Monday, April 28, 2014

Beginner's Guide to Rum

The origins of rum are shrouded in mystery, but are clearly tied up in the history of sugar.

Cutting cane in the 19th century via University of Virginia
During the 17th century, sugar was big business. The colonial powers who had claimed land in the Caribbean realized that many of the islands presented a perfect environment for growing sugarcane. Refined sucrose was made from the sweet juice crushed from cane stalks that was repeated boiled to concentrate it and drive off water. However, each step produced less and less pure sugar, eventually leaving a gooey mass of caramelized sugars, minerals, and other insoluble substances known as molasses. At the beginning, this represented a major problem, as the molasses was effectively industrial waste with little to no value.

17th century sugar refinery via Sugar at LSU
However, whether through accident or intention, someone on one of the sugar-producing islands, probably Barbados, realized that the molasses could be fermented into a foul but alcoholic liquid. From that point it was a small step to distill the molasses mash to produce a crude but potent liquor.

Early rum was little more palatable than the mash it came from - fermentation likely would have been via wild yeasts and bacteria, producing all sorts of peculiar and sometimes toxic compounds that would not necessarily have been removed from the final spirit due to unsophisticated distillation technology and techniques, plus consumption occurring more or less immediately after the spirit came off the still.

An Antigua rum distillery in 1823 via University of Virginia
To begin with, rum was primarily drunk by the same slaves who worked the plantation cane fields, using it to take the edge off of their miserable existence. But as time went on, more effort was put into the production process - more care was taken during fermentation, better stills were built, more attention was paid to proper cuts, and it was discovered that rum that had made its way across the Atlantic was significantly better after a sojourn in wooden barrels.

As time went on, different styles of rum emerged in the various colonies. Spanish rum, especially in Cuba, developed into a lighter, crisper style, especially after the introduction of the column still in the 19th century. English colonies produced somewhat heavier, richer styles, especially in Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana. The French colonies largely went in another direction, distilling rum directly from cane juice, rather than from molasses (this is also true of Portuguese Brazil, but their cachaça is another thing again). But even within these styles, there is a wild diversity due to the fact that, unlike many other spirits, there are almost no regulations governing what can be labeled as 'rum'. If it's produced from sugarcane and distilled, then it can be called rum.

So where to start?

It's a bit of a toss-up between Spanish-style rums and Barbados. Both tend towards the lighter end of the spectrum, though Spanish-style rums will tend to be a bit lighter and crisper. One good place to start is Mount Gay Eclipse Dark from Barbados. It's not a particularly complex rum, but it establishes the fundamentals and works very well in cocktails. If you want something a bit richer, Mount Gay Extra Old or Cockspur 12 are both good picks.

For the Spanish (also sometimes called Puerto Rican) style, a good start is Flor de Caña's Extra Dry from Nicaragua, which has the lightness and crispness that is the hallmark of younger rums in this style, making it my first choice for cocktails that call for white rum. Moving up the scale, Ron Abuelo 7 Year from from Panama adds more richness and depth while retaining some of the crispness, making it my go-to rum for drinks that call for an amber Puerto Rican rum. Further along, it's hard to beat Ron Matusalem 15 Gran Reserva. While on the sweeter side due to many years in oak, it also has the heavy dose of pepper that holds the sweetness in check.

Next up is Guyana, which is known for sweeter rums with a noticeably heavy body. All rum from the country is made by one company, Demerara Distillers Limited, but the wild array of stills within their possession allow them to produce an incredible variety of different rums. The best are released under their own El Dorado label. Start with either the white 3 Year or amber 5 Year, which are relatively light but still richly flavored. From there you can move up the scale from the medium-range 8 Year to the still heavier 12 and 15 Year expressions. For tiki drinks, you'll also want the inestimable Lemon Hart 151 on hand, which is an overproof dark rum that is absolutely packed with flavor.

When it comes to Jamaican rums, the first place to start is Appleton's V/X expression. It's quite affordable and provides a ready introduction to the island's high-ester style. You can also move up the range to Appleton's Reserve (not my favorite) and Estate Extra (much better) for increasing levels of molasses sweetness, barrel flavor, and complexity/subtlety. If you want to kick it up a notch, spend the extra money for Smith & Cross, which is an in-your-face rum with an intensity comparable to heavily peated Islay whiskies. For drinks calling for dark Jamaican rum, my first choice would be Coruba, which is a very heavy style with lots of burnt sugar flavor on top of the Jamaican funk.

One of my favorite styles of rum are cane juice rums, often called rhum agricole. These are primarily produced on the French (and formerly French) islands of Martinique, Haiti, and Guadeloupe. In contrast to molasses-based rums, rhum agricole is produced from fresh squeezed cane juice. It has to be processed very promptly, as wild yeasts living in the cane will begin to ferment it not long as the cane is cut. As the name suggests, these rhums tend to have very agricultural flavors, with a distinctive grassiness and funk that can be off-putting at first. One way to ease into this category is Westerhall Plantation Rum from Grenada, which is a mix of cane juice rum and molasses-based rum. Once you're ready to really dive in, either a blanc rhum from Rhum J.M. or La Favorite or an élevé sous bois (aged in wood) from Rhum J.M. are good places to start. Once you get a handle on those, move on to the older VSOP and Vieux expressions from the likes of BarbancourtClément, Neisson, or La Favorite. You'll notice a certain repetition of brands, because there unfortunately aren't a lot too choose from in the United States right now. Saint James is also a good pick, but distribution was pulled within the last few years, so it's getting rather thin on the ground.

Pretty much every country in the Caribbean basin has produced sugar at one time or another and thus has its own rum industry as well. The Dominican Republic has its own twist on the Spanish style, represented by Brugal - try their Extra Viejo. Cuba, spiritual home of the Spanish style, is well-known for its Havana Club rums, but I have yet to sample them, as they're illegal to important into the United States. If you're elsewhere, try the 7 Year, which seems to be the sweet spot. Puerto Rico is obviously known for the dominant Bacardi brand, but I would skip their rums other than possible the 8 Años, though the previously mentioned Ron Abuelo 7 Year is similar but better. I've also heard good things about Don Q's Añejo as a tiki drink ingredient, especially for the tricky Nui Nui. The US Virgin Islands host another powerhouse, Cruzan, which has unfortunately slipped in quality since its takeover by Jim Beam, though the Single Barrel has a certain appeal. Antigua produces Pyrat rum, though the one time I tried it, it tasted more like Mountain Dew than rum to me. Trinidad has some great rums, especially from the now-defunct Caroni distillery. Scarlet Ibis, put together by Haus Alpenz, is a fantastic mashup of styles that simultaneously reminds me of Guyanese and Jamaican rums at the same time. Angostura, maker of the eponymous bitters, is the lone remaining distiller in Trinidad. Their older 1919 expression sounds like a great dessert rum.

Brazil, which should probably get its own post, produces cachaça, which is made from cane juice like rhum agricole, but uses different production techniques that give it a distinct flavor profile while retaining a similar vegetal grassiness. Check out Cachaçagora if you'd like to learn more, but Boca Loca makes a perfectly decent product if you want to try cachaça-based cocktails like the caipirinha. There was also an attempt to move cachaça upmarket by mixing it with a bit of aged Venezualan rum and putting it in a fancy package - a strange product called Oronoco. It gets rave reviews from some, but I'd try it before investing in a whole bottle.

Moving clockwise around the Caribbean, Venezuala produces quite a bit of rum, primarily under the Ron Diplomatico label. It doesn't tickle my fancy, but if you enjoy sweeter rums, their Reserva Exclusiva expression gets a lot of love in some quarters. I prefer Santa Teresa's 1796 more, which isn't as overwhelmingly sweet.

Central America also produces quite a bit of rum. I've mentioned Panama and Nicaragua, but Guatemala gets a lot of love for its Ron Zacapa, especially the 23 year Centenario.

America also produces rum, especially the new craft distillery movement. One of the more established is Louisiana's Celebration Distillers, who make New Orleans Rum. Close to home, House Spirits and other small distillers in Portland have been making a wide variety of rum, albeit with mixed results.

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