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Rum making and the different styles of rum

The role of sugar cane

One cannot talk about rum without first talking about sugar cane.

Originally cultivated for its sugar production, sugar cane is a 2.5 to 6 metre high plant with a diameter of 1.5 to 6 cm. It contains about 14% sucrose and 14% fibre. The rest is water. It can be of many different colours and has leaves that can be up to 1.5 metres long. The growing cycle can be from 4 to more than 10 years (before replanting).

Cutting is done by machine or by hand (steep areas and/or cheap labour) and is harvested once a year (twice in particular geographical areas such as Hawaii).
It is a plant that does not tolerate cold. It is therefore cultivated in inter-tropical areas or in some more temperate countries that do not experience frost. Moreover, once the cane has been cut, it must be used within 36 hours (in practice, for agricultural rum, this is often within 24 hours).

Sugar cane is 25% of the world's agriculture. Ethanol for engines, cane sugar and rum are made from the juice of the cane.

To find out more, we have written a more comprehensive article on the history of sugar cane.

Don't worry, we're not going to talk to you about ethanol, and it's the sweet beverage that is rum that we're going to focus on now...

How is rum made?

Rum is made either directly from pressed cane juice (or vesou) or from molasses, the residue from the sugar industry.

Molasses, which is highly concentrated in sugar, also has the advantage of being preserved at low temperatures. It is both to make use of this waste product from the sugar industry, which has no other use, and because molasses keeps well, that more than 90% of the world's rum production is made from molasses.

The two main ways to make rum

1st way, agricultural rum

The vesou (fresh cane juice) is fermented for 2-3 days, generally with wild yeasts, in the purest tradition (Haiti), or industrial yeasts (well, wild+industrial in this case because yeasts are found everywhere in the air). It is this wine or must obtained, which is 5-6° proof, that is then distilled. We thus obtain a little less than 100 litres of rum at 55° per tonne of cane.

The main characteristic of agricultural rum, a true cane brandy, is a great freshness that rises to the nostrils as soon as one approaches the glass.

To learn more, we invite you to read the following article to understand the importance of the cane and the terroir for this type of rum.

Countries : Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, Mauritius...

2nd way, molasses or sugar rum

Before discussing the production of molasses rum, it is important to understand the production of sugar. The cane juice, instead of fermenting as in the case of agricultural rum, is immediately heated until crystals, the sugar, are obtained. The water evaporates and the solid residue, which is not processed and is also very high in sugar, is called molasses.

The molasses can then be transported to another distillery, possibly in temperate latitudes as in New England in the 18th century for example, or processed on site in the rum/distillery attached to the sugar factory.

The molasses is then diluted with water and fermented for a period that can range from 24 hours for light rums intended to constitute a neutral base for cocktails, to 12 days for "grand arôme" type rums (a speciality of the Galion sugar factory in Martinique) intended for cooking or to be mixed with other less aromatic rums, or to be drunk as is, as is the case for Jamaican rums.

At the end of these different stages, the wine obtained is distilled and molasses rum is obtained.

We can also produce, in a more anecdotal way, rum from battery syrup, cane honey or cane syrup(Botran for example).

Agricultural or molasses rum: What do these two types of rum have in common?

Distillation

For both agricultural and sugar rum, a "Jamaica" type still can be used, which allows the heads (80°) and tails (5-8°) from previous distillations to be reused, or a column (single or double) still.

Ageing in tropical latitudes, particularly in the Caribbean, is difficult because the proportion of angels is much higher there than in Scotland or France, for example (around 7%/year vs. 1-2% in temperate latitudes).

If you want to know more about this subject, please read our article on distillation.

Bottling

The rum can be bottled as it is, right out of the still, but after a few weeks in brewing vats in order to be more harmonious: this is white rum (85% of world production).

It can, of course, also be aged in barrels.

The reduction

In general, the rum is reduced (with spring water) to reach a given strength, often 40° for old or white and light rums (Spanish type) and 50° or 55° for white agricultural rum, before bottling. However, connoisseurs often prefer bottling unfinished rum from the cask (natural strength, for old rums, on leaving the cask).

For "marketing" reasons, molasses rum, particularly of the Spanish type or, a little more rarely, English, is sometimes tinted by adding caramel (up to 0.5%). From the point of view of the collective unconscious, the darker a rum is, the older and better it is. In reality it is not so simple...

Ageing

Ageing in casks (or maturation) allows the rum to have the following effects
- subtractive (roundness)
- additive (tannins and phenolic compounds)
- interactive (with the surrounding environment, for example tropical aromas or sea salt)

It takes place in casks, often of 600 litres, or in casks of about 200 litres. Most of the time the casks used, as for the ageing of Scotch whisky, are old bourbon casks. Indeed, American legislation formally stipulates that bourbon must be aged in new casks. This is why the reuse of these casks was very quickly imposed, giving rise to an intense commercial traffic. Old cognac, port and wine casks are also used more rarely.

To go further, you can read our article on theart of aging rums.

Quite recently a fashion of the "finishes", that we also know on the Scottish single malt side, appeared. It consists in aging the rum for a few months in atypical barrels, at the end of the process. In the French West Indies, it is HSE which started in this way. A little later JM brought out Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados "finishes". But traditional Spanish rums also make them (e.g. Cañero, Dominican Republic).

Tasting

Old and very old rums are best drunk dry, while white rum is a first choice ingredient for cocktails (ti punch, mojito, etc.).

However, more and more amber, VO or VSOP rums are being used as the basis for cocktails, while some particularly aromatic whites are drunk dry (Neisson, Bielle, Longueteau, etc.).

To learn more about how to taste rum (which glass to choose and the different steps) we invite you to read our article on rum tasting.

To learn more about cocktails and to get some simple recipes advised by great professionals, you can consult the interviews we gave to ace mixologists: Danilo Grenci, Guillaume Drouot and Joseph Akhavan.

The regulation

The legislation is not very restrictive overall. Nothing at world level, weak at European level (must be obtained by distillation of products derived from sugar cane), more restrictive at French level: to obtain theAOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), which only Martinique rum has to date, the rum must have 225 grams of non-alcohol per hectolitre of pure alcohol, 325 for aged rums, so called as soon as they are aged for at least 3 years in barrels of a maximum capacity of 650 litres. This designation also guarantees a high degree of product traceability, which is not the case everywhere.

The different styles of rum

There are three main styles of rum: French, English and Spanish.

French style (rum)

The French style is an agricultural rum made from cane juice, mostly produced in the French West Indies, with a characteristic fresh nose of sugar cane, fine and complex. These rums have been awarded many times at the Concours Général Agricole de Paris.

White rum

White rum has a nose marked by fresh cane, of course, but also often, and to varying degrees, by fresh butter, ripe banana, exotic fruits, hay, light tobacco, pastry aromas, tea, honey... On the palate the finish is often long.

Amber rum

Amber rum, also known as "wood-aged", is an intermediate category that is mainly used in the world of agricultural rum. This rum spends a few months (less than 3 years) in oak casks and is halfway between white rum and aged rum. It retains the freshness of the cane while being adorned with a golden colour and light woody and spicy aromas. It is quite sweet and allows you to do without the cane sugar syrup for the ti'punch.

Old rum

Old rum, on the other hand, has a more varied profile depending on the vintage, so it is difficult to generalise. However, there are a number of recurring aromas, such as spices, wood, dried fruit, orange and tobacco. The finish is generally long and dry on the palate.

The English style (rum)

White rum

English-style white rums in general are quite rare. Some aged rums may be found, from which the colour has been removed by charcoal filtration.

On the other hand, Jamaican white rums are a category of their own. These ultra-aromatic (but not flavored) rums are made from long fermentation and are able to enhance any type of cocktail with their fruity notes. Among them is the category of Overproof, rums with a very high degree.

Old rum

Old English-style rums often have a high level of non-alcoholic elements (up to 2000/HLAP - HectoLitre of Pure Alcohol - for some Jamaican rums): heavy, oily, spicy, with sometimes empyreumatic aromas (burnt, smoky, grilled, tarry such as Caroni) or even solvent aromas (Jamaica). It doesn't sound appealing when you explain it, but it can be very good...

The Spanish style (ron)

White rum

The English and Spanish styles share common characteristics in white rums: based on molasses, light white rums have an ethereal nose, with licorice and sulfur notes. On the palate it is dry, a little acidic, sometimes with sulphur and a brief and subtle finish. They actually contain little non-alcoholic elements and are therefore a "neutral" base for cocktails.

True" white rums (i.e. not aged) in the Spanish style are very rare, and are rather rums aged for 1 to 3 years, from which the colour has been removed by filtration.

Old rum

Old rums are sweet, often with notes of vanilla and empyreumatic aromas (but this time more caramel, chocolate, pastry, toast...).

Very often - but not always - sugar and flavourings are added for taste, and caramel for colour.

Brazilian rum or cachaça

Finally, cachaça is the Brazilian rum, governed by stricter legislation: pure cane juice, between 38 and 48°. Sometimes it is distilled directly to the right alcohol content, without reduction. In general, it is not aged and is used extensively in the preparation of caipirinha. When it is aged, it is often in exotic woods. It is less well known than rum because it is essentially destined for the local market (only 1% of production is exported), but its subtle cane aroma is worth discovering.

Which rum to choose: some tips on which rum to start with

In practice, here is a necessarily limited and restrictive list of rums that successfully represent their category and that you should have tasted at least once:

French style, white agricultural rums

Neisson, HSE vintages for example the 2016 vintage, Clément Canne Bleue (Martinique), Rhum Rhum et Bielle (Marie-Galante), les clairins (Haiti), Longueteau 62° (Guadeloupe)

French style, amber rums

Neisson's 105 profile already has all the makings of an oldie, the golden Depaz is a Ti'punch ally and the wood-aged HSE has a little apple flavor.

French style, aged agricultural rums

HSE, Neisson (again), JM, Trois Rivières vintages (for Martinique), Rhum Rhum and Bielle again (Marie-Galante).

English style, white rums

Jamaican such as Rum nation Jamaica White Pot still, Worthy Park Rum Bar

English style, aged rums

If for Trinidad, Jamaica or Guyana we recommend you to prefer independent bottlers (Velier, Silver Seal, Mezan, La compagnie de Indes...), for Barbados the Foursquare distillery is a sure value (no sugar or caramel added) with the brands RL Seale's, Foursquare and Doorly's

White Spanish style

Cuban rum

Old Spanish style

Abuelo, Botran, and a few special rums from independent bottlers who don't add (or don't add too much) sugar and caramel like Rum Nation Peruano 8 ans, Plantation Guatemala or Mezan Chiriqui.

For more information

We invite you to consult our small encyclopaedia of rum, as well as, for the more courageous, the excellent book Histoire du rhum.

Olivier and Nico, from the Rhum Attitude team

19 thoughts on "Rum making and the different styles of rum"

  1. Hello, I am looking for a rum similar in taste to the elixir of Cuba Legendario, what do you recommend?
    Thank you
    Sincerely

    1. Hello,
      Légendario Élixir de Cuba is a really sweet and very particular rum (a grape maceration is added). If you like it I advise you not to change! If you want to discover other "sweet" rums, the arranged rums will undoubtedly suit you. Very good products exist: for example the ti arrangés of Ced, Bigallet arrangé des 7 mers or Les Frères Pirates. For the choice, you should be guided by your personal taste, especially in terms of fruit.

  2. Hello,

    We also talk about 1st 2nd 3rd press for rums

    can you name some 1st press rums that have a better final result for the arrangés

    thank you
    Sincerely

    1. Hello, I don't know these terms, can you tell me more?
      Thank you!

      Nico

    2. It is possible to remove residual sugar from bagasse that has been pressed once. This so-called "repression" or "second press" operation is no longer really in use according to the information I have. As for a "third press", I have never heard of it...

  3. What is called "blending" in rum production? Does this operation have to be mentioned on the label?
    Thank you

    1. Blending simply means mixing. Different rums are put together in precise proportions. This can be either rums from different distilleries, or rums from the same distillery, but from different casks (same or different vintages). White rums can also be blended. In short, there are no limits, the important thing being of course to obtain a successful result.

      The aim of blending may be to obtain a constant rum from year to year. This is the case for the permanent range of a distillery (VSOP, XO etc.)

      To answer the second question, no, to our knowledge there is no compulsory wording. The mentions are optional and must not be misleading of course. For example, if a year is mentioned, it is a vintage and therefore all blended rums must come from the same year of harvest or distillation.

      It is important to specify that from our point of view there is no systematic "hierarchy" between single cask rums (i.e. not blended) and blends. We can have very successful blends, as well as not so good vintages or single casks, and vice versa.

  4. Great article, thanks Nico!

  5. Bonjour monsieur
    I am really neofite but I like white agricultural rum ....50° and more ....antillais

    Should you always go for the strongest or refine your taste for the finesse of the rum?
    I always take it as a ti-punch or sometimes just a sip to try and discover
    The aromas but apart from the cane scent which I love, it's hard to discover all the secrets .....

    Do you have a reading suggestion ....genre abc de la découverte des arômes
    I'll have to tame my nose for a whole contract Hihi
    Thank you
    A Quebec rumlover
    Jn michel chicoutimi
    This winter I'll go back to Martinique to warm up .....
    Thank you

    1. Hello Jean-Michel,
      As far as the strength of the rum is concerned, it's all a question of timing. You may very well like a good pick-me-up, as well as a delicate and fine rum, depending on your mood!
      To discover the flavours, rather than a reading, I would advise you to taste as many different rums as possible. Nice program isn't it 🙂
      It's very interesting to pour yourself a few drops of at least 2 or 3 different rums, in 3 different glasses, and switch from one to another to smell the differences. You will see that these differences will jump out at you, and that it will be easier to put into words what makes them unique.

  6. I would like to know if there are any traces of yeast left in the alcohol once the rum is finished. Thank you and have a nice day ::)

    1. No, none: yeast does not resist distillation!

  7. hello i am going to martinique in march
    I like dark rum and white rum for the tit punch
    thank you for advising me which dark rum to bring back?
    what a nice gift to bring back for amateurs

  8. Hello'
    What about the 1994 buccaneering?

  9. I am looking for a non-spiced dark rum if possible
    A good rum to give as a gift. For a man who likes non-spiced rum
    I would like to know if this is possible, I don't know of any rum without the spicy taste
    Thank you

    1. Hello, I recommend the internationally awarded rums from Venezuela, the only ones that do not use colouring agents or additives (see Google, Wikipedia....)
      Very kindly
      Gabriella

  10. Hello, on your website you don't talk about the details of rum production in Martinique, nor about your commercial relations with the békés? I think it's important if you want to promote your image as "respectful of the planet". It's also important to check the respect of the labour relations, isn't it?
    I'd be happy to hear your feedback on this.
    Thank you very much.
    Charlotte

  11. Hello, can you enlighten me on the name of the molecule to be extracted from agricultural rum in order to be exported to North America. Thank you very much.
    Thank you very much,

    1. Hello Julien, this is ethyl carbamate. Hope to see you soon!

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