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Rum

Rum is the symbol of the Caribbean, the soul of the subtropical islands, born with the discovery of America and traditionally consumed by slaves, pirates and sailors. Today there are many varieties of rum, classified into styles according to the island of production and its colonial history: French, English or Spanish. Produced from sugar cane, the distillate takes on different characteristics depending on whether molasses from sugar mills or pure cane juice is used. While Latin America rums, called 'ron' in Spanish, are derived from molasses and are distinguished by their sweetness and lightness, English-style rums are more spicy and flavoursome, while French-style rums, usually very intense, are called 'agricultural', because they are distilled from pure fresh juice. White rums are used in the preparation of long drinks and tropical cocktails, while aged rums express all their aromatic richness when enjoyed neat, accompanied by dried fruit, chocolate or, possibly, a good cigar.

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Rum is the symbol of the Caribbean, the soul of the subtropical islands, born with the discovery of America and traditionally consumed by slaves, pirates and sailors. Today there are many varieties of rum, classified into styles according to the island of production and its colonial history: French, English or Spanish. Produced from sugar cane, the distillate takes on different characteristics depending on whether molasses from sugar mills or pure cane juice is used. While Latin America rums, called 'ron' in Spanish, are derived from molasses and are distinguished by their sweetness and lightness, English-style rums are more spicy and flavoursome, while French-style rums, usually very intense, are called 'agricultural', because they are distilled from pure fresh juice. White rums are used in the preparation of long drinks and tropical cocktails, while aged rums express all their aromatic richness when enjoyed neat, accompanied by dried fruit, chocolate or, possibly, a good cigar.

The History of Rum

The origins of rum are controversial and partly mysterious: today the origins of the spirit are contested between the French, English and Spanish. Despite the fact that sugarcane is cultivated and widespread throughout the tropics and that there is ancient evidence of a distillate produced in Asia from sugarcane juice, rum as we know it today was created by European settlers who, by importing stills and distillation techniques to the New World, began to exploit the great wealth of sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean islands. However, sugar cane is not a native American plant and its success in the Central American islands is due to the fortunate initiative of Christopher Columbus who, on one of his voyages, took some plants from the Azores and brought them to the new colonies.

The Spanish remember the legendary figure of a monk who is said to have produced the first distillates on the island of Cuba, while the British boast of the foundation of the first distillery in the Caribbean in Barbados in 1703, still active today, called Mount Gay. It was at this time, towards the end of the 17th century, that a French monk who had come to Martinique, called Jean Baptiste Labat, started a small production of sugar cane juice distillates using a charentais still.

Assumptions about the meaning of the word 'rum' do not shed any light on its date of birth or resolve any doubts about its origins: according to some, it derives from the English 'rumble', i.e. bubbling, or from the Spanish 'rumbullion', meaning 'bustle', to indicate the tumultuous fermentation of the raw material; according to others, it derives from the scientific name of the sugar cane used by the monks, i.e. Saccharum officinarum.

Soon, from the 17th century, rum's fame spread to the colonies of North America and distilleries using raw materials from the Caribbean became widespread. A strong trade network was established based on sugar and slaves to be exploited on plantations between Central and North America, and Africa. The British Royal Navy's conquest of Jamaica gave rise to the inseparable and legendary bond between rum and sailors. The practice of giving British sailors a daily ration of rum, called 'tot', was only abolished in 1970. The adventurous imagery centred on stories of pirates and sailors united by a shared passion for rum was fuelled by Robert Louis Stevenson's novels and legendary incidents such as the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. His body was brought to England in a barrel full of rum for safekeeping, only to discover on arrival that the sailors had drilled a hole in the barrel and drunk all the rum with 'Nelson's blood' during the voyage.

Until the 19th century, rum was a very low quality spirit, appreciated only by slaves, pirates and sailors, while the colonists continued to prefer the more refined spirits of European origin. The Catalan entrepreneur Facundo Bacardi Massò, who, at the invitation of the Spanish Royal Development Commission, founded Bacardi y Compania in 1862, made a major contribution to improving the rum production process by introducing new techniques: charcoal filtration, cultivation of different strains of yeast and maturing the spirit in American oak barrels.

The success of rum grew throughout the 20th century thanks to the continuous improvement in the quality of the distillate, mass tourism in the Caribbean islands and exceptional ambassadors such as Ernest Hemingway, who immortalised in his novels the cocktails he drank during his stay in Cuba in the 1950s. Today, rum has achieved the status of a noble and prestigious distillate, on an equal footing with whisky and cognac, thanks to the interest and contribution of important master distillers who have offered sublime distillates of high quality.



Rum, Ron e Rhum: The Different Styles of the Distillate

Rum is a distillate that can take on very different characteristics depending on the type of raw material used, the production process chosen, the traditions of the place of production and whether it is aged.

The simplest distinction is between white rum, i.e. marketed without having been aged in wood, and aged rum which, depending on the period of maturation, can take on different names such as amber, golden, anejo, vieux, très vieux and others. However, there may also be white rums aged in wood, the transparent colour of which is due to the filtration of the amber distillate with activated charcoal, which eliminates the colour pigments. With regard to aged rums, it is important to note that ageing in a tropical climate favours and increases the transfer of substances between the wood and the rum, which is why it is said that one year of ageing in the Caribbean corresponds to several years of ageing in Europe.

A fundamental distinction depends on the type of raw material used, which can be molasses, obtained from the processing of sugar factories and fermented with the addition of water and selected yeasts, or pure sugar cane juice, called vesou, obtained from the pressing and defibration of the cane and fermented, in many cases, with indigenous yeasts.

Depending on the traditions and colonial history of the different places of production, rum can take on different styles. In the French Caribbean islands, such as Martinique, Marie Galante, Réunion or Guadeloupe, French-style rums called 'rhum agricole' are produced because they are made from pure sugar cane juice in discontinuous charentais stills. These are rare and prestigious distillates, with great body and complexity, often dry and powerful, and well suited to long ageing in wood.

In the Caribbean islands with a British colonial history, such as Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados, English-style rums are produced from sugarcane molasses using a discontinuous or column distillation process. The result is high quality spirits with a silky taste that is more delicate than that of agricultural rums, and which have established the territories of Barbados, Trinidad and British Guiana, along the Demerara River, as some of the best rum-producing areas.

In the Spanish-colonised Caribbean, Spanish-style rums called 'ron' are produced from sugarcane molasses distilled in continuous pot stills. They are the most popular and appreciated in the world for their sweet, warm, smooth and enveloping personality.

While sweeter, lighter white rums or aged rums are often used to create exotic cocktails such as the Mojito, Cuba Libre or Daiquiri, the best aged rums should be enjoyed neat, possibly accompanied by cigars, dried fruit or chocolate.