sugarcane closeup

Sugarcane photo courtesy Sweeter Alternative

It begins with a stalk of sugarcane.

Cane, the foundation of all rum production, has ancient roots in Asia’s Indus Valley and honorable mentions in early history. Even Alexander the Great marveled at the “grass that gives honey without bees.” In the 8th century, sugar cane migrated west into Spain via the Moors and to the Caribbean. By the 15th century, thanks to a certain Cristoforo Colombo and other explorers and settlers, cane, and with it sugar production, was widespread throughout the islands.

But what to do with all the “waste” generated by the sugaring process? At some point, someone discovered that much of it could be boiled down into a syrup, which could then be cooled and cured. However, to avoid re-crystallization, the cured syrup had to be stored in a special vessel with holes in the bottom that allowed the substance to separate from the crystals and ooze out into a separate container. The result: molasses.

And from molasses: rum.

boiling molasses for rum, courtesy joebone

boiling molasses for rum, courtesy joebone

No location has definitive claim on being the first to ferment molasses on purpose. Yet Wayne Curtis in And a Bottle of Rum suggests there is a substantive argument for Barbados. A 1652 document mentions “Rumbullion” a.k.a. “‘Kill-Devil’ made from sugar canes…” He goes on to say, “A 1658 deed for the sale of Three Houses Plantation [on Barbados] included in the sale ‘four large mastrick cisterns for liquor for rum,’ which is the first known official appearance of the word rum on any of the islands.”

By the late 1700s, rum distillation from molasses was common as a way of handling the excess waste of sugaring. It was easy enough to make a mixture of the molasses, the dregs from a previous batch of rum and the water that was used to rinse out the sugar boiling pots, a.k.a. “wash,” and left to bubble out in the elements, sometimes adding additional ingredients such as, according to Curtis “lemons, tamarinds or tartar if the wash was not acidic enough.” The whole lot would then be passed through a pot still.

Some distillers would leave it at only one pass through the still. Though others preferred a double or even triple distilled rum, and the number of times the rum was distilled was often associated with its nationality. But all of these examples were still rather harsh, compared to what is available in modern day.

It’s this fiery, overproof cane spirit that played an important role in British naval history. In 1730, conditions on board ships during long voyages were so harsh, it became standard issue for all officers to be rationed something to ease their troubles. At first it was beer, but to keep enough on hand for all the men became too costly. However, overproof island rum was easy to come by, not to mention, affordable and highly effective. An exact measure of 288 ml of rum (known as a “tot”) was administered PER DAY to ease their stress. Keep in mind these rums had very high alcohol percentages, 100 proof and up, and drinking probably started very early. This practice actually lasted until July 31, 1970, known as “Black Tot Day.” Alas, no more free rum for you, British Sailors.

Captain Blackbeard

Captain Blackbeard

Although Captain Morgan rum (incidentally, this was once a light rum blend that morphed into the dark spiced version later) is named for a real 18th century pirate of the seven seas, being active primarily near Spanish colonies, the man himself would have had more access to wine than rum. The real association with pirates should be attributed to Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. He and his men were known to “acquire” mass quantities of the stuff in their travels, and used it as liquid courage to prepare for battle, and others joined the fray. Stories of these “bucaneers and buried gold” fueled the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson, who eventually had the world “yo-ho-ho-ing” forever at almost any mention of rum thanks to his classic tome, Treasure Island.

Through the centuries, the rough, molasses spirit evolved into a more refined sipping drink, and the islands became known for their signature styles and methods. Rhum agricole is the classification of rum produced directly from sugarcane rather than molasses, what is known as “vin de canne” or “sugarcane wine.” These are mostly produced in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands, with the majority found on Martinique, but also Guadalupe, St. Barth’s, Haiti and Mauritius to name a few. Some camps believe this is the purest form of sugarcane spirit, while others swear by the molasses versions. Much like whisk(e)y drinkers have their favorites – it is perhaps more fitting to celebrate the diversity of rum rather than declare a “best.”

Though rum emerged as a more elegant spirit, its reputation has also risen then suffered more than any other, almost losing all prestige by the mid-20th century. Rum played a large role in the resulting prefab cocktail trend that accompanied the rise in convenience products like TV dinners, canned meals and box mixes. Mixers and frozen concentrates transformed elegant cocktails such as Mai Tais, Coladas and Daiquiris, to syrupy sludge, often in radioactive colors. Luckily, that tide is turning back to fresh ingredients that showcase rum’s true flavors.

clement-vsop-bottle In the 21st century, the public is much more savvy about what it drinks. Many restaurants and bars will carry at least one or two rums in the premium or ultra premium category, meant for sipping as one would a fine Cognac or whisk(e)y. Rum is not limited to tropical island producers anymore. It’s also becoming a popular category in the craft spirits market in the US, with an increasing number of producers creating local versions. The rise in craft cocktails has also done wonders for the rum category. Bartenders all over the world are mixing high quality rums in inventive cocktails, both boozy and fruity with fresh ingredients. The word “tiki” is no longer an association with sweet slush with an umbrella in it, but instead calls for an array of fresh juices, premium spirits and the whole flavor spectrum of bitters from independent producers. Who says an Old Fashioned has to be whiskey – why not stirred with rum? Or even rum aged in a whisky cask?

A few to try:

Rhum Clément - a producer of rhum agricole that dates back to the late 19th century. One of the finest examples of the category, Clément is available in a range of styles from blanc to Tres Vieux X.O. For an exceptional value, try the Clément V.S.O.P – sippable neat, this gold rum is also a versatile cocktail base. Rhum Clement won Rum Distillery of the Year at the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition.

Ron Brugal 1888: Rum for the whisk(e)y drinker! This Dominican rum, named for the year Brugal was founded, was aged in toasted American oak casks (like Bourbon), then finished in used sherry casks (like Scotch). The finished spirit is a master blend of the different cask finishes, with rums that were aged 5 to 14 years. The aromas and flavors are reminiscent of sherried whiskys, finishing with a hint of smoke from the charred oak. The classic rum characteristics of vanilla, pie spices and salty caramel also emerge and duet with the whisky flavors. Also does double duty in cocktails – plays as well with Manhattan variations as it does a classic sour.

Plantation 3 Stars White RumPlantation 3 Stars White Rum:  A blend of Caribbean rums from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Each of these islands has a distinct tradition that contributes to the flavors that are considerably layered for a white rum. Tropical fruits with a peppery finish that form the perfect canvas for lighter cocktails.

Berkshire Mountain Ragged Mountain Rum: Produced at the first legal distillery in the Berkshire Mountains since the Prohibition in a traditional pot still. Golden brown, light and butterscotchy, with a long, peppery burnt sugar finish. Very clean on the palate, perhaps attributing to the fine local spring water used in production.

Cruzan Single Barrel – a St. Croix blend of rums aged 5 to 12 years, then given a finish in new oak casks. Great toasty caramel flavors. Matches well with drinks that call for fresh fruit or fruit liqueurs.

Goslings Old Rum – a.k.a. the Goslings Family Reserve Rum from Bermuda. It takes the popular Black Seal dark rum one step further with longer aging. Truly one of the most decadent dark rums around.