Rum & Rhum

Rum is a spirit distilled from sugar cane juice or its derivatives, most commonly molasses. Rum may be distilled on either pot stills or column stills and is arguably the most versatile distilled spirit with extremely stylistically diverse white, golden and dark rums all...

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Rum is a spirit distilled from sugar cane juice or its derivatives, most commonly molasses. Rum may be distilled on either pot stills or column stills and is arguably the most versatile distilled spirit with extremely stylistically diverse white, golden and dark rums all enjoying a global following.

Molasses Rum

Molasses is the final byproduct of the sugar refining process, in which freshly pressed sugar cane juice is boiled and reduced to evaporate its water content. This condensing process crystallises the sucrose content in the resulting syrup, which is then skimmed off or extracted by a centrifuge. 

Rum production makes use of the syrup byproducts from this process. These include sugar cane honey or cane syrup, which is a boiled down sugar cane juice that has not yet crystallised its sucrose, and different grades of molasses, which is the thick dark syrup that still contains the fermentable sugars fructose and glucose after the sucrose extraction is complete.

For rum production, the molasses/sugar cane honey is then diluted and fermented, producing an alcoholic liquid wash which is then distilled on either pot or column stills. The resulting spirit can then be aged in oak casks or rested in stainless steel tanks before being diluted to bottling strength and released.

Molasses rum is an incredibly broad category, and has proven difficult to classify convincingly - see below for more detail on the issues surrounding rum classification.

Rhum Agricole

Rum that is distilled from fresh sugar cane juice rather than molasses or cane syrup is known as Rhum Agricole, with the ‘rhum’ spelling revealing the historical origins of these rums, which are almost exclusively made in current or former French colonies. 

The most important production regions for classic rhum agricole are Martinique, Haiti, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, Mauritius and Réunion Island, but fresh sugar cane rums are also made in various other countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America (Brazil’s Cachaça is arguably a rhum agricole), and further afield in Madeira, Thailand, Australia and the USA, among others.

Martinique Rhum Agricole has over a dozen distilleries and an official French AOC (Appellation Controlée) classification that imposes strict production criteria (including the requirement that only continuous stills may be used), but elsewhere - as is the case with rum in general -  the rules are looser and often vary considerably.

Rhum agricole tends to have a fresher flavour profile than molasses rums, with a grassy, agricultural style often with strong vegetal notes and less intense sweetness than traditional rums. Apart from in Martinique, rhum agricole may be distilled on either pot or column stills and is usually categorised by age and/or colour. 

Young, clear agricole rhums are aged in oak or rested in stainless steel tanks for less than three months and are classified as Rhum Blanc. Rhums aged less than three years in oak casks are usually known as Rhum Paille or Rhum Ambré depending on their colour. Rhums that have been aged over three years may be called Rhum Vieux, and there are several further designations for rhums aged for four years (most commonly VSOP or Tres Vieux) and six years (usually Extra Vieux or Hors d’Age).

Rum Classification

As we have seen above, rum is made in dozens of countries worldwide (although most production is concentrated in the Caribbean and the Americas) and there is no overarching system of rules regarding how it should be made or how it should be classified. There are also no blanket regulations on age statement labelling, nor on the use and disclosure of natural or artificial flavours and colourings, nor on the addition of sugar or molasses after distillation. 

These are extremely controversial subjects within the industry, and topics on which many brands have historically given only incomplete or disingenuous information - or just remained silent. 

That is not to say that rum is completely lawless, however. It is widely agreed that rum must be made from sugar cane juice or its byproducts, so spirits made from sugar beet are not rum. In addition, most of the main rum-producing countries including Martinique, Trinidad, Jamaica, Venezuela and Guatemala have rules regarding their rum production but naturally these rules differ by region, often in fundamental ways. 

The growing popularity of high-end rums has led to wider scrutiny and consumer demands for greater transparency of production methods and labelling standards from a small but vocal group of serious rum aficionados in recent years. Unfortunately, indifference from the majority of consumers combined with big brand commercial prerogatives and the differing rules in the rum-producing countries have left many loopholes and excuses for producers to remain silent. 

These factors, in tandem with the sheer scale and complexity of the rum market, have led to an unsatisfactory set of contrasting and occasionally conflicting categorisation systems. Consequently, all manner of very different rums now find themselves lumped together by some combination of colour, age or geographical origin. 

This is problematic, given that very few rums are bottled at their natural colour, while age statements are frequently absent or may refer to the minimum, maximum, average or ‘stylistic’ age of the rums in the blend, and the geographical origin classification leaves international rum blends in limbo. However, the continued omissions and evasions of many producers risk eroding consumer trust amid accusations of lack of clarity or misinformation that are difficult to counter. 

Most rum aficionados agree that the traditional classification system is over-simplified and tells consumers little or nothing about the significant stylistic differences between similarly-classified rums. However, the alternative systems proposed recently have flaws of their own and risk further confusion through being over-complicated, hodge-podge or exclusionary. Consequently, the big producers have no incentive to stop equivocating and join in.

These issues around provenance, additives and transparency are not going away, though, and look set to continue driving debate around rum for the foreseeable future. As consumers become more knowledgeable, they demand more information about their favourite brands and although at present it seems unlikely that the big brands will give in to this pressure in any meaningful way, thankfully we are already seeing clearer labelling and more detailed information from smaller high end rum-makers - hopefully this trend will continue in the future.

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