Nothing can bring out the essence of the product more than its history and if the history spans over 5 centuries then it gets even more interesting. Rum akin to a few other spirits has seen its ups and downs and can certainly make for a good documentary! Let us look at how it all began for Rum….
Sugarcane moves East to West
The Indian sugarcane industry which fuels many a political heavy weights in the country also has its share of the pie when one speaks of the genesis of Rum. In 350 BC; Indians were consuming a fermented sugarcane beverage and as sugarcane travelled from east to the west the knowledge of cane juice fermentation spread. Fast forward to the 13th century when the French physicist Arnaud had distilled grape for a potent potable spirit, distillation was the new trend. Marco Polo the traveler during his travels during the same period also found a drink in Indonesia made out of Red Rice and Sugarcane juice and wrote it in his travelogues and this led to lot of merchants from Italy importing the drink. It is also said that this drink may have led the Russians to start making their own spirit, Vodka of today! The Spanish and Portuguese in the 14th picked up colonies in the islands close by like the Canary and Madeira and sugar was grown there, sugar was considered a spice and was everyone vied for the control of the industry; beverage was still not on their minds. It is only after Columbus went westwards and landed in the Caribbean that the sugarcane beverage flourished.
Rumble in the Caribbean:
The Portuguese were the first ones to make spirit in Brazil in the 16th century, now called the Cachaca and then called ‘crazy sugarcane juice’ in the local dialect. The Dutch known for their sailing prowess and of course Gin established Caribbean colonies in the 17th century and starting actively making Sugarcane spirit not just out of juice but also molasses the byproduct of the sugar industry. They called it Kyldevel which was later anglicized to Kill Devil by the English who had taken over many Spanish colonies. The Dutch passed on their knowledge of cane distillation to the English too and the latter eventually called the drink Rumbullion, a term commonly used in West England referring to great tumult, what else would one expect as an aftermath of people drinking a 70% spirit!
Royal Navy Rum:
Beer was slowly being replaced by rum as daily ration in the British Navy as Beer couldn’t survive the seas. It all began in 1687 and by 1731 the Rum completely replaced beer, it was a pint of 70 % ABV as opposed to a Gallon of beer. Over the decade Rum had created enough Rumbullion for the admiral to dilute their drinks with water, sugar and lime juice and the men called it the Old Grog after the admiral who used to wear a Grogram coat. You will see variants aplenty of this drink, cocktails of today!
The invention of patent still in 1832 affected most spirit categories and Rum was no exception. Before the patent still, Rums were dark and big and when Cuba adopted patent still for the first time in the 1860’s to make lighter style rum other followed and over 1600 distilleries adopted the method and it spread. Light rums became the delight of the bartenders then a profession which was gathering momentum. Today Cuban and Puerto Rican rums are known for their lighter style rums.
The rise of cocktails and the Tiki Culture:
The late 1800’s saw the rise of rum and rum cocktails, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre, Dark n Stormy were popular. The American prohibition helped the Rum Cause even more when the wealthy of America came down south for rum and bootlegger like the famous McCoy took the rum northwards to thirsty Americans. 1931 saw the listing of Mojito at the Sloppy Joe’s bar in Cuba. The repeal of prohibition in 1933 saw the rise of grain spirits saw the decline of Rum only to go up again with the advent of the Tiki culture. Don Beach who opened up a Tiki themed bar in Hollywood served heady rum cocktail using myriad ingredients and with a lot of fresh juices. The Zombie was one of his most popular. The Trader Vic who drew inspiration from Don Beach was known for the Mai Tai a cocktail which depleted rum stocks in Jamaica and pushed up Jamaican Rum prices. The mid-late 1900’s saw a dip in the popularity of Rum and the rise of other grain spirits, majorly Vodka.
Rum over the last two decades is gaining popularity with the advent of internet, the travelling consumer, the travelling bartender and Rum expos the most popular being the UK Rum fest. People now have gone back to the Pre-grog days of sipping rums neat as they have plentiful options of beautifully aged rums from across the world, primarily the Caribbean!
Every Rum making nation have their own set of regulations or maybe not. The WIRSPA ( West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association Inc.) comprising 15 Caribbean country associations have set up common production standards and certify their rum as 'Authentic Caribbean Rum' if it follows the following guidelines.
-Rum must be fermented and distilled in one or more of these countries from product of sugar cane origin
-Additives are not permitted
-Where a statement of maturity and/or age is given:
o It shall be that of the youngest distilled spirit in the product
o The rum shall have been matured in wooden vats or barrels for not less than one year
Some other Rum labelling terms are as below:
Rhum Agricole: Rum made from Sugarcane juice
Rhum Industriel: Rum made from Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. Doesn’t indicate inferior quality but a lighter taste profile
Light Rums: They are clear, mostly unaged light bodied rums perfect for cocktails. Puerto Rica, Cuba, Trinidad etc are known for this style of Rums. E.G: Havana Club, Angostura
Golden or Amber Rums: These age in oak barrels for several years to create a medium bodied spirit rich in Oak influences .Barbados, Jamaica, Venezuela etc make this style of rums
Dark Rums: They are heavy, luscious and heavy on oak aged aromas. Most of them could be drunk neat. Guyana, Jamaica, the French islands of Martinique and Haiti etc are known for its full bodied styles. One style you must try are Demerara Rums from Guyana, they are spicy and sweet with a hint of smoke. For E.G: El Dorado 12
Cachaca: Brazilian spirit made out of cane juice and unaged. Best known for its use in Caipirinhas!
Aged Statement: Just like whiskies some Rum cos will have an age on the label. Depending on the region that number would indicate the oldest or the youngest Rum in the blend. Last words, the numbers on a Rum bottle can be misleading unless of course you know of the country regulations.
Rum Cocktails: Mojito, Daiquiri, Pinacolada, Zombie, MaiTai, Planter’s Punch and Hot Buttered Rum…
This is a good start to rums, whilst one could certainly be an Old Monk fan forever!