Rum is a versatile spirit that comes in a variety of types and flavors. It can be sipped on its own, used to make classic and tropical cocktails, and even flaming drinks. Learn more about this popular spirit, how it is made, common challenges faced in the rum production process, and how distillers are optimizing production to meet consumer demand.
What is Rum?
Rum is a spirit that provides a unique flavor profile mainly because it is distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane plants. In fact, any sweetener, including white sugar, turbinado sugar, blackstrap molasses, and regular molasses are all derived from sugar cane and can be used to make rum.
What is Rum Made Of?
The Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau provides a more scientific and detailed definition: “Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugarcane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume.” Compared to other spirits, these requirements are not that strict, which has led to a wide range of flavor profiles.
For example, rums that are made with molasses are known for their sweet notes and hints of banana, tropical fruit, and molasses. Distillers can increase the intensity of these flavors by aging the rum in barrels, but this isn’t necessarily a part of all rum production. By contrast, rums that are made from sugar cane juice are distinguished by the grassy and vegetal flavor notes.
What Gives Rum its Flavor?
When it comes to rum, esters are the defining flavor factors. Creating almost any spirit involves a chemical reaction. With rum, the reaction happens when yeast meets molasses. This results in something called esters, which help to give different rums their special flavors.
Rum is another spirit that distillers can add a lot of creativity to if they understand the chemical reactions involved. Typically, rum has a longer fetmij.
Where is Rum Produced?
North and South America along with the Caribbean are responsible for producing the majority of the world’s rum. Other countries, like Taiwan and the Philippines, which produce sugar also have high rum production rates. However, you might be surprised to learn that in 2020, Italy was the largest producer of rum with an annual revenue of $206.32 million. The United States came in second with export values amounting to $141.7 million.
What are the Different Types of Rum?
Rum comes in several different types including, gold, light, dark, flavored and spiced. In addition, there are different regional rums like rhum agricole and cachaça, which provide even more flavor options. Let’s take a closer look at the difference among styles of rum.
Light-bodied rums are also called silver or white rum and are the most common and affordable type of rum. When it comes to taste, light rum closely resembles vodka, but with a sweet twist. Typically, light rums are aged in stainless steel tanks for about 12 months before they are ready for distribution. The light and clean flavor makes these rums the perfect base for a long list of classic cocktails.
Gold rums are more medium-bodied and are also known as amber rums. They provide a smooth and rich taste that can come from adding caramel and/or aging the rum in oak barrels. Typically, gold rum is more of a sipping drink although it can be used in certain cocktails for a darker look and smooth feel.
Dark rums are the go-to option for rum punches and other tropical and tiki-style cocktails. This is the richest style of rum, which also makes it a good choice for sipping. Most of the flavor comes from being aged in charred oak casks.
Blackstrap is a subset of dark rum that uses the darkest form of molasses, which is created during the sugar refining process. In fact, the sugar has to be boiled three times to create the thick, dark and rich molasses that goes into some of the most popular dessert-type rums like Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum and Cruzan Black Strap.
Overproof rum is extremely potent and comes in 150 and 151 proof. Usually, it is used as a float in cocktails to create flaming drinks. While this can certainly add some flare to your cocktails, the highly flammable nature of overproof rum means that it should be handled with care, especially if you have been drinking.
Cachaça is a Brazilian rum that relies on pure sugar cane juice instead of molasses during the distillation process. It is a unique regional product that can only be made in Brazil. While it is widely categorized as a type of rum, many aficionados argue that this spirit deserves its own category.
In the past, cachaça was only available in South America, but it has hit worldwide markets and more people are getting to know this sweet spirit. Today, you can find all sorts of brands that offer a range of quality and price points. It can be used as a replacement in popular cocktails that usually include standard rum as the main ingredient. You may even want to try your hand at using cachaça to make Brazil’s national drink, the caipirinha.
Rhum agricole is also distilled from pure sugar cane, but it incorporates some other unique rum production practices that differentiate it from other rums. Unlike most rums that don’t have to adhere to strict regulations, rhum agricole must be produced in one of the French territories. In fact, most rhum agricole comes from the island of Martinique and the Appellation d’origine Controlle is the governing body that oversees regulations.
A Creole continuous column still is used to distill the fresh sugar cane, which must be extracted from the plant within three days of being harvested. Since the sugar cane can only be harvested in the dry season, there is a limited window of opportunity for producing the rum. The purity of the sugar cane juice helps to create a sweet, grassy flavor that makes it perfect for practically any type of cocktail.
Flavored rum became popular in the latter part of the 20th century and over the years. Distillers began by adding coconut and spices during the distillation process. Now, you can find strawberry, mango and a wide variety of other flavors of rum on the shelf at your local liquor retailer.
How Rum is Made – Step by Step
- Harvest the sugar cane. Much like winemakers have to gather and press grapes to make wine, rum distillers have to harvest sugar cane and extract the juice to produce rum. Harvesters use sharp machetes to cut the sugar cane as close to the ground as possible. The lower part of the stem is where most of the sugar can be found. Once the sugar cane has been cut, it will immediately start growing again for the next harvest.
- Extract the sugar. Sugar cane consists of 75% water along with sugar and fiber. Once the cane is harvested, it has to be washed and pressed in order to extract the liquids. At the sugar mill, the liquids are boiled in order to decrease the water content until a syrupy product known as “wet sugar” is created. Eventually, sugar crystals are added to the syrup and then the mixture is boiled and cooled so that the sugar crystals become enlarged. This process is repeated in order to create molasses.
- Ferment the liquid. The next step in rum production is fermentation, a process that uses yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. No matter what type of sugar cane derivative is being used, the goal is to end up with a product that has an ABV of 5-10%.
- Distill the alcohol. Distillation is an interesting process that takes advantage of the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. As a result, distillers will boil the fermented liquid and capture alcohol vapors and allow them to cool down in order to capture the alcohol that has been boiled out of the water.
Both copper pot and column distillation methods are used to create rum. Pot stills are known for creating a more flavorful product for rums like Agricole. Meanwhile, column stills are used for distilling more neutral spirits.
- Age the rum. The aging process plays an important role in creating the final flavor of the rum. Every detail influences the flavor of the rum, which can allow distillers to get creative. Typically, white rum is aged in stainless steel tanks to help preserve the color of the rum, but it could also spend some time aging in oak barrels to add some more flavor profiles. Some distillers will even age their rum in used whiskey and bourbon barrels.
The amount of time rum spends aging will also vary. As you might expect, dark rum is aged for longer than white rum. This provides the rum more time to interact with the wood of the barrel, which gives dark rum its distinct color and smooth feel. Aging rum in smaller barrels creates a higher wood to rum ratio and will accelerate the aging process.
Humidity also influences the aging process. In hotter climates, water will evaporate at a higher rate while high humidity will cause alcohol loss. Once the rum has aged for the preferred amount of time, it will need to be filtered through a cheesecloth in order to remove any wood particles that may have broken down from the barrels.
- Blend the rum for the perfect flavor. Even after the aging process, distillers can still change the flavor of their final product. Usually, this involves blending different proportions of light and dark rum. However, some distillers may use this stage to mix in additives that further alter the rum’s flavor. Some distillers may use this tactic to help their product pass off as originating from a specific location like Haiti or Jamaica.
Common Challenges Associated with Producing Rum
Producing rum involves many sensitive steps that must all be executed correctly. Typically, if a batch doesn’t turn out well it is because it wasn’t processed at the right temperature or distilled correctly. New distillers shouldn’t be surprised if their first batch is a little off. It takes time and practice to create rum.
It is also important to recognize that molasses has a relatively delicate constitution. While it does contain the right amount of carbon, micronutrients, minerals and vitamins, it has other characteristics, such as high levels of soluble sugar, that limits its ability to produce phosphorus and nitrogen. Ultimately, these different factors create a relatively unfavorable environment for creating rum. Distillers will need to be aware of these different chemical and microbial interactions in order to achieve a desirable final product.
During the fermentation stage, stress can cause the yeast to release various unwanted flavors into the rum. When this happens, the best solution is to dilute the molasses with water which will lower the concentration of sugar and increase water activity. However, diluting the mixture won’t be of much help if a lack of phosphorus and nitrogen prevent the yeast from growing and causes something known as “stuck fermentation.” These common challenges can make it difficult to efficiently produce a consistent product.
How to Optimize Rum Production
In the past, rum producers would try to expedite the harvesting process by burning the sugar cane field before manually cutting down the stalks with a machete. This would help to remove some of the tougher and more fibrous plant materials while also revealing any other dangers, such as snakes. Fortunately, technology has introduced harvesting machines that can quickly and efficiently harvest sugar cane so that it can begin the distillation process.
It is also possible to address low nitrogen and phosphate levels by adding diluted supplements like ammonium and ammonium phosphate. However, any time you introduce a new variable into the delicate distillation process, you run the risk of disrupting the balance of ingredients. You will still have to carefully monitor nitrogen levels so that they don’t get too high and prevent the yeast from growing.
You might be tempted to cut the aging process short in order to increase production, but you have to prioritize the quality of the final product. Experts recommend aging the molasses for a minimum of 6 weeks before it is used to make rum. This storage period will help you ensure proper fermentation and avoid any distillation problems that will ultimately detract from the rum.
Distillers have even found ways to speed up the fermentation process and maximize yield. When water is added during the dilution step, the sugar concentration is lowered, which means that you won’t produce as much rum. However, distillers have discovered that you can slowly and incrementally add molasses during fermentation and elevate the sugar content so that it goes from being at the bottom of the acceptable range (15 Brix) to the top of the range at 20 Brix. This is a proven strategy for maximizing rum production with each batch.
The Takeaway from Rum Production
Rum production methods aren’t nearly as stringent and regulated as other types of spirits. While this does allow some rum producers to take advantage and falsify the age of their products by using additives, it also means that passionate distillers can be creative with perfecting different flavor profiles. The variety of brands along with the optimization of rum production has made this spirit a favorite across the world and has earned rum-producing countries hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, making it a great choice for anyone interested in distilling.
FAQs about Rum Production
What is rum?
Rum is a type of liquor that is made by distilling sugar.
What is rum made of?
Rum can be made either using fermented molasses or sugar cane juice.
What are the types of rum?
The different types of rum include light rum, gold rum, aged rum, dark rum, overproof rum, cachaça, rhum agricole, and flavored rum.
How is rum made step by step?
Harvest the sugarcane, extract the sugar, ferment the syrup, distill the mixture, and age the rum before bottling and distributing.
What are some challenges with producing rum?
Distilling rum can be a challenging process that requires exact boiling temperatures and distillation processes. Imbalances in chemicals and sugar concentrations can also affect the final product.
How can you optimize rum production?
Mechanical harvesting machines have helped optimize rum production. In addition, molasses can be strategically added during the fermentation process to produce larger quantities and accelerate fermentation.
Where is rum produced? Which country produces the most rum?
Rum is mostly produced in North and South American and the Caribbean. However, Italy is responsible for the majority of the world’s rum production.