I’d rather be a rummy than a dummy
Caribbean sunshine, beach parties, accompanied by the dulcet strains of Enrique Iglesias – rum immediately makes you think of summer. At least it does me. Mostly, though, reality is far removed from daydreams like this, and so the situations in which I do in fact slurp my Cuba Libre are not quite as beautifully beach-like as I would in fact like. But nevertheless, rum gets your evening kick-started – and not (only) thanks to its alcohol content. Time to take a closer look at this classic among the spirits – to find out where it comes from and how it’s actually made. Now I’m going to replace superficial party knowledge with in-depth erudition.
My associations are not in fact unfounded – the origins of this popular spirit do lie in Latin America. Christoph Columbus is thought to be the first person to have cultivated sugar cane in what is nowadays the Dominican Republic. The rest happened more or less unintentionally – molasses was accidentally mixed with water, and the mixture allowed to ferment. This produced a sort of wine from sugar, with an alcohol content of a relatively strong beer.
The dissemination of this spirit began with the conquest of Jamaica by the fleet of the English Admiral Pen in 1655. His sailors liked the taste of the schnapps produced there so much that their admiral replaced the customary ration of beer with rum as a sort of reward. Shortly afterwards, the water in the barrels went bad due to the high temperatures – but there was no outbreak of disease because the sailors were internally disinfected by consuming this high-strength spirit, which gave them immunity. Thereupon, throughout the entire Royal Navy, beer was replaced by rum. A bit drastic, to my mind, but seemingly effective – the drink became incredibly popular in next to no time. Thanks to a new method of distilling, the rum’s quality then improved during the 19th century as its popularity in Europe concomitantly grew.
How it’s produced
A large proportion of the rum produced is made from molasses – a by-product of the sugar production process. When sugar cane is cooked, the water it contains will evaporate and the sugar will crystallise. When this is subsequently removed, molasses will be left, and can then be processed. A few types of rum, however, are also made directly from the sugar cane juice. The product is then usually called rhum agricole, and corresponds to the French style.
First of all, a mash is produced, by diluting molasses with water, and adding yeast to trigger fermentation. For the subsequent distillation process, a distinction is drawn between three methods, differentiated from each other by the shape of the distilling kettle. For producing rum, however, only the first two have really been widely adopted:
Pot-still process: in this process, also known as discontinuous distilling, the product is distilled once or several times in succession in individual copper pot-stills. The rum varieties created here are in most cases highly aromatic and a bit heavier.
Continuous-still / Column-still process: in this even younger, continuous distillation method, the rum is produced in column-shaped stills (hence the name “column-still process). For the rum’s aroma, the determinant factor is ultimately the shape of the stills – the higher up the distillate exits from the final column, the higher the abv will be.
Hybrid stills: these are pot-stills that additionally feature a column of varying size. In Germany, this type of still is found mainly at fruit distilleries.
After being distilled, the various types of rum mostly have an abv of between 60 % and 70 %, and are stored in casks previously used for maturing whisky, sherry or cognac. Normal rum is finally diluted with water for its drinking strength, but the “Navy-Strength Rum” variant retains the high abv it had in the cask. The sailors of yesteryear would appear to have possessed extremely sturdy livers …
One rum, two rums, three rumses?
The sheer diversity of different rums is well-nigh infinite – as are their differentiating criteria. They can, for example, be distinguished from each other by their colour, their basic ingredient or their production process. What’s interesting here, since it’s unconventional, is the historically evolved regional distribution:
The Cuban style
This is characterised by predominantly light, very pure rum varieties that are given only a short period of maturation, and are therefore particularly suitable as a summer drink. Since it is mostly found in the Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean, it’s often called the “Spanish style”.
The French style
The rhum agricole comes from the former French colonies, and is made not from molasses, but from sugar cane juice. This has historical reasons: in 18th-century France, there was a sugar beet boom, which meant a significant reduction in the amount of sugar obtained from sugar cane. So for lack of alternatives people started using the juice directly – der rhum agricole was born. Today, these rum varieties are characterised by complex aromas and what are sometimes fruity-nutty components.
The Jamaican style
These types are not for beginners. Their high proportion of aromatic esters makes them heavy and complex, which means they’re perfect for cold winter evenings and experimental connoisseurs. Today, this style subsumes all those countries that distil their rum in pot-stills, though most of them come from the former English-speaking colonies.
Well, have I whetted your appetite? Even if rum is often associated with summer evenings and Cuba Libre, it nonetheless has plenty more to offer. No matter whether you’re an experienced rum aficionado or a cautious novice: treat yourself to a tasting! The best thing to do is consult a barkeeper you trust, or give your creativity free rein in an experimental session at home. If you’d like more information or an overview of the various types available, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the “RUM” brochure from Bernhard Schäfer and the SchokoRing.