Rum: Where To Start
What is Rum?
Rum is the product of fermented and distilled sugar cane. It starts with the cane which is pressed to remove the juice which is either fermented immediately (to make rhum agricole), or boiled to create molasses, from which most types of rum are made. The processed sugar cane or molasses is then fermented using yeast, with the type of yeast used being a closely guarded secret in many distilleries, then finally distilled using either a column or pot still and aged for some time in wooden casks. Numerous things can affect the flavour of rum, such as the type of sugar cane, the climate in which the cane is grown and the rum matured, the length of fermentation and type of yeast used, the type of still used for distillation, or the types of cask used for aging and the length of aging. With so many variables and so few rules or regulations, the variety of rums available really is huge. So, where to start?
Types of rum
There are not as many set rules for rum as there are for whiskey, partly because there are so many different countries producing rum and each country will set their own rules. Essentially it’s a free for all. With no standard to apply across the board, we need some different ways to categorise rum, and the best way to categorize is to look at the geography and history of rum producing regions.
Barbados has a strong argument for being the original home of rum, and is home to the World’s oldest rum distillery. The rum produced is a light, subtle usually golden rum, which by law is not permitted to have any additives other than caramel for colour. It is pure unadulterated rum. For many people this is the very essence of rum production and a lesson to all those who wish to distil the spirit. If any rum can ever be called The Noble Spirit it is from the island of Barbados.
Our top recommendation for Barbados rum is Doorly’s 12 years, brought to us from the Foursquare distillery. In fairness, anything made by the Foursquare distillery will be top notch, but in terms of depth of flavour, complexity and value for money Doorly’s 12 year old edges out the others. It really is an expertly blended, world class rum which makes a mockery of its price.
Long known for its heavy styled rum produced in pot stills, which were traditionally blended with other lighter bodied rums in Europe and then sold in the export market, today Jamaican rums are earning a reputation for their own quality. These can have a very distinctive flavour, often described as “funk”. Many of the distilleries allow the molasses to be fermented naturally by wild yeast and due to this, the fermentation time is much longer and many more flavour compounds are generated in the fermentation process than with other styles of rum. The extended fermentation time, along with some other traditional practices (such as adding dunder), combined with distillation in pot stills give Jamaican rums a high ester content and huge flavour.
Our number one pick for Jamaican rum is Hampden Estate. Hampden Estate previously only sold bulk rum to distributors to be blended with lighter rums, but recently they have released their first ever rums under their own name. This is no small event as the distillery has been continually operated since 1753! There is a 46% and 60% version to choose from.
Cuba and Spanish Caribbean
Mainly Cuba but also the Dominican Republic’s rum are similar as are many Spanish speaking countries and islands are often referred to as Spanish style (as most of the countries that produce them are Spanish speaking and were former Spanish colonies). Rum from these countries is often called “ron” (the Spanish term). These are lighter rums, often good paired with cigars. Often more oak and tobacco than fruity rums such as Barbados. Cuban rum popularised Daiquiris, mojito’s and the Cuba Libre (white or aged rum, cola and lime juice) and Cuban white rum is most popular.
Our top pick for Cuban style rums is the Rum & Cane Merchant Spanish Caribbean rum. This is a blend of rums from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, soft and fruity with molasses and coffee flavours leading up to a nice spicy intensity. A great example of a Cuban / Spanish style sipping rum.
Trinidad (Trinidad and Tobago)
100 years ago there were around 50 rum distilleries in Trinidad but has now been reduced to one distillery, and all the rum in Trinidad is produced by Angostura. The Islands one and only remaining distillery. Angostura’s rums are light and easy going and generally an easy introduction to the world of premium rums. Quite sweet, floral and slightly creamy/buttery.
As there is only one distillery, we have only one rum from Trinidad and our pick is the Plantation – Trinidad 2005 vintage. Fruit notes of lemon and pear combined with grilled almond, popcorn and paprika. Wonderful stuff and highly recommended.
Central / South American Rums
A hard category to define as there are a huge number of countries and a growing number of brands, but generally similar to the Spanish style rums under the Spanish Caribbean tag in that they are usually distilled using column stills and are on the lighter side. Many of them have premium packaging and big marketing budgets pushing questionable claims. One common marketing ploy is to put a number on the front of the bottle to fool people into thinking the rum is that age when usually the majority of the rum inside the blend is much younger. Many of these rums will have additives added to change the natural flavour of the rum and fit the flavour profile that the blender is looking for (Diplomatico is a good example).
As previously mentioned, there is a huge variety of rums from Central and South America and our top pick is Ron Colón Salvadoreño. 70% of the rum is distilled in El Salvador and the rest comes from Jamaica. A gold medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2020, this is one of the best new rums around.
Martinique and French Caribbean
Martinique, and French style rums in general, are referred to as rhum agricole. Whereas other rum styles turn the sugar cane into molasses before fermenting, when making rhum agricole the raw sugar cane juice itself is fermented. This gives it a more grassy and vegetal taste, but also allows for the subtleties of terroir to be show cased. Different varieties of sugar cane grown in different locations will have a bigger impact on the flavour of the rum than with traditional molasses rum. Martinique rhums are also some of the most strictly controlled and have an AOC description recognised by the EU and others. This means that only rhums conforming to the standards set out can be called Martinique rhum.
Our top pick for Martinique rhum is Le Rhum XO par Neisson. After distillation, the rhum is matured in a combination of French oak and American ex-bourbon casks for between 9 to 12 years. This cask combination really is wonderful when combined with high quality rhum agricole and we encourage everyone to try this uniquely French expression of rum.
S.E Asia Rums
Another place which has a strong claim as being the original home of rum is Indonesia. Straddling the equator, its tropical climate is almost perfect for the cultivation of sugar cane, and indeed, sugar cane was grown and used in distillation in and around the town of Batavia (Dutch colonial name for Jakarta) to make Batavia Arrack – Indonesian rum. Batavia arrack is a distillate based on sugar-cane molasses, produced exclusively on the island of Java, Indonesia. The fermentation process includes the addition of special Javanese red rice, which is malted, made into cakes and added to the molasses. Yeast spores on the red rice start fermentation and contribute to the arrack’s distinctive flavour. Distillation of the fermented molasses and rice is then carried out using very traditional Pot stills, adopting ancient Chinese distillers’ methods. Batavia Arrack was very popular in Europe before sugar plantations became more established in the Caribbean, after which its popularity waned. It is still made in Jakarta to this day and is mainly exported to Sweden (for use in Swedish Punsch) and China.
With S.E. Asia having near perfect conditions for growing high quality sugar cane, it is not surprising that rum distilling is not just restricted to Indonesia. In fact, the world’s number one selling rum is Tanduay from The Phillipines, which outsells even Bacardi. In Thailand rum is widely drank and Songsam rum accounts for around 80% of rum sales. Most of the rums distilled in S.E Asia have been aimed towards the budget market, but we are starting to see some premiumization, especially in Thailand. ThaiBev (owners of Songsam) released a premium brand Phraya, which is very enjoyable, and Chalong Bay distillery is taking advantage of the perfect sugar cane growing conditions in Phuket to distil rum agricole. Samai distillery opened in Cambodia and became first rum distillery in the country, again taking advantage of the world class sugar cane grown there and we can strongly recommend their Kampot Pepper Rum if you like spiced rum, it really is delicious.
Rums By Colour
Producers are now starting to categorize rum by colour, but we do need to be careful here as colour generally doesn’t give any indication on how the rum will taste. That being said, we’ve penned down the general categories in case you find it useful.
White Rum: As per name, clear, lighter bodied, though often aged very briefly and filtered. Generally designed to be used in cocktails. Our top pick is Veritas, plenty of pot still character and makes the best daiquiri in town!
Gold Rum: This has come to mean a lightly aged rum. Slightly more complex than white rums due to some limited aging in oak barrels and still good for cocktails rather than sipping. We do need to be careful here as this term is not universally adopted and while some producers could use it for 3 year old rum, others could use it for 20 year old.
Dark Rum: Generally assumed to be the longest aged whiskeys which have spent long periods of multiple years in wooden barrels. They have the richest, most complex flavors, and are your most likely sipping rums. They are comparable to a good brandy or whiskey, and can even replace those spirits in cocktails. Again, we need to be careful here as there is nothing to stop producers adding food colouring and calling younger rums “dark rum”.