The fortunate are off to Aruba or St. Maarten or Jamaica, or about to be, when they are not off to Sun Valley or Gstaad. But rum is one of the few drinks versatile enough to suit most any clime. The demon goes swimmingly with boiling water and a touch of cloves in a glass with a silver spoon. Devotees drink it in the American West and in Switzerland, where rhum grog is served aprés-ski. But it’s better sipped under an equatorial sun with tonic or fruit juice, or just shaved ice, while the shaded eye takes in blue sky and water. Rum was not invented in the Caribbean but perfected in those latitudes, and today its mellow charm accounts for a large chunk of the U.S. spirits market.
The history of rum is tied up with that of sugar cane, which supposedly was first brought back from India by Alexander the Great three centuries before the birth of Christ. Not until the middle of the seventh century did it arrive regularly in Europe, by Arabian caravan, probably from the South Pacific. Speculation has it that Columbus took sugar cane to the West Indies on his second voyage, and it was from there that this alcoholic product of fermented and distilled sugar cane juice first became available when Spanish settlers in the 16th century began making and exporting it.
Although written records from Barbados in 1600 contain a recipe for rum punch, the origins of the name itself are obscure. Some say it derives from the Latin name for sugar cane, others attribute the name to the British Navy, where an admiral known as “Old Rummy” prescribed rum as an antidote to scurvy. Rum is perhaps our most romantic beverage, as rich in history as in calories. We associate it with the discovery of America, West Indian adventurers, pirates, and the Spanish Main. Rum was a favorite of the American colonists for the same reason it’s popular today - it tastes good, and is relatively cheap.
Allegedly Paul Revere got pumped up on rum before shouting about the approaching British, and George Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses by distributing 75 gallons of rum to his constituents. Before the Civil War rum was also made in New England and part of an infamous trading cycle: sugar cane imported from the Caribbean was made into rum; this was sent to Africa to purchase slaves; these were sent to the West Indies to buy more sugar cane, profits raked off at every stop.During Prohibition, rum found its way through the swamps of Florida and Louisiana to many a cocktail glass,and even today rum carries a raffish association. To make the stuff, sugar cane is crushed immediately after harvest and then boiled to concentrate the sugar. Most of the sugar’s removed by centrifuge, but the molasses that’s left is still quite sweet. Distinct styles of rum are produced by distilling either the cane juice or the molasses, varying the time and amount of distillation, aging in wood, and adding caramelized sugar.
Rum’s available in distillations that range from 80 to 151 proof. With a few exceptions, the lower the proof the more complex the flavor.
Americans have always liked mixtures of rum and fruit juice or coconut milk. Although the daiquiri and the pina colada make good vehicles for high-proof rum, the best way to drink it is neat. Rums from the islands of the Caribbean and some South American countries are often filtered to make them light in color and body, and high in alcohol. Puerto Rican and Cuban rums are commonly 100 proof, and are big sellers, but usually not as flavorful as other versions. Flavorful, heavier rums often come from the English-speaking islands, notably Jamaica, and the process for making them is more involved. The residue of previous fermentations, known as “dunder,” is added to a new batch of molasses, and then a natural, leisurely fermentation is allowed to occur. The fermented juice is distilled twice, which produces clear liquor, and then aged in oak casks. Caramelized sugar is added for deep color in Jamaican and other heavier rums (and also used to improve the appearance of cheap brandies and other spirits).
Haiti and Martinique make rum from sugar cane juice, rather than molasses. It is aged in oak and comes close to French brandy in delicacy. Barbancourt, of Port-au-Prince, makes a number of grades and uses stars on the labels to distinguish among them. The Barbancourt Five Star, tasted blind in a snifter, could fool a connoisseur of cognac. From Martinique comes La Manny, aged in Limousin oak and also with the allure of a good brandy. I recommend plain ole Mount Gay, from Barbados, however, with medium body and good flavor. It goes well with Schweppes, or simply with ice and a squeeze of lime juice.