Why Rum Is the Most Misunderstood Spirit, and Why the Words “Dark Rum” Are Meaningless
What Is Rum, Really?
Rum is the product of fermented and then distilled sugarcane. That’s all there is to it, right? Moving on to the next section, right?
Well, not quite so fast. All rum is the result of sugarcane production, but they don’t all come from quite the same set of fermentables.
The vast majority of rum you see on store shelves, and in the wells of bars, is made from the fermentation and distillation of molasses—the same molasses used in the production of brown sugar, and in your grandmother’s cookies. Molasses itself is the byproduct of the refining of sugar cane juice into the sort of crystalized table sugar we all have in our own homes—a sticky, messy plant and sugar residue left over from the process, which the more adventurous learned to make into an alcoholic spirit. In doing so, they reclaimed what was essentially industrial waste and turned it into an industry—just one of the reasons why early rum had a rather notorious reputation.
Not everything in the rum aisle is made from molasses, though. Spirits are also created from the sugarcane juice itself, before it is refined into crystal sugar, and this liquor is called rhum agricole. First produced in French-speaking locales of the West Indies (such as Martinique), “rhums” can be consumed unaged or aged in oak barrels, just like other rum styles. However, they are noted for possessing a similar but distinct flavor profile all their own, typically described as being lighter, fruitier, grassier and funkier than molasses-based rums. In other words, they tend to retain more of the character of the plant from which they derived. Confusing things further is the Brazilian national spirit cachaça, which is likewise made exclusively from fermented and distilled sugarcane juice. Functionally, this means cachaça is very similar to rhum agricole, although the unaged examples differ slightly in a few aspects of their distillation process. Aged cachaça, on the other hand, becomes a more significantly different spirit from rhum agricole, due to the use of Brazilian hardwood varieties other than the ubiquitous American oak that dominates the rest of the rum industry.
And that’s not even getting into words like “gold,” “dark” or “black,” which we’ll tackle in a moment.