From West Indies to the world – Everything you need to know about Rum

Rum started out before it was even called by that name. Way back before the word rum was recorded, there was a drink referred to as “wine sugar.” Wine sugar was most likely the beginning of the drink back in the thirteen hundreds. While the word rum didn’t exist at the time, wine sugar most likely was very like the first official rums, though it was very different from black rum or overproof rums. It may have been something very rudimentary, but on a base level, it was, most likely, the rum origin.

The first recorded rum, however, came about in the West Indies around 1650. However, in 1650, these first rums were known on records from Barbados as “kill-devil” or “rumbullion.” The name rum started to be used as the regular name in 1667. The beginning of rum is tied to a dark part of history. Slaves were traded to the West Indies for molasses, and the molasses was made into rum. Then, it was traded for more slaves.

These days, rum is made and distributed in a way we can be proud of. Many distilleries run small operations. Rum may have gotten a start in the time of slavery, as so many things did. However, the rum we drink today has come a long way. 

When it comes to the question of who invented rum, we don’t actually know for sure. While we can track it to a vague time in the 1600s, we don’t have a name that we know for sure.
That being said, we do know that rum first came into being due to the work of enslaved people in the Caribbean. It was enslaved people who realized that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. That alcohol itself was the very first start of rum. Later on, the process of distillation was used to refine the alcohol into the first products we would truly recognize as rum. While we don’t have the names of the people who invented rum, we do know that rum started with enslaved people on sugarcane plantations.

The first inklings of rum began on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean in the 17th century. From the beginning of rum in the sugarcane plantations, the creation and production of rum moved to New England. It was in New England that the fermented molasses was turned into rum on a large scale.
After rum had a hold on the world, and it didn’t take long, the production of rum began to spread. As rum grew in popularity, production was generally linked to Jamaica, Barbados, Demerara, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These days the production of rum has spread even further. Many places now produce their own rum from start to finish in the United States.

Rum is produced in more than 80 countries using a diverse range of methods, including variations in fermentation, distillation, blending style, and aging techniques. Naturally, this results in a plethora of rum varieties, making rum a bar cocktail favorite. Rum is often described as the “wild, wild west” of spirits because of the many classifications which can sometimes become pretty confusing.
We’ve listed down the most common rums, their alcohol content, and some popular brands.

White or Clear Rum
This type has a milder flavor and lighter body than gold and dark rum. Most white rums are sold at 80% proof or 40% ABV (Alcohol By Volume). They are aged for a year or more, then filtered to remove the color. White or clear rum is a bartender favorite for mixing with other ingredients. Brands: Bacardi Superior, Rubi Rey, Don Q Cristal, Mount Gay Silver, 10 Cane

Gold or Pale Rum
This is the rum that has mellowed in the barrel over time. It usually has a more flavorful profile than white or clear rum. It has 37.5% ABV. Brands: Don Q Gold, El Dorado 5, 1 Barrel, Barcelona Dorado, Cacique Anejo Superior

Dark Rum
This rum type is often aged in oak barrels for extended periods with darker, fuller flavor profiles. Good for sipping solo, it contains 38% ABV. Brands: Cruzan Estate Dark, Flor De Caña 5, Barbancourt 3 Star, Diplomático Añejo

Black Rum
The darkest, richest, and heavy-bodied rum. Black rum retains much of the rich molasses and caramel flavoring and is sometimes colored burnt caramel to achieve consistently dark hues. It has 40% alcohol content. Brands: Cruzan Black Strap, Gosling’s Black Seal, Skipper Demerara, Wood’s 100

Navy Rum
A traditional, full-bodied rum associated with the British Royal Navy. It has 57% ABV. Brands: Lamb’s Navy Rum, Pusser’s, Lemon Hart, Skipper Demerara, Wood’s 100

Premium Aged Rum
Represents the finest examples of mature rums from the distillery. Premium Aged Rum is generally blended to achieve complexity and distinctive flavor profiles. They take on darker and richer colors due to the time spent in barrels. Brands: Zacapa Centenario XO and Zaya, Don Q Gran Añejo, Bacardi 8 and Reserva Limitada, Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva, Flor De Caña 18, Santa Teresa 1796, El Dorado 15

Overproof Rum
Overproof means a higher concentration of alcohol. This is famous in the Caribbean because they prefer stronger drinks. It has 160 to 190 proof. Brands: Bacardi 151, El Dorado 151 High Strength Rum, Cruzan 151, Bruddah Kimio’s DA Bomb 155, Matusalem 151 Red Flame

Rhum Agricole
This type of rum is distilled in the French Caribbean islands from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice instead of molasses. The liquor is distilled to about 70 proof. Brands: Clement XO and Cuvee Homere, Darboussier Rhum Vieux 1983, Depaz Blue Cane Amber Rhum, St. James Hors d’Âge, LA Favorite Rhum Agricole Vieux

A Brazilian sugarcane spirit and one of the most popular categories of spirits in the world. It’s made from fresh sugarcane juice and has not undergone aging in barrels. It has 38-54% ABV. Brands: Aga Luca, Beija, Beleza Para, Boca Local, Cabana

Flavored and Spiced Rum
This type is the product of a wide range of flavors and spices infused into rum. Some of the common spices used are roots of ginger, seeds of vanilla and allspice, the bark of cinnamon or cassia, and buds of clove. It is bottled at 92 proof. Brands: Captain Morgan, Parrot Bay Coconut, Malibu Coconut, Foursquare, Sailor Jerry

Knowing the colorful history and the broad spectrum of rum types around the world, it seems important to learn how rum is made. Below is the step-by-step guide on the different stages of making rum.

  1. Harvesting the sugarcane
    Sugarcane juice is to rum as grape juice is to wine. That means that the harvesting stage of rum-making is just as important as the rest of the process.
    As with most grass varieties, sugarcane is cut and then starts re-growing after harvest. Cutters use machetes to cut the cane close to the ground, right around the part of the stem which has the highest concentration of sugars. Then the leafy tops are also removed. On an average day, a good harvest is around three tons of cane per day. Of course, a lot more can be collected using mechanized harvesting.
  2. Extracting the sugar
    Since sugarcane contains about 75% water while the rest is sugar and fiber, the harvested cane is washed, chopped, and pressed to extract the water and sugar juice. That process of extracting sugar from cane juice produces a viscous product called molasses. This is basically what most rum is made from. Molasses will be fermented to be later on distilled to form rum. Another alternative is to boil molasses to remove the water content and turn it into cane syrup which could also be fermented to make rum.
  3. Fermentation
    Fermentation is when yeast converts sugars into alcohol. Whether you will be using cane juice or cane syrup, this will be fermented with water and cultured yeast to produce a beer-like wash of 5-10% ABV.
    The fermentation process can be as short as 24 hours or as long as 3 weeks, depending on the strain of yeast used and the style of rum being produced.
    Each strain of yeast works at different rates and may also result in varying flavors. Generally, when the fermentation is quick, it produces a lighter wash that tends to be favored in producing white rum. On the other hand, darker rum necessitates a slow and orderly fermentation where yeast is progressively added in intervals.
  4. Distillation
    You can test if the mash is ready using a hydrometer. Hydrometers are used to measure the ratio of a density of a liquid to the density of water. Starting on the day when you expect the mash to be finished, measure it once a day. When you get the same reading for 3 consecutive days, that means your wash is ready to distill.
  5. Aging
    Just like with most distilled spirits, the flavor largely depends on the rum aging process. You can either use stainless steel vats or oak barrels to store rum for aging. Although stainless steel is typically reserved for white rum so the color won’t turn dark, it could spend time in oak to produce flavors and color. Some people also choose used whiskey and bourbon barrels to age their rum.
The time rum spends in aging is decided based on several factors and does not only depend on the type of rum made. Dark rum is aged longer than white rum. The alcohols in the rum interact with the wood to create distinct flavors, extract color, and develop a smooth quality that highly enhances aged rums.
  6. Blending
    Blending is the last process where a distiller can still make changes to the rum’s character. Different types of rum are the products of blending light and dark rum with varying distillation processes. For instance, a particular barrel of rum maybe 95% column still with just 5% or even less pot still to add character and flavor. 
Because of the liberty of every distiller to alter the rum’s constitution, it is at this blending stage where some brands take advantage and make shady and illicit processes to further “enhance” their products. Additives can be used to boost a rum’s flavor and pass it off as legit, making it harder for everyone else to know for sure if a certain brand indeed originated from the Caribbean, Haiti, or Jamaica.
    As it turns out, rum is more than just your commonplace tropical drink. There are good things that happen to your body when you drink rum on a regular or even semi-regular basis. If you have good mixology skills, you can even smoke a cocktail at home. 
Here are some of rum’s health benefits:
  • Helps in de-stressing. To be fair, almost all alcoholic drinks make us momentarily forget our stressors in life. But just 1.5 oz (or 1 shot glass) of rum is already enough to reduce anxiety significantly.
  • Lowers blood sugar. Rum’s medical properties have proven to be beneficial in preventing the risk of getting diabetes.
  • Helps in treating common colds. Due to its high bacterial properties, consuming a tablespoon or two of rum a day can treat common colds. It can even be used as an antiseptic to clean wounds.
  • May improve your heart’s health. With moderate drinking, rum has been tied to a few indicators for cardiovascular health. Rum may act as a blood thinner and prevent blood clots. It is also associated with higher rates of HDL or the ‘good cholesterol’.
  • Helps avert muscle pain. You’re not supposed to substitute rum for prescribed medications, but rum does keep muscle pain away. Rum also increases bone mineral density that helps prevent osteoporosis.
    So, if you’re a rum lover, we hope this article gave you a newfound love for your favorite drink. For rum newbies, you now have the knowledge of how rum is made, what is rum made from, its different types, and some health benefits of drinking it. 
All you have to do now, is to choose one of many options and let it travel you overseas…