Yo Ho Ho…
The Mixologist takes a fresh look at rum.
AMERICAN WHISKIES continue to be all the rage, and although I love a fine bourbon or rye whiskey myself, many other spirits out there also deserve some attention. Like, for instance, rum. Too many tipplers think of rum as being a super light, almost vodka-esque spirit, good for bumping up their cola but little else. However, this age-old liquor is extremely versatile, and one of the most wide-ranging spirit styles in terms of flavor.
One of the first distilled spirits (some say the first), rum, or at least a crude sugarcane-based predecessor, might have initially appeared a thousand years ago in Pakistan. Or, as author and rum historian Wayne Curtis says, “maybe not”: The history and exact origin of the spirit is definitely—pardon the pun—fluid. The first sugarcane distillate was reportedly produced in Barbados in the early 1650s, though many experts say it was undoubtedly present in the Caribbean well before then. Distilling rum was a way for sugar producers to use the waste product of their business, namely molasses, that would otherwise have been dumped in the sea. They couldn’t even give the viscous, sticky stuff away until some erstwhile genius discovered this sugary sludge easily fermented, and distilled the result.
Although we now think of whiskey as the quintessential American spirit, rum actually landed on these shores long before anyone whipped up a batch of corn mash. The early colonists drank rums from the islands or made their own from imported molasses from the get-go. They employed the spirit as a remedy for a variety of ills and even used it as a form of currency. Of course, the British had been big fans of rum for years prior to this: The British Navy provided its sailors rum rations from 1665 until 1970 (for more on the English rum tradition, check out the sidebar).
The vast majority of rums are still made from molasses, but though they have similar origins, the resulting spirits run the gamut of textures and tastes. Rums made in the Spanish tradition, such as those from Puerto Rico, tend to be distilled in column stills and are sometimes filtered with charcoal, akin to the famed Lincoln County process used by Tennessee whiskey-makers. These rums are often on the lighter side but can be complex, sweet and spicy, perfect candidates for what is arguably the most well-known rum-based cocktail, the daiquiri.
There is also a small number of rums that aren’t created from molasses at all but instead use sugarcane juice as their base. These are usually lumped under the aegis of the French tradition, and hail from islands that were once under the French flag, like Martinique. These rums—referred to as rhum agricoles—are often distilled in cognac stills and have the same funk found in the rums of the English tradition, though not quite as heavy. Brazil also has a rum made from sugarcane juice, known as cachaça, that is similar to rhum agricole. You might have encountered it as the main ingredient in the caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil.
In my opinion, there are few spirits, outside of maybe gin, that have such a wide range of flavors as rum does. The next time you’re at your friendly neighborhood liquor store, do yourself a solid, peruse the rum aisle and pick up a bottle and experiment a bit with it. Happy summer sipping.