Lesson Four: White Spirits

Chapter Three: Rum

Rum With A View

Rum is not one thing; it’s far more than two things. Indeed, it’s the Sybil of spirits, with enough personalities to keep a psychiatrist college flush with symposia for two semesters. Rum to some might be just a simple highball with Coca-Cola. Or it may represent a frou-frou drink with a paper umbrella and a plastic monkey. Maybe it’s a complex, aged sipping spirit; maybe it’s just pirate juice. You may prefer its Brazilian cousin, Cachaça, fermented and distilled only from the juice of the cane plant, instead of molasses as most rums utilize.

And the personalities multiply: each of these above iterations can be separated into distinct (or sometimes blurry) styles. Amongst cachacas, there are myriad styles that may reflect differing philosophies of distillation (column vs pot) or the use of wood (oak is often less important than native woods such as cedar, freijó, imburana and jequitibá rosa). Aged rums might be divided into colonial buckets: the Spanish style, the English style, the French style, befitting past or present empires and their impact upon sugar and rum production, still mirrored in the glass.

Look, it’s nobody’s fault in particular; rum has been around for as long as humans have distilled (see Distillation, Chapter One). It should surprise no one that sugar cane provided the base for early spirit: unlike with grain, fermentable sugars are readily available; just squeeze the stalk. Put it in a bowl and wild yeast will convert it to a rudimentary if rather smelly, cloudy beer. Now boil it and capture the vapors; but then you already know this part of the story.

Measuring Down To Expectations

As ancient as rum may be, it shouldn’t shock anyone that it can be remarkably rustic: is it that after all these millennia, we’re used to rustic rum? Is the benchmark so low? Or is it that rum’s closeness to its raw product (see Lesson Three Distillation, Chapter One), means that the distillers have fewer opportunities to clean things up, that the raw ingredients are more present flavor-wise? We should call it a bit of both. Sugar is easy to suck out of sugar cane (you’ll see Caribbean children do it on their walk home from school); cane sugar is quick to ferment, but also quick to spoil. If you’ve experienced a rubbery smell or taste to some rums, you’re getting a little taste treat from the spoilage. Don’t worry; it won’t hurt you. That’s the beauty of alcohol: it kills bad bugs, even as it captures and retains aromas, fair and foul.

So our story of rum is going to have to account for a laboratory’s worth of flavors, an encyclopedic grasp of history and a cartographer’s compendium of changing national boundaries.

Long Trip to the Caribbean

Though our distillation story started in India, we ought to at least explain that the sugar cane plant originates (as far as we can tell) in present day Indonesia or somewhere that direction. The plant is a hugely useful source of ready energy (just keep chewing on those stalks, people) and is relatively hardy in warm and humid environments.  It followed mankind throughout southern Asia; around 326 BC, Alexander the Great spoke of the “grass that gives honey without the aid of bees”, and as you have read in the Distillation chapter, there is some evidence to support other stories: that Alexander and company got roaringly high on a distilled product based upon this “grass”.

While we associate the sugar cane plant (and rum by extension) with the Caribbean, it’s a late arrival: Columbus on his second voyage brings the plant to present day Haiti where it finds fertile soil, figuratively and literally. How the plant’s use turns to rum production is as murky as the word rum itself. Lots of etymological theories abound: that “rumbullion” was a word for a boisterous group. Yes, but the word doesn’t seem to precede the drink; it may be that the drink rum was the origin of the word rumbullion, not the other way round. Another theory: that the plant’s Latin name saccharum officinarum offered a rhyming couplet of suffixes. But again, this is speculative at best. What we know is that distillation of cane was being practiced in various places in European centers of learning, for purposes of medicine and alchemy.

Perhaps surprisingly, rum production wasn’t really much of an industry; it’s hard to imagine nobody being interested in a quick trip to legless land, especially in those hard times, but maybe beer and wine were enough. Another mystery to ponder over a boozy cocktail…

Rum and the Lash

The first scaled production happens on the island of Barbados; not coincidentally, the island was the site of massive sugar cane plantations and sugar production. In the early 1600s, there were only a few thousand people on the island, but by the 1680’s, there were nearly 80,000 souls, most of whom would perish under the slaveowner’s lash within a few years. Indeed, for a time the sugar producers found it easier to dump great boatloads of molasses into the seas than to distill the gooey mess. But for a time only; distilling it (after mixing the molasses with water and letting it wild ferment) was easier than may be expected. Small distillers opened shop; a new export product found a ready market throughout the Caribbean, and then to the rest of the Americas and back to England. George Washington was one such: amongst the many drinks available at the inaugural party in New York in 1790 was a barrel of Barbados rum ordered by the first President alongside his usual tots of Madeira, Sherry, Port and other sundry wines and beers.

Needless to say, the mode of beverage transportation in those days was the barrel; it’s round, easy to move and fairly secure. As Bajan rum (that’s the cool way to say it’s from Barbados) rose in reputation, orders coming from faraway enjoyed a somewhat different drink than those that came near: the rum was aging in barrels during its ocean voyages. And time in barrels can be a splendid thing: softening the spirit within and adding characteristic notes of spices and confection, especially if the barrel had previously been used for some other interesting thing such as wine, Port, Sherry or Madeira.

Rum Flavor, Country By Country

To this day, Barbados rum is expected to be rich and spicy, as defined by barrel character as anything else. Jamaican rum is often expected to be very dark, with powerful, molasses notes only a few runs of the still removed. Many would argue that classic Jamaican rum has a peculiar aroma to it, of tar, of chocolate and maybe a bit of rubber too (don’t hate; we’re just saying). Here’s the connection: Jamaica become a dominant sugar producer in the mid 19th century, so that’s when they set their standards for rum production. About the same time, producers were adopting an Industrial Age innovation to speed fermentation; by holding back some of the fermenting molasses in a mock pit (think hole in the ground with a few resident snakes, bugs and rats), the next batch of molasses could be kicked into high fermentation gear, adding about one quarter to one fifth fermenting molasses to the unfermented molasses. This addition is called dunder, and if you think someone stupid is a dunderhead, you get the meaning of the term. Anybody drinking too much of that evil brew would be rendered stupid at best.

You Keep the Noise, We’ll Bring the Funk

But this kind of funk going into the molasses ends up coming out the condensing end too. Funk: rubber, whatever you want to call it. Not surprisingly, buyers wanted a bit of extra barrel time for such a remarkable stew, and darker color was the result.

But let’s be clear about these styles: there is nothing (or at least little) intrinsic about these islands that ensures that their rums abide by these stylistic norms. These characteristics are determined by production methods, based upon historical conditions, and that’s as far as it goes. Jamaica doesn’t have to make rum that is rich and dark and sometimes a bit over the top; it just so happens they do because it is a tradition there. But the number one selling rum on Jamaica is a white rum, Wray & Nephew, bottled at 124 proof. So what style should Jamaican rum be? Whatever style they want.

Or Maybe We Should Forget the Funk

Puerto Rican rum is more likely to be one or two particular styles (white or aged) because this really large company currently based in Puerto Rico preferred that style to be enshrined into law: it has to be distilled to a fairly high proof, removing a lot of the funk, made only from molasses (probably removing another source of funk – pure cane juice) and it has to be filtered – yeah, you get it, less funk again. This style was first made famous when said company (and their neighbors) in Cuba were able to make use of two other 19th production innovations: column stills and charcoal filtration (perhaps adopted from vodka producers). Those column stills, as you read in Lesson Three -Distillation, if skillfully used, have the ability to clean up and indeed neutralize a spirit. Some of us traditionalists think that some of these rums are just TOO clean but that, like everything to do with flavor, is a matter of personal taste.

Free Your Mind and Your Molasses Will Follow

One more stylistic (and historical) note: the French Caribbean Islands (and some of those, like Haiti, that used to belong to France) tend to use cane juice instead of molasses. Of course, that might result in some bad flavors and aromas, but it might also result in some good flavors and aromas too. At a minimum, cane juice tends to give a more herbaceous or even sometimes vegetal note to cane spirit, certainly compared to molasses. The French Islands are following in this tradition because, since the early 19th century when France embarked upon a national program of sugar beet production, the islands weren’t able to build a strong export market for their sugar cane sugar. Hence, they might as well make rum straight from the sugar cane and that’s precisely what they did and still do, at least to a great degree. If you see the term rhum agricole, you will know two things: that it’s from a French Island (those silly Frenchmen spell it rhum, not rum, because, well, they’re French. Always add more letters to your words.); and that it’s made solely from sugar cane juice. If you see the term rhum industriel, that means it’s from a French Island and has likely been made from molasses and, yes, it’s cheaper.

Sugar cane juice tends to be the preferred distillate material in Brazil as well where perhaps as many as 5000 legal Cachaça brands (and even more illicit Cachaça, we suspect) are widely consumed. There’s a lot of sugar cane in Brazil, so much so that Brazilian molasses is a common ingredient in rums from other parts of the world. Indeed, there is a thriving ethanol business (you don’t think a bunch of American corn producers thought that one up on their own, did you?) and lots of little Willlys, Bugways and Cobracars putt around the country on molasses fuel.

But there’s no end of rum products around the world: Hawaii (Goslings), the Phillippines (Tanduay), India (McDowell’s No 1) or Australia (Green Spot, try it! Bundaberg, hmm…maybe not),

Since we’ve brought the word funk into the house, let’s get funky with it. First off, funky seems to be based upon a Yoruba word, fu’kee, which means…let’s see…how can we say this the right way…something sexual! So the smell of funk is…hmm…funky! A lot of us rum enthusiasts think that any sugar cane spirit ought to have just a bit of funk to it although there is a different word that was traditional in the English and French Caribbean: hogo. Hogo comes from the French term “high flavor” and its first use was applied to aged meats, as in, aging a ham, let’s say, a long time results in a funky smell called haut gout. A little sweaty, a little freaky, a little hogo. Or you can call it funky.

Please click on the Learn About Rum Cocktails Button to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee use Rum in a variety of Drinks.

Hemingway Daiquiri

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Hemingway Daiquiri.

Hemingway Daiquiri
In mixing glass add;
2 oz light rum
1/2 oz Maraschino liqueur
1/2oz Grapefruit Juice
1/2oz Lime Juice
Add ice and shake
Strain into chilled coupe glass
Garnish with lime wheel


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Caipirinha.

Cut half of lime into quarters put into mixing glass
Add 2 spoon fulls of granulated sugar
Muddle well
2 oz of Cachaca
Add ice and shake
Pour all contents into rocks glass

Dark N’ Stormy

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Dark n’ Stormy.

Dark N’ Stormy
In collins glass over ice add;
2 oz Goslings Black Seal rum
Fill with Ginger Beer
Squeeze lime wedge over top

Ready for Review?

Now you can click on the “Lesson Five – Brown Spirits” button below to continue your lessons on how alcohol beverages are made.