Rum is a tropical spirit that conjures up white sand beaches, salty ocean breezes and cocktails with names that sound as if they were created by Isaac, the bartender on the Love Boat.
It’s not surprising that rum’s development is linked to the sea. While making alcohol from sugar cane goes back hundreds of years to places like China, India and Iran, much of today’s rum production is centered in Caribbean island nations and Latin America. Early records from the 1600s suggest slaves made alcohol by fermenting molasses. Ironically, rum would become a key component in the triangle between Europe, Africa and the New World. The demand for labor to work Caribbean sugar plantations fueled the slave-trading market in the New World.
Most people associate pirates with rum, but wide distribution of the spirit was propelled by the British navy when it adopted rum as its drink of choice in 1655. The British captured Jamaica and its sugar cane plantations and rum distilleries from Spain. That allowed them to eliminate brandy, which had to be procured from oft-enemy France, changing the daily ration for sailors. Rum was part of daily British naval life until 1970. Now it is served only on special occasions declared by the queen or high-ranking naval officers.
Rum came to what would become the United States more than a century before the Revolutionary War. To keep up with the growing demand in the colonies, the first rum distillery was built on Staten Island in 1664. Today, a growing number of American craft distillers are producing rum, and many of the traditional producers have added aged expressions that put rum on par with whiskey and cognac.
Mat Perry was a high-school history teacher in New England and knew that rum was once a major part of the regional economy. During a sabbatical, he started to wonder if there was a place for a new rum distillery in his hometown of Ipswich, Mass. Soon Perry and a friend, Evan Parker, quit their jobs and launched Turkey Shore Distilleries. The company’s Old Ipswich Rum, which is available in several expressions, rolled out in June 2011.
“There was a pretty steep learning curve,” Perry says. “You spend so much time worrying about making it and what the rum is going to taste like, but then you realize you still have to market it and sell it.”
Perry said the goal of Turkey Shore is to reawaken the appreciation of rum in New England and turn Old Ipswich into a regional brand with a distinct New England flavor. “New England rum has drier components and is not as sweet as Caribbean rums,” Perry says. “We use new North American white oak barrels with a medium char on them. Rum from New England traditionally had a bit more of a smokier profile, in some ways more whiskey-like.”
The experience you have with rum starts with the style of rum you are drinking. Setting aside the overproof and spiced rums, rums from the Caribbean and Latin America can be broken into three major categories. Each traces its roots back to colonial outposts that were once controlled by major European military powers that fought wars and jockeyed for position to control the New World.
Spanish-controlled distillers in Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and elsewhere typically produced smooth rums called añejo. English colonial holdings, including Jamaica, Bermuda and Barbados, made darker rums with more molasses character, while the French, in places like Haiti and Martinique, made rhum agricole from sugar cane juice.
“Most people think of Bacardi or Captain Morgan when it comes to rum and don’t really know rum beyond the major brands,” said Aleco Azqueta, cofounder of Atlantico, a Dominican Republic brand launched about four years ago. “Rum is where tequila was about 10 years ago in terms of consumer understanding. There is a similarity to craft beers in that rum producers take very different approaches to making rum.”
Azqueta says the Dominican Republic was one of the first places to make rum in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the island, and the first distillery dates back to the 1500s.
Atlantico is made using two different production styles. Part of the cane is processed using the rhum agricole method, while the rest is made from molasses. The two spirits are blended and then aged in a solera system similar to what is used for sherry production.
“There is a pyramid of barrels, and because of the evaporation that takes place in the climate of the Caribbean, you have to keep adding rum to the barrels,” Azqueta says. “Otherwise you could never age rum more than a few years. It evaporates at around 10 percent a year in the islands.”
David Meyers, North America regional director for Cockspur Rum from Barbados, says the emergence of sipping styles of rums has brought increased attention to rum. He notes while it is unclear where rum was first made in the Caribbean, the name originates from Barbados, where the spirit was originally called Rumbullion.
“Rum belongs alongside other quality brown spirits, such as whiskey, cognac and tequila. If you like those drinks, rum should be in your repertoire,” Meyers says. “One thing people don’t understand is that age expressions tend to undersell rum. It is a constant 84 degrees on Barbados, and that gives us a maturation rate that is three times the climate in Scotland.”
Meyers says that the master blender’s task is critical at Cockspur to take barrels of different ages and marry them to create a consistent flavor and high-quality flavor. This skill once caused a visiting Cognac maker to mistakenly identify Cockspur 12 as its brandy in a blind taste test.
“It’s an interesting time for rum,” says Meyers.
Rick Lyke writes about beer, wine and spirits and has contributed to All About Beer Magazine since the early 1980s.