Caribbean Beat Magazine

White Heat, Brown Beauties — Caribbean Rum

Fred Bouchard takes a look at rum, the spirit of the Caribbean - and increasingly the choice of drinkers everywhere

  • Distillation vat for Bitters. Photograph by Fred Bouchard
  • -
  • Angostura's new column still with an old pot still in the foreground. Photograph by Fred Bouchard
  • Angostura's offices were once located here. Photograph by Fred Bouchard

What is more refreshing on a hot day than a cool drink made with enticing white rum, a twist of lime and a splash of fresh coconut water?

What’s more comforting on a cool night than a warming cup of spicy, exotic dark rum with a touch of bitters?

Therein lies the curious dichotomy of the spirit of the islands.

How Rum Is Different

Of all the spirits, rum retains the strongest taste of its cane sugar origin, whether as sugar cane in white rum or molasses in dark rum.

Rum need not be cooked, unlike vodka and whisky, which come from potato and grain and must convert their starches to sugar.

Rum need not be distilled to ultra-high proof, like gin and vodka, nor be subjected to chemical treatment, nor be beefed up with botanicals.

Rum can be aged in oak barrels which have already been used for spirits because, unlike whisky and cognac, it needs no tannins to aid the process.

Rum is a natural drink.

Etymology & History

Originally a corruption of Spanish ron, from Latin saccharum (sugar), rum derives from the dialect English (West Devon) and West Indian terms rumbullion or rumbustion. Both are related to rumbustious, which The Oxford English Dictionary defines as boisterous or unruly. The connection stems from the hullabaloo effects of excessive consumption, and is linked to the generous rationing of rum, only very lately rescinded, to the British Navy, and rum’s key role in the New World’s slave trade.
Rum is produced in nearly every region in the world that grows sugar cane. Java has the elegant and aromatic Batavian arak, while the Phillipines has its tanduay. Caribbean rum is most widely famed for its quality and is infamous for its history. Columbus brought sugar cane to Hispaniola via the Canary Islands on his Second Voyage in 1493. Cane became a key crop throughout the West Indies, but rum was not distilled there until the 17th century. Rum was found to be both an efficient way to use excess molasses and a sop to pacify and amuse the West African slaves who worked the plantations.

When profits lured colonial America into the mix, an evil trade triangle emerged: the West Indies shipped molasses to New England, which traded rum to West Africa’s Gold Coast for slaves, who were shipped to the Caribbean to raise cane. Rum became a staple drink of the pirates who roamed the seas pillaging clipper ships, thus earning its “double whammy” association with piracy and slavery. The British Navy, which rationed rum liberally to seamen as late as 1970, was sardonically said to run on “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” Only after slavery was abolished in the 1800s did New England rum gradually fade out and its heavy style gradually fall into disfavour.

Rum Types

Rum is made in two basic types.

Light-bodied rums are made in column stills at very high strength. They are much favoured for mixed drinks like punches and daiquiris. Their flavour tends to be crisp and dry, with little hint of molasses.

Full-bodied rums are made in pot stills; these often deluxe rums are used increasingly in mixed drinks on the rocks or for sipping. While they taste decidedly of cane and molasses, and are aromatic and rich-textured, they are rarely sweet. These are the preferred rums for cooking, flamed dishes, and desserts.

Rums of different origins and styles are also commonly blended, coloured and flavoured. Some rums are flavoured with fruit infusions or spices. Ponsigue, Venezuelan cordial rum, is flavoured with Ponsigue cherry. Spiced, often sweetened rums are widely popular among young drinkers. Captain Morgan’s has enjoyed phenomenon success.

Body and colour are distinct traits but are often confounded. Colouring has nothing to do with taste and little to do with quality: it is largely a matter of style. All distillates are initially colourless, regardless of flavour. Colouring is done by adding caramel to the original white product, creating rums coloured golden to amber to deep brown. Some colouring is also imparted by aging in wooden oak casks (for example; the Methuselah of rums, the venerable Clement La Favorite of Martinique). Nevertheless, while we tend to think of dark rums as pungent and deluxe and white rums as smooth and light, there are many exceptions in all hues.

Colour and strength are also mistakenly confused. Many powerful rums (100,50 per cent alcohol) and most overproof ones (up to 151 per cent alcohol) are colourless and used as mixers. And most of the dark ones are distilled to a comparatively modest 80-90 per cent. Though export rums and most duty free-rums are kept by international law in the 80-90 proof range, stronger ones may be found by the diligent island-hopping rum shopper.

Manufacture

Rum’s wide, historical differences all across the Caribbean are due to variables in fermentation (slow or fast), distillation (pot still or continuous still), yeast (cultivated or natural), proof (usually high and light or low and dark), and lastly, and at one time most importantly, location. Distillation at one time was only by pot-still (alembic) until the British first introduced the column (or continuous still) in 1830. Improved techniques included cultured yeasts and filtration.

Today, in general on the English and Spanish-speaking islands, a few large distillers tend toward light-bodied, light-hued rums (Jamaica excepted), while on France’s two island departments (Guadeloupe and Martinique) many distillers make traditional rhum agricole in small batches that are oak-aged, full-bodied, dark-hued, and of modest alcohol. A few national styles and products are mentioned below.

Barbados: medium (e.g. Mount Gay. Perhaps the oldest rum in the world, hand-crafted in Barbados since 1703. This rum has a rich colour and flavour).
Cayman: Tortuga Rum Co’s Premium Label 12- Year Old and 151 Rum (151 proof).
Cuba: light body and hue, with some character (Havana Club)
Guadeloupe: full-bodied pot-stills from Rhum Marsolle, Bologne, Domaine de Severin
Guyana: EI Dorado (Demerara, deep, dark, delicious, aged 15 years)
Haiti: Barbancourt (smooth, full of character)
Jamaica: medium to full rums from Appleton Estate (many beauties not for export), Myers Dark, Dagger, original Lemon Hart
Martinique: rich, dark pot-stills from Rhum St. James, Clement, J. Bally
Puerto Rico: very light to medium. Bacardi (white and gold, pale flavour like vodka, barman’s friend), Ron del Barillito (connoisseur’s favorite), Captain Morgan’s (spiced, youth’s delight)
Trinidad: light to medium. (From Angostura: 1824, an extremely smooth rum that is hand-casked, hand-drawn and hand-bottled. 1824 is over 12 years old. Royal Oak is a full- flavoured rum, very mellow and balanced; it is best enjoyed neat or over the rocks with club soda or coconut water. Old Oak Gold Rum and Old Oak White Rum are light, delicately- flavoured blends of rums. Fernandes: Vat 19, Black Label). Caroni: White Magic, Felicite Gold, Old Cask, Superb White.

Rum Drinks

Island Breeze

10 oz. white rum
4 oz. pineapple juice
1 oz. cranberry juice dash of Angostura Bitters

Mojito (Cuban Rum Collins)

10 oz. glass with crushed ice
1 1/2 oz. rum
top with sour mix
shake & add sprig of mint

Dark & Stormy

2 oz. Gosling Rum
top glass with ginger beer (not ginger ale)

Cayman Mama

1 1/2 oz. Tortuga Gold Rum
1 oz. Tortuga Coconut Rum
2 1/2 oz. orange juice
2 1/2 oz. pineapple juice splash of Grenadine pour over cracked ice

Quality rums are making a stronger showing Stateside. Angostura has launched 1824, its 12-year-old super-premium, to considerable acclaim. Bartenders are seeking out hard-to-find rums. Ferguson Herivaux at Boston’s Locke- Ober Cafe is seeking a local distributor for the widely-praised Barbancourt Rum of his native Haiti.

Cedric Adams, bartender at Boston’s Silvertone Bar, says that classic rum drinks like Cuba’s Mojito are in vogue, but doesn’t think it’s simply due to a tidal wave of interest in Havana’s music group, Buena Vista Social Club. “Everyone’s into diversified culture,” says the affable Adams. “Great rums are arriving that you couldn’t find a few years ago. I just came back from Jamaica with four bottles of Appleton’s XO, still unavailable here! I always recommend heftier, more flavourful rums. Young drinkers will still drink spiced rums, but better rums are finding their niche.

“Rum drinking tends to be seasonal. People returning from Caribbean holidays in spring try to bring back the sun by ordering rum drinks, but by summer they’re back to vodka and gin, which outsell rum here 10 to 1. Rum’s advantage for post- prandial sipping is that high-end rums are much better digestives than cognacs and whiskies.” Adams offers recipes for his most popular rum drinks (see above).

Rum in foods

Larousse Gastronomique lists many uses of rum in cooking: soaking sponge cake (charlottes); sprinkling (baba au rhum); pancake batter; zabaglione; fruit salad; flaming (tender meats, omelettes and crepes, Bananas Foster). The flavour and aroma especially enhances certain fruits (pineapple, yam, banana) and marinades for chicken, pork, duck, kidneys and fish (monkfish, shrimp).

Rum is superb in cakes – The Tortuga Rum Cake being a delicious example – and is a must at Christmas in the traditional black cake and heavenly ponche a creme.