Rum, Rhum or Ron? All you need to know about the legendary sugar cane distillate
To put it simply, rum is the brandy obtained from the distillation of sugar cane.
We have two types: the best and most valuable is agricultural rum, which is made by distilling sugar cane juice, and traditional rum, which is made by distilling molasses.
What is molasses?
Molasses is the waste from the processing of sugar cane to make refined sugar, so the finest raw material has already gone. In practice, the molasses is only good because it has sugary matter and a vague memory of what once was cane juice.
What are the ingredients of rum and how is it produced?
Sugar cane is planted, grows for about a year and a half, and is then cut and transported to a mill, where the canes are crushed by large stone or metal wheels.
The juice is collected, and then there are two roads. If you ferment and distill “everything,” we can get agricultural rum from pure cane juice. Or we can boil the juice in large copper pots several times until the sugar solidifies, which is then extracted, refined, and turned into powdered sugar.
The rest, molasses, is mixed with water, ferments through the inoculation of chemical yeasts, and is then distilled as the whiskey wash.
Jamaican rum is one of the few molasses rums that is not made with chemical yeasts.
Cuban rums like Havana are standard and well-studied spirits, made with a series of yeasts that always give the same flavor. It is not distilled and then bottled, but the various batches of distillates are assembled, because all the millions of bottles of Havana must have the exact same flavor.
We are not saying this to criticize Havana or Bacardi; it is a fact, a stylistic and commercial choice.
What is agricultural rum and how is it produced?
In agricultural rum, we have a more artisanal approach and production because it is made in small batches and the protagonist is pure cane juice.
The must of pure cane juice, known as vesou, obviously ferments before being distilled with copper stills, sometimes twice; heads and tails are, of course, removed.
It is made in the same way as other spirits: a very sugary must is fermented, and then it is boiled in a bain-marie or over a fire to evaporate the alcohol from the must. In this way, nothing is created or destroyed; it only happens that alcohol and water separate.
The alcohol vapors rise in a coil, which is cooled, and so the steam returns to the liquid state but is much more concentrated.
The distilled product is then placed in wooden barrels, where it begins to age in casks, but here a world opens up, and each distillery and each Caribbean island have their own recipe and traditions.
This is a broad distinction, but to understand the world of rum, before moving on, we must make a territorial distinction, because you will find three words and three names.
Rum, which comes from the English colonies, Rhum, from the French ones, and Ron, from the old Spanish possessions. Each one is different, even in its own typology.
Where was rum born? Here are the various types of rum-based on the country of production
Rum was first made on the Caribbean islands, where sugar cane farming grew quickly because slaves worked on it for free and made it possible to grow a lot of it.
The first rums were very raw, high-grade brandies, with an undrinkable flavor, thanks to the monstrous sugary concentrations of molasses.
Rum is made in Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, Barbados, Saint Kitts, Trinidad, and in the area of Demerara in English Guyana. Obviously, both the stills and the process follow the great Scottish and Irish whisky traditions.
Ron: made in Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Columbia, and Venezuela.
Rhum: born from the Cognac tradition. The French government has regulated names and labels with specifications.
Yes, because—you may not know it—rum means total chaos, a wild west. Even a Shanghai distillery could produce rum for absurdity, there are no laws that protect the quality and the consumer, but neither the producers…
If we want to outline the various types of rums, here are some suggestions that are not exhaustive.
The Cuban Ron is the lightest, is filtered and clarified, has a soft flavor, and is never too intense or intrusive. Therefore, it is excellent for mixing cocktails with fruit juices, especially lime and maracuja.
The Jamaican rum is strong and rough, dark and spicy; you can drink it smooth, but you will find it in many complex and full-flavored cocktails like the Mai Tai, Dark and Stormy, or Planter’s Punch.
The Demerara rum is very strong, pyrotechnic, and at times rough and wild like the island covered with forests in which it is born, but when it is well made, it is fabulous.
Your nose will be tempted by spices, tobacco, vanilla, caramel, mint, paprika, and a thousand other things. It is born on the banks of the Demerara River in British Guyana.
The El Dorado is the most famous, just to give you the name of a historic distillery and a reference point.
Martinique Rhum Agricole is the only one with an AOC and is inspired by the Cognac disciplinary. Do not forget that the island is a French territory and is considered part of Europe.
The specification establishes which types of sugar cane can be used and where the density of the plants is.
Here, they make agricultural rhums that are strong, sharp, and full of complex, oxidized notes.
The spiciness is moderate; it points to finesse and not so much to the muscles.
J. Bally, Clement, Neisson, J.M., and La Favorite are all interesting distilleries.
The rum of Haiti is a constellation of hundreds of small distilleries and a wonderful product, but it has a thousand faces. It is difficult to find a common thread, but we can easily say that the spirits of all these bouquet distilleries are splendid, unique products. The Clairin Sajous Rum distillery Chelo, for example, is a miniature crystalline masterpiece.
Rum Don Papa is another oriental rum. It comes from the Philippines and is characterized by a very intense and sweet spicy flavor. The vanilla scent is very strong, but it is not bad when mixed with rum to make tropical cocktails.
But cachaça is also a sugar cane distillate, albeit less refined, and it always comes from sugar cane. Like Colombian aguardiente.
The history of rum
Even though it seems like a contradiction, sugar cane and different distillates were already around before Columbus found America. Sugar cane wasn’t brought to the Americas until much later, when people realized that the climate was perfect for growing it.
But let’s say that rum is born and develops in the Caribbean. And rum was a fundamental part of the daily diets of sailors, slaves, and settlers.
Think of “Planter’s Punch,” the sugar cane growers’ drink. It has a lot to do with the history of the Caribbean and South America.
When we think of pirates, we think of them drinking rum and looking for treasure. But it was also a way to tame large layers of the sugar-producing population of the colonies.
But not only that, before American whiskey (bourbon) took off, rum was also drunk in the northern English colonies. It would have been crazy not to use all that molasses.
Even if the rum of the good old days had to be a broth at the limit of toxicity and was very different from the products we are used to today.
All of this brings us to one last question: why aren’t rums defined and regulated to improve the best parts and give the consumer more information?
Is there a strong link between rum and territory?
We could almost talk about rum terroir, but many industrial products do not reflect the characteristics of their origin very well.
As long as we talk about agricultural rums, especially the French from Martinique, we can go easy, but the Cubans we usually drink are too standard and flat.
But then, reversing the discussion, if we examine Havana rum, we can say that its bland personality is perfect for making cocktails like the Daiquiri and the Mojito.
And in fact, on the mixology front, we can say that the discourse of industrial rums still goes on without problems. And maybe that’s why they don’t want to create strict rules to be respected.
As you can see, the world of rum, ron, or rhum (call it what you want) is very deep but fragmented. You just need to start tasting and making comparisons. Experience in this field is everything.