(First posted on Liquorature, February 2010. Lightly edited December 2014, August 2015, July 2017 and March 2022 – however, the article is now dated and should be regarded as a backgrounder to how classifications were regarded in 2009-2010, not now. Issues of classification remain thorny and are hotly contested: the issue requires another pass, even if only to sum up the developments).
In my wasted youth, those with more discerning palates often confused my rather simple mind with their scientific analyses of their spirits, making sober statements about bouquet, oiliness, finish, colour, nose, mouthfeel, texture, blah blah blah. I was always confuddled. Smoke? Peaty taste? Waddat?
So here I’ll take the time to talk a bit about what distinguishes the rums from each other. Note that this is not a tasting test runthrough. It’s simply a way to distinguish different rums, and gain some insight as to the properties that make them what they are. Not surprisingly, my own experience factors in there as well, since I’ve been drinking the stuff for a very long time. Full disclosure: wines are not part of the discussion, since no true rummie will admit to tasting the wussy drink, which in any case requires a more finely tuned, subtle palate than most Real Men possess (which is why they are rummies and not winos).
Perhaps a result of its association with the Caribbean, seafaring, slavery and piracy, there has always been that vaguely odious cachet of disrepute hanging over rums, which in my opinion, is undeserved. The schnozz of a rum taster must be every bit as attuned to subtle hints of flavour and texture as the snoot of a whisky lover or the trumpet of a somelier. Rums, after all, in spite of their less lofty reputations, display all the variety, colours and methods of distillation as their unfairly favoured Scottish bretheren or French cousins.
Several differing methods of distinguishing rums exist. Country, colour, strength, additives and , of course, age. My research suggests that many categories overlap each other, which adds nothing to the clarity of the rankings.
Originally, all rums were dark and fairly unrefined (there’s a reason the Bajans referred to it as “Kill-Divil”). However, a contest held by the Spanish to improve refining methods in the 1800s led to the creation of a process that produced a better quality, more golden rum (the winner went on to found Bacardi). The colour of rum – clear (white, or silver), gold (light brown) or dark (also known as Navy) is not entirely a function of the length of distillation (as some would like to infer), but more of the distillation process and ingredients added, and their ratios to each other.
Rum is traditionally made from cane juice or molasses (which itself is a by-product of boiled cane juice), yeast and water: the shorter the fermentation period, the lighter the rum (referring in this case to colour), the longer, the darker. After the distillation process is complete, rum is aged in barrels made of various materials – like oak – which impact the flavour of the final product – I’m unclear at what point further additives like fruit are brought into the mix. While rum may be clear before going into the aging process, colour is added by both the barrel itself, and the inclusion of caramel – white rum is an exception, since no caramel is brought in, and any colour added by the barrel is removed by straining. I should also mention “aguardiente de cana” (“burning water”) which is a kind of coarse South American cane-hooch infused with anise, and agricoles, which are primarily French island rums distilled from cane juice, and which may be aged or not.
Based purely on the criteria of colour, rums can be categorized as follows
— Dark or Navy Rums – one of the major divisions of rum, with long ageing time and strong flavour. Aged in oak barrels, hence the colouring (plus more molasses and caramel involved). Commonly used in cooking. Much of the molasses flavour is retained. Often made in a pot-still or simpler columnar distillation unit, like cognac or some scotch.
— Gold Rum – intermediate, and aged to a particular colour, but this does not tell you anything about the age or flavour. Aged in wooden barrels, and are more complex in flavour than light rums. Usually aged a few months or years
— Light Rum – clearer in colour, and a less ‘heavy’ flavour. Subdivided into ‘silver’ and ‘light’ taste, though only a matter of degree except to the delicately long-snooted. Little or no ageing.
On the other hand, other designations exist:
— Overproof rums are often referred to as having a strength greater than around 50%. There’s an overlap with Premium rums here, since many premiums are also overproofs. These days, the term is pretty flexible, since the original meaning meant anything over 100 proof, which was (at that time) 57.1% ABV. See article on proofs here if you’re interested.
For what it’s worth I have, after some years’ experience with rums that are made for sipping yet bottled at around 55-60% (and which cannot be classed as overpfoofs), decided to make some personal changes to how strength is denominate
- Standard strength for me is 40-50%
- Full Proof is a strength of 51% to 70%
- Overproof is anything over 70%
- I kind of stay away from rums under 40% which can be termed Underproofs
— Flavoured rums, which have deliberate inclusions to add the taste of citrus or mango or anything else. Juan Santos makes a coffee infused rum which isn’t bad.
— Spiced Rums, which normally bring up the caramel or nutmeg to the level where it overpowers any subtlety gained from the barrel or from ageing. Labels usually indicate this is the case.
— Premium Rums are those which for one reason or another are supposedly above average: in age, in taste, in distillation methodology, or in exclusivity and availability (therefore mostly age, since any fool can make a rum in 24 hours, while it takes slightly more expertise to fashion something for 25 years…and age develops the complexity of flavour, making it deeper and more intense).
— Ultra-premiums are are not just above average, but marketed as being the cream of the crop – presentation, age and price are all usually very good (or at least sold to us as being that way). Age is still seen as the primary marker of this type.
Strictly speaking, colour tells me very little about the quality of a rum, since I’ve had some decent gold and dark ones whose colour gave no hint as to how good it was. Whites are for mixing, Flavoured are for cocktails, and I’ll drink Spiced ones like Lamb’s or Captain Morgan, but only with a chaser, since they are not made for sipping. Mixing additives only improves such drinks. Since I was at a penny-grubbing stage in my life for a long time, I logically drank only the cheapest, and since the cheapest also demanded you cut them with something, it’s no surprise that coke or pepsi were (and to some extent remain) my chasers of choice.
We can therefore stratify rums with level of flavour
— Light or silver – under-proof, and/or clear rums
— Medium (or Gold, or Amber) – ths covers most rums I’ve ever tasted
— Full-Bodied – these tend to be darker, but the designation is more a marker of intensity of flavour
— Aromatic – Malibu is a good example of this, but any spiced or flavoured rum qualifies
…see what I mean about confusion? There’s lots of overlap here
Anyway, so does this assist in categorizing rums? Not entirely.
Rums are made in many countries, and not surprisingly, almost all are tropical (I have heard it’s something to do with sugar cane not growing well in winter-prone climates). The best known are, of course, Caribbean, and as a loyal West Indian myself, I sniff disparagingly at the offerings of other parts of the world, even as I happily indulge myself in tasting them. A non-exhaustive list of rum producing states includes the USA, Canada, the French West Indies, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, Cuba, Dominica, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Fiji, Hawaii, Finland (Finland??), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Reunion, Australia and some European countries. Europe acts mostly as a blender of rums, not as a maker of origin, which would therefore explain what Bruichladdich’s Renegade brand does. Some 1500+ rums are said to be in existence. I honestly believe that to be a low number.
Rums have supposedly notable geographical styles and nuance. If one defines rum as either light in colour, or dark, then they roughly follow divisions introduced by country of origin: Spanish speaking countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Latin America, produce primarily light rum; English colonies like Barbados, Guiana or Jamaica, mostly the dark. This is an extremely broad rule of thumb, so be careful in applying it.
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 and which I have never yet seen or tasted. Haitian rums, made from cane juice and double distilled in pot stills, are appreciated for their smooth and delicate flavor. Thus far (2010), I’ve not had enough non-Caribbean rums to make a determination whether they are on a class above, below or on-level with my favourites. The Bundie from Autralia was not particularly prepossessing for example, but I have to have a more serious retest to write my review.
The distinctive characteristics that make up a rum’s taste depend on factors such as the sugar cane’s quality and origin and whether it was made from molasses or directly from cane juice. Most rum is made from the former, which contains minerals and other trace elements that contribute to the final flavor. Rums made directly from cane juice, primarily those from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique, have a vegetal, clear, clean 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.
Finally, 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 flavour. The best rums I have ever tasted have all been aged for more than 20 years old, and in oak.
Having said all of the above, I cannot in all honesty state that I apply these categories or criteria to every rum I taste. It’s still a very subjective sort of thing. Burn, finish, body, taste and flavour, strength…they all have their place. I have a sweet tooth, so that counts (if they ever made a white-toblerone-flavoured rum, I do believe I might die a happy alcoholic). I do, however, like to know about the provenance of the rums I sample, and something about how they are made, and what their colours or tastes denote. It is in an effort to put my reviews on a more consistent base, and to answer questions of the curious like Clint, that I did the background work on this post.
Update August 2015
Having been at this for more than five years now, I have come to the conclusion that there are two, and only two, primary markers of how rums should be classified in the first pass – whether it is from molasses or cane juice, and the type of still that it is made on (I’m on the fence about fermentation timing and wild vs cultured yeast). Subsequent gradations cane be age, colour, what type of columnar still, and maybe strength and Broomes’s “styles”. The debate is heating up in social media, so it’ll be interesting to see where this leads in the years to come.
Update July 2017
A good summary of the proposed classification systems is here. For what it’s worth, I have participated in many of the discussions regarding the Seale-Gargano method and translated the Rumaniacs version which the article from Distilledsunshine draws on, from the original French language article written by Cyril of DuRhum.
Update March 2022
The Taiwanese Renaissance Rum Distillery’s master blender Olivier Caen tried to make a case for ABV and the distillery being the characteristics of a rum that would allow unambiguous classification, and I posted a clear dissent in the FB comments.