The history of rum is obviously linked to the history of sugarcane.
Originally from Asia, it made its way gradually across to the West. It arrived on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti) in the holds of Christopher Columbus' ships. It was planted, thrived, and used to make sugar. Over the course of the 17th century, it gradually spread out across the Caribbean, and moved into South America.
Rum made its first appearance in Barbados in the 17th century. Locals called this new eau-de-vie "kill-devil" or "rumbillion", which is thought to be the origin of the word "rum".
Around the same time, Father Labat, a French man in the order of the Dominicans sent to evangelize the West Indies, was travelling across the islands and took it upon himself to use African slaves to modernize the methods used to cultivate cane and produce sugar.
And so, of course, upon his arrival, he discovered tafia, equivalent to the dreaded kill-devil, which the slaves drank for courage and for its medicinal properties. He sent for the necessary distillation equipment from Charentes (where cognac was made) and created a better eau-de-vie.
Whether called it was tafia or kill devil, rum was drunk throughout the 17th century by many sailors, especially as, in 1655, an admiral of the Royal Navy had the good idea of making rum rations obligatory for sailors to give them courage. Witnessing the damaged caused by the consumption of pure rum, another admiral replaced this ration with a mixture of rum, water and lemon. This new drink was called "grog" after the admiral in question, who always wore a "grogram" cloak, thus earning himself the nickname "Old Grog".
All rum produced in the 17th and 18th centuries was distilled from molasses, and the market for cane sugar, which was the only type of sugar available at the time, was prosperous. It subsequently collapsed with the arrival of beet sugar in the early 19th century. The small West Indian planters then turned to the manufacture of agricultural rum made from cane juice.
The characteristics of a particular rum depend on those of the sugar cane used to produce it, but they are also affected by the method of distillation and the length of time it is left to age.
Rums from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil (cachaça), and Central America are lighter, and are often not aged for very long. Rum from Guadeloupe is very aromatic, especially the one produced in Marie-Galante, as is rum from Haiti. Jamaican rum and rum produced on Réunion Island is very powerful.
Rum is sold in bottles. It is also sold in the form of white rum extract (with a low or non-existent alcohol content).
Rum has no nutritional value. It is consumed for the pure enjoyment of the flavor (and should be drunk in moderation, as it has a high alcohol content), and it is also used in desserts.
Grog, which is often given to flu-sufferers, gives the drinker a boost because of the presence of alcohol, but it does not cure the virus – or any other, for that matter.
- Agricultural rum (rhum agricole)
This is made directly from the sugarcane, which is pressed to produce a juice called cane juice. It is extracted and filtered before being fermented to produce sugarcane wine. This is distilled to produce a clear rum with 63–75% volume. It is then diluted slightly to reduce its alcohol by volume.
White rum or grappe blanche rum: the rum is stored for 3 months in wooden casks. It is then diluted with distilled or spring water and bottled. It has 40–60% alcohol by volume.
Golden rum (rhum paille): this is left to mature for 18 months in an oak cask.
Amber rum (rhum ambré): this is aged for 2 years in an oak cask, which gives it its dark blonde color.
Aged rum (rhum vieux): this is aged in the same way, but for longer. 3 years for a VO label rum; 4 years for the VSOP label, 6 years for an XO, 5–7 years for a traditional aged rum, 8–12 years for an aged hors d'âge rum and 15 years or more for an aged millésimé rum.
Rhum agricole de la Martinique is protected by a PDO.
Agricultural rum is also produced in Guadeloupe, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guyana, Central and South America (especially Brazil), the islands of Reunion and Mauritius, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
- Industrial rum (Rhum industriel)
Also called traditional rum, this is made from molasses, a residue of sugar production. The distillery is generally connected to the sugar refinery. Molasses, diluted with water, is left to ferment. The resulting wine is centrifuged and then distilled to produce a white rum, which used to be called "tafia".
Light rum: it is white or colored with caramel.
Old or amber rum: it is aged in barrels for 3 years or more.
Like agricultural rum, industrial rum can be aged for a longer period of time. Its age is always stated on the bottle.
It is manufactured in the same sugar cane-producing countries as agricultural rum.
Discover top chefs recipes, with step-by-step illustrations and videos
Learn tips and tricks from the greatest chefs
Master techniques at home with interactive videos