Rum is the Word
Rum has one of the most fascinating, fraught and colourful histories of any spirit. A staple of drinks lists for decades, its popularity spans the globe, with a vast number of countries and regions crafting their own varieties – but that wasn’t always the case. Rum’s history holds few of the romantic, artisanal auras that surround other premium spirits; rather, its roots lie in a much harsher reality that stands as a brutal reminder of the darker sides of the past.
A Dark and Stormy Past
Rum’s story began with the introduction of sugar cane to the West Indies, sometime in the 15th century. The favourable conditions for growth in these islands meant that sugar production took off rapidly; yet with every two pounds of sugar created, one pound of a by-product named molasses was left over. Originally, producers had dumped this viscous substance into the ocean as a means of waste removal, yet through experiments with fermentation, it was discovered that distilling molasses could produce an alcoholic spirit instead – and so rum as we know it today was born.
The abundance of molasses meant that rum became readily available throughout the Caribbean and North America. This profusion boosted the economy of North America significantly; alcohol was commonly used as a form of currency in foreign trade, and rum’s ability to withstand long sea voyages made it an excellent alternative to the previously used wine, mead and beer, none of which boasted the same longevity. One of the primary trading channels in which the currency of rum was utilised was that of slavery; it was common for sugar plantation owners to use rum distilled on their land as an easy, affordable means to buy slaves in far-off countries. For a time at least, rum was an enabler of this bleak section of the world’s past.
On the other side of the coin, rum being within such easy reach meant that it quickly became used as a means of paying the working class – particularly sailors. The association between rum and the sea is a longstanding one, celebrated in seafaring tales, novels and films throughout history. Sailors were originally paid with a pint of Jamaican rum a day, an amount which was hastily reduced due to the ‘rumbullion’ it caused; drunken fights, antisocial behaviour and excessive inebriation amongst naval officers was common, and contributed heavily towards rum’s unfavourable reputation. On many occasions, pirates plundering ships would find crews too drunk to put up any sort of a fight. Eventually, sailors were ordered by Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon to mix their rum with lime juice and sugar before consumption, in order to lessen the effects of alcohol – this historical drink 'grog’ is one of the first recorded examples of rum’s adaptability within blended drinks.
Increased taxations from the English government, as well as subsequent wars disrupting the imports and exports of molasses, saw the end of rum’s golden age. In fact, by the time slavery was abolished, rum had already lost its footing as a major export. Instead, its position as America’s primary distilled spirit was overtaken by whiskey, as increasing numbers of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, with all their knowledge of grain distillation, began to arrive on America’s shores.
Since the early days of diluting rum to create grog, this is a spirit that has been associated with blending and mixing. One Dr. James Lind suggested, in his official report on the health of sailors, that the best way a naval crew should be drinking rum was in a punch, mixed with fruit juice, vinegar-based shrubs, vegetable acid, cream of tartar and a half pint of water.
With the prohibition era in the US came a new type of drink – the cocktail. Rum was at the centre of this burgeoning trend, primarily as the flavours of home-brewed, foul tasting rums - rife throughout America - needed to be masked to make them drinkable. Flips, sours and punches were served throughout the States until the end of prohibition, when rum’s reputation for versatility within cocktails led it to become a keystone of the category. Caribbean influences led to the emergence of tiki bars, which began to develop rum cocktails that remain recognised and loved today, from Piña Coladas to Mojitos and Daiquiris.
"Rum was so popular in the speakeasy that true rum was hard to come by. Many illegal bars purchased spirits that the seller called rum, but which were actually poison liquor, likely made in somebody's basement, bathtub, or in the woods under cover of night.'
Fred Minnick, ‘Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirits’
A Rum Revolution
In recent years, murmurs around rum have been rising, as efforts are made to reinvent the category. A wide range of flavour profiles and the ability to fit ultra-premium categories has put rum in a progressively positive standpoint in today’s market. The emergence of premium rum-producing regions beyond the Caribbean and Latin America tempt experimental consumer palates, whilst the less adventurous are likely to find it more accessible than whiskies and brandy – both in mixed drinks and sipped neat. In short, the UK is ready for a rum resurgence.
So too has the versatility of rum, in all its formats, meant its positioning in the spirits market is increasingly favourable. Rum cocktails are found on almost every list in the UK, feeding not only public enthusiasm for cocktail culture, but also recognition of how adaptable this spirit can be for consumers and businesses alike. Golden and spiced rums are leading the charge, offering an alternative flavour profile within cocktails, but increasingly, dark aged rums are being propelled into public awareness as an excellent alternative to less accessible whiskies.
What’s On Offer
Light & White
Flavour Profile: Light, subtle and fresh
Key Flavours: Dried banana, herbaceous notes, coconut, vanilla
White rums, along with some tequilas, stand as an exception to the rule that light spirits are unaged. Although rum holds fairly lax rules around distilling and ageing, it’s common practice for white rums to be aged in oak barrels for at least a year. After this, a process called charcoal filtration removes the golden colour they attain by sitting in barrels, and smooths out the flavours – making them the ideal rum to use in a wide variety of cocktails, including popular classics like Daiquiris and Mojitos.
Going for Gold
Flavour Profile: Depends on age – can be light and fragrant or rich and intense
Key Flavours: Banana, butterscotch, oak
Golden rums are made in the same way as white rums, without the charcoal filtration that follows ageing. Subsequently, they retain their rich golden colour. Rum has very few strict rules about ageing times, so in some cases, golden rums can be aged for fewer years than white rums – despite their appearance!
Spice is Nice
Flavour Profile: Strong, spicy and rich
Key Flavours: Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper
Spiced rums are fairly straightforward – they encompass any type of rum which has been given additional flavouring after distillation and ageing, by adding in herbs and spices. Popular versions include additions of cinnamon, black pepper, clove and nutmeg.
Flavour Profile: Weighty and rich
Key Flavours: Dark chocolate, oak, leather, caramel
It’s an opinion amongst connoisseurs that dark rums are the future of the category. Again, as rums have few restrictions when it comes to production, there is no set length of time for which dark rums must be aged – but invariably, it will be for longer than any other varietal. The barrels used are also heavily charred, imparting flavours of caramel, leather and dark chocolate. Ideal for sipping, these aged, artisanal offerings are allowing the reputation of the category to grow, as well as take a standpoint alongside whiskies and Cognacs.