What is Rum?Rum gets a bad rap for being a shooting liquor for wild college parties or something that is mixed with coke until it can't be tasted anymore. This is not assisted by various spiced rums, which glory in masking the taste of the spirit. Rum, because it's made from sugar or molasses, is typically a sweeter profile than other spirits and mixes beautifully with tropical flavors. But it can also be aged and achieve a sophistication to rival venerable whiskeys.
Where does rum come from?According to Anthony Dias Blue's The Complete Book of Spirits, rum as fermented from a base of sugar of some sort or other began unnumbered centuries ago in various locales such as Malaysia (who made something called "brum") or Barbados. Whatever the case, after Columbus introduced sugar to Hispaniola the drink became popularized when the Dutch settled Barbados, created sugar cane plantations, and began wandering around with glasses of roemer, which became roem or "rum," and is translated simply as "praise." Other candidates for the origins of the name are English "rumbustion" ("a great tumult or uproar"), the Spanish ron (still on many bottles today), and even the Latin for sugar saccharum or French arome for "aroma."
How is rum made?Either molasses as the by-product of sugar production or the sugar cane juice itself obtained when pressed, these are fermented into a kind of wine - which happens automatically if you leave it laying around in pots in a hot Caribbean sun for a while, which plantation slaves quickly noticed and indulged in. This is known as agaurdiente or "fire water" and it tastes like hell. Yet this fire water can be distilled for a more refined taste and so it is to produce rum. Just like vodka, whiskey, or anything else, rum is heated, the alcohol vapors rising and then condensing out. Now, it can be immediately bottled for a clear spirit (silver rum) or aged in barrels to produce a color and character closer to whiskey (gold or aged rum). Luis Ayala of Got Rum? magazine, identifies rhum agricole (oftentimes French) as using juice from pressed sugar cane (guarapo) for fermentation. This differentiates it from the bulk of rums made from molasses, which is the leftover liquid after boiling sugarcane juice to create sugar in processing plants. Different grades of molasses from Grade A to "Blackstrap" (a notional Grade E) can be used. The better (higher) grades of molasses are said to make higher quality rum. Occasionally, sugar will be used to sweeten rum after distillation.
From A guide book for the organoleptic assessment of rum by AP Saranin (and re-printed with permission at Got Rum Magazine, May, 2011), the main producers of rum have distinctive characteristics. "Jamaican rums have a very high ester content and therefore are rich in bouquet; Demerara's rum is low in esters and is lacking in bouquet. Cuba's rum, because of particular distilling techniques, has a characteristic taste and is weak in aroma. Puerto Rican rum being rich in specific esters is highly aromatic and yet weak in flavor."