The spirit of the Caribbean and a key ingredient in many of the world's best-loved cocktails, it is hard to think of rum as anything other than a luxurious, evocative, almost-decadent drink - it is, after all, distilled from sugar!
Just like any spirit, however, rum's production, flavours and even the manner in which it is enjoyed can vary greatly.
The first stage, of course, is the sugar itself.
The traditional spirits of the Spanish and British Antilles are made using molasses - a by-product from sugar production. This differs greatly from the French Caribbean's legendary Rhum Agricole. French for 'agricultural rum', this closely mimics the production of French brandies. The raw ingredient is sugarcane juice (also known as sugarcane honey). Produced in countries like Guadeloupe and Martinique, unaged varieties of rhum agricole are tangy and often herbal in flavour. However, with a little maturation (usually in ex-Cognac casks), these French-style rums can exhibit all the complexity and refinement of some of France's best Cognacs and Armagnacs.
The distillation used for typical molasses-based rums involves pot stills or column stills (and sometimes both). Pot stills will typically make a richer, heavier rum which ages very well. Continuous column stills, on the other hand, are often used to make white rums for cocktails.
Due to the range of production techniques and terroir (the climactical and geographical effects), rum styles differ across countries.
Jamaica is one of the most popular rum-producing nations these days, and its intense, heavy rum style is created by a long fermentation time, followed by distillation in pot stills. The typical notes of tropical fruit and banana are found in abundance in rums such as Wray and Nephew and Appleton Estate.
Moving southeast to Barbados, you'll find some of the oldest rum distilleries in the world. It was, in fact, one of the first nations to start producing rum. The three distilleries on the island (Mount Gay, Foursquare and West Indies Rum Distillery) all use pot stills to make aromatic, well-balanced spirits with an easy-drinking nature. Younger expressions work beautifully in cocktails, whereas the longer-aged examples such as Doorly’s XO are delicious when served neat.
One of our favourite rum nations, Guyana is home to Demerara Rums, with El Dorado being a prime example. These are full-bodied rums made in a mix of pot stills and column stills. There were once as many as 200 distilleries on the island, though now just one remains. However, its large array of stills allow it to make quite a variety of rums. The heavier Guyana rums were traditionally the main ingredient in British Navy rum. These are like the peated whiskies of the rum world, and are well worth a look.
In Latin America, countries including Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Venezuela will typically produce a lighter, fresher, crisper rum which works particularly well in cocktails. The popularity and the region's prolific production rate are thanks in no small part to the recent burgeoning interest in classic cocktails. It all started with Cuba, and Bacardi. After the nationalisation of factories in the country, Bacardi moved its production to Puerto Rico, but its famous Bacardi Superior remains one of the most widely consumed spirits worldwide.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Cachaça. Brazil's best-loved spirit, this is more like a rhum agricole in production, and is almost exclusively enjoyed in a Caipirinha cocktail. Cachaça is distilled from fermented cane juice, and is then sold either aged or unaged. The aged varieties attain a great deal of complexity thanks to maturation in wooden barrels, whilst the unaged styles are best served in the aforementioned cocktail. It's made very simply with a couple of shots of spirit, a few lime segments, and a couple of teaspoons of sugar. It's refreshing and rather delicious!
For hundreds of years, the Caribbean has been cultivated for sugar, and the spirit's name will vary depending on what nationality the original colonisers were. Rum, ron and rhum are names given to the spirit by the English, the Spanish, and the French, respectively. The spirit's original popularity has close links with the British Royal Navy. In fact, up until the 1970s, sailors were given a daily tot of rum as part of their ration!
The word "rum" itself could have various etymological origins, though the most convincing argument is that it comes from the term "rumbullion", meaning uproar and noise - appropriate given the violent, dramatic history the spirit is associated with.
Rum continues to gain popularity, thanks to the surge in interest in fine, classic cocktails. Drinks such as the Mojito and the Daiquiri remain ever-present on bar menus the world over. However, connoisseurs are also able to seek out complex spirits intended for neat-sipping. These rums are best enjoyed in a stemmed, tulip glass.