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Everything you need to know about rum

What is rum?
Rum is the alcohol obtained from the distillation of fermented sugarcane by-products, such as juice, molasses and sugar. Most of the rum produced around the world is made from molasses, with only a minority being made from sugarcane juice, usually in the French West Indies.

Once selected, the sugarcane by-products are combined with water and yeast to allow for fermentation. During fermentation, sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide is released. The resulting “wash” is then ready to be distilled.
Rum types based on raw material used:
Sugarcane Juice: many French rums (rhums) are made from 100% sugarcane juice, which is then fermented, distilled and aged. These rums tend to contain a high level of floral/herbal aromas and clearly differentiated from molasses-based rums. In French-speaking rum-producing countries, rums made from sugarcane juice are known as "Rhum Agricole," to differentiate them from "Rhum Industriel," which is made from molasses.

Molasses: when sugar processing plants extract sugar from the sugarcane juice, they boil the juice until crystals start to form, leaving behind a thick liquid known as molasses. Depending on how long they boil the juice and how much sugar they take out, one is left behind with Grade A Molasses (highest quality - highest percentage of fermentable sugar left), Grade B Molasses (slightly lower quality than Grade A), Grade C Molasses, Grade D Molasses and, finally, Black Strap Molasses (lower quality). The better rums in the market are made using higher quality molasses because they container a higher percentage of fermentable sugars and a lower percentage of chemicals (used to extract sugar crystals) that can interfere with yeast during the fermentation of the molasses.

Other: a couple of distilleries (in Eastern Europe, possibly elsewhere) have distilled alcohol from fermented sugar beet extracts and have attempted to sell the resulting alcohol as Rum. Fortunately they have faced opposition from larger markets and have not been able to export the product as such. Sugar beets, a member of the Chenopodiaceae family, are a great source of sucrose and a viable alternative to sugarcane when the goal of cultivation is obtaining sugar as a final product (sugar from sugar beets accounts for about 30% of the world's production). As of the time of this writing, there are no countries in the world which have passed legislation allowing for alcohol made from fermented sugar beets to be labeled and sold as rum.
Rum is made exclusively from sugarcane or its byproducts, anyone telling you otherwise is lying to you.
Rum types based on fermentation method:
Natural Fermentation: Natural fermentation is similar to the process used in the beer industry to make Lambic-style beer. Distilleries rely on wild, naturally occurring yeast, present in the air and in the cane juice to convert the sugars (sucrose) in the mash into alcohol. Natural fermentation takes place in open containers to maximize the exposure of the mash to the air. This type of fermentation, depending on the size of the vat, can take from one to two weeks, and the results are not always 100% duplicable.
Controlled Fermentation (batch): In this method, a particular strain of yeast, which is usually guarded as one of the distillery’s most valuable assets, is introduced into the mash and allowed to perform its job. To reduce the risk of natural fermentation from occurring, the controlled yeast is first mixed with a small batch of the mash, in some cases just a couple of ounces. Next, the yeast is allowed to multiply and reach a predetermined concentration. This starter is mixed with a larger amount of liquid, around a gallon, from the mash. This process is repeated two or three times until a large amount of highly concentrated starter is achieved, which is then added into the large fermentation tanks. Controlled fermentation done in this way usually takes only two to three days and the results are very predictable and reproducible.

Controlled Fermentation (continuous): One of the latest trends in the world of fermentation is that of fermenting in a continuous process rather than in batches. As the name implies, this method consists of a main fermentation tank that continuously receives a stream of diluted molasses. While the influx of molasses keeps the yeast thriving in the medium, an equal amount of liquid is extracted from a different place in the fermentation tank, already “digested” and ready to be distilled. While the concept of continuous fermentation is relatively new to the rum industry, it is not so in other fields, such as the medical industry. An early continuous process was a vinegar generator in which acetobacter attached to wood shavings inside a container with one opening on top and another one at the bottom. Trickling a sugar solution down through the container packed with the wood shavings produced vinegar. The acetic acid discourages contamination at conditions where the acetobacter thrive.
Rum types based on distillation method:
Pot Still: These are the earliest distillation devices (also used in the production of Brandy and Scotch). A basic pot still consists of three parts: the kettle, where the liquid mixture is boiled, the condenser, which cools down the vapors coming from the kettle, and the gooseneck, which connects the kettle to the condenser. The liquid obtained from this type of distillation is also known as “single distillate,” since it is processed through the still only once. Typically this liquid is processed a second time, thus producing a “double distillate” which is cleaner and stronger than the single distillate. Several distilleries have taken this a step further by running the distillate a third, even a fourth time through the still, obtaining a cleaner, stronger, more rectified spirit at the end of each run. Because the amount of liquid that can be distilled at one time with a pot still is limited to the size of the kettle, distillers employing this method must perform their work batch by batch, which is a very labor intensive process (the kettle must be cleaned in between batches).

Column Still: The continuous distillation system was created in an attempt to make the distillation process more consistent. It also reduced the amount of work required to process each batch, thus allowing for higher volumes of alcohol to be produced. A distillation column is constructed much like a vertical maze, made up of a number of horizontal trays placed at different levels throughout the column. Here the fermented liquid mixture is introduced into the column at its highest level while steam is introduced at its lowest level. As the liquid makes its way down the column, it is heated by the surrounding steam, and the alcohol in the mix is vaporized. Once it reaches the bottom of the column, the “wash” contains no alcohol and is removed through a release valve. The saturated steam is collected from the top of the column and is then cooled down, allowing it to condense. Depending on the type of alcohol desired, column still operators will employ several columns, each one feeding the next, each one producing a cleaner, stronger, more "rectified" spirit.
Rum types based on age:
Unaged: Technically, unaged rum is not rum, but rather aguardiente, which is ethyl alcohol with or without a lot of congeners, depending on the distillation method. There have been claims by some companies that their products are "bottle-aged" or "aged in stainless steel containers." Both of these mean the alcohol is unaged, as only time spent inside a wooden barrel constitutes as aging.
Rum does not age in stainless steel containers or glass bottles, contrary to claims made by some creative marketers and misinformed writers.

Aged: The age of a rum refers exclusively to the amount of time the rum spent inside a wooden (typically oak) barrel prior to bottling. In the USA, if a rum label displays an age statement, by law this age has to be that of the youngest rum in the blend (if the rum is blended). In Europe, the same rum's label can instead display the age of the oldest rum in the blend (if the rum is blended). Some countries allow barrels in their aging warehouses to be refilled, which reduces the amount of airspace and thus reduces the amount of rum lost to evaporation. Other countries do not allow refilling, resulting in higher evaporation losses each year. Age alone is not an indicator of quality, as climate (natural and artificial) dictate how the rum interacts with the barrel while in the aging warehouses. Knowing where a rum comes from, the laws of that country, and the age statement (if one is provided) on the label, are all pieces of the puzzle needed to fully understand a rum's character.
Rum types based on blending technique:
Single Barrel: In its purest form, a Single Barrel Rum is one where each bottle of finished product is clearly identified with the barrel that it was filled from. Depending on the laws of the country, some barrels may be close to full (if the laws allow for refilling the barrels) or may be at 70-80% capacity. A typical 200 liter barrel will yield at most 22 cases of 12 750ml bottles each. Because barrels tend to vary a lot between them (due to tannins, resins, etc.), each lot will have characteristics that make it unique and different from other lots. Some companies empty hundreds of barrels of rum into a large mixing wooden vat, where the rum rests for weeks or months before being bottled, calling the resulting product a "single barrel", referring to the mixing vat, rather than to the individual barrels.
One good example of a Single Barrel rum is Cruzan's Single Barrel.

Solera: The Solera method is sometimes employed in the blending of rums. Originally developed by the Spanish and often used in the production of Sherries, it consists of a series of barrels placed in long rows, stacked four, five or more levels high, each row containing a different “vintage.”
Rum ready to be bottled is drawn from the bottom level of barrels. Only about one third of the rum in each barrel is removed. At this point, rum from the barrels above is used to refill the bottom barrels and so forth until all the levels are full again. Each year, as the new rum is added to the top barrel, some rum is moved down to the next level for aging. As a result, the young rum picks up some of the characteristics of the older rum and provides consistent quality year after year.
A good example of a Solera rum is Ron Botrán Solera from Guatemala.

Other: By definition, blending is the art (more than science) of mixing different rums of different types and ages together, and when desired, adding flavoring or coloring agents. Most rums produced in the world are blended after maturation to achieve the particular characteristics desired. Blending usually takes place in very large containers where individual barrels are emptied and mixed together to ensure product consistency. Some distilleries will blend pot still rum and column still rum together to come up with the various products they sell. Other companies will mix column still rums of different ages and styles (some lighter, some heavier) in order to achieve unique flavor profiles.
Rum types based on style:
American (Colonial): This style of rum is reminiscent of the original product distilled in the early years by enterprising Colonials with brandy-making experience. The rum was pot-stilled, had a high level of congeners and was aged (more than likely very briefly), in oak containers only long enough to transport it to markets and to keep it while being sold to eager consumers.
A good representative of this style is Prichard's Fine Rum (Prichard's Distillery), distilled in Tennessee.

Cuban and Puerto Rican: The Puerto Rican rum style is derived from the Cuban style, in which the goal is to distill the lightest, cleanest, most rectified alcohol possible, and then to add flavor to it only through careful aging and blending. For this reason, Cuban and Puerto Rican rums are considered to be "light" rums.
A great example of Puerto Rican style is Don Q Grand Añejo from Serrallés.

French: Not all rums (rhums) made in French-speaking countries are considered to be French in style. Only those distilled in pot stills from fermented sugarcane juice (as opposed to distilled from molasses) are considered French in style. French rums are characterized by a large amount of congeners that result in increased aldehydes (fruity and floral notes).
Good representatives of this style are made in Martinique (for example Depaz, pictured), in the French West Indies.

Jamaican/Guyanese: Epitomized by dark, heavy and potent products, rums from these two countries have established defined this category and, subsequently, have fought against the ensuing stereotype. While not all rums produced today in these two countries are true to the original style, a few of them continue to perpetuate it, perhaps no one more than Myer's Jamaican Rum.
A great example of a modern Jamaican- style rum is Appleton's V/X.

Naval (British Royal Navy): Rum was distributed to British sailors daily as a ration meant to keep morale high, a much needed incentive since the work was arduous and financially not very rewarding. Naval rum was rarely purchased from a single country/distillery, instead the Admiralty had a "recipe" which typically included combining rums from Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana (read "Rum Yesterday and Today" by High Barty-King and Anton Massel for more information). While Pusser's is the most commonly name representative of this genre, British Royal Navy Imperial Rum is the most authentic.

Spanish: When Spanish settlers arrived to the New World, they brought their brandy-making skills (and equipment) with them. It did not take a very long time for them to start using locally abundant fruits and sugarcane to produce alcohol. Spanish-style rums are characterized by their highly-fruity, brandy-like bouquet, with dominant raisin/currant/berry elements. While these can be produced using column stills, most rums in this category are produced by distilleries that employ pot stills.
A great example of this style is Ron Zacapa Centenario from Guatemala.

Other: Different countries around the world are using forms of sugar that are readily available in their markets but which are not typical outside their countries. One such example is Mexico, where some distilleries have begun fermenting and distilling piloncillo, which is a very unrefined and moist form of brown sugar. Rums distilled from piloncillo have very peculiar organoleptic properties that distinguish them from other rums. Future practice will dictate if this is the beginning of a "Mexican Style" of rum or not.
Rum types based on added flavors:
Fruit Flavored: For the most part, fruit-flavored rums sold throughout the world are nothing more than un-aged alcohol (ethanol) with flavoring, coloring (sometimes) and sweetener added. Such products should not be sold as rum, since they are made with un-aged alcohol.
A great example of a fruit-flavored rum that is made using aged rum is Santa Teresa's Rhum Orange, from Venezuela.

Spiced: Like fruit-flavored rums, most spiced rums sold are made with unaged rum (ethanol). The most typical spices used to flavor these products are: vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, clover and sugar.
An excellent example of a spiced rum is Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum.

Other: there are rum-based beverages or infusions available throughout the Caribbean which fall exclusively in neither of the previous two categories.
One example is the "Mama Juana" ("Dama Juana") from the Dominican Republic, which is made using a long recipe of botanicals, roots, honey, anise, even dried up animal parts. It is, of course, considered an aphrodisiac.
Rum types based on alcohol content:
Regular/Standard: Any rum that is bottled and sold with an alcohol strength between 35% and 45%.

Strong and Over-proof: Strong rums have alcohol strengths over 45%, typically around 55% but lower than 75%. Over-proof rums have alcohol strengths of 75% or higher. Exercise caution when tasting these rums, either dilute them (up to 50%) with water or drastically adjust the amount sampled. Ice does not float on over-proof rums (due to its specific weight).

Rum Liqueur: laws vary from country to country regarding what constitutes a liqueur but everyone agrees that the alcohol strength is lower than that of straight rum, and that the sugar content is quite elevated. The combination of low alcohol and high sugar result in a smooth-tasting product which people with a low tolerance for alcohol tend to favor.
Rum types based on color:
White: Also known as Clear, Crystal, Blanco, Plata. This is the most popular color (by volume) in the world, since it is the cheapest to produce.
Most white rums are un-aged, although there are notable exceptions, including Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4 Year Old from Nicaragua, which is carbon filtered after aging for 4 years to remove the color.

Gold: Also known as Oro. This color denotes aging, as the color is derived from tannins in the barrel staves. Unfortunately the color can also be easily obtained by adding caramel or molasses to white rum. When assessing the age of a rum based on its Golden/amber color, look for the signs of true aging (oakiness, in the aroma and the taste, for example) and watch out for the signs of caramel.

Dark/Black: Like the Gold rums above, the dark color can be obtained naturally (legitimately) through careful aging, but is most often the result of additives incorporated into the recipe to obtain a dramatic effect.

Other: If there is a food-grade coloring agent available, it is a matter of time before someone decides to add it to rum. One example of how this can be done correctly and profitably is Red Rum.
Rum types based on marketing hype:
Creative marketers have used the following categories to identify their rums and separate them from the competitors'. By themselves, these classifications have nothing to do with the rum's age, fermentation, distillation, blending or style. Good and bad quality rums have been claimed to fall in these categories without any quantitative justification, other than price:
Premium, Super Premium, Ultra Premium, Reserve, Special Reserve, Family Reserve.


"Rum has many faces, moods and comes from a myriad different backgrounds. Some rums are excellent for cooking with, others are excellent for sipping, others are multi-purpose. No one should claim to know rum until or unless they've tried it in all its presentations and styles. Vodka lovers will rejoice with some Cuban style white rums while brandy lovers will feel right at home with some Spanish style rums. Whatever your mood may be, there is at least one rum waiting to satisfy your cravings to the fullest." Luis Ayala, Author and Rum Consultant - Rum Runner Press, Inc.
The Rum Experience by Luis Ayala. Rum Runner Press, Inc. ISBN 0-9705938-1-3
The Encyclopedia of Rum Drinks by Luis and Margaret Ayala, Rum Runner Press, Inc. ISBN 0-9705938-2-1
American Rum by Luis and Margaret Ayala, Rum Runner Press, Inc. ISBN 0-9705938-7-2