Rum set to step into the spotlight
Rum. Given the continued success of the cocktail culture, a seemingly limitless demand for craft alcoholic drinks, and the demand from consumers for drinks with heritage and provenance, it’s tempting to say that rum is set to become fashionable again.
But it would be wrong to do so, mainly because while rum may not have spent a great deal of time in the spotlight, it has never left the stage either. Those old enough to remember the 1970s will recall that Bacardi and Coke and Rum and Black were highly popular, even back then. And by the time the mullet, shoulder pads and white trouser brigade were strutting their stuff at Club Tropicana with Wham in the 1980s, rum was the cocktail spirit of choice.
True, vodka was the dominant spirit when bartenders got serious and decided they were now mixologists. And when drinking spirits was reinvented as an art form, it was Scottish single malt and Japanese whisky that benefited.
But rum never really went away. It is the chameleon of the drinks world, changing its skin to survive in different drinking climates. At the populist end of the drinks spectrum it is represented by cheap and cheerful cartoon pirate brands. When we started taking exotic holidays it was all about rum on luxury yachts, next to crystal-blue water and reclining on white sandy beaches. When the Spice Girls were doing their thing, what we really really wanted was spiced rums.
When we started to premiumise our drinks, rum was there, the more traditional expressions riffing on a Royal Navy history that included a rum ration given to every sailor at midday for an amazing 230 years, until the ration was scrapped in 1970. The day it was stopped, 31 July, is marked by Black Tot Day. Rum is the only positive in the description of life in the Royal Navy as ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’, and a century before that the pirate link was established, as monarch-endorsed buccaneers set out to loot the ships of rival nations as they sought to trade in the Americas and across the Caribbean. There is an unsavoury side to the period, too, because much of the attraction of the Caribbean was, indeed, rum (and the sugar it was produced from), and the currency to purchase it was African slaves.
Rum is the drinks industry’s ultimate mistress, seductively whispering in the ear of bartenders everywhere ‘I’ll be whatever you want me to be.’ It is the ultimate multicultural spirit, available in white, brown, golden and dark formats. It is normally sweet with toffee and vanilla notes, but it can be oaky, fruity and spicy. It can be a cheap mixing spirit, or an expensive sipping one. There are standard and premium versions of it. It can be a loveable puppy of a spirit, all youthful exuberance and frolicsome fun, but it can be as venerable an old man as any Scottish single malt. You want the spirits equivalent of a Take That concert? Then a standard rum with coke or in a cocktail will do the trick. But if, metaphorically, a virtuoso performance at the Albert Hall is more your thing, then search out one of the rare and aged rums that are best enjoyed slowly and with respect.
Rum is a remarkably resilient spirit, and seems to have found endless ways of reinventing itself. Today its future lies in three distinct areas.
Firstly, like all spirits with a good back story, the sector is benefitting from the current demand for brands that have heritage and history. Consumers are drinking less but better, and are not necessarily after cheap so much as value for money. And any drink that can show that it comes from a specific location, has been produced successfully for generations, or has a bond with a specific place or family, will attract interest. Increasingly, enjoyment of spirits has strayed way beyond just drinking them, and has grown into a hobby. Discerning drinkers want to know how each drink is made, what its unique selling points are, and where the distillery is – a remote location on a West Indian island or in the forests of Venezuela fits the bill perfectly.
Secondly, related to that is the desire of drinkers to discover new styles, and to appreciate the nuances between different rums. Rum is made across the world but there is a concentration of production in the Caribbean and Central America. Undoubtedly there are differences in rums from different West Indian islands and, in particular, the rums from Cuba.
The changing relationship Cuba has with the West – on hold again in the United States with the election of a hostile administration – raises the potential for Cuba to export some of its more esoteric and exciting creations.
There is also a growing interest in specialist rums from the French-controlled regions of the Caribbean, particularly Martinique. Here they make a style of rum called rhum agricole, which is rum distilled from freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice rather than molasses, and it is a very different style of rum to the caramel-coated expressions we tend to associate with commercial rums.
And finally, the craft distilling boom provides a platform for niche rums. The trendiest bars will search for spirits that set them apart from their competitors – and at the most serious end of the bar scene, drinks makers are either making their own rums or working with micro-distillers to do so.
Many of these rums have been created to work in specific house cocktails and, like home-produced bitters, are designed to ensure that the bar’s best cocktails can’t be copied elsewhere. That said, the owners of bars such as Bramble Bar in Edinburgh have now started making their own spirits, including rum, and are selling them through what they describe as ‘one of the world’s smallest drinks retailers’.
So rum is in rude good health, and with many predicting a surge in interest in premium rums, particularly premium white rums, the category can grow even stronger.
What is rum and how is it made?
Rum is a a spirit distilled from sugarcane by-products such as fermented molasses, which are thick and syrupy, or from freshly-squeezed sugarcane juices. Rum is not the easiest spirit to make because of the viscosity of the raw materials. First, the molasses or juices must be fermented, and this is done by adding yeast to feed on the sugars, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. The fermented liquid is then distilled, producing a clear liquid. This may be marketed as rum and is used mainly for mixing and for cocktails. But rum may be aged in oak barrels to create a premium rum, which is best consumed straight or over ice. Rum can be, and is, made in any country that produces sugarcane, but it is its commonly associated with the Caribbean.
Rums made from sugarcane juices are significantly different to common rums and are particularly associated with the French regions of the Caribbean (rhum agricoles) and with Brazil (cachaca).
The rules governing rum are not as stringent as the rules governing Scotch whisky, and the strength of rums vary from 37.5% ABV to 80.0% plus. But different countries define rum differently. For instance, in the United States rum must be a minimum of 80% proof – 40.0% ABV.
Some countries also demand that rum is matured in oak barrels for a minimum length of time.
Styles of rum
White rum is the entry point for many people new to the rum category. In many cases it is young rum that mixes easily and is the base for mainstream rum cocktails. It is a category dominated by Bacardi, one of the world’s most successful spirit brands.
But if ever there was a drinks category that defied the idea that the darker a spirit, the more flavoursome and older it is, this is it. There are several examples of superior rums that are clear, and drinks experts predict that premium white rum is set to become a trendsetter in coming years. There are white rums that have been matured for several years and their colour, but not their superior taste, has been stripped out.
Of all spirits categories rum is quite possibly the most lawless, which is a status it is happy to keep, given its rebellious and wild image. So there is no formal definition of what a golden rum is, but it is regarded as a halfway house between white rums and dark rums, and will have benefitted from some ageing. It is generally considered to be more complex than many white rums.
Dark rum at its best refers to rum that has been aged for a considerable time, possibly in heavily charred oak barrels. Dark rum is designed to be consumed in the same way as a single malt whisky. Dark rums may be aged for many years. But the category also refers to the very sweet Demerara style of rum, most commonly associated with Guyana. This style formed the base for the rums served on Royal Navy ships and served in British pubs.
Normally a spiced rum gets its flavours from spices being added after distillation. There are two reasons for this: firstly, distillation will remove much of the flavour of the spices; and secondly, because the spicy flavours left in the still will affect the taste of the next distillation. Spices used include cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, peppercorns, citrus peel zest, and ginger.
Rhum agricole is rum made in the French Caribbean islands, produced from fermented sugarcane juice and with a distinctive, earthy and more grassy flavour than standard rum.
The national drink of Brazil is a form of rum distilled from fermented sugarcane juice.
Author: Dominic Roskrow