The story goes that, at the height of the empire building era, when slaves were being shipped around the world, the British needed to clean their stables. Water wasn't strong enough and so the colonials ordered the abundant sugar canes of the Caribbean to be fermented, thus creating a chemical with the power to rid of horseshit. The slaves broke their promise to their masters not to drink the cleaning fluid and spent happy evenings getting trashed on what we now call rum.
This small act of rebellion certainly makes for good listening but chances are the creation of rum came about in the same way every other booze did. When man comes across a crop that can be made into alcohol then he will soon be getting merry.
Still, sugar had been imported into Europe from the Orient and India long before the first bottles of rum fell into the hands of rummy sailors. However, Asia’s relationship with drink is complex, lengthy and baffling and in spite of their plentiful resources they never produced sugar-based liquor on a grand scale.
Europe’s new found sweet tooth certainly encouraged their expansion to the Americas. The powers of the time frequently found themselves at the wrong end of deals with both the Asian producers and the select merchants bringing sugar back West. If Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom could cultivate their own sugar cane then as well as no longer paying up for the sweet stuff, they could make some cash of their own.
The remnants of the resulting grand carve up are still evident today. Throw down a circle roughly 3,000 miles in diameter across Central America and you will find countries speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French. The chances are that all of the invading Europeans soon started developing their own rum equivalent but it was the British who leapt upon the newfound beverage most enthusiastically. Soon British ships were filled with rum due to its propensity to stay drinkable in hot-as-hell weather, unlike good, old-fashioned ale, and until the 1970s the Her Majesty’s Navy still provided a significant amount of rum to its sailors as part of their daily ration.
There are two distinct ways of making a rum. Both start the same – grow lots of sugar cane and pulp it until you have a juice dark green in colour. Here you have a choice; go ahead and ferment the juice straight away or boil the juice down until all that remains is molasses and then work from that. For whatever reason the French and Portugese went with the former while the Spanish, Dutch and British the latter.
Once you have sugar, in whichever form, the familiar distillation process does the rest. The result is almost always clear and, depending on the quality of operation, the rum is then aged in old whiskey, Cognac or Armagnac barrels until it’s yellow or gold or brown or even black.
On Martinique and Guadeloupe the French influence gave birth to Rhum Agricole, where the canes were grown with a level of care typically shown to grapes. Unsurprisingly the act of viciously boiling sugar cane juice removes many, if not all, of the distinguishing features a sophisticated plantation may yield and so distilling the pure product is vital. The Brazilians also prefer to use freshly crushed cane juice but they seldom age it and call it cachaça.
Aside from these rogue nations (and one or two other oddities) the vast majority of rum producers use molasses as their base ingredient and yet the variation is enormous between the countries. 500 or so years has led to all sorts of tricks being used to establish one rum from the other but rather than reel off some inanities about these differences I would suggest you go out and taste them.
5 of the best
- Clement Rhum VSOP - Martinique
- Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva - Venezuela
- Chairman’s Reserve Spiced - St Lucia
- Pyrat XO Reserve - Guyana
- Pampero Aniversario - Venezuela