Grog no more: Rum—like most spirits—has gone twenty-first century chichi.
Once the lowbrow libation of slaves and sailors, rebels and ‘Ricans, louches and lushes, rum’s current cache can be certified in downtown Panache-ville with the opening of yet another tiki bar—Painkiller on Essex, on the Lower East Side. Painkiller’s cocktail menu leans heavily toward tony tipples and includes an infamous Zombie Punch containing three shades of rum and a hazy syrup called falernum (which we’ll get to in a sec). If you’re heading north, figure there are eight more tiki bars to be stumbled through before you get to Central Park, and realize that Manhattan is in the midst of a tiki-boom.
And like the man says, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
In fact, rum has been made just about anywhere. Malaysians were cranking out what they call ‘brum’ a thousand years before Rupert Holmes recorded that awful, awful Piña Colada song, and Marco Polo wrote about ‘sugar wine’ from Iran—likely a distillate of sugar-making leftovers… hence, rum. But it wasn’t until the following century, when the original Cathay’s Clown went looking for China and tripped over the Bahamas that rum’s potential began to be understood by the West. Seems that he’d been given some sugar cane cuttings by the governor of Gomera in the Canaries (whom he was also schtupping, but that’s another story) and these clones were the first to reach the New World. Christopher Columbus, therefore, may be referred to not only as The Guido Who Missed His Mark By Half A Planet, but equally, as the Papa of the Piña Colada, the Daddy of the Daiquiri, the Sire of Spiced Rum and the Pater of Planter’s Punch.
Before these frilly fusions were so much as a gleam in your bartender’s eye, rum was guzzled neat or (especially on board ships, both rogue and Royal) with a squeeze of lime to ward off scurvy*, or with a tot of falernum—a heady mixer made with almond, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and more rum.
* Thus, the disparaging reference to Englishmen as ‘limeys’.
Rum’s time-honored association with piracy is more than a Treasure Island sidebar, of course—buccaneering bad boys plying the waters of the Caribbean found the stuff easy to snag and often used it as currency when trading for slaves. It was as essential to the value of their plunder as gold or Africans and was said to forestall—or foment—many a mutiny. Jack Sparrow may confirm a lesser known fact—that is, that plenty of rum was distilled on board ship by the pirates themselves using molasses from the bottom of the syrup barrels. This ‘fuddling’ was referred to in a 1651 Barbadian document as ‘hot, hellish and horrible’, likely on a gustatory par with Rupert Holmes’ Greatest Hits. True to its quality, the potation (as well as the album) was called ‘kill devil.’ ‘demon water’ or ‘screech’.
Diluted for the Polluted
On the legit front, the British Navy started rationing rum to seamen in 1655, and soon thereafter, seeing his crew regularly three-sheets-to-the-wind and unable to set even one, Admiral Edward Vernon began to water it down. His nickname was ‘Old Grog’ for the grogram cloak he wore, and as a result, diluted rum became known as ‘grog’.
Whereas the origin of ‘grog’ can be explained, we’re not so able to trace the roots of the word ‘rum’ itself. Contenders include a truncated form of saccharum officinarum (Latin for sugar cane) or ‘rumbullion’ (British slang for ‘uproar’); others reference Dutch drinking glasses called rummers, the French word arôme, meaning ‘aroma’, a Romani word for ‘potent’—and, of course, there’s the Malaysian brum. However it came about, since most pirates were illiterate, we can at least dispel the rumor that the original spelling was ‘Ahhhrrrrrrr – u- m’.
In any case, the American Colonists spelled it with an $. As the epicenter for New World coopery and lumbering and home to a population that consumed up to three gallons of rum per year each, first Staten Island, then Boston dove into the distillery business which soon became New England’s largest and most profitable business. (Tobacco and hemp were close seconds: BATF and DEA take note). Demand for rum’s raw material, molasses, grew to such outlandish proportions that the slave trade burgeoned and led to an unprecedented triangular trade balance between Africa, America and the Caribbean.
Gimme Some Sugar Cane, Honey
Sugar, of course, is at the heart of it all; it was a crop grown universally throughout the West Indies, especially owned by the sweet-tooth British, and a handful of Caribbean islands produced nearly all the sugar consumed in Europe.
Refining sugar was a labor intensive process, and during the eighteenth century, more than one million slaves were brought to Jamaica and Barbados alone. Over that same period, sugar consumption in Britain rose from four pounds per person to eighteen, and by 1900 it had risen to one hundred pounds. The primary by-product of the prolonged boiling process required to manufacture sugar was a thick, dark, sweet goop called molasses which plantation slaves found they could ferment, then distill.
Today, four hundred years later, though there are variations at individual distilleries, the rum-making process hasn’t changed much. In brief, it goes like this:
Fermented molasses (called ‘wash’) contains approximately 6% alcohol—more than beer, less than wine. The wash is heated in a sealed vessel (a ‘still’) to approximately 175°F, at which temperature alcohol evaporates but water does not. Said alcohol is then re-condensed to a sharp-tasting, clear and colorless liquid that’s about 160 proof, or 80% alcohol.
That’s your raw white rum, and it sounds pretty simple to make, which in principal, it is. The reality is that it’s not. Distillation is a vastly complicated and often frustrating science/art, with endless trivial factors affecting the end result. Success is usually unpredictable, a synergy between ken and kismet, savvy and serendipity, smart technique and dumb luck. In the islands, especially, superstition also plays a role.
Once cooled, what happens to the raw white depends on the product requirements—there’s some technical jargon offered in the glossary. Most whites are blended with other batches from the same distillery, and nearly all are cut with water to bring the ethanol down to a manageable 40 or 50 proof. Golden rum results from maturing the original distillate in oak—mostly once-used bourbon barrels, while darker, heavier Jamaican rums come from combining molasses and oak-aged skimmings from the boiling vats. The flavor nuances in these aggressive rums are partly the result of fermentation by wild yeasts rather than the cultured yeast used to inoculate lighter rums. To suit often funky, but experimental tastes of the century’s new wave of rumbums, an increasing number of rums are being infused with herbs, spices, fruits and juices.
Such exotic variations on a basic theme often begins with a choice of which type of cane to grow, whether to distill in a pot or a column still and what strength the final product should be. This is even before a master blender starts tossing in vanilla, nutmeg, allspice, mango, coconut, banana, chocolate, etc., etc., etc…
Does this make rum the most versatile spirit on the planet? So say the rummies, and they’re no dummies. At very least we all can agree that the sum of rum is never humdrum, never ho-hum.
Age Statement – The number of years a spirit has been aged in wood; in the USA, the age statement must represent the youngest spirit in a blend.
Agricole (French) – Rhum agricole is rhum made from fresh cane juice, as opposed to rhum industriel, which is made from molasses.
Aguardiente (Spanish) – An all-purpose word used for strong, raw, unaged rum.
Alembic – (French) – A pot still, as opposed to a column or continuous still
Añejo – (Spanish) – Most añejo rums are aged for more than two years, though no law requires this and some may be colored with caramel to simulate age.
Babash – Moonshine rum, always local, usually illegal.
Beer – In world of rum, it’s fermented molasses
Cachaça – Low-alcohol Brazilian rum made from fresh sugar-cane juice, not molasses. Pronounced ‘ka-sha-sha’.
Caramel – Sugar that has been cooked to produce a brown color and an assortment of complex flavors. Caramel is introduced to many aged rums to add depth to the taste.
Column Still – An alternative to the pot still that uses stacks of evaporators called columns. Typically, column stills will have two columns of different design that perform different functions in the distilling process.
Copper – Copper is accepted to produce the best spirits due to the interaction between the copper and acidic components in the fermented wine.
Demerara – The Demerara River runs through Guyana, and is the site of one of the first sugar/rum producing regions of South America.
Dock Rum – Rum aged in barrels at sea in the holds of ships, or in wharf warehouses. Now comparatively rare.
Dunder – Fermented wash.
Esters – Fred Sanford’s aunt. Alternately, chemical compounds responsible for fruit flavors in rum.
Falernum – Blend of rum, spices and sugar cane syrup first produced in Barbados. Generally used as a mixer.
High Wine – The first raw rum from the still, also called ‘heads’. Alternately the last rum from the still goes by ‘low wine’.
Hosghead – A wooden barrel used in the 18th century to store sugar.
Houillage – (French) – Recasking, the annual ritual where rum from the same production year is used to fill other barrels of rum to replace the volume that has evaporated, which is known as the ‘angels’ share.’
Liming – Chilling on the porch with some rum and some neighbors.
Overproof – Distilled spirit bottled at more than 50% alcohol by volume, or 100 US proof.
Pot Still – The simplest type of still, consisting of a large pot-like bottom, where the fermented wash is heated, and topped with a gooseneck and condenser.
Proof – In the US, proof is twice the alcohol content measured in % Alcohol by Volume. 40% alcohol by volume is 80 proof.
Reserve – A term that should denote something special in the bottle, but has no legal precedence.
Retort – Closed vessel used to double-distill alcohol as an accessory to a pot still. Hot vapor enters the bottom of the retort and heats the liquid in the retort to vaporize the alcohol in the liquid.
Rhum – (French) – Rum. ‘Rhum’ is used to differentiate rums of the French West Indies (rhum) and rums of the English-speaking islands (rum.)
Tafia – Cheap, generally unaged Island rum
- 1/2 ounce white rum
- 1 1/2 ounces golden rum
- 1 ounce dark rum
- 1/2 ounce 151-proof rum
- 1 ounce lime juice
- 1 teaspoon pineapple juice
- 1 teaspoon papaya juice
- 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
- ¼ ox. Falernum (buy it or make your own based on recipe given in the body of the story)
- 1 cup cracked ice
Blend ingredients except for the 151 and pour into a 14-ounce glass. Float the 151 on top, garnish with mint and sip while awaiting the zombie apocalypse. One per customer please…
Montanya Platino, about $25: Made in Silverton, Colorado by Karen and Brice Hoskin, Montanya Platino is produced from fresh sugar cane shipped in from Hawaii, crushed, fermented, then run through a copper pot still. The work is rewarded—the rum is light but flavorful with a noteably pleasant whiff of coconut, due mostly to the coconut husks through which it’s filtered. A bit of oak aging lends a very slight copper hue to the rum while adding depth; white current and fresh hay lead to a citrus-oil finish.
Fazenda Mae de Ouro Cachaça, about $25: Crystal clear with a silver sheen, the nose suggests kirsch, with cherry and a bit of alcohol bite. It drinks smoothly, though, with nice rich notes of mowed grass, white flowers and a touch of dill.
Matusalem Gran Reserve, 18 Year, about $32: First produced in Cuba 130 years ago, Matusalem uses the solera system, like sherry, to produce a rum of exceptional structure and backbone. Integrated with the toasty oak is mocha, espresso and hints of brown sugar. A bargain at the price, this is a sipping rum to be sure.
Brugal 151 Blanco Overproof Republic, about $42: No doubt about the kick—the alcohol smacks you from the outset. It’s unaged, and contains elements of white chocolate, cucumber and peppercorn. There’s a bit of mint and anise on the finish, but mostly fire. A hard rum to drink neat.
Admiral Rodney Extra Old St. Lucia Rum, about $60: Brooding and deep for a mere child of eight, this rum hails from a tiny island just below Martinique and presents an initial bouquet of earth and cherries. Warm and sweet on the palate, it finishes dry and smoky.
Angostura Single Barrel Reserve, about $80: Smooth as silk after five years in the puncheon; it resonates with sugary, bakery scents and flavors of coffee, roast peanuts and vanilla. Medium bodied and rich with smoky oak carrying through to a bourgeoisie finish.
Mount Gay 1703, about $90: Other than the fact that the rum-runners have taken a perfectly functional word like ‘gay’ and turned it into a liquor brand, this elegant copper-colored tipple is deep and velvety with notes of orange marmalade, allspice, smoke and bananas. 1703 commemorates the year that Mount Gay began operations in the Barbados.
Appleton Estate 21 Year Old, about $100: A cognac tingle gives this rare blend of several aged rums a profile that seems to cry out for a roaring fire in the hearth, but try it on the back porch—it works just fine. Mahogany in color, sweet with cocoa, intense, layered with warm nutmeg and orange.
Bacardi Reserva Limitada, about $100: Mellowed in lightly charred American white oak, this rum may be hard to find outside of the Caribbean, but if you should snag a fifth, you should find a beautifully constructed liquor loaded with banana, nutmeg, ginger and vanilla, finishing with spice and orange peel.