Rum is a spirit that’s distilled either from fermented molasses (a viscous by-product of the sugar industry) or freshly pressed sugar cane juice. Because of its base material, molasses-based rums generally have a sweet note and flavors of molasses, banana and tropical fruit (their complexity is ramped up by aging them in barrels), while those made with sugar cane juice (like rhum agricole and Cachaça) have pronounced grassy and vegetal notes. Rum is made in sugar cane producing countries, especially those in the Caribbean. Very aged versions are generally sipped neat, while unaged and lesser aged spirits are mixed in classic, Tiki and modern cocktails.
While rum has its roots in the Caribbean, there is evidence that dates back thousands of years of fermented drinks made from sugarcane in India and China, and the sugar cane plant originates in the Far East. However, rum as we know it was first distilled in the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, and existed because sugar cane cuttings were brought there from Europe. There are records of “kill-devil”, as rum was called as early versions were quite fiery and crude, being produced on Barbados around 1647. In the mid-nineteenth century the first commercial rum distillery was created on Puerto Rico.
Rum production quickly spread to Colonial North America, with the first distillery established in 1664 on present-day Staten Island and another in Boston three years later. Before the American Revolution, rum was New England’s most prosperous industry. The need for sugar cane and molasses became a major factor in the slave trade and led to increased taxation from the British via the Sugar Act (which helped lead to the American Revolution.) Eventually, restrictions on sugar imports from the Caribbean and the rise of American whiskey led to a decline in production in North America.
Traditional rum is made with molasses, a thick, dark, syrupy by-product of the sugar industry. It is mixed with water in equal parts, fermented and then distilled; high-quality rums that are usually meant to be aged are typically produced in a pot still, while white, unaged rums are made in a column still. After distillation, rums may either be immediately bottled, rested briefly or aged in oak for a number of years. Aging adds color, mellows the spirit and lends caramel and vanilla notes; maturing rum in a hot and humid climate (like the Caribbean) exacerbates and speeds up the aging process. After maturation, aged rum is usually blended to provide consistency from bottle to bottle.
Instead of using molasses, rhum agricole is made in the French West Indies including Guadeloupe and Martinique by fermenting and then distilling the freshly pressed juice of the sugar cane, which must be processed quickly as it easily oxidizes and spoils. In Brazil, this style of rum is called Cachaça and is the country’s national drink, used in the ubiquitous Caipirinha. Rhum agricole and Cachaça have vegetal and grassy notes rather than the sweet, molasses tones from traditional rum.