Rum 101: History, Types, How To Make It Step-By-Step
Rum is made from sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice through the process of fermentation and distillation. The result is a clear liquid that is then aged in oak barrels appearing in different types, from white to gold to dark rum. The majority of rum in the world is produced in the Caribbean and American countries. In the Philippines and India, where sugar is widely produced, rum is also a popular liquor.
In this post, you will learn about the different kinds of rum, the fermentation and distillation process, as well as the health benefits — that’s right, health benefits of drinking rum.
The very first rum distillation took place in the Caribbean in 1620, after sugarcane was introduced to them (thank you, Christopher Columbus) and the slaves did not know what to do with the excess molasses they got from sugar production. Luckily, someone decided to play around with it and the rest is history. At the time, people consumed alcohol mainly out of medicinal necessity, but when rum came into existence, it was the first time they drank any spirit for pleasure.
Rum became very well known that around the 18th century, it was used as a currency. Sailors would receive rum as a form of payment for their services and it became one of the most sought-after commodities. Fast forward to today, the largest rum distillery is still in the Caribbean and it produces 100,000 liters every day. No wonder Jack Sparrow always had a bottle of rum in his hand.
Rum has come a long way and has been one of the most celebrated spirits in the world. There’s the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, the Rum & Reggae Festival in London and Bristol, and the Jamaica Rum Festival, just to name a few. Each region has its distinct rum variety and they even call rum by many nicknames, such as Kill- Devil, Demon Water, Nelson's Blood, or Pirate’s Drink.
Rum is made from sugarcane, which undergoes the process of fermentation and distillation to produce molasses. Molasses is the juice of the sugarcane extracted through cutting, crushing, or mashing. Most rum is produced using a certain type of sulfured molasses which is obtained from the sugarcane plant. Its flavors range from light, dark, and blackstrap.
Once the molasses is produced or the juice has been pressed from the sugarcane, it is then mixed with water and yeast as the base.
Rum is produced in more than 80 countries using a diverse range of methods, including variations in fermentation, distillation, blending style, and aging techniques. Naturally, this results in a plethora of rum varieties, making rum a bar cocktail favorite. Rum is often described as the “wild, wild west” of spirits because of the many classifications which can sometimes become pretty confusing.
We’ve listed down the most common rums, their alcohol content, and some popular brands.
This type has a milder flavor and lighter body than gold and dark rum. Most white rums are sold at 80% proof or 40% ABV (Alcohol By Volume). They are aged for a year or more, then filtered to remove the color. White or clear rum is a bartender favorite for mixing with other ingredients. Brands: Bacardi Superior, Rubi Rey, Don Q Cristal, Mount Gay Silver, 10 Cane
This is the rum that has mellowed in the barrel over time. It usually has a more flavorful profile than white or clear rum. It has 37.5% ABV. Brands: Don Q Gold, El Dorado 5, 1 Barrel, Barcelona Dorado, Cacique Anejo Superior
This rum type is often aged in oak barrels for extended periods with darker, fuller flavor profiles. Good for sipping solo, it contains 38% ABV. Brands: Cruzan Estate Dark, Flor De Caña 5, Barbancourt 3 Star, Diplomático Añejo
The darkest, richest, and heavy-bodied rum. Black rum retains much of the rich molasses and caramel flavoring and is sometimes colored burnt caramel to achieve consistently dark hues. It has 40% alcohol content. Brands: Cruzan Black Strap, Gosling's Black Seal, Skipper Demerara, Wood’s 100
A traditional, full-bodied rum associated with the British Royal Navy. It has 57% ABV. Brands: Lamb's Navy Rum, Pusser's, Lemon Hart, Skipper Demerara, Wood's 100
Represents the finest examples of mature rums from the distillery. Premium Aged Rum is generally blended to achieve complexity and distinctive flavor profiles. They take on darker and richer colors due to the time spent in barrels. Brands: Zacapa Centenario XO and Zaya, Don Q Gran Añejo, Bacardi 8 and Reserva Limitada, Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva, Flor De Caña 18, Santa Teresa 1796, El Dorado 15
Overproof means a higher concentration of alcohol. This is famous in the Caribbean because they prefer stronger drinks. It has 160 to 190 proof. Brands: Bacardi 151, El Dorado 151 High Strength Rum, Cruzan 151, Bruddah Kimio's DA Bomb 155, Matusalem 151 Red Flame
This type of rum is distilled in the French Caribbean islands from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice instead of molasses. The liquor is distilled to about 70 proof. Brands: Clement XO and Cuvee Homere, Darboussier Rhum Vieux 1983, Depaz Blue Cane Amber Rhum, St. James Hors d'Âge, LA Favorite Rhum Agricole Vieux
A Brazilian sugarcane spirit and one of the most popular categories of spirits in the world. It’s made from fresh sugarcane juice and has not undergone aging in barrels. It has 38-54% ABV. Brands: Aga Luca, Beija, Beleza Para, Boca Local, Cabana
This type is the product of a wide range of flavors and spices infused into rum. Some of the common spices used are roots of ginger, seeds of vanilla and allspice, the bark of cinnamon or cassia, and buds of clove. It is bottled at 92 proof. Brands: Captain Morgan, Parrot Bay Coconut, Malibu Coconut, Foursquare, Sailor Jerry
Knowing the colorful history and the broad spectrum of rum types around the world, it seems important to learn how rum is made. Below is the step-by-step guide on the different stages of making rum.
Sugarcane juice is to rum as grape juice is to wine. That means that the harvesting stage of rum-making is just as important as the rest of the process.
As with most grass varieties, sugarcane is cut and then starts re-growing after harvest. Cutters use machetes to cut the cane close to the ground, right around the part of the stem which has the highest concentration of sugars. Then the leafy tops are also removed. On an average day, a good harvest is around three tons of cane per day. Of course, a lot more can be collected using mechanized harvesting.
Since sugarcane contains about 75% water while the rest is sugar and fiber, the harvested cane is washed, chopped, and pressed to extract the water and sugar juice. That process of extracting sugar from cane juice produces a viscous product called molasses. This is basically what most rum is made from. Molasses will be fermented to be later on distilled to form rum. Another alternative is to boil molasses to remove the water content and turn it into cane syrup which could also be fermented to make rum.
Fermentation is when yeast converts sugars into alcohol. Whether you will be using cane juice or cane syrup, this will be fermented with water and cultured yeast to produce a beer-like wash of 5-10% ABV.
a.) Boil around 20 liters of clean water in a boiler. Then, dissolve both the sugar and molasses in the water with just the right amount of heat. You can turn the burner off as soon as bubbles start to form.
b.) Cool the mixture down to 82 °F (28 °C) and add hydrated yeast. You can do this by dividing the mash into portions into smaller jugs first so it’s easier to dissolve the yeast. When the mixture begins to foam up, put in the rest of the wort.
c.) Allow the mixture to ferment at 77° F (25° C). You’ll know when to stop when the airlock on your pot stops bubbling. There must be the presence of heat for the yeast to keep converting sugar to alcohol. Make sure to store the wash in a warm place. Better yet, keep the room artificially heated. The airlock on the pot should let the carbon dioxide escape without letting oxygen in.
The fermentation process can be as short as 24 hours or as long as 3 weeks, depending on the strain of yeast used and the style of rum being produced.
Each strain of yeast works at different rates and may also result in varying flavors. Generally, when the fermentation is quick, it produces a lighter wash that tends to be favored in producing white rum. On the other hand, darker rum necessitates a slow and orderly fermentation where yeast is progressively added in intervals.
The speed at which yeast gobbles up the sugar is also affected by certain minerals. Slowing the process allows for congeners to develop. Congeners are flavorful substances that consist of esters and aldehydes. This results in a thicker, more acidic wash which in turn makes the rum richer in taste.
Once the airlock has finished bubbling, allow the mash to sit for 3-7 days.
You can test if the mash is ready using a hydrometer. Hydrometers are used to measure the ratio of a density of a liquid to the density of water. Starting on the day when you expect the mash to be finished, measure it once a day. When you get the same reading for 3 consecutive days, that means your wash is ready to distill.
There are two methods in distilling rum: the Copper Pot Distillation and the Column Still Distillation. Pot stills produce a more flavored distillate, hence they are most commonly used for producing rum Agricole. Column stills, on the other hand, are the choice for producing neutral spirits like white rum.
The copper pot is the original type of still. It works by heating low-proof alcohol in what is basically a large kettle covered by a head called an “ambix”. The boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water, so at the right temperature of around 78°C, alcohol turns to vapor while water remains in the liquid form. The vapor will then rise through a long tube in the ambix which cools and condenses it back into a liquid.
The use of a copper pot is in theory one of the easiest methods of distillation, but in reality, it requires a certain skill level to perform, especially if you want to produce good rum. The process gives the master distiller more control, but only a small portion of the distillate is safe for consumption.
A column still is often called a “continuous still” because unlike the pot still, it can be run continuously without the need for intervals between batches. Furthermore, it produces much stronger alcohol meaning that it produces more rum after it has been diluted to around 40% ABV.
A column still consists of two towering columns. The first column called the analyzer has steam rising and wash descending through several levels. The second column known as the rectifier carries the alcohol from the wash, where it circulates until it can condense at the proper power level. Below are the basic steps on how rum is distilled using a column still:
a.) Sugar cane wash is fed into the analyzer and then heated into steam. Strong alcohol will rise to the top and condense inside the analyzer as the temperature is lower at the bottom of the column.
b.) As the impurities come into contact with plates at different heights, they will naturally reflux and condense.
c.) The condensed vapors are redistilled and thrown back into a vapor state. The process repeats continuously and causes a reaction that separates heavier compounds from the lighter compounds. This increases the purity of the spirit.
d.) The spirit will make its way through the column until it reaches a point where the distiller is ready to collect off from the still.
Just like with most distilled spirits, the flavor largely depends on the rum aging process. You can either use stainless steel vats or oak barrels to store rum for aging. Although stainless steel is typically reserved for white rum so the color won’t turn dark, it could spend time in oak to produce flavors and color. Some people also choose used whiskey and bourbon barrels to age their rum.
The time rum spends in aging is decided based on several factors and does not only depend on the type of rum made. Dark rum is aged longer than white rum. The alcohols in the rum interact with the wood to create distinct flavors, extract color, and develop a smooth quality that highly enhances aged rums.
Humidity and climate play important roles in rum aging. Higher humidity leads to faster alcohol losses, while rum aged in hotter climates leads to water loss.
The size of the barrel makes a difference, too. Small barrels provide a higher wood-to-spirit ratio and tend to mature faster. Lastly, make sure to filter your rum through a cheesecloth or clean cotton shirt to catch any of the wood particles.
Blending is the last process where a distiller can still make changes to the rum's character. Different types of rum are the products of blending light and dark rum with varying distillation processes. For instance, a particular barrel of rum maybe 95% column still with just 5% or even less pot still to add character and flavor.
Because of the liberty of every distiller to alter the rum’s constitution, it is at this blending stage where some brands take advantage and make shady and illicit processes to further “enhance” their products. Additives can be used to boost a rum's flavor and pass it off as legit, making it harder for everyone else to know for sure if a certain brand indeed originated from the Caribbean, Haiti, or Jamaica.
Then there are the age statements. In many cases, the best rum producers are part of regulated markets where these age statements are accurate (or close to accurate) representations of the age of the rum. Sadly, for others, their declaration of rum age may or may not be a result of blending additives to make them taste like an aged rum.
No two distillers are the same. But with rum, the quality not only rests in the hands of the distiller. Several factors that affect the quality, taste, color, and viscosity of rum include:
As it turns out, rum is more than just your commonplace tropical drink. There are good things that happen to your body when you drink rum on a regular or even semi-regular basis. If you have good mixology skills, you can even smoke a cocktail at home. Here are some of rum’s health benefits:
If you’re a rum lover, we hope this article gave you a newfound love for your favorite drink. For rum newbies, you now have the knowledge of how rum is made, what is rum made from, its different types, and some health benefits of drinking it. Expand your expertise by trying out a few rum-based cocktails and share your experience in the comment section below.
Great blog. Ron del Barrilito is also unchanged since 1880. Ron del Barrilito’s timeline is one of stability and consistency. Almost 140 years ago, we found a way to craft world-class rum. Today, we’re still making rum in the same way.
Excellent Article! I am a serious lover of Rum as was my Father, Grandfather’s etc., many of them who were Mariners and familiar with Rum. Thank you for the excellent information. I am considering making my won small batch Rum and this article provided a lot of the basic information I was looking for. I would include in your article a Rum which is made in Venezuela called Pampero which I have found easily rivals the Eldorado 12 and 15 year batches in body and aroma. If anyone has suggestions on how to start making Rum I would appreciate you input. God bless!