Rum 101

"There's nought no doubt so much the spirit calms
as rum and true religion"
- Lord Byron

If you can resist these questions, go to the RUM 101 section below.

  1. What is rum?
  2. How does aging affect the color of rum?
  3. What is rhum agricole?
  4. What is Cachaça?
  5. Are all spirits made with sugar cane rum?
  6. I have had a bottle of rum for ten years in my cabinet. Is it getting better?
  7. What makes a good rum?

RUM 101

Sugar Cane
Fermentation
Distillation
Aging
Blending and Bottling
Alcohol Content
Edward Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

Sugar Cane

Rum distinguishes itself from other spirits by the plant from which it is made. In the US, rum is defined as a spirit distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane byproducts at less than 95% abv and bottled at at least 40% alcohol by volume.
In the EU, rum can be distilled to up to 96% abv must retain the aroma and taste of rum.
Sugar cane, a member of the grass family has its origins in Papau New Guinea but this hearty plant is grown in tropical climes around the world. The sweet juice of the mature plant is extracted by pressing the hard stalk in mechanical mills.

Some distilleries use this fresh juice while others use the by product of the sugar refining process known as molasses as the raw material for the fermentation process.

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Fermentation

The addition of yeast to the sugar cane juice or molasses converts the available sucrose to glucose and fructose by enzymes contained in the yeast. The glucose and fructose and glucose are then converted into alcohol in a process called fermentation. Typically this takes about a day but some distilleries use yeast that takes as much as ten days. To make other spirits, the starches found in grains must be cooked and then enzymes are used to convert the starch to to glucose which can be fermented. In both cases, the resulting fermented wine contains only about 10% alcohol by volume, though this may vary from as little as 3 to as much as 12 or more % alcohol by volume.

Distillation

To concentrate the alcohol in the sugar cane wine, the wine is boiled while the vapor is collected and condensed. The earliest pot stills resembled a tea kettle with a long spout and were capable of distilling only a few liters of alcohol at a time. Modern continuous stills are vertical columns about 10 meters high and are capable of distilling as much as 20,000 liters per day.

In the French islands, spirits made from sugar cane juice are typically distilled to a relatively low distillation purity resulting in a heavier tasting spirit.

Since molasses contains higher amounts of sulphur than does sugar cane juice, spirits distilled from fermented molasses are generally distilled to a high distillation purity to reduce the congeners that have been concentrated in the molasses.

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Aging

Immediately after distillation, the fresh or raw spirits contain small amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas formed during fermentation which can give the spirit a hot harsh taste. Although some connoisseurs prefer fresh rum, most consumers prefer the more elegant taste of an aged spirit. Today, almost all rum is aged in used oak barrels that once held whiskey or bourbon. Aging can last from one to thirty years or more, making rum one of the most varied of the distilled spirits. During the aging process the rum acquires a golden color that changes to a dark brown with time.

Blending and Bottling

Although some rum is bottled directly from the still, most rum is aged and then blended before it is bottled for consumption. Once the spirit is bottled the benefits of age are arrested and little change occurs.

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Alcohol Content

The bottled strength of rum depends greatly on consumer preferences. While some rum is bottled at about 40% alcohol by volume, other rums are bottled at the strength at which it was distilled or aged.

Cachaça

In Brazil, Cachaça is a spirit made from from fermented sugar cane juice and distilled to between 38 and 48% alcohol by volume. In Brazil, rum is a spirit made from fermented molasses but in the US, cachaça is considered rum and must be labeled as such.

Rhum Agricole

In the French West Indies, rhum agricole is made from freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice and then distilled to about 70% alcohol by volume. This flavorful spirit is called rhum agricole. It should be understood that just because a distiller claims their spirit is made from sugar cane juice it isn't necessarily rhum agricole. On Martinique the distillers have adopted the AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole mark which is similar to the AOC mark for Cognac or Champagne.

So what makes a good rum?

The perfect rum is really a matter of taste. If you looking for a light vodka-like rum? You'll probably like the highly distilled rums from Puerto Rico, which are some of the lightest from the Caribbean. Looking for something to sip after or to enjoy with a cigar? The best advice is to go the Rumlovers' Forum and see what our members have to suggest. And while you're there, take a few seconds to register and get information on new rums which is available only to our members.

Other sugar cane spirits

Alcoholic spirits made only from sugar cane can be called rum. Other spirits made primarily from sugar cane with added fermented products, most commonly rice, often resemble many of the attributes of rum but aren't actually called rum. Among these are Batavia Arrack. Other spirits are made from cane neutral spirits and though they are sugar cane spirits they aren't considered to be rum in most countries.

Health Risks

It's not hard to find health claims that alcohol can be beneficial for a long and healthy life. It is also agreed that consuming anything in excess is not good for anyone. There are numerous alcohol treatment centers around the world including Axis Residential Treatment.

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