As I’ve noted in previous posts, my spirits journey started with Bourbon. At 18 I was enjoying Wild Turkey 12 year, drinking it neat or mixing it with coke. It was plentiful and cheap back in the early 80’s.
Fast forward (quite a bit forward) and today my spirits pursuit includes Rum. What I knew about rum over the years was limited to sugary shelf offerings like Bacardi or Pyrat. The nuances of rum were a mystery until I started to pay attention and dig a little deeper into this wonderful spirit. This is a story of my own quick education of rum and the impact it has had on my drinking rotation.
First, lets start from the beginning, the origin of rum itself. Rum as most anyone knows, comes from sugarcane. The three styles of base product are either cane juice (Agricole), cane syrup or molasses. Sugarcane itself is grown the world over but go back a quite a few thousand years and Sugarcane was indigenous to New Guinea. While there are several strains of Sugarcane, one in particular, Saccharum officinarum is the stain most widely used among cane producing countries.
When we think of rum, the Caribbean immediately comes to mind but cane as a commodity has traveled the world over throughout history; India, Japan, Persia, Portugal to name just a few. Sugarcane found on the Island inhabited by Dominican Republic and Haiti (formerly Hispaniola) was introduced by Columbus during his second voyage to the America’s.
The first introduction of rum in history is up for debate (much like bourbon) but British and French rums were noted around the 17th century. Rum has a deep and storied history, too much to articulate in this short post so I will advance the story to the beginnings of my own understanding of rum. It’s also been noted that the first distilled spirit in American was rum.
At the time I was mixing bourbon and coke, I was also mixing rum and coke and typically some off the shelf Bacardi offering of the time. Once I grew out of the overly sweet cocktails and began to focus more on the quality of the drink and eventually enjoying spirits neat, rum fell by the wayside and ignored for a few decades except for the occasional rummy drink on a cruise.
Unbeknownst to me, rum is pretty unregulated, unlike say bourbon or scotch. Rum producers or NDP that purchase sourced rum, can pretty much do what they want when it comes to adulteration. In fact, Richard Seale from Foursquare has been quite vocal over the years promoting full transparency among producers. Additives such as sugar, caramel coloring, or flavor packets are used post distillation. As an example, and I’ll pick on Bacardi again, their 8-year offering contains 20 grams of sugar per liter or about 1.6 Tbsp of sugar. I’ll pick on another one, Diplomatico Exclusiva, which has 44 grams per liter. Every wonder why rum at times is so sugary sweet? Well, now you know. On top of that, to make the rum cosmetically appealing, producers may add caramel coloring to give it that extra aged look. Let me caveat by saying, if this is what you like, then you'll get no judgement from me as I advocate to drink what you like and the way you like it.
For me, I don’t care for rum that is overly sweet. My first rum epiphany came about 6 or 7 years ago when I was introduced to a Demerara Distillers Diamond SVW 15 year Velier. I can only say, I was blown away by this rum. It was viscous, balanced and very un-rum like. Blind I think some would assume it was a sweeter bourbon.
That Diamond SVW triggered the thought process of rum exploration. What else was out there that was as good as that or at least offered a drinking experience that did not include a follow up visit to the dentist? This also triggered my curiosity of rum in general.
Rhum Agricole: base product is cane juice. The name comes from the French which loosely translate to “farm rum”. The cane is pressed through mills to extract the juice. This style of rum typically produces an earthier profile, maybe grassy and less sweet. This style is also less efficient in distillation than the other two.
Cane Syrup: Simply, it’s cane juice reduced down to a thicker concentration of syrup.
Molasses: The byproduct of sugar extraction. This sticky gooey brown stuff is what is left over and is used my most rum distilleries.
As expected, two forms of distillation are employed: pot still and column still. Pot still is the older practice but that’s not to say that column distillation is “new” because it’s been around since about 1830. The in-between of these two approaches is the hybrid which employs a combination of both pot and column.
Rum aging in oak is well known. What started as a practice to store product, turned in to an aging element. The very nature of oak as a vessel means air and vapor, or angels share, can move freely through the barrel which as most know, is part of the aging process. Like scotch, rum is aged primarily in spent bourbon casks. Other casks are used of course that previously contained sherry, or brandy (e.g. Cognac or Armagnac). Because rum is aged in used cooperage, much of the heavy wood influence has been spent, thus, rum maturation takes a more nuanced aging trajectory. Like anything, older does not translate to better, so active management of the barrels is required to ensure a well balanced produced. Last, aging location is not just the Caribbean. There is quite a bit of rum aging in Scotland which provides a totally different environment resulting in different outcomes.
One style to be aware of is Jamaican which uses Muck and Dunder, Hampden uses this process, Worthy Park does not. If you have explored rum and had one whose profile exhibited rubber or petrol, welcome to Muck and Dunder. I won’t say any more about it but wanted to mention it as it can be as polarizing as a well peated scotch.
My own experience is fairly recent and like bourbon, I jumped in with both feet. As a group, we have extended our barrel selections to include rum which I’ll touch on briefly.
Two distilleries we have engaged with are Privateer in Ipswich MA, and Richland Rum in Richland GA. Both of these domestic producers follow distillation practices that pretty much mirrors bourbon distillation, meaning, no funny business to alter the flavor of the rum. They distill, barrel and age. That’s it.
Privateer is making some really fantastic domestic rum. They use grade A molasses that to my last understanding and conversation with Privateer was sourced from a family farm in Venezuela. Distillation is both Pot and Column or hybrid depending on the style they want to produce. Many of their rums are aged in New Oak and some in used casks that can include bourbon, rye and brandy (there may be others). To date, our group has selected 6 barrels from Privateer and each one has been fantastic. The selections have a range of 2.5 – 4 years old and while this may seem young, it’s not with rum as you don’t get that new make off note like you do with a grain-based distillation. The aging trajectory seems to be much shorter. We also provided a Weller cask to them late 2019 which they filled with 3 year old rum. We let it ride for 6 months and bottled. The barrels arch of influence is about 3 months so at 6 months we really liked the fact that the rum had not fully integrated with the barrel so the profile exhibited a combination rum from new oak but then that bourbon influence from the wet bourbon cask. It was a huge success with the group. Andrew Cabot, Privateers CEO/COO sent me a bottle of rum they aged in a Cognac cask called L’Alliance. The added fruit character combined with the rum was very compelling. So much so, I bought 6 more bottles.
Richland Rum in GA is a family run business and is considered an Estate rum meaning everything that goes into producing that rum is done on premise. The big distinction being they grow their own cane, harvest it, and then extract the cane juice which they reduce to a syrup. The syrup is used in the distillation process. They use copper pot stills and age their rum in new oak. We selected two barrels from them a couple years back. My opinion is they are also making really great domestic rum. Worth a look.
As I noted in a recent post, it’s been about 3.5 years since my last post but I have not been dormant. I’ve been plenty busy exploring, buying, drinking and sharing various spirits and that won’t stop. For me, I like to keep my consumption eclectic. Drinking bourbon continuously can get a bit boring (at least to me) so having rum or even Armagnac (another post for a later date) keeps things interesting and fresh. If you love bourbon, maybe explore the world of rum. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
As a parting gift, here are a couple suggestions in the event you want to explore, assuming your retailer carries some of these labels:
Mount Gay Black Barrel
Flor de Cana 7 or 12 year
Appleton Estate 12 year
Cruzan Single Barrel Estate
Privateer Navy Yard or Queens Share
Richland Single Estate Rum
The Real McCoy 5 or 12 year (Foursquare)
Doorly’s 5 or 12 year (also Foursquare but I’ve found these to be less expensive than McCoy)