What is Rum?
Rum is an alcoholic liquid made from sugarcane and its byproducts, molasses and
sugarcane juice. The byproducts are fermented and distilled, producing a clear liquid
high in ethanol content which is then aged in wooden casks.
It is not known with certainty where the word “rum” comes from, but it is most
likely a shortening of the now obsolete word “rumbullion”, meaning uproar or tumult.
History of Rum
The origins of rum can be found in antiquity with early fermented drinks based on
sugarcane juice found in China and India. Marco Polo in his travels in the mid 14th
century encountered a “very good wine made from sugar” in what is now Iran. The first
modern rum, distilled from sugarcane byproducts, is found in the Caribbean during the
17th century when slaves, most likely in the island of Barbados, found that molasses
could be fermented into an alcoholic beverage and which could then be distilled in order
to remove its impurities.
Soon after its appearance in the Caribbean, rum made its way into the American
colonies. Rum became hugely popular in the colonies, resulting in the founding of the
first rum distillery in the American continent in what is currently Staten Island. A
distillery in Boston followed soon thereafter, which became famous for producing some
of the best rum in the world at the time. Due to the extremely high demand for molasses
with which to create rum in New England, huge numbers of African slaves were taken to
the Caribbean islands in order to work the sugar plantations. Slaves would be taken to
the islands in the Caribbean from Africa, with molasses going to the American colonies and
sugar going to Europe in a triangular trading setup that continued for many years.
Rum continued to be popular throughout the American Revolution with George
Washington even insisting on a gallon of rum at his Presidential inauguration in 1789.
The development of American whiskey led to the decline in use of rum in the United
Rum’s value as a trading commodity led to its becoming a favorite of privateers
and pirates who would drink it while out at sea and also would steal it from trading ships
throughout the Caribbean. In 1655, after taking control of Jamaica, England decided to
start giving out a ration of rum to its sailors, substituting their previous ration of French
brandy. This ration of rum, which was watered down before being distributed, became
known as grog and was a favorite of British sailors. The daily ration of rum to British
sailors continued to be in practice until 1970.
While rum and its production were extremely important to the Caribbean islands
and the American colonies, they were not the only ones producing rum. In colonial
Australia, rum became prized both as a drink and because of a lack of currency, as a form
of payment. Because of this practice, people in Australia became associated with
drunkenness in the eyes of their British colonizers. In an effort to remedy their
dependence on rum, the new governor of New South Wales attempted to ban the use of
rum as currency in 1806. For this, William Bligh, the governor, was placed under arrest
in his house, allowing the mutineers to maintain control of the colony for the next four
Categories of Rum
The easiest way to categorize rums is to talk about where they come from.
Knowing where rum comes from is very helpful in describing what type of rum it is and
what it can be used for. For some reason, the type of rum a Caibbean island produces is
tied to the language spoken there. Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, Spanish
speaking islands, all produce light white rums with a clean taste. English speaking islands,
such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Bermuda, produce darker rums with a stronger molasses
flavor, while the French islands, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Martinique make rum using only
sugarcane juice with little or no molasses. This type of rum has a more pronounced sugarcane
flavor than those rums that use molasses.
There are different grades of rum which are used to classify the different varieties
of rum depending on where they were produced. These grades are not standard and can
vary in meaning from country to country.
Light Rum – Also known as silver or white rums, they have very little flavor and are
therefore used mostly as a base for a cocktail as opposed to being drunk neat. They are
aged for 1 to 4 years, and are also filtered after aging to remove any colors in the liquid.
Gold Rum – These rums are generally aged and have an amber color to them. They are
aged in charred white oak casks that have previously been used to age bourbon whiskey.
Spiced Rum – These rums are based on gold rums, but are spiced by the addition of
different flavorings during the aging process. ark Rum – Also known as black rum, they
are darker than the gold rums and are usually aged for a longer period of time than other
rums (5 to 7 years). It has a much stronger flavor than other rums due to the presence of
molasses and spices. Due to its flavor, it is commonly used in cooking as well as being mixed
Flavored Rum – These are rums that have been infused with different flavors such as
coconut or different types of citrus fruit. They generally contain less alcohol tan other
rums and are commonly used as a base for a mixed drink.
Overproof Rum – These rums contain much greater amounts of alcohol than regular
rums. While rum traditionally has a 40% alcohol content, overproof rums can have much
more, such as the most common type of overproof rum, 151 proof rum. This type of rum
has 75.5% alcohol content by volume.
Premium Rum – These rums are traditionally aged for several years and sold in reduced
quantities, which in turn increases their price. It’s meant to be served straight without a
mixer unlike the lighter rums.