An Introduction to Rum

Explore the Sweet Taste of the Various Styles of Rum

Bacardi Puerto Rican rum
Bacardi Puerto Rican rum. Getty Images/Jordan Strauss

Rum is one of the most popular liquors and it is used in some of our favorite cocktails, including the Daiquiri and Mojito.

The sweet taste of rum makes it a versatile mixer and an essential for any well-stocked bar. Rum can be used in anything from the great tropical drinks of the tiki scene to the warm drinks that keep us toasty all winter long.

There is a variety of rum available today and it is fun to explore everything that this distilled spirit has to offer.

What is Rum?

In its simplest definition, rum is a liquor distilled from sugar. The sugar could be either pure cane sugar, a syrup or molasses and with either base, the underlying flavor of rum is a sweet, toasted sugar.

That is just a general description of rum and as you begin to explore the world of rum you will find that there are differences. Rum is produced throughout the world and each region and country have different laws and traditions that are used in its production. Each of these will give the individual rum various, and sometimes distinct, characteristics.

As is the case with whiskey, there are a number of styles of rum produced. Light, gold, dark, spiced, and flavored rums are among the most popular and origin-specific styles like cachaca and rhum agricole are available as well.

The History of Rum

Rum is one of the oldest distilled spirits available and it has one of the most colorful histories of any alcoholic beverages.

Entire books have been written that detail rum's history and Wayne Curtis' And a Bottle of Rum is one of the best available. We will only touch on this expansive history here.

Columbus introduced sugarcane to the West Indies in 1493. The first rum was produced in Brazil, Barbados and Jamaica, making rum the first distilled spirit of the New World.

By the mid-1700's, rum was being made throughout the Caribbean and South America. It soon became popular in New England and was produced there as well. Today, rum is produced throughout the world.

The Rum Sling was made of rum, sugar, water and lemon juice and is argued to have been the first American cocktail. However, in a recent finding by David Wondrich (and detailed in the second edition of his book, Imbibe!), it may have been the Mint Julep.

How Is Rum Produced?

The use of sugar cane distinguishes rum from all other liquors. In most cases, molasses is used. This is a by-product produced during the conversion from raw sugar cane to the crystallized sugar we use all the time.

Many of the early Caribbean rums were produced with molasses and 'skimmings' from the production of sugar. The skimmings were obtained during the boiling of sugar cane and were mixed with molasses and 'dunder' (leftover sediment in the still), which gave rums like those from Jamaica their signature 'funky' flavor. (Source: David Wondrich's Imbibe)

The use of molasses alone began in Colonial America and this produced a milder rum flavor that is similar to the majority of rum we know today. Some styles of rum, such as cachaca and rhum agricole, begin with fresh-pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses.

The molasses or cane juice is then fermented and distilled. Pot stills are used in many of the traditional rums though most now use continuous stills.

Rum is then aged in casks, the type of cask used is the determining factor on the color of rum produced in the end. It is important to note that climate plays a significant role in how long any distilled spirit is aged for and rum is no exception.

The rums produced in tropical climates will generally be aged for a shorter period of time than those in cooler climates. That is why you may see a dark Caribbean rum aged for just 3-5 years while a North American rum of similar color and oak flavor is aged for somewhere around 10 years.

Many rum distillers will also use old bourbon barrels for aging because they cannot be reused in that whiskey's production.

The majority of rum is bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) though there are some exceptions, including overproof rums which can reach 151 proof.

Styles of Rum

Light Rum. Light-bodied rum is sometimes referred to as white or silver and is a very subtle liquor, much like vodka with a sweet tooth.

These rums are generally aged in stainless steel tanks for up to a year and filtered before bottling. This process gives light rums their clean, light flavor and makes this variety the most common rum for cocktails.

Gold Rum. Medium-bodied rums are often called gold or amber rum and are rich and smooth.

This is a result of either the production of congeners (organic compounds produced during production) or the addition of caramel. Gold rums are often aged in oak casks which also contribute to their dark, smooth characteristics. Gold rums make a smooth sipper and can be used in place of light rum in some darker cocktails.

Aged Rum. Similar in color and body to gold rum, aged rums should be distinguished from their counterparts because these will not include any additives. The majority of 'dark' rums fall into this category as well.

Similar to an anejo tequila, aged rums will obtain their golden color from the barrels that they are aged in. Because these rums are in contact with the wood for a longer time, they naturally pick up the flavors and colors of the barrel.

Dark Rum. Heavy-bodied or dark rums are typically used in rum punches and are combined with light rum in many tiki cocktails such as a Hurricane.

These are the richest rums that receive their flavor from aging in charred oak casks. Besides adding a rich, sweet flavor to cocktails, dark rums are the preferred sipper of the rum family, especially fine rums like Angostura 1824.

A subcategory of dark rums are those called blackstrap. These are produced from the darkest molasses produced by the third boiling while refining sugar and the resulting rum is equally as dark, rich, and thick.

Examples of blackstrap rums are Cruzan Black Strap and Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum.

Overproof Rum. Overproof or high-proof rum is often only used as a float in cocktails. This potent rum is 75-75.5% alcohol by volume (150-151 proof) and can be dangerous if it is not diluted in some way.

This is also a popular rum for creating flamed drinks because the high alcohol content makes it easy to burn. If you are drunk, don't try to play with fire in your drinks. Also, never use overproof liquors of any kind in cooking or near an open flame, they are highly flammable.

Cachaça. This Brazilian rum known as cachaça differs from others because it skips the molasses stage and uses pure sugar cane juice in the distillation process. By law, cachaça must be produced in Brazil.

Cachaça is the sweetest rum available and can best be tasted in a Caipirinha.

Rhum Agricole. Similar to cachaça, rhum agricole is also distilled from pure sugar cane juice. While, in general, rum does not have tight regulations on its production, rhum agricole is an exception.

Rhum agricole must be produced in the French territories, most commonly the island of Martinique, and is governed by an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlle) similar to Cognac. It is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice using a Creole continuous column still. The cane can only be harvested in the dry season and the juice extracted within three days.

Rhum agricole is noted for its grassy sweet taste because sugar cane is a grass. The purity of the juice imparts a special flavor to this style of rum.

Flavored Rum. Flavoring rum by adding spices and aromatics during the distillation has become popular in the latter part of the 20th century. Beginning with coconut and spiced rums, the variety of flavored rums has grown to rival the number of vodka options available.

Many commercially available flavored rums will use artificial and natural ingredients to add the desired flavor to a white rum base. On very rare occasions, a natural infusion of fruits or herbs is used. However, just as with vodka, it is very easy to make your own infused rums.​

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