Rum distinguishes itself from other spirits by the plant from which it is made, sugar cane. Sugar cane, a member of the grass family has its origins in Papau New Guinea, but this hearty plant is grown in tropical climes around the world. The sweet juice of the mature plant is extracted by pressing the hard stalk in mechanical mills.
Rum is made by distilling fermented sugar and water. This sugar comes from the sugar cane and is fermented from cane juice, concentrated cane juice, or molasses. Molasses is the sweet, sticky residue that remains after sugar cane juice is boiled and the crystallized sugar is extracted. Most Rum is made from molasses. Molasses is over 50% sugar, but it also contains significant amounts of minerals and other trace elements, which can contribute to the final flavor. Rums made from cane juice, primarily in Haiti and Martinique, have a naturally smooth palate.
After the sugar cane has been pressed, the cane juice or molasses is extracted and placed into fermenting tanks.The addition of yeast to the sugar cane juice or molasses converts the available sucrose to alcohol in a process called fermentation. Typically this takes about a day, but some distilleries use yeast that takes as much as ten days. To make other spirits, the starches found in grains must be cooked and then enzymes are used to convert the glucose to sucrose, which can be fermented. The resulting fermented wine contains only about 10% alcohol by volume. To concentrate the alcohol in the sugar cane wine, the wine is boiled while the vapor is collected and condensed. The earliest pot stills resembled a teakettle with a long spout and were capable of distilling only a few liters of alcohol at a time. Modern continuous stills are vertical columns about 10 meters high and are capable of distilling as much as 20,000 liters per day.Since molasses contains higher amounts of Sulfur than does sugar cane juice, spirits distilled from fermented molasses are generally distilled to a high distillation purity to reduce the congeners that have been concentrated in the molasses. In the French islands, spirits made from sugar cane juice are typically distilled to a relatively low distillation purity resulting in a heavier tasting spirit.
Immediately after distillation, the fresh or raw spirits contain small amounts of Hydrogen Sulfide gas formed during fermentation, which can give the spirit a hot harsh taste. Although some connoisseurs prefer fresh rum, most consumers prefer the more elegant taste of an aged spirit. Today, almost all rum is aged in used oak barrels that once held Whiskey or Bourbon. Aging can last from one to thirty years or more, making Rum one of the most varied of the distilled spirits. During the aging process the Rum acquires a golden color that changes to a dark brown with time.The taste of Rum varies widely. Each region has its own distinct style and taste so no two Rums are alike.
Classifications of Rum
- White Rums: White Rums are generally light-bodied, clear in color and a subtle flavor profile. If they are aged in oak casks to create a smooth palate, they are then filtered to remove any color. White Rums are primarily used as mixers and blend particularly well with fruit flavors.
- Golden Rums: Golden Rums, also known as Amber Rums are generally medium-bodied. Most have spent several years aging in oak casks, which give them smooth, mellow palates.
- Dark Rums: Dark Rums are traditionally full-bodied, rich, caramel-dominated Rums. The best are produced mostly from pot stills and frequently aged in oak casks for extended periods. The richest of these Rums are consumed straight up.
- Spiced Rums: These can be white, golden or dark Rums. They are infused with spices or fruit flavors. Rum punches, such as Planter’s Punch, are blends of Rum and fruit juices that are very popular in the Caribbean.
- Añejo and Age-Dated: Rums are aged from different vintages or batches mixed together to insure a continuity of flavor in brands of Rum from year to year. Some aged Rums are dated based on the youngest Rum in the blend (e.g., a 10 year old Rum contains a blend of Rums that are at least 10 years old). A small number of French island Rums are vintage dated.
- Cachaça: In Brazil, Cachaça is a spirit made from fermented sugar cane juice and typically distilled between 40-45% alcohol by volume. In Brazil, Rum is made from fermented molasses, but in the US, Cachaça is considered Rum and must be labeled as such.
- Rhum Agricole: In the French West Indies, Rhum Agricole is made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and then distilled to about 70% alcohol by volume.
Content provided by Keith Cox, Martin Wine Cellar