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Sunday School: A Barrel of Rum

The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.

In my mind, rum is the consummate well drink. Even ordering it is simple, straight-forward and unassuming: “rum & coke” or “dark & stormy.” It’s not recognized as a high-end drink, and it’s rare to see someone belly up to the bar and order rum neat or on the rocks.

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Despite its low-brow reputation, rum has a storied history filled with sailors, buccaneers and the slave trade.

Although drinks made from fermented sugarcane date back thousands of years, our modern version of rum traces its origin to the 17th century and the Caribbean islands. It was first made with molasses, a by-product created during the process of refining sugarcane into sugar. The left over molasses would be fermented and distilled. Sometimes the distillate would then be aged in oak barrels.

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Rum spread through the Caribbean and Latin America and into the Colonies, where rum manufacturing became one of the earliest industries. Rum became an important commodity, and the increased demand for rum contributed to the creation of the triangular trade between the American Colonies, Africa and the Caribbean. Slaves from Africa would be sent to the Caribbean to work the sugarcane fields, molasses was sent to Colonial America to produce rum, and the rum was sent to Africa as a medium of exchange for slaves. Rum was popular through the American Revolution, but then declined because of trade restrictions from Caribbean islands under British control.

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The rum trade contributed to the association between rum and piracy. Pirates were common in the Caribbean because of European empires attempting to colonize the islands. Some British and French privateers became buccaneers. In 1655, the British captured Jamaica and were able to “domestically” produce rum. The Royal Navy started giving sailors a daily ration of rum, a practice that continued until 1970.

Unlike most liquors, there is no universal standard for calling something a rum. Rum is often categorized into basic styles: white, golden, dark, spiced or anejo. Different Caribbean islands are known for producing certain styles of rum. The English-speaking countries produced dark rums with strong molasses flavors, while the French-speaking islands turned to producing rum directly from sugarcane instead of from molasses. The Spanish-speaking islands are known for their smoother anejo – or aged – rum.

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Light rums, like Bacardi Superior, tend to be clear and have very subtle flavors, while golden rums are slightly darker, often due to barrel-aging.  These rums are sweet, with slight hints of caramel and vanilla. Myer’s and other dark rums are aged longer in more heavily charred barrels and often have a stronger molasses undertone. Spiced rums, including Sailor Jerry and Captain Morgan, have rich caramel flavors and added spices of cinnamon, pepper and anise. Anejo rums are aged for a period of time and then blended to smooth out the flavors. Rum is often aged in used bourbon barrels.

While some anejos can be sipped, most rums are not meant to be consumed solo; they are used in mixed drinks, like the Cuba Libre, or as we commonly call it, the rum and coke.

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