What is rum?
Rum! Is there a spirit that means more different things to more people around the world? To some, the word rum means a sweet cinnamon and spice flavoured spirit. To other’s it means a light dry and grassy spirit, while in others it inspires thoughts of rich molasses, vanilla and leather.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the flavoured styles of rum here. We’re not hating on them, like any category, there are good ones and not so good ones. However, within the traditional styles of rum there’s already so much diversity, so we’re just going to focus on the more traditional styles of rum here.
We’re going to focus on the differences in styles, flavours and production that create this magically diverse spirit. Which cocktails might best suit these different styles and a few of our favourite rum producers we think you should try.
For all the joy that rums bring us today, it’s important to acknowledge it’s dark origins, with its links to European colonialisation and the slave trade. Sugar was once called White Gold due to its rarity and expense. This led to the Caribbean, with its perfect growing conditions, to be planted up with sugarcane, a plant that’s in fact native to Papua New Guinea.
Columbus first brought sugarcane to the Caribbean in 1493 where it was planted in the Dominican Republic. By the early 1500s the first fields were being harvested and from here there was no looking back as production and investment by European countries would ramp up and spread to every region capable of growing.
Processing sugarcane was backbreaking work, so as production increased and new plantations opened, more and more slaves were brought in from Africa to work them. They were often even bought with sugar itself, which would then be sold back in Europe at great profit, fueling this miserable and deadly trade triangle.
Let’s establish some of the broad basics of what a rum is.
Firstly, rums are made from sugarcane, and although most famously from around the Caribbean sea, they can be produced anywhere in the tropical belt either side of the equator where sugarcane grows.
Agricole style rums are distilled straight from fermented pressed sugar cane ‘juice’, which delivers a ‘funky’ and vegetal style of rum. They are not uncommon, but as a category, Agricole is a fairly small group when compared to other rum styles and they originate from the ‘French’ Caribbean. They can be quickly identified by their spelling of rum, as Rhum, or Rhum Agricole. If you want to try a light and very approachable expression, try Copalli for a great introduction to the category.
All other rums are made by fermenting, then distilling molasses, the byproduct of refining sugarcane juice into sugar. In sugar production, sugarcane juice is heated, crystallized and washed. It’s this washing that removes the molasses to produce white sugar crystals. The browner the sugar, the more molasses that’s left on the sugar crystals, giving you the difference between, white sugar, light brown and dark brown sugars.
Molasses is a dark brown, bittersweet syrup and it’s the base ingredient for rum production. Firstly the molasses must be fermented with yeast that turns the sugars into alcohol before the mixture is distilled into a spirit. Where the sugar is grown, and the strains of yeast that are used for fermentation will both have a profound impact on the final product, as will the style of distillation that’s used.
In basic terms, there are two options for distillation, the ‘column’ still or the ‘pot’ still. Both of which can create rums of exceptional quality, but with very different characteristics. Cuban style rums use the column still which enables the spirit to be distilled to a very high alcohol strength. Distilling to high strength typically creates rums that are lighter and drier in style. Although developed in Cuba, this style of rum is produced far beyond the island of Cuba itself, predominantly in the old Spanish regions of the Caribbean.
Other production areas, especially old British regions, use ‘pot’ stills. The pot still is an older and less efficient piece of technology, which means the spirit is not distilled to such a high strength. This leaves more character behind in the spirit creating a heavier style of rum. Again, it’s important to understand that one technique is not better than another, they just produce very different, but equally delicious styles of rum.
There are also hybrid rums that have decided to use the best of both worlds and are made by distilling using both pot and column distillation methods. While understanding these processes is not only interesting, but can really help you get your head around what you’re tasting. As with any general rule, there are exceptions that will trip you up. So don’t make too many assumptions.
After distillation rums can be rested in stainless tanks before having water added and being bottled as an unaged rum called a white, silver or blanco rum. They can also be aged in barrels to add flavour and colour. Not only will this process smooth and round the character of the rum, it will also add flavours and body too. What flavours are added will depend on the barrels being used, what they are made from and what they were filled with before.
The combination of where the rum is from, the yeast used to ferment it, the type of still used to distill it and the barrels to age or not age it, creates an almost infinite number of possibilities.
What's in a definition?!
It’s complicated! With so many different countries and island nations producing rum comes numerous rules and definitions.
When it comes to an aged spirit, unless it’s a single barrel bottling, the contents of different barrels from different years will be blended together to maintain the consistency of the product before bottling. Batch after batch, year after year.
Therefore, if you see a rum on the shelf with an age statement of 8 years, what does that mean? Well, here’s where it gets complicated with all the different countries producing rums. That 8 year old statement can mean a number of different things depending on where it’s produced and what rules the producer is restricted by. It could mean that the oldest rum blended into the bottle is 8 years old. It could also mean that the youngest rum in the bottle is 8 years old, or it could be that the largest part of the blend in that bottle is 8 years old.
So, how do you know what rules are applied to the bottle you’re looking at? The only way to find out is to read where the rum is produced and therefore what rules the brand has to adhere to.
Interestingly, some rum brands don’t even make rum. Before you judge too harshly, some of these producers create some very tasty rums! Instead of making rum, these producers buy rums from different producers and blend them together, possibly age the blend further in different barrels and create unique bottlings.
This technique is not reserved solely for the world of rum production, there are also a number of delicious Whisky brands that take the same approach. Even the highbrow world of Scotch has a number of high end brands that take this approach.
Understanding how rums are made is both interesting and helps explain why you’re tasting what you’re tasting. It will also likely point you towards other rums you’ll enjoy, but all that really matters is you find some rums that you enjoy to both sip on and mix into your favourite rum cocktails with!
To get you started on your journey, we have 7 great rum producers for you to enjoy and some cocktail suggestions you’ll want to check out.
We’ll also give you our Daiquiri suggestion for each brand. It may be a Cuban classic, but it’s easy to argue that the Classic Daiquiri provides one of the purest expressions of a rum. Fresh lime and sugar in perfect balance, combined with the perfect amount of dilution from shaking with ice all deliver a delightfully refreshing canvas on which to enjoy the flavours of great rum.
El Dorado - Guyana
One of our absolute favourites. Produced on the banks of the Demerera river in Guyana. It’s produced in traditional wooden pot stills, creating big, bold and complex rums.
From the oak barrel aged sipping rums to the lighter style 3 year old rum that, although lighter and drier in style still has big bold flavours.
The younger expressions make a delicious Daiquiri (we’d go for the charcoal filtered 3yr old), although certainly not classic in style. El Dorado is about as far from dry, grassy Cuban rums used in a classic Daiquiri as it gets, but they make a delicious version of the drink nonetheless.
Mount Gay - Barbados
A flavousome and slightly funky rum from Barbados, the island in the Caribbean where it is said that rum was first produced sometime around the mid 1600s.
Their rums are produced using the hybrid method, aging and blending together distillates from both pot and column stills.
There are hints of caramel, tropical fruit and vanilla which become smoother and more rounded through the older expressions. Our favourite has always been the XO, it’s full bodied and flavorsome but extremely smooth and approachable. It might be a little pricey as your ‘go to’ cocktail rum, but it’s perfect for a treat to sip on or mix into a spirit forward classic like the Old Fashioned, where you simply replace the Bourbon for rum.
The fruity and sweet notes of the Mount Gay Eclipse will work a treat in our take on the Pina Colada, the Colada Hard Shake. It’s a great value rum too, with a flavour that won’t be lost when mixed with other strong flavours, so it’s perfect for some funtime rum drinks!
Want to make a Daiquiri with Mount Gay rum? Try the Mount Gay Black Barrel. A little funk and a plenty of refinement create a deliciously flavorsome take on the Cuban classic.
Havana Club - Cuba
Sorry America, as a Cuban product for now it’s still unavailable to you. To be clear, if you are in the US, we’re not talking about the Havana Club that you see on sale there with the black label that clearly says Puerto Rican Rum on it. Since the Cuban revolution there has been a battle over who owns the rights to the name Havana Club, and there are arguments to be made on both sides.
However, regardless of politics and revolution, the Havana Club that’s produced about an hour or so outside of Havana, produces some delicious Cuban rums and is the fifth largest rum brand in the world, even without the lucrative US Market. Their column stills are impressive to see.
There are some great rums in Cuba but you can’t take a step in Havana without seeing the Havana Club brand on something, and there is genuine pride in the brand from the local people.
There are some great expressions to choose from. The Selection de Maestro is tough to beat, and the 7 year old is both rich and leathery whilst also remaining fairly light and dry. So it can be used across the board. Sipping, stirring and citrus cocktails too. Make a simple Rum Rickey with the 7 year old, or stir down an El Presidente or even an Old Fashioned. It even makes a delicious take on the Daiquiri.
However, for our official Daiquiri recommendation it’s got to be either the 3 year old or the Anejo Blanco. Dry, bright and grassy they both make great classic versions of the Classic Daiquiri, one of Cuba’s finest exports!
While talking about Cuba, we’d also be remiss not noting the delicious Mojito cocktail, if you’ve never made one just go and do it now! Simply apply the same rum rationale as the Daiquiri, and enjoy.
Santa Teresa - Venezuela
Santa Teresa 1796, like a few rums, this is a hybrid that combines the distillation processes of both column and pot stills. The distillate is then aged like a sherry using the solera system.
Here’s an attempt to explain it in simple terms.
This method of aging means that barrels are never emptied to produce a batch. Instead, the barrels that are providing the rum that will be blended together and bottled are only slightly emptied. Like a conveyor belt, younger rums from barrels one step back in the process are then used to refill these final barrels and so on and so on up the chain. New distillate goes into the first set of barrels to top up the system and the process rolls on. In theory there will be rums in the barrels from when the barrels were first filled…in theory anyway!
Santa Teresa 1796 is a delicious rum that, as the description of its production implies, gives you a bit of everything. A little fresh grass on the nose, some honeyed sweetness, vanilla and chocolate but also a dry, wood and leather finish.
This makes Santa Teresa a great allrounder that’ll work in any of our rum recipes. Sipping, stirring, shaking and a great Caipirissima. Unsurprisingly therefore, it creates a delicious, in fact one of favourite, takes on the classic Daiquiri too.
Abuelo - Panama
Panama makes some delicious rums and Ron Abuelo is no exception. They produce a distillate with a column still that’s then aged using two different systems. Firstly the solera system, a technique explained above in the Santa Teresa descriptor.
Secondly, they also use an aging process called Vintage Pallet. In the hot climates where rum is produced, this is a way of replenishing barrels as they become empty due to evaporation. Instead of a new distillate or younger rums being added, barrels of rum of the same age are consolidated to refill them. This process is done every two years in Panama where Abuelo is based, as compared to every 10 years in Scotland for Scotch brands that use this aging technique. This will be less of a surprise to you if you’ve ever experienced Scottish weather!
Although its foundation roots go back to the late 1800s, Abuelo is a relative newcomer, with its first bottles being produced under the Abuelo label in 1960. Then in 2001, thankfully the brand became available beyond the borders of Panama.
Abuelo produces a number of different tasty bottlings, but the 7 year old is the one that we think hits the multiple sweet spots of flavour, versatility and price. It works for both sipping, mixing. Try it in a Marmalade Collins or a Rum Ricky to name but two simply long ways to enjoy it, you could even switch out the Cognac in the Strawberry Cognac Collins.
It also makes a deliciously full bodied Daiquiri that still has a fairly dry and refreshing finish.
Diplomatico - Venezuela
Diplomatico is another relatively modern rum that was first produced in Venezuela in 1959. Most of their rums are an interesting blend of up to as many as 5 different distillates. There’s a pair of column stills and another individual column still. Then arguably more interestingly there’s an old French column still from the late 1950s that will only distill to a maximum of 80% ABV. There’s a rare Batch Kettle still that was once used to distill Canadian Club Rye Whiskey, and is essentially a hybrid pot and column still. Then finally there are pot stills from Scotland’s Strathisla Scotch Whisky distillery that have been adapted for rum distillation.
Their range of rums use different blends of these distillates. Somewhat expectedly, the lighter style rums that are designed more towards mixing, contain a higher percentage of the lighter column still distillates. While the more ‘sipping’ style rums contain a higher percentage of the heavier pot still distillates.
The different distillates are then aged in charred white oak barrels which can be filled up to 6 times for over 30 years. The barrels are left to mature the rums until the liquid is ready to be blended by Diplomatico’s master blenders into their delicious bottlings.
Our favourite ‘go to’ of the range is the Reserva Exclusiva, like the Abuelo 7 year old, it hits a lot of sweet spots. Sip it neat or stir it into a delicious version of the classic El Presidente (find the recipe in our book “How to Make Better Cocktails”) or Marmalade Rum Old Fashioned. For something that’s equal parts refreshing and luxurious, shake it into our delicious Radcliffe Rum Sour.
When it comes to a Daiquiri, yes, we’d still happily use the Reserva Exclusiva but you should try the Planas with its lighter drier style, it makes a delicious version that’s a little closer to the original.
Whichever of their range you choose, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but hopefully you’re now a little clearer about which one will suit your preferred usage.
Plantation - Multiple
Born in the 1990s, Plantation is an interesting brand that blends together rums from across the Caribbean to produce their extensive range. This is a perfect example of how terroir matters
They own distilleries in both Jamaica and Barbados, whilst creator of the brand Alexandre Gabriel also combes the Caribbean for additional rums to mix into his different blends which are then further aged in barrels in Cognac France.
This technique of rum making is a real testament to the terroir and styles of rums produced in different islands and regions. As mentioned earlier, this is a credible way of making delicious liquids. As if to emphasise this, Alexandre was awarded Master Rum Blender of the Year in 2012 at the Golden Rum Barrel Awards and also named Distiller of the Year by The American Distilling Institute.
There are so many expressions to choose from, but for mixability and to make a damn fine Daiquiri try Plantation’s ‘3 Stars’. It’s a blend of three of the Caribbean’s most iconic terroirs, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad.
As everyone else we’ve discussed here seems ok with breaking the rules, we’re going to break our own and finish off here by suggesting a flavoured rum. Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum. As described in the title, it’s fancy and elegant with a hint of pineapple, smokiness and aromatic spice. It makes a mean take on the Daiquiri too!
Now stop reading and get mixing. Cheers!