Rum: The Original Spirit of the Americas
Americans have been drinking rum for hundreds of years, but we’ll go on record and say there’s no better time than today to get to know this delectable spirit. Not only do we have more choices than ever before, the quality of rum imported to the States continues to skyrocket. For those of you whose experience with rum begins and ends with Sailor Jerry, get ready to expand your mind, because this is one spirits category that definitely deserves a second look.
Rum is one of the most diverse spirits categories in the world, with numerous different styles made throughout the tropical regions of the globe. But before we get into stylistic variation, let’s start with the basics.
Rum is made from sugar cane. It’s produced all over the world in places that grow sugar, including Southeast Asia and Polynesia, but it’s most traditional in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Depending on where it’s made, rum can be produced on a pot still, a column still, or a combination of the two. It can be aged or unaged, spiced or not spiced, light and fruity or heavy and rich, soft and mellow or a Navy-strength bruiser. If you’re human and you like to drink spirits, there’s a rum out there for you.
Major Rum Styles
Most rums can be divided into one of four major categories, which roughly follow the lines of colonial rule:
Jamaican (or British) Style Rums: Made from a mash of molasses and distilled on a pot still, these rums are linked with places that were former British colonies, like Jamaica. They’re often dry, spicy, and bold, and some get an extra boost from the use of dunder pits, an anaerobic fermentation technique that stinks to high heaven on its own but adds a trademark fruity-funky character you can’t get anywhere else.
Rhum Agricole: Rhum Agricole is made throughout the current and former French colonies of the Caribbean, and retains a close link to the agricultural traditions of sugar plantations. It’s made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, which is fermented and distilled within a very short time of being harvested. It has a grassy, sometimes savory flavor.
Spanish Style Rum: Spanish-style rums (or rons) are made, you guessed it, in the parts of the Caribbean that were Spanish colonies. Drawing on the brandy traditions of Spain and France, blending often plays a major role in the production of Spanish-style rums, which are usually made from molasses and can be distilled on a pot or column still. These rums frequently include a range of different ages in a single bottle, and can be enhanced by sugar, spices, and other blending materials that give them a sweeter flavor, rich mouth feel, and mellow yet spiced taste.
Cachaça: Made exclusively in Brazil, cachaça (pronounced ka-CHA-sa) is a geographically defined spirit made from fresh pressed sugar cane and sometimes aged in barrels, including barrels made from tropical hardwoods. If you like rhum agricole, you’ll like cachaça – we sure do.
How to Taste Rum
First, you’ll want to procure the right glassware. Glencairn glasses, the classic whiskey-tasting glass, are good, but any tulip-shaped glass that funnels aromas to your nose will work.
Pour yourself an ounce or so, then take the time to observe the color and texture of the rum in the glass. Is it clear, which usually (although not always) indicates an unaged product? If it has color, what kind of color is it – straw? Amber? Mahogany? Does the rum look syrupy or viscous in the glass, or does it move quickly, like water? All of these attributes can tell you something about the spirit you’re about to enjoy.
Then it’s time to take a sniff. Rum, like other spirits, is much stronger than wine, so not only is it not necessary to swirl the glass, it’s actually not advised, as swirling generates a wave of alcohol aromas that could burn your nose. Likewise, don’t stick your nose deep into the glass and inhale strongly, or all you’ll smell is ethanol. Instead, approach the spirit gently, sniffing gently several inches from the top of the glass, then slowly working you way towards the rim. By moving slowly, you’ll get there faster.
As you nose the rum, think about what kinds of aromas you’re noticing. If it’s fruit, what kind of fruit is it—banana? Citrus? Apple? Berry? Is the sweetness vanilla custard, brown sugar, or slightly bitter molasses? Are the spices aromatic, like anise? Or warm, like cinnamon and clove? Honing in on a category, then narrowing in on a specific aroma within that category, can help you identify scents you’re struggling to name.
Finally, it’s time to take a sip. First take a small sip and allow it to coat your tongue, acclimating your palate to any alcoholic burn. Then, take a second sip, and hold it in your mouth for several seconds before swallowing and then breathing out your nose to encourage retronasal olfaction. A wave of flavors should present itself, and just like nosing, identifying categories and then narrowing in on specifics can help you name the flavors you’re tasting.
While tasting, also consider the sequence of flavors. Does the rum start off sweet, then slowly become bitterer over time? Or does it maintain the same flavors from start to finish, with little development on the palate? Generally speaking, the older or more complex the spirit, the more dynamic its flavors will be.
Whew. That’s a lot of rules. We always recommend “formally” tasting a spirit once or twice, just to get to know it, but remember: You’re in the driver’s seat, and this is supposed to be fun. If you prefer your rum with ice, go for it. If you like it mixed with cola, go pop that can and slice up a lime. If you only drink banana daiquiris, hey, we’re not here to judge—we’re just here to make sure you never run out of rum. Cheers!