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An empty bottle of rum on a barrel.

Rum is a popular alcoholic beverage whose origins go back to the Caribbean and sugar production. The oldest known rum distillery in the world (still working) is the Mount Gay Distillery in Barbados. Rum has been produced there since at least 1703.

How is rum made?

Rum is a spirit made from by-products of cane sugar. Molasses1, or cane sugar is mixed with water in huge vats. Fermentation can occur spontaneously but in some cases yeast is added. The sugars convert to alcohol and the basis of rum is formed. Distillation is utilised to give the product known as rum.

Two types of distillation can be used - Single or Double distillation.

Single distillation makes use of a Coffey Still to achieve fractional distillation. This produces a product which is approximately 96% abv2 with very little flavour.
Double distillation utilised a series of traditional copper pots (similar to those used in whisky and cognac production). This gives a spirit that is approximately 86% abv but with a more intense and robust character. When aged, it develops an aromatic character.

Both types of distillates are aged. After ageing, they are blended together in different proportions to make the range of rum products.

The different kinds of rum

There are three main types of rum - white, golden and dark. In addition there are aged rums and flavoured rums. The difference is in body and flavour and can be attributed to the two types of distillation and the proportions in which they are blended. As well as the 'over the counter' rums there is also overproof Rum - think moonshine, poteen or mountain dew.

White Rum - This kind of rum is mainly made of single distilled spirits. They are usually light-bodied and without a strong flavour. It can be used in a similar way to vodka as a mixer or with fruit in cocktails and alcopops. White rums can be aged but they are then filtered to remove any colour.

Golden Rum - These rums are medium-bodied and can have similar amounts of single and double distillate. They can also be aged. This gives them a smoother, more refined taste.

Dark Rums - This kind of rum is mainly made of double distillate. They have a very rich flavour, and often been aged for several years. These rums can compare favourably to cognac and fine spirits.

Flavoured rums - These rums are usually white rums that have been infused with flavours. Some popular flavours used are spices or fruits such as coconut.

Aged rums - These rums normally consist of a blend of different vintages of rum. Much like Scotch whisky, they will give the age of the youngest component of the blend on the bottle. It should be noted that the climate in rum-producing countries tends to be warm and as such, rum ages more quickly than spirits produced in colder climates. An eight-year-old rum usually has a similar maturity to a 15-or-more year-old single malt Scotch.

What rum is used for

Traditionally, in rum-producing countries, rum was thought of as a cure-all. By allowing various herbs to 'steep' in rum, it was used to treat a wide variety of ailments. The Royal Navy even went so far as to adopt a daily ration of rum for its sailors - supposedly to ward off scurvy. Bay Rum3 is one rum-based concoction which was used to treat various scalp and skin problems. Today, rum is drunk in a wide variety of cocktails and mixed drinks - or even neat.

Strange facts4 about rum

  • Rum is considered to be the world's oldest distilled spirit.

  • For over 300 years (1655 - 1970), the British Navy administered a daily 'tot' (2 ounces) of rum to each sailor, as a health ration.

  • English parsons were known to pour a glass of rum for visitors who offered satisfying financial tithes.

  • 'Rum and Bible' ships carried alcohol and missionaries to the New World as part of the Triangular Trade5.

  • The colonists in America consumed 12 million gallons of rum per year - almost four gallons per capita.

  • The French recipe for Planter's Punch was based upon an old slave jingle: 'one of sour (lime), two of sweet (sugar), three of strong (rum), and four of weak (ice).'

  • Admiral Nelson's body was preserved prior to burial in a cask of his favourite rum when he died aboard ship during the famous Battle of Trafalgar.

  • The first Rum Sour drink was formulated in Barbados and served from a conch shell.

  • Ethan Allen stopped for some rum at the Catamount Tavern before capturing Ft. Ticonderoga.

  • The Rum Hospital of Australia owes its very existence to the revenues produced from rum exports.

Ten Nicknames for Rum

Many of these names stem from the Royal Navy practice of a daily rum ration. The article on Pusser's Rum sheds light on some of them.

  • Barbados Water
  • Kill-devil
  • Splice the main brace
  • Grog
  • Demon water
  • Rumbullion
  • The pirate's drink
  • Navy Neaters
  • Nelson's blood
  • Rum bastion

The Rum Industry

There are many countries and regions that produce rum but the Caribbean remains the epicentre of the rum industry. There, nearly every island has distilleries producing their own unique blends of rum. Some of these have alliances with larger international spirit distributors and reach a wide market.

Rum is also produced in places like Australia and Asia. In addition, many European countries import rum distillate and blend it into a finished product6.

So, with rum being produced and distributed internationally, it would be rare to find a bar without at least one rum product behind the counter. Now getting them to mix a good daiquiri7 is a whole different story!

1Thick black syrup that is left over from the boiling of cane juice.2Alcohol by volume.3Bay Rum was initially prepared by collecting the distillate from boiling bay leaves in white rum.4These facts have been taken from the Mount Gay Rum website. They also appear on a couple of other websites.5From England with trade goods, to Africa where they traded these goods for slaves, then on to America or the West Indies, where the slaves were sold and colonial produce carried back to England to start over again.6Pusser's Rum is an example of this.7A rum-based cocktail that comes in many different flavours.

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