Rum is a spirit made in various styles and in many (mostly tropical) locations around the world. Sugarcane is the raw ingredient behind all rum styles, from clear Cuban ron blanco to the darkest Jamaican Navy Rum. Some rums, notably Brazilian cachaça and Rhum Agricole from the French West Indies, are distilled directly from cane juice. Most, however, is made from molasses, the thick, black, syrupy byproduct of the sugar production process.
Rum's origins lie very much in a place and time, namely the Caribbean of the 17th Century. During this period, the islands were being colonized by settlers from various European countries, particularly England, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland. These early colonists naturally sought out a way of producing alcohol – not just for its intoxicating properties, but as a way of making unpurified water safer to drink. With its hot, humid climate, the Caribbean region is not well suited to viticulture. Neither does it lend itself to grain crops; even today, rice is the only grain successfully grown there on any significant scale. Without grape and grain, the colonists found themselves unable to produce wine, brandy or beer. With the rapid rise of the Caribbean sugar industry, a solution soon presented itself: sugarcane.
Sugarcane is not native to the Caribbean; it was introduced by Europeans. It was first cultivated there by the Spanish in the early years of the 16th Century, not long after Christopher Columbus's voyages of discovery. By the middle of the 18th Century, European demand for sugar was booming. To satisfy it, large swathes of the Caribbean were planted in sugarcane. The primary byproduct of table sugar production is molasses, the black syrup created by repeatedly boiling sugarcane juice in order to extract sugar crystals. After the process has run its course, the resulting molasses still contains about 25 percent sucrose and 20 percent glucose and fructose. It is these remaining sugars that can be converted into alcohol and then distilled into rum.
In its early days, rum was produced by a large number of relatively small producers. Most plantations had their own pot-still for distillation – an efficient way of using the molasses left over after sugar production. Today, however, industrialization has meant that both sugar production and rum production are centralized, consolidated into a smaller number of large-scale producers. The sugar producers now sell their molasses in bulk to the distilleries, very few of which grow their own sugarcane.
Not all rums are made from molasses; many are made directly from cane juice. The most obvious types of cane juice rum are Brazilian cachaça and the Rhum Agricole produced on the French-owned Caribbean islands Martinique and Guadeloupe. The Rhum Agricole style emerged by necessity rather than by choice, when France stopped buying its sugar from the Caribbean. The French colonies there, now deprived of their key sugar market, stopped producing molasses, and to cut their losses began making rum straight from cane juice. As a result, the Rhum Agricole style of rum lacks the caramel (burnt sugar) taste found in most molasses-based rums. Brazil's cachaça has become one of the world's highest-production spirits by volume. Almost all of the 1.5 billion liters that Brazil produces each year is consumed domestically; only around 1 percent is exported.
There are very few international regulations or appellations for rum. While spirits such as Single Malt Scotch, Bourbon, Cognac and Armagnac are governed by internationally recognized appellations, there are few such controls on rum. The European Union defines rum as "a spirit drink produced exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation, either from molasses or syrup ... or from sugarcane juice itself, and distilled at less than 96 percent volume and which has the specific organoleptic characteristics of rum". Beyond that, the styles of rum we know today are governed almost entirely by age-old tradition and modern-day branding.
Many rums are aged in oak barrels, which deepen their aromatic profile and color. The longer a rum spends in barrel, the darker it gets. Dark rum (which includes brown, black and red rums) has the deepest color and is generally aged in barrels which have undergone heavy charring. At the opposite end of the scale, white rum (also known as silver or light rum) is sometimes filtered after aging, to ensure its clarity and lack of color. Don Fecundo Bacardi is widely credited with developing this technique. Terms such as viejo (old) and añejo (aged) are used to distinguish those rums that have been aged for an extended period.
Some rums are flavored after production, most often with coconut (as in Malibu), lime, orange and banana. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger and pepper are also commonly used, and spiced rum is now recognized as a category in its own right. Chili peppers have also been used to spice up rum, although this is rarely done on any significant commercial scale.
Rum, particularly in its lighter forms, is a classic cocktail ingredient. It is used in a number of the world's most famous and most exotic cocktails, such as the Daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, the Mojito and the Pina Colada. Dark rum is used less often than light rum in cocktails, but has proved popular when mixed with cola drinks.
- Mojito – with lime and mint
- Daquiri – with lime and sugar (often flavored with ingredients such as strawberries)
- Cuba libre – with cola and lime