As a result of long-term neglect, the effects of contemporary liquor marketing, and other historical factors, most drinking Americans are out of touch with rum. These days, rum is mainly viewed as an alternative to vodka; another way to spike a glass of cola. A couple brands of vague and questionable provenance are ubiquitous and heavily marketed, while other rums one might stumble upon seem obscure and marginal, even if they are actually venerable or leading-edge. Liquor stores are generally unhelpful; although they may carry a nice selection of rum products, it's rare to find a salesman who knows much about this noble spirit. Those who might otherwise be adventurous are often intimidated, because they don't know where to start and they're anxious about being disappointed.
In spite of these perception problems, rum is experiencing a world-wide renaissance. The selection and quality of rums has never been higher. If you haven't yet been seduced by this noble spirit, hopefully this modest collection of essays will provide you the opportunity.
As a starting point, let us dispense with the question that is always asked, but is, in fact, the wrong question. There is no such thing as the best rum! The notion of "the best rum" is as absurd as "the best wine." Like wine (and most spirits, for that matter), diversity is chief amongst the virtues of sugar cane spirits. And no spirit is more diverse than rum. While no rum is perfect for every situation, when you find the perfect rum for the moment, nothing else could possibly do. Therein lies the fascination of rum.
Sugar cane spirits are the product of craft, tradition, and terroir. Rums are crafted through the numerous decisions made during their production. Traditions play a role in terms of style and regional proclivities. Terroir - the flavor characteristics imparted by the environment in which the spirit was produced - come into play throughout the process. More or less. It varies from rum to rum.
Terroir, however, is not sufficient to describe rum's relationship with geography. Geography is the single most important factor when talking about rum. Rum comes from an unusually wide range of places, including places sugar cane has never grown.
The articles that follow expand on the various characteristics and applications of rum. We hope you enjoy perusing them and feel inspired to drink some rum in the near future!
Once you're ready to learn more, we have some book recommendations for you. These first two cover much of the same ground but in different styles. Their point is that rum has made the most extensive impact on history of any of the spirits. The story of rum is truly epic in scope and is, to a surprising extent, inextricable from the history of the post-Columbian New World. (Great stories these are!)
Williams, Ian. Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. New York: Avalon. 2005.
Curtis, Wayne. And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. New York: Crown. 2006.
If you want more nitty gritty historical details, you might scrounge around for this (out of print) volume, which, as far as we know, was the first credible study of rum. A great deal of historical research is packed into it, although only the first sixty pages or so contain the kind of prose you would just sit down and read.
Barty-King, Hugh & Anton Massel. Rum: Yesterday and Today. London: Heinemann. 1983.
Another invaluable book (also out of print) is Ed Hamilton's guide detailing darn near every distillery and rum produced in the Greater and Lesser Antilles. This book provides authoritative descriptions of the distilleries (personally visited by the author) as well as reproductions of the labels and tasting notes for the individual bottlings.
Hamilton, Edward. The Complete Guide to Rum: An Authoritative Guide to Rums of the World. Chicago: Triumph. 1997.
Finally, we must make special note of these books on Tiki cocktails. Rum has been employed in mixed drinks through every phase of cocktail history. In Tiki drinks, however, rum nearly always plays the starring role. Jeff Berry's modestly-priced compendiums are the gold standard for drinks from the Tiki era. They're also quite witty.
Berry, Jeff. Beachbum Berry's Grog Log. San Jose: SLG Publishing. 1998.
Berry, Jeff. Beachbum Berry's Intoxica. San Jose: SLG Publishing. 2002.
Berry, Jeff. Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari: In Search of the Great "Lost" Tropical Drink Recipes... and the People Behind Them. SLG Publishing. 2007.