By any measure, slaves on 17th century Caribbean sugar plantations didn’t have easy lives. So it’s not surprising they found a way to dull the pain a bit by distilling fermented molasses (a byproduct of sugar production) into what they called kill-devil. The earliest mention, from a 1651 logbook entry, describes it as “a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.” It undoubtedly was, but that didn’t stop the British Navy from getting blotto on the stuff and hauling it with them to the New World.
In the early 18th century rum was the second most popular import in the American Colonies, behind — in the cruelest of ironies — the poor slaves who invented it in the first place. The key point here being that slavery really friggin’ sucked. Years later, Abraham Lincoln decided enough was enough and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. (Most historians agree that this was Lincoln’s wisest decision. It’s also generally agreed that his dumbest was going to see “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. After all, everyone knows “Our American Cousin” is a shitty play.)
Not everyone in Lincoln’s day thought freeing the slaves was a grand idea, however, and as a result a nasty Civil War broke out that claimed over 600,000 lives. But it was an earlier conflict known as the American Revolution that really put a hurtin’ on the rum business in the U.S. With all the fighting going on in America in the late 1700s, the British Navy ceased rumrunning from the Caribbean, clearing the way for whiskey to become America’s most beloved spirit.
It wasn’t until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 that rum started gaining popularity again stateside. I happen to believe that rum’s current enormous global popularity can actually be traced to the 1979 release of Rupert Holmes’s chart-topper, “Escape (the Pina Colada Song).”
North America now consumes more rum than any other continent, but only in the past decade has there been a stable of widely available connoisseur-level rums. With summer upon us, I figured it was high time to salute the preferred hooch of sailors, beach bums, and anyone else with devils to kill, with a look at the various types of rum along with some winners in each category:
Often referred to as light or silver rum, this subtle, sweet and clear spirit is the foundation of most rum-based cocktails. White rum is typically aged for a short time in uncharred oak casks or stainless-steel tanks. This liquor comes cheap, but I suggest you spend the extra cash for something such as Havana Club Anejo Blanco, Rhum Clement Premiére Canne Rum or Pyrat Blanco.
This category is sometimes referred to as amber, but either way, the rums in it spend a few years in charred bourbon barrels, which impart the eponymous gold color while blunting the spirit’s inherent sweetness. It has a slightly more robust flavor than white and is used mostly for making mixed drinks. See Bacardi Gold, Appleton Estate VX, and Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum.
A category that emerged in the mid-20th century, spiced rums are gold ones that have been infused with various flavors, most commonly cinnamon, vanilla, caramel, and a variety of fruits. You can find some real clunkers in this aisle, but you’re safe in the hands of Sailor Jerry, the ubiquitous Captain Morgan, Cruzan 9, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice and a brand from Newfoundland called Screech.
Dark rum is aged at least three years in heavily charred oak barrels and carries a complex flavor profile that can rival your better whiskeys. The extra aging mellows it out and brings the sweetness back. Though it can be mixed, it’s best sipped neat, on the rocks or with a squeeze of lime. Try Brugal Anejo, Jack Tar Superior Rum and Gosling’s Black Seal.
This relatively new category includes hooch that has been in the barrel even longer, usually for five or more years, to bring out more flavor. Though it can be produced from a single spirit, more often than not it is a blend of oldies but goodies. Mount Gay’s 1703 Old Cask Selection is a good place to start. Then move on to Zacapa XO, Tortuga 12-year-old and Bacardi Reserva Limitada, a blend of 10- to 16-year-old rums.
Got a favorite rum or way to drink it? Let us know in the comments