Today is National Rum Day. I really believe this should be a statutory holiday…
When you’re drinking something like bourbon, you’re drinking a heavily regulated spirit, with laws that strictly dictate the ingredients, methods of production and aging. Rum is just the opposite, and can’t be pinned down. Rum “is whatever it wants to be,” writes Wayne Curtis in his And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
He continues: “There have never been strict guidelines for making it. There’s no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites. If sugarcane or its by-products are involved in the distillation process, you can call it rum. Rum is the melting pot of spirits. . .as the bon vivant James Beard put it in 1956, ‘Of all the spirits in your home, rum is the most romantic.’”
There are so many different kinds of rum out there, and the styles vary enormously depending on how it’s made and where it comes from. Aging matters, too: “silver” or “white” rum is often unaged, and it’s a different from rum that’s spent time in oak casks, soaking up those vanilla and toasty flavors from the wood. (However, some silver rum has been aged and then filtered until clear, and some producers will add coloring to unaged rum to make it look like it’s spent time in-barrel. There are few hard-and-fast rules.)
Here are some highlights, but keep in mind that many categories overlap:
- Light-bodied rums: Cuban rum is understandably scarce in the US, but Puerto Rican, Virgin Islands and some Dominican rums can fit this category. They tend to be fairly smooth.
- Medium-bodied rums: Barbadian, Panamanian, Canarian, Nicaraguan, Trinidadian, and many more besides. They’ve got a bit stronger flavor than their lighter-bodied brethren, and are often good for both sipping and mixing.
- Heavy-bodied rums: Jamaican rum is famously aggressive and funky. As David Embury described it in 1948 in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks: “Jamaica rum…has a pungent, all-pervasive bouquet that definitely refuses to be subdued, tamed, or overcome by any other flavor whatsoever.” Jamaican rums were issued daily to sailors in the Royal Navy for centuries. Heavy-bodied rums come from other places too, like Haiti and Bermuda. They can be complex, with dark caramel or toasted-marshmallow flavors.
- Rhum agricole is typically produced on French-speaking islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe, and is distilled from sugarcane juice instead of molasses. It tends to have more of a grassier or vegetal flavor than many other rums.
- Demerara rum is made along the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana, and it has a distinctive smoky, burnt taste.
- Flavored rums have exploded in the market recently. Spiced rums could be a category unto themselves, and there are lots of coconut- or tropical-fruit-flavored rums. Many of them are artificially flavored or heavily sweetened, which can make mixing with them difficult.
- Overproof rums have a high alcohol content of at least 120 proof, or 60% alcohol by volume, though 151 is the most common proof. Often floated on top of cocktails made with other rums.
- Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil, is made from sugarcane but is often classified differently, because it’s distilled at a lower proof than most rums.
Rum has been around for a long time, too. Spirits historians Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have traced cachaça distilling in Brazil as far back as 1533,aguardiente distilling in Cuba to 1598 and molasses distilling in Barbados to 1637. In their Spiritous Journey: A History of Drink, they note that “the first New England rum distillery was built in Boston in 1657, not long after the Pilgrims arrived on board the Mayflower.”
Even Paul Revere may have ridden under the influence of rum: one of his first stops was at the home of Isaac Hall, captain of the Medford Minutemen…who also owned a rum distillery. Rum from the Northeastern United States, usually made with Caribbean molasses, fueled the infamous triangle trade in which the rum was traded for African slaves.
Rum’s incredible versatility shines in the glass, of course. Most preparations involve the trinity of rum, lime and sugar or another sweetener, and this seemingly-limited combination leads to hundreds of great drinks. There’s the Daiquiri, the quintessential rum cocktail, and the unabashedly tropical Piña Colada, but there are so many more. One engagingly simple way to showcase a good rum is with theBaguio Skin, named after the former summer capital of the Philippines. Just about any gold or aged rum takes flight when mixed with simple syrup, some thin lime slices, a dash of orange bitters and a dusting of fresh-grated nutmeg. Bon vivant Charles H. Baker, Jr. favored this drink, writing in his 1939 book Jigger, Beaker, & Glass that “We consider this one of the finest possible.”
Dark Bermudan rum, lime and spicy ginger beer make up the Dark & Stormy, while aged Barbados rum is swell mixed with Cointreau, lime and falernum (a sweet syrup) to make the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Cocktail. You could go in a Cuban direction and mix aged rum with dry vermouth, Curacao and grenadine for the magnificent El Presidente. The delicious and crowd-pleasing Honey Fitz combines aged rum, honey syrup, grapefruit juice and Peychaud’s bitters to great effect.
Bartenders may hate them, but it’s hard to top a really good Mojito. And we can’t forget the tiki kingdom: “Trader” Vic Bergeron’s masterpiece, the Mai Tai, is amazingif you can get a well-made one, or make it yourself.
However you celebrate, enjoy the taste of the tropics and have a very happy National Rum Day.