Tuesday 26 February 2013

What is rum? Baby don't hurt me

Rum, a drink associated mainly with pirates, booze-addled authors and Pogues albums, has a vast array of styles, so here's a rough and ready overview of what it is, where it's from and how it's made. I'm no expert and won't go into vast technical detail, so this is just a general guide
Only rum here, you can find the other 2 elsewhere easily enough


Like any activity involving drunk people no-one can say for sure how the term came about. Theories range from Romani slang to Dutch drinking glasses to the Latin for sugar, however the most likely (and most fun) explanation is as a contraction of the words Rumbullion or Rumbustion.  These are both slang words for an uproar, a stramash and tie in nicely to our image of early rum drinkers.  In other times rum was known as killdevil, which would be a far cooler name to see on a bottle I can't help but think.

Unfortunately a large part of rum's ubiquity in the Caribbean is based on slavery, between the 16th and 19th centuries trading ships would pick up slaves in Africa, sell or trade them in the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations and take molasses and rum home to sell.

Rum grew more popular after Britain occupied Jamaica in 1655 and the local rum replaced French brandy as the sailor's main drink.  Spirits were served as on long sea journeys fresh water and beer would soon spoil.  Initially sailors were given a pint of rum a day, over time this was diluted with water and the traditional lime juice (to prevent scurvy) and became a drink known as grog, giving us the feeling you get the morning after too many rums (groggy). 


Rum is made by fermenting molasses or sugarcane juice and then distilling the product, this is then aged in  barrels (usually oak) to improve the flavour. Different distilleries use different types of still, different blending techniques to create the vast array of rums you find today.

Styles & age statements

At a basic level you can divide up rum according to which colonial power ran the country of production so you have:

  • British (darker, heavier and fuller flavoured)
  • Spanish (light, smooth and floral)
  • French (pungent, grassy)
Age statements and their meaning vary wildly across rums, there is no universal standard as there is with Whisky, and it's worth bearing in mind that rums mature 4-5 times faster in the humid Caribbean than in the dank and frozen warehouses of Scotland.

As I discuss individual rums I'll go into more detail about how it's distilled, aged, blended and so on but this is a rough guide to how your rum gets to you.