When one thinks of rum, there are many things that come to mind, right? Tiki cocktails? Island settings? Perfect tropical weather? Sugarcane? The Captain? However, rum has a very dark side to its history that, through colonization and the sugarcane industry, brought slavery into the Western World. Also, piracy and its legacy went together hand-in-hand with the rum industry for centuries. However, there is no disputing the relevance of rum and its impact in many different countries and global commerce over the last 300-400 years.

So, what exactly is rum? Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation, and, typically finished in oak barrels for the maturation process. Cachaca, the national spirit of Brazil, is made from 100% fermented sugarcane juice, unlike most other rums made throughout the world, which use molasses, contributing an altogether different profile. Because the Portuguese were amongst the first countries to introduce sugarcane to South America, Cachaca is arguably the oldest spirit in the Western World. 

After the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, there was a major competition in full force for these unclaimed territories. Countries such as Portugal, Spain, England, France and the Netherlands competed to expand their global empires. Their influence, even up until today, is still very apparent in these Western countries. In the early colonial days of America up through the months leading up to the Revolutionary War, rum was the most commonly produced and consumed spirit, in large part due to how important its use was in the British navy. The British, always looking for more things to tax on, continuously raised tariffs on distilled beverages (particularly rum), making it more difficult to afford and causing more tension between the colonists and the British. Leading up to the Revolutionary War, the British navy blocked trade routes to the Caribbean making it difficult to import molasses. Eventually, this was the catalyst that helped segue American whisky into the limelight.

Over the last two centuries, rum made a couple of comebacks onto the American scene. One was immediately following the repeal of Prohibition sparking the tiki cocktail craze, and the second began within the last two decades. But, this time around, a new category—luxury rum—crept its way into the drinking scene as did a growing number of new companies sourcing and bottling these amazing gems. Add to this, many craft distilleries producing rum, as well as many new brands throughout the world. Lastly, factor in the value of rum, and this has me believing rum is going to be an even bigger player in the spirits industry.

Where am I going with this? Historically, rum has always been perceived as an inexpensively produced spirit, most commonly used for mixing in cocktails. But now, higher-end and complexed rums are used for sipping enjoyment or for pairing with food or cigars like we do with fine aged brandy or whisky, which is completely unchartered territory. 

Depending on whether a rum was pot distilled versus column distilled, cane juice versus molasses and its origin, where the rum was produced, its age, its aging environment, the types of casks used for maturation and the art of blending can create something so magical and memorable! On the flip side, yes, there are still very poorly produced rums, reminiscent of poorly produced moonshine, distilleries with very laxed practices and countries with less than stringent laws that regulate production. Then, we have producers that add sugar to their rum causing debate to whether it’s ethical.

Cane Juice vs. Molasses 

So, even up until today we deal with the same issue throughout the rum industry that the American whiskey industry has been heavily scrutinized for over the last decade. And, that is, lack of transparency, meaning brands that have not been very forthcoming to where they have sourced their product (if sourced), and at times how it has been produced. Another issue is age statements, which consumers are often obsessed and mesmerized by. This can be very misleading. Many consumers that don’t know any better are convinced that if a product is older, it automatically equates to being “better,” which is far from the truth. As I always state, “older isn’t better…better is better!” Of course, proper maturation is essential for an aged spirit. Too young, and a spirit will lack depth and well-roundedness, and the raw spirit’s characteristics will be very apparent. Too much age, and it will be bitter, astringent and a complete oak bomb that has lost a lot of its original character. In the whisky industry, it is a very common practice throughout the world that if a producer uses an age statement on its label, it is representative of the youngest whisky in that bottle. Unfortunately, in the rum industry, it’s quite the opposite. If a rum brand decides to put an age statement on its label, it simply means that only a small trace amount must be present. Think about it: Most rums are aged in warm and humid environments, which causes an accelerated rate of evaporation. So, if a rum loses upwards of 6%-10% or more per year due to “angel’s share,” how long will it take before the barrel becomes empty? In the case of single cask rums, where there is no blending of other rums involved, there can and will typically be a vintage date on the label indicating when the spirit was distilled and barreled and usually a second date indicating when it was bottled. So, it’s not too difficult to figure out the age of the rum if it’s not clearly stated on the label. Lastly, price points are a good indicator to how scarce or rare a rum could be. But, buyer beware! A rum producer, just like any tequila, Cognac or whisky producer, can very easily house their spirits into a fancy package that can very easily double the price. 

In next month’s issue, I have hand-picked several rums I think are not only exceptionally well-made, but are also exceptionally well-priced. In the meantime, have yourself a Hemingway (daiquiri) or two and kick back! The Vegas heat will be back in no time…

~ Cheers!