What’s today? It’s Sunday. I guess it’s my day. Welcome to the church of rum.
Rum is slowly getting recognized as the most diverse spirit. More knowledgeable enthusiasts will recognize this as rum’s greatest strength. Wherever sugarcane grows, it’s a certainty that rum or another form of sugarcane spirit is made there. Production style will depend on the various cultures that have had an effect on the place. In fact, the popularity of rum has even led to rum being made in places that don’t grow sugarcane; for example, Ninefold Distillery makes molasses-based rum in Scotland.
Yet, rum’s massive diversity is also its greatest weakness. Sometimes, people like to put things in boxes. This kind of thinking has hurt rum. When the first rum someone tastes has been sweetened, they’re more likely to think that all rums are very sweet. There are also people who have tried unaged and almost flavorless rum, so they’ll end up thinking that all unaged or white rum is like vodka. Technically, they’re not wrong. Rum is so diverse that it has an answer for every spirit.
As the main reviewer of malternatives on Malt, I can safely say that my knowledge and experience with other spirits is more vast than most drinkers. This vast experience, along with conversations with much more learned drinkers has allowed me to formulate this idea.
Vodka is essentially a very well branded and marketed neutral spirit. You can make it out of any raw material. Grain, potato, grapes, and sugarcane are the most popular ones. To make vodka, you just run the fermented wash of whatever material you have into a multi-column still and distill it over 95.5% ABV. At this strength, the spirit will have lost all of its character, hence being called a neutral spirit, meaning it has no distinct character.
Bacardi’s Superior white rum, which I can’t call unaged due to Puerto Rico’s rule that rum has to spend at least one year in neutral casks, is the best example. This isn’t vodka, but they run it through a multi-column still and distill it to a very high ABV. If you drink it, it’s pretty much devoid of flavor. This is why some people refer to Bacardi Superior as sugarcane vodka.
Why people like to spend (lots of) money on something devoid of taste confuses me to this day. It’s like drinking alcoholic water!
The easiest popular explanation for this category is that it’s basically juniper flavored vodka, although, some might say this is outdated. New brands of gin have been using less juniper and other less popular botanicals and spices. Still, a neutral spirit flavored with juniper is the essence of gin.
With that, for rum to match gin, someone just has to flavor rum with juniper and other botanicals. Just look at this article on Botanical Rum.
The French are known for their wine and brandy, but there were points in history when war reached the brandy producing regions of France. This meant that the grape vineyards were destroyed, or there was no one to make the brandy, or both. An example would be Normandy; the region where Calvados is produced saw a lot of fighting during World War II. Aside from the fighting, there are also accounts of the Nazis sacking farms and orchards for Calvados.
All of Western France was occupied by the Nazis at one point. If you’re good with your geography, this means that the city of Bordeaux was also occupied. Close to Bordeaux is the city and region of Cognac. This meant that Cognac production was also greatly affected.
With French brandy being mostly unavailable, the French turned to the agricoles being produced in their Caribbean provinces of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Just so I’m not leaving them out, there are also other French provinces such as French Guiana and Reunion Island, but I don’t know much about their history. I even read that the Bank of France sent their gold to Martinique.
Yes, brandy is made from distilled wine or cider, and rum is made from sugarcane. But sugarcane juice-based rum, aka agricole, has been made by the French in the French territories of the Caribbean since the 1800s. A lot of them are even aged in French Oak.
Today, the consumption of French brandy in France is small. Aside from whisky, one of the other more popular spirits in France is rum. A lot of new sugarcane juice-based rum brands usually target France first to grow their market. Paris RumFest is also mostly sugarcane juice-based rum.
Agave spirits (Tequila/Mezcal/Raicilla)
Before I got into rum, I was first a Mezcal fan. One of the first things I realized when I first got into sugarcane juice-based rum is that it’s easy for Mezcal fans to appreciate sugarcane juice-based rum. As I got to meet more rum industry folks, I also learned that agricole fans love Mezcal as well.
I know that the difference in base ingredients means they won’t taste exactly the same, but the unaged variants of both spirits share an earthy taste unique to themselves. They also share similar principles. Tequila is going to be more of the outlier in this due to there being more mixtos, aged variants, and the limitation of only using the Blue Weber agave.
The principles I refer to are the importance of the raw material and the terroir. Traditionally, mezcal are drunk unaged. Barrel-aged mezcal was only recently introduced by foreign influences. Agricole in the French islands of the Caribbean are also mostly consumed unaged. Without barrel influence to rely on, mezcal producers have to rely on the quality of their agave and their production techniques.
Aside from this, both spirits also use different strains of their respective base ingredients. Espadín is the most commonly used agave for mezcal production. But there are wild and more expensive varieties such as Tobalá, Tepextatae, and Madrecuixe. For agricole in Martinique and Guadeloupe, some distilleries bottle single cane varietals. Clement has done this with their bottling of agricole that came from red, blue, and green cane varieties.
Lastly, there’s terroir. This is real terroir and not marketing’s bullshit term of terroir. Agave and sugarcane both grow on different soils. Oaxaca, where most mezcal comes from, is known for having tons of microclimates. This not only applies to the quality and variety of their crop growth, it also applies to agave.
Not only is this due to the difference in soil, the flora and fauna there will also be different. As the old saying goes, what grows together goes together. This will affect what flavors the agave will impart. A difference in flora and fauna also means the wild yeast are not the same; most mezcal use natural fermentation. This surely means that an Espadín-based mezcal from Oaxaca will be different from an Espadín-based mezcal from Michoacan, whether or not they are made with the same techniques or not. People are part of terroir, too.
The easiest justification for this would be to just barrel age some column distilled or blended rum in new American oak. Like a lot of bourbon, plenty of rum is column-distilled as well. Obviously, there won’t be any corn or rye taste, and mashbills won’t be part of the conversation. But the essence of this is to get a spirit with a strong wood flavor. Despite not exclusively using new oak, another argument to this is the numerous bourbon drinkers crossing over to rum after trying Foursquare.
Grain and sugarcane are both types of grass. This basically makes them cousins. So, it’s no surprise when both whisky and rum are aged in the same kinds of casks. Most blends or single malts are primarily aged in ex-bourbon casks. It’s the same for most rum brands. Higher-end blends or single malts are in ex-sherry casks; so are certain rum expressions.
Whisk(e)y drinkers looking to rum have also said certain aged rum taste like whisky. A few rum and Scotch drinkers I know have said that a few of the Guyanese rums they’ve tried taste like Scotch.
Before you violently react or wonder to this, let me first say that this is about having unique, intense end of the spectrum flavors.
We all know that drying barley with peat is unique to whisky and is what gives whisky an earthy and smokey flavor. The unique flavor rum has is funk. Yes, other categories of spirits have their own funk. Cognac has rancio. Certain single malts like Springbank have a certain funk. But, most pot-distilled molasses-based rum – most notably Jamaican rum – give off a unique fermented fruit kind of funk.
I haven’t heard of a whisky that’s been aged in ex-Jamaican rum casks or other funky rum casks. I expressed my frustration at how whisky brands tend to not identify the rum casks they use for aging in this review. But, there have been instances of rum being aged in peated ex-whisky casks. Search for one of Mt. Gay’s releases.
We often hear of how repetitive and expensive whisky can be. Hopefully, this convinces more readers to give rum and sugarcane spirits a try. It’s such an underrated spirit despite its variety and how much flavor it has. A lot of drinkers have been conditioned to think whisky is the best spirit category. I’ll let others keep that title. With this article, I can say that rum is the most diverse of spirits. What other spirit can have an answer to the other categories?