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Rum 101: Facts and Basics

Learn More about Rum

by Patricia Mack

Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask Selection, one of our Top 10 Rums
Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask Selection

Rum, once the disreputable liquor associated with peg-leg pirates, the slave trade and tiki bars, is emerging as an elegant libation to be sipped and savored.

Premium producers have tamed rum’s fiery roughness, smell and strong molasses taste to appeal to sophisticated palates. Epicureans champion these carefully crafted elixirs as the most magical and diverse of liquors, as refined as cognac or a rare scotch and infinitely tastier than vodkas.

Leblon's Cachaca Rum
Leblon Cachaça

Most rum comes from the Caribbean and its environs, although there are rum producers in the unlikely locales of Australia, India, Finland and elsewhere around the world, resulting in an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 varieties. Add to that number aguardiente de caña, literally "burning water," a kind of coarse South American rum based on sugar cane juice infused with anise. The best known is cachaça, the main ingredient in a caipirinha, the popular sweet-and-sour Brazilian drink.

There are four basic rum categories:
Light or silver
Medium, also called golden or amber

Appleton Estate Reserve Jamaica Rum
Appleton Estate Reserve Jamaica Rum

Rums have notable geographical styles and nuance. Aged rum, especially, has an intriguing richness and depth. Barbados is known for semi-light rums, with soft, almost smoky flavors. Cuba and Puerto Rico, the largest producer of rum, produce very light, dry, opulent rums. Trinidad and the Virgin Islands tend to produce medium to medium-light mellow rums. From Guyana comes the very dark, medium-bodied but rich tasting Demeraran rum made by adding spices and fruits to the distillation process. Jamaican and Martinique rums, made with molasses, are usually full-bodied, sumptuous and pungently flavored. Java distills a rum called Batavia Arak, an aromatic rum made with molasses and red rice, which is then shipped to The Netherlands for further aging. Haitian rums, made from cane juice and double distilled in pot stills, are appreciated for their smooth and delicate flavor.

Tommy Bahama Rum, made from Blackstrap molasses
Tommy Bahama Rum

These distinctive characteristics depend on many factors such as the sugar cane’s quality and origin and whether it was made from molasses or sugar cane juice. Most rum is made from molasses, which contains minerals and other trace elements that contribute to the final flavor. Rums made from cane juice, primarily those from Haiti and Martinique, have a smoother aspect. The yeast type and fermentation speed, as well as the kind of still, also tell. Light-bodied rums are produced in sophisticated multi-column distillation units and have a more delicate rum flavor. Heavy-bodied rums are produced on simpler multi-column distillation units or by means of traditional pot stills. Distillation temperature also matters — the higher the temperature, the lighter the body and more neutral the taste.

Perhaps the most important factor determining quality is the length and type of aging. Rum develops more complexity in small charred oak barrels. Aging in casks also adds a tawny color, although some producers mix in caramel tints. Rum aged for a year or less in stainless steel is clear and has little flavor.

Rum flavor adjectives are simpler than those for wine: vanilla, lemon, almond, floral and banana are among the perceptions. Often rich and heady, the scent of rum may overwhelm the senses. If that happens, experts recommend sniffing your wrist, hand or arm — sans perfume or sunscreen, of course — then return your nose to the rum.

(Updated: 09/05/13 BH)

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