The Caribbean, one of Tradewind Aviation's two main markets, is the ground zero of rum production. More than 80% of all rum comes from here, although that's not always apparent on the label, as rum is often shipped to other countries to be bottled and branded.
Dave Russell, rum expert and master of the well-designed and written website The Rum Gallery, told me that calling the rum world "’the Wild West’ is a decent characterization," as rum is lightly regulated (except in one instance). That allows it to take so many forms that one sometimes thinks a sheriff is required.
Want proof? Just look at the island of Hispaniola. On the Dominican Republic side, rum is made in one style, on the Haitian side, in a completely different one. The best response is "Vive la difference!"
In that spirit, here's a quick guide to the spirit, one that will give you the basics so that you can scan a rum list and make an informed choice.
What is rum?
A spirit, usually about 80 proof in the U.S., but sometimes stronger in the Caribbean. Rum is produced by fermenting sugarcane juice or a by-product of sugarcane production, usually molasses, and then distilling the resulting liquid. To be called rum, the distillate must be aged at least one year in barrels, usually used bourbon or whiskey casks. It is sometimes infused with flavoring ingredients.
What does the name mean?
Good question. No solid answer. Etymologists offer up everything from the large drinking glasses used by Dutch seamen known as rummers, to the Romani word rum, meaning 'strong' or 'potent', and the last syllables in the Latin words for sugarcane, saccharum officinarum.
I love French wine and I understand the AOC system. Will that help me understand rum?
Not in the least. Except in two places, Martinique and Guadeloupe, where rum is labeled based on terroir. (See next question.) But otherwise getting an overview of rum is a bit like herding cats. "There's not an easy formula for it that's accurate," says Russell. You can look at it as anarchy or as opportunity.
"It's the most interesting spirit category because it can be made anywhere in the world," says St. John Frizell, proprietor of Sunken Harbor Club in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which has one of the city's top rum lists. (His favorite: English Harbor, which he says makes a great Old-Fashioned.)
What's the proper way to taste rum?
First, don't swirl it. (Like I just said, forget your wine training.) That just disperses the nose, according to Mark Theron, a rum importer based in Nevis. Instead, just tilt the glass slightly and sniff the top, letting the flavor notes come to you. Then take a sip.
I've seen bottles labeled 'Rhum.' What does that mean?
Very good question. Rhum indicates that the spirit came from Martinique or Guadeloupe. (You'll also see the term used on rums from other former French colonies, Haiti, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, and Tahiti, but forget about that for now.) Martinique is unique in having the only AOC rules for rum in the world, which is why its rums are held in such esteem by many rum aficionados. If you go on YouTube, you will find the island's rum makers talking articulately about how the soil on one or the other side of Mt. Pelée affects the taste of the rum.
Okay, so outside of Martinique and Guadeloupe, how do I come to understand rum?
Dave Russell says that one should start by getting to know four basic styles.
Rhum Agricole: Rum from Martinique and Guadeloupe. It's made strictly from freshly pressed sugar cane that must be fermented within 24 hours, and it makes up only five per cent of the world's rum. "It's an acquired taste for most,” says Russell, who includes himself in that category. But he's a convert: see his review of Clement 70, a distillery revered by rum connoisseurs. Demoiselle XO from Martinique and Guadeloupe is, according Theron, "almost like a single malt." The two islands are great rum rivals—"the North and South of Rhum production," says Russell.
Light or Spanish Style: Rums from former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Most are made from molasses. Countries vary in additives allowed; caramel is often used to color the rum and sugar sometimes added to brighten flavor. These rums are lighter in style because they're made in a column still, as opposed to a pot still, which produces a rum with bolder flavors.
English or Heavy Style: From former British colonies: Those from Barbados and Jamaica are representative. Often made in a pot still. Mount Gay on Barbados claims to be the oldest rum house in the world and its XO (meaning extra old), a blend of 12-15-year-old rums, is a good example of the style.
Demarara Style: From Guyana and named for the country's only surviving distillery. Dark, sweet, intense—like English, but one better. El Dorado, a 15-year rum is a good example: viscous, walnut-y, and with a long finish. It's Frizell's favorite.
Rum labels often specify an age. What exactly does that mean?
Not what you think. Rums are often a blend of spirits of different ages. In the U.S., the age on the label refers to the age of the youngest rum in the blend. In the French Caribbean, the word "vieux" on the label means all the rum in the bottle has been aged at least three years. But age doesn't play the same role with rum as it does with wine. One of Theron's favorite rums is Havana Club 7-Year-Old. "Age statements don't mean very much," says Russell. "It can also refer to the oldest rum in the blend."
Is there the rum equivalent of a wine route?
Yes. Martinique has the Route du Rhum, which will take you to 11 distilleries. Hiring a driver advised. One of the most famous, Habitation Clement, once hosted a summit meeting between French President Francois Mitterand and U.S. President George Bush.
What are the top selling rums?
According to Theron, in 2014 the five top brands were in order: Bacardi White and Silver, Tandauy (Phillipines), McDowells (India), Havana Club #7 (from Cuba), Captain Morgan Spice Gold "thanks to every student in the world," says Theron.
Can rum improve my golf game?
Maybe. Here's what Chi Chi Rodriguez once said: “The first time I played the Masters, I was so nervous I drank a bottle of rum before I teed off. I shot the happiest 83 of my life.”