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Rum, that distilled, sugarcane based elixir of tropics, has for too long been relegated to second class liquor. In reality, it is a glorious liqour every bit as intriguing, if not more so, than its more glamorous competitors.

Aficionados contend that Caribbean, South-and Central American flagship rums deserve to be classified among the world’s blue chip spirits, an exclusive group including Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Bourbons, and all whiskies (Irish-, Rye- and Scotch). Rum’s low esteem may be buried in history and primarily on marketing and pricing. Some Caribbean rum aficionados are making concerted efforts to remedy this shortcoming by organizing rum fests sponsored by a number or Caribbean countries.

It is hardly a state secret that around the world rum lacks the respect of other distillates, because there are practically no organizations or a government that controls or established standards that guarantee adherence.  To date, each country and more often than not each distiller attempts to market its product, but history shows that with a united marketing effort or front better results can be achieved and relatively quickly.

Presently only Puerto Rico and French West Indies have created some regulations. Also rum has been looked upon as a “ cheap “ liquor, popularised mostly by English sailors who received a daily ration up to 1970. The Admiralty did this to create some outlet for the producers in the Empire’s Caribbean colonies. So much for politics!

Rum, or rhum as the French spell it, is born of fermented and distilled sugar cane juice (rhum agricole in French law) or molasses, a by-product of sugar manufacturing. Most rum originates from molasses.  Both juice and molasses a re diluted, if warranted, by the addition of water, fermented with indigenous or cultivated yeast until a desired alcohol level is achieved (generally 9 – 11 ABV) and then distilled either in copper pot stills or columnar (a k a Coffey) stills.

Sugarcane, a reed-like natural grass originating in India, thrives in hot, humid climates.  First it was transplanted around southern Mediterranean countries and then in 1493 Christopher Columbus brought some from the Canary Islands, during his second voyage to the “ New World “.

Modern rum production reached commercial volumes only in the 1600’s after English and French had established their colonies. Rum has a chequered curriculum in that its popularity depended on wide spread sugarcane plantations that flourished due to the toil and misery of African slaves. Americans and French concentrated on African slaves who were “captured“ in the interior by Arab intermediaries and sold to traders. The English relied partially on indentured southern Indians for their colonies in Jamaica, Guyana and British Honduras (Belize today).

Rum was an integral part of the opening of the New World by European adventurers who were then called explorers. In colonial America, rum was the spirit of choice due in part to the trade with the West Indies fledgling economies. Residents of Massachusetts imported huge quantities of molasses for distillation Newfoundland imported Jamaican rum in exchange for salt cod, still today a popular food in that island (Akee and salt fish comes to mind).

By 1650’s, the British Royal Navy issued daily tots (rations) of Jamaican rum replacing the less suitable beer. This tradition continues until July 30 1970, when it was abandoned on ocean going vessels. Sailors called the day The Black Tot Day! Winston Churchill had been known to make derogatory comments about the Royal Navy and rum!

In the U S A whiskey replaced rum in the 19th century, as settlers moved west, where in Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Valleys corn, rye, wheat and barley grew easily and abundantly. In the 20th century rum experienced a comeback mostly due to the World War II effort, when distillers concentrated on making industrial alcohol. By the end of the 20th century both Bacardi and Tanduay from the Philippines were selling more than 33 (9 litre) cases to the world. Both are white and relatively neutral-tasting rums reflecting the taste preferences of mass-markets today. Caribbean oak-aged rums have always been more attractive, simply because of the love and tender care with which they are lavished. Rum produced from sugar cane tastes better, distillers use pot stills, age longer, and blend better. They use once-used Bourbon barrels for aging (Bourbon distillers may use barrels once only and sell them to Canadian, Caribbean and Scottish distillers).  In the past decade, enlightened and better-educated rum marketers started realizing that concerted efforts must be made to position this unique product in the prestigious category where it really belongs.  Tequila distillers have been able to achieve their success by following this marketing strategy.

Now Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Barbados have decided to promote rum as a regional spirit rather than trying to market it as a national product. Barbados has been distilling rum since 1703, and Mount Gay Estate in Bridgetown has always produced fine had-crafted rums of distinction. Pot- and Coffey still distillates are artfully aged and blended.

Pot stills yield rums with more congeners (character), and Coffey stills lighter spirits. They age their rums in second hand Kentucky bourbon barrels for as long as 23 years. Barbados Mount Gay and Cockspur grace the counters of fine bars, and cupboards of connoisseurs. Foursquare Rum Distillers, founded in 1926, ages part of its rums in second hand sherry casks for an additional taste dimension much appreciated by their clientele.

Jamaica’s Appelton by Wray and Nephew are favourites among visitors and millions of bottles find homes in many European and North American households. Appleton Estate Extra is particularly recommended.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Angostura Distillery has an excellent Vat 19 rum and of course Guyana’s Demerara rums (El Dorado five year and 10 year old as well as XL for the elite only) deserve special mention.

Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana brand marketed in five distinct age levels are extra light, four year, extra dry, Gold-, Black label, Gran Reserva seven year old and Centenario. Black label, Gran Reserva and Centenario are particularly fine rums.

Cuban rums have always been favoured by connoisseurs, and in fact Bacardi originates in that country. After Castro nationalized the company, the family has successfully relocated to become one of the largest rum marketers.  Havana Club three and seven year old rums are fine and smooth distillates at reasonable cost.

Haiti, French influenced from the beginning, produces rhum agricole signifying a distillate from fermented cane juice. Rhum agricole generally possesses a finer taste and fuller body.  Barbancourt, three and seven year old rums can be enjoyed in a snifter after a rich meal.

Martinique, still a French-administered island, is better known for its dark; rhum agricols. St James rum should be treated like an aged grape brandy. Others like Bardinet’s Negrita, Dillon and Old Nick can be enjoyed in cocktails on their own or with soft drink on the rocks.

Puerto Rico supplies enormous quantities of rum to the USA. By law, Puerto Rican rum must be aged a minimum of one year. Most are aged longer.

Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil produce “cachaca“ which tend to be rustic and better consumed in conjunction with soft drinks or in cocktails.

Philippines, India and Australia produce significant quantities of rum from locally grown sugar cane. All are light and oak aged for a short period. What is less known in North America is that Sweden, Germany, and Austria produce rums from locally grown sugar beet molasses and imported Caribbean sugar cane rums. They are marketed as rum verschnitt (blended rums).Most are light and pleasant but lack the depth of Caribbean rums.

Rum deserves a better profile and no doubt will get it once well thought out and financed marketing plans are put in effect.

Here are some highly recommended rums (Local shops may not carry them all but persistence would help you discover tastes you never knew existed.
Barbancourt Estate Reserve de Domaine (15 year old), Haiti
Doorly’s XO Rum Olorose Sherry Wood Finish, Barbados
Flor de Cana Centenario (12 year old), Nicaragua
Gosling’s Black Seal Dark Rum, Bermuda
Mount Gay Extra Old, Barbados
Pampero Ron Anejo Aniversario,Venezuela
Plantation 1983 Old reserve Rum, Jamaica
Port Morant 1976 Blackbeard’s reserve Demerara Rum, Guyana
Rhum J M 1982, Martinique
Ron Metusalem Gran Reserve Rum, Florida
St James Hors d’Age Rhum Agricole Plantation, Martinique
Havana Club seven year old, Cuba
Foursquare Spiced Rum, Barbados

N B There are now many world-wide blended rums such as Lemon Heart, Lamb’s, Captain Morgan, Bacardi, Ron Carioca, Myer’s Planters Punch, Stroh 54, Pott’s. All are mass-market standard rums and please the lowest common denominator of the rum market.

Spiced rum and cream-rums are relatively new products specifically designed to appeal to the 18-25 old market segment.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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