Another fantastic column written by Sean Ludford, spirits writer extraordinaire of BevX.com.
Rum. She’s a glorious lady with breeding, history, versatility, and many moods and looks. If that weren’t enough, it’s made in exotic locales near white sandy beaches and gently ebbing tides. So why is rum seemingly destined to be the perpetual bridesmaid never occupying the highest step of the altar? Hasn’t it been rum’s turn for quite some time now?
But does this matter? Do we need to wait for a category to get hot before we become interested or is the pursuit of flavor more important? While aged rum’s initiative is somewhat lacking, the ease of access to many quality-aged rums allows you to beat the crowds and earn your trend setting stripes.
A Brief History of Rum
Rum – in its many forms – is the product, or by-product, of the production of sugar. I say “by-product” as most rum is made with molasses, which is a result of the production of white sugar. Sugarcane is a tall, thick grass native to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. It began its journey from its native home in the hands of Chinese traders who introduced it to Asia and India. Arabs brought sugarcane to the Middle East and North Africa where it caught the eye and palates of Europeans during the Crusades. In turn, Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought sugarcane to the Canaries and Madeira in the early 15th century and later to the New World, primarily Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean islands.
Sugar’s, and therefore rum’s, history is scandalous at best. The colonization of the Caribbean islands was done in large part to satisfy the Europeans’ growing taste for sugar. Large sugar plantations required many workers and slaves were the workforce of choice in producing a product that was already very expensive. The trading of molasses to New England colonies was the first leg in the infamous “slavery triangle.” The second stage involved the transportation of rum to West African ports where it was traded to tribal leaders for slaves, and was often a convenient way for tribal leaders to get rid of their rivals. The final stage involved the shipping of slaves back to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and South America. European and British merchants who prided themselves on their cultural evolution beyond slavery quickly betrayed their ideals in order to feed their hunger for sugar.
Rum in its many forms is the product, or by-product, of the production of sugar. Cane juice is boiled in order to encourage chunks of crystals to form for easy extraction. The remaining sweet juice that has now become thick and dark from prolonged boiling was called “melazas” from the French and Spanish word for honey, “miel,” which became molasses in English.
Rum, as we know it today, was first produced in Cuba by a man named Facunado Bacardi. Bacardi brought the first Coffey still (a column still named for its inventor, Irishman Aeneas Coffey), which produced lighter, more palatable rums. Today, pot-stilled rums are a great rarity.
Enjoying Rum at Your Bar (and at home)
Aged rum, at one point, seemed to be a logical repertoire addition for those who regularly tip a dram of single malt or swirl a snifter of cognac at the nation’s best bars. At its best, aged rums are a complex and contemplative drink worthy of enjoying as a solo artist. For a collection of reasons and circumstances, rum has not made that leap to brown spirits’ super stardom. This is due in part – large part in my view – to the popularity of white rum as a mixer. The recent rediscovery of the mojito helped sell scores of gallons of rum (which surely pleased rum sellers and makers alike) but did little to propel the image of rum as “serious” spirit. In fact, it likely has done the reverse. To further muddy the water the mega rum brands are churning out new flavors with the regularity of Lindsey Lohan’s rehab-clinic visits. Couple this with the rise of Cachaça and mojito’s Brazilian cousin, the caipirinha and you further cement the spirit’s image as a volume player on the club scene.
If stardom is desired, somehow, rum needs to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of tequila’s marketing playbook. Tequila has successfully positioned itself as both a mixer and a sipper. Blanco tequila, like white rum, is an ideal cocktail base while their wood aged counterparts are ideally consumed straight-up or perhaps on the rocks. However, a quick look around this country’s nightclubs and bars reveals far more añejo tequila than aged rum being imbibed after a meal or in a quite corner.
Prospective aged rum drinkers are already walking through the doors of local taverns and retail establishments cleverly disguised as Cognac, Scotch Whisky, and premium Bourbon patrons. Fortunately, aged rum is most often a relative value when compared to the afore-mentioned amber spirits, although this price gap has been tightened lately (not at all helpful to aged rum). So ask yourself, are you ready to add another sipping spirit to your repertoire? If so, aged rum deserves a place in your drink cabinet.