A beginner’s guide to rum, and its journey from slavers’ tot to spirit to savour
The sugar-based spirit is inextricably linked with the Caribbean, the slave trade and the British navy and is known by many names
Rum is known by many names, and the etymology of the word is unclear. It may have came from the word rumbullion, which means “uproar or tumult”. It could have come from the name of a large drinking glass – a roemer, used by Dutch seamen who were known as rummers. Or it could have come from a shortened version of the Latin word for sugar – saccharum.
It’s possible that fermented drinks made from sugarcane juice were first produced somewhere in Asia – an early example is “brum”, which was made by the Malays. Marco Polo also enjoyed a “very good wine of sugar” in his travels during the 14th century.
Rum’s modern evolution can be traced to the 17th century. It was a widely sipped spirit and in 1657, the early days of colonial America, the General Court of Massachusetts made the sale of alcoholic spirits illegal, “whether knowne by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy...” Despite this act, the manufacture and sale of rum was a core part of the colonial economy – the first distillery was established in 1664 on present-day Staten Island in New York. Estimated rum consumption in those early days was 14 litres per man, woman and child per year.
Rum was a core part of sugar plantations and the slave trade that flourished in the British West Indies and Caribbean. Captains would barter using cases of rum for slaves in their travels from New England to West Africa, and then trade the slaves for molasses (a core ingredient in rum production) on their route to the West Indies – this is what became the Trade Triangle. The Sugar Act of 1764, which restricted trade, was an impetus for the American revolution.
The British Royal Navy loved its rum, too, and sailors happily traded their traditional rations of brandy for rum once they captured and possessed Jamaica in 1655; rum was mixed with water or beer and came to be called grog. The tradition of issuing rations of rum (a tot) continued until 1970.
Today, the different words for rum are the indication of its origin – in Spanish-speaking countries it is ron, and a ron anejo is therefore an aged rum. Rhum is its name in French, so rhum vieux is an old (aged) rum. As for the drink’s most unusual name, screech is what rum is called in the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
The definition of rum today is a distilled spirit that is made from fermented sugarcane or molasses, which is a by-product of turning sugarcane into sugar.
Today’s top rums can be sipped, as you would cognac or a single malt.
The four styles of rum
Light rum This is distilled in a continuous still, aged briefly (usually not more than six months in an old cask) and then filtered through charcoal to remove any unwanted colour and impurities. This style of rum is used for making cocktails. A very popular commercial example is Bacardi, whose creator Don Facundo pioneered the charcoal filtration process. Cachaca, which is the base spirit of the caipirinha cocktail from Brazil, is made from fermented sugarcane and is considered a light rum.
Dark rum This is of course, darker and has a fuller body. The best are double-pot distilled and aged for a number of years in heavily charred barrels. Caramel is often added to enhance the colour. They are made from caramelised sugar or molasses. These rums have hints of spices on the palate along with flavours of molasses or caramel. The best come from Jamaica, where a special yeast called dunder, the yeasty foam that is left behind after fermentation, is used like sour mash is used in bourbon. A very popular Jamaican rum is Myers’s; it’s a base ingredient of many cocktails and is used in desserts.
Demerara rum This originated from the Demerara region of Guyana on the northern coast of South America. It is distilled from molasses and aged for up to a decade. El Dorado is a delicious example – they have a 21-year-old rum.
Rhum agricole This comes from the French Caribbean island of Martinique and is produced from sugarcane juice via column distillation. It is a French style mandated by the French AOC system, and is the most southerly drink with the status of Appellation d’Origine Controlee (granted in 1996). Rhum JM makes an XO, which is a blend of six-year-old rums and is aged in re-charred bourbon barrels – a very delicious tot of rum with notes of cinnamon, white pepper and nutmeg.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers