Think of a sophisticated and classy drink – what comes to mind?
Wine, definitely. Whisky follows closely; it’s only too easy to picture a glass of neat whisky in the hands of a rakish gentlemen. Even gin and vodka are used as a base for the elegant martini.
Rum, on the other hand, is frequently associated with salty sea dogs, pirates (thanks Captain Sparrow), and as a mixer for Coke.
To be fair, understanding rum can be more difficult due to its lack of regulations. Unlike whisky, there is no real standard for the production, grading, ageing, and labelling of rum. The spirit has also earned itself some pretty kickass nicknames, the best ones being “Kill-devil”, “Barbados water”, and “Nelson’s blood”.
So we sat down with Stuart Danker, Head Bartender of rum bar Sugarhall, to learn more about rum, including the different types and styles, and a few classic cocktails made with the spirit.
How is Rum Made?
Loosely speaking, rum is any spirit distilled from either molasses or sugar cane juice, and can be produced anywhere in the world. Artificial flavourings aren’t allowed, although caramel is sometimes added for colour. ABV usually ranges anywhere from 37.5% to 48%.
The fermentation process starts off in a still – both pot and column stills are used in the production of rum and usually dictate a style by the distiller, depending on the type of alcohol desired. The pot stills of Jamaica and Barbados deliver robust and ‘cleaner’ spirits, while the column stills used in Cuba deliver a lighter spirit. Some distilleries also blend both types of rum together to come up with various products and to achieve unique flavour profiles.
Contrary to popular belief, rum does not age in stainless steel containers or glass bottles. They age in the same type of wooden barrels used for other spirits, including old bourbon and sherry casks (think brands like Abuelo and Ron Zacapa).
Age alone is not a clear indicator of quality, as the climate also dictates how the rum interacts with the barrel in aging warehouses. Rums aged in tropical climates evaporate at a faster rate, allowing the spirit to better permeate into the wood, thus developing darker colours and intense flavours more quickly than rum aged in temperate climates.
Furthermore, the rules of age statements are not clearly defined, and depending on the country of production, the age stated on a bottle of blended rum may be of the youngest or the oldest rum in the blend. So even if you don’t see an age statement on the bottle, don’t think too much about it.
Different Types & Styles of Rum
Given the rum can be distilled from different ingredients and made virtually anywhere, it’s one of the most varied spirits there is out there. It can get quite confusing when you start delving deeper into the world of rum, so we’ve tried to break it down for you.
Rums can be clear or dark. Like whiskies, many commercial rum brands have some degree of colouring in them for standardisation and uniformity. Sometimes aged rums are even charcoal-filtered to remove the colour. Here’s what you can generally expect:
Also called white or silver rum, these are un-aged or charcoal filtered after ageing. Light rums are typically light and crisp, but can also be aromatic.
Popular Light Rums: Flor de Cana Extra Dry, Cruzan White, Matusalem Platino
Many brands of gold rum make use of caramel colouring rather than natural colouring from ageing. These are typically medium-bodied and fuller than a light rum.
Popular Gold Rums: Cruzan Gold, Mount Gay Eclipse, Appleton Estate VX
Ideal for straight sipping, dark rums feature the heaviest and fullest bodies with more prominent notes of caramel, molasses, and even raisins. These have been aged the longest in charred barrels, and have the richest flavour of any rum classification.
Popular Dark Rums: Appleton Estate 12 Year Old, Mount Gay Extra Old, Diplomatico Reserva
While not exactly a colour per se, spiced rum is increasingly popular. Spiced rum is usually gold rum infused with a variety of spices like bayleaf, pepper, cinnamon, and clove.
Popular Spiced Rums: Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Kraken Black Spiced Rum, Foursquare Spiced Rum, Old New Orleans Cajun Spiced Rum
As with all other spirits, where a particular rum is produced has an impact on its flavour profile. Like the port of Portugal or smoky, peaty scotch from Islay, rums from different countries and climates have different tastes and preferred regional styles. Key factors include the variety and quality of the sugar cane that is distilled.
English-style rums are highly esteemed for their quality and are usually the richest and most aromatic – a result of medium to long fermentation. Often pot-distilled, the majority of the distillate goes on to age in a cask for several years. According to English regulations, the age stated on the bottle refers to the youngest rum in the blend.
Popular English Rums: Caroni, Rum Nation, Mount Gay, Samaroli, Berry’s Caribbean Rum
Spanish-style rums are characterised by their fruity and brandy-like profiles, with hints of raisin, currant and berries. Distilled using both column and pot stills, these are generally lighter, and either un-aged or lightly aged to produce a crispier and cleaner taste. Spanish rums are thus much smoother to drink, perfect for folks new to the spirit.
Popular Spanish Rums: Abuelo, Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico, Bacardi
French Agricole Rhums
Not all rums made in France are considered to be French in style, and only those distilled from fresh sugar cane juice (as opposed to molasses) can be called rhum. Distilled in pot stills, rhums are characterised by earthier notes and an overall lighter taste. Ageing in cognac barrels (sometimes oak) and blending plays an important role in the flavour of rhum agricole, although the dry mouthfeel and vegetal taste can be bit of a turn off for some.
Popular French Agricole Rhums: Savanna, Chalong Bay, Rhum Rhum, Clairin Sajous, Rhum de Guadeloupe
Other World Rums
Rums are also produced in other parts of the world such as Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia, and New Zealand, and can be just as good (or bad) as those that comes from, say, the Caribbean. In fact, the best sugar canes are known to come from Thailand and Vietnam. Some countries also produce their rum from other form of sugars that are unique to their region—distillers in Mexico uses piloncillo, an unrefined and moist form of brown sugar, to product a very peculiar type of rum.
An interesting thing to note is that many big players in the market don’t actually distill their own rum. Instead, they buy ‘ready-made’ casks and bottle it themselves.
Popular Other World Rums: Ron de Jeremy (Panama), Dictador (Panama), Penny Blue (Mauritius), Ryoma (Japan), Seven Tiki (New Zealand)
How to Taste Rum?
- Use a glass that tapers near the top in order to better concentrate the aromas.
- Place your nose over the glass (not too deep), open your mouth and take a whiff. Smell, after all, accounts for about 80% of what we know as taste.
- Sip the rum and swirl it around your mouth for a bit before swallowing.
- Try to identify the flavours you’re getting, such as vanilla, caramel, and molasses.
Classic Rum Cocktails
Rum can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks just like any other spirit, but we recommend trying out some of these popular rum cocktails… possibly followed by a great cigar.
The drink of choice for Papa Hemingway, the Daiquiri is one of the oldest Cuban cocktails, dating back to the 1800s. When it comes to a sour rum drink, nothing beats this cocktail made from light rum, lime juice, and sugar or simple syrup. A popular variation is to have it ‘frozen’ (blended with ice), but we say keep it classic, clean, and simple.
Often mistakenly referred to as rum and coke, the Cuba Libre (literally “Free Cuba!”) was king back in the 1920s prohibition era, where many a disgruntled man could indulge in alcohol without arousing suspicion. Made with rum, coke, AND lime, this potent concoction is sure to crank you up with all that caffeine.
Another traditional rum cocktail, the Mojito is as refreshing a drink as it gets – mint leaves and citrus creates a gorgeous, and palate-friendly combination of sweet, sour, and refreshing flavours. The rum packs a rather strong kick, but that’s what makes the Mojito such a popular summer drink.
Ready to take the plunge? Check out our round up of the best rum bars in Singapore to explore different rums and find out what you like. Let us know how we can improve in our alcohol 101 guides!
Top Image: Stuart Danker at Sugarhall