necessarily means it’s sweet. It may have a natural sweetness, especially after ageing, but quality rum is not sweetened – and some premium examples are very dry, or funky. Rum is also a premium spirit – it is too often dismissed (thanks in part to some major actors in its own category) as something only fit for cheap, easy mixing, where the flavour of the spirit is covered up, but rum is actually excellent both to sip on its own, or to mix into high-end, spirit-forward drinks.”

How is Rum Produced?

Sugar Cane

Clairin-sugar-cane-Haiti-copy

Mature sugar cane is harvested and its sugars extracted in the form of a liquid called ‘sugar cane juice’. Distillers can then use this liquid to make rum (these rums are called rhum agricole or cachaça), however most use a product that is made from sugar cane juice, called molasses. Molasses is made by heating the juice. Sugar crystals form and are collected to make sugar. What’s left is a thick, sticky, dark brown residue called ‘molasses’. Rhum agricoles are linked to Martinique and Guadeloupe and, broadly speaking, tend to have more pronounced grassy and vegetal notes than most molasses rums.

Fermentation

Fermentation rum
Open-topped fermentation tank

Alcoholic fermentation starts when yeast eats the sugars. This chemical reaction produces alcohols, carbon dioxide and congeners (flavours). There are a number of different fermentation factors – such as yeast variety (wild local yeast found on sugar cane leaves or commercially cultured and specially selected yeast) and the rate of reaction – that hugely impact the flavour of a rum. Some fermentations result in exaggerated fruity aromas which (in combination with pot still distillation) result in incredibly pronounced, pungent rums known as high-ester rums.

Distillation

Kill Devil rum stills

Distillation occurs in a still and selects individual parts of the liquid and leaves other unwanted parts behind. In rum production, column and pot stills of all shapes and sizes are used, with some distillers electing to use both. As Dawn Davies (Mistress of Wine, Head Buyer at The Whisky Exchange and Co-Founder of Sugarcane & Champagne) states, broadly speaking, “pot stills produce fuller, heavier flavoured styles. Simple column stills produce rums that are lighter than the pot but still with plenty of flavour, and multi-column stills offer very light and often simple styles when young and when aged take on more of the wood’s character, so have a dryness on the finish. You then have blends of all the above which combine the different characteristics.”

Ageing

Barrels-in-Foursquare-distillery

Once distilled, the new make rum – like all other distillates – is clear. This can either be bottled as an unaged rum (after potentially being watered down to the correct ABV), or it can be placed in barrels and stored for ageing. Ageing – most often in oak barrels – adds colour and congeners (such as vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and coconut). New barrels will give the most of these to the liquid but many distillers elect to reuse barrels as this is cheap and in itself adds new flavours, depending on what was in the barrel previously (e.g. Bourbon, wine or Sherry). 

Over time, the congeners react with each other and oxygen that comes through the wood to create ‘rancio’ flavours of leather and mushroom – that may sound odd but they make for some delicious spirits. Barrel ageing also results in the concentration of the alcohol as water evaporates over time – you may have heard this referred to as the ‘angel share’ and in hot climates where rum is most commonly made and aged, those angels are greedy! Finally, barrels also have the power to remove harsh textures via the ‘char’ (a layer or carbon on the inside of the barrels made by burning the wood before the liquid is placed inside).

Blending and Finishing

Blending at Mount Gay

‘Blending’ has a bit of a bad rep in whisky (although these days it really shouldn’t as there are a whole host of phenomenal blended whiskies out there). However, blending just means that you are able to create the flavour profile that you want, utilising multiple rums of differing still production, age, distillery and even starting product (sugar cane juice or molasses). Blending can be a true art form and allows master blenders to develop complex and exciting expressions year after year. Single Cask (rum from an individual ageing barrel) and Vintage rums (the liquid is from the year on the label) are also most certainly a thing, often seen as more premium products as the expressions are finite.

Transparency in labelling on this bottle of Doorly’s 14-year-old

Once a blend (or single cask/vintage) has been chosen, there are options to alter the product’s ABV, sweetness and colouring before bottling. The alcohol content is changed by adding water to bring it down to the desired strength (a minimum of 37.5% to be legally called ‘rum’ by EU law). Distillers may also decide to release ‘Cask Strength’ rums which are higher in ABV. Sugar can be added to enhance certain flavours in rum however too much dominates the palate and results in an unbalanced rum. Many rums also add E150a caramel colouring to darken rums. This can be used in moderation to ensure that different batches of spirit appear homogenous for the consumer (as with Doorly’s pictured above), however sadly it is often used in cheaper, more mass-market products to fool customers into thinking unaged rums are aged. On the other end of the spectrum, some distillers choose to filter short-aged rum with activated charcoal to remove the colour. This is why terms such as ‘dark’ and ‘white’ rum are incredibly problematic and say next to nothing about the reality of the actual taste of the liquid. Labelling that states a rum is ‘dark’, ‘golden’ or ‘light’ is usually pure marketing-speak and is something that must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Labelling – Important and Deceptive 

Zacapa 23

Labelling is a major point of discussion at present in the rum industry. This might sound a bit dull but bear with us – it really matters. Along with misleading colour wording, numbers on rum labels can be very deceptive. Large numbers may appear on bottles, without “years” after them, as a marketing tool or brand name. These prominent digits (often in collusion with caramel colouring and sugar added to the liquid) trick consumers into thinking that the product has been aged for this long. An example of this is Flor de Caña. The brand sells a range of aged rums that carries a number seven, 12, 18 or 25 on the label. Next to this is written “slow aged”, which means legally nothing and is a marketing gimmick. Another way in which numbers are used to mislead can be found with solera system rums (e.g. Zacapa 23) where only a fraction of the rums in the blend match the age statement. In fairness to Zacapa, if you look beyond the front label, the brand does say it uses a blend of rums aged six to 23 years, but there’s no way of knowing the percentage of each and that big ’23’ will readily deceive most consumers.

Captain Morgan

And just to confuse things further, some ‘rums’ aren’t even legally rum! EU law states rums have to be 37.5% ABV upwards. Malibu is 21% ABV and is therefore a ‘spirit drink made with rum’, not a rum, whilst Captain Morgan is legally not allowed to be called a rum, instead referring to itself as a ‘spirit drink’. This means that the producer is able to get away with paying less on duty and makes more money from this ‘rum’ that isn’t even a rum.

As Dawn advises,

“Be very wary of what is on the label and do your research. There are so many products out there that, say, have an age statement on them but then it is the oldest rum in the blend not the youngest like in Scotch. Also many rums add flavours that they do not declare. The industry is getting better at traceability but ask the questions.”

Luca Gargano (Velier), Dawn Davies (The Whisky Exchange), Zan Kong (Worthy Park Estate) and Richard Seale (Foursquare Distillery)
Luca Gargano (Velier), Dawn Davies (The Whisky Exchange), Zan Kong (Worthy Park Estate) and Richard Seale (Foursquare Distillery)

There are a number of amazing industry folks who are campaigning tirelessly to increase traceability, transparency and education within rum. A few of the most notable musketeers of the cause are Luca Gargano of independent bottler, Velier, and Foursquare Distillery’s passionate and outspoken Richard Seale. Bailey Pryor (The Real McCoy) has also been campaigning to get serving facts and ingredients listed on labels like it legally has to be on food items. This is no easy task and it took him nine months of back-and-forth with the Trade & Tax Bureau (TTB) to get it to allow these facts to be listed on The Real McCoy Limited Edition 12-year-old Prohibition Tradition 100-Proof bottling. However, he was still not allowed to put “no sugar added” on the label – an incredibly important bit of information in the rum world where mountains of sweeteners are often added to lower quality products.

Rum Styles

The Rum Wheel

So, if the colour and labelling of rums can lie, how the heck are you meant to know what tastes like what?!?! Don’t despair! Whilst ‘dark’, ‘golden’ and ‘white’ are misleading, it is possible to figure out the general style of a rum by knowing where it comes from as historical and cultural influences (often linked with colonisation) determine production traditions and general flavour palates.

President and Head Distiller at Privateer Rum, Maggie Campbell, puts it well:

“I think many folks, especially in Continental North America, struggle to see rum and it’s different cultural expressions very easily. In truth it is no different than any other spirit. For example in whiskey the spirit takes in different traits if it is Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, or Canadian rye and so one. The same is simply true for rum and it is not any harder to understand or respect the cultural identity of each expression.”

Maggie Campbell, President and Head Distiller at Privateer Rum
Maggie Campbell, President and Head Distiller at Privateer Rum

Whilst purely country-based style confirmation is too simple for today’s rich variety of rum styles, with many countries departing from colonial tropes and experimenting with new techniques, cross-country blending and more, it’s somewhere to start with this wonderfully mad-hat category.

Below is a quick cheat-sheet to help you navigate a few destinations within the world of rum. This list is far from exhaustive and there are many other noteworthy countries producing rum, however, this is a great place to start your rum odyssey.

British Style Rum

General profile: rich, vivid, heavy, powerful
Trudiann Branker, Mount Gay, Barbados
Trudiann Branker, Master Blender at Mount Gay Distillery, Barbados
Countries: Jamaica, Barbados, British Guyana (Demerara), Trinidad and Tobago, Virgin Islands, Antigua, St Lucia, Mauritius

Jamaica

High-ester, pot still rums with dramatic banana/fruit flavours and intense, gamey, vegetal funk. It’s hard to describe ‘funk’ as a flavour but that’s what Jamaican rum is known for. If you like crazy, amped up flavour and can handle some high ABVs, Jamaica is your refuge.

Examples of great Jamaican rum: Rum-Bar Overproof, Smith & Cross, Hampden Estate Overproof, Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve, Monymusk 13-year-old (That Boutique-y Rum Company)

Barbados

Considered the birthplace of rum, Bajan rum is frequently described as well-balanced and expertly aged. They are often made using a blend of column and pot still rums and are elegantly refined, incredibly complex yet often very approachable. Notable distilleries include Foursquare and Mount Gay.

Examples of great Barbados rum: anything from Foursquare (read about its Exceptional Cask Selection here), Mount Gay XO Pot Still Rum – The Master Blender Collection, Doorly’s 14-year-old, The Real McCoy 10-year-old Limited Edition

Guyana (Demerara)

Rich, smoky but sweet with heavy molasses and intense flavours approaching that much-loved Jamaican funk.

Examples of great Guyanese rum: El Dorado 12-year-old, Port Murant 25-year-old 1990 Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish, Diamond (Versailles Still) 14-year-old (That Boutique-y Rum Company)

French Style Rhum

General profile: fruity, floral, terroir, elegant, aromatic, dry
Damoiseau distillery
Damoiseau Distillery, Martinique
Countries: Martinique (rhum agricole), Guadeloupe (rhum agricole), Haiti, French Guyana, Réunion, Mauritius

Martinique and Guadeloupe

Rums from these islands are labelled ‘rhum agricole’ and are made from sugar cane juice as opposed to molasses. These spirits are made using short continuous column stills and have pronounced vegetal, grassy and cane juice characteristics.

Examples of great rhums and rhum liqueurs from Martinique and Guadeloupe: Trois Rivières Blanc, Rhum J.M. XO, HSE Black Sheriff, Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Millesime 2001

Haiti

Haiti produces rum however, we want to talk about Clairin. This is produced by one-man-band farmers & distillers and drunk throughout the island. With over 500 artisan distilleries within the region, Clairin is truly the spirit of Haiti. It is a strong, colourless liquid made from chemical-free farming, spontaneous fermentation and indigenous, unhybridised sugar cane, and bears a striking resemblance to rhum agricole or cachaça. Luca Gargano has recently begun bottling Haitina Clairin for export (read all about it here).

Examples of great Clairin: Clairin Communal, Clairin Sajous, Clairin World Championship 2017 Blend (read all about it here)

Spanish Style Ron

General profile: light, smooth, round, sweet
Havana bar Cuba
Havana Club house-pour, Cuba
Countries: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico

Cuba

Smooth, light, easy-drinking and approachable with good fruit, notes of brown sugar and gentle spice. Cuban rums tend to be somewhat sweet with lovely notes of vanilla (even the ‘white’ rums in Cuba legally have to spend two years in cask before they can be called ‘rum’).

Examples of great Cuban rum: Havana Club 3-year-old, Havana Club 7-year-old, Black Tears Dry Spiced Rum.

Venezuela

Sweet, soft, smooth and versatile, Venezuelan rums are great for newbies to the category who don’t want anything too mind-bending. Brown sugar, caramel, cinnamon, vanilla and toffee allow for an easy and appealing sip either neat or in cocktails.

Examples of Venezualan rums: Ron Pampero Aniversario, Santa Teresa 1796, C.A.C.D. 2004 S.B.S.

Countries & R(h)ums to watch out for…

Mario Sandgren, Dawn Davies and Pete Holland
Rum fam: Mario Sandgren, Dawn Davies and Pete Holland

Mario Sandgren, UK Brand Development Manager at Indie Brands, voices his excitement about “the emergence of new interesting islands and countries making rum! Salvador, Belize, Reunion and especially Madeira and Fiji have been coming through into the mainstream with fantastic liquids recently.” Dawn agrees, stating that the category has been gaining such momentum and there is so much to discover.

“After doing Black Tot 24-Hour Rum Festival and having chats with so many fantastic distillers and bartenders I am even more excited to see what the category does. No longer is rum just associated with the Caribbean but it is produced in America, Thailand, Australia, even the UK is doing great work.”

Industry stalwart, Pete Holland (Rum Guy at That Boutique-y Rum Company, Brand Ambassador at Foursquare Distillery, and owner of FloatingRumShack) is on the other hand happy to see Jamaican rum reestablishing itself and is “more excited to see more sugar cane juice and agricole rhums coming onto the market.”

All-in-all, there’s a heck of a lot of exciting liquid out there. So…

What rum should I drink?

Rum back bar

We wish we could give you an easy answer to that but we think Mario puts it best:

“Your journey is your journey. All the people drinking high-ester Jamaican Pot Still Marques also started with Sailor Jerry and Diplomatico back in the day.”

There’s no shame in liking what you like but also don’t be scared to try something new. There are so many wonderful brands out there other than the big, corporate brands you’ll find in the supermarket. Do some research and see what suits you. You can find some suggestions in our Best Rums of 2020 article and our rum experts have come up with a few others for you below.

Mario:

English Harbour 5-years-old is an excellent starting product to come into the rum world with. Full bodied column rum with character, smooth and balanced ready to sip or mix.

Copalli White is perfect to start your agricole style rhum journey with, as its very approachable but retains the characteristic grass notes and earthy tones, the French and Portuguese styles are known for.

Rum-Bar Gold is a great rum to enter the Jamaican Rum game with – it’s approachable but retains some of the acetone, stewed fruit notes and ripe banana tones Jamaica is known for.

Rhum Saint James 15-year-old is an absolute gem. Mixable, and extremely sippable, complex, smooth, powerful, with a pronounced rancio. Absolutely exquisite craftsmanship from the Martinique producer.”

Dawn:

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva – if you are coming in from, say, spiced rum or are new to spirits. This is a rum from Venezuela and is made as a sweeter style so plenty of soft vanilla and treacle notes.  

“If you are already a fan of aged spirits and love whisky or Cognac, try anything from Foursquare Distillery and Richard Seale

“If you like mezcal, go for an unaged sugar cane juice based rum like a Clairin or a rhum agricole from Damoiseau.

“[Rum is] the only category in the world where I have a clear favourite – Clairin Sajous. This is a rum from Haiti and it is made in a very pure, honest style – no messing about it just is what it is. I never get tired of drinking it as it has so much character and sense of place. It is the rum that makes me smile the most.”

Pete:

“In terms of recommending a rum to a newcomer, I think it has could be something medium to well-aged and not high proof. Perhaps Doorly’s XO. I know I work with the brand, but even before I started working with them, I was recommending Doorly’s XO as a starting point. It’s complex, very drinkable and pretty affordable as well.”

Go drink and be merry! If you never try, you’ll never know.

A massive thank you to Dawn Davies, Gergő Muráth, Mario Sandgren, Pete Holland and Maggie Campbell for their contributions.