what is rum?
Simply put, rum is alcohol distilled from fermented sugar cane juice and its derivatives. Cane juice, cane syrup (miel), turbinado sugar, white sugar, molasses, blackstrap molasses—it’s all fair game, and each brings its own unique flavour to the end product. Alcohol made from other sugar sources such as beet sugar molasses is not rum.
The fact that you can make rum out of any sugarcane-based source is one of the principle reasons for the diversity of flavours in the category. The difference between freshly pressed cane juice and molasses is quite profound, so it makes sense that the distillates thereof would be markedly different, too.
Geography also plays a role in rum’s different flavours. Islands naturally create silos of information, and each one organically develops their own way of doing things. But perhaps the biggest reason for the variety is a lack of uniform rules governing global rum production.
Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume.
Sugarcane is a tropical, perennial grass that forms lateral shoots at the base to produce multiple stems, that grow into cane stalk, which when mature constitutes around 75% of the entire plant.
A sugarcane crop is sensitive to the climate, soil type, irrigation, fertilizers, insects, disease control, varieties, and the harvest period. There are over 250 types of sugarcane. Most commercially harvested sugarcane is usually a hybrid of the best varietals that produce a better sugar yield and can withstand today’s changing climate.
Sugarcane originated in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea and was taken through Southeast Asia to India where it was traded and planted. From there, it travelled through the Middle East and Africa to Southern Europe.
Once you choose your sugar source, the next critical step is yeast selection. The yeast will “eat” the sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and that reaction will vary greatly from yeast to yeast. Some distilleries use tightly controlled processes to ensure no “wild” yeast enters the fermentation tanks, while others freely invite them in.
The yeast choice will also affect the length of fermentation and generally correlates to the flavour potential of the rum being created. A fermentation time of 3-5 days is usually a good sign that the distillate will have some flavor potential, while a one-day fermentation signals a vodka-like product will be coming from the still.
Once you ferment your sugars, you have what’s called a "wash”. Usually, less than 10% alcohol, the wash is more of a sugar wine than a rum, so it has to be distilled.
For distillation, there are essentially two types of stills: pot and column (column stills are also called patent or Coffey stills after their inventor Aeneas Coffey). Generally speaking, pot stills produce more full-flavoured rums, while column stills produce lighter-bodied rums. A third type called a hybrid still, combine both pot and column still design into an efficient apparatus that makes higher alcohol spirit while retaining some of the pot still flavour.
While the newly distilled rum has its own flavour, most aged rum gets as much or more of its taste from the barrel in which it’s aged. Most Caribbean rum is aged in used 53-gallon Bourbon barrels, which is a result of the strict laws governing the production of Kentucky Bourbon. All Kentucky Bourbon must be aged in *new* charred white oak barrels, so that leaves a plethora of lightly used barrels on the market for rum ageing.
The flavours imparted by oak are numerous. At its most basic level, we can say that charred oak provides a smoky, woody flavour. Digging a bit deeper, we can add that charring the wood breaks the cellular structure of the hemicellulose and frees the lignins and tannins. It’s also where the signature vanilla flavour comes from—it’s vanillin from the wood. Oak also provides some sweetness through its own wood sugars. The toasted caramel flavour? That also comes from the wood. And finally, the charred oak provides the color.
*Source credit: Thank you to our friend Josh Miller of Inu A Kena who helped us create this content. For more detailed information, please visit: