Words: Ben Gibbins
It’s August, which means it’s nearly International Talk Like a Pirate Day [19th September if you’re interested] but more importantly it means that National Rum Day is almost upon us, with August 16th giving us an excuse to raise a glass to the spirits behemoth that is rum in all it’s forms.
Bartenders will use Wednesday to pronounce that rum is the next big thing, which it is, but also has been for the last decade. Rum is still big – in 2015 the mojito was the most ordered cocktail in the UK – but specifically spiced rum is the next big thing, with growth up year on year whilst the rest of the rum world remains relatively flat. But more on that later.
Rum has a long and interesting history mixing myths and truths dependent on who you talk to. Sugar as first discovered in South East Asia; brum (sugar wine) was noted in 14th century Iran; and later distillation became commonplace on the Caribbean sugar plantations in 17th century as the Western taste for the grass ‘that brought forth honey without the need for bees’ grew. The first taste of sugar spirits would have come in the Caribbean from molasses being cast aside in vats, they are produced as a by-product of sugar production, where it was watered down by rain and naturally fermented, creating a low-wine drunk by the workers. The Spanish were the first to distill this ‘wine’ into a spirit, nicknamed Kil Devil as it would ‘kill the devil inside you’! Rum’s big boom followed that of the sugar industry, growing in conjunction with the slave trade, a trade triangle being established between Africa, the Caribbean and the American Colonies exchanging sugar for rum, and rum for slaves. This currency value was hugely important, with rum used as legal tender across America and Europe for a number of years across all levels of society – in fact George Washington insisted on a barrel of Barbados rum at his inauguration.
Rum became linked to naval tradition at the same time, with Lord Nelson’s body reportedly transported home in a rum barrel after Trafalgar, and the Royal Navy’s daily rum ration only coming to an end in 1970.
Most rum is produced in sugar cane growing countries, with the Caribbean and South/Central America producing the most well-known brands, with most using molasses as their base ingredient. The production methods are generally similar, but the location plays a key part in the final taste, and this can crudely be defined along the lines of language and colonialism.
English Speaking Island (Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica…): Tend to be distilled in a pot still and column still resulting in a darker rum with a fuller-bodied style.
Spanish Speaking Islands and Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela…): Usually column distilled for a lighter, more mixable rum ideal for cocktails.
French Speaking Islands (Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique…): Produce a different product – rhum agricole – made from fresh sugar cane juice rather than molasses for a zesty, herbal note.
The diversity of rum has spread the world over though with India producing a drier version, Cachaca made in Brazil, anise-infused Aquardiente from various points in South America, Tuzemak in the Czech Republic, Ron Miel from the Canary Islands and Stroh in Austria.
Yeast, ageing and blending are vitally important in rum production having a profound impact on the taste profile and style of the final product. Producers of lighter rums use fast acting yeasts to keep the number of esters (flavours) lower, whilst fuller, richer rums use slower yeasts for added flavour. Ageing varies from one location to another, with many countries requiring at least a year. Bourbon casks are a popular choice but rum producers are now experimenting with ‘finishing’ in different casks to alter the flavour. There is a downside to long ageing though – the angel’s share in the tropics is usually 10% of the total volume a year (compared to 2% in Scotland) – meaning long-aged rums are incredibly expensive with only a fraction of the original liquid remaining. Blending is common in most rums, ensuring consistency and maintaining the quality of rums produced.
This longer ageing has become increasingly popular with the use of aged rum on sipping and digestif menus across the country.
Then there is spiced rum, which now sits as its own category and is almost solely accountable for the rise in rum sales in recent years, its popularity growing as a characterful base for cocktails and mixed drinks. The additional flavours of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger were once used to mask inferior spirits but now serve to enhance quality base spirits.
Across all these categories and variants rum is a greatly versatile product working perfectly in classic mixed drinks such as a Cuba Libre or a Dark ‘n Stormy (a drink even trademarked by Goslings Rum); the eponymous Pina Colada – the national drink of Puerto Rico since 1978; in tiki drinks like a Mai Tai or a Beachcomber; and in re-worked classics like a rum old-fashioned.
So this National Rum Day, why not try something summery and exciting, or revisit an old favourite, but swap in rum for a new take on the familiar? Agricole is a great alternative to tequila, light rums for vodka and gin, and darker, aged rums in place of bourbon and whisky.