There are plenty of beverages, out there, that are more popular than Rum, but few can capture the imagination or boast of a more colorful history than this Caribbean concoction. From the slave trade, to brawling Limeys (British sailors) to marauding Pirates, Rum has a spirited history and has become a cultural icon of a time long gone.
Rum has its start back in the mists of time. It is thought, among those who study such things, that the precursor of rum was first fermented in either ancient India or China. The Malay people, of Southeast Asia have been fermenting an alcoholic beverage, from sugar cane syrup for thousands of years and Marco Polo even describes “a very good wine of sugar” in his travels through Iran. In the late 1500’s slaves, in the Caribbean, discovered that molasses, a by-product of sugar refinement, could be fermented into an alcoholic beverage and by the early 1600’s the fist distillation of rum took place on a sugar plantation somewhere in the Caribbean, most probably on Barbados.
The American colonies soon entered into the picture, in 1664, when the first rum distillery was opened on what is now Staten Island. Ships would load up with slaves in Africa and head for the Caribbean where they would sell the slaves and pick up molasses and sugar. From there they quickly traveled to New England, selling their goods and loading up with rum, made from the molasses, before sailing for Europe where they sold the rum for a handsome profit. This was the first of rum’s association with the sea and sailors, but it was in 1650 that rum’s association with the sea would be set in stone for all times. It was the year that the British Navy started issuing rum as part of its daily rations to the sailors. Shipboard life was oftentimes one of extreme hardship, couple that with the fact that sometimes water turned bad on long voyages and it is not hard to see why the British Navy issued its sailors alcohol on a daily basis. For years the Navy issued French Brandy, but with the capture of Jamaica, from the Spanish, they turned to rum. At first it was served straight, then mixed with water, and eventually lime juice was added, to help prevent scurvy. This drink become known as grog, and this tradition lasted until 1970 when the Admiralty of the British Navy banned the rationing of rum. On July 31st, 1970 this 300+ year old tradition came to an end on what has become known as “Black Tot Day.”
In earlier times most rums were harsh, dark, heavy concoctions considered appropriate for the working poor only. Today, there are hundreds of brands of rum gracing the shelves of liquor stores, in many, many different styles from light and almost tasteless to dark, rich and complex. Rums are usually fall into 1 of 4 categories. Light rums are usually clear, have little taste besides a general sweetness and are often filtered after aging to remove any color. These rums are most often used as a base for cocktails. Amber or Gold rums tend to be golden in color and are medium bodied. They get their color and slight spiciness from aging in wood barrels, most often oak. Premium rums most often fall into this category and are meant to be drunk straight. Finally, there are the Dark or Black rums. These rums are usually aged in charred oak barrels to produce a heavy, dark rum full of flavor of spices, molasses, caramel and vanilla. These rums are used to provide substance and color to rum drinks. There are also Flavored rums which employ one of the first three categories as a base then add flavors such a fruits or spices to create uniquely flavored rums.
It is also possible to generalize about the flavor of a rum based on its origins. Rums from Spanish speaking islands tend to be light style rums with little taste or character. Rums from French speaking islands tend to retain more of their sugarcane character and tend to be more complex, while rums from English speaking islands tend towards darker and heavier with more underlying molasses flavors. Of course these are generalizations to help the rum novice navigate the many different bottles found on the shelves.
One of the greatest attributes of rum is its ability to mix with such a great range of flavors from fruits and spices to coffee and chocolate. This makes rum the perfect beverage for year round consumption. During winter a splash in coffee, hot chocolate or spiced cider adds a nice warm glow to the drink. But where rum really shines is in the Caribbean influenced fruit cocktails that act as such great thirst quenchers during the heat of summer.