Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak barrels. Rum can be referred to in Spanish by descriptors such as ron viejo (“old rum”) and ron añejo (“aged rum”).
The majority of the world’s rum production occurs in the Caribbean and Latin America (including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Belize, Martinique, Guatemala,Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guadeloupe, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Barbados, Jamaica, St.Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Brazil, Haiti, Guyana, Peru, and Cuba). Rum is also produced in Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, the Philippines, India, Reunion Island, Mauritius, South Africa, Taiwan, Japan, United States and Canada.
Light rums are commonly used in cocktails, whereas “golden” and “dark” rums were typically consumed individually (i.e., “straight” or “neat”) or used for cooking, but are now commonly consumed with mixers. Premium rums are also available, made to be consumed either straight or iced.
Rum plays a part in the culture of most islands of the West Indies as well as in the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland. This beverage has famous associations with the Royal Navy (where it was mixed with water or beer to make grog) and piracy (where it was consumed as bumbo). Rum has also served as a popular medium of economic exchange, used to help fund enterprises such as slavery, organized crime, and military insurgencies (e.g., the American Revolution and Australia’s Rum Rebellion). SeeTriangular trade.
The origin of the word “rum” is generally unclear. In an 1824 essay about the word’s origin, Samuel Morewood, a British etymologist, suggested it might be from the British slang term for “the best”, as in “having a rum time.” He wrote:
As spirits, extracted from molasses, could not well be ranked under the name whiskey, brandy, or arrack, it would be called rum, to denote its excellence or superior quality.—Samuel Morewood
Given the harsh taste of early rum, this is unlikely. Morewood later suggested another possibility: that it was taken from the last syllable of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum, an explanation commonly heard today. The -um is a very common noun ending in Latin, and plenty of Latin word roots end in R, so in reality, one could apply this logic to a plethora of Latin words to draw the link.
Other etymologists have mentioned the Romani word rum, meaning “strong” or “potent”. These words have been linked to the ramboozle and rumfustian, both popular British drinks in the mid-17th century. However, neither was made with rum, but rather eggs, ale, wine, sugar, and various spices. The most probable origin is as a truncated version of rumbullion or rumbustion.Both words surfaced in English about the same time as rum did (Coromines states 1651 as the first recording of “rumbullion”, and 1654 for “rum” -1770 for the first recording in Spanish ofron), and were slang terms for “tumult” or “uproar”. This is a far more convincing explanation, and brings the image of fractious men fighting in entanglements at island tippling houses, which are early versions of the bar.
Another claim is the name is from the large drinking glasses used by Dutch seamen known as rummers, from the Dutch word roemer, a drinking glass. Other options include contractions of the words iterum, Latin for “again, a second time”, or arôme, French for aroma. Regardless of the original source, the name was already in common use by 1654, when the General Court of Connecticut ordered the confiscations of “whatsoever Barbados liquors, commonly called rum, kill devil and the like”. A short time later in May 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts also decided to make illegal the sale of strong liquor “whether knowne by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc.”
In current usage, the name used for a rum is often based on its place of origin. For rums from Spanish-speaking locales, the word ron is used. A ron añejo indicates a rum that has been significantly aged and is often used for premium products. Rhum is the term used for rums from French-speaking locales, while rhum vieux is an aged French rum that meets several other requirements.
Some of the many other names for rum are Nelson‘s blood, kill-devil, demon water, pirate’s drink, navy neaters, and Barbados water. A version of rum from Newfoundland is referred to by the name screech, while some low-grade West Indies rums are called tafia.
The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a “very good wine of sugar” that was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.
The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic byproducts concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests rum first originated on the island of Barbados. However, in the decade of the 1620s, rum production was recorded in Brazil.
A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
After rum’s development in the Caribbean, the drink’s popularity spread to Colonial North America. To support the demand for the drink, the first rum distillery in the British colonies of North America was set up in 1664 on present-day Staten Island. Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry. New England became a distilling center due to the technical, metalworking and cooperage skills and abundant lumber; the rum produced there was lighter, more like whiskey. Rhode Island rum even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a period of time. Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of 3 imperial gallons (14 l) of rum each year.
To support this demand for the molasses to produce rum, along with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labor source to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was needed. A triangular trade was established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies to help support this need. The exchange of slaves, molasses, and rum was quite profitable, and the disruption to the trade caused by the Sugar Act in 1764 may have even helped cause the American Revolution. In the slave trade, rum was also used as a medium of exchange. For example, the slave Venture Smith, whose history was later published, had been purchased in Africa for four gallons of rum plus a piece of calico.
Rum started to play an important role in the political system; candidates attempted to influence the outcome of an election through their generosity with rum. The people would attend the hustings to see which candidate appeared more generous. The candidate was expected to drink with the people to show he was independent and truly a republican. In the 1833 Mississippi state senate election, one candidate, Judge Edward Turner, poured his drinks and socialized with the people. He was more personal and it appeared as if he was going to win. The other candidate, a Methodist parson named Dick Stewart, announced he would not be pouring their drinks and they could have as much as they wanted; Dick Stewart won.
Eventually, the restrictions on rum from the British islands of the Caribbean, combined with the development of American whiskey, led to a decline in the drink’s popularity.
Rum’s association with piracy began with British privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island.
The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655, when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed thedaily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon had the rum ration watered producing a mixture that became known as grog. While many believe the term was coined in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather, the term predates his famous order. It probably originates in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a “tot,” until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970.
Today, a tot of rum is still issued on special occasions, using an order to “splice the mainbrace“, which may only be given by the Queen, a member of the royal family or, on certain occasions, the admiralty board in the UK, with similar restrictions in other Commonwealth navies. Recently, such occasions have included royal marriages or birthdays, or special anniversaries. In the days of daily rum rations, the order to “splice the mainbrace” meant double rations would be issued.
A legend involving naval rum and Horatio Nelson says that following his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back toEngland. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, hence the term “Nelson’s blood” being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term tapping the admiral being used to describe surreptitiously sucking liquor from a cask through a straw. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French brandy, whilst others claim instead the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson. Variations of the story, involving different notable corpses, have been in circulation for many years. The official record states merely that the body was placed in “refined spirits” and does not go into further detail.
The Royal New Zealand Navy was the last naval force to give sailors a free daily tot of rum. The Royal Canadian Navy still gives a rum ration on special occasions; the rum is usually provided out of the commanding officer’s fund, and is 150 proof (75%). It is consumed on the order “up spirits”. The order to “splice the mainbrace” (i.e. take rum) can be given by the Queen as commander-in-chief, as occurred on 29 June 2010, when Her Majesty gave the order to the Royal Canadian Navy as part of the celebration of their 100th anniversary.
Rum was also occasionally consumed mixed with gunpowder, either to test the proof of an alcohol ration (if the alcohol was diluted, the gunpowder would not ignite after being soaked with alcohol) or to seal a vow or show loyalty to a rebellion.
Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was based upon the lack of coinage among the population of the colony, and due to the drink’s ability to allow its consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of creature comforts available in the new colony. The value of rum was such that convict settlers could be induced to work the lands owned by officers of the New South Wales Corps. Due to rum’s popularity among the settlers, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness, though their alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.
Australia was so far away from England that the convict colony, established in 1788, faced severe food shortages, compounded by poor conditions for growing crops and the shortage of livestock. Eventually it was realized that it might be cheaper for India, instead of England, to supply the settlement of Sydney. By 1817, two out of every three ships which left Sydney, went to Java or India, and cargoes from Bengal fed and equipped the colony. Casks of Bengal Rum (which was reputed to be stronger than Jamaican Rum, and not so sweet) were brought back in the depths of nearly every ship from India although taken to shore clandestinely, to the dismay of the governors. Englishmen living in India grew wealthy through sending ships to Sydney “laden half with rice and half with bad spirits.”
Rum was intimately involved in the only military takeover of an Australian government, known as the Rum Rebellion. William Bligh became governor of the colony, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange. In 1808, in response to Bligh’s policies, the New South Wales Corps marched with fixed bayonets, to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.
Dividing rum into meaningful groupings is complicated because no single standard exists for what constitutes rum. Instead, rum is defined by the varying rules and laws of the nations producing the spirit. The differences in definitions include issues such as spirit proof, minimum aging, and even naming standards.
Examples of the differences in proof is Colombia, requiring their rums possess a minimum alcohol content of 50% alcohol by volume (ABV), while Chile and Venezuela require only a minimum of 40% ABV. Mexico requires rum be aged a minimum of eight months; the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela require two years. Naming standards also vary. Argentina defines rums as white, gold, light, and extra light. Grenada and Barbados uses the terms white, overproof, and matured, while the United States defines rum, rum liqueur, and flavored rum. In Australia, rum is divided into dark or red rum (underproof known as UP, overproof known as OP, and triple distilled) and white rum.
Despite these differences in standards and nomenclature, the following divisions are provided to help show the wide variety of rums produced.
Within the Caribbean, each island or production area has a unique style. For the most part, these styles can be grouped by the language traditionally spoken. Due to the overwhelming influence of Puerto Rican rum, most rum consumed in the United States is produced in the ‘Spanish-speaking’ style.
- Spanish-speaking islands and countries traditionally produce añejo rums with a fairly smooth taste. Rums from Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela are typical of this style. Rum from the U.S. Virgin Islands is also of this style. The Canary Islands produces honey rum known as ron miel de Canarias and carries a geographical designation.
- English-speaking islands and countries are known for darker rums with a fuller taste that retains a greater amount of the underlying molasses flavor. Rums from Grenada, Barbados,St.Lucia, Belize, Bermuda, Saint Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago, the Demerara region of Guyana, and Jamaica are typical of this style.
- French-speaking islands are best known for their agricultural rums (rhum agricole). These rums, being produced exclusively from sugar cane juice, retain a greater amount of the original flavor of the sugar cane and are generally more expensive than molasses-based rums. Rums from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique are typical of this style.
Cachaça is a spirit similar to rum that is produced in Brazil. (Some countries, including the United States, classify cachaça as a type of rum.) Seco, from Panama, is also a spirit similar to rum, but also similar to vodka since it is triple distilled.
A spirit known as aguardiente, distilled from molasses and often infused with anise, with additional sugarcane juice added after distillation, is produced in Central America and northern South America.
In West Africa, and particularly in Liberia, ‘cane juice’ (also known as Liberian rum or simply CJ within Liberia itself) is a cheap, strong spirit distilled from sugarcane, which can be as strong as 86 proof. A refined cane spirit has also been produced in South Africa since the 1950s, simply known as cane.
In Germany, a cheap substitute for genuine dark rum is called Rum-Verschnitt (literally: blended or “cut” rum). This distilled beverage is made of genuine dark rum (often from Jamaica), rectified spirit, and water. Very often, caramel coloring is used, too. The relative amount of genuine rum it contains can be quite low, since the legal minimum is at only 5%. In Austria, a similar rum called Inländerrum or domestic rum is available. However, Austrian Inländerrum is always a spiced rum, such as the brand Stroh; German Rum-Verschnitt, in contrast, is never spiced or flavored.
The grades and variations used to describe rum depend on the location where a rum was produced. Despite these variations, the following terms are frequently used to describe various types of rum:
- Light rums, also referred to as silver or white rums, in general, have very little flavor aside from a general sweetness. Consequently, they often serve as bases for cocktails. Light rums are sometimes filtered after aging to remove any color. The Brazilian cachaça is generally this type, but some varieties are more akin to “gold rums”. The majority of light rums come fromPuerto Rico. Their milder flavors make them popular for use in mixed drinks, as opposed to drinking them straight.
- Gold rums, also called amber rums, are medium-bodied rums that are generally aged. These gain their dark color from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred, white oak barrels that are the byproduct of Bourbon whiskey). They have more flavor and are stronger-tasting than light rum, and can be considered midway between light rum and the darker varieties.
- Dark rums, also known by their particular color, such as brown, black, or red rums, are classes a grade darker than gold rums. They are generally aged longer, in heavily charred barrels, giving them much stronger flavors than either light or gold rums, and hints of spices can be detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone. They commonly provide substance in rum drinks, as well as color. In addition, dark rum is the type most commonly used in cooking. Most dark rums come from areas such as Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique.
- Spiced rums obtain their flavors through the addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in color, and based on gold rums. Some are significantly darker, while many cheaper brands are made from inexpensive white rums and darkened with caramel color. Among the spices added are cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, or pepper.
- Flavored rums are infused with flavors of fruits, such as banana, mango, orange, citrus, coconut, starfruit or lime. These are generally less than 40% ABV. They mostly serve to flavor similarly themed tropical drinks but are also often drunk neat or with ice.
- Overproof rums are much higher than the standard 40% ABV, with many as high as 75% to 80% available. One example is Bacardi 151.
- Premium rums, as with other sipping spirits, such as Cognac and Scotch, are in a special market category. These are generally from boutique brands that sell carefully produced and aged rums. They have more character and flavor than their “mixing” counterparts and are generally consumed straight.
Unlike some other spirits, rum has no defined production methods. Instead, rum production is based on traditional styles that vary between locations and distillers.
Most rum produced is made from molasses. Within the Caribbean, much of this molasses is from Brazil. A notable exception is the French-speaking islands, where sugarcane juice is the preferred base ingredient.
Yeast and water are added to the base ingredient to start the fermentation process. While some rum producers allow wild yeasts to perform the fermentation, most use specific strains of yeast to help provide a consistent taste and predictable fermentation time. Dunder, the yeast-rich foam from previous fermentations, is the traditional yeast source in Jamaica. “The yeast employed will determine the final taste and aroma profile,” says Jamaican master blender Joy Spence. Distillers who make lighter rums, such as Bacardi, prefer to use faster-working yeasts. Use of slower-working yeasts causes more esters to accumulate during fermentation, allowing for a fuller-tasting rum.
As with all other aspects of rum production, no standard method is used for distillation. While some producers work in batches using pot stills, most rum production is done using column stilldistillation. Pot still output contains more congeners than the output from column stills, so produces fuller-tasting rums.
Aging and blending
Many countries require rum to be aged for at least one year. This aging is commonly performed in used bourbon casks, but may also be performed in other types of wooden casks or stainless steel tanks. The aging process determines the color of the rum. When aged in oak casks, it becomes dark, whereas rum aged in stainless steel tanks remains virtually colorless. Due to the tropical climate common to most rum-producing areas, rum matures at a much higher rate than is typical for Scotch or Cognac. An indication of this higher rate is the angels’ share, or amount of product lost to evaporation. While products aged in France or Scotland see about 2% loss each year, tropical rum producers may see as much as 10%. After aging, rum is normally blended to ensure a consistent flavor. Blending is the final step in the rum-making process. As part of this blending process, light rums may be filtered to remove any color gained during aging. For darker rums, caramel may be added to adjust the color of the final product.
Besides rum punches, cocktails such as the Cuba libre and daiquiri have well-known stories of their invention in the Caribbean. Tiki culture in the US helped expand rum’s horizons with inventions such as the mai tai and zombie. Other well-known cocktails containing rum include the piña colada, a drink made popular in America by Rupert Holmes‘ song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)“, and the mojito. Cold-weather drinks made with rum include the rum toddy andhot buttered rum. A number of local specialties also use rum, including Bermuda‘s Dark ‘N’ Stormy (Gosling’s Black Seal rum with ginger beer), and the painkiller from the British Virgin Islands.
Rum may also be used in a number of cooked dishes as a flavoring agent in items such as rum balls or rum cakes. It is commonly used to macerate fruit used in fruitcakes and is also used in marinades for some Caribbean dishes. Rum is also used in the preparation of bananas Foster and some hard sauces. Rum is sometimes mixed into ice cream, often with raisins.
Ti punch, short for “petit punch”, is a traditional drink in the French-speaking region of the Caribbean.