There's no denying that both rum and whiskey are two of the most popular and ordered distilled alcohols in the world. While they're both distilled spirits, there are several areas wherein they differ. One example is their main ingredients and the process each spirit goes through.
Rum is produced from sugarcane molasses or juice, while whiskey is made from a mash or a mixture of grains. Furthermore, whiskey is distilled and aged in oak barrels, while rum can be either distilled or produced from a fermented sugarcane product.
Despite their similarities, both are considered separate and broad categories of liquor. Does one of them reign supreme? To address the rum vs. whiskey debate, we'll compare and contrast the two libations, so you can decide for yourself which is the better choice for you. Let's dive in!
A Quick Glance
What is Rum?
Rum is a distilled alcoholic drink derived from sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. The process starts by crushing sugarcane to extract its juice, which is then boiled to be concentrated and, afterward, fermented and distilled.
Depending on the desired final product, rum can be aged in oak barrels for a period of time. The end result is an amber-colored liquid with a distinctively sweet flavor.
Its manufacturing process varies depending on the type of rum being made. For example, dark rum is typically aged longer than light rum, and spiced rum generally contains spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg.
The history of rum is long and varied, with the spirit being produced in a number of different countries and cultures globally. The earliest known reference to rum dates back to the 17th century, when English explorers noted the production of a fermented beverage made from sugarcane in the West Indies.
From there, rum spread to other parts of the world, with production beginning in Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. It quickly became a popular drink due in part to its relatively low cost and high alcohol content. In the 18th century, rum was an important commodity in the British navy, with the spirit being rationed to sailors on long voyages.
Today, rum is frequently associated with the Caribbean, but it is also produced and famous in other countries such as the Philippines and India. No matter its origin or ingredients, rum remains a popular choice for both drinking and cooking.
What is Whiskey?
Whiskey is a type of distilled spirit made from fermented grain. The type of whiskey produced depends on the type of malt or grain used, which can include barley, rye, wheat, and corn, as well as the location and method of production.
For example, Irish whiskey and Scotch whiskey are both grain whiskey made from barley, while those produced in America, like rye whiskey and bourbon whiskey, are usually made from a blend of different grains. The other categories of whiskey include single malt, single cask, cask strength, and blended whiskey.
The term "whiskey" is derived from the Gaelic phrase "uisce beatha," which means "water of life." Furthermore, whiskey is believed to have originated in Ireland in the 12th century and was initially used as a medicinal elixir.
Over time, whiskey began to be produced commercially, and it soon became popular throughout Europe. In the 18th century, Scottish immigrants brought their own style of whiskey-making to the United States, which made the evolution of American whiskey possible.
Today, whiskey is produced all over the world, and it remains one of the most popular alcoholic beverages.
In different cultures and regions, whiskey may be consumed at any time of day or night. However, there are some general patterns that tend to emerge.
In many cases, whiskey is drunk in the evening, after a meal. This allows the drinker to relax and enjoy the flavors of the whiskey without the distraction of hunger.
Rum Vs. Whiskey Face-off
The ingredients and process of production are what distinguish rum from whiskey, but there is more to it than that. You may be wondering if one can outshine the other or be balanced with them in your drink? We will explore this below!
Ingredients - Winner: Whiskey
As mentioned, rum is primarily made from sugarcane that goes through a process called sugar refinement wherein it will be made into molasses or more commonly known as black treacle in the UK.
Molasses is sweet, dark-colored, and has a syrupy consistency. It used to be cheaper than refined sugar until the 20th century. However, in today's time, molasses' price is double the price of refined sugar.
There are three grades of molasses depending on how many times sugar cane is boiled: A (first) molasses, B (second) molasses, and C (final) molasses. A molasses is also called light molasses, and it is the first stage of sugar cane refining, which also has the highest sugar content.
B molasses, also known as dark molasses, has a lower sugar content than A molasses. Finally, C molasses or blackstrap molasses is produced by the third boiling and has the lowest sugar content, which means it leans more on bitterness.
All whiskeys are made from fermented grain mash and distilled to less than 95% ABV. The taste, aroma, and other properties of the final product are influenced by the type of grain used. Common grains used in whiskey production include rye, wheat, corn, and barley.
The grains are also what provide the yeast with carbohydrates that are to be used for the production of ethanol in whiskey.
While whiskey producers outside America base their whiskey on barley, their North American (the US and Canada) counterparts usually like to use a blend of three or four grains.
There's no denying that both rum and whiskey pack a flavorful punch. But ingredients-wise, whiskey has a bit of an edge due to its variability and the different flavors that come with each ingredient. This gives distillers a lot of flexibility that results in more types of whiskey being produced.
Process - It's a Tie!
The first step in producing rum is to harvest sugarcane. This component is crushed and pressed to extract the juice, which is then mixed with water and yeast. Afterward, the resulting mixture is placed in a fermentation tank, where it will remain for several days. In fermentation, the yeast breaks down the sugars in the juice, releasing alcohol and carbon dioxide.
When fermentation is complete, the mixture is transferred to a still, where it is heated until the alcohol vapors rise and condense. This distilled rum is then placed in charred oak barrels, where it will age for several years. The longer the rum ages, the darker and more flavorful it will become. Finally, the rum is bottled and sold to enjoy!
On the other hand, making whiskey begins with mashing, which is the process of crushing the grains and mixing them with water. This mixture is then left to ferment, during which time the sugars in the grain are converted into alcohol. Once fermentation is complete, the resulting liquid, known as wash, is distilled.
During distillation, the wash is heated until it turns into vapor. This vapor is then condensed back into a liquid, resulting in a clear spirit known as low wine. This is distilled for a second time to produce a final product with an alcohol content of 40-50%.
The last step in the whiskey-making process is aging. Aged whiskey is typically stored in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, during which time it develops its characteristic flavor and color. Like most alcohols, whiskey also becomes more complex and robust the longer it's aged. Take a look at these best aged bourbons, for example.
Both spirits are made through a similar process of fermentation and distillation. The difference lies in the number of distillation stages and the number of years of aging, which depends on the producer, brand, or type of whiskey or rum. This results in a tie for both liquors.
Types - Winner: Whiskey
There are six main types of rum–light, gold, dark, premium, spiced, and flavored. The first four types are classified according to their color and/or aging period, while the last two are kinds of rum that have been infused with flavorings.
Light rum is a clear spirit with a mellow flavor and is the most versatile type of rum that can be used in a wide variety of cocktails. It is best enjoyed when diluted with mixers such as cola or lime juice. It is also typically aged for less time than other rum types, leading to a lighter body and color.
Meanwhile, gold rum is typically characterized by its amber color and aged for a shorter period of time than dark rum. Consequently, it tends to be less complex in flavor.
Dark rum has the longest maturation time, resulting in a full-bodied texture and a stronger and sweeter taste. Premium rum is quite similar to dark rum in terms of aging time, and it is usually made with high-quality ingredients, which is why it's generally high-priced.
Flavored rum is typically infused with fruit juices, syrups, or liqueurs; one prominent example is Malibu rum. Finally, spiced rum is infused with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, and it tends to have a lower alcohol content and a sweet taste.
Additionally, it is often darker in color due to the addition of spices. Because it is typically an infused alcohol, one can easily make spiced rum at home.
Types of whiskey are more extensive since it features two broad classifications–based on style and origin. The style classification is further divided into two: type of grain and malt/cask. Some whiskeys are called by the main ingredient they are made of, such as wheat, corn, rye, grain, and malt whiskeys.
In addition, if whiskey, like bourbon, passes certain requirements in aging and alcohol content, it can then be referred to as "straight whiskey."
In terms of malt or cask classification, the main types are single, blended, single cask, and cask strength.
Single malt whiskey is produced at one distillery, while blended malt whiskey is made by blending together two or more single malt whiskeys. Furthermore, single cask whiskey is made from a single barrel, whereas cask strength whiskey is bottled straight from the barrel.
Besides that, there are also origin/geographical classifications of whiskey, such as American (Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee), Irish, Japanese, Scotch, and Canadian. The first two are called "whiskey," while the last three are spelled as "whisky."
These whiskeys are namesakes of the location where they are produced, and each one has a unique whiskey production process that can affect the flavor of the final product.
Based on the variety of types, whiskey definitely has the upper hand. With this, drinkers have more options to choose from since every type is made differently and consequently has unique flavors and varying prices.
Taste / Aroma - It's a Tie
The flavor of rum depends on where and how it is made. But, generally, it has a sweet, molasses-like taste with some toastiness from the barrel aging, complemented with notes of vanilla, caramel, and spice.
It also smells like how it tastes; you will pick up bold notes of syrupy sweetness with some vanilla. Flavored and spiced rum is more complex when it comes to taste and smell because of its additions.
In contrast, whiskey has a smooth, malty, and smoky flavor with hints of oak and vanilla. The flavor profile will differ subject to the grains used and the distillation and aging process.
Some whiskeys are aged in casks that have been previously used to age wine or bourbon, which can also add unique flavors to the final product. On the nose, it typically has a woody, grassy smell with notes of rain and peat.
Both spirits are on par when it comes to taste and aroma because they have their fair share of unique complexities and flavors that make them what they are supposed to be and distinct from other alcohols. While some may prefer the sweeter taste of rum, others may find the smokiness of whiskey more to their liking.
Color - Winner: Rum
Another interesting thing about rum is its complexities in color. The rum color spectrum can be divided into four categories: white, golden, dark, and black. The period of aging and barrels used are what give rum its color; however, some producers use caramel coloring.
White rum, also called silver rum, achieves its transparent color with multiple filtration processes and it has a short aging period. Also, golden rum displays an amber color due to being aged in wooden casks longer than white rum.
Dark rum spends two to three years maturing in oak barrels, with the wood lending it a darker mahogany color with copper undertones. The darkest of the four is black rum which is black with reddish tints brought by charred wooden barrels.
Just like rum, whiskey gets its characteristic brown color when it is stored in wooden barrels. Because whiskey has high levels of alcohol concentration, it becomes a great solvent, making it easier and quicker for the sugar, tannins, and pigment from the wood to mix in with the whiskey.
Furthermore, caramel coloring may also be added to some whiskeys to give them an appearance more consistent with older whiskeys.
According to law, straight bourbon whiskeys aren't allowed to be added with caramel coloring. In contrast, Scotch whisky, as well as non-straight American, Canadian, and Irish whiskeys, are allowed to be enhanced with E150a, a plain caramel coloring.
Putting variety again into the equation, there is no doubt that rum is the front runner when it comes to color. While whiskey generally falls into a limited range of brown hues, rum can vary from clear to black, giving it a wide range of options as to presentation.
This variety can also be a big advantage when it comes to mixology, as some cocktails call for different shades of alcohol.
Alcohol Content - It's a Tie
By law, rum must be at least 37.5% ABV in Europe and 40% ABV in the US; although most brands are between 40% and 60%. Some specialty rums can be even higher in alcohol content, with some brands reaching up to 75% or even 80%.
The typical ABV for whiskey is between 40% and 50%. However, there are some whiskeys that are higher or lower than this. For example, some high-proof whiskeys can be as high as 90% ABV. These whiskeys are often consumed neat because they have a stronger flavor.
On the other hand, some lower-proof whiskeys are as low as 30% ABV. These whiskeys are often used in cocktails because they can play with the flavors of the other ingredients without overshadowing them.
Rum and whiskey seem to be on equal footing, which is why this round goes to both of them. They have an array of choices that cater to people with different preferences and alcohol tolerances.
Price - Winner: Rum
There is a vast range of pricing when it comes to rum, as the alcohol content and proof can vary significantly from one bottle to the next. Most rum falls somewhere between $10 and $30 per bottle.
Moreover, rum that is mass-produced and of lower quality will be less expensive than premium brands or small-batch rums that are aged for longer periods.
For example, a bottle of Bacardi white rum may cost around $15, while a bottle of Mount Gay XO rum, aged up to 15 years, may cost upwards of $60. On the other hand, premium rums, like the overproof rum, J. Wray & Nephew, can reach up to $54,000.
Whiskey is often seen as a luxurious drink, and there are a few factors that contribute to the cost of this popular spirit. For starters, grains are a costly ingredient. In addition, the distillation and aging process is time-consuming and requires expensive equipment.
However, some whiskey brands balance the benefits and costs of their whiskey production so they can still offer good and cheap whiskeys, such as Old Forester 86 Proof Bourbon being sold for about $22.
There are also many top-shelf whiskeys that have been sold for thousands of dollars, like The Macallan 1926 (Fine & Rare) at over $70,000.
Looking at affordability and accessibility, we've concluded to let rum win this round. Rum is relatively cheaper than whiskey because sugarcane byproducts are more affordable than grains.
Additionally, the aging process for whiskey is more complex and extensive than for rum. When something can't be sold immediately, the time forgone is set off with a price increase.
Some types of whiskey, such as bourbon, rye, or malted barley whiskey, also require more than one distillation, which further increases the cost of production.
Application in Cocktails - It's a Tie
Whether it’s the sweet molasses notes of a dark rum or the grassy, vegetal flavors of a white rum, each type brings its own unique character to a rum cocktail. It also adds body and texture, which helps to create a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.
Most people think of rum as a summertime spirit, best enjoyed in fruity, tropical, or Caribbean drinks. Some of the most well-known rum cocktails include Mai Tai, Daiquiri, Dark 'n Stormy, Mojito, and Piña Colada.
Whiskey is also a popular choice for cocktails for several reasons. First, it has a strong flavor that can hold its own and simultaneously blends well with other ingredients, like citrus juice, and bitters. This makes it ideal for drinks like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Vieux Carre, Whiskey Sour, and Sazerac.
In addition, whiskey is also relatively easy to find, given its many types. Whether you're looking for a high-end bottle or a more affordable option, there's sure to be a whiskey that fits your needs.
When it comes to mixing up cocktails, both rum and whiskey have a lot to offer. Both are popular alcohol bases that are unique and versatile, making them perfect for a wide range of drinks. Both also have their own distinct flavors, too, which can help enhance the taste of a cocktail.
It really depends on what cocktail you're making or what flavor you're going for; hence the tie!
We've reached the end of the showdown, and based on the categories, rum and whiskey are tied! With their similarities and differences, it is quite clear that one liquor has an advantage over the other in one category and vice versa in the other factors.
Ultimately, it comes down to people's preferences and budget for each liquor.
Choose rum if you:
- Like sweet and rich flavors
- Value accessibility
- Love Caribbean drinks
Choose whiskey if you:
- Prefer smoky flavors
- Don't mind splurging
- Enjoy your liquors neat
Are you more of a rum guy or whiskey fellow? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. For more liquor debates like this, check out our post on Champagne Vs. Beer.