Authentic Caribbean Rum has a rich and diverse heritage and is the product of a craft developed and refined over centuries. The range of Authentic Caribbean Rums available today, each with a distinct character of its own, reflects the diversity of the countries and people who produce the rums, a distillation of climate, geography, personality and passion.
Rum has been intertwined with Caribbean culture and heritage for nearly 400 years and despite several countries around the world laying claim to their own varieties, the Caribbean is celebrated as the spiritual centre of the rum world.
The spirit we know as rum today evolved with the sugar industry of the colonial Caribbean. Although cane spirits were being made wherever sugar was being grown (the plant itself originates in Papua New Guinea) long before sugar became a Caribbean crop, the rums of the Caribbean soon rose to the top of pile. By 1690, the exports of ‘spirits made from molasses’ was estimated to bring the Caribbean colonies over ¬£500,000 annually.
Rum was in fact a by product of sugar production and in the seventeenth century, the spirit found in the Caribbean was described as “hot, hellish and terrible”. However, few years later a Dutch sea captain returning from the West Indies is reported to have written “the spirits are now smoother to the tongue and have acquired a golden colour during the voyage”. By the eighteenth century a hogshead of the finest aged Caribbean rum was reputed to be judged fit for George Washington’s inauguration party.
No doubt spurred on by this vote of confidence, Caribbean rum producers have spent the ensuing two centuries perfecting the arts of distillation, aging and blending. Today, almost all rum is aged in oak barrels, the process lasting up to thirty years or more and allowing the rum to acquire a golden to dark brown hue. As important as aging, the final stage of production is blending – truly an art form when it comes to creating the finest rums and the point at which a number of different incarnations of rum are skilfully combined with the personality of each country and a shot of heritage to produce something that only comes from this part of the world: Authentic Caribbean Rum.
The making of Rum
In essence, rum is the spirit distilled from the fermentation of sugars found in juice or molasses obtained from the sugar cane plant.
The latin name for sugar cane is Saccharum officinarum and a hundred tonnes of sugar cane will generate 10-11 tonnes of sugar plus 3-4 tonnes of molasses. It is produced in the Caribbean in all countries with a sugar industry but main producers in the region are Belize, Dominican Republic, Guyana and Jamaica. Most of the Caribbean territories will start to crop sugar cane in February and finish in June or July. The harvested canes are chopped and crushed to extract the juice which is then boiled to produce a syrup. This syrup has improved longevity, and is often referred to as high-test molasses. It can be used to produce rum but will more often be used to produce sugar and the more traditional blackstrap molasses.
After evaporation and concentration of sugar cane juice and the removal of the sugar crystals which form as the syrup cools, a rich chocolate-coloured liquid, known as molasses, remains. The rum maker then performs his equivalent of alchemy – turning the quicksilver texture, rich ebony tone and robust flavours of molasses into the golden spirit of rum. A tonne of molasses would yield around 200-250 litres of pure alcohol and in addition to producing rums of excellent quality, molasses is widely used for culinary purposes and has long been considered to possess positive health benefits.
Rum can also be produced direct from cane juice, although this tends to be limited to producers who due to local conditions have access cane juice and/or where molasses is not available and to small artisanal producers.
Rum produced from either molasses, cane syrup or fresh juice are equally valid expressions and every bit as legitimate as each other.
Molasses is diluted with water and wild or specially cultivated strains of yeast are added to begin the process of fermentation. As it grows and consumes the sugars in the molasses it produces alcohol. The action of the yeast within this ‘wash’ also produces a number of compounds, known as congeners – all of which contribute to the complex flavours and aromas of rum. The length and temperature of fermentation also affects the final product.
Once fermentation is finished, the now mildly alcoholic wash (up to 10% by volume) is ready for distillation. The wash is heated with steam in a still, the equivalent of a large sealed kettle. The alcohol is liberated from the wash as a vapour and is captured as a condensed distillate, what is called the ‘heart’ of a spirit. The complex compounds in the wash developed by the yeast are preserved in this distillate.
All rums were originally made in pot stills, which are large copper kettles similar in shape to those used in the production of malt whisky. Pot stills are used in a batch system, distilling a single quantity of wash at a time. However, many makers now also use column stills – comprising two linked cylindrical ‘kettles’ called the analyzer and the rectifier – which can produce a constant flow of rum. This spirit or ‘mark’ produced during distillation is crystal clear un-aged rum.
To further develop the flavour and colour of rum it must be matured or ‘aged’ and traditionally, the bulk of ageing is undertaken in oak barrels. Due to geographical proximity, availability and tradition these are often ones that have been formerly used to age Bourbon.
However, a wide variety of ‘finishes’ may be achieved through final ageing in casks used for other drinks e.g. Sherry, Port, Cognac and Whisky or even the storage of Liqueurs and fruit based macerations.
After his precious stills, a rum maker’s barrels are his most valuable asset. Whilst in the barrel the rum acts on the oak, compounds within the wood interact with the rum, contributing further aromas and flavours and gradually turning the rum from clear, to golden and eventually darker brown.
The length of time in the barrel and the number of times the barrel has been used both influence the ultimate character of the rum. And so does the local environment at both macro and micro level. During ageing, barrels may be moved around ageing areas to enjoy different conditions but the major factor is the climate of the region that means because of the warm climate of the Caribbean, the aging process is much faster than that of spirits matured in more temperate conditions. As a consequence, a five year old rum can easily match the complexity and ‘age’ characteristics of other premium spirits that have been aged 10 or 15 years. It is important then to look at more than just the number on a bottle, when assessing the spirit.
Finally, the aged rums may be blended, an art particularly well advanced amongst rum makers and it is here that the magic exists. Most rum producers will argue that it is the art of the master blender (or Maestro Ronero) that is the key factor in crafting truly great rum. The highly experienced blender will have manipulated his rums through the ageing process and may combine a number of different aged rums and finishes to achieve a perfect palette of flavours and aromas thus creating a masterpiece worthy of the title Authentic Caribbean Rum.