The best of these crystal-clear sippers are saying sayonara to cruise ships and heading straight to collectors’ cabinets. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Mike Smith
The first rum I ever tasted was in a rum and Coke. I’m not going to lie: I drank a lot of them. I had my share of other rum cocktails (who doesn’t like a good “boat” drink?), but it would be several years before I sipped a traditional barrel-aged rum as it was meant to be enjoyed: straight up. Recently my interest in exploring all corners of the distilling world led me back to the spirit in its purest form: white rum.
THE RUM AGE
So what is a white rum? (Hint: It’s not necessarily a neutral grain spirit like vodka.) It’s complicated, so I’ll save that part of the story for later. The spirit certainly elicits strong opinions. Being the life of the cocktail party essentially relegated rum to the backdoor exit, while Irish whiskey, Kentucky bourbon, and other high-profile spirits became prized status symbols.
Still, rum is a spirit with staying power, that’s for sure. (Hell, up until 1970, the British Royal Navy still gave rations of rum to its sailors.) Since the first molasses-based derivatives were distilled on sugarcane plantations in the 1600s, the Caribbean favorite has weathered turf wars over production rights, faced high tariffs and other import challenges (pirates—who doesn’t love pirates?!), and suffered from a long-standing inferiority complex (look, I get it, I’m a bourbon and whiskey guy).
In terms of rum’s American history, the most destructive blow to the spirit’s future reputation was delivered in the late 1800s. Facing mounting state debt after the American Revolution, an Excise Whiskey Tax was levied by Congress that would lead to the infamous Whiskey Rebellion (1794). The federal tax was levied on all domestic and imported alcohol (including rum) but was most destructive to local family (grain) farmers and (whiskey) distillers. (The tax rate decreased based on the amount of alcohol sold, so small producers were slapped with much higher tax rates.) Following years of aggression against tax collectors, a group of farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania united in a rebellion. When the excise tax was lifted, the legal shakeout over the next hundred years would increasingly favor the whiskey and bourbon industries, while taxes and tariffs on rum and other imported spirits continued to climb. (If I had a few bucks to spend on a bottle of booze, I would grab a cheaper jug of bourbon over rum back then, too.) By the time Prohibition hit, a high-priced prescription for “medical whiskey” was one of the only legal ways to get your hands on a spirit. Rum was seen as a cheap, and often cheaply made, alternative.
After Prohibition, gin and later vodka would become accessible cocktail mixers, while whiskey slowly climbed its way up the elite craft-spirits ladder. The lucrative spirits market in the second half of the 20th century was a golden opportunity for existing and start-up bourbon, vodka, and gin distillers, but once-thriving local rum producers were noticeably absent. Among the challenges: a one hundred-year-old tariff break for rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that kept imports at rock-bottom prices. (For more on rum history and production, as well as tasting reviews, check out Fred Minnick’s book, Rum Curious.)
There are numerous paths that a distiller can follow to produce a rum, whether the end goal is a white rum (unaged or barrel-aged) or the amber-colored, barrel-aged versions of the spirit that many of us identify as traditional.
Most rums are made from sugarcane or its derivatives: molasses, sugarcane juice or honey, or brown sugar.* After the plant is harvested and juiced, the cane juice is boiled until it evaporates into crystallized sugar. That raw sugar is then refined into various forms of table sugar. Molasses is a by- product of the sugar-making process; the longer the juice is boiled, the darker the molasses (regular to blackstrap).
When making rum, some distillers swear by pure cane juice; others prefer molasses or another by-product. The base is put into a fermentation tank with yeast until the liquid ferments into an alcoholic wash (the liquid that will be distilled); this process takes one to two days. Like whiskey, the alcoholic wash is typically distilled in either a traditional pot still or a column still, just like whiskey. (Batch kettling, similar to sour mash whiskey distilling, may also be employed.) Once the liquid has been stripped of pure alcohol, it is technically a white rum.
*Today sugar beets are used to make table sugar as well as artisanal rums. Stoneyard Distillery in Colorado, where the vegetable is readily available, is worth seeking out for the rum-curious. (For the naysayers out there, the distillery’s request to label the spirit a rum was approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.)
COLOR, ADJUNCTS & OTHER RUM CURIOSITIES
Here is where even more confusion arises: Distillers can proof that white rum down and sell it directly to consumers. Or they may blend a combination of pot, column, and/or batch distilled white rums—a common practice.
The third option is to barrel-age the rum so that it becomes infused with aromas and flavors similar to other aged spirits. These aged white rums will often go through a process to remove the color after aging; charcoal filtering is a common method. If the barrel-aging is brief (some rums may be aged for only a few days rather than years), color may be introduced to make the rum look like the tan or dark mahogany versions of the spirit that most Americans have come to expect. The coloring doesn’t impart any taste or aroma; it is purely for our drinking egos.
Finally, regardless of the type of aging and blending (some, none), a distiller might mix sugar, wine, or another flavoring into the final product. (Wait, what? This is starting to sound like making a liqueur.) You heard me right: Some or all of these can be added to the rum before it is bottled. In spirits circles, the most infamous adjunct is sugar.*
To make matters even more complicated, there is little to no transparency on bottle labels. Unlike whiskey and many other spirits, which have strict production and labeling laws, rum is what might be called a free spirit. When you pick up a bottle of rum, it can be next to impossible to decipher how it was distilled, whether it was barrel-aged (and if so, for how long), and/or if some other ingredient was introduced before bottling. Rum producers may also use descriptive words that are typically reserved for other spirits (“silver” for a white rum, like a tequila). Okay, now I need a drink...
* Anyone can add sugar to something to make it taste better. I am a “purist” who believes that a talented master distiller’s work relies on fine-tuning a spirit through careful production, aging, and barrel-blending methods. That rum is made from sugarcane only makes that adjunct more of a blatant cop-out.
THE AMERICAN RUM DREAM
As early as 1700s, ships that arrived in America bearing cargo from the Caribbean provided a plentiful supply of molasses for making rum. The cane-based spirit was made in dozens of early American distilleries in New England and neighboring states. High taxes, a decrease in sugarcane availability (in part due to the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade), and the growing popularity of whiskey gradually squeezed rum out of the American spirits market. (The first Kentucky bourbons were released by Robert Samuels and Jacob Beam in the 1780s.) Today a handful of craft distillers are bringing American-made rums back to the market.
SIP IT OR MIX IT?
We’ve tackled the world of white rums and now you’re ready for a taste. What should you expect?
First, there is not a lot for that white rum to hide behind when you take a sip. Some do make great sippers, while others shine in cocktails. (Mojitos! Mai tais! The Conrad Lewis!) I recommend lining up several white rums to taste in succession. Note which are sweeter versus those that may have had a little or a long time in the barrel despite their lack of color. Can you notice the difference between a pot versus a column distilled rum? Traditional pot stills allow the distiller to pull out more nuanced flavors; column stills are preferred when a distiller wants to strip more of the unwanted alcohols.
It takes talent to make a pure white rum taste great on its own, and a new generation of artisanal rum distillers is taking pride in renewing the craft. These distillers bring an appreciation for the history and complexity of the spirit and a modern curiosity to the table. Owney’s Rum from The Noble Experiment is a fine example of this new category of premium white rums that cross Old and New World lines. (When the Brooklyn-based distillery opened in 2012, it was the first rum distillery in the city in more than ninety years.) Named for gangster and bootlegger Owen “Owney” Madden, it is a blend of Owney’s Distiller’s Reserve and a two-year-cask-aged Dominican rum—a tribute to those Prohibition-era bootleggers who would often blend local rums with aged Caribbean rums.
It’s high time to revisit these all-American spirits and ignite a new love for an old spirit. Just do me a favor: Please don’t order a rum and Coke again.
THE REAL MCCOY
Rumrunners, the pirates of the 1920s, evaded Prohibition laws with bribes and whatever else it took to get rum into the country. To meet demand, spirits from various distilleries were often mixed together, a practice that still continues among modern rum distilleries. (Typically a distillery blends multiple barrels of its own whiskey, for example, to create a balanced spirit. The practice of cross-blending between distilleries is one aspect that makes rum unique, though today craft rum distillers are beginning to release more premium single-barrel rums in addition to distilling individual pot batches.)
Not all rum was created equal; imbibing back then should have come with a warning label. Like moonshine, the fake “rums” floating around the market were at times lethal, while other versions of the spirit were watered down with up to 75% water. To ensure quality, you needed a trusted rumrunner like Bill McCoy or “Spanish Marie” Waite. The latter became the queen of Caribbean smugglers after inheriting and expanding her husband’s trade. Fame on the high seas came at a price, as both McCoy and Waite were eventually captured by the U.S. Coast Guard.
DECIPHERING A RUM LABEL
Head to a good liquor store to get help from knowledgeable staff or do some trawling on your own before buying that bottle. I’ve even heard you can pour a little rum in your hands, rub them together, and if they are sticky you know that sugar is hiding in that bottle. Road test it and let us know if it works. @ingrainmagazine
To fully appreciate the unique styles, aromas, and flavors of each— and to sniff out those with sugar or other flavor-altering ingredients— I encourage you to try a mix of rums found here.