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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
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.
(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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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